Thursday, December 19, 2013
Another high-profile insider trading conviction tees up another high-profile federal sentencing
As reported in this New York Times article, headlined "Former SAC Trader Is Convicted of Insider Trading," federal prosecutors got another notable conviction yesterday in a high-profile setting:
Prosecutors lacked the incriminating wiretaps that underpinned past insider trading cases. The emails pointed to no smoking gun. And the government’s star witness, a felon who testified to avoid prison time, fumbled his way through five days of cross-examination.
And yet a federal jury in Manhattan on Wednesday still convicted Michael S. Steinberg, the highest-ranking employee at SAC Capital Advisors to stand trial for insider trading. The verdict, delivered minutes after Mr. Steinberg, 41, fainted in the courtroom, underscored the futility of challenging the government’s crackdown on some of Wall Street’s most vaunted hedge funds.
On the eve of trial, prosecutors conceded that the case was not a slam dunk. But tapping into an anti-Wall Street sentiment — in opening arguments the lead prosecutor claimed that Mr. Steinberg broke the law “to get an illegal edge over ordinary investors who played by the rules” — apparently resonated with a jury of nine women and three men, including two accountants and a former postal worker.
The verdict hands the government a signature victory in its pincerlike pursuit of SAC, the giant fund run by the billionaire stock picker Steven A. Cohen. Coming just weeks after SAC pleaded guilty to insider trading charges and agreed to pay a record $1.2 billion penalty, Mr. Steinberg’s conviction further clouds the future of a firm that was once the envy of Wall Street. And it may also embolden federal authorities in their decade-long investigation of SAC.
Here are the post-conviction and sentencing basics noted in this article:
Judge Sullivan set Mr. Steinberg free on bail until his April 25 sentencing. Mr. Steinberg faces a maximum of 85 years in prison, but will almost certainly receive a sentence of only a few years. Mr. Steinberg’s lawyer, Barry H. Berke, did not immediately comment on the verdict but is expected to appeal.
Death Penalty Information Center releases annual report on capital punishment developments in 2013
This morning, the Death Penalty Information Center released its annual report on death penalty developments under the sparkling title, "The Death Penalty in 2013: Year End Report." The eight-page report is available at this link, and here are its list of "key findings" followed by the first part of the report's conclusion:
There were 39 executions in 9 states: only the second time in 19 years there were fewer than 40 executions.
There were 80 death sentences in 2013, a slight increase from 2012, but near the lowest number since 1973.
Maryland abolished the death penalty in 2013, the 6th state in six years to do so.
Public support for the death penalty reached its lowest level in 40 years.....
The number of executions, the size of death row, and the number of death penalty states all declined in 2013. Death sentences were near their lowest level since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. Even many southern states, including South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and Louisiana, had no death sentences in 2013. With Maryland’s repeal of capital punishment, the number of states without the death penalty grew to 18. Public support for the death penalty is at a 40-year low.
It is likely these trends will continue as more state legislatures consider repealing what has become a very expensive and unpredictable punishment. Nevertheless, over 3,000 people remain on death row, and some states like Florida and North Carolina have taken measures to expand the use of the death penalty.
The problems of mistakes, unfairness, and even the method of execution have exasperated many supporters of the death penalty, contributing to less reliance on capital punishment. Death sentences in Texas have declined by almost 80% since 1999. When examined on a county basis, only 2% of U.S. counties are responsible for the majority of executions and prisoners on death row. Because of restrictions by drug manufacturers, states have been forced to try new combinations of lethal drugs, some obtained from questionable sources, to carry out executions.
Though the DPIC's work is always impacted by its anti-death-penalty perspectives, I am always impressed by and grateful for the various ways the group collected and disseminates important information about the application of the death penalty throughout the United States.
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
"Plea Bargaining: Some Comparative Observations"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new (and notably short) piece providing a useful perspective on plea bargaining by Jacqueline Hodgson, a UK-affiliated author. Here is the abstract:
Plea and sentence bargaining is characterized by several general features that we might recognize as common across a range of jurisdictions and procedural traditions. It requires an admission of guilt from the accused; the accused is offered some reward, incentive or advantage, either in exchange for, or as a result of the plea; and there is some benefit to the criminal justice system -- typically the avoidance of a more lengthy and expensive contested trial. The point in the criminal process at which these negotiations are initiated, the personnel involved, and the relative incentives and benefits available will of course differ. In some instances, explicit bargains are struck between prosecutor and defense lawyer; in others, there is direct judicial involvement; and in others, the system benefit may operate as an implicit reward, without any explicit bargaining taking place.
Task force recommends broad changes to sentencing and corrections in Mississippi
As reported in this local article, headlined "Sweeping prison reforms suggested in Mississippi: More judicial discretion among proposals," there is now big talk about big reforms in The Magnolia State. Here are the details:
A criminal justice task force on Tuesday recommended sweeping reforms to reduce Mississippi’s soaring prison population and costs, standardize sentences and reduce recidivism. “This is the first time in my career — 32 years — that we have taken a comprehensive look at corrections in this state,” said Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps. “… We all know the cost of doing nothing.”
The recommendations include providing more discretion for judges to impose alternatives to prison and creating “true minimums” on when violent and nonviolent offenders are eligible for release. They also call for defining what constitutes violent crime — something officials said isn’t clear in state law. Proposals also include increasing the threshold from $500 to $1,000 for felony theft and lowering drug sentences for possession of small amounts while cracking down on large drug dealers.
Epps headed the bipartisan, 21-member task force of lawmakers, judges, prosecutors, law enforcement and defense attorneys. The group, after working for seven months with assistance from the Pew Charitable Trust’s Public Safety Performance Project, developed recommendations for the 2014 Legislature.
Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, House Speaker pro tem Greg Snowden and others voiced their support for the proposal after the task force adopted it. The task force was created by a bill Snowden authored this year. Bryant said the reforms “put victims first,” protect public safety and provide “clarity of sentencing.” Reeves praised the recommendations as “evidence-based, data-driven, fiscally sound criminal justice reforms.”
While the nationwide trend has been lower prison population, Mississippi’s has skyrocketed since it passed some of the toughest “truth in sentencing” laws in the 1990s. The state now has more than 22,600 prisoners and the second-highest incarceration rate in the nation. Prison costs have risen from $276 million in 2003 to $361 million, with unchecked growth expected to result in 2,000 more inmates and cost taxpayers another $266 million over the next 10 years.
The state has attempted unsuccessfully to reduce prison costs with a patchwork of release policies that created confusion in sentencing and a disconnect between the judges/prosecutors and corrections. Uncertainty about how long convicts would serve helped push sentence lengths by 28 percent the last decade....
State Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, said the proposed reforms are “historical,” and “create a better system as opposed to a build it (prisons) and they will come approach.”
Is there a real problem with animal cruelty federal sentences being way too short?
The question in the title of this post was my reaction to seeing this essay, titled "Vulnerable Victims: Increasing Animal Cruelty Sentences to Reflect Society's Understanding of the Value of Animal Lives," recently posted on SSRN. Authored by Adam Lamparello and Megan Boyd, here is the abstract for this essay:
More should be done to deter animal cruelty. Crush videos, which depict horrific acts of animal cruelty, should be banned. The advisory Guidelines range — as well as the five-year statutory maximum sentence for animal cruelty cases — should be substantially increased. Additionally, courts should continue to impose severe sentences upon those who subject animals to senseless and deadly violence. In so doing, the law will recognize the intrinsic value of animals as conscious, living creatures worthy of legal and constitutional protection.
Candidly, I am not sure I fully understand or approve why many or even any animal cruelty should be prosecuted in federal courts. Though I can imagine settings in which dog-fighting, cock-fighting and other inter-state economic activities based on animal abuse implicate important federal interests, the underlying animal cruelty strikes me as typically a distinctly local activity that ought generally (if not always) be prosecuted in local courts to better reflect local needs and interests. My sense is that there are lots of local variations on what is regarded as criminal treatment of animals (e.g., hunting pigeons in a New York City park likely will be viewed by the local community as much different than hunting pheasants in a South Dakota park). For such behavior, I always think local juries and local judges ought always be the primary, and perhaps the exclusive, assessors of criminality and what constitutes fair and effective punishment.
Tuesday, December 17, 2013
"Mom's Photos of Kids Rules 'Obsessive' but Not Pornography"
The title of this post is the headline of this interesting report from the New York Law Journal about an interesting state ruling concerning the definition of child pornography. Here are the details:
Brooklyn Family Court Judge Steven Mostofsky suggested in a recent decision that he knows what's not pornography when he sees it, and the images a camera-ready Brooklyn mother took of her kids are neither lewd nor obscene. Rather, Mostofsky said, they are the product of a mom who is perhaps a little too eager to capture the family's Kodak moments.
"Any parent knows that you cannot raise a child without making a mistake in judgment from time to time," Mostofsky wrote in Matter of CW, NN-02628-6/13. "And unless that mistake endangers your child or you violate a statute you have the right to correct your mistake without government interference in your family life."
The case began when a man lost his BlackBerry last April. The person who found it noticed that there were numerous photographs of naked children and turned it into police. That resulted in a bench warrant, an investigation by the Brooklyn district attorney and the removal of four children, ranging in age from 7 to 1 based on allegations that the parents had promoted a sexual performance by a child and possessed obscene images.
In one of the photographs, a 4-year-old girl is sleeping, with her legs splayed and her private parts visible. In another, a child is wearing nothing but boots that are far too big. And in another, a child apparently undergoing potty training is depicted in the bathroom with her pants down. Others show the children playing in the bathtub.
The Brooklyn District Attorney's Office executed a warrant and seized various electronic equipment from the parents' home, but did not charge the parents with a crime. Rather, several months later, the district attorney aided the Administration of Children's Services in filing a child abuse case against the parents based on the same photographs, according to court records. ACS alleged that the parents had sexually explicit photographs of their children and failed to cooperate with the agency in its investigation.
But at a hearing, there was no indication the children were in any jeopardy, Mostofsky said. The children's pediatrician, who had cared for the children since birth, said the family was "one of the most normal high functioning families" in his practice and he never saw any signs of abuse. Even the ACS caseworker testified that the children were not in an imminent danger....
The court dismissed the petition, finding no evidence that the parents violated any laws. Mostofsky said the photographs in question do not meet the definition of lewd and the parents did not promote obscene sexual performances.
What are the best and worst drugs for daily use by teens?
The title of this post is the (perhaps silly) question that came to my mind upon reading this new report on some new research headlined "Heavy Pot Use Linked To Memory Loss, Schizophrenia Link." Here are the basics:
Heavy pot users — smoking marijuana daily for three years — had abnormal changes in their brain structures related to working memory, U.S. researchers say. Lead study author Matthew Smith, an assistant research professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, said poor working memory predicts poor academic performance and everyday functioning.
The groups in the study started using marijuana daily at ages 16 to 17 for about three years. At the time of the study, they had been marijuana free for about two years. Almost 100 subjects participated, including matched groups of healthy controls, subjects with a marijuana use disorder, schizophrenia subjects with no history of substance use disorders and schizophrenia subjects with a marijuana use disorder. The subjects who used marijuana did not abuse any other drugs, the researchers said.
Of the 15 marijuana smokers who had schizophrenia in the study, 90 percent started heavily using marijuana before they developed the mental disorder. Marijuana abuse has been linked to developing schizophrenia in prior research, Smith said.
“The abuse of popular street drugs, such as marijuana, might have dangerous implications for young people who are developing or have developed mental disorders,” said co-senior study author Dr. John Csernansky of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
“This paper is among the first to reveal that the use of marijuana may contribute to the changes in brain structure that have been associated with having schizophrenia.”... The paper was published in the journal Schizophrenia Bulletin.
Modern brain science research has long had me convinced that it would be wise for everyone under the age of 25 to avoid all dangerous substances while their brains are still developing. Consequently, I am not at all surprised by a finding that daily use of marijuana could hurts developing brains. I wonder, though, whether it is likely to hurt developing brains more than daily use of alcohol or even some prescription drugs.
That said, I hope the relaxation of modern marijuana laws in many jurisdictions will facilitate a lot more serious scientific research on the various potential harms and benefits of the use and abuse of this widely-used and seemingly widely under-researched drug.
Cross posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.
"We wish you 70 years in prison, we wish you 70 years in prison, and an unhappy new life"
The title of this post is inspired by this local sentencing story and the song I could imagine in some Texas jurors' heads as they decided to "celebrate" the holiday season by sentencing a woman with a notably long and ugly criminal record to a notably long and harsh prison term. The story is headlined "Parker County 'Grinch' Sentenced to 70 Years in Prison," and here are the details:
A woman known as the Christmas “Grinch” for stealing Christmas lights from a Parker County family’s home was sentenced to 70 years in prison on Friday after she was convicted of a separate burglary.
Dana Brock, 44, of Hurst, shook her head when the judge read the jury’s sentence. Prosecutors pushed for a long sentence because of her lengthy criminal record.
Brock gained notoriety in December 2012 when she was caught on surveillance video stealing Christmas lights from outside a family’s Aledo home while they were inside sleeping. She was arrested again in May after she stole a weed wacker and a power washer from another homeowner’s garage. She also was caught on video in that case.
"One of our deputies who responded out to this case and looked at the surveillance video at the homeowner's house saw her on the video and said, 'Hey, that's the Grinch,’” said assistant Parker County district attorney Jeff Swain. “He knew right away who it was." A jury deliberated just five minutes before convicting her on Thursday.
In the sentencing phase of her trial, prosecutors pointed to her long criminal history. Brock’s record dates to when she was a 17-year-old and was convicted in Arizona of solicitation to commit murder. Over the years she also was convicted of credit card abuse, injury to a child, theft, assault, and drug possession. Instead of two to 20 years in prison for burglary of a habitation, she faced 25 years to life under the "three strikes and you're out" law.
She shook her head as the judge read her 70-year sentence. "A 70-year sentence will knock the air out of your stomach,” said her attorney Raul Navarez. “She kept asking me, '70 years? Are you serious? 70 years?' Because 70 years is a pretty harsh sentence for this kind of a deal. And quite frankly, that's what I argued to the jury. But the jury decided and we have to respect that."
Navarez and prosecutors agree it didn't help her case when jurors saw the video of her stealing Christmas lights. "When you're known as the Christmas Grinch, people do remember you,” Swain said.
I am unsure whether Texas law ensures that this version of the grinch will have to serve most or nearly all of these 70 years in prison, though this defendant's lengthy record of not-so-petty crimes leads me to be less than too-sympathetic concerning her fate. That said, if she is really as smart as the "real" Grinch, she probably will be able to figure out some way to catch "affluenza" while serving her time in Texas prisons and thereafter convincingly claims at a parole hearing that her heart and her conscience managed to grow three sizes one day while she was incarcerated.
National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty lists top capital stories from 2013
Regular reasons may recall that I am a sucker for end-of-year lists and reports, and thus I was excited to see that the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty has this extended blog post setting out a view of "important stories from 2013" concerning capital punishment in the United States. Here are the items on the list, and folks should click through to see the explanations provided by NCADP:
Maryland Repeals Death Penalty....
Death Penalty Support Drops....
New Report: 2% of Counties Responsible for Most Executions....
Reginald Griffin Exonerated....
Lethal Injection Drug Shortages Confound States....
Timely Justice Act Passes in Florida....
Texas Executes 500th Person....
Virginia Electrocutes Robert Gleason....
Delaware Senate Passes Repeal Bill....
U.N. Human Rights Council Passes Resolution on Behalf of Children of Death Row Prisoners....
I would add to this list the decision of the Supreme Court to finally take up the issue of permissible state procedures for implementing its Atkins Eighth Amendment ruling. But, since we will not get oral argument or a decision in this SCOTUS case until next year, I suppose this is more properly considered a 2014 story.
Monday, December 16, 2013
"Vermont's Chief Justice Is Speaking Out Against the Drug War: Is Anyone Listening?"
The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy and notable article I just came across from a Vermont independent paper, Seven Days. Here are excerpts:
In recent weeks, Vermont Chief Justice Paul Reiber has gone public with an unusually assertive critique of the war on drugs and the “tough on crime” approach that has defined criminal justice for decades.
Reiber, who holds an office in which occupants usually avoid saying anything remotely controversial, has stopped short of recommending policy or criticizing any individuals or government bodies. But in a pair of speeches and a brief interview with Seven Days, he has declared ineffective the current reliance on police and punishment, and touted the merits of treatment-based models for dealing with crime rooted in substance abuse.
“Even with our best efforts, we are losing ground,” Reiber told a crowd at Vermont Law School last month. “The classic approach of ‘tough on crime’ is not working in this area of drug policy. The public responds very well to this ‘tough on crime’ message, but that does not mean it’s effective in changing individual behavior. If the idea is law enforcement alone will slow and eventually eliminate drug use altogether, that isn’t going to happen … The criminal justice system can’t solve the drug problem.”
Experts note that Reiber’s stance isn’t exactly revolutionary, as judges across the country have become more comfortable in recent years speaking publicly about issues affecting the court system. But, backers say, his entrance into the politically fraught debate about drug policy lends a powerful voice to their cause....
Statistics from the Vermont judiciary show the root of Reiber’s concern. Felony filings have jumped nine percent in the past four years, and more than half of that spike came in the form of drug cases. Abuse and neglect cases, meanwhile, are up 33 percent in the same time frame. While difficult to pinpoint, experts say many of those cases are children suffering at the hands of drug-addicted parents. (Reiber said he recently observed a day in Addison County juvenile court, where the docket has grown in recent years, and watched parents who are about to be incarcerated give up their parental rights.)
But Reiber’s two speeches covered more than just Vermont’s swollen court docket. In his Boston speech, Reiber highlighted reforms in Portugal, which in 2001 abolished criminal penalties for possession of all drugs, and replaced incarceration with drug treatment. Vermont’s chief justice called the results of that experiment “astonishing,” citing a study from the libertarian Cato Institute showing that Portugal experienced a large drop in drug use and a spike in the number of people seeking treatment.
During that speech, Reiber even said that American drug courts — in which nonviolent defendants charged with drug possession are diverted out of the court system and given a chance to turn their lives around — don’t go far enough. Only broader changes, he said, will have an impact....
When asked if he supported a Portugal-style drug legalization in Vermont, Reiber demurred. “That’s not my job. That’s for somebody else to decide,” he said. But, as he is doubtless aware, Reiber’s job title assures his comments are assigned more importance by both insiders and the public.
You be the disparity judge: very different prison sentences for (similar?) fruadsters in different courts
One reason I never fully understand nor fully appreciate very aggressive efforts to try reduce sentencing disparities is because I never fully understand nor fully appreciate whether and when very different sentences for somewhat similar crimes represents warranted or unwarranted disparities. And these two notable headlines reporting on two notable white-collar sentences imposed today in two different courtrooms have me thinking about these matters yet again:
Here, respectively, are the basics of the crimes and punishments in these two cases taken from the above-link press accounts, the first of which is a report from a state court in Ohio:
Bobby Thompson, convicted mastermind of a national veterans charity scam that bilked donors out of an estimated $100 million, was sentenced to 28 years in prison this morning by Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Steven Gall. Thompson is a stolen identity used by John Donald Cody, 67, to set up the U.S. Navy Veterans Association, based in Tampa, which solicited donations in Ohio and 40 other states from 2002-2010.
Gall, who addressed Thompson as Mr. Cody, additionally levied a $6.3 million fine against Thompson, plus a $330,778 judgement to cover the cost of prosecution by the Ohio Attorney General. The judge said factors he considered in determining the sentence included the eight-year duration of Thompson's charity "charade," the amount of money swindled from donors, the efforts Thompson made to hide his identity, and Thompson's lack of remorse or acceptance of responsibility for his actions.
Citing the damage done to veterans who could have been aided by the money that Thompson's charity raised, Gall also ordered that Thompson spend each Veterans Day in solitary confinement for the duration of his prison term....
Prior to the sentencing Joseph Patituce, Thompson's attorney, had suggested a possible sentence of 14 years. After his client got twice that number, Patituce said Thompson still denies that he committed a crime and will appeal.... Patituce said Thompson's refusal to testify in the trial on his own behalf was pivotal. "If he would have testified the verdict would have been different," Patituce said.
Brad Tammaro, an assistant attorney general prosecuting the case, argued against Patituce's suggested 14-year sentence for Thompson, calling that sentence "totally inappropriate." Tammaro also said that "the evidence in the case demonstrates a complete lack of remorse" on the part of Thompson.
And now, from a federal court in Rhode Island:
A federal judge sentenced a Rhode Island lawyer to six years in prison Monday for his role in a $46 million investment fraud that preyed on terminally ill people, calling him the architect of the scheme and saying he didn't seem to recognize the harm he had caused.
Joseph Caramadre was sentenced in Providence after pleading guilty to wire fraud and conspiracy. His lawyers asked for two years in prison and two years in home confinement. Prosecutors sought 10 years. Judge William E. Smith also ordered Caramadre to perform 3,000 hours of community service to help the elderly and terminally ill. He put off the question of restitution because Caramadre's lawyer has objected to the amount.
Caramadre was a prominent lawyer and philanthropist. Prosecutors say he and former employee Raymour Radhakrishnan paid terminally ill people cash, passing it off as charity, then used their personal information to purchase bonds and annuities that would pay out when the person died.
Caramadre pleaded guilty last year but a few months later tried to withdraw his guilty plea. He testified during a hearing on that request that he had committed perjury when he pleaded guilty, prompting the judge to say at the time: "It's amazing to watch a defendant perjure himself by saying he committed perjury the first time." Smith turned down his request to withdraw his plea in May and ordered him immediately into custody.
On Monday, Caramadre stuck with his contention that the plea was a lie, telling the judge he could not say he was sorry for anything although he felt terrible if some terminally ill people felt the investment strategy was not explained to them. "I wish I could play the game," he said, referring to his lack of contrition.
Still, he said, he took responsibility for his guilty plea. Smith said Caramadre seemed to recognize that people were hurt but didn't seem to recognize that he was the one that hurt them.
To the extent I can understand these stories, it seems that many millions of dollars were lost in the fraud on veterans over many years, whereas apparently a lot less money was lost in the fraud on the terminally ill during a shorter period. Also, of course, one defendant was convicted after a lengthy (state) trial and the other was convicted after a (now regretted) federal plea.
Still, is there really any sound way for anyone to assess whether the huge disparity in these two fraud sentences imposed today, one of which is nearly five times as long as the others, are warranted or unwarranted? More broadly, does anyone think it problematic that one defendant was prosecuted in Ohio state court and thus subject to Ohio's sentencing laws that are much different than the other defendant was subject to as a result of his federal prosecution?
December 16, 2013 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (45) | TrackBack (0)
DOJ Inspector General stresses "growing crisis" from growth of federal prison population
Thanks to The Crime Report, I have just come across this recently released memorandum from the US Department of Justice's Inspector General detailing the IG's views on the "six challenges that ... represent the most pressing concerns for the Department." Notably, as the cover letter to the memorandum stresses, concerns about the growth of the prison population is at the very top of the IG's list:
Attached to this memorandum is the Office of the Inspector General's (OIG) 2013 list of top management and performance challenges facing the Department of Justice (Department), which we have identified based on our oversight work, research, and judgment. We have prepared similar lists since 1998. By statute this list is required to be included in the Department's Agency Financial Report.
This year’s list identifies six challenges that we believe represent the most pressing concerns for the Department. They are Addressing the Growing Crisis in the Federal Prison System; Safeguarding National Security Consistent with Civil Rights and Liberties; Protecting Taxpayer Funds from Mismanagement and Misuse; Enhancing Cybersecurity; Ensuring Effective and Efficient Law Enforcement; and Restoring Confidence in the Integrity, Fairness, and Accountability of the Department. While we do not prioritize the challenges we identify in our annual top management challenges report, we believe that one of the challenges highlighted this year, which we also identified in last year’s report, represents an increasingly critical threat to the Department’s ability to fulfill its mission. That challenge is Addressing the Growing Crisis in the Federal Prison System.
The crisis in the federal prison system is two-fold. First, the costs of the federal prison system continue to escalate, consuming an ever-larger share of the Department’s budget with no relief in sight. In the current era of flat or declining budgets, the continued growth of the prison system budget poses a threat to the Department’s other critical programs -- including those designed to protect national security, enforce criminal laws, and defend civil rights. As I have stated in testimony to Congress during the past year, the path the Department is on is unsustainable in the current budget environment. Second, federal prisons are facing a number of important safety and security issues, including, most significantly, that they have been overcrowded for years and the problem is only getting worse. Since 2006, Department officials have acknowledged the threat overcrowding poses to the safety and security of its prisons, yet the Department has not put in place a plan that can reasonably be expected to alleviate the problem.
Meeting this challenge will require a coordinated, Department-wide approach in which all relevant Department officials -- from agents, to prosecutors, to prison officials -- participate in reducing the costs and crowding in our prison system. In that respect, the challenge posed by the federal prison system is reflective of all of the challenges on our list: each is truly a challenge to be addressed by the Department as a whole, not just by individual Department components.
As a policy matter, of course, it is not too difficult to devise a set of long-advocated reforms that would effectively help with this crisis: fewer federal drug prosecutions, more use of alternatives to incarceration for low-level federal offenders, greater judicial authority to reduce more unjust crack sentences based on FSA reforms, expanded good-time credits, new earned-time credits, greater use of compassionate release mechanisms, and greater use of executive commutations. The problems is, as a political matter, few in the current Obama Administration seem eager or willing to go beyond just talking the talk about these issues.
Sunday, December 15, 2013
Is a "worst-case scenario" regarding marijuana reform and regulation already emerging in Colorado and Washington?
The question in the title of this post is my reaction to what strikes me as a "Chicken Little" comment appearing in this lengthy New York Times article about marijuana reform in Colorado and Washington. The article, which started on the front page of Saturday's Times is headlined "In 2 States, Corner Cannabis Store Nears Reality." And here are excerpts that provide some background and context for my query:
Starting early next year, any adult with a craving or curiosity will be able to stroll into a strip mall or downtown shop in Colorado or Washington State and do what has long been forbidden: buy a zip-lock bag of legal marijuana.
After landmark votes made marijuana legal for recreational consumption, users in these two states will no longer need doctors’ notes or medical reasons to buy the drug. Instead, they will simply show identification to prove they are at least 21, and with the cautious blessing of state and federal officials, they will be able to buy as much as an ounce of marijuana and smoke it in their living rooms.
It is a new frontier of drug legalization, one that marks a stark turn away from the eras of “Reefer Madness,” zero tolerance and Just Say No warnings about the dangers of marijuana. But it also raises questions about whether these pioneering states will be able to regulate and contain a drug that is still outlawed across most of the country — although medical marijuana can be sold legally in 20 states and the District of Columbia. The end of the prohibition of alcohol in the 1930s, by contrast, to which some historians and legal scholars are comparing this moment, came all at once across the nation.
On this never-traveled road, the outcome on many fronts is uncertain: Supporters predict an economic boom in new business activity, cannabis tourism and reduced public expense with fewer low-level drug offenders clogging jails and courtrooms.
Elected officials, parents’ groups and police chiefs worry that drug traffickers will exploit the new markets, that more teenagers will take up marijuana, and that two places with reputations for fresh air and clean living will become known as America’s stoner states.
Other states flirting with legalization are watching closely too, not least for the expected windfall in state revenue in stiffly taxing something that has never been taxed at all. Referendum drives modeled on Colorado and Washington are already underway for next year in Arizona, California, Oregon and Alaska, and others are expected to follow in 2016. So the pressures to get it right the first time, local and state officials said, are immense. “We are floating in uncharted waters here,” said Mayor Michael B. Hancock of Denver, where 149 businesses have applied to sell or grow retail marijuana.
Consider, for example, the strangely altered new role of the police, who in Washington are required to make sure all marijuana is of the legal, state-licensed variety. That could make for more crackdowns on illegal grow-and-sale operations, not fewer, a fact highlighted when federal agents raided several dispensaries in Colorado last month, smashing glass and hauling away hundreds of plants.
Practical questions about the legal, workaday drug trade have required reams of rules and regulations to answer: Should it be specifically taxed?... Can people give it away in public parks?...
But most important, Colorado and Washington must show skeptical federal authorities that they can control this new world of regulated marijuana, and keep it from flowing to underage consumers, into other states or into the grip of drug traffickers and violent cartels. Even as the Justice Department announced in August that it would not block states from regulating marijuana, it also warned that their enforcement rules “must be tough in practice, not just on paper.”
“We’re already seeing a worst-case scenario emerging,” said Kevin A. Sabet, an opponent of legalization and the co-founder of Project SAM, Smart Approaches to Marijuana. He said marijuana was already flowing from dispensaries into the hands of teenage users, and he predicted the social costs would only mount in the months ahead.
Though I genuinely hope that marijuana reform is successful in Colorado and Washington because it would provide more evidence that freedom and free markets tend to be superior public policy choices to big government, I am genuinely eager to see sensible and sober assessments of the on-the-ground pros and cons of what these two states are trying. But if anti-reform (or, for that matter, pro-reform) advocates are going to persistently scream that the sky is falling (or that all is nirvana), it is going to end up being very hard to come to a truly sound assessment of whether and how reform can be more or less successful.
In praise of sentencing and drug war coverage at The Atlantic and Reason.com
Thanks especially to columnists like Andrew Cohen and Jacob Sullum, sentencing fans need to make sure to make regular visits to The Atlantic and Reason.com. Below I provide just a sampling of what has appeared in these spaces over the last week.
From The Atlantic:
Saturday, December 14, 2013
"Freeing Morgan Freeman: Expanding Back-End Release Authority in American Prisons"
The title of this post is the title of this notable and important new piece by Frank Bowman now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This article, written for a symposium hosted by the Wake Forest Journal of Law & Policy on “Finality in Sentencing,” makes four arguments, three general and one specific.
First, the United States incarcerates too many people for too long, and mechanisms for making prison sentences less “final” will allow the U.S. to make those sentences shorter, thus reducing the prison population surplus.
Second, even if one is agnostic about the overall size of the American prison population, it is difficult to deny that least some appreciable fraction of current inmates are serving more time than can reasonably be justified on either moral or utilitarian grounds, and therefore American criminal justice systems ought to adopt mechanisms for identifying both individuals and categories of prisoners whose terms should be shortened.
Third, it is impossible, or at least unwise, to try to make “final” decisions — at least good final decisions — about how long someone should spend in prison at the beginning of the prison term, at least if that term is supposed to be very long. Thus, in cases where a long sentence is imposed, one ought not make the initial, front-end, judicial sentencing decision “final,” but should instead create mechanisms for one or more later second looks.
After exploring these contentions, I conclude that discretionary early-release mechanisms should be restored where they have been abandoned, and reinvigorated where they have languished. In particular, I propose instituting a discretionary back-end release mechanism for some categories of both federal and state long-sentence prisoners and I explore the political and institutional difficulties of doing so.
December 14, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack (0)
New guidelines for sentencing sex offenses promulgated in the UK
This notable new story from across the pond, headlined "Sex offences sentencing overhaul: More emphasis on long-term impact on victims as celebrities have fame used against them," highlights that sentencing rules in other nations also often get ratcheted up following public concern about too lenient sentences in high-profile cases. Here are the basics:
Celebrities who commit sex-offences could see their public image used against them when being sentenced as part of an overhaul of decade-old sentencing guidance for judges in England and Wales. Sex-offenders who are considered to have abused their position of power may be handed longer jail sentences when the guidelines come into effect in April 2014.
Previous “good character” may be considered as an aggravating factor when it has been used to commit a sexual offence, new guidelines drawn up by the Sentencing Council said. The guidelines cover more than 50 offences including rape, child sex offences and trafficking and focus more on the long-term and psychological impact on victims than the previous 2004 guidelines. They also introduce a higher starting point for sentences for offences such as rape of 15 years.
The new guidance was drawn up by the Sentencing Council after a public consultation and research was undertaken with victims groups, medical practitioners, police, NGOs, magistrates and judges. “Across the justice system, changes have been made to ensure that the alleged offenders' behaviour and the context and circumstances of the incident are scrutinised, rather than the credibility of the victim,” Chief Constable David Whatton, national policing lead for violence and public protection, said....
The guidelines come following a series of high-profile sex offence cases, including revelations about disgraced TV presenter Jimmy Savile, that lead to high numbers of sex attack victims coming forward. Cases involving grooming gangs in Rochdale and Oxford separately raised questions about social care and attitudes held towards victims....
While the Sentencing Council can recommend a starting point, offenders can still only receive the maximum sentence available at the time the offence was committed.
Friday, December 13, 2013
"Growing acceptance of marijuana no help to pot convicts serving life in the joint"
The title of this post is the (too clever?) headline of this notable new article from FoxNews.com. Here are excerpts:
John Richard Knock realizes he’ll likely die in a 12-by-10-foot cell in federal prison. Locked behind bars on a marijuana trafficking conviction, America's growing acceptance of the drug is cold comfort to the 66-year-old who was handed two life sentences, plus 20 years — for a first-time conviction.
“I don’t think about it, I just try and stay healthy,” Knock told FoxNews.com of his sentence via phone from the Allenwood Federal Correctional Complex in Pennsylvania. “I just wish society would look at this and say, ‘Hey is this fair?’”
The sentence makes Knock one of 3,278 prisoners recently identified by the American Civil Liberties Union who are serving life without parole for nonviolent drug and property crimes. Nearly four in every five were convicted of crimes involving drugs, including marijuana.
While Knock, who prosecutors said was part of an international marijuana trafficking scheme, has been serving his time, the drug has become increasingly accepted. Recreational use of marijuana is now legal in Colorado and Washington, and 15 other states have also eased restrictions, most for medical purposes. In October, for the first time, a Gallup poll found that a majority of Americans now favor legalizing the drug after reaching 50 percent in 2011....
But Knock and most others serving life for pot convictions were typically traffickers and not simply users, some experts note. Profiting from drugs — even marijuana — is a far cry from puffing on a joint, they say.
"Those who traffic in illegal drugs, who prey on our nation’s youth with poisons that destroy bodies, minds, and futures, should find no refuge in the criminal justice system," John Walters, who was drug czar under President Bush, wrote in a 2007 report. "Long prison terms, in many cases, are the most appropriate response to these predators."
Knock’s sister, Beth Curtis, started lifeforpot.com two years ago to raise attention to her brother’s plight and other prisoners facing similar fates. She hopes that society's changing views on marijuana could prompt a review of the sentences of her brother and others. “When public opinion reaches some kind of tipping point, I think most lawmakers will jump out in front of the issue,” she said. “I don’t see why they would find any value in continuing to oppose [legalizing marijuana] if their constituents want it legalized.”
Some attorneys contacted by FoxNews.com said Knock’s case is far from unique. Randall Brown Johnston, a Missouri-based criminal defense attorney who formerly worked as a prosecutor, recalled the case of Jeff Mizanskey, who was found guilty of possession of five pounds of marijuana in 1993 and was later sentenced to life without parole. “This was a brutal sentence,” Johnston told FoxNews.com. “Unfortunately, the difference between one judge and another can make all the difference. This judge was particularly harsh and had a reputation for that.”...
But Johnston also hopes the changing opinion of pot can lead to relief for people doing life for marijuana-related crimes. “There’s been a great change in public opinions about marijuana convictions,” he said. “It may take another 10 years for lawmakers to catch up and maybe go back and revisit the severity of the laws. But these laws are on the books right now and these are nonviolent people. It costs a huge amount of money to lock them up and people can go out and commit a murder or rape somebody and be sentenced to less.”...
Knock, meanwhile, takes some comfort from what happens outside of prison, even if it leaves him little hope of being free. His son, Aaron, 22, recently graduated from Columbia University in New York with an engineering degree.
Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that I think the Eighth Amendment can and should be a basis for defendants like Knock and Mizanskey to seek relief from their seemingly extreme LWOP sentences based on the "evolving standards of decency" that is supposed to inform the application of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments clause. Especially if (when?) a majority of states legalize medical and/or recreational marijuana, I think the case for an Eighth Amendment attack on extreme sentences for first-time marijuana dealers should become pretty compelling. But, as regular readers also know, I tend to have a much more dynamic view of how the Eighth Amendment should be understood than the vast majority of judges considering Eighth Amendment claims.
A few recent related posts:
- New ACLU report spotlights thousands of nonviolent prisoners serving LWOP terms
- New York Times op-ed asks "Serving Life for This?"
- "Sentenced to a Slow Death"
- What SCOTUS sentencing cases are you least thankful for?
SCOTUS grants cert to clarify required intent for federal bank fraud
As reported in this SCOTUSblog post, the Supreme Court this afternoon granted cert on two cases, one of which involves the required mens rea for federal bank fraud charges. Here is part of Lyle Denniston's summary of the case now officially before the Justices:
The Supreme Court agreed on Friday to clarify ... the kind of proof prosecutors must offer to get a conviction for bank fraud under federal law.... The bank fraud case is Loughrin v. United States....
The newly granted case on federal bank fraud involves a man, Kevin Loughrin, who was sentenced to three years in prison for engaging in a scheme to steal bank checks from peoples’ mailboxes, altering them and then using the checks to buy things at retail stores like Target and Wal-Mart, and then returning the merchandise for cash.
Prosecutors charted him with violations of two provisions of bank fraud law: defrauding a financial institution, and obtaining money from financial institutions by fraud. Both were apparently based on evidence that the checks were drawn on Bank of American and Wells-Fargo Bank and on three credit unions.
Loughrin’s lawyers tried to have the jury told that, in order for him to be convicted on either count, there had to be proof that he intended to defraud a bank or other financial institution....
The Tenth Circuit Court rejected his challenge. Under the bank fraud provision on which he was convicted, the Circuit Court ruled, it was enough that Loughrin had sought to defraud someone else — the retail stores — but there was no need for prosecutors to offer evidence of intent to defraud a bank directly.
Splitting 5-4 along party lines, SCOTUS vacates stay to allow Mizzou to complete novel execution
Distracted by other stories yesterday, I only now discovered that the US Supreme Court issued late Wednesday night this order (which, as I will explain below, strikes me as a pretty big deal):
The application to vacate the stay of execution of sentence of death entered by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit on December 9, 2013, presented to Justice Alito and by him referred to the Court, is granted.
Justice Ginsburg with whom Justice Breyer, Justice Sotomayor, and Justice Kagan join, dissenting.
I would deny the application to vacate the stay of execution entered by the Court of Appeals. See Bowersox v. Williams, 517 U.S. 345, 347 (1996) (GINSBURG, J., dissenting) (“At the very least, before acting irretrievably, this Court might have invited prompt clarification of the Court of Appeals’ [stay] order. Appreciation of our own fallibility, and respect for the judgment of an appellate tribunal closer to the scene than we are, as I see it, demand as much.”).
The start and end of this lengthy AP article about the execution which followed this SCOTUS ruling accounts for why I think this order is a pretty big deal:
Allen Nicklasson once recalled the "euphoria" he felt after fatally shooting a kindly businessman who stopped to help when he saw Nicklasson's car stalled on Interstate 70 near Kingdom City, Mo., in 1994.
Late Wednesday night, Nicklasson was put to death for Richard Drummond's killing — nearly 23 hours after he was originally scheduled to die. It was the second execution in Missouri in three weeks after a nearly three-year hiatus. Racist serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin was executed Nov. 20.
The executions also were the first since Missouri switched from a three-drug protocol to use of a single drug, pentobarbital. Nicklasson, 41, was pronounced dead at 10:52 p.m. Wednesday, eight minutes after the process began. His eyes remained closed throughout and he showed little reaction to the drug, briefly breathing heavily about 2 minutes into the process. He offered no final words....
Nicklasson's execution was originally scheduled for 12:01 a.m. Wednesday. But an appeals court panel granted a stay of execution Monday, citing concerns about his counsel at trial and sentencing in 1996.
When the full appeals court refused to take up the case Tuesday, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. It did not return its 5-4 decision to vacate the stay until 10:07 p.m. Wednesday, with Justices Ruth Ginsberg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissenting. Gov. Jay Nixon refused to grant clemency.
Missouri previously used a three-drug method for executions but changed protocols after drugmakers stopped selling the lethal drugs to prisons and corrections departments. The pentobarbital used in Missouri executions comes from an undisclosed compounding pharmacy — the Missouri Department of Corrections declines to say who makes the drug, or where.
My general sense and understanding is that it is relatively rare for the Supreme Court, especially at the last minute, to vacate a lower court's stay in a capital case, especially if and when that stay was entered by a circuit which does not have a long history of getting in the way of state executions. Moreover, in addition to the legal issues that led to the stay, I think the defendant here was also seeking a stay in order to be able to question and assail Missouri's new lethal injection drugs and method.
Given that the four more liberal Justices were obviously eager to allow the stay of this execution to remain in place, I find it notable and seemingly important that the more conservative Justices were able to get swing Justice Kennedy to vote to vacate the stay and enable the Mizzou execution to be carried out. Particularly given that, over the last few years, aggressive lower-court litigation has probably played more of a role in reducing the total number of executions than many other factors, I cannot help but wonder if this decision represents a kind of (indirect?) statement by a majority of the Supreme Court that, at least for brutal killers who've already gotten to live on death row for decades, enough is enough.
Especially because this SCOTUS order is only an order and has not generated much attention at all, I may be guilty of trying to make this decision more of a big deal than it is. Nevertheless, especially as another year filled with capital habeas litigation winds to a close, I cannot help be think this may be an interesting and telling sign of future SCOTUS capital rulings to come.
How can and should Ohio's justice system deal with merciful elderly aggravated murderer?
I suspect many folks engaged in debates over the wisdom of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions at least feel comfortable with the suggestion that persons convicted of first-degree murder ought to always be mandated to serve at least decades in prison. Indeed, many folks who advocate for the abolition of the death penalty do so by suggesting mandatory LWOP is the right alternative sentence for those deemed the worst kinds of killers under state homicide laws. Though lots of folks (myself included) are troubled by mandatory long prison terms for lower-level drug or gun offenses, lots of folks (myself included) are much less troubled by some mandatory prison requirements in the sentencing rules for how the justice system responds to the very worst intentional violent crimes.
But the provocative question in the title of this post is prompted by a sentencing story developing today in Ohio, which is explained in this AP report headlined "John Wise, attorney to seek clemency from governor in wife's hospital killing." Here are the details:
A man convicted of fatally shooting his ailing wife in her hospital bed will seek clemency from the governor after his sentencing Friday, even if the judge follows a prosecutor's recommendation for a lighter punishment because of the unique circumstances of the case.
John Wise, 68, has said he shot his debilitated wife out of love in August 2012 after she suffered an aneurysm and appeared to be in pain at an Akron hospital. Mercy is not a defense to a murder charge in Ohio. Wise, of Massillon, was convicted on charges including aggravated murder with a firearm specification, which could carry a life sentence.
Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh called Wise's actions illegal and dangerous but said the case warrants sentencing leniency. She has recommended that Wise be sentenced on a lesser crime and get a six-year term. "In light of the unique facts of this case, a shorter prison sentence is just," she said in a statement.
Whatever the sentence, the defense will pursue clemency from the governor and "will be seeking public support from those who sympathize with John and this situation," defense attorney Paul Adamson said in an email.
Judge Mary Margaret Rowlands in Akron has told attorneys the sentence must fit within legal limits. Neither side found previous case law to support the prosecutor's suggestion that the judge could sentence Wise to six years behind bars for manslaughter, a charge that wasn't among the counts against him but is considered a lesser included offense, Adamson said.
With charges merged for sentencing, it's also possible Wise could get a six-year term if the prosecution asks the judge to sentence him for felonious assault, one of three charges on which he was convicted. April Wiesner, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor, wouldn't say Thursday whether the office intends to pursue that option.
As my first-year Crim Law students know well, "Aggravated Murder" is Ohio's term for first-degree murder and Ohio sentencing law expressly provides that "Whoever is convicted of or pleads guilty to aggravated murder in violation of section 2903.01 of the Revised Code shall suffer death or be imprisoned for life...." Consequently, I am not aware of a sound legal basis for the prosecutor or judge in this case to recommend or impose any sentence other than an LWOP term for the aggravated murder charge. I surmise that the local prosecutor here may be asking for the judge not to sentence on that charge or to have it reduced or dismissed in some way before sentencing.
Ironically, I think the defendant and his lawyer here might want the sentencing judge to feel compelled to impose LWOP and thereby heighten the argument for some kind of clemency relief from Gov. Kasich. If the defendant here gets "only" six years in prison, I suspect it would be much easier for the Governor to leave such a sentence in place and conclude that justice for this murderer has already been tempered by mercy. Indeed, I am inclined to think that the prosecutor here has decided only to seek a six-year prison term for an aggravated murderer because she hope to bring a function end to this case at sentencing today rather than have to deal with a compelling clemency case if John Wise were to get an LWOP sentence.
UPDATE: This new AP report indicates that this aggravated murderer somehow received a sentence of only six years' imprisonment, as prosecutors had recommended:
An Ohio man convicted of fatally shooting his ailing wife in her hospital bed was sentenced Friday to six years in prison and plans to seek clemency from the governor....
The sentence issued by Summit County Court of Common Pleas Judge Mary Margaret Rowlands was in line with prosecutors' recommendation that the Massillon man receive a lighter punishment than the minimum 23 years on his most serious conviction, an aggravated murder count.
Holding a cane and wearing a striped jail outfit, Wise remained seated during the hearing. He made a brief statement, choking up as he apologized to his family and his son. He also thanked the prosecutors and the court.
Prosecutors said the case warranted leniency, but they emphasized that Wise's actions were illegal. "It is not our intention to minimize what happened. You cannot bring a loaded gun into a hospital and shoot someone," Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh said in a statement after the sentencing.
In court, Assistant Prosecutor Brian LoPrinzi told the judge: "We believe that although his motive may have been pure, he was wrong."
Wise's attorney, Paul Adamson, said they will pursue clemency from the governor and create an online petition for supporters to sign. He called the shooting "an aberrational act" for Wise. "I've never represented a finer man," Adamson told the judge. The prosecutor's office said it would oppose any reduction in Wise's punishment.
Among those at the sentencing was Liz Flaker, one of the jurors who convicted Wise after he pursued an insanity defense. She said the jurors, who deliberated for several hours, took two votes. The first was 9-3 in favor of conviction; the second was unanimous. "There was really no split, per se, but I think there were a couple of people that kind of wavered on ... thinking was he insane or was he not insane," Flaker said. "I think the way the law was written for the state of Ohio is a little bit hazy."
Prosecutors had recommended that Wise be sentenced to six years for manslaughter, a charge that wasn't among the counts against him but is considered a lesser included offense. After neither side found previous case law to support that unusual suggestion, the prosecution instead asked the judge to sentence Wise under his felonious assault conviction with a firearms specification, and the judge did so. Wise also was convicted of aggravated murder with a firearm specification and murder, which could have led to a life sentence.
Police say Wise calmly walked into the hospital room on Aug. 4, 2012, and shot his wife of 45 years at her bedside. She died the next day. Wise told police he intended to kill himself, too, but the weapon jammed.
December 13, 2013 in Clemency and Pardons, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)