Monday, February 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recent related post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some recent related posts concerning Smarter Sentencing Act:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 16, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 15, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 14, 2014

Series of thoughtful posts on faith-based prisons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 13, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related post:

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

"Is possession of child pornography a crime worthy of years in prison?"

The question in the title of this post is the sub-headline of this new Jacob Sullum piece at Reason.com. The piece starts by talking through the recent Paroline argument concerning restitution punishments for child porn downloaders and then moves to these comments:

As a result of congressional edicts, the average sentence in federal child porn cases that do not involve production rose from 54 months in 2004 to 95 months in 2010, according to a 2012 report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Under federal law, receiving child pornography, which could mean viewing or downloading a single image, triggers a mandatory minimum sentence of five years.  Federal sentencing guidelines recommend stiff enhancements based on factors that are extremely common, such as using a computer, swapping photos, or possessing more than 600 images (with each video counted as 75 images).  The maximum penalty is 20 years....

When the Supreme Court upheld bans on possession of child pornography in 1989, its main rationale was that demand for this material encourages its production, which necessarily involves the abuse of children.  But this argument has little relevance now that people who look at child pornography typically get it online for free.  Furthermore, people who possess "sexually obscene images of children" — production of which need not entail abuse of any actual children — face the same heavy penalties.

Another rationale for criminalizing possession of child pornography, mentioned by the sentencing commission in its report, is that these images "validate and normalize the sexual exploitation of children."  Yet the same could be said of explicit arguments in favor of sex with minors, which nevertheless enjoy First Amendment protection.

Even if you agree that possessing child pornography should be a crime, the current penalty structure is clearly out of whack.  Something is seriously wrong with a justice system in which people who look at images of child rape can be punished more severely than people who rape children.

February 13, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack (0)

Two physicians highlight why medical science makes it important to re-schedule marijuana

Orrin Devinsky and Daniel Friedman, two physicians at the NYU Comprehensive Epilepsy Center, provide an informative and sober discussion of medical marijuana issues and research problems in this New York Times op-ed headlined "We Need Proof on Marijuana." Here are excerpts:

Many people have heard the story of Charlotte Figi, a young girl from Colorado with severe epilepsy. After her parents began giving her a marijuana strain rich in cannabidiol (CBD), the major nonpsychoactive ingredient in marijuana, Charlotte reportedly went from having hundreds of seizures per week to only two or three per month.  Previously, her illness, Dravet Syndrome, was a daily torture despite multiple high doses of powerful anti-seizure drugs.

As news of Charlotte’s story moved from the Internet to a CNN story by Dr. Sanjay Gupta to Facebook pages, some families of children with similar disorders moved to Colorado, which recently legalized marijuana, to reap what they believe are the benefits of the drug.

Dozens of other anecdotes of miraculous responses to marijuana treatments in children with severe epilepsy are rife on Facebook and other social media, and these reports have aroused outsize hopes and urgent demands.  Based on such reports, patients and parents are finding official and backdoor ways to give marijuana to their children.

But scientific studies have yet to bear out the hopes of these desperate families. The truth is we lack evidence not only for the efficacy of marijuana, but also for its safety. This concern is especially relevant in children, for whom there is good evidence that marijuana use can increase the risk of serious psychiatric disorders and long-term cognitive problems.

The recent wave of state legislatures considering and often approvingmedical marijuana raises significant concerns.  By allowing marijuana therapy for patients with diseases such as difficult-to-control epilepsy, are state legislatures endorsing the medical benefits and safety of a broad range of marijuana species and strains before they have been carefully tested and vetted?  Marijuana contains around 80 cannabinoids (THC is the major psychoactive cannabinoid, largely responsible for the high) and more than 400 other compounds.  The chemical composition of two genetically identical plants can vary based on growing conditions, soil content, parasites and many other factors.

While the language of the legislation may be cautious, there is an implied endorsement of medical benefit for marijuana when a legislature passes a bill and a governor signs it into law, and the tremendous gaps in our knowledge are not effectively conveyed to the public....

Before more children are exposed to potential risks, before more desperate families uproot themselves and spend their life savings on unproven miracle marijuana cures, we need objective data from randomized placebo-controlled trials....

Paradoxically, however, as state governments increasingly make “medical” marijuana available to parents to give to their children, the federal government continues to label the nonpsychoactive CBD — as well as THC — as Schedule 1 drugs.  Such drugs are said to have “no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse.”  This designation hamstrings doctors from performing controlled studies.  While it is possible to study Schedule 1 drugs in a controlled laboratory setting, it is extremely difficult to study these substances in patients.  For our study, we keep the CBD in a 1,200-pound safe in a locked room, in a building with an alarm system.

To foster research, we need to change compounds derived from marijuana from Schedule 1 to a less restrictive category.  It is troubling that while few barriers exist for parents to give their children marijuana in Colorado, there are significant federal roadblocks preventing doctors from studying it in a rigorous scientific manner.

When patients have not been able to get successful medical treatment, and they live in a state where the law allows medical marijuana for children — we are not suggesting they smoke the drug — compassionate use is reasonable.  But for the long-term health of Charlotte and other patients like her, we urgently need valid data.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

February 13, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack (0)

Trio of former governors to get behind initiative to reform California's dysfunctional death penalty

As reported in this Los Angeles Times article, "three former California governors are set to announce their endorsement Thursday of a proposed initiative sponsors say would end lengthy death penalty appeals and speed up executions." Here is more:

Former governors George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Gray Davis will announce at a news conference the launch of an initiative drive for signatures to qualify the proposed constitutional amendment for the November ballot.

The measure, if qualified, would ignite the second statewide debate on the death penalty in two years. A ballot proposal that would have ended capital punishment in California narrowly lost in 2012, with 48% of voters in favor and 52% against.

The new proposal would establish five-year court deadlines for deciding death row appeals, transfer most death penalty cases from the California Supreme Court to lower courts, and allow capital inmates to be spread among the general prison population. It also would require the condemned to work in prison, remove any threat of state sanctions from doctors who advise the state on lethal injection procedures, and exempt the execution protocols from a state administrative law that requires extensive public review.

California now has more than 700 people on death row, and the last inmate was executed in 2006. The state currently has no court-approved method of lethally injecting the condemned, and drugs to do so have been difficult to obtain. The state also has had trouble recruiting lawyers willing to handle capital appeals, which can take decades to be resolved in state and federal courts.

I am hoping this capital reform initiative makes the California ballot given that a majority of Californians have voted to retain the death penalty in the state. I have to believe that California voters do not want to preserve the distinctly dysfunction death penalty system it now has, and this initiative would appear to be the most efficient and effective means to make the state's system more functional.

If this capital reform initiative makes the California ballot, it will also be interesting to see how California's current governor and attorney general will chime in on the issue. My sense is that Gov Brown and AG Harris are generally opposed to an active capital punishment system, and thus they may be disinclined to support the initiative. But it should be hard for them to explain to voters why the support a dysfunction capital punishment system over a functional one.

February 13, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Will (and should) former mayor Ray Nagin get a sentence making it likely he dies in federal prison after his corruption convictions?

The question in the title of this post is the first sentencing question that came to mind upon hearing this criminal justice news from a Louisiana federal court this afternoon:

Ray Nagin, the former two-term mayor of New Orleans indicted after he left office, was convicted Wednesday of 20 federal corruption charges for illegal dealings with city vendors, dating back to 2004.  A jury delivered its verdict just before 1 p.m., after six hours of deliberations that followed a nine-day trial.

Nagin, 57, joins a list of Louisiana elected officials convicted of misdeeds while in office, but he is New Orleans' first mayor to be convicted of public corruption.  Under federal sentencing guidelines, he could face a 20-year prison term, possibly more, lawyers have said.

In a case that relied heavily on the testimony of businessmen-turned-convicts -- and a paper trail that showed money changing hands and lucrative city contracts doled out -- prosecutors described a public official "on the take."  Nagin was an opportunist who pursued businessmen under pressure to get government work, targeting them to line his own pockets, prosecutors said....

Nagin was somber and silent as he made his way through a crush of reporters outside of the courthouse -- a far cry from the confidence he showed when he first arrived more than two weeks ago at the start of his trial.  Addressing the press, Jenkins said, "Obviously, I'm surprised. Now we're moving on to the appeal process."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Coman, the lead prosecutor on the case, gave a brief statement. "We are pleased with the verdict and obviously we are very thankful to the jury and the court," he said....

Nagin, a Democrat, was the public face of the city during Hurricane Katrina, making national headlines as he lambasted the federal government for its response to the storm and subsequent flood.

He lives in Frisco, Texas, where he has avoided the spotlight, staying quiet save for an occasional tweet, since his indictment a year ago. Sentencing is set for June 11 before U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan.

As the title of this post suggests, I would urge now-convicted Nagin to urge his lawyers to get very focused on the federal sentencing process before they start "moving on to the appeal process." As the article above notes, federal prosecutors are likely to argue that the guidelines applicable here recommend a sentence of decades for Nagin, and judges within the Fifth Circuit tend to be drawn toward imposing within guidelines sentences. Ergo, unless and until Nagin's lawyers start developing some strong sentencing arguments on his behalf, the former mayor of New Orleans may be looking at the real possibility that he gets a federal prison sentence later this year that amounts to a functional life sentence.

February 12, 2014 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack (0)

"High Times, Westword sue Colorado over marijuana ad restrictions"

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting new report on the latest notable legal frontier concerning marijuana law and reforms.  Here are the basics:

The publisher of marijuana magazine High Times has sued the state of Colorado in federal court over the state’s rules preventing recreational cannabis businesses from advertising in most publications.  High Times, along with local weekly magazine Westword, filed the lawsuit on Monday.  It marks the first time anyone has challenged the restrictions in court.

The rules allow recreational marijuana businesses to advertise only in publications that are adult-oriented.  According to the state’s rules, recreational marijuana stores can advertise only in a publication that “has reliable evidence that no more than 30 percent of the publication’s readership is reasonably expected to be under the age of 21.”  There is no such restriction on medical marijuana businesses.

The lawsuit argues the rules, which also restrict television, radio and outdoor advertising, are an unconstitutional restriction of free speech.  The magazines are “chilled from soliciting advertisements from prospective clients and prevented from making revenue from clients who wish to engage in advertising concerning marijuana-related products and services,” the lawsuit’s complaint states....

It is also unclear how the suit’s filing in federal court will impact the judge’s assessment of its claim that the ads concern “lawful activity,” since marijuana is illegal federally. But publications have previously had success in federal court in overturning another Colorado marijuana law — one that required marijuana-themed publications to be kept behind the counter at stores.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

February 12, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Drug sentencing reform talk already impacting federal sentences in Tennessee (and elsewhere?)

Two recent local sentencing stories from Tennessee reporting on two different federal judges imposing reduced sentences in drug cases suggest that all the on-going talk about significant drug sentencing reform coming from the US Sentencing Commission and the US Senate is already impacting the work of federal judges.  Here are the headlines, links and basics:

Federal Judge Varies Downward On Drug Sentence; Says "War On Drugs" A "Dismal Failure"

Federal Judge Sandy Mattice, calling the "War on Drugs" a "dismal failure," on Monday morning varied downward on a sentence for a drug "smurf."

Larry Gertsman had been facing a minimum 121 months in federal prison for his role in obtaining pseudoephedrine pills for a meth cook and for the fact a gun was found at the trailer where the meth was being cooked.

Judge Mattice noted the 121 months was one month more time than he gave to the meth cook, George Alder Jr. He sentenced Gertsman to 90 months in prison.

Judge Mattice said, "When a conspiracy is charged like this, addicts are being prosecuted the same way as the manufacturer." He said some of the sentencing schemes have "outrageous results." He added, "These cases seem increasingly arbitrary."

Judge, Noting That Federal Drug Sentences Are Likely To Be Cut, Gives 3 Whitwell Defendants A Break

Federal Judge Curtis Collier, saying that he expects Congress to lower sentences for drug defendants, on Thursday gave reduced time to three Whitwell residents involved in a major marijuana operation.

Judge Collier, focusing on "sentencing disparity," said Congress seems headed for passage of the Smarter Sentencing Act. He said it has the endorsement of the Department of Justice and support from senators from different political backgrounds. He also said the federal Sentencing Commission has issued guidelines for reduced drug sentences. The act would shift the focus to putting away hardcore and violent defendants in federal prisons.

Judge Collier said sponsors of the bill say that under current sentencing all of the Department of Justice budget is going to be eaten up by the cost to operate federal prisons. The act would basically cut drug sentences in half and also increase the use of the "safety valve" to cut time on mandatory sentences. There was also discussion at the sentencing for Jackie Morrison, Sammy Nance and Ollie Frizzell about some states, including Colorado, legalizing marijuana.

The sentencing range for the ringleader, Morrison, was 121-151 months. He got 72 months. Nance faced 37-46 months and was given 24 months. Ms. Frizzell had a sentencing range of 27-33 months and got 30 months. However, she had already gotten a break for cooperating with the government.

In addition to wondering if there is some special reason that these two notable stories emerge from two different Tennessee federal courts over the last few days, I am especially curious to know if similar trends may be emerging in other federal district courts around the nation.

I have previously noted that early statistics from the US Sentencing Commission suggested that the number of judge-sponsored below-guideline sentences may be increasing ever since AG Eric Holder gave his big ABA speech last August about excessive use of incarceration for low-level offenders.  And now that the USSC has called for an across-the-board reduction of all the drug guidelines and the Senate Judiciary Committee has moved the Smarter Sentencing Act, I could readily imagine that what these two Tennessee federal judges have done is more the norm than the exception in the thousands of low-level drug cases being prosecuted now in federal courts.

February 12, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack (0)

Effective Heritage analysis of federal MMs and statutory reform proposals

Earlier this week, the Heritage Foundation published this effective and informative Legal Memorandum titled "Reconsidering Mandatory Minimum Sentences: The Arguments for and Against Potential Reforms." I plan to have the students in my Sentencing class read this memo, which was authored by Evan Bernick and Paul Larkin, because it provides a very timely review of the arguments surrounding the leading modern reform proposals. And here are the "key points" highlighted by the authors in conjunction with the memo:

The U.S. Senate is considering two bills that would revise the federal sentencing laws in the case of mandatory minimum sentences.

The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 expands the existing sentencing “safety valve” by allowing a judge to depart downward from any mandatory minimum “if the court finds that it is necessary to do so in order to avoid imposing” an unjust sentence.

The Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013 applies only to nonviolent drug crimes and would permit a district judge to issue sentences without regard to any mandatory minimum if the court finds that the defendant meets certain criminal history requirements and did not commit a disqualifying offense.

Although the Smarter Sentencing Act takes a smaller step than the Safety Valve Act toward the revision of the federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws, such a measured approach could enhance federal sentencing policy while avoiding a number of potential pitfalls.

February 12, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Washington Gov declares moratorium on executions during his term

InsleeAs reported in this new Seattle Times article, headlined "Inslee halts executions in state while he is governor," in the Evergreen State the Governor has decided to use his clemency power to create a (temporary?) moratorium on executions.  Here are the basics:

Gov. Jay Inslee is calling a moratorium on executions while he is governor. “Equal justice under the law is the state’s primary responsibility,” Inslee said during a news conference Tuesday morning. “And in death penalty cases, I’m not convinced equal justice is being served.”

Inslee said there was “too much at stake” in death penalty cases in what he termed an “imperfect system.” Inslee cited the high cost of trials and appeals, the apparent randomness in which death penalties are pursued and concerns that executions do not deter crime as reasons for his decision. Inslee said he is not asking the state Legislature to abolish the death penalty.

“As governor, it is on my shoulders to come up with a decision for our whole state,” Inslee said. “I have made a decision. It is not an easy one.”

There are currently nine men on Washington’s death row. He said that if a death penalty case crosses his desk for action, he will issue a reprieve, which will potentially only be in effect while Inslee is governor. He said he does not intend to commute any death sentences. “The citizens of the state of Washington can be assured the men of death row will be in prison for as long as they live,” he said.

When questioned, Inslee acknowledged the moratorium may not necessarily save money, particularly since appeals will still likely be filed. However, the move could prompt county prosecutors to not seek the death penalty in some cases, thus realizing some savings....

“Washington’s Constitution and state statutes grant the governor significant powers over the fate of individuals sentenced to death,” Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a statement Tuesday morning. “Consequently, the governor has the authority to hit the ’pause’ button for executions in Washington.”

However, Ferguson said his office will continue to represent the state when death-row inmates file challenges to their convictions or sentences with the federal courts. Currently, there are four such cases before the federal courts, he said....

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, in a written statement, said the legal ramifications of Inslee’s “reprieve policy” appear limited and that state law remained unchanged. However, he said in the short term it is likely to cause more delays, expense and uncertainty. “A moratorium alone will not resolve the issues raised by the Governor,” Satterberg said. “Let’s have an informed public debate and let the citizens of Washington decide if we should keep capital punishment in our state.”

The death penalty has come under fire in Washington state for a variety of reasons, including what some have termed inconsistencies in when it is sought. For example, in the case of Green River Killer Gary L. Ridgway, King County prosecutors gave up on capital punishment in exchange for his cooperation in providing detectives details that helped solve dozens of open murder cases. Ridgway pleaded guilty to 48 counts of aggravated first-degree murder in 2003 and was sentenced to life in prison.

State Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, has repeatedly introduced legislation to ban the death penalty Of the governor’s moratorium, Carlye said, “It’s a profound shift. He has opened a legitimate conversation. … It sets in motion a legitimate and genuine public conversation.”

But he said the moratorium would not likely spur legislative action this year, noting that last Friday was the cutoff for non-budget-related bills to make it out of committee. “In 2015, we will ask the public to join us in this conversation,” said Carlyle, who will push for a bill then.

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, disagreed with Inslee’s decision, calling it “shortsighted.”

“I think that is going off on his own and is certainly nothing the Legislature has authorized,” Padden said, noting that Inslee had not consulted him. “I question it, I really do,” Padden said of the moratorium. “To victims it’s the wrong message. The relatives who have suffered the deaths. They have gone through 10 years or more of waiting. ... For the governor to unilaterally take that away I think is wrong.”

Cal Coburn Brown, the last person executed in the state, died by lethal injection in September 2010 for the 1991 murder of Holly Washa in SeaTac. Jonathan Lee Gentry, sentenced for the 1988 murder of 12-year-old Cassie Holden in Kitsap County, is expected to be the next inmate in line to be executed.. Last month, the state Supreme Court rejected a petition for release filed by Gentry’s defense team. Gentry just filed another appeal, based on DNA testing.

Cassie Holden’s father, Frank Holden, said Tuesday he was angry at Inslee and devastated by his decision. He said he spoke with the governor for the first time Monday night when Inslee called to tell him about the moratorium. “There wasn’t much of a discussion. There wasn’t much of a chance for input. He had this thing all planned out,” Holden said, adding that the only thing he was able to tell Inslee was that he was disappointed in his decision.”

“I’ve waited 26 years for justice to happen and now it’s not going to happen because of him. It went through every court system possible,” Holden said, speaking from his business in Pocatello, Idaho. Holden said he thinks about his daughter every day; she would now be 37. “After he told me what he was doing it was nothing compared to the death of my daughter, but it was up there,” Holden said.

Kitsap County Prosecutor Russ Hauge said Tuesday morning he is disappointed by Inslee’s announcement and its potential impact on Gentry’s case. Hauge said he could “see an end in sight” for the Gentry case, because after more than 20 years the man had exhausted most of his appeals. “If ever there was a case that warranted the death penalty, it’s the case of Jonathan Gentry. This is exactly this is what the statute was meant to address,” Hauge said.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., said Inslee is not be the first governor in the nation to oppose the death penalty. Last year, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper granted a reprieve to an inmate who killed four people at a Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant in 1993 after finding the state’s death penalty system to be “imperfect and inherently inequitable,” according to The Denver Post. Dieter said the move means that the inmate won’t be executed while Hickenlooper is governor.

The full text of Governor Inslee’s remarks announcing his execution moratorium can be accessed at this link.

February 11, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack (0)

"Eric Holder makes case for felons to get voting rights back"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Washington Post report on the latest policy advocacy by the US Attorney General concerning criminal justice reform. Here are the notable details:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Tuesday called on states to repeal laws that prohibit ex-felons from voting after their release from prison, urging reforms that could allow millions more former convicts across the country to cast ballots.

In a speech at Georgetown University Law Center, Holder said: “It is time to fundamentally reconsider laws that permanently disenfranchise people who are no longer under federal or state supervision.” Current laws forbidding felons from voting make it harder for them to reintegrate into society, he said.

Holder said that current laws forbidding felons from voting make it harder for them to reintegrate into society. He pointed to a recent study, which showed that felons in Florida who were granted the right to vote again had a lower recidivism rate. “These restrictions are not only unnecessary and unjust, they are also counterproductive,” Holder said. “By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, these laws increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes.”

Holder does not have the authority to force states to change their laws, but his request could influence the debate to restore voting rights. His appeal is part of a broader effort currently underway by the Justice Department to reform the criminal justice system, which U.S. officials say often treats minority groups unfairly.

The attorney general said that after the Civil War, laws that prohibit ex-felons from voting were a way for post-Reconstruction states to keep blacks from casting ballots. Today, an estimated 5.8 million Americans are not allowed to vote because of current or previous felony convictions. Of those, nearly 38 percent are black.

The Justice Department said that 23 states since 1997 have enacted voting-rights reforms. They include Nebraska, Nevada, Texas and Washington state.

The Justice Department said that 11 states, including Florida and Kentucky, restrict voting rights for ex-felons. Holder said that 10 percent of Florida’s population is disenfranchised.

Voting-rights activists are trying to change the law in that state to make it easier for “returning citizens” to vote. The push could become a campaign issue in Florida’s gubernatorial election this year. In Kentucky, a bill to restore felon voting rights to those not convicted of certain lascivious or violent crimes gained momentum last month in the state legislature. “These laws deserve to be not only reconsidered, but repealed,” Holder said.

There is even more of note in the full speech given today by AG Eric Holder at Georgetown University Law Center, the text of which is available here. I now have to go teach, so I will not be able to comment further until late tonight, but here are parts of the discussion of voting rights referenced above:

These laws deserve to be not only reconsidered, but repealed. And so today, I call upon state leaders and other elected officials across the country to pass clear and consistent reforms to restore the voting rights of all who have served their terms in prison or jail, completed their parole or probation, and paid their fines. I call upon experts and legislators to stand together in overturning an unfortunate and outdated status quo.

And I call upon the American people – who overwhelmingly oppose felony disenfranchisement – to join us in bringing about the end of misguided policies that unjustly restrict what’s been called the “most basic right” of American citizenship.

I applaud those who have already shown leadership in raising awareness and helping to address this issue. Later today, this conference will hear from Senator Rand Paul, who has been a leader on this matter. His vocal support for restoring voting rights for former inmates shows that this issue need not break down along partisan lines.

Bipartisan support will be critical going forward because, even in states where reforms are currently taking hold, we need to do even more. And we need to make sure these positive changes are expanded upon – and made permanent.

Some prior related posts:

February 11, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (35) | TrackBack (0)