Saturday, November 22, 2014

Notable comments from AAG about Justice Reinvestment

Earlier this week, Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason delivered these interesting remarks for DOJ's Office of Justice Programs at a big Justice Reinvestment Summit. The full speech is worth review, and here are a few excerpts I found noteworthy:

I think it can legitimately be said that justice reinvestment has transformed the way we approach public safety in this country.  It is no exaggeration to say that it has helped to redefine the missions of our criminal and juvenile justice agencies.  Thanks in great part to the focus that your work has given to justice policies, corrections leaders, law enforcement officials and prosecutors have begun to measure their performance, not just by the narrow metrics of arrests, convictions and confinement, but by actual improvements to public safety.

And this shift in attitude and approach is paying off.  Many states that have engaged in Justice Reinvestment have seen drops in crime rates and imprisonment — and substantial taxpayer savings.

Having just emerged from the recent mid-term elections, it’s worth remarking on another important aspect of justice reinvestment: it’s an approach to justice policy that resonates on both sides of the aisle.  We’ve seen lawmakers who disagree on just about every other policy matter rally around data-driven analysis focused on investing increasingly scarce public resources in programs and policies that work.

State and local governments, representing all political persuasions, have taken on major reforms designed to reduce prison-building costs and redirect precious public funds to programs aimed at reducing crime.  It can honestly be said that, in a climate of intense partisanship, we are witnessing the growth of a broad, bipartisan consensus in city halls, state capitals and Congress around crime and justice policy, thanks in great measure to justice reinvestment....

This progress is reflected in a general downward trend in both crime and incarceration rates throughout the country.  Before the FBI released its most recent data last week, crime had declined nationally by more than 11 percent since President Obama took office. The new FBI data show additional drops in 2013.  On top of that, the rate of incarceration has gone down by more than eight percent since 2009.  It’s the first time these two measures have fallen together in more than 40 years.  This is truly historic! We’re experiencing a moment of public safety unprecedented in most of our lifetimes.

But this is no time to relax.  Those of you who’ve been in this business for a while know that the winds of justice and sentencing policies have always blown hot and cold.  If we don’t take advantage of the momentum we’ve built through Justice Reinvestment and embed this data-driven mindset into mainstream practice, we risk a return to the counterproductive practices of the past.

In fact, truth be told, we are still two nations when it comes to prison trends. The extraordinary success in reducing incarceration that we’ve been able to realize in many states has been offset by continued increases in others.  Now, to be sure, these figures don’t reflect that some of the states with increases are now working through justice reinvestment to change course.  And I’m confident that now we have the wind at our back. But we will have to remain vigilant.

November 22, 2014 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, November 21, 2014

"'Power and Greed and the Corruptible Seed': Mental Disability, Prosecutorial Misconduct, and the Death Penalty"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Michael Perlin available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The Supreme Court’s death penalty jurisprudence is based in large part on the assumption that jurors can be counted on to apply the law in this area conscientiously and fairly. All our criminal procedure jurisprudence is based in large part on the assumption that prosecutors and judges will act fairly.  I believe that these assumptions are based on nothing more than wishful thinking, and that the record of death penalty litigation in the thirty-eight years since the “modern” penalty was approved in Gregg v. Georgia gives the lie to them.

This article focuses solely on the role of prosecutors in this process, and the extent to which prosecutorial misconduct has contaminated the entire death penalty process, especially in cases involving defendants with mental disabilities. This is an issue known well to all those who represent such defendants in death penalty cases but, again, there is startlingly little literature on the topic. It is misconduct that is largely hidden and ignored. The article begins with some brief background on issues that relate to the treatment of persons with mental disabilities in the criminal justice system in general. It then discusses prosecutorial misconduct and the outcomes of that misconduct, with special attention to a cohort of appellate decisions in unheralded and rarely (if ever) discussed published cases that, in almost every instance, sanction such misconduct. Next, it demonstrates how some prosecutors purposely flaunt the canons of ethics in the prosecution of defendants with mental disabilities in death penalty cases, and then will discuss some solutions raised by scholars to (at least, partially) cure this problems, and concludes with some modest suggestions of my own.

November 21, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (26) | TrackBack (0)

Ohio and Utah moving forward with distinct fixes for lethal injection drug problems

As reported in this two article, legislatures in Ohio and Utah are taking quite different approaches to the problems poised by the unavailability of some drugs historically used for lethal injection executions.  The headlined of these stories highlight the basics:

From the Wall Street Journal here, "Ohio House Passes Bill Shielding Execution Drugmakers: Measure Would Add Layers of Secrecy to Death-Penalty Procedures." 

From the Salt Lake Tribune here, "Firing squad executions back on the table in Utah Legislature"

November 21, 2014 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Unpacking why DOJ is so concerned about federal prison populations and its costs

As highlighted in this effective piece by Andrew Cohen published by The Marshall Project, earlier this month Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s Inspector General (and a former member of the US Sentencing Commission), authored this memorandum describing DOJ's concerns with federal prison overcrowding and costs. These excerpts from Cohen's piece highlight some of the Horowitz memo's most notable messages:

The Bureau of Prison’s budget now ($6.9 billion) is nearly twice what it was ($3.8 billion) in 2000, Horowitz tells us, an increase at “almost twice the rate of growth of the rest of the Department.” Worse, he writes, even though federal prison officials have been warned that their part of the budget is draining funding away from other Justice Department programs (like those that support victims groups) they asked for more money this past budget cycle....

Horowitz didn’t mince words, either, about what is costing so much. The federal prison population is aging at a fast pace. “From FY 2009 to FY 2013, the population of sentenced inmates age 50 and over in BOP-managed facilities increased 25 percent, while the population of sentenced inmates under the age of 30 decreased by 16 percent,” he notes. As a result, “the cost for providing healthcare services to inmates increased 55 percent from FY 2006 to FY 2013.”...

If you think the facts and figures above are disconcerting, the numbers Horowitz offers about conditions within our federal prisons are even more dire. Prison overcrowding, he asserts, is “the most significant threat to the safety and security of Bureau of Prisons staff and inmates”.... When it comes to easing overcrowding it’s clear that Horowitz believes we are headed in the wrong direction, which is another reason why he keeps calling current conditions at the Bureau of Prisons “a crisis.”

To bring the ratio of inmate to space available to appropriate levels, to eliminate the overcrowding “without expending additional funds to build more federal prison space or to contract for additional non-federal bed space,” Horowitz says that the Justice Department “would have to achieve a net reduction of about 23,400 federal prisoners from the June 2014 prison population...” That’s more than ten percent of the current population. Can you imagine? I can’t.

November 21, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Significant sentencing reform afoot in Michigan

As reported in this Detroit News article, headlined "Michigan prison sentence reforms gain momentum," the Great Lakes state is moving toward some significant sentencing changes. Here is how the article starts:

State lawmakers are poised to act on a legislative package that would reduce some prison sentences, making it potentially the biggest issue — besides a road tax increase — they may consider when they return from a two-week recess.

The package of bills calls for a state commission to adjust tough sentencing policies adopted in 1998 that crowded prisons and sharply increased corrections spending. The legislation is aimed at reducing crime while reining in the state's $2 billion prison budget through sentencing, parole and probation reforms. It has moved quickly toward a House vote in the lame-duck session.

The vision is for the number of prisoners to decline over time, and for all released prisoners to receive supervision. The number of inmates incarcerated by the state has dropped below 44,000 from a high of 51,554 in March 2007, and cost increases have moderated because of policy changes and the contracting out of some prison services to private companies.

But Republican Rep. Joe Haveman of Holland, point man for the proposed reforms, said he sees potential for even more downsizing of the sprawling prison system. Corrections Department Director Dan Heyns "has done a fantastic job of getting at the low-hanging fruit through policies and cost savings ... but you can't save your way to a low-cost prison system," Haveman. "The only way you can get more long-term savings is to close a prison."

Attorney General Bill Schuette said he has "grave concerns" with some key proposals in the bills that he feels could "open the door to parole for some violent offenders at the earliest possible date."

The legislation is getting a boost from House Speaker Jase Bolger, a Marshall Republican who over the weekend shared on his Facebook page a column by GOP former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich that lauded Michigan's sentencing reform package and suggested it was "getting it right on crime."

November 20, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Hoping to help Kickstart a notable new death penalty documentary

I am eager to promote widely an important film project from some folks in London focused on modern US death penalty stories. (I am partial to the project in part because one of my former students, Allen Bohnert, OSU Moritz College of Law grad ('06), is one key subject being documented in his role as current lead counsel in the long-running Section 1983 litigation over Ohio's lethal injection protocols.)

This notable project is still in production, and the filmmakers are currently fundraising for financial support to help allow them to finish filming.  The Kickstarter campaign is available here; lots of interesting items are available (such as signed copies of Bryan Stevenson's book, Just Mercy, one-off pieces of art and the film itself) for any donation over $25.  I have been told that they will not be able to effectively finish this film without additional help for further funding.

The film itself is titled The Penalty, and it is to be a 90-minute feature documentary examining the current state of America's capital punishment system.  While some other documentaries have focused on death row stories through the lens of condemned prisoners, this film is focused more on people involved not on the row: lawyers, family members, politicians, campaigners, law enforcement, and others. A snippet from some filming so far is available at www.thepenaltyfilm.com.

I understand that the filmmakers have been particularly focused on following (1) my former student, Assistant Federal Public Defender for the Southern District of Ohio Allen Bohnert, through Ohio's problematic execution of Dennis McGuire and its fallout, and (2) Louisiana death row exoneree Damon Thibodeaux as he tries to put his life back together after his wrongful conviction and later exoneration. I believe the filmakers are also incorporating lots of other characters from the capital punishment universe, including many experts in the field such as Debby Denno, Jeanne Woodford, David Dow, Kathryn Kase, Peter Neufeld, Richard Dieter and Clive Stafford-Smith.

Finally, I have been told that anyone has any ideas on stories that the filmmakers should look at, or have ideas for people they should be sure to talk to (e.g., grant-giving foundations, media outlets, campaign groups), they filmakers are eager to spread their network far and wide, and you can pass on ideas by emailing laura@reelnice.co.uk or will@reelnice.co.uk.

Cross-posted at PrawfsBlawg.

November 20, 2014 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Film, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

"The Racist Origins of Felon Disenfranchisement"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent New York Times commentary by Brent Staples. Here are excerpts:

The state laws that barred nearly six million people with felony convictions from voting in the midterm elections this month date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Southern lawmakers were working feverishly to neutralize the black electorate.  Poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses and cross burnings were effective weapons in this campaign.  But statutes that allowed correctional systems to arbitrarily and permanently strip large numbers of people of the right to vote were a particularly potent tool in the campaign to undercut African-American political power.

This racially freighted system has normalized disenfranchisement in the United States — at a time when our peers in the democratic world rightly see it as an aberration. It has also stripped one in every 13 black persons of the right to vote — a rate four times that of nonblacks nationally.  At the same time, it has allowed disenfranchisement to move beyond that black population — which makes up 38 percent of those denied the vote — into the body politic as a whole.  One lesson here is that punishments designed for one pariah group can be easily expanded to include others as well....

Maine residents vigorously debated the issue last year, when the Legislature took up — and declined to pass — a bill that would have stripped the vote from some inmates, whose crimes included murder and other major felonies.  Families of murder victims argued that the killers had denied their loved ones the right to vote and therefore should suffer the same fate.

Those who opposed the bill made several arguments:  That the franchise is enshrined in the state Constitution and too important to withdraw on a whim;  that voting rights keep inmates connected to civic life and make it easier for them to rejoin society;  that the notion of restricting rights for people in prison was inconsistent with the values of the state.

A former United States marshal and police chief argued that revoking inmate voting rights would strip imprisoned people of dignity and make rehabilitation that much more difficult. The editorial page of The Bangor Daily News argued against revocation on the grounds that, “Removing the right of some inmates to exercise their legal responsibility as voters in a civilized society would undermine that civilized society.”

The fact that most states view people who have served time in prison as beyond the protection of the bedrock, democratic principle of the right to vote shows how terribly short this country has fallen from achieving its ideals.

November 20, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

"Overcriminalization: Administrative Regulation, Prosecutorial Discretion, and the Rule of Law"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Ronald Cass now available on SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Recently, both practical and doctrinal changes have significantly reduced the degree to which criminal punishment fits rule-of-law ideals.  Although far from the only cause, the expansion of criminal sanctions as a by-product of an extraordinary explosion in administrative rulemaking that is backed by criminal liability has helped propel this change.  While there are reasons to support criminal enforcement of administrative decision-making, the ways in which administrative rules are adopted, applied, and enforced and the scale of governmental law-making (including administrative rule-making) that has provided the grounds for potential criminal penalties have produced a massive increase in government power that risks serious erosion of individual liberty.

This change cries out for immediate attention ― and for changes to the law.  This article explores differences between criminal law and administrative law, and between statutory and administrative rule generation and application, explaining how differences between administrative law and criminal law play out (problematically) with respect to much criminal enforcement of administrative rules.

November 20, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Some recent highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

It has been a few weeks since I have done a round up of notable new posts from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform, so here goes: 

November 19, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Preparing for pot professing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

"Death, Desuetude, and Original Meaning"

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

One of the most common objections to originalism is that it cannot cope with cultural change. One of the most commonly invoked examples of this claimed weakness is the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, whose original meaning would (it is argued) authorize barbaric punishment practices like flogging and branding, and disproportionate punishments like the death penalty for relatively minor offenses. This Article shows that this objection to originalism is inapt, at least with respect to the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause. As I have shown in prior articles, the original meaning of “cruel and unusual” is “cruel and contrary to long usage,” or “cruel and new.” The primary purpose of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause is to prevent legislatures and courts from imposing new punishments that are unduly harsh in light of the long usage of the common law.

This Article demonstrates that the Clause also incorporates the common law doctrine of desuetude, which holds that a once traditional punishment can become “unusual” if it falls out of usage long enough to show a stable multigenerational consensus against it. State courts and the Supreme Court of the United States employed this doctrine in decisions prior to 1958 to determine whether punishments such as ducking of a common scold, execution accompanied by torture, and imprisonment at hard labor for a minor offense were cruel and unusual. Under the original meaning of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, the death penalty could become unconstitutional if it fell out of usage long enough to show a stable, multigenerational consensus against it. This process already occurred with respect to flogging, branding, and execution for relatively minor crimes like theft, and under the constitutions of states that abolished the death penalty several generations ago.

November 19, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Massachusetts special commission urges repeal of all drug mandatory minimums

DownloadAs reported in this local article, "a special commission studying the state's criminal justice system recommended eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for all drug offenses in Massachusetts."  Here is more about the commission's work and recommendations to date:

The commission also voted to recommend parole eligibility for all state prison sentences after an inmate has served at least two-thirds of the lower end of their sentence, except in cases of murder or manslaughter, and to maintain the current parole eligibility standards in houses of correction of half-time served on sentences of 60 days or more.

The commission, formed over two years ago, is trying to produce an in-progress report before the end of the year to inform Governor-elect Charlie Baker's administration. Baker, during his campaign for governor, voiced support for striking mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses as part of a broader approach to combat substance abuse.

The Special Commission to Study the Commonwealth's Criminal Justice System on Tuesday began debating legislative recommendations members plan to make to strengthen post-release supervision, improve prisoner reentry outcomes and reduce recidivism, and address overcrowding in the state's jails and prisons.

"Drug offenses are a huge reason we have so much overcrowding in the prison system," said Patty Garin, a criminal defense attorney and co-director of the Northeastern University Law School Prisoners Assistance Program. Garin and other commission members argued judges should be able to practice evidence-based sentencing, and suggested mandatory minimums disproportionately impact poorer communities and communities of color.

The 9-2 vote, with Attorney General Martha Coakley's representative abstaining, came over the objections of Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe, who sits on the commission. O'Keefe did not attend Tuesday's meeting, but submitted a letter expressing his opposition and later told the News Service that mandatory minimums are a tool prosecutors "use and use very effectively to stem the flow of drugs into communities."

"We utterly reject this notion that the criminal justice system is warehousing these non-violent drug offenders. That simply is not the case. People have to work extremely hard to get themselves into jail here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts," O'Keefe said.

The commission was formed by Gov. Deval Patrick and the Legislature in 2012, and Undersecretary of Criminal Justice Sandra McCroom said she hopes to publish a report by the end of the year, though she acknowledged that all of the commission's work likely won't be completed by then. Patrick has also reconstituted the Sentencing Commission, which has met twice over the past two months and whose work could coincide with the criminal justice commission's recommendations....

Public Safety Secretary Andrea Cabral, who does not have a vote on the commission, said she would have carved out an exception from the mandatory minimum recommendation for trafficking crimes. While supporting enhanced drug treatment options, she said not all people convicted of drug offenses are struggling with addiction, and some are driven by money. "I think there should be a line drawn on trafficking," Cabral said.

Others on the commission, including Garin and Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel at the Committee for Public Counsel Services, argued that judges should be given discretion even in trafficking cases, expressing confidence that harsh sentences will be issues for those who deserve them. Worcester County Sheriff Lewis Evangelidis, a Republican, and a staff member representing Judiciary Committee Vice Chairman Rep. Chris Markey (D-Dartmouth) voted against the recommendation to do away with mandatory minimum sentences. "To me it's overreaching and too broad," said Evangelidis, a former state representative....

O'Keefe, the recent past president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, expressed concern that if the Legislature were to eliminate mandatory minimum drug sentences, the courts would see defendants shopping for more lenient judges to avoid prison time. "Mandatory minimum sentences came into being in the first place to ensure relative uniformity in the sentencing of individuals distributing drugs," O'Keefe said....

Attorney General-elect Maura Healey has also backed ending mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses, and during her campaign called for expanding the use of drug courts.

November 19, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Missouri completes ninth execution of 2014

As reported in this AP piece, headlined "Missouri Executes Leon Taylor for 1994 Killing," the Show Me state showed another murderer that death sentences still get carried out in Mizzou. Here are the basic details:

A man who killed a suburban Kansas City gas station attendant in front of the worker's young stepdaughter in 1994 was put to death early Wednesday -- the ninth execution in Missouri this year.

Leon Vincent Taylor, 56, was pronounced dead at 12:22 a.m. at the state prison in Bonne Terre, minutes after receiving a lethal injection. With Taylor's death, 2014 ties 1999 for having the most executions in a year in Missouri.

Taylor shot worker Robert Newton to death in front of Newton's 8-year-old stepdaughter during a gas station robbery in Independence, Missouri. Taylor tried to kill the girl, too, but the gun jammed.

Taylor's fate was sealed Tuesday when Gov. Jay Nixon declined to grant clemency and the U.S. Supreme Court turned down his appeal. His body covered by a white sheet, Taylor could be seen in the execution chamber talking to family members through the glass in an adjacent room. Once the state started injecting 5 grams of pentobarbital, Taylor's chest heaved for several seconds then stopped. His jaw went slack and he displayed no other movement for the rest of the process.

Four of Taylor's family members sat in a room to his left and looked on without reaction as the drug killed Taylor in about eight minutes. At a time when lethal injections have gone awry in Oklahoma, Ohio and Arizona and taken an extended period to kill an inmate, Taylor's execution went off without any visible hitches or complications with the drug or equipment.

In a final statement, Taylor apologized to Newton's family because "our lives had to entwine so tragically" and thanked his family for their support and love. "I am also sorry to have brought all of you to this point in my life to witness this and/or participate," Taylor said. "Stay strong and keep your heads to the sky."

Speaking to reporters after the execution, Newton's brother, Dennis Smith, noted that it had been about 7,500 days since the killing and said the family has missed Newton every one of them. Smith described Newton as a hard worker, generous and with a memorable laugh. At times, Smith paused to compose himself as tears rolled down his cheeks. "It would just take a coward to want to hurt someone like him," Smith said.

November 19, 2014 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ninth Circuit upholds injunction, on First Amendment grounds, blocking California law requiring sex offenders to report report online activities

As reported in this Bloomberg story, "California can’t enforce a law to combat sex trafficking because it tramples on free speech rights of sex offenders by requiring them to report online activities, such as their Twitter, e-mail and chatroom accounts, a U.S. appeals court ruled." Here are more of the ruling's basics via the press:

The San Francisco-based court today upheld a judge’s decision to block enforcement of a voter-approved law that was backed by former Facebook Inc. (FB) executive Chris Kelly and garnered support from more than 80 percent of California voters in 2012.

The measure, known as Proposition 35, isn’t clear about what accounts or Internet service providers offenders are required to report and targets online speech that could include blogging about politics and posting comments on news articles, the appeals court’s three-judge panel said today.

The law also harms sex offenders’ ability to engage in anonymous speech because it allegedly allows police to disclose their online identities to the public, the court said. Failure to report on Internet activity can lead to criminal sanctions.

A requirement that registered sex-offenders notify police within 24 hours of using a new Internet identity chills activity protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, U.S. Circuit Judge Jay S. Bybee wrote in the unanimous ruling.

The ruling in Doe v. Harris, No. 13-15263 (9th Cir. Nov. 18, 2014) (available here), officially gets started this way:

California law has long required registered sex offenders to report identifying information, such as their address and current photograph, to law enforcement.  Cal. Penal Code §§ 290.012, 290.015.  The Californians Against Sexual Exploitation (“CASE”) Act sought to supplement and modernize these reporting obligations by requiring sex offenders to provide “[a] list of any and all Internet identifiers established or used by the person” and “[a] list of any and all Internet service providers used by the person.” Id. § 290.015(a)(4)–(5).  The Act also requires registered sex offenders to send written notice to law enforcement within 24 hours of adding or changing an Internet identifier or an account with an Internet service provider (“ISP”). Id. § 290.014(b). 
Appellees Doe, Roe, and the nonprofit organization California Reform Sex Offender Laws filed a complaint alleging that the CASE Act infringes their freedom of speech in violation of the First Amendment.  Appellees filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, which the district court granted.  Kamala Harris, the Attorney General of California, and Intervenors, the proponents of the CASE Act, appeal.  We hold that the district court did not abuse its discretion by enjoining the CASE Act. Accordingly, we affirm.

November 18, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack (0)

"Does Prison Privatization Distort Justice? Evidence on Time Served and Recidivism"

The title of this post is the title of this very interesting article with empirical research on private prisons and time served. The piece, authored by Anita Mukherjee and now available via SSRN, has this abstract:

I contribute new evidence on the impact of private prisons on prisoner time served and recidivism by exploiting the staggered entry and exit of private prisons in Mississippi between 1996 and 2004. Little is known about this topic, even though burgeoning prison populations and an effort to cut costs have caused a substantial level of private contracting since the 1980s. The empirical challenge is that prison assignment may be based on traits unobservable to the researcher, such as body tattoos indicating a proclivity for violent behavior.

My first result is that private prisons increase a prisoner's fraction of sentence served by an average of 4 to 7 percent, which equals 60 to 90 days; this distortion directly erodes the cost savings offered by privatization. My second result is that prisoners in private facilities are 15 percent more likely to receive an infraction (conduct violation) over the course of their sentences, revealing a key mechanism by which private prisons delay release. Conditional on receiving an infraction, prisoners in private prison receive twice as many. My final result is that there is no reduction in recidivism for prisoners in private prison despite the additional time they serve, suggesting that either the marginal returns to incarceration are low, or private prisons increase recidivism risk.

These results are consistent with a model in which the private prison operator chooses whether to distort release policies, i.e., extend prisoner time served beyond the public norm, based on the typical government contract that pays a diem for each occupied bed and is imperfectly enforced.

November 18, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

"Criminal Sentencing Reform: A Conversation among Conservatives"

Thanks to this post by Bill Otis at Crime & Consequences, I see that the Federalist Society recent National Convention included a panel discussion on sentencing reform, which can now be watched in full via YouTube at this link.  Here is how the discussion is described along with its participants:

Although prison populations at the federal level have very recently declined for the first time in decades, prisoner population at the state level rose.  The cost of crime, some that can be measured and some that are impossible to measure, is undoubtedly high, but so too is the cost of incarceration.  Are we striking the right balance in length of sentences?  And what is the proper balance between latitude and sentencing guidelines for judges?  Do the answers to these questions differ for the state versus the federal criminal justice system?

The Federalist Society's Criminal Law & Procedure Practice Group presented this panel on "Criminal Sentencing Reform: A Conversation among Conservatives" on Friday, November 14, during the 2014 National Lawyers Convention.

For a host of reasons, I am very pleased and impressed that the Federalist Society brought together a bunch of leading conservatives with various viewpoints to discuss these issues at their National Lawyers Convention. (It would have been nice to have had more than a single panelist who was not a former senior official with the Bush Administration's Justice Department, but I suspect it might be hard to find many conservatives who know a lot about sentencing who were not part of the Bush Administration's Justice Department.)

November 18, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Wonderful new on-line resource, Collateral Consequences Resource Center, now available

Header-mainI am very pleased to be able to report on a very important addition to the criminal justice on-line universe, the Collateral Consequences Resource Center.  This posting by Margy Love provides this background and something of a mission statement:

The Collateral Consequences Resource Center website launches on Tuesday, November 18, 2014.  We hope it will fill a growing need for information and advice about the modern phenomenon of mass conviction and the second-class citizenship it perpetuates.

The legal system is only beginning to confront the fact that an increasing number of Americans have a criminal record, and the status of being a convicted person has broad legal effects.  The importance of collateral consequences to the criminal justice system is illustrated by cases like Padilla v. Kentucky (2010), holding that defense counsel have a Sixth Amendment obligation to advise clients about the possibility of deportation.  Civil lawyers too are mounting successful constitutional challenges to harsh consequences like lifetime sex offender registration, categorical employment disqualification, and permanent firearms dispossession, which linger long after the court-imposed sentence has been served.  Government officials have tended to regard collateral consequences primarily as a law enforcement problem involving the thousands leaving prison each year, but they are now considering how to deal with the lifetime of discrimination facing the millions who have long since left the justice system behind.  Advocates are pointing out how counterproductive and unfair most mandatory collateral consequences are, and legislatures are paying attention.  People with a record are organizing to promote change.

The time is right to launch the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, which will bring together in a single forum all of these diverse interests and issues.  The Center’s goal is to foster public discussion and disseminate information about what has been called the “secret sentence.”  Through its website the Center will provide news and commentary about developments in courts and legislatures, curate practice and advocacy resources, and provide information about how to obtain relief from collateral consequences in various jurisdictions.  The Center aims to reach a broad audience of lawyers and other criminal justice practitioners, judges, scholars, researchers, policymakers, legislators, as well as those most directly affected by the consequences of conviction.  It invites tips about relevant current developments, as well as proposals for blog posts on topics related to collateral consequences and criminal records: staff@CCResourceCenter.org.

Impressively, this new web resource (which I guess I will call CCRC) has a ton of terrific content already assembled at webpages dedicated to State-Specific Resources, Books and Articles, and Reports and Studies.  And here are links to a few recent notable blog postings:

November 18, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Marshall Project investigation, "Death by Deadline," looks at capital appeals impact of AEDPA

As noted here yesterday, The Marshall Project, an important new reporting outlet focused on criminal justice issues, is now running full steam and has now lots of notable new content on its slick website. And the big first feature from The Marshall Project is a lengthy two-part investigative report titled "Death by Deadline" focused on the legal and practical impact of the capital appeal restriction in the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty ACt (AEDPA).  Below are links and key passages from each part of the report.

Part One: How bad lawyering and an unforgiving law cost condemned men their last appeal:

An investigation by The Marshall Project shows that since President Bill Clinton signed the one-year statute of limitations into law — enacting a tough-on-crime provision that emerged in the Republicans' Contract with America — the deadline has been missed at least 80 times in capital cases. Sixteen of those inmates have since been executed — the most recent on Thursday, when Chadwick Banks was put to death in Florida.

Part Two: When lawyers stumble, only their clients fall:

[A]n investigation by The Marshall Project has found that in at least 80 capital cases in which lawyers have missed the deadline — sometimes through remarkable incompetence or neglect — it is almost always the prisoner alone who suffers the consequences.

Among the dozens of attorneys who have borne some responsibility for those mistakes, only one has been sanctioned for missing the deadline by a professional disciplinary body, the investigation found.  And that attorney was given a simple censure, one of the profession's lowest forms of punishment. The lack of oversight or accountability has left many of the lawyers who missed the habeas deadlines free to seek appointment by the federal courts to new death-penalty appeals.

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

Investigation reveals "mandatory" Minnesota gun sentence not imposed in majority of cases

635518507863570129-sent-5This interesting local investigative press report from Minnesota provides further evidence that mandatory minimum sentencing schemes are rarely applied consistently or evenly.  The article is headlined "Mandatory sentences not always the case for Minnesota gun crimes," and here are excerpts:

Hennepin County judges have come under fire recently for their sentencing habits. Several top Minneapolis leaders are claiming some judges are soft on gun crimes, allowing dangerous criminals back on the streets when they could be in prison. To separate fact from fiction, KARE 11 Investigators analyzed every sentence for every felony gun crime during the past three years. We found that judges do not hand down mandatory minimum sentences in the majority of gun crime cases.

Under Minnesota law there is a mandatory minimum amount of time criminals who use a gun should be sentenced to serve in prison. But our KARE 11 investigation found the amount of time they are sentenced to prison, if they get prison time at all, varies greatly from court to court and judge to judge....

Our analysis of sentencing data provided by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission reveals in gun cases across all of Minnesota, judges give less than the mandatory minimum sentence 53% of the time. In Hennepin County, that jumps to 56%. Judge Richard Scherer, Judge Susan Robiner, Judge Mark Wernick, Judge Joseph Klein and Judge Daniel Moreno downward depart from mandatory sentencing in felony gun cases in more than two thirds of the cases they oversee. "And that's too much" said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman.

Freeman's office routinely butts heads with district judges when it comes to sentencing in gun cases, especially when the conviction is for a felon being in possession of a handgun. On average in Minnesota, prosecutor's object to a judge's reduced sentence in gun cases only 12% of the time. But in Hennepin County, it happens in nearly 30% of gun cases. "I think the numbers speak for themselves. There's a different climate on this bench than there is elsewhere in this state," said Freeman.

But 4th District Chief Judge Peter Cahill disagrees. He says judges cannot be a rubber stamp for police and prosecutors, and the most important thing for them is to be fair and impartial. "We can't worry about stats," said Cahill. When KARE 11 Investigative reporter A.J. Lagoe asked Chief Judge Cahill if mandatory did not mean mandatory in Minnesota, Cahill responded, "not really." He says calling the state's mandatory minimum sentences mandatory is a "bit of a misnomer."

Cahill said the issue is very complex, and added "If you read the statute specifically, the legislature gave the court the ability to depart from the gun sentencing scheme." There is a section in Minnesota's minimum sentencing law that allows judges to disregard mandatory sentencing in gun cases if there are "substantial and compelling" reasons to do so. “If you read the statute specifically, the legislature gave the court the ability to depart from the gun sentencing scheme.”

Are there truly "substantial and compelling reasons" to hand down a lesser sentence in the majority of gun cases? It depends on who you ask. In the wake of a series of deadly summer shootings, Minneapolis's Police Chief Janee Harteau said, "we are arresting people who should have been kept in jail." Harteau and City Council President Barb Johnson began publically calling out Hennepin County judges for being soft on gun crimes and allowing dangerous criminals back on the street unnecessarily. "I am calling to them publicly this time to take gun crime seriously," said Johnson. "The penalties are there, impose them! When someone is arrested with a gun they need to do time!"

Minnesota sentencing statutes have a section referred to by the legal community as "mandatory mandatory sentences." If you're convicted a second time for a gun offense, judges are given no wiggle room. The law requires them to hand down at least the mandatory minimum. "Those are what we call hard 'mandatories' where there's no leeway for the court and we do impose those," said Chief Judge Cahill.

But KARE 11's investigation found that's not always the case. Take for example the rap sheet of Khayree Copeland. Copeland was busted in 2008 as a juvenile for possession of a short barreled shotgun. In 2011, now an adult, he was caught again with a gun. As a felon in possession, the mandatory minimum sentence he was facing was five years in prison. However Judge Robiner sentenced him to probation. Later that same year, Copeland was arrested again while carrying a handgun. His second offense as an adult, this time the law requires he get the "mandatory- mandatory" five years. But court records show Judge Richard Scherer gave him only four years in prison. "Members of my office protested both times and rightly so," said Freeman....

NOTE: While Hennepin judges see far and away more gun crime cases than any other jurisdiction, Carlton County judges are the most likely to cut a defendant a break. Judges there gave less than the mandatory minimum 100% of the time in the past three years.

November 18, 2014 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, November 17, 2014

"Death Penalty Drugs and the International Moral Marketplace"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new paper by James Gibson and Corinna Lain now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Across the country, executions have become increasingly problematic as states have found it more and more difficult to procure the drugs they need for lethal injection. At first blush, the drug shortage appears to be the result of pharmaceutical industry norms; companies that make drugs for healing have little interest in being merchants of death. But closer inspection reveals that European governments are the true instigators of the shortage. For decades, those governments have tried — and failed — to promote abolition of the death penalty through traditional instruments of international law. Turns out that the best way to export their abolitionist norms was to stop exporting their drugs.

At least three lessons follow. First, while the Supreme Court heatedly debates the use of international norms in Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, that debate has largely become an academic sideshow; in the death penalty context, the market has replaced the positive law as the primary means by which international norms constrain domestic death penalty practice. Second, international norms may have entered the United States through the moral marketplace, but from there they have seeped into the zeitgeist, impacting the domestic death penalty discourse in significant and lasting ways. Finally, international norms have had such a pervasive effect on the death penalty in practice that they are now poised to influence even seemingly domestic Eighth Amendment doctrine. In the death penalty context, international norms are having an impact — through the market, through culture, and ultimately through doctrine — whether we formally recognize their influence or not.

November 17, 2014 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

The Marshall Project gets AG Holder to talk about his criminal justice reform work

I am pleased to see that The Marshall Project is now running full steam and has now lots of notable new content on its slick website. Though I am concerned that this notable criminal justice media project, like some others, may end up focusing too much attention on the death penalty, it seems clear that The Marshall Project is going to have lots of material that sentencing fans will want to follow regularly.

Most notably today, The Marhsall Project has posted this exclusive interview with outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder. The piece is headlined "Eric Holder on His Legacy, His Regrets, and His Feelings About the Death Penalty," though I consider the discussion about drug sentencing reform to be most interesting. The piece is a must-read, and here is how it gets started:

The Marshall Project: You’ve been pretty outspoken on criminal justice issues across the board – more outspoken than your boss, actually. What would you single out as your proudest accomplishment in the area of the criminal justice system, and what would you single out as your biggest disappointment?

Holder: In January 2013 I told the people in the Justice Department after the re-election that I wanted to focus on reforming the federal criminal justice system. I made an announcement in August of that year in San Francisco, when we rolled out the Smart on Crime initiative. It was a way of breaking some really entrenched thinking and asking prosecutors, investigators, the bureaucracy – to think about how we do our jobs in a different way – to ask the question of whether excessively long prison sentences for nonviolent offenders really served any good purpose, how we used enhancement papers, moving discretion to prosecutors and asking them to make individualized determinations about what they should do in cases, as opposed to have some big policy sent to them from Washington.

And I think that by and large – not without opposition, to be totally honest – the federal system has embraced that vision. And I think that we have started to see the kind of changes that I hoped we would see.

[MP]: And the biggest disappointment?

Holder: I’m proud of the fact that – in 2010, I guess – we reduced that ratio, the crack-powder, from 100-to-1 to about 17- or 18-to-1. I’m still disappointed that, given the lack of a pharmacological distinction between crack and cocaine, the ratio is not 1-to-1. You know, it was the product of a lot of hard work that the president was intimately involved in. But I think he would agree with me that that number should be at 1-to-1.

[MP]: Before the second term is over, could there be a push for a 1-to-1 ratio?

Holder: That is something that I know the president believes in, that I believe in. One of the things that I’d like to see happen before the end of this administration is that there would be a drug court in every district in this country. As I speak to my successor, the 83rd Attorney General, and as I speak to the president, I’m going to push them to make that a goal for this administration, to have a drug court in every district by the end of Barack Obama’s second term.

November 17, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, November 16, 2014

"The Quiet Army: Felon Firearms Rights Restoration in the Fourth Circuit"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper by Robert Luther III now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This article discusses the restoration of firearm rights for felons and specifically addresses the methods by which individuals convicted of felonies under state law may be relieved of collateral federal firearms disabilities in the Fourth Circuit, with a particular emphasis on the practice in Virginia. It concludes by calling on the Fourth Circuit to make clear in an appropriate case that “a defendant’s ‘civil rights’ have been restored under state law for purposes of 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20) if the state has also restored the defendant’s right to possess firearms.”

Due to the Supreme Court of Virginia's interpretation of the Virginia Constitution in Gallagher v. Commonwealth, which concluded that the governor lacked the authority to restore firearm rights and that only the state trial court could do so, the Fourth Circuit’s failure to construe 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20) as suggested will have the unintended and disparate effect of failing to relieve all state-convicted felons in Virginia from their collateral federal firearm disabilities. To read 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20) not to remove a federal firearms disability when the felon has received the unrestricted restoration of his firearm rights by a Virginia trial court would yield a perverse result because the purpose of this statute was to redirect the restoration process to the states.

November 16, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Does latest FBI report of crime's decline provide still more support for lead-exposure-crime link?

Regular readers know I am always drawn to the (often overlooked) social science research suggesting lead exposure levels better account for variations in violent crime rates than any other single variable. Consequently, I am happy and eager to note this new data analysis sent my way by researcher Rick Nevin who has been talking up the lead-exposure-violent-crime link for many years.

This short new piece by Nevin, titled "FBI 2013 Crime Statistics: Record Low USA Murder Rate; More Record Low Juvenile Arrest Rates," discusses the recent FBI report (noted here) that crime continued to decline significantly in 2013. Here are parts of Nevin's interesting and encouraging data discussion (with a recommendation readers click through here to see charts and all the links):

The 2013 USA murder rate was the lowest in the history of FBI reports dating back to 1960. The 2013 property crime rate (burglary and theft) was the lowest since 1966, and the 2013 violent crime rate (murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) was the lowest since 1970. The record low 2013 murder rate indicates that the 2013 vital statistics homicide rate (including justifiable homicides) was close to the lowest levels recorded since 1909.

Nevin (2000) found that trends in preschool lead exposure from 1941-1975 explained over 90% of the substantial year-to-year variation in the USA violent crime rate from 1964 to 1998. That relationship has continued for another 15 years, with a 35% decline in the violent crime rate from 1998-2013. No other criminology theory has a comparable record of accurately predicting ongoing crime trends....

From 1991 (when the overall USA violent crime rate peaked) through 2012, the violent crime arrest rate has fallen by about 60% for ages 10-17, 50% for ages 20-29, 40% for ages 30-39, and 5% for ages 40-44, but increased by 14% for ages 45-49 and 17% for ages 50-54. The violent crime arrest rate is still increasing for age groups born before the early-1970s peak in USA preschool lead exposure.

The 2013 FBI report also shows another large decline in juvenile offending, due to ongoing declines in preschool lead exposure. Following record lows in juvenile arrest rates in 2012, the number of juveniles arrested for property crimes fell by another 15% from 2012 to 2013, and the number arrested for violent crimes fell another 8.6%. The property crime arrest rate for ages 10-17 is now about half of what it was in 1960, and the property crime arrest rate for ages 10-14 is just one third of what it was in 1960.

Some recent related posts:

November 16, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, National and State Crime Data, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Examining Crawford after a decade

First Impressions, the online companion to the Michigan Law Review, has this new on-line symposium titled "Crawford v. Washington: A Ten Year Retrospective."  Here is how the editors introduce the pieces and links thereto:

No one disputes the significance of Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004), which fundamentally transformed Confrontation Clause jurisprudence. But ten years after the Supreme Court's landmark decision, scholars, practitioners, and judges still debate its logic and its consequences. This Symposium continues that debate, featuring essays written by Professors Richard D. Friedman and Jeffrey L. Fisher, who advocated in Crawford itself for the Supreme Court to adopt the "testimonial" approach to the Confrontation Clause; Professor George Fisher, one of the nation's premier scholars of criminal law and evidence; and Professor Deborah Tuerkheimer, who has written extensively on the Crawford regime's effect on domestic violence prosecutions.

The Symposium consists of five essays. Professors George Fisher and Tuerkheimer both wrote longer essays, while Professors Friedman and Jeff Fisher each wrote a shorter piece and collaborated on a joint response to George Fisher's essay.

We hope this Symposium fosters further debate about the merits of the Crawford regime and inspires the practitioners, scholars, and judges who will shape the contours of the Confrontation Clause over the next ten years. 

November 15, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack (0)

"Does Prison Privatization Distort Justice? Evidence on Time Served and Recidivism"

The title of this post is the title of this notable paper by Anita Mukherjee now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

I contribute new evidence on the impact of private prisons on prisoner time served and recidivism by exploiting the staggered entry and exit of private prisons in Mississippi between 1996 and 2004. Little is known about this topic, even though burgeoning prison populations and an effort to cut costs have caused a substantial level of private contracting since the 1980s. The empirical challenge is that prison assignment may be based on traits unobservable to the researcher, such as body tattoos indicating a proclivity for violent behavior.

My first result is that private prisons increase a prisoner's fraction of sentence served by an average of 4 to 7 percent, which equals 60 to 90 days; this distortion directly erodes the cost savings offered by privatization. My second result is that prisoners in private facilities are 15 percent more likely to receive an infraction (conduct violation) over the course of their sentences, revealing a key mechanism by which private prisons delay release. Conditional on receiving an infraction, prisoners in private prison receive twice as many.

My final result is that there is no reduction in recidivism for prisoners in private prison despite the additional time they serve, suggesting that either the marginal returns to incarceration are low, or private prisons increase recidivism risk. These results are consistent with a model in which the private prison operator chooses whether to distort release policies, i.e., extend prisoner time served beyond the public norm, based on the typical government contract that pays a diem for each occupied bed and is imperfectly enforced.

November 15, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, November 14, 2014

Over lengthy dissents, en banc Eleventh Circuit shuts 2255 door to claims based on advisory guideline misapplication

The Eleventh Circuit has today provided some special weekend reading for hard-core federal sentencing fans with a special interest in finality issues (which, I realize, might be a small group).  Specifically, the en banc ruling together with dissents in Spencer v. US, No. 10-10676 (11th Cir. Nov. 14, 2014) (available here), runs more than 100 pages. More than three-quarters of those pages come from the dissents to a majority opinion (per Judge William Pryor) that begins this way:

This appeal concerns whether a federal prisoner may relitigate an alleged misapplication of the advisory United States Sentencing Guidelines in a collateral attack on a final sentence.  After he pleaded guilty to distributing cocaine and we affirmed the judgment against him, Kevin Spencer moved to vacate his sentence of imprisonment, 28 U.S.C. § 2255, for an alleged error in the application of the advisory guidelines. Spencer argues that an intervening decision of the Supreme Court, Begay v. United States, 553 U.S. 137, 128 S. Ct. 1581 (2008), makes clear that the district court and this Court erroneously classified him as a “career offender” based on a prior conviction for felony child abuse, which he argues is not a “crime of violence.”  United States Sentencing Guidelines Manual § 4B1.1 (Nov. 2006).  Spencer maintains that this alleged error represents a “fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice,” Hill v. United States, 368 U.S. 424, 428, 82 S. Ct. 468, 471 (1962), that can be revisited on collateral review.  We disagree.

Spencer cannot collaterally attack his sentence based on a misapplication of the advisory guidelines.  Spencer’s sentence falls below the statutory maximum, and his prior conviction for felony child abuse has not been vacated. Spencer’s sentence was and remains lawful.  We affirm the denial of Spencer’s motion to vacate his sentence.

At the very end of a very long week, I cannot do justice to the majority opinios or the dissents in this space, so I will close by quoting from the start of one of the dissents (per Judge Jordan) to highlight the human story at the center of the legal debate in Spencer:

At the end of the day, what constitutes a fundamental defect resulting in a complete miscarriage of justice comes down to a matter of considered judgment.  In my judgment, having an individual serve an additional 81 months in prison due to an erroneous career offender designation under the advisory Sentencing Guidelines constitutes such a miscarriage of justice, and for that reason I respectfully dissent.

Kevin Spencer is serving more than 12 years in prison (151 months to be exact) for selling $20 worth of crack cocaine.  The panel found, see Spencer v. United States, 727 F.3d 1076, 1100 (11th Cir. 2013), the government now concedes, see En Banc Brief for the United States at 57-58, and the majority does not dispute, that Mr. Spencer’s mistaken career offender designation more than doubled his advisory sentencing range from 70-87 months to 151-188 months.  For those of us familiar with — and sometimes numbed by — the ranges produced by application of the Sentencing Guidelines, it may be easy to overlook the dramatic increase resulting from the error.  To put it in perspective, the 81-month increase is roughly the time needed to complete both college and law school.

Mr. Spencer timely and consistently objected to the career offender designation, only to be told he was wrong.  As it turns out, he was right.  Unfortunately, the majority now rules that Mr. Spencer cannot use 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to correct the error.

November 14, 2014 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)

Notable new AG Holder comments on reducing crime rates and incarceration levels

Last night Attorney General Eric Holder gave this speech at the Southern Center for Human Rights and had a lot to say about crime and punishment.  Here are some passages that caught my eye (with one particular phrase emphasized):

Over the years, we’ve seen that over-incarceration doesn’t just crush individual opportunity.  At a more fundamental level, it challenges our nation’s commitment to our highest ideals.  And it threatens to undermine our pursuit of equal justice for all.

Fortunately, we come together this evening at a pivotal moment — when sweeping criminal justice reforms, and an emerging national consensus, are bringing about nothing less than a paradigm shift in the way our country addresses issues of crime and incarceration, particularly with respect to low-level, nonviolent drug offenses.

For the first time in many decades, it’s clear that we’re on the right track, and poised to realize dramatic reductions in criminal activity and incarceration.  In fact, the rate of violent crime that was reported to the FBI in 2012 was about half the rate reported in 1993.  This rate has declined by more than 11 percent just since President Obama took office.  And the overall incarceration rate has gone down by more than 8 percent over the same brief period.

This marks the very first time that these two critical markers have declined together in more than 40 years. And the Justice Department’s current projections suggest that the federal prison population will continue to go down in the years ahead.  As a result of the commonsense, evidence-based changes that my colleagues and I have implemented – under the landmark “Smart on Crime” initiative I launched last year — I’m hopeful that we’re witnessing the beginning of a trend that will only accelerate as new policies and initiatives fully take hold.

Our Smart on Crime approach is predicated on the notion that the criminal justice system must be continually improved — and strengthened — by the most effective and efficient strategies available. That’s why we’re increasing our focus on proven diversion and reentry programs – like drug courts, veterans’ courts, and job training initiatives – that can help keep people out of prison in appropriate cases, and enable those who have served their time to rejoin their communities as productive citizens. It’s why we are closely examining the shameful racial and ethnic disparities that too often plague the criminal justice process  — and working to mitigate any unwarranted inequities.  And it’s why I have mandated a significant change to the Justice Department’s charging policies — so that sentences for people convicted of certain federal drug crimes will be determined based on the facts, the law, and the conduct at issue in each individual case and not on a one size fits all mandate from Washington....

Equal justice is not a Democratic value or a Republican value.  It’s an American value — and a solemn pursuit – that speaks to the ideals that have always defined this great country.  It goes to the very heart of who we are, and who we aspire to be, as a people. And it will always drive leaders of principle from across the political spectrum — including those in this room and others throughout the nation — to keep moving us forward along the path to transformative justice.

The phrases I highlighted should be of interest to all SCOTUS followers because the term "emerging national consensus" has great meaning and significance in Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. I think it is quite right to say that there is now a constitutionally significant "emerging national consensus" concerning the use of mandatory long terms of imprisonment "particularly with respect to low-level, nonviolent drug offenses." And it is quite exciting to hear this legally-important phrase coming from the US Attorney General, especially because I think statements like this might lay the foundation for overturning, sooner rather than later, troublesome Eighth Amendment precedents like Harmelin v. Michigan (and maybe even also Ewing v. California).

November 14, 2014 in National and State Crime Data, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

NY Times debates "Parole When Innocence Is Claimed"

The Room for Debate section of the New York Times has this new set of pieces discussing parole practices and claims of innocence. Here is the section's set up:

With the increasing notoriety of cases in which prisoners have proved their innocence, some parole boards have permitted the release of inmates without the traditional requirement that they admit their guilt, if there is strong evidence of wrongful convictions.

Should prisoners for whom there is substantial evidence of innocence be required to admit guilt to be granted parole?

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

November 14, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, November 13, 2014

"'I Expected It to Happen/I Knew He'd Lost Control': The Impact of PTSD on Criminal Sentencing after the Promulgation of DSM-5"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Michael Perlin now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The adoption by the American Psychiatric Association of DSM-5 significantly changes (and in material ways, expands) the definition of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a change that raises multiple questions that need to be considered carefully by lawyers, mental health professionals, advocates and policy makers.

My thesis is that the expansion of the PTSD criteria in DSM-5 has the potential to make significant changes in legal practice in all aspects of criminal procedure, but none more so than in criminal sentencing.  I believe that if courts treat DSM 5 with the same deference with which they have treated earlier versions of that Manual, it will force them to seriously confront — in a wide variety of cases — the impact of PTSD on sentencing decisions.  And this may lead to more robust debates over the impact of mental disability generally on sentencing outcomes.

My optimism here is tempered by (1) the reality that courts deal teleologically with mental disability evidence in general (subordinating it when it is introduced by the defendant, and privileging it when introduced by the state), and (2) the power of sanism — an irrational prejudice of the same quality and character as other irrational prejudices that cause, and are reflected in, prevailing social attitudes such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and ethnic bigotry — in this entire inquiry.

On the other hand, we must also consider the impact of therapeutic jurisprudence on the question in hand.  Therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ) presents a new model for assessing the impact of case law and legislation, recognizing that, as a therapeutic agent, the law that can have therapeutic or anti-therapeutic consequences.  Although some scholars have considered TJ in the context of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, it remains mostly an “under the radar” topic.”  I believe it is essential we give it a new and urgent focus.

I am convinced that, if courts take seriously the new treatment of PTSD in DSM 5, and couple that with an understanding of sanism and an application of TJ, that will lead to an important sea change in the ways that defendants with that condition — especially those who are Iraqi and Afghanistani war veterans - are sentenced. This paper proceeds in this manner.  First, I briefly review the law of sentencing as it relates to persons with disabilities, focusing on developments that followed the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Booker (making the Federal Sentencing Guidelines advisory rather than mandatory), the role of sanism, and the significance of therapeutic jurisprudence.  Then, I look at how courts have, until this moment, treated PTSD in sentencing decisions. I will then look at DSM 5 to highlight its definitional changes.  I then try to “connect the dots” to show how DSM 5 demands changes in sentencing practices, and explain how this change can be consonant with the principles of TJ. I will end with some modest conclusions.

November 13, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack (0)

Florida finally completes execution 22 years after murderer's horrific crime

As reported in this AP article, a "Florida man who fatally shot his sleeping wife and then raped and killed his young stepdaughter 22 years ago was put to death Thursday for the child's slaying." Here is more: 

Chadwick Banks, 43, was pronounced dead at 7:27 p.m. EST Thursday after a lethal injection at Florida State Prison, the office of Gov. Rick Scott said. Banks was condemned for the September 1992 killing of 10-year-old Melody Cooper. Banks also received a life sentence for the murder of his wife, Cassandra Banks, in the attack in the Florida Panhandle region.

Banks wore the white skullcap of the Muslim Brotherhood before the lethal drugs were administered, looking directly at the family of the victims when he delivered his final statement. "I'm very sorry for the hurt and pain I have caused you all of these years," Banks said. "Year after year I have tried to come up with a reasonable answer for my actions. But how could such acts be reasonable?"

Authorities said Banks was drinking and playing pool at a bar before going home around 3 a.m. the night of the slayings. Banks shot his wife point-blank in the head and then raped and shot his stepdaughter, according to authorities. Banks, who was 21 at the time of the killings, received a life sentence for his wife's murder, and a jury recommended the death penalty for the stepdaughter's slaying....

The execution was the eighth in Florida this year and the 20th since Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2011. That's one fewer than under Gov. Jeb Bush during both of his terms. Bush presided over the most executions since capital punishment was reinstated in the state in 1979, but Scott was just re-elected to a second term.

November 13, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Split South Carolina Supreme Court declares Miller retroactive AND applicable to state's nonmandatory LWOP sentencing scheme

As reported in this local article, "at least 15 South Carolina felons serving life sentences for homicides they committed while they were minors are eligible to return to court to be resentenced for their crimes, a divided S.C. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday." Here are the basics of the ruling: 

The 3-2 decision cites the U.S. Supreme Court's 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, which banned mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole in instances where juveniles commit murder....

The [Miller] ruling applied to mandatory sentences and the U.S. Supreme Court justices avoided declaring whether the new standard should be applied retroactively to older cases. South Carolina's high court, however, not only called for a rehearing of older cases but applied the new parameters to all juveniles cases where life sentences were imposed, even when that decision was at a judge's discretion.

Colin Miller, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, and who participated in a moot court dry run of the Supreme Court arguments with attorney John Blume, called the high court's ruling "significant" and a victory for juvenile rights.  He said the court went beyond what many observers expected in extending projections to all juveniles facing life without parole.  "That was not a foregone conclusion," he said. "Here we have the Supreme Court of South Carolina saying the state will not impose life without parole on a juvenile without looking at the totality of the person in this situation."

I concur with the view of Professor Miller that this new South Carolina Supreme Court ruling in Aiken v. Byars, No. 27465 (S.C. Nov. 12, 2014) (available here), is a big win for juvenile justice advocates. Here are a few passages from the majority opinion that lead me to this view:

We conclude Miller creates a new, substantive rule and should therefore apply retroactively.  The rule plainly excludes a certain class of defendants — juveniles — from specific punishment — life without parole absent individualized considerations of youth. Failing to apply the Miller rule retroactively risks subjecting defendants to a legally invalid punishment....

We recognize that in holding the Eighth Amendment proscribes a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders, the Court did not expressly extend its ruling to states such as South Carolina whose sentencing scheme permits a life without parole sentence to be imposed on a juvenile offender but does not mandate it.  Indeed, the Court noted that because its holding was sufficient to decide the cases before it, consideration of the defendants' alternative argument that the Eighth Amendment requires a categorical bar on life without parole for juveniles was unnecessary.  Id. at 2469.  However, we must give effect to the proportionality rationale integral to Miller's holding — youth has constitutional significance. As such, it must be afforded adequate weight in sentencing.

Thus, we profoundly disagree with the position advanced by the respondents and the dissent that the import of the Miller decision has no application in South Carolina. Miller is clear that it is the failure of a sentencing court to consider the hallmark features of youth prior to sentencing that offends the Constitution.  Contrary to the dissent's interpretation, Miller does more than ban mandatory life sentencing schemes for juveniles; it establishes an affirmative requirement that courts fully explore the impact of the defendant's juvenility on the sentence rendered.

As evidenced by the record, although some of the hearings touch on the issues of youth, none of them approach the sort of hearing envisioned by Miller where the factors of youth are carefully and thoughtfully considered.  Many of the attorneys mention age as nothing more than a chronological fact in a vague plea for mercy.  Miller holds the Constitution requires more.

November 12, 2014 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Federal judge wonders if marijuana sentencing should be impacted by state reforms

As reported in this Oregonian article, a "federal judge in Portland last week delayed the sentencing of a convicted bulk marijuana runner from Texas, saying he needed to get a better read on the U.S. Department of Justice's position on the drug before imposing a sentence." Here are more details:

U.S. District Judge Michael W. Mosman, presiding on Thursday in the case of U.S. v. Bounlith "Bong" Bouasykeo, asked lawyers if the vote in Oregon and a similar vote in Washington, D.C., signal "a shift in the attitude of people generally towards marijuana."

"I guess I'm curious whether I ought to slow this down a little bit," he asked lawyers, according to a transcript of the hearing obtained by The Oregonian. Under federal law, marijuana in any form or amount remains illegal.

Mosman wondered aloud if there was any move afoot to take a different position on marijuana enforcement in Oregon. This was not to suggest – he hastened to add – that he agreed on marijuana legalization. The judge wondered whether his position on sentencing ought to move a notch in the defendant's favor because of the nation's evolving view of pot.

"I'm not suggesting that what's on the table is that the whole case ought to go away or anything like that," the judge said. "But would something like that at the margins have some sort of impact on my sentencing considerations? I think I ought to take into account any evolving or shifting views of the executive branch in determining the seriousness of the crime?

"Should I delay this, in your view, or go ahead today (with sentencing)?" After hearing arguments from the lawyers, Mosman decided to delay Bouasykeo's punishment.

November 12, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

"A Comprehensive Administrative Solution to the Armed Career Criminal Act Debacle"

The title of this post is the title of this notable and timely new piece authored by Avi Kupfer and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

For thirty years, the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) has imposed a fifteen-year mandatory minimum sentence on those people convicted as felons in possession of a firearm or ammunition who have three prior convictions for a violent felony or serious drug offense.  Debate about the law has existed mainly within a larger discussion on the normative value of mandatory minimums. Assuming that the ACCA endures, however, administering it will continue to be a challenge.  The approach that courts use to determine whether past convictions qualify as ACCA predicate offenses creates ex ante uncertainty and the potential for intercourt disparities.  Furthermore, the Supreme Court's guidance on sentencing ACCA defendants has been unclear.  The resulting ambiguity creates inequity between defendants and fails to give them fair warning of the statute's scope.  This ambiguity also depletes the resources of courts, defendants, and prosecutors and prevents the statute from realizing its full potential of deterring violent crime.

This Note argues that rather than allowing this debacle to continue, Congress should delegate to a federal agency the task of compiling a binding list of state statutes that qualify as predicate offenses.  Under this approach, the states would assist the federal agency by providing initial guidance on their ambiguous statutes.  The U.S. Sentencing Commission has the manpower, subject familiarity, and institutional incentives to build and maintain the appendix, and state sentencing commissions would make ideal partners. In states that do not have sentencing commissions, comparable agencies and even properly incentivized attorneys general may be able to aid the federal Sentencing Commission. Congress should leverage this undertaking to resolve related definitional questions about the meaning of a violent crime in other areas of federal law.

November 12, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Legislation to get Ohio back on track with lethal injections being fast-tracked

As reported in this local article, headlined "Death-penalty reform bill would protect execution drug makers, physicians who testify," it appears that the state legislative process is moving forward to enact new regulations to help Ohio get back into the business of executions. Here are the details (with my emphasis added at the end):

Makers of Ohio's lethal-injection drugs would be kept anonymous, and physicians who testify about the state's execution method couldn't have their medical license revoked, under House legislation introduced Monday.  Attorney General Mike DeWine has said that lawmakers need to pass the reforms if Ohio is to resume executions next year, once a court-ordered moratorium ends.

Ohio, along with many other states, has been struggling to settle on an execution method, as many large pharmaceutical companies have refused to continue selling drugs used for lethal injection.  The state's current two-drug cocktail is being challenged in court and has been used in controversial executions in Ohio and Arizona.

House Bill 663 would keep secret the identities of compounding pharmacies, small-scale drug manufacturers that create individual doses of lethal-injection drugs on demand.  The proposed change is a sign that state officials could turn to compounding pharmacies for lethal-injection drugs that courts have upheld but that larger companies have stopped selling, such as pentobarbital.  Rep. Jim Buchy, a Greenville Republican co-sponsoring the bill, said the measure would protect compounding pharmacies from lawsuits.

Another proposed change in the bill would prevent the Ohio State Medical Association from revoking or suspending the license of any physician who provides expert testimony on the state's death penalty.  Such immunity is needed, supporters say, because the state is worried that doctors will refuse to testify in defense of Ohio's lethal-injection protocol for fear that they'll run afoul of medical ethics....

House Speaker Bill Batchelder, a Medina Republican, and Senate President Keith Faber, a Celina Republican, each said last week they plan to pass the legislation.   "That is something that we cannot leave in abeyance, otherwise we're going to have people who pass away prior to execution," Batchelder said.

I have a inkling that Speaker Batchelder's comments emphasized above may have been taken a little out of context, as the quote makes it seem he considers it is essential to fix quickly Ohio's machinery of death so that prisoners do not die on their own before being able to be killed by the state.

November 11, 2014 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Notable past remarks by AG-nominee Lynch on criminal justice reform to the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

DownloadI just came across these remarks delivered by Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch in August 2014 to the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in Switzerland as part of the US delegation. These remarks were intended to share with the Convention "some of the highlights of the Department of Justice’s efforts to eliminate racial discrimination and uphold human rights in the area of criminal justice."

The remarks are largely just a summary of many of the criminal justice reforms championed by Attorney General Eric Holder, but it will be interesting to see if the remarks garner special scrutiny as part of the Senate's confirmation process. Here are excerpts:

[T]he department has made great progress in reforming America’s criminal justice system. Our focus is not just on the prosecution of crime, but on eradicating its root causes as well as providing support for those re-entering society after having paid their debt to it.

There is, of course, much work still to be done. Currently our country imprisons approximately 2.2 million people, disproportionately people of color. This situation is a drain on both precious resources and human capital. The Attorney General is committed to reform of this aspect of our criminal justice system.

Last August the Attorney General announced the “Smart on Crime” initiative. Under this initiative, we’re ensuring that stringent mandatory minimum sentences for certain federal drug crimes will now be reserved for the most serious criminals. This is not an abandonment of prison as a means to reduce crime, but rather a recognition that, quite often, less prison can also work to reduce crime. We’re advancing alternative programs in place of incarceration in appropriate cases. And we’re committed to providing formerly incarcerated people with fair opportunities to rejoin their communities and become productive, law-abiding citizens.

As part of this effort, the Attorney General has directed every component of the Justice Department to review proposed rules, regulations or guidance with an eye to whether they may impose collateral consequences that may prevent reintegration into society. He has called upon state leaders to do the same, with a particular focus on enacting reforms to restore voting rights to those who have served their debt to society, thus ending the chain of permanent disenfranchisement that visits many of them.

To further ensure that the elimination of discrimination is an ongoing priority, the Attorney General has created a Racial Disparities Working Group, led by the U.S. Attorney community, to identify policies that result in unwarranted disparities within criminal justice and to eliminate those disparities as quickly as possible.

From the reduction of the use of solitary confinement, to the expansion of the federal clemency program, to our support for the retroactive reduction of penalties for non-violent drug offenders to the reduction in the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, we have worked to improve our criminal justice system in furtherance of our human rights treaty obligations. We look forward to the future and the opportunity to do even more.

Obviously, if Loretta Lynch become the next US Attorney General, she will be in a great position to seize "the opportunity to do even more" with respect to criminal justice reform. I wonder what she might have in mind.

A few recent related posts:

November 11, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

New York City mayor announces new policy concerning marijuana enforcement

ImagesAs reported in this New York Times article, headlined "Concerns in Criminal Justice System as New York City Eases Marijuana Policy," the NYC's new mayor and old sherrif are bringing a new approach to marijuana enforcement to the Big Apple. Here are the basics:

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who took office promising to reform the Police Department and repair relations with black and Latino communities, on Monday unveiled his plan to change the way the police enforce the law on marijuana possession.

Arrests for low-level marijuana possession have had an especially harsh impact on minority communities, and under the change announced on Monday, people found with small amounts of marijuana will typically be given a ticket and cited for a violation instead of being arrested and charged with a crime.

The news, outlined by the mayor and his police commissioner, William J. Bratton, at Police Headquarters, marked the most significant criminal justice policy initiative by Mr. de Blasio since he was sworn in as mayor in January. While he stressed that he was not advocating the decriminalization of marijuana, Mr. de Blasio said the impact of enforcement on the people arrested and on the Police Department compelled him to rethink how the police handle low-level marijuana arrests.

“When an individual is arrested,” he said, “even for the smallest possession of marijuana, it hurts their chances to get a good job; it hurts their chances to get housing; it hurts their chances to qualify for a student loan. It can literally follow them for the rest of their lives and saddle young people with challenges that, for many, are very difficult to overcome.”

For a Police Department that has devoted enormous resources to tens of thousands of marijuana arrests a year, the shift in strategy should, the mayor said, allow officers to focus on more serious types of crime by freeing up people who would otherwise be occupied by the administrative tasks lashed to minor marijuana arrests.

But the change, detailed in a five-page Police Department “operations order” that is set to go into effect on Nov. 19, immediately raised questions and concerns in many corners of the criminal justice system. It directs officers who encounter people with 25 grams or less of marijuana, in public view, to issue a noncriminal violation in most instances, rather than arrest them for a misdemeanor....

As they headed into a meeting with departmental leaders to hear about the new policy, some police union leaders said the changes seemed to run counter to the “broken windows” strategy of policing, long championed by Mr. Bratton as a way to prevent serious crime by cracking down on low-level offenses. “I just see it as another step in giving the streets back to the criminals,” said Michael J. Palladino, the head of the city’s Detectives’ Endowment Association, the union representing police detectives. “And we keep inching closer and closer to that.”...

At the news conference, Mr. Bratton said officers would still have to use discretion. If marijuana was being burned or smoked, an arrest would be made, he said. If offenders had an “active warrant,” or were wanted, or could not produce proper identification, they would be taken to the station house, he said. Officials said violations would not constitute a criminal record. They said court appearances, within weeks of the violation, could lead to a fine of up to $100 for a first offense....

Critics have said the police and prosecutors have been improperly charging people with possession of marijuana in public view, often after officers ask them to empty their pockets during street stops.

In 2011, Raymond W. Kelly, then the police commissioner, issued an order reminding officers to refrain from such arrest practices. Mr. Bratton said such practices were not now in use and the problem had been fixed. By now, the number of marijuana arrests has decreased, roughly mirroring the drastic reduction in the frequency of police stop, question and frisk encounters.

Of the 394,539 arrests made last year, marijuana arrests totaled slightly more than 28,000, or a little less than 10 percent of all arrests made in the city. That is down from 50,000 a few years ago.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

November 11, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, November 10, 2014

Highlighting that George Soros and the Koch Brothers agree on the need for criminal justice reform

Tina Brown has this notable new commentary at The Daily Beast headlined "Here’s a Reform Even the Koch Brothers and George Soros Can Agree On." Here is how it gets started:

Do you like lists? Of course you do! It’s the Internet! So try this one:

1. Koch Brothers

2. National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

3. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)

4. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)

5. George Soros

6. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT)

7. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL)

8. Newt Gingrich

9. American Civil Liberties Union

10. Grover Norquist

Apart from a passionate certainty that either liberal Democrats or conservative Republicans (pick one) are a danger to the republic, what does this motley crew have in common?

Here’s what: They all agree that America’s practice of mass incarceration—unique in the world—is at worst a moral and practical failure or at best an outdated policy badly in need of adjustment.

That’s why they have busted out of their party and ideological boxes to try to do something about a dilemma that has become the ugliest face of America’s social, economic, and racial divisions. That’s why, for example, Gingrich and some prominent Christian conservatives joined hands this fall with the Soros-affiliated Open Society Foundation and the ACLU to back Proposition 47, a California ballot measure that redefines many lower-level felonies as misdemeanors. (Prop 47 passed comfortably last Tuesday.) It’s why the Kochs and the defense lawyers’ group just teamed up to train public defenders and help indigent defendants get counsel. It’s why Democratic and Republican senators are daring to co-sponsor bipartisan legislation like the Redeem Act—which, among other changes, would curb solitary confinement for youths and make it easier for nonviolent ex-offenders to survive without returning to crime.

There are 2.3 million Americans in prison right now. And the support of prisons and prisoners is costing taxpayers as much as $74 billion a year. No wonder criminal-justice reform is no longer the sole concern of balladeers and bleeding hearts. The United States of America locks up more of its population than any nation in human history.

Between mandatory sentencing, the war on drugs, the profiteering of private prisons, and the political glee of being “tough on crime,” the land of opportunity has become a vast empire of imprisonment. And the insane cost of keeping so many nonviolent people locked up is an investment in failure. It breaks up families, burns hope, and perpetuates cycles of misery. If you are poor and black and can’t afford the right lawyer, you’re likely to vanish into the system and enter a forever world of forgotten pain.

Our criminal justice system isn’t simply bloated and cruel. It’s also, on the face of it, unjust.

November 10, 2014 in Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

"Why Are There Up to 120,000 Innocent People in US Prisons?"

The provocative question in the title of this post is the provocative headline of this lengthy article from VICE News.  Here are excerpts: 

Guilty pleas and false confessions by the innocent are counterintuitive phenomena, says Rebecca Brown, director of state policy at the non-profit Innocence Project.  But of the 321 DNA exonerations that have occurred in the United States, 30 have involved people who originally pled guilty to crimes they didn't commit.  It's hard to accept that people who are innocent would knowingly incriminate themselves, but it happens frequently.

"Our cases are almost exclusively rapes and murders — very, very serious crimes — and even then, innocent people are pleading guilty," Brown says.  "Now spread that out across the entire system to include lower-level offenses, the vast majority of which are pled out, and the implications are clear."

According to the Innocence Project's estimates, between 2.3 percent and 5 percent of all US prisoners are innocent.  The American prison population numbers about 2.4 million. Using those numbers, as many as 120,000 innocent people could currently be in prison...

"The system isn't geared to discover innocence or guilt — it's geared to get people through the system as quickly and efficiently as possible," says John Pollok, a defense lawyer who has defended clients ranging from the mayor of Waterbury, Connecticut to members of the Gambino crime family.  "What it comes down to for a defense lawyer is really to try and minimize harm."

Overwhelmingly, minimizing harm means taking a deal instead of taking your chances at trial. And just as false confessions lead to false convictions, coercive plea bargains are also responsible for sending thousands of innocent people to prison. "Everybody swallows the lie because they want to believe that the system works," Pollok says. "The short of it is, each component of the system, from lawyers to judges to the way we charge people, is broken."

As federal judge Jed Rakoff wrote recently in the New York Review of Books, "The Supreme Court's suggestion that a plea bargain is a fair and voluntary contractual arrangement between two relatively equal parties is a total myth: It is much more like a 'contract of adhesion' in which one party can effectively force its will on the other party."

Rakoff tells me there are too many variables involved to pin down precisely how many innocent people are in prison, but he says criminologists peg the rate at which innocent people confess to crimes during plea bargains between 2 percent and 8 percent.  A spread that wide rightfully raises suspicions, and so Rakoff chooses to instead use an extremely conservative estimate of 1 percent. Even then, that puts up to 20,000 people behind bars for crimes they did not commit due to pressure to accept pleas.  "We know for a fact that there are innocent people taking pleas and going to prison," Rakoff says. "That's not conjecture."

No one can be forced to accept a plea bargain; the right to a trial is guaranteed by the US Constitution.  However, a pernicious phenomenon called the "trial penalty" dissuades many defendants from exercising it.  The federal conviction rate is an astonishing 97 percent, and studies have shown that defendants who refuse plea bargains are put behind bars for roughly nine times as long as those who take deals.  (Twelve of the inmates exonerated by the Innocence Project were threatened with the death penalty before deciding to plead guilty.)  As one former US Attorney told Human Rights Watch (HRW) last year, "If you reject the plea, we'll throw everything at you. We won't think about what is a 'just' sentence."

When Sandra Avery was caught with 50 grams of crack cocaine, prosecutors offered her a 10-year sentence if she agreed to plead guilty.  Avery decided to take her chances at trial, and was promptly convicted, after which prosecutors "threw everything" at her by invoking Avery's three previous convictions for possession.  The total value of the drugs Avery had been caught with in the previous three cases amounted to less than $100, but because Avery had three priors, she was sentenced to life in prison. There is no parole in the federal system. Avery will die behind bars.

Darlene Eckles, a nursing assistant with a clean record, agreed to let her brother stay with her after he got out of prison. She protested when he began dealing crack from her home, and finally kicked him out six months later. When the brother was later arrested on federal drug trafficking charges, Eckles got picked up too. Like Avery, Eckles refused to plead guilty, and went to trial. Although the jury convicted her on lesser charges that did not carry a mandatory minimum, prosecutors argued Eckles was every bit as responsible as her brother. The judge sentenced her to 19 years and seven months in prison. Her brother, who pled guilty, got 11 years and eight months.

Weldon Angelos sold $350 worth of marijuana to a confidential informant, who claimed that the 22-year-old Angelos was armed with a gun during two of the transactions. After Angelos was arrested, police found 3 pounds of pot and three guns during a search of his apartment. There was no evidence the guns had ever been fired or used to threaten someone else. Prosecutors offered Angelos 10 years for the weed, and five years for the guns. Angelos declined, opting for a trial. Prosecutors responded by filing a superseding indictment that stacked five new charges on top of the existing ones. Angelos was convicted and sentenced to 55 years in federal prison. He will be nearly 80 years old when he is released.

November 10, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Huzzah, Huzzah... all crime goes down again in 2013 according to new FBI data

As reported in this official press release, the "estimated number of violent crimes in the nation decreased 4.4 percent in 2013 when compared with 2012 data, according to FBI figures released today." What great news, and here is more:

Property crimes decreased 4.1 percent, marking the 11th straight year the collective estimates for these offenses declined.

The 2013 statistics show the estimated rate of violent crime was 367.9 offenses per 100,000 inhabitants, and the property crime rate was 2,730.7 offenses per 100,000 inhabitants.  The violent crime rate declined 5.1 percent compared to the 2012 rate, while the property crime rate declined 4.8 percent.

I will have a lot more to say about these data later today, but for now I just want to celebrate the latest great news on crime rates.

November 10, 2014 in National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Federal prosecutors righteously undo convictions based on FBI agent's misdeeds

Regularly readers know I am quick to criticize federal prosecutors in this space when I am troubled by decision that seem driven more by a desire to win convictions and secure long sentences than by a commitment to do justice.  Given that reality, I nw want to be among the first to praise federal prosecutors for their response to evidence than an FBI agent in the DC area tampered with evidence in a number of serious prosecutions.  This Washington Post piece, headlined "More drug defendants cleared of charges because of investigation into FBI agent," provides details on a story that showcases the virtuousness of federal prosecutors:

Thirteen defendants charged with or convicted of distributing large amounts of heroin in the District had their cases dismissed Friday because prosecution had been tainted by an FBI agent who is accused of tampering with evidence linked to the cases, including drugs and guns.

Seven of the defendants had pleaded guilty in the drug conspiracy and four of them were serving prison sentences of between two and seven years.  But in one instant, all were unburdened by criminal charges or convictions, and those serving time had their sentences vacated. As soon as the hearing in federal court adjourned, the former defendants rushed from the box normally reserved for jurors, with one jubilantly saying, “Let me get out of here before [the judge] changes his mind.”

Friday’s ruling in U.S. District Court follows similar action Thursday, when another judge threw out charges involving 10 people convicted in a separate drug conspiracy involving the sale of heroin and cocaine.  Charges in other cases could be dropped in the near future.

Prosecutors had recommended dropping the charges amid the investigation of Matthew Lowry, 33, an FBI agent assigned to the Washington field office who worked with police on crime that spilled over from the District into Maryland and Virginia.  Lowry has been suspended but not charged. The investigation is being led by the Justice Department’s inspector general, and court documents link the dismissals to the probe involving Lowry.

Authorities have said little about the investigation, but court documents filed as part of the release of suspects say that Lowery is accused of tampering with drug and gun evidence. Officials with knowledge of the investigation have said the agent allegedly took heroin and used it himself.  Other officials said Lowry was found in the last week of September slumped over the wheel of an unmarked FBI car near the Navy Yard, along with two drug evidence bags, heroin and two guns.

The fallout has been swift.  Within days, prosecutors identified at least three drug cases and started to send defendants home from jail and prison to await further action. Prosecutors began dismissing cases outright Thursday.  In all, 23 of 28 defendants in two drug cases have had their charges dismissed.

“We do not lightly dismiss these cases, particularly when the defendants face the serious drug charges at issue here,” U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. said in a statement.  But, he added, “The credibility of the system is paramount and more important than any individual prosecution. That’s why we are carrying out a case-by-case, defendant-by-defendant review to determine which cases should go forward.

"We are carefully examining the role that the FBI agent played in each investigation to assess whether the case can proceed.  And moving forward, be assured we will not be dissuaded from aggressively investigating and prosecuting narcotics cases to protect the residents of the District of Columbia,” the prosecutor said....

One of the defendants freed, 59-year-old Brandon Beale, went straight from the courtroom to the Pretrial Services Agency so he could turn in his ankle bracelet and shed the restrictions of home detention, said his attorney, Greg English.  English said Beale, who was jailed for nearly a year, planned to fight the charges on the grounds that he was merely a drug user, not a dealer.  Now, English said, there will be no reason to do that.

“This turn of events is absolutely extraordinary for an agent to commit misconduct like this. It goes to the basic integrity of the system,” English said. “But having said that, I think the U.S. Attorney’s Office did the right thing today and dismissed it. . . . They were completely ethical and upfront in their conduct in this case.”  English said it was technically possible for prosecutors to bring the charges against Beale and others again, but he doubted they would do so.

In addition to being eager to praise federal prosecutors for their swift and aggressive response to learning that an FBI agent has gone rogue, I am also eager to know if anyone (e.g., Bill Otis) might be incline to criticize the federal prosecutors for moving to vacate a bunch of convictions rather than to seeking to contend that any evidence problems created by the rogue agent produced on harmless errors.

November 10, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Minnesota judges say we must admit "we have a problem with race" in the criminal justice system

Kevin Burke, a Minnesota county district judge, has authored this provocative new commentary which was signed on to by a number of fellow judges. The piece is headlined "On race and justice system, we're still in denial," and here are excerpts:

Repeatedly, we have been confronted with compelling evidence that our community has a serious problem with racial disparity in its justice system.  Repeatedly, we have either said, “We can stop,” or we get defensive and attack the messenger.  The time has come for us to change our response.

The recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota (ACLU) on the racial disparities of arrests comes as no particular surprise (“ACLU: Blacks arrested more for minor crimes,” Oct. 29).  Sure, you could write off the ACLU as some leftist organization — except that its report is based on hard data.  The ACLU’s data and its analysis replicate numerous studies dating back decades about the problem of racial disparity in the justice system in our community....

[I]n 2007, the Minneapolis-based Council on Crime on Justice issued a report that found that “[t]he racial disparity in Minnesota’s justice system is exceptionally high compared to other states. From arrest to imprisonment, the disparity is over twice the national average.”  Since 2000, the report said, the Council on Crime and Justice “has undertaken seventeen separate studies in a comprehensive effort to understand ‘why’ such a large disparity exists here, in Minnesota.”...

We need to accept we have a problem.  All of us have a right to be safe, but protecting the public and being racially fair are not mutually exclusive.  The ACLU report is interesting, in part, because it is not focused on “serious” or “violent” crime.  There is no legitimate reason why there is a vastly disproportionate arrest rate for young black people for possession of small amounts of marijuana or for loitering.

The justice system desperately needs the trust of the public.  Community policing is premised upon community support.  But before you conclude that this is a problem with the Minneapolis police — stop.  All of the police, prosecutors, defenders, corrections officials and the community at large own a piece of the mess.  And yes, so do the elected officials — including judges.  Every one of us in the justice system bears responsibility for this problem....

There is a connection between racial disparity in the justice system and what is happening in our community.  Child protection failures, racial disparity in low-level offenses, achievement gaps in school, and yes, even violent crime and gang problems are all related. The beginning of an end to these issues starts with a collective admission that we have a problem with race.

The solutions to our problem of racial disparity in the justice system may be as intractable as our failure to acknowledge the existence of the problem, but we have no choice other than to act.  At a minimum, we need to acknowledge the cumulative nature of racial disparities. Racial disparity often builds at each stage of the justice continuum, from arrest through release from prison.  And even then it does not stop.  Employment opportunities for ex-offenders are limited.  Hennepin County has a history of very good dialogue among the justice system participants, but in order to combat racial disparity, everyone needs to commit to a systematic approach.  Without a systemic approach to the problem, gains in one area may be offset by reversals in another....

Given the persistence of the problem of racial disparity in the justice system, however, a very good case can be made that reasoned experiments to find solutions are a better alternative than continually repeating what we are presently doing — and hoping for a different result.

November 9, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

"Aging Prisoners Shackle State Budgets"

The title of this post is the headline of this article from the November 2014 issue of Governing magazine.  Here are excerpts:

Nearly 10 percent of inmates housed in California state prisons were age 50 or older in 2003.  About a decade later, that percentage has doubled.  Thanks to an aging prison population and a 2011 prison realignment bill that sent lower-level and typically younger offenders to county jails, about 21 percent of the total state prison population today is over age 50.

While the circumstances in California are unique, the predicament is not.  As baby boomers age nationally, America’s prison population is graying.  What’s less understood, though, is the full extent of the demands an older prison population will place on corrections systems and just how much it will end up costing.

A recent Urban Institute analysis suggests that it could carry significant fiscal consequences for states in the years to come.  Compared to the general population, older prisoners experience accelerated aging due to substance abuse or other unhealthy lifestyle choices. Older prisoners also require, according to the report, more time from guards for their daily routines and chores.  “Despite being a small percentage of the total inmate population, the implications are quite large,” says Bryce Peterson, an Urban Institute research associate. He adds that “policies and different intervention strategies should focus on a larger group of older inmates and not just those close to death or severely ill.”...

Efforts specifically aimed at reducing aging prison populations remain fairly limited. One common approach they've taken, Peterson says, is to study compassionate release programs.  In 2011, California implemented a parole program for individuals permanently medically incapacitated to the point where they required 24-hour care.  Until that program, there had been a few extreme cases of aging California prisoners in comas being guarded and kept alive through breathing and feeding tubes at acute care facilities at a cost of nearly $1 million a year.

At least 15 states provide some form of early release for geriatric inmates.  But a Vera Institute of Justice report found those provisions were rarely used, in part attributable to restrictive eligibility criteria, political considerations, and long referral and review processes.

It’s hard to say just how much older prisoners will end up costing states. At least 16 states mandate the use of specialized corrections impact statements to help lawmakers understand how various criminal justice proposals affect prison populations and associated costs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

November 9, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Florida Supreme Court dealing with Miller retroactivity issue after legislative fix

As reported in this local Florida piece, headlined "Supreme Court ponders life sentences for juveniles," the Sunshine State's top court this past week was starting to puzzle through what Miller and new state legislation mean for old juve LWOP sentences. Here are the details:

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday heard arguments in a debate about sentencing for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder. Pointing to a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, two inmates who are serving life in prison for murders they committed as juveniles are challenging their sentences.

The ruling, in a case known as Miller v. Alabama, banned mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder. Juveniles can still face life sentences in such cases, but judges must weigh criteria such as the offenders’ maturity and the nature of the crimes before imposing that sentence.

On Thursday, attorneys for Rebecca Lee Falcon and Anthony Duwayne Horsley argued that the ruling — and a new state law that carries it out — should apply retroactively to their clients, giving them the possibility of release.

The session was lively, with most of the Florida justices’ questions directed at what the Legislature intended by passing the new law. An underpinning of the Miller ruling was that juveniles are different from adults and function at different stages of brain development, so that a life sentence without the possibility of parole violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment....

Lawmakers this spring approved new juvenile sentencing guidelines that went into effect July 1 in response to Miller and to a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case known as Graham v. Florida.

The Miller and Graham rulings have spawned legal questions in Florida courts since the Graham ruling was handed down. It took lawmakers that long to agree on the sentencing guidelines, but this year — reluctant to leave it to courts to decide on a case-by-case basis — did so unanimously. That’s almost unheard of,” Justice Barbara Pariente said. “It’s the entire Legislature saying, after lots of hearings, ‘We think this is both good from a policy point of view as well as faithful to Miller.’ “

Under the new law, a juvenile convicted of a murder classified as a capital felony could be sentenced to life in prison after a hearing to determine whether such a sentence is appropriate. If a judge finds that a life sentence is not appropriate, the juvenile would be sentenced to at least 35 years. Also, juveniles convicted in such cases would be entitled to reviews after 25 years....

On Thursday, Assistant Attorney General Kellie Nielan argued that a life sentence does not violate the Constitution if it includes the option of parole. But Justice Ricky Polston said that would create new questions, due to Florida abolishing parole decades ago on new crimes. A commission still hears cases from before the time parole was abolished.

“If there’s no parole, are you asking this court to order the parole commission to hear these cases even though we don’t have the power of the purse?” Polston asked. “We can’t give them the money or authorization to do this. Are you asking us to — from the bench — require a branch of government to enact the parole commission that’s been abolished?”

“I’m asking this court to follow precedent,” Nielan said. “I understand that we have to fashion a remedy for this.” But while the new law was designed to bring Florida into compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court rulings, it doesn’t mention retroactivity.

And in July, when the Florida Supreme Court asked attorneys representing juvenile offenders to weigh in on the new law, Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, the Senate sponsor, said it was not intended to address retroactivity. “We were simply looking at a statutory scheme that was clearly unconstitutional,” the Fleming Island Republican told The News Service of Florida. “We were looking at two United States Supreme Court decisions that set forth certain parameters, and we developed a sentencing framework that complied with those two decisions. As far as how that applied individually to individual defendants, we’ll leave that to the court system.”

November 9, 2014 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Prez Obama selects Loretta Lynch to replace Eric Holder as US Attorney General

This brief press release from the White House Friday afternoon made official that it was President Obama's "intent to nominate U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch to be the Attorney General of the United States."  This lengthy Politico article, headlined "Lame duck looms over Lynch confirmation," highlights some politics dynamics surrounding this decision, and closes with a substantive point I care most about:

President Barack Obama will nominate Loretta Lynch to be the new attorney general on Saturday, setting up what could prove the first major post-midterms Senate showdown.

Obama will call for Lynch to be confirmed as soon as possible, but White House aides say he’ll defer to Senate leaders on whether to press ahead with a vote during the coming lame duck session, or to wait until next year, when the Republicans will officially be in the majority.

Senior Democratic aides, meanwhile, said no final decision on timing has been made, but they are strongly leaning towards moving in the lame duck.  A confirmation vote could be used as leverage in other deals the White House and leaders are seeking in the lame duck.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), however, made clear that he’s completely opposed, issuing a statement Friday evening promising “fair consideration,” but that Lynch’s “nomination should be considered in the new Congress through regular order.”

The question is a significant one — there’s precedent in President George W. Bush pushing through Michael Mukasey’s nomination in a lame duck.  But at the outset of what’s supposed to be a new effort toward cooperation, Obama and Senate Democrats would be doing the exact opposite by moving confirming such a senior Cabinet official in between the midterms and the Republican takeover of the majority.

That could give Republicans an easy excuse to point to for blame on future gridlock.  But by waiting until the new GOP members are sworn in, Obama would risk not getting his choice — or any choice — confirmed for the job.

Lynch, a United States attorney from New York, has kept a low profile, but has quietly been in top consideration for weeks at the White House. Lynch would be the second woman in the post, and the second African American, following Holder.  That could make opposition from the Republican Senate more politically difficult, especially as she’s been previously confirmed by acclimation twice previously.

A career prosecutor who’s been confirmed twice by the Senate to one of the most prominent U.S. attorney positions, Lynch has experience with many of the major issues that a new attorney general would confront — including terrorism and financial crimes. She does not have a deep personal relationships with Obama or his close aides, or a resonance with the Democratic base eager to see the president pick fights more post-midterms.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the outgoing Judiciary Committee chairman, issued a statement praising Lynch’s selection, but made no firm commitment on timing.  “I have spoken with the President about the need to confirm our next attorney general in a reasonable time period, and I look forward to beginning that process,” Leahy said.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who’ll head the Judiciary Committee when Republicans take over, said he was generally supportive of Lynch’s nomination but said he was looking forward to learning more about her.  “As we move forward with the confirmation process, I have every confidence that Ms. Lynch will receive a very fair, but thorough, vetting by the Judiciary Committee. U.S. Attorneys are rarely elevated directly to this position, so I look forward to learning more about her, how she will interact with Congress, and how she proposes to lead the department,” Grassley said.  “I’m hopeful that her tenure, if confirmed, will restore confidence in the Attorney General as a politically independent voice for the American people.”...

And timing isn’t the only problem Lynch would face. Sen. Jeff Sessions’ office sent out a reminder to reporters Friday of recent comments by Sens. Sessions, McConnell, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Rand Paul all saying that any nominee for attorney general would have to disavow Obama’s plan to provide amnesty to certain illegal immigrants through executive action. Obama has said repeatedly, including at his post-election press conference Wednesday, that he will go forward with the immigration reform executive actions before the year, unless Congress passes an immigration reform bill....

Obama, White House aides have said, sees the next attorney general as being a key figure in helping him complete several issues he sees as fundamental to the legal legacy he wants, including sentencing reform and figuring out a solution to closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

I am very pleased and excited by this news for many reasons, particularly because I think the selection of Lynch at least indirectly suggests that Prez Obama is more interested in moving forward with sentencing reform than in picking fights with the new Congress. Among the various names discussed as possible nominees, I view Lynch as probably the least controversial choice as well as the person most likely to be able, practically and politically, to keep up the sentencing reform momentum that outgoing AG Eric Holder made a signature concern of his final years in his position.

November 8, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

"We should stop putting women in jail. For anything."

The title of this post is the headline of this provocative commentary by Patricia O'Brien available via the Washington Post.  Here are excerpts:

It sounds like a radical idea: Stop incarcerating women, and close down women’s prisons. But in Britain, there is a growing movement, sponsored by a peer in the House of Lords, to do just that.

The argument is actually quite straightforward:  There are far fewer women in prison than men to start with — women make up just 7 percent of the prison population. This means that these women are disproportionately affected by a system designed for men.

But could women’s prisons actually be eliminated in the United States, where the rate of women’s incarceration has risen by 646 percent in the past 30 years? ...  Essentially, the case for closing women’s prisons is the same as the case for imprisoning fewer men. It is the case against the prison industrial complex and for community-based treatment where it works better than incarceration.  But there is evidence that prison harms women more than men, so why not start there?

Any examination of the women who are in U.S. prisons reveals that the majority are nonviolent offenders with poor education, little employment experience and multiple histories of abuse from childhood through adulthood.  Women are also more likely than men to have children who rely on them for support — 147,000 American children have mothers in prison....

What purpose is served by subjecting the most disempowered, abused and nonviolent women to the perpetually negative environment of prisons?  Efforts to make prison “work” for women have only perpetuated the growth of the prison industrial complex. These putative reforms have helped some individuals, and possibly brought the nature of mass warehousing of poor, black and brown bodies more into focus, but the number of incarcerated people still continues to rise.

So what is the alternative to jailing women at the rate we do?  In Britain, advocates propose community sentences for nonviolent offenders and housing violent offenders in small custodial centers near their families.  There is evidence that these approaches can work in the United States.  Opportunities to test alternatives to prison are increasing across the states, and some have demonstrated beneficial results for the women who participated....

Oklahoma is currently ranked No. 1 for female incarceration per capita in the country. Nearly 80 percent of Oklahoma’s incarcerated women are nonviolent offenders, their presence in prison largely attributed to drug abuse, distribution of controlled substances, prostitution and property crimes.

A program that began five years ago, Women in Recovery, provides an alternative to prison for women who are sentenced for felony crimes linked to alcohol or drug addiction.  The program includes comprehensive treatment and services such as employment services, housing assistance and family reunification.  Women with small children are given the highest priority for admission to the program.  Women who complete the program, averaging about 18 months, have a high degree of success after release.  The program coordinator has told me that 68 percent of the women who completed the program had no further involvement with the criminal justice system....

The systemic production of mass incarceration cannot be solved simply by assisting troubled and troubling individual women.  Another step to abolition requires taking the discussion beyond the individuals and communities most directly harmed, controlled and erased by the prison industrial complex to the public sphere that has passively accepted it.  Put simply, we need to stop seeing prisons as an inevitable part of life....

The case for closing women’s prisons is built on the experiences of formerly incarcerated women and activists who recognize that women who are mothers and community builders can find their way forward when they respected and supported.  It is possible to imagine a future without women’s prisons; whether it’s achievable will require a bigger shift in thinking.

November 8, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, November 7, 2014

Guest SCOTUS argument analysis: "Fish are apparently funny . . . and other quick thoughts on Yates"

Professor Todd Haugh was kind enough to send along for posting here this analysis of one of the notable federal criminal justice cases just heard by the Supreme Court:

The Supreme Court heard argument this week in Yates v. United States, the oddball case requiring the Court to determine whether the “anti-shredding” provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act applies to a fisherman who threw a crate of undersized grouper overboard after he was ordered not to by a federal agent.  The precise issue was whether the fisherman, John Yates, had adequate notice that 18 U.S.C. § 1519’s “tangible object” provision covered fish along with financial records, which were the focus of SOX following the Enron and Arthur Anderson document-shredding scandal. Although there have been a number of comprehensive posts about the statutory interpretation aspects of the case, see here and here, I wanted to offer my quick reaction to the argument, which I attended.

Fish are funny.  First of all, although this may be trivial for hardcore criminal law and sentencing buffs, this was one of the most jovial arguments I have seen, riotous even.  The argument was interrupted numerous times by the gallery’s laughter — 15 times according to the transcript — which was prompted by both the litigants and the Justices.  And this wasn’t all the Scalia show.  Justices Kagan, Sotomayor, and Breyer all offered quips that gave the audience quite a show.

But overcriminalization is not.  Part of the reason everyone was in a joking mood was the inherent absurdity of the underlying prosecution.  Although Roman Martinez, the Assistant SG, tried to convey that Yates had not just tossed away a few fish, but had directly disobeyed a federal agent and then enlisted his crew to lie about it, the Justices weren’t buying it.  At one point, Chief Justice Roberts interrupted Martinez, saying, “You make him [Yates] sound like a mob boss or something.”  (Again, to great laughter.)  In between the laughs, however, the Court conveyed a serious concern over the sweep of § 1519 and the government’s exercise of discretion.  Justices Breyer and Alito, in particular, posed squirm-inducing hypotheticals to Martinez demonstrating that the only thing stopping this provision from criminalizing obviously trivial conduct is the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Martinez’s admission, solicited from Justice Ginsburg, that the U.S. Attorney’s Manual instructs prosecutors to bring the most severe charge available did not help the government’s cause.  Justice Scalia, who had previously asked what kind of “mad prosecutor” brought the case and questioned whether it was the “same guy . . . that brought the prosecution in Bond last term,” said that if the government’s policy was to always prosecute so severely, the Court was “going to be much more careful about how extensive statutes are” and how much “coverage” to give them.

And neither is severe sentencing.  Much of this was driven by the sentencing risk Yates faced — twenty years for destroying evidence of a civil infraction.  A number of Justices questioned why Congress needed to enact another obstruction provision with a 20-year max when there were others available.  The government tried to back its way out of the inquiry by explaining that the prosecutor had recommended a Guideline sentence of 21 to 27 months and Yates only got 30 days in jail, but Chief Justice Roberts highlighted that the issue was not the actual sentence received but the “extraordinary leverage that the broadest interpretation of this statute would give Federal prosecutors.”  He specifically mentioned prosecutors using the risk of severe sentencing to force pleas, and Justice Scalia’s questions suggests he was troubled by the same thing.  

Overcriminalization exacts real hams.  I’m by no means a statutory interpretation wonk, so my interest in Yates is focused on how the case tees up the issue of overcriminalization (particularly in the white collar context).  Overcriminalization exacts harms by making prosecutors lawmakers and adjudicators of the criminal code, which invariably leads to arbitrary enforcement.  This is what so many of the Justices were reacting to during the argument.  But overcriminalization’s real harm, which flows from that arbitrary enforcement, is that it lessens the legitimacy of the criminal law.  The absurdity of the Yates prosecution, while making for a lively and fun argument, demonstrated the point. It’s fine to laugh, but when that laughter is directed at our criminal justice system, that’s a serious matter. The question is whether the Court will take this opportunity to provide a serious response.

Predicting a winner. Using the method of tallying questions to the litigants during argument as a way to predict the outcome — the party receiving the most questions from the Justices during oral argument is more likely to lose (see here for a discussion of the methodology) — I’ll go ahead and predict a winner.  According to my notes, Yates’ attorney received approximately 29 questions (I say approximately because it’s hard to know how to count Justice Breyer’s three-part hypotheticals) to the government’s 36, which suggests Yates will prevail.  The tone of the questions certainly point to the same conclusion, and it’s consistent with how other’s saw the argument — see here.

November 7, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack (0)

ACLU to devote $50 million to political efforts to attack mass incerceration

Images (6)As reported in this New York Times article, headlined "A.C.L.U. in $50 Million Push to Reduce Jail Sentences," a leading advocacy group big new pot of money to be spent on attacking the problem of mass incarceration. Here are the details:

With a $50 million foundation grant, the largest in its history, the American Civil Liberties Union plans to mount an eight-year political campaign across the country to make a change of criminal justice policies a key issue in local, state and national elections. The goal of the campaign, financed by George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, is to slash an incarceration rate that has tripled since 1980. There are currently some 2.2 million prisoners in the United States.

The campaign aims to translate into state and federal policy a growing belief among many scholars, as well as of a coalition of liberal, conservative and libertarian political leaders, that the tough-on-crime policies of recent decades have become costly and counterproductive. In that view, widespread drug arrests and severe mandatory sentences are doing more to damage poor communities, especially African-American ones, than to prevent crime, and building ever more prisons that mostly turn out repeat offenders is a bad investment.

The campaign is likely to face strong opposition from some law enforcement officials, prosecutor groups and conservative experts who argue that tough sentencing policies have played an important role in driving down crime rates. The Republican electoral victories this week could also stiffen resistance to sweeping change.

The grant is going to the political arm of the A.C.L.U., which has far more leeway to lobby for laws, run ads on television and finance political action committees to promote candidates than the group’s larger, traditional branch, which relies more on litigation. As a result, the money is not tax-deductible.

While the A.C.L.U. has often been associated with liberal causes like ending the death penalty and promoting same-sex marriage, Anthony D. Romero, the group’s executive director, said the organization was building ties with conservative leaders promoting alternatives to incarceration and would not hesitate to aid Republican candidates who support needed steps. “I think criminal justice reform is one of the few issues where you can break through the partisan gridlock,” Mr. Romero said, adding that the group would seek out Republican lobbying firms to help reach legislators.

In the latest example of converging views, conservatives including Newt Gingrich and B. Wayne Hughes Jr., a Christian philanthropist, joined the Soros-led foundation and the A.C.L.U. in support of Proposition 47, a California ballot measure to redefine many lower-level felonies, including possession for personal use of hard drugs, as misdemeanors. The change, which passed by a wide margin on Tuesday, is expected to keep tens of thousands of offenders out of prison and save the state hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

The Koch brothers, major funders of conservative causes and candidates, have joined in. Koch Industries recently gave a grant “of significant six figures” to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to support the defense of indigents, said Mark Holden, senior vice president and general counsel at Koch Industries. “Whether the human cost or the societal cost, what we’re doing in the criminal justice system isn’t working,” Mr. Holden said. “We’re finding common ground with people with different political affiliations,” he said, praising the advocacy work of the A.C.L.U. in this field.

The A.C.L.U. campaign will be directed by Alison Holcomb, who led the effort in Washington State to legalize marijuana. The group plans to use ads to insert issues like drug policy, mandatory sentences and prison re-entry into early primary states in the presidential elections, such as Iowa and New Hampshire, and then in key battlegrounds like Pennsylvania and Florida, Mr. Romero said.

It will also develop a state-by-state database describing who is in prison for what crimes and then target local politicians and prosecutors who promote what Mr. Romero called “overincarceration.” Mr. Romero said the goal of the campaign was to reduce incarceration by 50 percent in eight years.... Todd R. Clear, a criminologist and the provost of Rutgers University-Newark, said he agreed that the time was right for a major shift in justice policies.... But he cautioned that to achieve a decline anywhere near as steep as that proposed by the A.C.L.U., far more politically contentious changes would be necessary. “We’ll have to make sentencing reforms for violent crime, too,” he said, including major changes in drug laws and the multidecade sentences often imposed on violent or repeat offenders.

November 7, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

After state's capital repeal, Maryland AG argues the state cannot execute those already on death row

As reported in this Baltimore Sun piece, headlined "Gansler argues state must vacate sentences of death row inmates," Maryland's Attorney General has concluded that it would not be proper to see execution of those on state's death row after the legislature repealed capital punishment. Here are the details:  

More than a year after the repeal of capital punishment in Maryland, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler says the state has no choice but to change the sentences of its remaining death row inmates.

Gansler has filed a legal brief in support of an appeal by Jody Lee Miles, who is asking to be resentenced for the 1997 murder of an Eastern Shore musical theater director. Miles' lawyers — and Gansler — argue the state no longer has the authority to execute the four men already on death row because lawmakers abolished capital punishment in 2013. With repeal, they argue, legislators took away the state's power to issue the regulations necessary to put someone to death.

Instead, Miles should be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, Gansler argued in a brief filed with the Court of Special Appeals. "Whether or not you agree with the death penalty, the recent repeal of capital punishment in Maryland nevertheless demands that we pursue a prison sentence that ensures Jody Lee Miles dies behind bars, where he belongs," Gansler said in a statement Thursday.

Speaking at a news conference, Gansler called capital punishment in Maryland "illegal and factually impossible." Though the brief relates only to Miles, Gansler acknowledged that his position has implications for the other death row inmates.

His position drew criticism from the family of Miles' victim, Edward Joseph Atkinson, and from the Wicomico County state's attorney, whose office prosecuted the case.

Atkinson's mother, Dottie Atkinson, said Miles should be put to death. "It's been appeal after appeal. We get some hope each time, and all these appeals have been in our favor, and all of a sudden we get this news. We've been let down," she told reporters on the Eastern Shore, according to The Daily Times. "It's an impact people shouldn't have to go through."

Wicomico County State's Attorney Matt Maciarello also denounced the decision. But he added that, if the state's position is set, Gov. Martin O'Malley should move to commute Miles' sentence and spare the family the court hearings and drawn-out process associated with appeals. "If the attorney general is committed to this approach, let's give this family some finality," Maciarello said. "It's cruel to put this family through more suffering."

Gansler noted that O'Malley, who supported repeal, could commute the death sentences to life without the possibility of parole. The governor has at least one petition — from inmate Heath William Burch — on his desk that he has yet to take action on, Burch's attorney said.

Through a spokeswoman, O'Malley declined to comment on Gansler's opinion, saying only that the attorney general "has a constitutional obligation to determine how the law applies." Regarding the governor's ability to commute sentences, the spokeswoman said O'Malley "continues to consider each case and will address the issue when a decision has been made."

Gov.-elect Larry Hogan and incoming attorney general Brian Frosh did not respond to requests for comment.

Gansler — who opposed the repeal legislation but never sought the death penalty as the top prosecutor in Montgomery County — said his office was obligated to weigh in on Miles' case before the Court of Special Appeals. He noted that after a court threw out Maryland's lethal injection procedure as unconstitutional in 2006, the state did not adopt new regulations. When his staff researched the issue, the conclusion was that the "uncertain enforceability" of the death penalty in Maryland threatened due process, he said....

His opinion contrasts with that of a Queen Anne's County judge, who rejected Miles' argument last year. In that case, Judge Thomas G. Ross found the lack of rules for executions "troubling" but said even after the repeal went into effect the Division of Correction retained the authority to develop new rules....

Miles' attorneys commended Gansler's move but said they believe he should be eligible for release at some point, not sentenced to life without parole. Miles has expressed "extreme remorse" for the killing, had a "devastating childhood history" and has been a model inmate while behind bars, the attorneys say. Gansler said life without parole is the appropriate sentence because the jury had a choice between that and the death penalty.

November 7, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, November 6, 2014

How might election results (and subsequent sparring) impact Prez Obama's clemency plans?

In this prior post, I wondered aloud "How might election results impact replacing Eric Holder as Attorney General?."  Since then, I have turned to thinking about, as the title of this post highlights, whether and how the Republican electorial success this election cycle might impact the President's thinking and plans about finally making some real use of his clemency powers.

As regular readers know, I consider President Obama's clemency record to date to be not merely disappointing, but truly disgraceful.  That said, earlier this year, Deputy AG Cole and others talked up a new DOJ effort to identify worthy clemency candidates so that the President might start to do better.  From the get-go, I have been concerned that all the talk of new clemency developments might prove to be just another example of the Obama Administration being real good at "talking the talk" and not nearly so good at really "walking the walk."  Indeed, until President Obama starts seriously and consistently using his clemency power, I remain deeply fearful that the so-called Clemency Project 2014 could prove to be much ado about nothing (or about very little relief for very few).

With these realities as backdrop, I have no sense at all whether the consequential political developments of the last few days will have little, some or much impact on whatever Prez Obama had in mind with respect to clemency.  Does anyone else have any insights or even wild speculations on this front?

A few of many recent and older posts concerning federal clemency practices:

November 6, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

Impact of California's Prop 47 already being felt ... by defense attorneys and police

This local article from California, headlined "Scramble to implement Prop 47 begins," spotlight the impact already being felt by the passage of the biggest criminal justice reform initiative of Election 2014.  Here are the (already remarkable) basics:

Just hours after the last ballot returns were counted, the phone lines of defense attorneys across the state began to light up Wednesday morning with calls from inmates.

With the passage of Proposition 47, simple drug possession and property crimes valued under $950 are now misdemeanors, effective immediately. Punishment means, at the worst, up to a year in jail, no longer prison. It also means up to 10,000 inmates serving time for those crimes can begin to apply for shortened sentences, a process many were eager to get started.

“This morning at 8 a.m., we took 10 attorneys and put them on the phones,” said Randy Mize, a chief deputy at the Public Defender’s Office. “They were taking 200 calls an hour from inmates in county jail. These are people asking us to file petitions on their behalf.”

The scramble to put the new law into practice was starting to touch all corners of the criminal justice system Wednesday, from the City Attorney’s Office, which will have to handle 3,000 extra cases a year, to police officers who will have new protocols to follow for certain arrests.

At Juvenile Hall Wednesday morning, six kids were released because they had felony charges that are now classified as misdemeanors under Proposition 47, and legally minors can’t be detained longer than an adult would, authorities said. “I think the roll out today started fairly smoothly,” Mize said. He attributed much of that to the fact that criminal justice leaders from around the county — including prosecutors, public defenders, the sheriff and probation officers — have been meeting for the past month to prepare for this day....

The law is intended to ease prison overcrowding, and put most of the estimated $200 million saved in prison costs annually into drug and mental health treatment programs to staunch recidivism. The majority of law enforcement officials around the state and the county are skeptical it will have the desired effect, and fear less time behind bars will only contribute to the revolving door of the criminal justice system. But, officials say, they will do their best to make it work. “It’s still a work in progress,” Sheriff Bill Gore said Wednesday. “Our primary concern is clearly the public’s safety.”...

Law enforcement officers were reminded of the new law in police lineups around the county. As of Wednesday, six crimes that used to be felonies are now misdemeanors: drug possession for personal use, as well as five property crimes valued below $950, theft, writing bad checks, forgery, shoplifting and receiving stolen property.

One of the biggest differences when arresting someone on a misdemeanor, rather than a felony, is that the crime must have occurred in the officer’s presence, or be witnessed by a citizen willing to sign an affidavit saying so. Several training memos have been distributed in the past few weeks to prepare deputies on such arrests, Gore said....

The Public Defender’s Office has already identified about 200 state prisoners and 1,800 other offenders either in jail or under the supervision of probation who might be eligible to be resentenced under Proposition 47. The first set of petitions are expected to be filed within the next day or so, with priority given to those in custody. Once the application is filed in court, the District Attorney’s Office will review it to make sure the person is eligible, then a judge will OK it and hand down a new, shorter sentence. The process could be as quick as a few weeks for the first group of offenders, said Mize, with public defender’s office.

“There will be a few cases that the DA thinks should be excluded, and we don’t, and those will be litigated,” Mize said. There may also be a few offenders that prosecutors think are too dangerous to be released, and those cases will be argued. Inmates who can’t be resentenced are those who have prior convictions such as murder, attempted murder and violent sex crimes.

The public defender’s office has also identified nearly 200,000 other people who have been convicted since 1990 — that’s as far back as its database goes — of the crimes reclassified under Proposition 47. They can now apply to have their records show misdemeanor rather than felony convictions. Statewide, that could apply to millions of people. Said Mize, “It will certainly take a lot more work in the short term.”


Prior related posts on California's Prop 47:

November 6, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

New California report finds many challenges in sex offender monitoring

As reported in this local piece from California, "two-thirds of parole agents who monitor sex offenders juggle caseloads that exceed department standards, a state corrections review reported Wednesday in response to an Orange County murder case." Here is more about the report's findings:

Agents are supposed to supervise between 20 and 40 parolees, depending on how many are high-risk offenders. But more often than not, the state Office of the Inspector General found, agents are overburdened. At 14 of the state’s 37 units responsible for supervising paroled sex offenders, all agents had bigger caseloads than department policies allow. The inspector general surveyed the units’ caseloads in August.

The report also criticized the effectiveness of GPS monitoring and housing restrictions enacted through Jessica’s Law, a 2006 ballot measure. The inspector general tied the restrictions to a spike in homelessness and strained resources....

The state Sex Offender Management Board recommended four years ago that agents supervise no more than 20 paroled sex offenders. But the inspector general said corrections officials haven’t adopted the lower threshold.

The inspector general report was requested by state Sen. Darrell Steinberg after the April arrests of Steven Gordon and Franc Cano, two transient sex offenders registered to live in Anaheim. Steinberg was head of the Senate at the time and chairman of its rules committee....

Steinberg didn’t request that the inspector general probe how Gordon and Cano were supervised by parole agents. Previously, the office did just that after the high-profile convictions of sex offenders Phillip Garrido and John Gardner. This time, Steinberg focused on broader questions about the impact of GPS monitoring and housing restrictions.

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation estimates that it spent about $7.9 million to monitor more than 6,000 paroled sex offenders with GPS devices in the last fiscal year, a decline from $12.4 million four years earlier.

The detailed 80+-page report from the California Office of Inspector General, which is titled "Special Review: Assessment of Electronic Monitoring of Sex Offenders on Parole and the Impact of Residency Restrictions," is available at this link.

November 6, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)