Friday, November 15, 2013

Is AG Eric Holder going to stay on the job until he truly reforms American criminal justice?

The question in the title of this post is inspired by this new Washington Post article headlined "Reforming justice system is personal goal for Eric Holder Jr."  Here are excerpts from the piece:

As the Justice Department seeks new ways to reduce the burgeoning U.S. prison population, its success is likely to depend on community programs such as the one in this small city in America’s heartland.

In the past 11 years, federal prosecutors here have authorized substance abuse treatment and other assistance for more than 100 low-level offenders as an alternative to prison sentences.  Eighty-seven have successfully completed the program and, in the process, saved the federal government more than $6 million by sparing it the cost of incarceration....

Justice officials see the program in Peoria as a model for other communities — and central to the criminal justice reforms that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is moving to implement.  In August, at an American Bar Association conference in San Francisco, Holder announced that low-level nonviolent drug offenders with no ties to gangs or large-scale drug organizations would no longer be charged with offenses that impose severe mandatory sentences.  He has also introduced policies to reduce sentences for elderly, nonviolent inmates, to find alternatives to prison for nonviolent criminals, and to improve reentry programs to curb repeat offenses.

The announcements have heralded some of the most significant criminal justice policy shifts from the department in years.  For Holder — who has said that as a U.S. attorney and judge he saw neighborhoods destroyed by both illegal drugs and the tough-on-crime legislation that has disproportionately affected black men — the issue has been personal.

“Day after day, I watched lines of young people, most often young men of color, stream through my courtroom,” Holder told ex-offenders Thursday during a visit to a St. Louis courthouse, one of a string of stops he is making to promote his reform agenda.  “I learned how drug abuse, crime and incarceration can trap people in a destructive cycle.  A cycle that weakens communities, tears families apart and destroys individual lives.”...

Many of the department’s criminal justice reforms have bipartisan support, and Republican governors in some of the most conservative states have led the way on prison reform.  Congress also has shown a renewed interest in reducing the nation’s prison population, including the introduction of a bill this week that would reauthorize the Second Chance Act, which funds grants for programs that support probation, parole and reentry programs across the country.

“Rather than incarcerating repeat offenders in the same families generation after generation, we can put our taxpayer dollars to better use to break this vicious cycle and turn lives around,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a former prosecutor and one of the bills sponsors, said in a statement.

Efforts to reduce the prison population have drawn criticism from some lawmakers, who are skeptical that new policies will reduce crime.  “I am skeptical,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the chamber’s Judiciary Committee, said at a a hearing last week.  “Reducing prison sentences will bring prisoners out on the street sooner.  The deterrent effect of imprisonment would be reduced.  Many so-called nonviolent drug offenders have violent records.  Some of these released offenders will commit additional crimes.”...

In a Philadelphia courtroom earlier this month, the attorney general watched more than a dozen drug offenders in a “reentry” program report to a judge to discuss their personal and work situations.  Officials there said the program, which provides parenting classes, vocational training and job opportunities, has saved $1.5 million in annual incarceration costs because fewer ex-offenders are being sent back to prison.  The national revocation rate for ex-offenders who are not in such programs is 47 percent; the rate among participants in the seven-year-old Philadelphia program is about 20 percent.

During his stops Thursday, Holder met with judges and pretrial service officers and watched as a district court judge encouraged ex-offenders to overcome their drug addictions and stay out of prison.  He spoke emotionally to a group about how his nephew struggled to overcome drug addiction.

Inside a federal courthouse in St. Louis, he watched a ceremony in which ex-offenders graduated from an intensive recovery program called EARN (Expanding Addicts’ Recovery Network). “I look at you all and I see myself,” he said. “I grew up in a neighborhood in New York City where people like you would have been my friends. We would have gone to school together. We would have tried to learn about girls together. We would have played basketball together. So I can’t help but feel mindful of the fact that, although I’m here in my capacity as attorney general of the United States, a few of the people I grew up with, good people like you, ended up taking different paths.”

“Some of them didn’t catch the same breaks,” the nation’s top law enforcement official said. “Some had to deal with drug issues. . . . I know that everyone makes mistakes — everyone. Including me. And that’s why I wanted to be here today to tell you in person how proud I am that each of you has decided not to let your mistakes define you and not to make excuses, but to make the most of the opportunities that you’ve been given.”

Right after President Obama's re-election, as noted in this post from last November, AG Holder was talking about staying on as AG for only "about a year" into this second Presidential term. But that year has now passed, and I have heard very little new buzz about AG Holder moving on. And, if he is truly committed to engineering significant and lasting criminal justice reform, I think he may need (at least) the next three years to really have a chance to get this done.

November 15, 2013 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

"Reducing crime by reducing incarceration"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Washington Times op-ed authored by David Cole and Marc Mauer.  Here are excerpts:

The United States remains the world leader in imprisonment, with an incarceration rate five times higher than that of many of our European allies. It wasn’t always this way. From 1925 through 1975, our incarceration rate was about 160 per 100,000 persons. Today it is nearly 700 per 100,000. It rose consistently for more than three decades, largely as a result of changes in policy, not crime rates. These policy changes, under the rubric of the “get tough” movement, were designed to send more people to prison and to keep them there longer. As the prison population has expanded, however, whatever impact incarceration may have had on crime has confronted the law of diminishing returns. Meanwhile, the corrections system costs us $80 billion a year.

In response to these concerns, recent years have seen significant reforms across the country. States from Texas to California to New York have reduced mandatory minimum sentences, softened “three-strikes” laws, or established drug-offender diversion programs. The number of people incarcerated in state prisons nationwide has dropped for three years in a row. California, New York and New Jersey have each reduced their prison populations by about 20 percent in the past decade — with no increases in crime.

In an era of heightened partisan politics, reform is a rare bipartisan issue. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Republican Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee don’t often see eye to eye, but they have all advocated measures to reduce mandatory minimums. The American Legislative Exchange Council, which promotes free-market law reforms in the states, has identified reducing prison overcrowding as one of its priorities. Regardless of one’s politics, no one can be proud of the fact that the world’s wealthiest society locks up more of its citizens per capita than any other nation.

Most of the reforms thus far have focused on nonviolent offenders, especially drug-law violators — and for good reason. The large-scale incarceration of low-level drug offenders has had little impact on the drug trade; street-corner sellers and couriers are easily replaced. Incarceration imposes substantial costs on society at large, though, and on the life chances and families of those locked up.

If we are to tackle the incarceration rate effectively, we need to focus not only on those who receive the shortest sentences, but also on those who receive the longest sentences — lifers. Even as incarceration rates have begun to fall, life sentences have increased. One in nine prisoners in the United States is now serving a life sentence, including 10,000 serving life for a nonviolent offense (often the “third strike” under a three-strikes law). Nearly a third of the life sentences are imposed with no possibility of parole.

While most of these individuals have committed serious offenses, the increased reliance on life sentences is counterproductive. Criminal offenses tend to drop with age. As offenders grow older, their incarceration is increasingly less likely to have any incapacitative value. Nor is there any evidence that life sentences have greater deterrent effect. Studies find that it is the certainty of punishment, not its severity, that is most correlated with deterrence. Yet many states have adopted a “life means life” policy with no consideration of parole. Such sentences effectively write off the offender, rejecting the possibility of redemption altogether....

A key factor in the prison expansion of recent decades has been that offenders sentenced to prison are serving much longer sentences. American sentences today are frequently two to three times the length for similar offenses in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France and other industrialized nations. Sentencing reform has begun with the low-hanging fruit of mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses, but if it is to succeed, we must reduce the length of criminal sentences generally.

Recent related post:

November 15, 2013 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Some early reactions to Gov. Kasich's surprise decision delay execution to explore organ donation

Ohio Gov. John Kasich's decision to postponed today's scheduled execution of child-killer Ronald Phillips in order to determine if he can donate his organs prior to (or during?) his execution (reported here), has already, not surprisingly, generated considerable attention and has prompted a number of follow-up questions.  Here is some of the early buzzing and queries drawn from today's media headlines:

My own questions include whether (or really when) all the other condemned persons on on Ohio's death row will also offer to donate their organs if (and perhaps only when) their other legal appeal fail and they are only days from a scheduled execution.

Recent related post:

November 14, 2013 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

"Misconstruing Graham & Miller"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new piece by Cara Drinan now up at SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In the last three years the Supreme Court has decreed a sea change in its juvenile Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. In particular, in its Graham v. Florida and Miller v. Alabama rulings, the Court struck down a majority of the states’ juvenile sentencing laws, outlawing life without parole for juveniles who commit non-homicide offenses and mandating individualized sentencing for those children who commit even the most serious crimes.  An examination of state laws and sentencing practices, however, suggests that the Graham and Miller rulings have fallen on deaf ears.  After briefly describing what these two decisions required of the states, in this Essay, I outline the many ways in which state actors have failed to comply with the Court’s mandate. Finally, I map out a path for future compliance that relies heavily upon the strength and agility of the executive branch.

November 14, 2013 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Clemency and Pardons, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

If concerned principally about saving lives and public safety, can one reasonably oppose mass use red-light cameras?

The question in title of this post is prompted by this local news item from my own local paper headlined "Coalition says red-light cameras reducing accidents, saving lives." Here are excerpts:

The battle over whether red-light cameras are primarily lifesavers or money-makers is being re-fought in the General Assembly seven years after it began. Cameras placed at critical intersections, including 38 in Columbus, help dramatically reduce accidents and save lives, a statewide coalition said yesterday, pushing back against a legislative proposal that would all but eliminate the devices in Ohio.

House Bill 69, passed by the House this year, “is bad public policy that puts people at risk on Ohio roads,” Sgt. Brett Bauer of the Springfield Police Department said at a Statehouse news conference. Red-light cameras “are making roads safer in Springfield and across the state,” he said. The bill would limit cameras to school zones — and then only when an officer was present.

A coalition of police officials from Columbus and other cities, plus municipal officials, bicycle enthusiasts and safety advocates, appeared at the news conference alongside Sen. Kevin Bacon, R-Minerva Park, who is planning legislation to reform how the cameras may be used rather than repeal the use of cameras, as the House bill would do.

The most emotional advocate in favor of continuing using the cameras was Paul Oberhauser of Somerset, whose 31-year-old daughter, Sarah, was killed in 2002 when a motorist ran a red light and hit her car in an intersection at 55 mph. “The year Sarah died, about 1,000 people nationally were killed in red-light accidents,” Oberhauser said. “I know you understand this carnage has got to stop.”...

Right-angle crashes are down 74 percent in Columbus, while rear-end crashes have dropped 25 percent at intersections with cameras, said Lt. Brenton Mull of the Columbus Division of Police. The city has 38 cameras at intersections scattered across the city. “It is a model program that should be emulated, not thrown out because someone doesn’t like getting a ticket from a red-light camera,” he said.

As regular readers (and my students) know well, I like to focus on traffic laws as a means to test whether and when citizens are really prepared to live up to oft-heard claims about the importance of public safety and saving innocent lives. In the context of debates over gun control, the death penalty, mass incarceration and other high-profile public policy criminal justice debates, there is often considerable competing claims and evidence concerning whether and when certain government policies actually do or do not save innocent lives and improve public safety. But this local article confirms my understanding that red-light cameras do tend to improve public safety at least somewhat (and does so in a way that actually raises revenue for localities rather than require significant expenditures).

I fully understand why persons principally concerned about privacy rights or due process or government graft might have real problems with widespread use and potential abuse of red-light cameras. But I really want to hear from readers if they think that those persons who say their principally criminal justice concerns relate to saving lives and public safety (as I do) have any sound basis for opposing mass use of these cameras.

November 14, 2013 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)

New York Times op-ed asks "Serving Life for This?"

I am pleased to see that columnist Nicholas Kristoff used his op-ed space today in the New York Times to promote the ACLU's new report on the thousands of persons serving LWOP sentences for non-violent offenses in the United States (discussed here).  This piece is headlined "Serving Life For This?," and here are excerpts:

At a time when America has been slashing preschool programs, we have also been spending vast sums to incarcerate thousands of nonviolent offenders in life sentences without any possibility of parole. These cases underscore that our mass incarceration experiment has resulted in monstrous injustice and waste — a waste of tax dollars and of human lives.

Judges and prison officials are rebelling at the injustice of our justice system. Here’s what Judge James R. Spencer, a federal district judge, said when sentencing a former F.B.I. informant to life without parole for selling crack cocaine to support his own addiction: “A life sentence for what you have done in this case is ridiculous; it is a travesty.” But federal law on mandatory minimums left Judge Spencer no leeway. He added: “I don’t agree with it, either. And I want the world and the record to be clear on that. This is just silly.”

Here are some other nonviolent offenders serving life sentences without the possibility of parole:

• Ricky Minor, a meth addict and father of three, was found with 1.2 grams of meth in his home, along with over-the-counter decongestants that can be used to manufacture meth. He was initially charged under Florida law and says he faced a two-and-a-half-year sentence. Later indicted under federal law, he pleaded guilty because his public defender said that otherwise the prosecutors would also pursue his wife, leaving no one to raise their children. Minor had several prior nonviolent offenses, for which he had never served time, and these required Judge Clyde Roger Vinson to sentence him to life without parole. Judge Vinson said that the sentence “far exceeds whatever punishment would be appropriate.”

• Dicky Joe Jackson was a trucker whose 2-year-old son, Cole, needed a bone-marrow transplant to save his life. The family raised $50,000 through community fund-raisers, not nearly enough for the transplant, and Jackson tried to earn the difference by carrying meth in his truck. He has now been in prison for the last 17 years; when he lost his last appeal, he divorced his wife of 19 years so that she could start over in her life. The federal prosecutor in the case acknowledged: “I saw no indication that Mr. Jackson was violent, that he was any sort of large-scale narcotics trafficker, or that he committed his crimes for any reason other than to get money to care for his gravely ill child.”

• Danielle Metz became pregnant at 17 and later married an abusive man who was also a drug dealer. To placate him, she says, she sometimes helped him by fetching cocaine or collecting money from Western Union. After one clash in which he punched her in the face, she took the kids and left him. Two months later, she was indicted. She says that she was prosecuted primarily to induce her to testify against her husband, but that she wasn’t knowledgeable enough to have useful information to trade for a reduced sentence. She has now spent more than 20 years in prison.

Those examples come from a devastating new report, “A Living Death,” by the American Civil Liberties Union. It identified more than 3,200 such nonviolent offenders sentenced to die behind bars. Four out of five are black or Hispanic. Virtually all are poor. Many had dismal legal counsel. Some were convicted of crimes committed when they were juveniles or very young adults....

I write often about human rights abuses abroad. But when we take young, nonviolent offenders — some of them never arrested before — and sentence them to die in prison, it’s time for Americans who care about injustice to gaze in the mirror.

Recent related post:

November 14, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

"Kasich postpones execution of inmate who wants to donate organs"

The title of this post is the headline of this breaking news story reporting some surprising news coming from Ohio this afternoon.  Here are details:

In an unprecedented move, Gov. John Kasich has postponed the execution of Akron child-killer Ronald Phillips scheduled for Thursday to determine if his organs can be harvested. It has been rescheduled for July 2, 2014.

In a statement released this afternoon, Kasich halted Phillips’ execution “so that medical experts can assess whether or not Phillips’ non-vital organs or tissues can be donated to his mother or possibly others.”

“Ronald Phillips committed a heinous crime for which he will face the death penalty. I realize this is a bit of uncharted territory for Ohio, but if another life can be saved by his willingness to donate his organs and tissues then we should allow for that to happen,” Kasich said.

Phillips, 40, was sentenced to die for the 1993 beating, rape and murder of three-year-old Sheila Marie Evans, the daughter of his girlfriend at the time. The governor said if Phillips “is found to be a viable donor to his mother or possibly others awaiting transplants of non-vital organs, such as kidneys, the procedures would be performed and then he would be returned to Death Row to await his new execution date.”

Phillips asked earlier this week if he could donate his organs to his mother or others, but the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction rejected his request.

Wowsa. I have to catch my breath and think about this a lot before I am sure how to react. While I do so, I look forward to hearing reactions from both the pro and anti death penalty crowd in the comments.

November 13, 2013 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack (0)

Fourth Circuit rejects effort to use Miller to assail ACCA enhancements based on juve priors

In a not surprising but still noteworthy panel opinion, the Fourth Circuit today in US v. Hunter, No. 12-5035 (4th Cir. Nov. 13, 2013) (available here), rejected a federal defendant's effort to use the Supreme Court's Miller ruling to contest a lengthy mandatory minimum sentence for an adult crime based on prior offenses committed when the defendant was a juvenile.  Here is how Hunter begins:

In Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2469 (2012), the Supreme Court announced that “the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders.” Relying on Miller, Defendant Jimmy Eliab Hunter appeals from his sentence for being a felon in possession of a firearm, asserting that the district court erred in sentencing him as an armed career criminal based on violent felonies he committed as a juvenile.  But unlike the juveniles in Miller, Defendant’s sentence here punishes him for an offense he committed at the age of thirty-three, well past an age when “the distinctive attributes of youth diminish the penological justifications for imposing the harshest sentences.” Id. at 2465. Thus, proportionality concerns expressed in Miller regarding youthful offenders are not implicated here.  Finding Miller, Defendant’s sole basis for his Eighth Amendment challenge, inapplicable, we affirm.

November 13, 2013 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Is sentence disparity reduced if mass murderer Whitey Bulger and drug dealer Sam Hurd get the same LWOP sentence?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the news of two seemingly very distinct federal sentencings taking place today in which it seems the federal sentencing guidelines are calling for the exact same LWOP sentence. 

Regular readers are already familiar with the case involving Whitey Bulger, whose sentencing is taking place today in federal Court in Boston.  This new USA Today article, headlined "Victim's son: Mobster Whitey Bulger is 'Satan'," highlights just the latest developments in a case in which I sincerely wonder why there is not more of an effort by pro-death-penalty advocates to have an even tougher punishment than LWOP in the mix.

Somewhat less high profile, except perhaps for hard-core football fans, is the sentencing of former NFL receiver Sam Hurd.  This SI.com article, headlined "Former NFL player Sam Hurd hopes to avoid life sentence at hearing," provides some background starting this way:

This afternoon at the Federal courthouse in Dallas, U.S. District court judge Jorge Solis is scheduled to begin the sentencing hearing for former Cowboys and Bears receiver Sam Hurd, who pleaded guilty to a single drug trafficking charge in April. Hurd's attorneys will be allowed to present witnesses and evidence to contest the individual allegations against him. At the end of the hearing Solis will decide whether to take the recommendation of the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services Department of life in prison without parole or give Hurd a lighter sentence. The only certainty is that Hurd will be going to prison.

Hurd was arrested on Dec. 14, 2011 and indicted on Jan. 4, 2012. For the first 19 months, life in prison was not even in the discussion. Five to 20 years was the sentencing range, with precedent and the informed opinions of more objective onlookers and academics backing up that estimate. Since the life sentence recommendation was made in late July, one comment repeated by sources across the spectrum of partiality has been some version of this reminder: You realize life in prison in the federal system means the next time he comes out of prison it'll be in a coffin.

Hurd, who has been housed in the federal detention center in Seagoville, about a 30-minute drive from the Dallas court building, did not respond to an email from SI Wednesday morning. He may have already been relocated to downtown Dallas and unable to access his prison-controlled email account. He called last Friday night and repeated again that he is "ready to be sentenced for what I did, not this other mess. Our system should not work like this.

I have to assume that Hurd is facing a recommended LWOP sentence because of the quantity of drugs being ascribed to him and a guideline sentencing structure that provides that drugs dealers will often be facing the same guideline sentence as mass murderers.

Hurd is, of course, very fortunate that the federal sentencing guidelines are no longer mandatory, and I think it is unlikely he will get an LWOP term today. But this coincidence of these two very different criminals facing the exact same federal guideline sentence provides a high-profile example of how the guidelines can themselves create disparity and especially revelas how misguided it can often be to assume imposition of within-guideline sentences reduce disparity.

UPDATE On Wednesday afternoon, as reported here, Sam Hurd received a 15-year federal prison sentence; on Thursday morning, as reported here, Whitey Bulger received two life terms plus 5 years in the federal pen.

November 13, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack (0)

New ACLU report spotlights thousands of nonviolent prisoners serving LWOP terms

Lwop-marquee-230x230-v01The ACLU has released a huge new report giving focused attention to the thousands of prisoners serving life without parole sentences in the United States for nonviolent drug and property crimes. This massive new report, which can be accessed at this link, is titled "A Living Death: Life without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses." This related webpage highlights some specific defendants and cases with this introduction:

For 3,278 people, it was nonviolent offenses like stealing a $159 jacket or serving as a middleman in the sale of $10 of marijuana. An estimated 65% of them are Black. Many of them were struggling with mental illness, drug dependency or financial desperation when they committed their crimes. None of them will ever come home to their parents and children. And taxpayers are spending billions to keep them behind bars.

Here is an excerpt from the 200+ page report's executive summary:

Using data obtained from the Bureau of Prisons and state Departments of Corrections, the ACLU calculates that as of 2012, there were 3,278 prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent drug and property crimes in the federal system and in nine states that provided such statistics (there may well be more such prisoners in other states).  About 79 percent of these 3,278 prisoners are serving LWOP for nonviolent drug crimes.  Nearly two-thirds of prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent offenses nationwide are in the federal system; of these, 96 percent are serving LWOP for drug crimes.  More than 18 percent of federal prisoners surveyed by the ACLU are serving LWOP for their first offenses.  Of the states that sentence nonviolent offenders to LWOP, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Oklahoma have the highest numbers of prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent crimes, largely due to three-strikes and other kinds of habitual offender laws that mandate an LWOP sentence for the commission of a nonviolent crime. The overwhelming majority (83.4 percent) of the LWOP sentences for nonviolent crimes surveyed by the ACLU were mandatory.  In these cases, the sentencing judges had no choice in sentencing due to laws requiring mandatory minimum periods of imprisonment, habitual offender laws, statutory penalty enhancements, or other sentencing rules that mandated LWOP.  Prosecutors, on the other hand, have immense power over defendants’ fates: whether or not to charge a defendant with a sentencing enhancement triggering an LWOP sentence is within their discretion.  In case after case reviewed by the ACLU, the sentencing judge said on the record that he or she opposed the mandatory LWOP sentence as too severe but had no discretion to take individual circumstances into account or override the prosecutor’s charging decision.

As striking as they are, the numbers documented in this report underrepresent the true number of people who will die in prison after being convicted of a nonviolent crime in this country.  The thousands of people noted above do not include the substantial number of prisoners who will die behind bars after being convicted of a crime classified as “violent” (such as a conviction for assault after a bar fight), nor do the numbers include “de facto” LWOP sentences that exceed the convicted person’s natural lifespan, such as a sentence of 350 years for a series of nonviolent drug sales.  Although less-violent and de facto LWOP cases fall outside of the scope of this report, they remain a troubling manifestation of extreme sentencing policies in this country.

November 13, 2013 in Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

"The Eighth Amendment as a Warrant Against Undeserved Punishment"

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

Should the Eighth Amendment prohibit all undeserved criminal convictions and punishments? There are grounds to argue that it must. Correlation between the level of deserts of the accused and the severity of the sanction represents the very idea of justice to most of us. We want to believe that those branded as criminals deserve blame for their conduct and that they deserve all of the punishments that they receive.  A deserts limitation is also key to explaining the decisions in which the Supreme Court has rejected convictions or punishments as disproportional, including several major rulings in the new millennium.

Yet, this view of the Eighth Amendment challenges many current criminal-law doctrines and sentencing practices that favor crime prevention over retributive limits. Mistake-of-law doctrine, felony-murder rules and mandatory-minimum sentencing laws are only a few examples. Why have these laws and practices survived? One answer is that the Supreme Court has largely limited proportionality relief to a few narrow problems involving the death penalty or life imprisonment without parole, and it has avoided openly endorsing the deserts limitation even in cases in which defendants have prevailed. Yet, this Article presents a deeper explanation. I point to four reasons why the doctrine must remain severely stunted in relation to its animating principle. I am to clarify both what the Eighth Amendment reveals about the kind of people we want to be and why the Supreme Court is not able to force us to live up to the aspiration.

November 12, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Sixth Circuit upholds dismissal of indictment with new mandatory minimum charge based on on prosecutorial vindictiveness

Last week, in a decision I have been meaning to blog about given recent blog debate over federal prosecutorial discretion, the Sixth Circuit upheld a district court's decision to dismiss an indictment in a child pornography downloading case based on prosecutorial vindictiveness.  The ruling in US v. LaDeau, No. 12-6611 (6th Cir. Nov. 4, 2013) (available here), highlights my concern about the potential misuse of federal prosecutorial charging discretion, while also revealing that judges are not without some mechanisms to try to check prosecutoral abuses of power.  Here is how the unanimous panel ruling in LaDeau starts:

Defendant Daniel Bruce LaDeau was indicted on a single count of possessing child pornog raphy, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(5)(A).  This charge prescribed a sentencing range of zero to ten years’ imprisonment.  Subsequently, LaDeau moved to suppress the evidence that he had any such materials in his possession.  After the district court granted LaDeau’s motion to suppress, the government sought and obtained a superseding one-count indictment charging LaDeau with a conspiracy offense based on evidence that had been in the government’s possession since before the initial indictment.  But rather than charging LaDeau in the superseding indictment with conspiring to possess child pornography, the government chose to charge him with conspiring to receive child pornography — a charging decision that subjected LaDeau to a five-to-twenty-year prison term instead of the previously applicable statutory range of zero to ten years.  Defendant LaDeau then moved to dismiss the superseding indictment.  The district court agreed with LaDeau that the government’s decision to change to a receipt theory warranted a presumption of prosecutorial vindictiveness, inasmuch as there was a realistic likelihood that LaDeau was being charged with a more serious offense in retaliation for his successful suppression motion.  Concluding that the government had not rebutted the presumption of vindictiveness, the district court dismissed the superseding indictment. The government filed this appeal.  Because the district court did not abuse its discretion in dismissing the superseding indictment, we affirm.

November 12, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Can and should brain science research become a regular (and regulated) part of sentencing decision-making?

Brainscans2The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new NPR segment (misleadingly?) headlined "The Case Against Brain Scans As Evidence In Court." Here are excerpts from the piece:

It's not just people who go on trial these days.  It's their brains.

More and more lawyers are arguing that some defendants deserve special consideration because they have brains that are immature or impaired, says Nita Farahany, a professor of law and philosophy at Duke University who has been studying the use of brain science in court.

About 5 percent of murder trials now involve some neuroscience, Farahany says. "There's a steady increase of defendants seeking to introduce neuroscience to try to reduce the extent to which they're responsible or the extent to which they're punished for a crime," she says.

Farahany was a featured speaker at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego this week.  Also featured were several brain scientists who are uncomfortable with the way courts are using brain research....

The approach has been most successful with cases involving teenagers, Farahany says. "It seems like judges are particularly enamored with the adolescent brain science," she says. "Large pieces of their opinions are dedicated to citing the neuroscientific studies, talking about brain development, and using that as a justification for treating juveniles differently."...

So judges and juries are being swayed by studies showing that adolescent brains don't function the same way adult brains do.  One study like that was presented at the neuroscience meeting by Kristina Caudle, a neuroscientist at Weill Cornell Medical College. The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, used a technology called functional MRI to look at how the brains of people from 6 to 29 reacted to a threat.

"The typical response — and what you might think is a logical response — is to become less impulsive, to sort of withdraw, to not act when there is threat in the environment," Caudle says.  "But what we saw was that adolescents uniquely seemed to be more likely to act. So their performance on this task became more impulsive."  And Caudle found that in adolescents, an area of the brain involved in regulating emotional responses had to work much harder to prevent an impulsive response.  This sort of study is great for understanding adolescent brain development in a general way, Caudle says.

"What it doesn't do is allow us to predict, for example, whether one particular teenager might be likely to be impulsive or to commit criminal behavior," she says.  And Caudle worries that a study like hers could be used inappropriately in court.  "Jurors tend to really take things like MRI scans as fact, and that gives me great pause," she says.

When it comes to nature versus nurture, brain scientists think both matter.  A lot of the neuroscience presented in court is simply unnecessary, says Joshua Buckholtz, a psychologist at Harvard.  "Anyone who's every had a teenager would be able to tell you that their decision-making capacities are not comparable to adults," he says.

And relying on brain science to defend juveniles could have unexpected consequences, Buckholtz says.  For example, he says, if a prosecutor used an MRI scan to show that a 16-year-old who committed a capital crime had a very mature brain, "Would we then insist that we execute that juvenile?"

The task of integrating brain science into the judicial system will in large part be the responsibility of judges, Buckholtz says.  And how it works will depend on how well judges understand "what a scientific study is and what it says and what it doesn't say and can't say," he says.

I do not see anything in this piece which suggests that brain scans amount to "junk science," and thus I do not fully understand why NPR thinks this segment reveals a "case against" against brain science as evidence in legal proceedings. 

Of course, I fully understand concerns expressed by scientists about the potential misuse or misunderstanding of their nuanced brain scan research.  But juries and judges are drawn to scientific research largely because the decision-making alternative is to rely more on gut feelings, emotions, instincts or biases.  Unless brain scans provide a worse foundation for making judgments than gut feelings, emotions, instincts or biases, it seems to me they ought to have a role in legal decision-making.

As the question in the title of this post suggests, I think the really tough questions here are not whether brain science is worthy of consideration, but rather when and how brain science should be considered by judges and juries.  Indeed, the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment rulings in Roper and Graham and Miller have already given brain science research some constitutional import, and thus I hope both scientists and law professors will now turn their attention to debating how the legal system might most fairly and effectively operationalize what the brain research is telling us about the scientific realities of human behaviors and personal development.

November 12, 2013 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, November 11, 2013

Two notable SCOTUS criminal law arguments (with federal mandatory minimums at issue)

The Supreme Court Justices could have perhaps benefited from this long weekend by hanging out with my terrific first-year Criminal Law students because they return to work on Tuesday to hear two interesting cases raising classic issues relating to the basic doctrines of substantive criminal law. thanks to Congress, though, these issue arise for SCOTUS with severe mandatory minimum sentencing terms hanging in the balance.

SCOTUSblog, of course, is the place to go for a quick primer on Burrage v. United States and Rosemond v. United States, and here are the links and introduction for the argument previews now posted there:

    Law school hypos about criminal law mens rea by Rory Little

At 10:00 a.m. on Tuesday, November 12, the Court will consider a philosophical question that has troubled the criminal law for centuries: what mens rea (mental state) is required to prove “aiding and abetting” liability?   The question in Rosemond v. United States arises under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), the federal law that provides significant mandatory minimum imprisonment terms for carrying, using, brandishing, or discharging a firearm during and in relation to a narcotics offense.  Arguing for petitioner Justus Rosemond, seeking to overturn his conviction, will be John P. Elwood, a former Assistant to the Solicitor General who is now a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Vinson & Elkins.  Arguing for the federal government will be Assistant to the Solicitor General John F. Bash.

     Crime and death’s cause By Lyle Denniston

At 11 a.m. next Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hold one hour of oral argument on the proof that federal prosecutors must offer to get an enhanced prison sentence for a drug dealer when a customer who bought heroin died.  Arguing for the convicted Iowa man in the case of Burrage v. United States will be Angela L. Campbell, of the Des Moines law firm of Dickey & Campbell.   Arguing for the federal government will be Benjamin J. Horwich, an assistant to the Solicitor General.

UPDATE: The oral argument transcript in Rosemond v. United States is available at this link; the transcript in Burrage v. United States is available at this link.

November 11, 2013 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

How about a few clemency grants, Prez Obama, to really honor vets in need on Veterans Day?

On Veterans Day, I always find myself thinking about veterans who, after serving our country in the military and thereby supporting of our nation's commitment to liberty and freedom, return home and discover the hard way that these constitutional values are not always paramount in our modern criminal justice systems.  This Daily Beast piece, headlined "From PTSD to Prison: Why Veterans Become Criminals," highlights that there are now probably hundreds of thousand of veterans in America's prison and jails:

In 2008 the RAND Corporation surveyed a group of veterans six months after their return. It found that almost one in five had either PTSD or major depression. In recent years rates of substance abuse and suicide among veterans have also ticked steadily upward.

A certain number of veterans suffering from mental-health issues will, invariably, end up in jail or prison. After Vietnam, the number of inmates with prior military service rose steadily until reaching a peak in 1985, when more than one in five was a veteran. By 1988, more than half of all Vietnam veterans diagnosed with PTSD reported that they had been arrested; more than one third reported they had been arrested multiple times. Today veterans advocates fear that, unless they receive proper support, a similar epidemic may befall soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

No one knows how many veterans are incarcerated, but the most recent survey, compiled by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2004, found that nearly one in 10 inmates in U.S. jails had prior military service. Extrapolated to the total prison population, this means that approximately 200,000 veterans were behind bars.

As the title of this post highlights, I would like to see President Obama go beyond the usual symbolic gestures and use his historic clemency powers to salute at least a few veterans in federal prison with commutations that would create just a bit more physical liberty and honor a few more veterans with pardons that would free offenders from the enduring collateral consequences of a federal criminal conviction.

This effective recent op-ed by Mark Osler, headlined "Clemency is a task for people and institutions of faith; It should also be a task for the president, but he seems unwilling or unable to use his powers," starts by noting why, sadly, I am not expecting the President to step up to the clemency plate today or anytime soon:

President Obama is, by a wide margin, the stingiest president in modern times in his use of the pardon power.  He seems unwilling or unable to use this simple constitutional tool, even as both conservative and progressive commentators are criticizing the federal government’s overincarceration of nonviolent offenders.  A simple way to alleviate that problem would be to commute (shorten) the most egregious of these sentences using the pardon power.

Some recent and a few older posts concerning federal clemency practices:

November 11, 2013 in Clemency and Pardons, Offender Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

"Sentence Appeals in England: Promoting Consistent Sentencing through Robust Appellate Review

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Briana Rosenbaum now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Unlike in most areas of the law, federal courts of appeals in the United States defer to trial courts on many issues of sentencing law and policy.  As a result, the power to decide sentencing law and policy is often at the discretion of individual district court judges. Law reform scholars have long decried the disparity, lack of transparency, and legitimization concerns that this practice raises.  These concerns are heightened in the post-Booker sentencing regime, where the advisory nature of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines undermines those Guidelines’ ability to further sentencing consistency.

The deferential approach to federal sentence appeals is in sharp contrast to the approach in England, where the appellate court conducts de novo review of sentencing law and policy to develop a common law of sentencing that is independent of the English sentencing guidelines.  The English model of appellate review suggests a new way to design the role of appellate courts in the federal system: from bodies that merely enforce guidelines to further consistency of sentencing outcomes, to bodies that develop sentencing law to further consistency of sentencing approach.

In this paper, I explore the primary functional, institutional, and normative arguments behind the resistance to robust appellate review in the federal appellate courts and study the English model as a means of evaluating these critiques.  Ultimately, I suggest that the federal courts of appeals borrow England’s “mixed deference approach” to sentence appeals, including de novo review of sentencing law and principles.  Doing so will promote greater sentencing consistency without either over-enforcement of the Guidelines or unwarranted encroachment of sentencing discretion.

November 11, 2013 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in the Circuits, Sentences Reconsidered, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Reviewing the continuing challenges for states seeking to continue with lethal injection

This New York Times piece, headlined "Executions Stall as States Seek Different Drugs," reports on the latest mechanical challenges for those states seeking to keep their machineries of death running despite new difficulties and old litigation surrounding lethal injection drugs and protocols.  Here are excerpts:

Florida ran out of its primary lethal-injection drug last month and relied on a new drug that no state had ever used for an execution.  At Ohio’s next scheduled execution, the state is planning to use a two-drug combination for the first time.  Last month in Texas, Michael Yowell became that state’s first inmate executed using a drug made by a lightly regulated pharmacy that usually produces customized medications for individual patients.

The decision by manufacturers to cut off supplies of drugs, some of which had been widely used in executions for decades, has left many of the nation’s 32 death penalty states scrambling to come up with new drugs and protocols.  Some states have already changed their laws to keep the names of lethal-drug suppliers private as a way to encourage them to provide drugs.

The uncertainty is leading to delays in executions because of legal challenges, raising concerns that condemned inmates are being inadequately anesthetized before being executed and leading the often-macabre process of state-sanctioned executions into a continually shifting legal, bureaucratic and procedural terrain....

“We have seen more changes in lethal injection protocols in the last five years than we have seen in the last three decades,” said Deborah W. Denno, a professor at Fordham Law School and a death penalty expert.  “These states are just scrambling for drugs, and they’re changing their protocols rapidly and carelessly.”

All 32 states with legalized executions use lethal injection as their primary option for executions. Of the more than 250 executions since 2008, all but five were done with lethal injections.

Facing increasing pressure and scrutiny from death penalty opponents, manufacturers of several drugs used in lethal injections — including sodium thiopental and pentobarbital — over the past few years have ceased production of the drugs or required that they not be used in executions.  Looking for alternatives, state prison systems have been more eager to try new drugs, buy drugs from new sources, keep the identities of their drug suppliers secret and even swap drugs among states.

A week before the execution of a convicted murderer, Arturo Diaz, in September, Texas prison officials received two packages of pentobarbital from the Virginia Department of Corrections, at no charge; the state with the country’s second-busiest death chamber acting as ad-hoc pharmacy to the state with the busiest.

Several states have turned to compounding pharmacies, which are largely unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration and overseen primarily by the states.  They have traditionally made specialized drugs, for instance, turning a medication into a cream or gel if a patient has trouble swallowing pills.

In Missouri, the availability of drugs and litigation have slowed the pace of executions. There have been two since 2009. “We are going to continue to be affected by these pharmaceutical company decisions time and again, unless the death penalty states can find a pharmaceutical product that has some supply stability around it,” said Chris Koster, the attorney general in Missouri, which dropped plans to use the anesthetic propofol after the European Union threatened to limit exports of the drug if it was used in an execution.

The drug shortages and legal wrangling have led some officials to discuss older methods of execution.  In July, Mr. Koster suggested that the state might want to bring back the gas chamber.  Dustin McDaniel, the attorney general in Arkansas, which has struggled with its lethal-injection protocol, told lawmakers the state’s fallback method of execution was the electric chair.  Mr. Koster and Mr. McDaniel said they were not advocating the use of the gas chamber or the electric chair, but were talking about the possible legal alternatives to an increasingly problematic method for states.

“No state has had any success with getting their hands on the cocktail that has heretofore been relied upon,” Mr. McDaniel said. He said that lawyers for the state are trying to navigate the appeals process in death penalty cases while knowing that “if the legal hurdles were magically to go away, we are in no position to carry out an execution in this state.”

November 10, 2013 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, November 9, 2013

"Drug policy: Moral crusade or business problem?"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable recent Detroit News op-ed by law prof Mark Osler.  Here is how it gets started:

Slowly, Americans are beginning to realize what a mess our “War on Drugs” has been. We have spent billions of dollars and prosecuted millions of people, all to little real effect. Michigan has been front and center in this sad drama.

At the root of this failure is a simple error: We have treated narcotics as an issue of morality rather than business.  Our efforts have been focused on punishing relatively minor actors through mass incarceration rather than on the very different goal of shutting down drug businesses.  A starting point as we reconsider our efforts should be the simple recognition that narcotics trafficking is first and foremost a business.

That means that we need to put business experts in charge of the effort to close down narcotics businesses. This change might make all the difference.

A business expert, for example, would know enough to identify a proper measure of success or failure.  The only real way to know if narcotics interdiction is working isn’t how much cocaine is piled up in a bust, or how many people we lock up.  Rather, the best measure is an economic one: the price of narcotics on the street.  If we are successful at restricting supply, the price should go up (given a rough consistency of demand). Hiking the price is important.  We have learned from cigarettes that raising the price of something addictive reduces usage rates.  Still, governments continue to measure success by narcotics seized, arrests made, and sentences imposed rather than the street value of illegal drugs.

Similarly, no knowledgeable businessperson would use an analytical device like the system we have in place to rank-order the importance of narcotics defendants, where the weight of drugs those defendants possess is usually used as a proxy for culpability.  If you have a lot of drugs on you, you get a high sentence.  In reality, important figures in narcotics organizations don’t possess drugs at all — that is left to mules, street dealers, and low-level managers.  Given this false proxy, it shouldn’t be surprising that our prisons are stuffed full of mules, street dealers and low-level managers.  Who keeps the profit is a better gauge of responsibility and culpability.  That’s how a business works.

A businessperson would also realize the futility of sweeping up low-wage labor in an effort to close down a business. Or, for that matter, grabbing inventory periodically (which we do via drug seizures) or occasionally seizing profits (which we do when we forfeit drug dealer’s homes or cars).  In real life, the way to shut down a business is to curtail cash flow, because without that there can be no labor hired, no inventory produced, and no profit generated.  Conversely, so long as cash flow exists (or credit, which drug dealers generally can’t obtain), labor, inventory, and profit can be replaced.  Yet, the one thing we do not focus on is cash flow, which we could capture through forfeitures.  We keep the money, the business fails, and drug dealers are out of work rather than in prison.

November 9, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

You be the federal judge: should everyone claiming to be a Whitey Bulger victim get to speak at sentencing?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new USA Today article discussing arguably the only legal uncertainty preceding this week's coming high-profile federal sentencing. Here is the background:

When a jury in August found Boston mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger guilty in 11 murders and 31 racketeering counts, the verdict left eight families hungering for more justice. Their loved ones' deaths, the jury found, couldn't be linked to Bulger.  Now, with Bulger's sentencing hearing coming up Nov. 13 at federal court in Boston, these frustrated survivors might get the last word. Prosecutors hope at least some of them will get to tell the court how Bulger victimized them.

That prospect, however, has at least one juror crying foul, defense attorneys pushing back and legal experts warning that such an uncommon procedure could backfire by strengthening Bulger's grounds for appeal.

Judge Denise Casper is considering a prosecution request to permit "all victims" to give impact statements at the upcoming hearing. It is "beyond dispute that the criminal enterprise was responsible for the murder of all the victims specified in the indictment," says an Oct. 11 prosecution filing with the court. "Thus … family members of the murder victims clearly have a right to be heard at Bulger's sentencing."

Bulger's attorneys have fired back, urging the court to "reject the United States Attorney's Office's invitation to disrupt the findings of the jury." Meanwhile, Bulger trial juror Janet Uhlar has asked the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee to investigate what she calls "a threat to U.S. jurisprudence."

"The verdict we carefully, dutifully, and painfully deliberated is being mocked by the US Attorney's Office," Uhlar said in an email to USA Today. If all are permitted to speak despite the jury's findings, she said, "U.S. jurisprudence will be dealt a fatal blow."

Legal experts say Casper has discretion to permit a narrow or wide range of impact statements. They add that no matter who's permitted to speak, 84-year-old Bulger is all but certain to spend the remainder of his days in prison. Prosecutors are asking for two consecutive life sentences, plus five years, in accordance with sentencing guidelines.

To allow victim impact statements from those not linked to the defendant's crimes would be extremely rare, according to Michael Coyne, associate dean of Massachusetts School of Law in Andover, Mass. He's never seen a case where it's been permitted, he said, adding that it would potentially cast aspersions on the sentence. "The appeals court could end up sending it back to her for having made a mistake," Coyne said, if the higher court finds the sentencing hearing was improperly managed.

But Casper might be weighing competing factors, according to David Frank, editor of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, a newspaper that covers legal affairs in the commonwealth. Among the possible concerns: Be sure no one who might count as a Bulger victim in this super-complex racketeering case is denied an opportunity to speak. "By law, victims of crime have an absolute right to address the court before sentencing," Frank said. "The judge has a difficult decision to make" as she considers, in light of conspiracy and other racketeering findings, how to define who is and who isn't a Bulger victim.

If the prosecution prevails, the government's image might get a boost among those who were hurt, especially during the 1970s and 80s by Bulger's Winter Hill Gang, Coyne says. Such victims have long resented how the government did little to bring the gangsters to justice, instead taking bribes and agreeing to generous deals with Bulger associates.

Yet the price paid for such an open forum could include an impression that the court is being used for more than justice. "It would reduce the sentencing hearing, to large extent, to a circus," said Robert Bloom, a criminal procedure expert at Boston College Law School. "It has absolutely no meaning other than some sort of cathartic relief for some of the victims."

Candidly, I find both foolish and fantastical the comments asserting there could be big legal problems resulting from the victims of "acquitted conduct" getting a chance to speak at Bulger's sentencing.  As informed folks should know, under established Supreme Court doctrine (US v. Watts) acquitted conduct can be (and still regularly does get) used by federal judges to significantly increase a defendant's sentence on other counts.  Though I view U.S. jurisprudence allowing such sentence increases to be misguided, I do not see how our justice system will be "dealt a fatal blow" from simply letting "acquitted conduct" victims speak at sentencing.  And, given that Bulger is facing mandatory life terms, even if it were somehow a procedural error to let these "victims" speak at sentencing, I am certain that the First Circuit would consider any such error harmless.

Some recent related posts:

November 9, 2013 in Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, November 8, 2013

"Informal Collateral Consequences"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new piece available via SSRN by Wayne Logan. Here is the abstract:

This essay fills an important gap in the national discussion now taking place with regard to collateral consequences, the broad array of non-penal disabilities attaching to criminal convictions. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark 2010 decision in Padilla v. Kentucky, efforts are now underway to inventory collateral consequences imposed by state, local, and federal law.  Only when the full gamut of such consequences is known, law reformers urge, can criminal defendants understand the actual impact of their decision to plead guilty.

The increased concern over collateral consequences, while surely welcome and important, has however been lacking in a key respect: it has ignored the many adverse social, medical and economic consequences of conviction, experienced by individuals independent of formal operation of law.  This essay augments the consciousness-raising effort now under way and makes the case that informal, and not just formal collateral consequences of conviction, should figure in post-Padilla policy efforts to achieve a fairer and more transparent criminal justice system.

November 8, 2013 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, November 7, 2013

State judge in Pennsylvania finds lifetime sex offender registration for juve offenders unconstitutional

As reported in this local article, "a York County judge has ruled unconstitutional a two-year-old Pennsylvania law that imposes lifetime registration requirements on juvenile sex offenders."  Here is more:

Senior Judge John C. Uhler issued his ruling against the juvenile registration provisions of the Sexual Offender Registration and Notification Act while weighing the cases of seven county teens adjudicated as having committed serious sex crimes.

Uhler found that the registration mandate "unconstitutionally forecloses a court's considerations of the many unique attributes of youth and juvenile offenders" under age 18 and improperly treats them the same as adult sex offenders. SORNA, as the act is known, also doesn't take into account the greater capacity juvenile offenders have to reform, he noted.

The state law was passed by the Legislature in late 2011 to comply with a federal law, the Adam Walsh Act. The state faced a loss of federal funding if it didn't adopt a measure compatible with the Walsh Act.

Uhler's ruling is in reply to a challenge mounted on behalf of the seven York County youths by the county public defender's office, the Juvenile Law Center and the Defender Association of Philadelphia. The children involved were subject to registration after being found to have committed crimes including rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and aggravated indecent assault. They were ages 14 to 17 when the offenses occurred.

In a statement issued Thursday, officials of the Juvenile Law Center and the defender association called Uhler's decision a "landmark ruling."

"It is our hope that this decision will result in similar findings across the commonwealth," said Riya Saha Shah, a staff attorney with the law center. "To impose this (registration) punishment on children is to set them up for failure."

County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Tim Barker said his office is reviewing Uhler's decision for a possible appeal to the state Supreme Court. A decision is expected next week, he said. "We're thoroughly going through everything," Barker said.

Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed, president of the Pennsylvania District Attorney's Association, predicted an appeal is likely. Prosecutors are well aware of arguments for and against the juvenile sex offender registration requirement, he said. "I'm not surprised that the judge would rule this way," Freed said. "We'll see what happens in the appeals courts."

The full 40+ page ruling reference here is available at this link, which I found via this helpful page from the helpful folks at the Juvenile Law Center.

November 7, 2013 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)

Federal prosecutors say Whitey Bulger "richly deserves" his coming LWOP sentence

This Boston Globe article reports on the latest sentencing filing in a very high-profile federal prosecution under the headline "Whitey Bulger has no redeeming qualities and should be sentenced to life, prosecutors say." Here is how the article begins:

Federal prosecutors said today that notorious gangster James “Whitey”Bulger “has no redeeming qualities” and should be sentenced next week to life in prison for killing 11 people while running a sprawling criminal enterprise.

“There are no mitigating factors, and defendant Bulger has no redeeming qualities, which would justify any sentence below the one called for by the US Sentencing Guidelines and the applicable case law and statutes,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum filed in federal court in Boston.

US District Court Judge Denise J. Casper will hear from the families of Bulger’s victims, defense lawyers, and prosecutors on Nov. 13 and sentence the gangster the following day. Bulger, 84, who did not take the stand during his eight-week trial last summer, will be offered an opportunity to speak before he is sentenced.

The government's six-page sentencing memorandum can be found at this link, and here is how it starts:

James “Whitey” Bulger is one of the most violent and despicable criminals in Boston history. Having now been convicted of thirty-one felonies, including RICO counts involving multiple murders, Bulger richly deserves to spend the rest of his life in jail.

November 7, 2013 in Celebrity sentencings, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Is it "misleading to compare marijuana to beer"?

Beer potThe question in the title of this post is drawn from a quote by someone from the Beer Institute appearing in this notable new National Journal item headlined "Alcohol Is Really Pissed Off at Marijuana Right Now; The marijuana industry is convincing Americans its substance is safer than alcohol, and booze lobbyists don't like it." Here are excerpts from the new National Journal piece:

Marijuana has been giving alcohol a bad name. So contend booze lobbyists, who are getting sick of an ad campaign that makes the claim that pot is safer than their beloved beverages.

"We're not against legalization of marijuana, we just don't want to be vilified in the process," said one alcohol industry representative who didn't want to be quoted harshing his colleagues mellow. "We don't want alcohol to be thrown under the bus, and we're going to fight to defend our industry when we are demonized."

The marijuana industry has had a good couple of years: a recent poll found that 58 percent of the country thinks the product should be legal, recreational use has been legalized in two states already, and this past election saw the city of Portland, Maine, legalize 2.5 ounces of pot. Ahead of the vote in Portland — which received 70 percent support — the Marijuana Policy Project put up signs around the city with messages like "I prefer marijuana over alcohol because it doesn't make me rowdy or reckless," and "I prefer marijuana over alcohol because it's less harmful to my body."

Alcohol lobbyists believe it's a "red herring" to compare the two. "We believe it's misleading to compare marijuana to beer," said Chris Thorne of the Beer Institute. "Beer is distinctly different both as a product and an industry."

Thorne notes that the alcohol industry is regulated, studied extensively, and perhaps more importantly already an accepted part of the culture. "Factually speaking beer has been a welcome part of American life for a long time," he said. "The vast majority drink responsibly, so having caricatures won't really influence people."

But MPP takes issue with the idea they are painting a false picture. In a recent Op-Ed for CNN, Dan Riffle, the group's director of federal policies, notes that according to the Centers for Disease Control excessive alcohol use is the third leading lifestyle-related cause of death. Booze also "plays a role in a third of all emergency room visits," he says....

"That's like saying we shouldn't talk about relative harms of sushi to fried chicken," said Mason Tvert, who in addition to working at MPP wrote a book called Marijuana is Safer: So Why are We Driving People to Drink? "It's important that people know the relative harms of all substances, so there's no reason not to talk about the two most popular substances in the world." 

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

November 7, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

"Free at Last? Judicial Discretion and Racial Disparities in Federal Sentencing"

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

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines were created to reduce unwarranted sentencing disparities among similar defendants.  This paper explores the impact of increased judicial discretion on racial disparities in sentencing after the Guidelines were struck down in United States v. Booker (2005).  Using data on the universe of federal defendants, I find that black defendants are sentenced to almost two months more in prison compared to their white counterparts after Booker, a 4% increase in average sentence length.  To identify the sources of racial disparities, I construct a dataset linking judges to over 400,000 defendants.  Exploiting the random assignment of cases to judges, I find that racial disparities are greater among judges appointed after Booker, suggesting acculturation to the Guidelines by judges with experience sentencing under mandatory regime. Prosecutors also respond to increased judicial discretion by charging black defendants with longer mandatory minimums.

I am always interested in sophisticated analyses of the post-Booker sentencing system, so I am looking forward to finding time to review this article closely. But, as with lots of "disparity" sentencing scholarship, I worry that this article is among those spending lots of time worrying about and trying to figure out whose sentences may be longer after Booker rather than worrying about and trying to figure out if all sentence remain way too long in the federal sentencing system.

November 7, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

New Michigan law adds to number of states requiring registered sex offenders to pay yearly fee

This local article report on yet another notable extra bit of punishment now for sex offenders in Michigan.  The piece is headlined "Sex Offenders Will Have To Pay To Live In Michigan Under Bill Signed By Gov. Snyder," and here are the details:

Gov. Rick Snyder has signed legislation requiring registered sex offenders living in Michigan to pay an annual $50 fee. The bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Rick Jones, replaces the system under which sex offenders paid a one-time $50 fee. Snyder signed the bill into law on Tuesday.

The measure only applies to registered sex offenders who are out of prison. Officials say $20 of each fee would go to local law enforcement and $30 would go to the state. If offenders don’t pay the annual fee, they face misdemeanor charges.

Offenders who can’t afford the fee would have the chance to make their case and receive a 90-day waiver. To do that, offenders would either have to prove in court that they are indigent, are receiving food assistance from the state, or are living under the federal poverty level.

Snyder said the law brings Michigan in line with neighboring states that require sex offenders to pay for the operating cost of sex offender websites. He said Indiana charges $50 per year, while Illinois and Ohio charge offenders $100 per year. The state said the move could bring in about $540,000 more in revenue each year.

But not everybody is on board with the new law. Opponents, which include the American Civil Liberties Union, say it’s merely a feel-good measure that ignores experiences in other states where the promise of more revenue falls well short of expectations and is an overly burdensome cost for registered sex offenders who already struggle to find housing and jobs.

“They have paid their dues … this is a burden that we just keep piling on,” said Shelli Weisberg, legislative liaison for ACLU of Michigan. She argues that the state is not asking offenders to pay for something that benefits them, but something that is intended to protect citizens. Therefore, the state should pay for it.

November 7, 2013 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (86) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Unanimous Supreme Court of New Hampshire upholds state's first modern capital conviction (with proportionality review to follow)

As reported in this AP piece, "New Hampshire's top court upheld the sentence of the state's only death row inmate, clearing the way for a convicted cop killer to become the first person executed in New Hampshire since 1939."   Here are more of the basics:

Michael Addison, 33, was convicted of gunning down Michael Briggs in 2006 as the 35-year-old Manchester police officer was attempting to arrest him on a string of armed robbery charges. The high court's unanimous ruling came nearly a year after it heard unprecedented daylong arguments in the first death penalty appeal to come before it in 50 years....

Of all 22 issues raised by Addison's lawyers on appeal, the justices concluded, "We find no reversible error."

The Supreme Court will next schedule arguments on its fairness review — weighing Addison's sentence against those meted out in 49 cases around the country between 2000 and 2009 in which a police officer was shot in the line of duty.

Addison's lawyers objected to the scope of the comparison, saying it ignores the only other New Hampshire capital case in recent history. That case involved a wealthy white man — John Brooks — who plotted and paid for the killing of a handyman he thought had stolen from him. Brooks was spared a death sentence in 2008 — the same year Addison was sentenced to die....

Attorney General Joseph Foster said the magnitude of the court's 243-page ruling is appropriate given the magnitude of the loss suffered by the Briggs' family. He did not comment on the ruling itself, noting that aspects of the case remain pending.

Briggs was 15 minutes from the end of his shift on Oct. 16, 2006, when he and his partner — both on bicycle patrol — confronted Addison in a dark alley. Jurors found that Addison shot Briggs in the head at close range to avoid arrest. Addison was later convicted of going on a violent rampage in the days before Briggs' death, including two armed robberies and a drive-by shooting....

The last person executed in New Hampshire was Howard Long, an Alton shopkeeper who molested and beat a 10-year-old boy to death. He was hanged — still a viable form of execution in New Hampshire if lethal injection is not possible.

As the AP piece revelas, the massive ruling in NH v. Addison (available here) does not conclusively affirm the defendant's death sentence.  Here is why, as the NH Supreme Court explains in the introduction to its lengthy opinion:

With respect to the issues raised by the defendant on appeal, we find no reversible error. Accordingly, we affirm the defendant’s conviction for capital murder. Furthermore, we conclude that the sentence of death was not imposed under the influence of passion, prejudice or any other arbitrary factor, and that the evidence was sufficient to support the jury’s findings of aggravating circumstances.  We note that our review of the defendant’s sentence is not yet complete.  Only after additional briefing and oral argument on comparative proportionality under RSA 630:5, XI(c) will we conclude our review of the defendant’s sentence of death, at which time we will issue a further opinion.

November 6, 2013 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Senate Judiciary hearing focused on federal prisons and "Cost-Effective Strategies for Reducing Recidivism"

This motning, Tuesday November 6, 2013 at 10am, as detailed at this official webpage, there will be Hearing before the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary titled "Oversight of the Bureau of Prisons & Cost-Effective Strategies for Reducing Recidivism." Here is the official agenda/hearing list:

Panel I

Panel II

I am expecting and hoping that there will be written testimony from some or all of these witnesses posted via the Senate website within the few hours.

Here at The Atlantic, Andrew Cohen sets out "5 Questions for Federal Prisons Chief When He Comes to Capitol Hill"

November 6, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (24) | TrackBack (0)

Election outcomes in Nov 2013 keep up marijuana reform momentum

Though it would be unwise jump to too many conclusions based on off-year election results, these headlines reporting on results concerning various marijuana initiative in various jurisdictions suggest a continuing affinity for responsible reform and sensible regulation of maijuana laws, policies and practices:

Practically speaking, the Colorado vote is probably the most important and consequential, as it ensures a significant tax revenue stream now flowing from marijuana legalization in the Mile High state.  But politically speaking, the voting outcomes in Maine and Michigan, though most symbolic, could still prove important if (and when?) more politicians on both side of the aisle in the northeast and upper midwest see that there could be political upsides in 2014 and beyond from supporting responsible reform and sensible regulation of maijuana laws, policies and practices.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

November 6, 2013 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

"Looking for Answers on Overcrowded Prisons"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new AP article coming from Philadelphia.  The piece is primarily about federal corrections and re-entry issues, as well as on-going work of AG Eric Holder and the Department of Justice.  Here are excerpts:

Some ex-offenders here report to federal court twice a month so that judges can gauge their progress, from drug testing and parenting classes to education and job training. It's an attempt to address a stubborn problem: nearly 25 percent of offenders released into federal supervision were rearrested for a new offense within five years, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.  Another 14 percent violate the conditions of their supervision.

Attorney General Eric Holder is taking a look at the Philadelphia program Tuesday to call attention to an overburdened prison system and the high incidence of repeat criminals, the first of three such visits to promote innovative crime prevention initiatives. Holder will visit St. Louis and Peoria, Ill., on Nov. 14.

"The common thread of these programs is that it is very difficult to get out of a cycle of crime without proper rehabilitation," Holder said in an interview.  "We should not be surprised" at high repeat offender rates "when we see people with education deficits, social deficits and we warehouse them and then just put them back into the same environment that they left."...

Seven years ago, federal judges in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania created a federal re-entry court that focuses on ex-criminal offenders with a significant risk of returning to a life of crime.  The goal of the program is to place participants on a path to employment rather than a cycle of crime.  Those who successfully complete the 52-week program can reduce their court-supervised release by a year. It aims to cut Philadelphia's high violent crime rate by addressing the social, family and logistical issues confronting ex-offenders when they return to society.

Of 186 participants in the Supervision to Aid Re-Entry, or STAR, initiative over the past seven years, 142 have successfully completed the program or remain in it. In a new change designed to keep ex-offenders on the right track, STAR will provide some participants with federal housing assistance under a federal voucher program.

"For every dollar we invest in programs like these we are going to save much more" in prison costs, an outcome that will enable spending limited law-enforcement resources on other priorities, Holder said.

While Philadelphia's program deals with high-risk offenders, the program in St. Louis is aimed at helping low-level drug offenders remain drug-free and the effort in Peoria, Ill., substitutes drug treatment for jail time for low-level drug offenders.

In all, 73 of 79 participants in the Peoria program have successfully completed it. The program operated by the U.S. Attorney's office, a federal court, the probation office and defense lawyers is designed for defendants whose criminal conduct was motivated by substance abuse. The Justice Department says over $6 million has been saved through the program — money that otherwise would have been spent on putting the defendants behind bars....

Federal prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity and almost half of the prisoners are serving time for drug-related crimes. Many of them have substance use disorders. In addition, some 9 million to 10 million prisoners go through local jails each year. "We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation," Holder told the American Bar Association in August. "To be effective, federal efforts must also focus on prevention and re-entry."

November 5, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

SCOTUS unanimously reverses Sixth Circuit on Sixth Amendment habeas case in Burt v. Titlow

The Supreme Court wasted no time wasting a Sixth Circuit ruling that ruling in favor of a state habeas petitioner, issuing today a reversal in Burt v. Titlow, No. 12-414  (S. Ct. Nov. 5, 2013) (available here).  Here is how the opinion for the Court by Justice Alito gets started:

When a state prisoner asks a federal court to set aside a sentence due to ineffective assistance of counsel during plea bargaining, our cases require that the federal court use a “‘doubly deferential’” standard of review that gives both the state court and the defense attorney the benefit of the doubt.  Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U. S. ___, ___ (2011) (slip op., at 17).  In this case, the Sixth Circuit failed to apply that doubly deferential standard by refusing to credit a state court’s reasonable factual finding and by assuming that counsel was ineffective where the record was silent.  Because the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), 110 Stat. 1214, and Strickland v. Washington, 466 U. S. 668 (1984), do not permit federal judges to so casually second-guess the decisions of their state-court colleagues or defense attor­neys, the Sixth Circuit’s decision must be reversed.

Both Justice Ginsburg and Justice Sotomayor have written short opinions in Burt v. Titlow in order to articulate their views of what the Court's opinion does not mean.

Based on a very quick review, it seems this ruling should be viewed more as a bit of habeas review error-correction rather than a significant new precedent about the Sixth Amendment's reach or application. But all habeas practitioners ought to give this a very close read to see if there might be more "there there" than immediately meets the eye.

November 5, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack (0)

New Urban Institute report recommends policies to reduce federal prison growth

As detailed via this webpage, The Urban Institute has today released this notable new report titled "Stemming the Tide: Strategies to Reduce the Growth and Cut the Cost of the Federal Prison System." Here is how the webpage summarizes the report's content and coverage:

The federal prison population has risen dramatically over the past few decades, as more people are sentenced to prison and for longer terms.  The result?  Dangerously overcrowded facilities and an increasing expense to taxpayers.  In a new Urban Institute report, the authors project the population and cost savings impact of a variety of strategies designed to reduce the inmate population without compromising public safety.  They find that the most effective approach is a combination of strategies, including early release for current prisoners and reducing the length of stay for future offenders, particularly those convicted of drug trafficking.

Here is the conclusion of this report's executive summary, which provides some details about its specific recommended reforms:

[T]o yield a meaningful impact on population and costs, a mix of reforms to sentencing, prosecution, and early release policies are required.  The most effective way to reduce overcrowding is to lower mandatory minimums for drugs, which, alone, would reduce overcrowding to the lowest it has been in decades.  Add two more options — retroactively applying the Fair Sentencing Act to crack offenders already in BOP custody and providing a broader earned time credit for program participation — and the BOP could save $3 billion. Updating the formula for good time credits and providing early release for certain nonviolent older inmates would lead to an additional 5,000 immediate releases, while lowering the truth-in-sentencing requirement for new BOP admissions who exhibit exemplary behavior while in custody would further reduce the future prison population. Even with a mix of reforms, federal prisons may continue to be overcrowded.  But a smart combination of policies will save taxpayers billions, make prisons less dangerous, and improve the quality and reach of programs designed to keep inmates from offending again.

November 5, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

When and how will SCOTUS take up Miller retroactivity issues?

The question in the title of this post is promoted by this local piece reporting on reactions to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision last week (reported here) that its state teens given mandatory LWOP before the US Supreme Court's Miller ruling should not get any retroactive benefit from that decision.   Here is an excerpt:

Nicholas White was 17 when a judge sentenced him to life in prison without parole for killing his father, Robert Grant White, 43, in 1998 in their home along Route 356.

Last year, the Supreme Court declared such sentences unconstitutional, saying they amount to cruel and unusual punishment. But the Pennsylvania Supreme Court last week ruled, 4-3, that the opinion does not apply retroactively to cases such as White's that were final before June 2012.

The decision means White and more than 450 Pennsylvania inmates, including as many as 40 from Allegheny County, are not eligible for resentencing. “I can't believe that it's fair — that if your sentence came down one day, you get nothing, and if it came down the next day, you get a new hearing,” said Marc Bookman, director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation in Philadelphia.

“But there is a silver lining here, and that is that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court does have another round of review, and that is with the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Turtle Creek attorney David Chontos. He represents Jeremy Melvin, 26, of McKeesport, who was 16 in 2005 when a Mercer County judge sentenced him to life without parole for killing a counselor at George Junior Republic, a private residential juvenile treatment center.

Several legal experts said the case likely is bound for the Supreme Court, because Iowa, Mississippi and Illinois deemed the high court's ruling retroactive, although Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Michigan and Florida have said it is not.

There seems little reason to doubt SCOTUS will be taking up this issue before too long. But when and how is a real interesting question, not only because the facts of the case taken up by the Justices could influence the public and legal discourse, but also because arguments about Miller retroactivity could (and I think should) prompt some reconsideration and modification of Teague habeas review jurisprudence.

November 5, 2013 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, November 4, 2013

Sentencing judge explains his view on how nationwide reforms should impact federal marijuana sentencing

I noted in prior recent posts here and here, U.S. District Judge James Bredar last month conducted a hearing to explore marijuana legal reforms and developments at the state and federal level now called for imposing below-guideline sentences for federal marijuana offenses.  This past Friday, Judge Bredar handed down a 12-page opinion in US v. Dayi, No. JKB-13-0013 (D. Md. Nov. 1, 2013) (available here), explaining his views and thinking on this front.  Here is an excerpt from the final sections of the fascinating (and perhaps very important?) Dayi opinion:

The evolving landscape of state law and federal enforcement policy regarding marijuana is particularly relevant to two of these [statutory sentencing] factors, namely (1) the need for any sentence imposed “to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, and to provide just punishment for the offense,” § 3553(a)(2)(A), and (2) the “need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities among defendants with similar records who have been found guilty of similar conduct,” § 3553(a)(6).....

The Court’s role is not to question, criticize, or laud the Justice Department’s new enforcement priorities or the recent enactments of state voters and legislators.  These policy choices reflect an on-going effort to address a complex, difficult, and highly controversial issue.  Rather, the Court’s role is simply to take note of these developments and consider them as part ofits assessment of the seriousness of these offenses. Ultimately, the Court finds that, in 2013, strict Guidelines sentences would overstate the seriousness of the underlying offenses and therefore fail “to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, and to provide just punishment for the offense.” § 3553(a)(2)(A)....

The Court also finds that Guidelines sentences in these cases would fail to address the “need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities among defendant s with similar records who have been found guilty of similar conduct.” § 3553(a)(6). The Court construes this factor broadly, interpreting it as a command to ensure that sentences comport with the notion of equal justice under the law.  The Justice Department has decided it will not prosecute certain marijuana traffickers, including large-scale commercial distributors who, in compliance with state laws and regulations, establish retail outlets that cater to recreational marijuana users in Colorado and Washington.  Although the illegal enterprise in these cases is not identical to these commercial distributors — i.e., it did not comply with the laws or regulations of any state and implicated several federal enforcement priorities — it nonetheless bears some similarity to those marijuana distribution operations in Colorado and Washington that will not be subject to federal prosecution. The Court therefore finds it should use its sentencing discretion to dampen the disparate effects of prosecutorial priorities.  As a result, the Court finds this factor too justifies a downward variance from the sentence the Guidelines would otherwise recommend....

Of course, these two factors are not the only ones the Court must consider under § 3553(a). Others, particularly “the nature and circumstances of the offense,” § 3553(a)(1), and“the need for the sentence imposed to afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct” § 3553(2)(B), militate more strongly in favor of a Guidelines sentence. Indeed, the conspiracy at issue in these cases was a large, elaborate, and profitable illegal operation involving well in excess of 1,000 kilograms of marijuana.  The Court therefore believes that a two-level variance from the Guidelines, which would reduce each defendant’s sentence by roughly 20 to 25%, is appropriate.  Such a variance reflects national trends in the enforcement of marijuana-related offenses, while recognizing the undeniable illegality of defendants’ conduct.  As it determines the sentence of each defendant in these cases, the Court will adopt this analysis, and accordingly it will grant each defendant the benefit of a two-level downward variance.

Recent related posts:

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

November 4, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

"Use of tough federal sentencing laws varies widely nationwide"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Los Angeles Times article, which carries this subheading: "Some U.S. attorneys have begun to ease up on policies that have led to lengthy sentences for low-level drug criminals. But change has been slow for others." Here are excerpts from the piece:

Under mandatory sentencing laws, it has become a not-so-hidden fact of life in federal courthouses that prosecutors — not judges — effectively decide how long many drug criminals will spend behind bars. The result has been federal prisons packed with drug offenders.

But Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. is now trying to steer the Justice Department away from the get-tough policies that have led to lengthy sentences for what one judge called the "low-hanging fruit" in the drug war — dime-a-dozen addicts and street dealers.

Prosecutors have considerable discretion under the laws. If they cite the amount of drugs seized in the charging document, that can trigger the mandatory minimum; if they leave it out, it doesn't. For offenders with prior drug convictions, prosecutors can file a so-called 851 motion, named after a section in the federal code that automatically doubles a sentence — or makes it mandatory life.

Although the mandatory laws were supposed to lead to uniformity, statistics show huge variations across the country in how often prosecutors use them. Holder has instructed prosecutors to avoid using these powerful weapons against lower-level, nonviolent offenders, but, even so, they retain the authority to decide which small players get a break and which get slammed....

In the two months since Holder issued his new policy, some U.S. attorneys ... have begun to pull back, according to judges and attorneys. "We had some terribly harsh sentences," said Randy Murrell, federal public defender in the northern district of Florida. "It's gone on for years, and no one had the courage and gumption to change it. I do think they are changing the policy now."

But elsewhere, change has been slower in coming. "We are hopeful that this will loosen up some of the policies, but we have certainly not seen it yet," said Jonathan Hawley, the federal public defender in central Illinois, another district with a history of tough prosecutions.

A study by the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that more than 47% of all drug defendants in Iowa's southern federal court district ended up with mandatory minimum sentences in 2010 — the third-highest rate in the country. In the northern district, it was more than 40%, the sixth-highest rate. There's even greater inconsistency in the use of 851 motions. In Iowa, they landed on about 80% of eligible offenders, according to sentencing commission data. In bordering Nebraska, the figure was 3%.

In a recent opinion, [Judge Mark] Bennett criticized the Justice Department for the "jaw-dropping, shocking disparity" in how prosecutors wielded the motions. He called the process "both whimsical and arbitrary, like a Wheel of Misfortune."

Some say prosecutors will be reluctant to give up a powerful tool to break open cases — the ability to threaten recalcitrant witnesses with a long federal sentence if they don't play ball....

One federal judge in Brooklyn, N.Y., said Holder's policy didn't go far enough to rein in prosecutors who routinely wielded 851 sentence enhancements as a "2-by-4 to the forehead" to force defendants to accept plea deals. If the Justice Department "cannot exercise its power … less destructively and less brutally, it doesn't deserve to have the power at all," wrote District Judge John Gleeson, a former prosecutor, in a sentencing opinion last month.

A few prior related posts:

November 4, 2013 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Should we worry early parole might cut 750 years off sex offender's prison term?

The question in the title of this post is my tongue-in-check response to this local West Virginia sentencing story sent my way by a helpful reader. The piece is headlined "County man sentenced to 250 -- 1,000 years," and here are the details:

A Marion County man was sentenced to 250 -- 1,000 years in prison Friday for 10 counts of sexual abuse and 10 counts of sexual assault, all involving a minor.  Matthew Monroe Cottingham, 28, of Fairmont, was sentenced by Marion Circuit Judge David R. Janes.

Cottingham was sentenced to 25 to 100 years for each of 10 counts of sexual assault on a minor and 10 to 25 years for each of 10 counts of sexual assault by a parent, guardian or custodian. He will serve the sentences for sexual assault consecutively and the sentences for sexual abuse concurrently, said Marion County Prosecuting Attorney Patrick Wilson....

“The sentences of 25-100 years are indeterminate,” Wilson said. “He would have to do 25 years on each count before he’d be eligible for parole.”

Cottingham had been first arrested in late July 2012 by Fairmont police. According to criminal complaints, he forcibly had sexual relations with a 13-year-old girl. The girl allegedly told her mother the next day, and statements by the victim and physical evidence observed at Fairmont General Hospital were reportedly consistent with the allegations....

Child Protective Services continued to investigate the incident since the initial arrest.  A second child, a 9-year-old girl, alleged that Cottingham had perpetrated “several sexual assaults ... dating back years prior to his arrest to CPS officials.”

November 3, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, November 2, 2013

"Bring Back the Guillotine"

131031_JURIS_Guillotine_MaAntoinette.jpg.CROP.original-originalThe title of this post is the headline of this new Slate commentary by John Kruzel.  Here are excerpts:

A nationwide shortage of a key ingredient used in lethal injections has led some states to experiment with new, untested drug cocktails for executing death row inmates. The practice has raised moral and constitutional questions, and unleashed a wave of litigation. At this point, as a society, we should be asking whether we can stand by and watch as this barbaric practice continues. Are these iffy drug combinations really any better than the guillotine?

Bringing back the guillotine may sound crazy, but it’s certainly better than the current alternative. It’s better for prisoners because quickly severing the head is believed to be one of the quickest, least painful ways to die. And it’s better for organ recipients because the bodies of guillotined prisoners could be more quickly harvested for viable parts, unlike organs that may become unusable after lethal injection due to hypoxemia.

To be clear, I find capital punishment abhorrent in theory and practice. Even if you believe the death penalty is morally acceptable, evidence of wrongful executions and the large number of inmates having been condemned to death before being exonerated shows its undeniable failings. But until the Supreme Court overturns precedents saying that state-sanctioned executions are not cruel and unusual punishment, shouldn’t we strive to make executions the most humane that they can possibly be? Lethal injection — the current method of execution of the federal government and the 32 states with the death penalty — and the guillotine are both evils, but the guillotine is the lesser evil of the two....

One familiar position put forth by advocates of lethal injection is that the three-drug cocktail is far less offensive than the guillotine — to witnesses. Some state laws grant victims’ families the right to view executions. Would bringing back the guillotine fail to consider the feelings of those who would have to watch someone get his head severed?

In short, no. As Michael Lawrence Goodwin argues, there are two main reasons why victims’ families watch executions: out of a desire to represent a murdered family member at what they consider the ultimate stage of criminal justice, and because of a need for closure. A guillotine execution would not devalue someone’s symbolic presence, and it may actually better facilitate closure for certain witnesses....

Those who would be up for watching a state-sanctioned beheading should heed the warning of Albert Camus. The author and philosopher once told a biographer the story of his father’s experience witnessing the guillotine in action: “He got up in the dark to go to the place of execution at the other end of town amid a great crowd of people. What he saw that morning he never told anyone. My mother relates merely that he came rushing home, his face distorted, refused to talk, lay down for a moment on the bed, and suddenly began to vomit.”

As Camus made clear, capital punishment is always a barbaric practice. If we’re going to continue to allow it in the United States, maybe it makes sense to be confronted by how gruesome it really is.

November 2, 2013 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (25) | TrackBack (0)

Might public health be significantly improved by marijuana legalization?

The provocative question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable op-ed by Jacob Sullum at Forbes headlined "Economists Predict Marijuana Legalization Will Produce 'Public-Health Benefits'."  Here are excerpts:

In their 2012 book Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know, Jonathan Caulkins and three other drug policy scholars identify the impact of repealing pot prohibition on alcohol consumption as the most important thing no one knows.  Are cannabis and alcohol complements, so that drinking can be expected to increase along with pot smoking?  Or are they substitutes, implying that more pot smoking will mean less drinking?  For analysts attempting to calculate the costs and benefits of legalizing marijuana, the question matters a lot, because alcohol is considerably more dangerous than marijuana by most measures.  If the two products are complements, states that legalize marijuana can expect to see more consumption of both, exacerbating existing health and safety problems.  But if the two products are substitutes, legalizing marijuana can alleviate those problems by reducing alcohol consumption.

Reviewing the evidence in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Montana State University economist D. Mark Anderson and University of Colorado economist Daniel Rees find that “studies based on clearly defined natural experiments generally support the hypothesis that marijuana and alcohol are substitutes.” [Study Here] Increasing the drinking age seems to result in more marijuana consumption, for instance, and pot smoking drops off sharply at age 21, “suggesting that young adults treat alcohol and marijuana as substitutes.”  Another study found that legalizing marijuana for medical use is associated with a drop in beer sales and a decrease in heavy drinking.   These results, Anderson and Rees say, “suggest that, as marijuana becomes more available, young adults in Colorado and Washington will respond by drinking less, not more.”

That conclusion is consistent with earlier research in which Anderson and Rees found that enacting medical marijuana laws is associated with a 13 percent drop in traffic fatalities. [Study Here]  That effect could be due to the fact that marijuana impairs driving ability much less dramatically than alcohol does, although the fact that alcohol is more likely to be consumed outside the home (resulting in more driving under its influence) may play a role as well....

Anderson and Rees note that UCLA drug policy expert Mark Kleiman, who co-wrote Marijuana Legalization and has been advising Washington’s cannabis regulators, recently described a worst-case scenario for legalization featuring an increase in heavy drinking, “carnage on our highways,” and a “massive” increase in marijuana consumption among teenagers.  “Kleiman’s worst-case scenario is possible, but not likely,” they conclude.  “Based on existing empirical evidence, we expect that the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington will lead to increased marijuana consumption coupled with decreased alcohol consumption.  As a consequence, these states will experience a reduction in the social harms resulting from alcohol use.  While it is more than likely that marijuana produced by state-sanctioned growers will end up in the hands of minors, we predict that overall youth consumption will remain stable.  On net, we predict the public-health benefits of legalization to be positive.”

Notably, this commentary and the research it emphasizes appears only to consider the public health benefits that could result from folks substituting marijuana use for alcohol use.  I have long thought that another possible public health benefit could flow from marijuana legalization if some heavy cigarette smokers end up smoking less in total because they sometimes substitute a few joints for a few packs of cigs.  Similarly, one might further speculate that there might be a positive "reverse gateway" effect from marijuana legalization with respect to other dangerous drug use and abuse: perhaps fewer folks will try using, or end up harmfully abusing, harder drugs like ecstasy and heroin and meth and oxycodone if they can get always get a cheap and legal buzz from marijuana.

Of course, a lot of research about the use and abuse of various drugs will be needed in order to come to dependable conclusions about the full public health impact of modern marijuana reform developments.  Still, especially when everyone is understandably all worked up about the Obamacare roll-out and broader health care reform realities, it is fun to speculate that modern marijuana reforms could end up being the most consequential and positive public health development of the Obama era.

I have long been drawn to the marijuana legal reform movement due to my general affinity for expanding personal freedom and my generally disaffinity for big-government programs like the war on drugs that seem very costly and mostly ineffective.  But I have always respected the concerns expressed by serious people that pot prohibition is a public health necessity and that even modest moves toward marijuana legalization could prove costly and harmful in various ways.   Without getting too much into the weeds of an empirical debate, I wonder if those who are vigorously opposed to (or even just generally resistant to) marijuana reform movements would still oppose reform if (and when?) empirical evidence starts to show that (some? many? all?) US public health measures and metrics are improved in the wake of marijuana legalization reforms.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

November 2, 2013 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, November 1, 2013

"Did a murderer and a sex offender just save Oklahoma $20 million?"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Washington Post report, which struck my fancy on a Friday morning.  Here is the explanation:

Bobby Cleveland, an Oklahoma state representative, had some questions about the amount of money being spent at Joseph Harp Correctional Center.  As chairman of the state House’s Public Safety Committee, state prisons fall under his jurisdiction.  But on a tour of the prison facility, he and two fellow representatives found something they didn’t expect: a software program written by two inmates that could save the prison, and maybe the state, a lot of money.

The program tracks inmates as they proceed through food lines, to make sure they don’t go through the lines twice, Cleveland said in an interview.  It can help the prison track how popular a particular meal is, so purchasers know how much food to buy in the future. And it can track tools an inmate checks out to perform their jobs.  “It’s a pretty neat program. It’s all done by the direction of the supervisor, one of these guys who’s kind of, what do you call it, thinking outside the box,” Cleveland said.

Cleveland said the program, if implemented statewide, could save Oklahoma up to $20 million a year.  It can also track incoming shipments of food and supplies — and catch discrepancies, like the one that raised red flags with Cleveland and his colleagues, state Reps. Scott Martin (R) and Jason Murphey (R).  The software showed that Sysco, which supplies food to the state prison system, was charging the state different prices for the same food item sent to two different facilities....

The program came to lawmakers’ attention when Cleveland took a tour of the facility without the prison warden around.  He brought his colleagues to a subsequent visit to hear about the program. “It does kind of expose the waste at all the other facilities. It was just one of those genuine, lightning-strikes things,” Murphey said....

The supervisor, William Weldon, worked with two technologically-savvy inmates to develop the program.  Prisoners each have a bar code they can scan, which then shows prison officials who has eaten a meal, or checked out a spatula before a shift in the kitchen, or borrowed a pair of gloves to scrub dishes after a meal.  Jerry Massie, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, said prison officials at Joseph Harp have used the software for about two years.

The software could even help save the state from lawsuits. Cleveland said several prisoners have sued over being denied special meals, whether for medical or religious reasons.  When an inmate’s bar code is scanned, prison officials would be alerted that they should receive a diabetic meal, or a Halal or Kosher meal....

The Department of Corrections wouldn’t identify the inmates who created the program, beyond saying that one of them is a sex offender and one is serving a sentence for murder.  They may not be the most savory characters, but the program appears to be working. “They built a system that could save the state millions of dollars,” Cleveland said. “I want to get the state using this thing.”

November 1, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)

Second Circuit panel halts NYC stop-and-frisk remedies and removes district judge from case

As reported via this New York Law Journal article, headlined "Circuit Rebuffs Scheindlin on Stop/Frisk," yesterday brought an eventful order from a panel of Second Circuit judges in a high-profile lawsuit about police practices in New York City. Though not involving a sentencing issue, I suspect reader of this blog might have thoughts they wish to share on this notable criminal justice development. Here are the basics from the start of the NYLJ report:

Southern District Judge Shira Scheindlin has been ordered off the stop-and-frisk cases by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

The circuit said the judge had given the "appearance of partiality" in her handling of Floyd v. City of New York, 13-3088, and it stayed pending appeal Scheindlin's appointment of a monitor to reform New York City Police Department stop-and-frisk policies and practices she had held unconstitutional.

Two days after oral argument on whether to stay Scheindlin's appointment of monitor Peter Zimroth, a partner at Arnold & Porter, to help remedy police violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, the Second Circuit said Scheindlin presented the appearance of partiality both in how she came to preside over the Floyd case in the first place and in interviews she gave to reporters.

Judges Jose Cabranes, Barrington Parker and John Walker, in a three-page order, stayed Scheindlin's Aug. 12 liability opinion in Floyd, where she found a top-down police department practice of making hundreds of thousands of stops without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, and that blacks and Hispanics were targets of those stops.

The circuit also stayed Scheindlin's opinion and order issued on Jan. 8, 2013 in the related case of Ligon v. City of New York, 13-3123, where she issued a preliminary injunction ordering police to cease making stops for trespass without reasonable suspicion outside of privately-owned buildings in the Bronx.

Finally, the circuit stayed the remedies opinion she issued on Aug. 12 that applied to both Floyd and Ligon.  In addition to the appointment of a monitor, Scheindlin directed several other measures be taken, including a one-year pilot program in which police in one precinct in each of the city's five boroughs wear body cameras to record stop encounters for one year.

November 1, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, October 31, 2013

"Sentencing and Prison Practices in Germany and the Netherlands: Implications for the United States"

The title of this post is the title of a notable new report from The Vera Institute of Justice available at this link.  Here is a synopsis of the report's coverage via the Vera website:

Germany and the Netherlands have significantly lower incarceration rates than the United States and make much greater use of non-custodial penalties, particularly for nonviolent crimes.  In addition, conditions and practices within correctional facilities in these countries — grounded in the principle of “normalization” whereby life in prison is to resemble as much as possible life in the community — also differ markedly from the U.S.

In February 2013 — as part of the European-American Prison Project funded by the California-based Prison Law Office and managed by Vera — delegations of corrections and justice system leaders from Colorado, Georgia, and Pennsylvania together visited Germany and the Netherlands to tour prison facilities, speak with corrections officials and researchers, and interact with inmates.  Although variations in the definitions of crimes, specific punishments, and recidivism limit the availability of comparable justice statistics, this report describes the considerably different approaches to sentencing and corrections these leaders observed in Europe and the impact this exposure has had (and continues to have) on the policy debate and practices in their home states.  It also explores some of the project’s practical implications for reform efforts throughout the United States to reduce incarceration and improve conditions of confinement while maintaining public safety.

October 31, 2013 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

New report (from small government groups) urges Louisiana to reform its toughest sentencing laws

PippAs reported in this AP article, headlined "New study calls on La. to change sentencing laws," a notable group of libertarian-leaning organizations has produced a big report urging the state with the highest rate of incarceration to significantly scale back its most extreme sentencing laws.  Here are the basics:

Louisiana should shrink its prison population and costs by repealing minimum mandatory sentences for nonviolent crimes, said a study released Tuesday by several right-leaning policy organizations.  The groups suggest that Louisiana could maintain public safety while also reducing a per capita incarceration rate that is the highest in the nation, by making changes to the habitual offender law and locking up fewer people for nonviolent offenses.

The Reason Foundation, a libertarian organization based in California, made the suggestions along with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, a Louisiana-based conservative organization, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation.  "Harsh, unfair sentences are putting too many Louisianans in jail for far too long, and at a terrible cost to taxpayers and society," Julian Morris, vice president of Reason Foundation and co-author of the study, said in a statement.

Nonviolent offenders account for the majority of the state's inmates, the report says. By shrinking its prison population, the study says Louisiana could invest more money in rehabilitation programs for those who remain in jail.

Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration said it has asked the state's sentencing commission to review the report's recommendations.  Any changes would need approval from state lawmakers.

The full 36-page report, titled "Smart on Sentencing, Smart on Crime: An Argument for Reforming Louisiana’s Determinate Sentencing Laws," is available at this link. The reports executive summary can be accessed here, and it gets started this way:

Over the past several decades, Louisiana legislators have passed a number of determinate sentencing laws aimed at reducing crime and incapacitating certain types of offenders. Because these laws have been disproportionately applied to nonviolent crimes, nonviolent offenders now account for the majority of inmates and admissions to prison in the state. This has produced a number of unfortunate consequences, such as an increase in the state’s prison population from 21,007 in 1992 to 39,709 in 2011 and a $315 million increase in correction expenditures during the same time period, from $442.3 million (in 2011 dollars) in 1992 to $757.4 million in 2011.  Meanwhile, there is little evidence that the laws have done anything to reduce Louisiana’s violent crime rate, which remains considerably above both the national average and the rates in its neighboring states. Today, Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country, with 868 of every 100,000 of its citizens in prison.

Louisiana’s citizens could benefit considerably from changes to the way in which convicted criminals are sentenced.  As things stand, nonviolent offenders who pose little or no threat to society are routinely sentenced to long terms in prison with no opportunity for parole, probation or suspension of sentence.  In most cases, this is a direct result of the state’s determinate sentencing laws.  These prisoners consume disproportionate amounts of Louisiana’s scarce correctional resources, which could be better utilized to ensure that violent criminals are more effectively kept behind bars.

October 31, 2013 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

"Can the system curb prosecutorial abuses?"

The title of this post is the headline of this article in The Arizona Republic capping its series of article on the problems of prosecutorial misconduct.  Here is how this piece starts:

For three days, The Arizona Republic has examined prosecutor conduct and misconduct, citing cases in which prosecutors stepped over the line without suffering consequences to themselves or the convictions they win. The question remains: What can be done about it? Options already are in place.

When a prosecutor steps over the line, it’s up to the defense attorney to call it to the court’s attention, and it’s up to the judge to decide whether an offense has been committed and whether it affects the defendant’s right to a fair trial. Yet, neither likes to do so.

Prosecutors are arguably the most powerful people in the courtroom: They file the charges and offer the plea agreements. They determine whether to seek the death penalty, and, given mandatory sentencing, predetermine the consequence of a guilty verdict.

Defense attorneys worry that if they cross a prosecutor, future clients could be treated more harshly the next time they face that prosecutor in court. Judges worry about prosecutors who use court rules to bypass those judges who rein them in. Both know that prosecutors are rarely sanctioned by the court or investigated by the State Bar of Arizona for ethical misconduct.

So overly aggressive prosecutors continue to have their way in the courtroom – as long as they win cases, experts say. “It comes from this ‘end-justifies-the-means mentality,’” said Jon Sands, the federal public defender for Arizona. “We’ll do anything we can to bring someone to justice.”

Here are links to the other article in the series:

October 31, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Split Pennsylvania Supreme Court rules that Miller does not apply retroactively

Thanks to How Appealing, I see that the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania today finally handed down its long awaited ruling as to whether the hundreds of state teens given mandatory LWOP before the Supreme Court's Miller ruling would get any retroactive benefit from that decision.  The 4-3 split decision consists of a this majority opinion, this concurring opinion, and this dissenting opinion.  

Here is how the majority opinion concludes:

All Justices of this Court and the United States Supreme Court share the sentiment that “[d]etermining the appropriate sentence for a teenager convicted of murder presents grave and challenging questions of morality and social policy.” Miller, ___ U.S. at ___, 132 S. Ct. at 2477 (Roberts, C.J., dissenting, joined by Scalia, Thomas, and Alito, JJ.). Our role in establishing social policy in the arena is a limited one, however.  Here, applying settled principles of appellate review, nothing in Appellant’s arguments persuades us that Miller’s proscription of the imposition of mandatory life-without-parole sentences upon offenders under the age of eighteen at the time their crimes were committed must be extended to those whose judgments of sentence were final as of the time of Miller’s announcement. See generally Geter, 115 So. 3d at 377 (“Clearly and unequivocally, the Supreme Court distinguished between the substantive determinations of a categorical bar prohibiting a ‘penalty for a class of offenders or type of crime,’ as in Roper and Graham, and the procedural determination in Miller that merely requires consideration of mitigating factors of youth in the sentencing process.” (quoting Miller, ___ U.S. at ___, 132 S. Ct. at 2471)).  See generally LAFAVE, 1 CRIM. PROC. §2.11(e) (“Teague has made new rulings very rarely applicable retroactively on habeas review[.]”).

Here is a key part of start of the concurring opinion by the Chief Justice: "I write separately to express my own view of what, if anything, might be done to mitigate the seeming inequity that is a result of the High Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama, __ U.S. __, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012).  The 'seeming inequity' here arises from the fact that the prospect of an individualized, discretionary judicial determination of whether a juvenile murderer should ever be afforded parole eligibility depends solely upon the happenstance of the moment that the defendant’s conviction became final."

And here is the first sentence of the dissent: "While I find merit in much of the Majority’s analysis, I ultimately conclude that Miller v. Alabama, __ U.S. __, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012), should apply retroactively to juveniles sentenced to life without parole on timely collateral as well as direct review because I find Miller to be an effectively substantive rule."

UPDATE: How Appealing provides links via this posting to some local media coverage of this Cunningham ruling, including this Allentown Morning Call article which provides some sense of the impact and reactions to the ruling:

The decision upholds the sentence of Ian Cunningham, a man serving life in prison for a murder he committed when he was 17. It also affects as many as 450 Pennsylvania inmates including six from Lehigh County.

Ultimately, the question will have to be decided by the federal courts, and may end up back before the U.S. Supreme Court, said Kimberly Makoul, an Allentown attorney who represents Joseph G. Romeri, who is 35 years into a life sentence for bludgeoning to death an 80-year-old city woman in 1978, when he was 16. "There is still hope," Makoul said. "It's not over yet and all hope certainly isn't lost."

Marsha Levick, an attorney with the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, said the Pennsylvania high court's decision misses the ethical importance of the federal decision. "When the U.S. Supreme Court puts down a marker … it is morally unconscionable to leave any juvenile offender on the other side of that marker," she said....

The Pennsylvania court's decision was welcomed by families whose loved ones were killed by juveniles. Since the federal decision, they have been bracing for new sentencing hearings that they feared would reopen old wounds by forcing them to relive painful memories. "It's really good to hear. Really," said Darryl Romig, whose 12-year-old daughter, Danni Reese, was raped and strangled in 2003 in Allentown by a 17-year-old killer who received an automatic life sentence.

Brian A. Bahr, now 27 and jailed at the State Correctional Institution-Mahanoy, is among six once-young killers in Lehigh County whose appeals were put on hold pending Cunningham's case. "I'm just glad that he doesn't have the chance to be resentenced," Romig said in a telephone interview. "He did what he did and he deserved what he got."

October 30, 2013 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Baltimore Sun praises federal sentencing judge for his part in a "national conversation about pot"

I am intrigued and pleased to see this new Baltimore Sun editorial noting and praising the recent work by a Maryland federal district judge when sentencing a set of marijuana traffickers (first noted here).  The editorial carries the headline "A national conversation about pot; Our view: Court's ruling in drug-smuggling case reflects the federal government's changing role in enforcing marijuana laws." Here is an excerpt:
A ruling handed down by a federal court this week strongly suggests that recent changes in state laws governing marijuana are now being reflected in how federal drug laws are enforced and will further change the conversation about marijuana use in America.

U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar acknowledged that new reality when he sentenced Scott Russell Segal this week to nearly five years in prison for his role in smuggling hundreds of kilograms of marijuana to Howard and Anne Arundel counties from California and New Jersey. Under federal sentencing guidelines Mr. Segal could have received eight to 11 years behind bars.

But the judge used his discretion to cut that penalty nearly in half, saying the federal government's response to the legalization of marijuana in some states had raised concerns of "equal justice" if federal law mandated significantly harsher punishments than state laws for the same crime. In doing so he clearly had in mind the Justice Department's recent announcement that it would not seek to block state laws legalizing marijuana for medical or recreational use....

Judge Bredar briefly wondered aloud whether underground sales of marijuana were comparable to the black market in untaxed cigarettes in terms of the seriousness of the threat posed to society. But the truth is that, unlike black market cigarettes, the gangs that deal in illegal marijuana have gotten a lot more violent in recent decades, a function of the widespread continuing limited supply and high demand for pot as well as of the easy availability of guns. That's a direct consequence of the drug's prohibition, just as the gang wars of the 1920s and '30s were a result of attempts to ban legal sales of alcohol. Part of the wisdom of Judge Bredar's ruling lies in the recognition that we don't want to repeat the same mistake again.

Overall, the court's decision was a reasoned attempt to take into account all these factors in order to balance the strict requirements of the law against changing public perceptions of marijuana's impact on public health and safety. Ultimately some new consensus about the benefits and dangers of legal marijuana will emerge and be codified in a coherent body of law. But we are not there yet, and until that happens cases like this will provide the forums through which our national conversation on the subject is conducted.

Recent related post:

October 30, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

"Gimme Shelter: Mass Incarceration and the Criminology of the Housing Boom"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new short paper by the always intriguing Jonathan Simon from a book intriguingly titled "Architecture and Justice." Here is the abstract:

Mostly when we think about the intersection of architecture and justice we think of the connections between buildings, like courts, prisons, jails, and the ideas, ideologies, and policies that shape both the scale and aspirations of these buildings.  Here I want to propose a different kind of connection. Just as buildings belong to a ‘built environment’, and policies emerge not directly from interest groups but out of broader ‘political rationalities’.  We can learn something by reflecting on how these influence each other.

October 30, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Do lead exposure realities continue to best explain modern crime-rate realities?

Every time I see reports new reports about crime rates in the United States or in certain regions, I cannot avoid continuing to think about the interesting research connecting crime rates and childhood exposure to lead.  Against that backdrop, I was pleased that Rick Nevin, a Senior Economist at ICF International, sent me this lengthy e-mail discussing his research and writing on this topic:

I want to thank you for yourJanuary blog about the Mother Jones article discussing my lead and crime research.  I also want to let you know that I have several posts at www.ricknevin.com that update my earlier analyses, and are closely related to recent posts:

Your October 28 post about the NYT editorial on "Why Prisons Are Shrinking" is related to my paper on The Plummeting USA Incarceration Rate showing that the recent incarceration rate decline reflects much steeper declines for younger adults (ages 18-30) born across years of declining lead exposure, partly offset by rising incarceration rates for older adults born across years of pandemic lead poisoning. 

Your October post on NYC murder rates is directly related to my post on Why is the Murder Rate Lower in New York City?

You had two posts in October about 2012 FBI and BJS data showing relatively stable crime rates related to my recent Lead Poisoning and Juvenile Crime Update paper showing that juvenile arrest rates are falling to record lows since 1980, reflecting ongoing declines in lead exposure over the 1990s, while arrest rates since 1980 have increased for older adults.  This paper also updates my crime trend graphs for Britain and Canada showing the predictive power of earlier lead exposure trends, with the same relationship between lead exposure and crime trends and the same shifts in arrest rates by age observed in the USA.  I also have a recent paper showing how lead exposure trends can explain Juvenile Arrest Rate Trends by Race and Gender

I also have a post on Lead Exposure and Murder in Latin America and a longer paper called The Answer is Lead Poisoning that updates and integrates findings from several of my related peer-reviewed studies.  All of the questions at The Questions link to this same paper.

I know the Kevin Drum story in Mother Jones seemed new and speculative to most readers, but there is actually a large body of research now supporting this relationship, and I have links to many peer-reviewed studies in my posted papers.  I don’t know of any other criminology theory that can explain both the rise and fall of crime in so many places -- and different trends by age, race, and gender -- or any theory that has so accurately predicted ongoing crime trends in so many different places for so many years.  I hope you will consider bringing some of this information to a broader audience through your blog, and I would welcome your use of any text or graphs from my posted papers.

Some recent related posts:

October 30, 2013 in National and State Crime Data, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (32) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Latest Gallup poll indicated slight decrease in (still strong) support for death penalty

9wi_7f0xre2310vq41iq7qAs reported in this new Gallup page, which is headlined "U.S. Death Penalty Support Lowest in More Than 40 Years: Sixty percent of Americans favor death penalty for convicted murderers," new polling data provides an array of mixed messages concerning public opinion regarding the death penalty.  Here are the basic details of the latest polling data:

Sixty percent of Americans say they favor the death penalty for convicted murderers, the lowest level of support Gallup has measured since November 1972, when 57% were in favor.  Death penalty support peaked at 80% in 1994, but it has gradually declined since then.

Gallup first asked Americans their views on the death penalty using this question in 1936, and has updated it periodically since then, including annual updates since 1999.

Americans have typically favored the death penalty; in fact, support has exceeded opposition in all but one survey, conducted in May 1966, during an era marked by philosophical and legal challenges to the death penalty from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s.  Americans' support for the death penalty waned during that time. The culmination of that era was the Supreme Court's 1972 Furman v. Georgia decision, which invalidated all state death penalty statutes on technical grounds but stopped short of declaring the practice itself unconstitutional.  Four years later, the court ruled that several newly written death penalty laws were constitutional, and executions resumed in the U.S. shortly thereafter.

From then until the mid-'90s, death penalty support climbed, reaching 80% in 1994, a year in which Americans consistently named crime as the most important problem facing the United States.

The current era of lower support may be tied to death penalty moratoriums in several states beginning around 2000 after several death-row inmates were later proven innocent of the crimes of which they were convicted.  More recently, since 2006, six states have repealed death penalty laws outright, including Maryland this year.

Politics is a major dividing line in Americans' death penalty views -- 81% of Republicans currently favor it, compared with 47% of Democrats. Independents' 60% support matches the national average.

Support among all three party groups has declined in the last 25 years, with the largest drop among Democrats.  Democrats' level of support is currently down 28 percentage points from its 1994 peak and has fluctuated around the 50% mark for the last several years. Independents' support has generally been in the 60% range since 2000, but was consistently above 70% from the late 1980s through 1999. Republicans' support has averaged 80% since 2000, but averaged a higher 85% from 1988-1999....

A separate question asking about the frequency of use of the death penalty finds 44% of Americans saying the death penalty in the U.S. is not imposed often enough -- rather than too often or the right amount of time.  Americans have always been most likely to say the death penalty is not imposed often enough, consistent with their generally favoring the death penalty.  However, the current percentage holding that view is among the lowest Gallup has measured.  Exactly half as many, 22%, believe the death penalty is imposed too often....

Gallup's nearly 80-year history of measuring death penalty attitudes shows that Americans generally favor the practice, but there have been distinct eras of higher or lower support. And state and federal laws, as well as legal rulings, have tended to move in concert with public opinion.  Support is now the lowest in four decades, and a growing number of states have taken action to abolish the death penalty.

October 29, 2013 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Do nationwide reforms now call for federal judges to sentence below the guidelines in all marijuana cases?

The question in the title of this post is one that I have been thinking about for quite some time, but it has now taking on some real-world salience in the wake of a couple hearings and sentencing decisions by a federal district judge in Baltimore.  Two recent reports from the Baltimore Sun, headlined "Federal judge weighs shift on marijuana sentences," and U.S. judge says government view on marijuana raises 'equal justice' issue" (available here and here, respectively), suggests that at least one federal district judge believes the answer to the question in the title of this post is yes. Here are details drawn from both press reports:

A federal judge said Friday he would consider lighter-than-normal sentences for members of a major suburban marijuana smuggling organization — the latest fallout of the drug's legalization in several U.S. states.

U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar noted that federal authorities announced this summer they would not pursue criminal cases against dispensaries and others legally handling marijuana in states where the drug has been legalized.

Bredar, who called the hearing to discuss the issue, said it might be more appropriate to compare the defendants in the Maryland marijuana case to smugglers of improperly taxed cigarettes rather than treat them as hardened drug traffickers. "It's a serious thing," Bredar said of the group's operation, "but it's not the same as dealing heroin."...

Friday's hearing involved defendants convicted of running a smuggling operation that imported large quantities of marijuana to Howard and Anne Arundel counties from California and New Jersey and laundering the proceeds through an eBay business located in a Jessup warehouse. Twenty-two of the 23 people charged in the case have been convicted; charges against one were dismissed.

Earlier this month, Bredar canceled all of the scheduled sentencings in the case and announced his plan to hold a hearing on changes in Justice Department policy that allow marijuana handlers such as dispensaries and cultivation centers to operate openly in states where marijuana is legal....

At issue in the Maryland case, Bredar said, is whether that shift means the government has decided the drug is less serious now than when federal sentencing guidelines were formulated. "Has the federal government changed its enforcement policy?" Bredar asked.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea L. Smith said the topic was an appropriate one to discuss, but argued that marijuana remained a serious drug and noted that the case involved guns and violence. She suggested it might be more appropriate to compare marijuana dealing to trafficking in illegally obtained prescription pain pills rather than to cigarette smuggling....

And on a sliding scale of regulated substances, Bredar said, he thought marijuana had moved away from hard drugs and toward tobacco.

Sentences in federal cases are based on guidelines that take into account drug quantities and other circumstances in advising judges on the appropriate prison time. Those rules already recognize that dealing heroin is much more serious than dealing marijuana.

For example, all else being equal, a defendant convicted of dealing between one and three kilograms of heroin would face between nine and 11 years in prison, as would someone who sold between 1,000 and 3,000 kilograms of marijuana. At the same time, a cigarette trafficker would have to evade $100 million in taxes to face that length of prison sentence — a vastly greater weight in tobacco.

The guidelines are advisory and judges can take other factors into account when deciding a sentence. Bredar said he would take particular note of two of those factors when sentencing the defendants: He wants to make sure that defendants around the country are being treated equally and that the sentences reflect the seriousness of the offense....

A federal judge in Maryland handed down lighter prison sentences Monday to defendants in a huge marijuana distribution case, saying that such offenses are "not regarded with the same seriousness" as they were just a few decades ago.

U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar said the federal government's response to marijuana legalization in some states — notably the decision not to pursue criminal cases against dispensaries and others handling the drug in accordance with those states' laws — raises concerns of "equal justice."

In handing down a nearly five-year sentence, Bredar said he felt Scott Russell Segal had committed a significant crime for his role moving hundreds of kilograms of marijuana and laundering the proceeds.

But the judge used his discretion to ignore federal guidelines, which equate marijuana with harder drugs like heroin and called for Segal to receive eight to 11 years in prison. A second defendant also got a shorter sentence than called for in the guidelines. "It's indisputable that the offense is not regarded with the same seriousness it was 20 or 30 years ago when the sentencing guidelines … which are still in use, were promulgated," Bredar said.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

October 29, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Detailing new state reform efforts to ensure kids get treated as kids by criminal justice system

29juvenile-graphic-popupToday's New York Times has this big story about modern juvenile justice reforms under the headline "A Bid to Keep Youths Out of Adult Prisons." The piece is mostly focused on a recent reform in Colorado, but here is an excerpt discussing the national trends:

In a reversal of the tough-on-crime legislation that swept the nation in the late 1980s and ’90s, nearly half of the states have now enacted one or more laws that nudge more young offenders into the juvenile justice system, divert them from being automatically tried as adults and keep them from being placed in adult jails and prisons.

Sarah Brown, a director of the criminal justice program at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said the shift stems from a decline in juvenile crime, concerns about the costs of adult prisons and a growing understanding of adolescent brain development showing that the young have a greater potential for rehabilitation.

The Supreme Court has increasingly taken neurological research into account on juvenile justice issues — most recently in a 2012 case, Miller v. Alabama, which barred mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for those who committed their crimes before they turned 18. Justice Elena Kagan’s majority opinion in the case cited adolescents’ “diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change.”

Eleven states, including Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia, have passed laws that keep most young offenders out of adult jails and prisons. Eight states, including California, Missouri and Washington, passed laws that alter mandatory minimum sentencing for young offenders charged as adults. Four — Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts and Mississippi — have broadened the powers of their juvenile courts, enabling them to take cases of juveniles who would have automatically been tried as adults. And 12 states, including Arizona, Nevada, Ohio and Utah, have adjusted the laws governing the transfer of young offenders into the adult system in ways that make it more likely that they will be tried as juveniles.

Many of these bills have passed with bipartisan support in states both Republican and Democratic and with the testimony of the young who are affected and their families, said Liz Ryan, the president of Campaign for Youth Justice, which recently issued a report on the shifts.

October 29, 2013 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)

Jesse Jackson Jr. unable to check in early to federal prison system

This new story from the Chicago Tribune about the failed attempt by a fallen prominent politician provides some further evidence that few get special treatment from the federal Bureau of Prisons. The piece is headlined "Jackson Jr. turned away after showing up at prison early," and here are the (amusing?) details:

Convicted former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. tried to report Monday to a federal prison in North Carolina but was turned away, a prison spokesman said this morning.

Chris McConnell, executive assistant at Butner Federal Correctional Complex near Durham, declined to specify why Jackson was not allowed to surrender to the prison, but the ex-congressman did appear at Butner days earlier than expected. The sentencing judge had told Jackson to report no earlier than Friday, court documents show.

McConnell said the former lawmaker was turned away during the afternoon hours. He said press accounts in which Rep. G. K. Butterfield, D-N.C., described a paperwork problem being worked out at the prison were “very accurate.” Butterfield reportedly accompanied Jackson to the prison.

At the Bureau of Prisons in Washington, spokesman Ed Ross said this morning he could confirm that Jackson was not in bureau custody. He declined to elaborate on what occurred Monday or to say what is expected to happen next. It was not immediately clear when Jackson would be able to start his 30-month prison sentence.

Jackson was sentenced in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia after pleading guilty. Sheldon Snook, the administrative assistant to its chief judge, said today that he reviewed Jackson’s court docket and saw no change from a judgment entered in August indicating the former congressman shall surrender “no earlier than Nov. 1, 2013.” That is Friday....

The confusion over Jackson's whereabouts began Monday when his lawyer's spokeswoman said the ex-congressman had reported to prison. Bunnie Jackson-Ransom, an Atlanta publicist for Jackson lawyer C.K. Hoffler, said Jackson arrived at the Butner Federal Correctional Complex in North Carolina sometime after 2 p.m. Chicago time Monday. But McConnell, contacted late Monday afternoon, denied Jackson was in custody. And Ross cited the "inmate locator" on the prison system's website, which listed Jackson as "not in BOP custody" -- a status that remained as of 7 a.m. today Chicago time....

Jackson, 48, who was convicted of looting his campaign fund of $750,000, has been given an inmate number: 32451-016. Jackson is expected to join other high-profile felons at Butner. It is home to rogue financier Bernard Madoff; spy Jonathan Pollard; Omar Ahmad Rahman, the "blind sheik" convicted for plotting to blow up New York City landmarks; and Jon Burge, the former Chicago police commander under whose watch African-American suspects were tortured into making false confessions to rape and murder, records show....

Jackson, the son of civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson, reportedly has depression and bipolar disorder. Jackson Jr. pleaded guilty to stealing $750,000 from his campaign from 2005 to 2012 to pay for vacations, furs, celebrity memorabilia and even two elk heads. He was ordered to pay $750,000 in restitution. According to a court filing last week, the ex-congressman will pay $200,000 by Friday and then sell his Washington home. By May 15, attorneys will give the judge a report on how much he has paid.

Some prior related posts on Jackson prosecution and sentencing:

October 29, 2013 in Celebrity sentencings, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)