Sunday, September 6, 2015
Ohio queue of condemned keeps growing as state struggles with its death machinery
This new AP article, headlined "Ohio Death Row Quandary: 2 Dozen Executions, No Lethal Drugs," highlights the distinctive problem Ohio now has with the administration of capital punishment. Here are the details:
The state now has two dozen condemned killers with firm execution dates, but with four months before the first one, it still doesn't have the lethal drugs it needs to carry them out. The state's inability to find drugs has death penalty opponents calling for the end of capital punishment in Ohio. Supporters say the state needs to keep looking or find alternatives to provide justice for killings that are in some cases decades old.
"Rather than frustrate that process it would seem to me their goal ought to be to carry out that process," said Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien, who's contacted the prisons department, the attorney general and the governor's office for updates on their progress finding drugs. One option he'd like Ohio to consider: nitrogen gas, approved by Oklahoma in April as an execution alternative.
On Jan. 21, the state is scheduled to execute Ronald Phillips for raping and killing his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter in Akron in 1993. The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction "continues to seek all legal means to obtain the drugs necessary to carry out court-ordered executions," said spokeswoman JoEllen Smith, using the same statement the agency has offered for months. "This process has included multiple options."
On Wednesday, the Ohio Supreme Court set a March 2017 date for Gary Otte of Cleveland for the shooting deaths of two people in a 1992 robbery spree. The remaining executions are scheduled clear into 2019.
The state hasn't executed anyone since January 2014, when condemned killer Dennis McGuire gasped and snorted repeatedly during a 26-minute procedure with a then untried two-drug method. Ohio abandoned that method in favor of other drugs it now can't find. Like other states, Ohio has struggled to obtain drugs as pharmaceutical companies discontinued the medications traditionally used by states or put them off limits for executions.
The state's latest attempt, to obtain a federal import license to buy drugs from overseas, ran into a roadblock when the FDA informed Ohio such actions are illegal because the drugs in question aren't FDA-approved.
That's the kind of thing that happens when dates are set without drugs on hand, said Tim Young, the state public defender. "That continual setting of dates seems to bring to bear unfortunate pressure to drive the choices with untested drugs, untested processes," he said.
Gov. John Kasich said other states won't give Ohio their drugs and lawsuits may tie up attempts to import approved drugs. But he said there's still time before the January execution. "I want to continue forward with the death penalty, but if I don't have the drugs it becomes very difficult," Kasich said.
Ohio appears to have the most killers with execution dates because of the state's system for scheduling them. Texas, which still leads the nation in the number of executions annually, sets dates a maximum of 90 days out. Missouri, which has a similar system, has a maximum 60-day window which extends up to 120 days next year.
Digging deeply into the back-end of criminal justice systems
Regular readers are accustomed to seeing my praise in this space for Margaret Love's commentary about the federal clemency process and for the commentary and coverage of a range of back-end criminal justice issues at the Collateral Consequences Resource Center. These new posts at CCRC provide yet more support for my view that any and everyone interested in the so-called "back-end" of American criminal justice systems should be reading everything Margaret Love has to say and all the posts at CCRC:
Connecticut prosecutors seek reconsideration of retroactive abolition of death sentences
This Reuters article, headlined "Prosecutors seek to re-argue case that ended Connecticut death penalty," reports on a notable (and seemingly long-shot) motion filed late last week in the Connecticut Supreme Court. Here are the details:
Connecticut prosecutors asked the state Supreme Court on Friday to reconsider its recent decision on a narrow vote to end the state's death penalty, a clerk for the state Supreme Court said.
Prosecutors late Friday filed a motion asking the justices to allow them to re-argue the case in which justices called the death penalty cruel and unusual punishment and concluded that it "no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency." The ruling, on a 4-3 vote, added Connecticut to the growing list of states backing away from the death penalty, including Nebraska and Maryland most recently. Thirty-one states have the death penalty.
Prosecutors on Friday also asked the court to strike from the record a concurring opinion about racial bias in capital cases they said was barred as merely advisory, the clerk said. In the opinion, Justices Flemming Norcott and Andrew McDonald wrote that racial and ethnic discrimination had "permeated the breadth of this state's experience with capital charging and sentencing decisions."
Prosecutors want to present new arguments in response to the majority opinions, including the rarity of executions in Connecticut, the delay in imposing death sentences and the danger of executing the innocent, the clerk said.
"The Division of Criminal Justice recognizes the complex legal and policy issues that the court confronted in this crucially important case," Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane wrote in the motion. "The process that the majority followed in reaching its conclusion deprived the division of the opportunity to address the concerns that drove the results and led the majority unaided by the time-tested adversarial process to inaccurate assumptions and errors of law," he wrote....
Connecticut in 2012 abolished capital punishment for future crimes but allowed the death penalty to be imposed for crimes previously committed. The current debate leaves 11 death row inmates in limbo.
I would guess that these sorts of motions for reargument in the Connecticut Supreme Court are almost never granted. But, as long-time readers know, death penalty cases can and often lead to some unusual legal developments.
Prior related posts:
- Connecticut Supreme Court follows legislature's prospective DP repeal with retrospective state consitutional abolition
- Connecticut Supreme Court retroactive abolition of death sentences prompting prosepctive perspectives
Friday, September 4, 2015
Are you ready for some college football ... and highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform
I have plans to watch a lot of college football over the long weekend, which culminates Monday night with my Ohio State Buckeyes beginning their national championship defense at Virginia Tech.
I assume a lot of college students also plan to watch a lot of football, and some recent research reported via this post at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform indicates that college students are now more likely to be smoking marijuana than to be smoking cigarettes when they are taking study breaks. With that terrible segue, here are some more recent posts of note from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform:
"I’m a public defender. It’s impossible for me to do a good job representing my clients."
The title of this post is the headline of this new Washington Post piece authored by Tina Peng, who is a staff attorney at the Orleans Public Defenders. Here are excerpts:
Our office represents 85 percent of the people charged with crimes in Orleans Parish but has an annual budget about a third the size of the district attorney’s. The American Bar Association recommends that public defenders not work on more than 150 felony cases a year. In 2014, I handled double that.
The United States accounts for less than 5 percent of the world’s population but almost 25 percent of the global prison population. The vast majority of people in prison are indigent: The Justice Department has estimated that 60 to 90 percent of criminal defendants nationwide cannot afford their own attorneys and that in 2007, U.S. public defender offices received more than 5.5 million cases....
The funding crisis is nationwide, and it is dire. When people ask how to push back against police misconduct, how to decrease the costs of mass incarceration and how to ensure fairer treatment of our nation’s most disenfranchised citizens, part of the answer lies in fully funding public defender’s offices and enabling us to represent our clients in a meaningful manner....
I went to law school to be a public defender. My frustration with our office’s persistent underfunding is not that it forces me to work long hours, represent numerous clients or make far less money than I would at a private law firm. It is that when we are constantly required to do more with less, our clients suffer.
Because we don’t have enough lawyers on staff, the week I passed the bar in 2013, I began representing people facing mandatory life sentences on felony charges. In Louisiana, people with as few as two prior nonviolent felony convictions can face mandatory life imprisonment on charges as minor as possession of a syringe containing heroin residue or, until recently, possession of a single joint. Defendants who cannot afford to make bond can sit in jail for 60 days while the district attorney decides whether to arraign them. An unconstitutionally high caseload means that I often see my new clients only once in those two months. It means that I miss filing important motions, that I am unable to properly prepare for every trial, that I have serious conversations about plea bargains with my clients in open court because I did not spend enough time conducting confidential visits with them in jail. I plead some of my clients to felony convictions on the day I meet them. If I don’t follow up to make sure clients are released when they should be, they can sit in jail for unnecessary weeks and months....
Unfortunately, budget cuts and a spiraling workload are not unique to Orleans Parish. Funding problems threaten poor people’s right to counsel across America.
In June, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Idaho, claiming that the state has failed to fund or improve its broken public defense system and has deprived indigent residents of their Sixth Amendment right to adequate legal representation. Indigent defendants in most Idaho counties have no lawyers at their first court appearances, where bail is set and pleas of guilty or not guilty are entered, according to the lawsuit. Many counties also pay attorneys who accept public defense contracts a flat fee, regardless of the number or seriousness of the cases each attorney handles. Some public defenders in Idaho carry caseloads that are double national standards....
Ultimately, it’s easy to forget what we’re talking about when we talk about the criminal justice system. I’ve been asked by my family members, my friends and my hairdresser why I represent criminals. The answer is that I, and other public defenders, don’t represent criminals. We represent poor people who were arrested and are facing criminal charges — charges on which they are presumed innocent until proven guilty in court. We represent members of our communities who have a right to real and meaningful legal representation, even if they are poor. My clients, like the millions of other people in America currently represented by public defenders, deserve better.
Remarkable federal sentencing story pits prosecutors against each other
A colleague alerted me to a remarkable and disconcerting federal sentencing story from the Carolinas, which is reviewed in this local piece headlined "Gang Leader Sought Prosecutor’s Murder: In spite of threat, her superiors sought a lesser sentence." Here are the basics from the start of the article:
Federal prosecutor Denise Walker, who was forced into hiding for six weeks as a result of a drug dealer’s threats to have her killed, later resigned when her superiors in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Raleigh proposed a lesser sentence for the drug dealer and blocked any mention of his murderous intentions in a pre-sentencing report.
Walker had been the lead federal attorney on a task force of law enforcement professionals who flushed out and captured members of a criminal gang. She resigned her position in March 2015 after learning of the intentions of her superiors, U. S. Attorney Thomas Walker (no relation to Denise Walker) and his top deputy John Bruce, to seek a reduction of the mandatory life sentence called for in federal guidelines for Reynaldo Calderon, the gang leaders who threatened to have her killed.
In exchange for Calderon’s cooperation with testimony against one of his associates, the government had proposed a 30-year sentence for Calderon, now age 31. Denise Walker believed Calderon’s cooperation was insignificant and did not warrant any leniency. At the sentencing hearing, at which she testified, she said her superiors downplayed the Calderon threat and even mocked her for being concerned about it. And she termed the proposed lesser sentence and the omission of the death threat in the pre-sentencing hearing “deplorable.”
During the sentencing hearing, however, the judge presiding over the case shared her concern, denied the government’s request for a lesser sentence, and imposed the mandatory life sentence guidelines prescribed.
"American Criminal Record Exceptionalism"
The title of this post is the titel of this new paper by Kevin Lapp now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
In recent decades, criminal records have proliferated and come to be more consequential than ever. James B. Jacobs’s new book, THE ETERNAL CRIMINAL RECORD (2015), documents their broad scope, wide availability, and the long, devastating shadow that criminal records cast.
In this Review, I organize the material in this challenging book into three different claims about American criminal record policy: that in the United States, criminal records are exceptionally public, exceptionally punitive, and exceptionally permanent. I explain how this results in an inexpensive means of sorting and inflicting punishment by devolving a great portion of the work to private actors and the general public. It also presents a public policy conundrum for American criminal justice: the more information we collect and share about suspected criminals and actual offenders, the easier it is to identify and discriminate against those marked individuals. This, it turns out, increases recidivism, therefore undermining the public safety goal at the heart of comprehensive, accessible criminal records. To counter this perverse outcome, I marshal evidence and optimism for reforms that Jacobs considers either unattainable or unwarranted, including the possibility of juvenile justice policy serving as a blueprint for a more redemptive criminal record policy for all.
Thursday, September 3, 2015
Julie Stewart of FAMM goes hard after Bill Otis for being "proven wrong time and time again"
Regular readers know I often note and express respect for the work and writings of both former federal prosecutor Bill Otis, who now writes most regularly at Crime & Consequences, and Julie Stewart, who is the President and Founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Today I must note and express amazement at the concerted efforts of one of these two taking on the other: Julie Stewart has this notable new Reason commentary headlined "The Former Prosecutor Who Consistently Gets Criminal Justice Reform Wrong: Former prosecutor Bill Otis has been mistaken over and over again when advising legislators against reducing drug sentences." Here are excerpts mostly from the start and end of the piece:
No one expects our elected representatives to be experts in every area of public policy. At the same time, we have every right to expect that our representatives will consult policy analysts and experts who know what they're talking about, not someone who has been proven wrong time and time again. In the world of criminal justice, that someone is former federal prosecutor and Georgetown Law adjunct William Otis.
Over the past two decades, Bill Otis has become the Paul Ehrlich of criminal sentencing reform. He is always certain in his convictions and nearly always wrong. Moreover, like Ehrlich, Otis likes to scare the public with predictions of certain and impending doom, and he is immune to feelings of embarrassment or humiliation despite being proven spectacularly wrong over and over again....
[W]hereas Ehrlich saw overpopulation as the culprit, Otis thinks shortening sentences for nonviolent drug offenders will be America's undoing. Indeed, every time Congress or the U.S. Sentencing Commission has considered even mild sentence reductions over the past two decades, Otis has gone full Chicken Little. He has been wrong every time....
The nationwide drop in crime and prison crowding should be celebrated. Less violent crime means fewer murder victims, fewer robbery victims, and fewer assault victims. Smaller prison populations means savings for taxpayers and more money to spend on what actually does reduce crime — community policing and supervision practices like "short, swift, and certain." None of these gratifying results would have been possible if Otis's theory were correct — or if any lawmakers outside the Beltway had heard of Otis and took his views seriously. While Otis has been consistently wrong, thankfully lawmakers have ignored him....
Committed to his prison-is-always-the-answer ideology, Otis derided the [Fair Sentencing Act], saying it should be called the "Crack Dealers Relief Act." When the U.S. Sentencing Commission lowered the crack guideline and made it retroactive in accord with the FSA, Otis predicted it would lead to an increase in crime.... On his blog, Otis cranked up the fear machine. He predicted "misery" when "thousands of crack dealers" would be "put back on the street prematurely" to terrorize their communities.
Fortunately for those of us concerned about public safety, Otis was wrong again — amazingly wrong. Since passage of the FSA, the crime rate, the prison population, and crack usage are all down! It bears repeating. Otis said the changes would cause "misery" and "inevitably lead to more crime." Instead, while thousands of offenders have received fairer sentences, the crime rate has fallen, crack use is down, and taxpayers have saved millions from being wasted on unnecessary prison costs....
Otis is impervious to facts and evidence. He will quote Professor Steven Levitt's finding that greater reliance on incarceration helped reduce crime in the 1990s and then ignore Levitt's later conclusion that the country has gone too far and that prisons should reduce their populations by one-third. Otis will say, as he does in National Review, that the movement for sentencing reform "is strictly interest-group — and billionaire — driven, inside-the-Beltway," which would be fine if you did not already know that the reform movement began in the states and is being promoted in Washington, DC by insiders like Senators Ted Cruz (R-Tx.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Mike Lee (R-Utah).
Otis's amazing record of wrongness would be interesting and perhaps even funny if he, like fellow fear-peddler Paul Ehrlich, were exiled from the world of rational public policy making. But media reports have suggested that some members of Congress actually listen to Otis. If that's true, then we really do have a good reason to be scared.
Yowsa. Because I consider both Julie Stewart and Bill Otis to be personal friends, I am going to be trying hard to stay out of this sentencing sparring. But I am also going to try to report fairly on any rounds of this fight, and thus will be quick to post any response that Bill Otis provides in his own defense in the days ahead.
UPDATE: Bill Otis has a response up at Crime & Consequences: Are Sentencing "Reformers" Getting Worried?. Here is a snippet from Bill's introduction to his brief substantive refutation of points made by Julie Stewart:
I think it unbecoming and unwise to get caught up in this sort of thing. If you hold a controversial position, you can expect some heat. And if you spend all your time answering your critics, you'll never do anything else. You'll certainly abandon any hope of making your own points. Accordingly, with the exceptions noted below, I am not going to engage with Ms. Stewart. (If she seeks a live debate with me, that would be another matter).
I'm quite sure she is sincere. But, for reasons stated in hundreds of things I have said on this blog and elsewhere, I believe she is in error.
September 3, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, National and State Crime Data, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (22)
South Carolina prosecutors begin pursuit of death penalty again Charleston church mass murderer
As reported in this new AP piece, the "man accused of killing nine black churchgoers during a Bible study will face the death penalty, according to court documents filed Thursday." Here is more:
The documents said prosecutors would pursue the death penalty against Dylann Roof, 21, because more than two people were killed, and that others' lives were put at risk.
Prosecutors also said they intended to present evidence on Roof's mental state, adult and juvenile criminal record and other conduct, as well as his apparent lack of remorse for the killings.
Roof faces state charges including nine murder counts in the June 17 slayings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. He is expected in court again on those charges in October.
He also faces federal charges including hate crimes and obstruction of the practice of religion, some of which are also eligible for the death penalty in that system. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has said federal charges were necessary to adequately address a motive that prosecutors believe was unquestionably rooted in racial hate. South Carolina has no state hate crimes law.
Lots of ideas for Prez Obama for final criminal justice reform push
The fine folks at The Marshall Project got a lot of other fine folks to share their views here on what Prez Obama might usefully do in the criminal justice reform area as his time in the Oval Office winds down. The piece is headlined "Obama’s Final 500 Days: People from across the political spectrum suggest criminal justice reforms the president should enact during his remaining time in office." There is a lot of food for thought (for both readers and Prez Obama) in the piece, and here are some of the headings used by the Marshall Project marking some themes:
Prosecute the Prosecutors
Have Truly Smarter Sentencing
Release More Prisoners
Don’t Forget the Aftermath
Create a Few Commissions
Third Circuit panel explains Scylla and Charybdis of habeas law to prisoner John (Odysseus) Doe
Anyone who loves to read about and think a lot about federal post-conviction sentencing review rules — and really, who doesn't? — will want to make sure to preserve some time today to try to consume all of the extraordinary work done yesterday by a Third Circuit panel in US v. Doe, No. 13-4274 (3d Cir. Sept 2, 2015) (available here). The Doe decision runs 50 pages (with a table of contents longer than a page), but the starting quotes and introduction highlight the basics:
“The whole thing was a very cleverly planned jigsaw puzzle, so arranged that every fresh piece of knowledge that came to light made the solution of the whole more difficult.” — Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express.
“It’s like kind of complicated to me” — John Doe, on the withdrawal of his § 2255 motion.
John Doe, whose identity we protect because he is a Government informant, appeals from the denial of (1) a 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion filed in 2012 and (2) a request made in 2013 to reopen a § 2255 motion filed in 2008. Doe was sentenced pursuant to the then-mandatory Sentencing Guidelines as a “career offender” on the basis of two convictions for simple assault in Pennsylvania. He argued in his 2008 motion that his convictions were not “crimes of violence” within the meaning of the Guidelines and thus he was not a career offender. Our precedent foreclosed that argument when he made it, but, in light of the Supreme Court case Begay v. United States, 553 U.S. 137 (2008), we reversed ourselves, and Doe’s argument became plausible. He therefore filed another § 2255 motion, but it too was denied.
This case presents many procedural complexities of first impression within this Circuit. If Doe can manage the Odyssean twists and turns of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), including the Scylla of the second-or-successive bar and the Charybdis of the statute of limitations, he may find a meritorious claim at the end of his journey. However, we do not definitively reach the merits here and instead remand to let Doe’s case continue its uncertain course.
"The simple truth about why mass incarceration happened"
The title of this post is the headline of this effective recent Vox piece by German Lopez. Here are excerpts:
How could US politicians possibly think it was a good idea to incarcerate millions of Americans starting in the 1980s, creating the system of mass incarceration we have today?
It's a question that gets tossed around a lot nowadays, with varied answers — from claims it was an attempt to control the population to arguments that private prisons created a profit motive for locking up millions of Americans.
But there's a much simpler explanation: The public wanted mass incarceration. It's easy to forget now, but the politics of crime were huge in the 1990s. According to data from Gallup, never before or after the nineties have so many Americans said that crime is the most important problem facing the country today.
Americans had a very good reason for these concerns. From the late 1960s to the early 1990s, crime was unusually high. The country was still coming off what was perceived as a crack cocaine epidemic, in which the drug ran rampant across urban streets and fueled deadly gang violence. So Americans, by and large, demanded their lawmakers do something — and politicians reacted with mass incarceration and other tough-on-crime policies.
It's very easy in hindsight to consider this an overreaction — now that we know crime began its decades-long decline in the early 1990s, and now that research has shown that mass incarceration only partly contributed to this decline. But people didn't know that at the time. They didn't know crime was about to begin its long-term drop, and the research on mass incarceration was far from conclusive. Politicians thought crime would get worse, not better.
In fact, there were warnings at the time that things were on the verge of getting worse. One prominent concern in the 1990s — based on what turned out to be very bad social science research — suggested that there was an incoming epidemic of superpredators, violent youth who would rob and kill people....
In this context, it was expected that all politicians — liberal and conservative — take a tough stance on crime. That's partly why liberals like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders supported the 1994 crime law that contributed to mass incarceration. It's why dueling candidates for governor in the liberal state of New York campaigned on who could be tougher on crime. And it's why practically every state passed tough-on-crime policies throughout the 1980s and 1990s....
Popular demand for tough-on-crime laws in the past doesn't in any way excuse the devastation lawmakers inflicted on millions of people through mass incarceration and other policies. But based on voters' concerns in the 1990s, if a politician didn't contribute to the problem back then, he or she may not be prominent enough to run for president today. That's how America ended up with mass incarceration — and the seemingly contradictory Democratic presidential candidates for 2016.
September 3, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)
Wednesday, September 2, 2015
Prison administrators contribute to new report on solitary confinement
As detailed in this press release, the Association of State Correctional Administrators has joined with researchers at Yale to produce an important new report about solitary confinement. Here are the basics via the press release:
Prolonged isolation of individuals in jails and prisons is a grave problem in the United States. The insistence on change comes not only from legislators across the political spectrum, judges, and a host of private sector voices, but also from the directors of correctional systems at both state and federal levels. Even as a national outcry has arisen about isolation, relatively little information exists about the actual number of people held in restrictive housing, the policies determining their placement, and whether and how conditions vary in different jurisdictions. Indeed, the figures cited on the number of people held in isolation vary from 25,000 to more than 80,000. But that information comes from a decade and more ago.
To rectify the absence of data and to pave the way for changes, the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) joined with the Arthur Liman Public Interest Program at Yale Law School to develop a national database of the policies and practices on what correctional officials call “restricted housing” and is frequently referred in the media as “solitary confinement.” ASCA is the only national organization of persons directly responsible for the administration of correctional systems and includes the heads of each state’s corrections agencies, as well as the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the District of Columbia, New York City, Philadelphia and Los Angeles County.
The result is the new report Time-in-Cell: The Liman-ASCA 2014 National Survey of Administrative Segregation in Prison, which is the first to provide updated information, as of the fall of 2014, on both the numbers and the conditions in restrictive housing nationwide. This Report represents the commitments of correctional leaders to make such changes. But without a baseline, it is not possible to know the impact of the many efforts underway. Time-in-Cell provides one way to measure and to learn whether the hoped-for changes are taking place, to reduce and to eliminate the isolation of prisoners, so as to enable prisoners and staff to live and work in safe environments, respectful of human dignity.
This important report, which runs nearly 100 pages, is available in full at this link. Some of its findings and the broaded policy discourse now surrounding solitary confinement are effectively covered in new stories via the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal here and here, respectively.
"The Pressing Need for Mens Rea Reform"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new "Legal Memorandum" authored by John Macolm, who is the Director of the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation. Here is the abstract and "Key Points" from this publication:
One of the greatest safeguards against overcriminalization — the misuse and overuse of criminal laws and penalties to address societal problems — is ensuring that there is an adequate mens rea requirement in criminal laws. Sentencing reform addresses how long people should serve once convicted, but mens rea reform addresses those who never should have been convicted in the first place: morally blameless people who unwittingly commit acts that turn out to be crimes and are prosecuted for those offenses rather than having the harms they caused addressed through the civil justice system. Not only are their lives adversely affected, perhaps irreparably, but the public’s respect for the fairness and integrity of our criminal justice system is diminished. That is something that should concern everyone.
1 Nearly 5,000 federal criminal statutes are scattered throughout the U.S. Code, and an estimated 300,000 or more criminal regulatory offenses are buried in the Code of Federal Regulations.
2 Not even Congress or the Department of Justice knows precisely how many criminal laws and regulations currently exist. Because many of them lack adequate (or even any) mens rea standards, innocent mistakes or accidents can become crimes.
3 Congress should pass a default mens rea provision that would apply to crimes in which no mens rea has been provided. If a mens rea requirement is missing from a criminal statute or regulation, a default standard should automatically be inserted, unless Congress makes it clear in the statute itself that it intended to create a strict liability offense.
Prison realities and reform insights from "Mr. Smith Goes to Prison"
Politico magazine has this fascinating excerpt from a new book titled "Mr. Smith Goes to Prison: What My Year Behind Bars Taught Me About America’s Prison Crisis." The book is authored by Jeff Smith, a former Missouri state senator, who spent a year in federal prison for violating federal election laws, and parts of the excerpt read a bit like the Y-chromisone version of Orange is the New Black. But, as these passage highlight, it appears the book covers much more than just the fish-out-of-water elements of prison life for a white-collar offender:
Long story short: Five years after losing the election, I pleaded guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice for impeding the federal investigation Carnahan had initiated. But I requested an unorthodox sentence: two years of home confinement and full-time community service during which I would be allowed to leave my house only to teach civics and coach basketball at a St. Louis charter school I’d co-founded a decade earlier. It would’ve saved taxpayers about $175,000: two years of a teacher’s salary, plus the cost of housing a federal prisoner, since I would’ve paid for my electronic monitoring. More than 300 people, including a bipartisan group of the state’s top elected officials, wrote public letters to the to the judge requesting clemency and arguing that — as the prison counselor in Kentucky would later note — locking me up would be a waste. But the Feds portrayed me as the mastermind of a “textbook case of political corruption” and pushed for a harsh sentence at the top of the federal guidelines. The judge gave me a year and a day in federal prison.
Six months later, I was adrift in a sea of sharks — a professor-turned-politician-turned-felon forced to learn prison patois and the politics of survival. Among other areas, I’d studied and taught criminal justice policy as a political scientist for a decade. But in prison I would be the student, not the teacher.
This is the story of what I learned — about my fellow prisoners, the guards and administrators, and the system in which we operated. It is a cautionary tale of friendship and betrayal. It is a story of how politics prepared me — and didn’t — for prison, and how prison prepared me for life. But more broadly, it is a scathing indictment of a system that teaches prisoners to be better criminals instead of better citizens, and a prescription for how America can begin to decarcerate and harness the untapped potential of 2.2 million incarcerated people through programs that will transform offenders’ lives, infuse our economy with entrepreneurial energy, increase public safety and save taxpayers billions by slashing sky-high recidivism rates....
Prisons have been called “training grounds for rapists,” and according to one estimate based on two decades of surveys, nearly 300,000 rapes occur annually in U.S. prisons. The most recent Justice Department data concluded that from 2003 to 2012, nearly 2 million inmates were sexually assaulted, costing society as much as $51.9 billion annually, including the costs of victims’ compensation and increased recidivism. Advocates hoped that passage of the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which sought to prevent, uncover and address sexual assault, would help, but many large states have refused to comply with it (with little consequence). In 2011, a typical prisoner’s likelihood of being raped was roughly 30 times higher than that of a given woman on the outside, suggesting a depressingly steady trendline despite PREA’s passage. And since reporting assaults will only bring more trouble from fellow prisoners and COs alike, most victims remain quiet, rendering official prison data unreliably low.
Exacerbating this is a dearth of post-rape psychological treatment during incarceration and reentry, which increases the likelihood that victims will suffer from PTSD as well as their odds of recidivism — especially for crimes involving sexual assault. Tragically, prison rape often causes compensatory aggression as untreated victims commit rapes upon release to reclaim their manhood in the same way they imagine it was lost. This vicious cycle by which (frequently) nonviolent offenders become violent is the opposite of the duty that “correctional institutions” are meant to perform....
I spent less than a year in prison. In the words of my first cellie, I had less time in prison than he had done on the prison toilet. I had every advantage upon re-entry: I was a white guy with a Ph.D. from a top school, community and family support, and financial savings. Yet getting a decent job was a struggle. I often think about the re-entry of the guys I was locked up. Most had a GED earned in prison; some hadn’t had a visit in years, or even a decade, and had no one to call on the phone; few had savings to fall back on. They would be coming home to a world in which four of five landlords and nine of 10 employers run criminal background checks on prospective tenants and employees to screen out felons, in which many are not allowed to vote or use food stamps and in which they must immediately find money to pay for a halfway house room and urinalysis tests even as they cannot afford clothes for a job interview.
Mass incarceration is driven in large part by sky-high recidivism rates, and when one contemplates the myriad obstacles to successful prisoner re-entry, one grasps that the system is not, as many claim, broken at all; rather, it appears to be a well-oiled machine, keeping millions of people out of our economic mainstream. And only a shift in our cultural mindset — a realization that people who are incarcerated could, to paraphrase President Obama after his recent prison visit to a federal prison, be our brothers, our sons, our mothers, or ourselves — will change that.
"Share Your Grief But Not Your Anger: Victims and the Expression of Emotion in Criminal Justice"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper available via SSRN authored by Susan Bandes. Here is the abstract:
In the recent capital trials of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for the Boston Marathon bombings and James Holmes for the Colorado theater shootings, victims’ families were permitted to give testimony after the sentence had been announced. Since victim impact testimony in capital cases was upheld by the Supreme Court on the ground that it provides important information to the sentencing jury, hearings after sentencing raise the question of what role the statements are meant to serve.
I argue that although victim impact testimony was originally justified as a means of providing information to sentencing juries, it is now regarded as having two additional purposes. First, it is widely assumed that the statements serve a cathartic or therapeutic role for victims and their families; that they assist in obtaining “closure.” Second, there is a growing tendency toward viewing the statements as a means of confronting the perpetrator in order to elicit remorse, or at least impress on him the gravity of the harm he has caused. Each of these three rationales has different implications for the nature, scope and advisability of allowing victim impact statements.
In this chapter I examine what goals the statements are meant to serve, how those goals should affect the rules governing the statements, and whether the goals are practically achievable or normatively desirable.
Tuesday, September 1, 2015
California settles prisoner lawsuit by agreeing to limit use of solitary confinement
As reported in this local AP piece , headlined "California to end unlimited isolation for most gang leaders," a lawsuit concerning California's use of solitary confinement culminated today in a significant settlement. Here are the details:
California agreed Tuesday to end its unlimited isolation of imprisoned gang leaders, restricting a practice that once kept hundreds of inmates in notorious segregation units for a decade or longer.
The state is agreeing to segregate only inmates who commit new crimes behind bars and will no longer lock gang members in soundproofed, windowless cells solely to keep them from directing illegal activities by gang members. "It will move California more into the mainstream of what other states are doing while still allowing us the ability to deal with people who are presenting problems within our system, but do so in a way where we rely less on the use of segregation," Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Jeffrey Beard told The Associated Press.
The conditions triggered intermittent hunger strikes by tens of thousands of inmates throughout the prison system in recent years. Years-long segregation also drew criticism this summer from President Barack Obama and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.
"I think there is a deepening movement away from solitary confinement in the country and I think this settlement will be a spur to that movement," Jules Lobel, the inmates' lead attorney and president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said in a telephone interview.
The lawsuit was initially filed in 2009 by two killers serving time in the security housing unit at Pelican Bay. By 2012, Todd Ashker and Danny Troxell were among 78 prisoners confined in Pelican Bay's isolation unit for more than 20 years, though Troxell has since been moved to another prison. More than 500 had been in the unit for more than 10 years, though recent policy changes reduced that to 62 inmates isolated for a decade or longer as of late July.
The suit contended that isolating inmates in 80-square-foot cells for all but about 90 minutes each day amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. About half the nearly 3,000 inmates held in such units are in solitary confinement. Inmates have no physical contact with visitors and are allowed only limited reading materials and communications with the outside world.
The settlement will limit how long inmates can spend in isolation, while creating restrictive custody units for inmates who refuse to participate in rehabilitation programs or keep breaking prison rules.... Lobel said the new units, by giving high-security inmates more personal contact and privileges, should be an example to other states to move away from isolation policies that he said have proven counterproductive in California....
Nichol Gomez, a spokeswoman for the union representing most prison guards, said it was disappointing that "the people that actually have to do the work" weren't involved in the negotiations, so she couldn't immediately comment.
Beard said he will work to ease the unions' previously expressed concerns that guards could face additional danger. He said the settlement expands on recent changes that have reduced the number of segregated inmates statewide from 4,153 in January 2012 to 2,858 currently.
Until recently, gang members could serve unlimited time in isolation. Under the settlement, they and other inmates can be segregated for up to five years for crimes committed in prison, though gang members can receive another two years in segregation.
Lots of notable new sentencing-related content at Crime & Consequences
I make Crime and Consequences a daily read for lots of reasons, and here is just a sample of some new content in a number of recent posts that sentencing fans should be sure to check out:
Previewing the latest (and most important) bipartisan federal statutory sentencing reform effort in Congress
As regular readers know, September is the month that a (long-forecast) important new federal sentencing reform bill has become likely to emerge from the US Senate. This new Daily Signal article, headlined "Bipartisan Group of Senators Set to Announce Deal to Reduce Prison Population," which reports that this bill is going to be unveiled a week from today, provides an account of what we can expect to see in this bill. Here are excerpts:
Soon after lawmakers return to Washington, D.C., on Sept. 8, a bipartisan group of members on the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to announce a deal meant to relieve the overcrowded federal prison population.
The bill, which is still being written and near completion — according to Beth Levine, a spokeswoman for Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley — would give judges more discretion in sentencing offenders of certain nonviolent drug crimes and let well-behaved inmates earn time off their prison terms.
“They want to announce a deal as soon as they get back, but they just aren’t quite there yet,” says Conn Carroll, the communications director for Sen. Mike Lee, a committee member and leading reform advocate. “Let’s just say it’s first and goal on the one, everyone thinks we’ll score, we just don’t know when,” Carroll continued.
The legislation, the result of months of negotiations, will likely incorporate policies from previously introduced legislation in both houses of Congress.
The judiciary committee’s compromise bill is not expected to include reductions to mandatory minimums that are blamed for mass incarceration. Mandatory minimums require binding prison terms of a particular length and prevent judges from using their discretion to apply punishment. But the legislation is expected to give judges some leeway in sentencing drug offenders....
A new Pew study, using data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, reveals that there are more than 207,000 inmates in federal prisons, and 95,000 of those inmates are incarcerated for drug-related offenses — up from fewer than 5,000 in 1980.
The jump in the number of inmates has cost a lot of money. From 1980 to 2013, federal prison spending increased 595 percent, from $970 million to more than $6.7 billion. According to the study, prison spending now represents one of every four dollars spent by the U.S. Justice Department. The report says growth of the prison population, and the longer drug sentences, can be pinned on a tough-on-crime mentality that dominated the 1980s.
Reform advocates say these policies — such as laws passed by Congress enacting mandatory minimum sentences of five, 10, or 20 years for drug offenders, and abolishing parole for federal offenders — have outlived their usefulness and need to be revised.
“The question really boils down to, has Sen. Grassley come to recognize mandatory minimums are a policy failure?” says Alison Holcomb, the director of the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice. “Whether the bill is worth all the time and effort of the negotiations depends on a large part to the answer to that question.”
Grassley, as the judiciary committee chair, is the gatekeeper of the talks. Experts such as Holcomb say Grassley is opposed to across-the-board repeal of mandatory minimum sentences. “The real question of this bill is, how far can Grassley go?” says Molly Gill, the government affairs counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a nonprofit. “There’s a lot of pressure to do something significant. Is Grassley’s definition of significant close to everyone else’s? There becomes a certain point where you ask, is this real reform?”
Though Grassley’s office won’t share the exact details, the bill is expected to address a “safety valve” law that’s supposed to keep people from receiving unfair sentences.
Under the law, a federal drug offender can avoid a mandatory minimum sentence if he passes a five-part “safety valve” test. A convicted felon can be sentenced below a mandatory minimum if he was not a drug leader or “king pin,” he did not use or possess a gun during the offense, the offense is nonviolent, he was truthful with the government, and he has little or no other criminal activity on his record.
Reform advocates argue that even the most minor criminal history, such as being convicted for possessing a small amount of marijuana as a juvenile, can make an offender ineligible for the safety valve exception. The Senate Judiciary Committee bill may make the criminal record aspect of the safety valve more forgiving. It may also create a new loophole to get around mandatory minimums.
In addition, the legislation will include elements of a separate bill, the Corrections Act, authored by two senators of the judiciary committee: John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.
That bill would allow certain well-behaved prisoners to earn time off their sentences by participating in recidivism reduction programs such as drug counseling and vocational training. The judiciary committee bill won’t be as comprehensive as the House’s SAFE Justice Act, sponsored by Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and Bobby Scott, D-Va., which would narrow the range of offenders that mandatory minimums apply to. Some members, like Grassley, think that reform plan is too far-reaching.
“Although there is clearly bipartisan support for a number of these proposals, [this] is a difficult issue,” says John Malcolm, the director of The Heritage Foundation’s Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies. “Some believe our current sentencing regime is unfair and the pendulum has swung too far in terms of imposing harsh sentences,” Malcolm continued. “Others believe increased incarceration and harsh sentences have taken some very dangerous people off of the streets. I remain cautiously optimistic there is some ‘sweet spot’ where both sides can compromise.”
Whatever the final product looks like, all sides are optimistic that Congress will give Obama a criminal justice reform bill to sign this year — because too many people are waiting. “The American criminal justice system has gotten has so far out of whack, with far too many people behind bars for too high a price,” Holcomb said. “The cold hard fact that people across the aisle can agree on is that America is better than this.”
I am pleased that some key details of the sentencing reform bill most likely to get to Prez Obama's desk are emerging, and I am not surprised that Senator Grassley is more interested in pursuing expanded exceptions to current federal mandatory minimums rather than across the board cuts to any current mandatory minimum. At the same time, I am concerned (but again not suprised) that advocates of federal sentencing reform are worried that this latest bill which has Senator Grassley's blessing is not going to be as far-reaching or impactful as other bills that have been making the rounds.
As a general matter, I favor a federal sentencing world without any crude and strict mandatory minimums terms for any non-violent crimes. But, especially now that we have had two-plus years of talk about statutory sentencing reform and nothing at all that has made it through Congress, I am hopeful all reform advocates will get on-board with whatever comes out of the Senate later this month. Especially with growing talk about violent crime increases in some cities and with sound-bite presidential campaigns now dominating the broader political conversation, I think the window for any meaningful federal sentencing reforms emerging from Congress is already starting to close. If visions of the "best" or even the "really good" prompt criticisms of any bill that has a real chance of passage, we could well end up with no bill making it through Congress at all.
Some prior related posts:
- Will Senator Grassley's (still-developing) sentencing reform bill make it to the President's desk in 2015?
- Latest reform news means still more waiting for those eager for federal sentencing reform
- Latest tea leaves concerning Senator Grassley's coming sentencing reform bill
- Senator Grassley again expresses interest in talking about federal criminal justice reform
- In praise of Senator Charles Grassley's advocacy for criminal justice transparency and accountability (and his one blind spot)
- Senator Grassley yet again says he is open to some federal sentencing reforms
- NY Times editorial laments "The Roadblock to Sentencing Reform" ... while creating another
- Senators respond to NY Times criticisms of their sentencing work
- Can Senator Ted Cruz, who says "Smarter Sentencing Act Is Common Sense," get SSA through Congress?
- Is major federal sentencing reform possible now that Republicans have full control of Congress?
- Bill Otis provides important (though incomplete) review of the real state of debate over sentencing reform
September 1, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)
"Skin Color and the Criminal Justice System: Beyond Black‐White Disparities in Sentencing"
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new article discussing empirical research on sentencing outcomes in Georgia authored by Traci Burch. Here is the abstract:
This article analyzes sentencing outcomes for black and white men in Georgia. The analysis uses sentencing data collected by the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC). Among first‐time offenders, both the race‐only models and race and skin color models estimate that, on average, blacks receive sentences that are 4.25 percent higher than those of whites even after controlling for legally‐relevant factors such as the type of crime.
However, the skin color model also shows us that this figure hides important intraracial differences in sentence length: while medium‐ and dark‐skinned blacks receive sentences that are about 4.8 percent higher than those of whites, lighter‐skinned blacks receive sentences that are not statistically significantly different from those of whites. After controlling for socioeconomic status in the race‐only and race and skin color models the remaining difference between whites and dark‐ and medium‐skinned blacks increases slightly, to 5.5 percent. These findings are discussed with respect to the implications for public policy and for racial hierarchy in the United States.
September 1, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)
"Charging on the Margin"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper discussing prosecutorial practices and collteral consequences autored by Paul Crane now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The American criminal justice system has experienced a significant expansion in the number and severity of penalties triggered by misdemeanor convictions. In particular, legislatures have increasingly attached severe collateral consequences to misdemeanor offenses — penalties such as being required to register as a sex offender, prohibitions on owning or possessing a firearm, and deportation. While there is a wealth of scholarship studying the effect this development has had on defendants and their attorneys, little attention has been paid to the impact collateral consequences have on prosecutorial incentives. This Article starts to remedy that gap by exploring the influence collateral consequences exert on initial charging decisions in low-level prosecutions.
Critically, the ability to impose certain collateral consequences through a misdemeanor conviction unlocks an array of additional charging options for prosecutors. As a result, prosecutors are now more likely to engage in a practice I term “strategic undercharging.” A prosecutor engages in strategic undercharging when she charges a lesser offense than she otherwise could, but does so for reasons that advance her own aims — and not as an act of prosecutorial grace or leniency. In other words, prosecutors can sometimes gain more by charging less. By explaining why (and when) prosecutors are likely to engage in strategic undercharging, this Article complicates the conventional wisdom that prosecutors reflexively file the most severe charges available.
This Article also proposes that collateral consequences be factored into the determination of what procedural safeguards are afforded a criminal defendant. Under existing law, collateral consequences are generally deemed irrelevant to that inquiry; the degree of procedural protection provided in a given case turns exclusively on the threatened term of incarceration. Changing this approach could have several salutary effects on the administration of collateral consequences. At a minimum, it would honor a basic principle underlying our criminal justice system: the threat of serious penalties warrants serious procedures.
September 1, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)
Guns, gangs, ganja, going after police ... are there obvious lessons from 2015 homicide spikes?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy front-page New York Times article spotlighting the notable spike in homicides in many US cities so far in 2015. The article is headlined "Murder Rates Rising Sharply in Many U.S. Cities," and here are excerpts:
Cities across the nation are seeing a startling rise in murders after years of declines, and few places have witnessed a shift as precipitous as this city. With the summer not yet over, 104 people have been killed this year — after 86 homicides in all of 2014.
More than 30 other cities have also reported increases in violence from a year ago. In New Orleans, 120 people had been killed by late August, compared with 98 during the same period a year earlier. In Baltimore, homicides had hit 215, up from 138 at the same point in 2014. In Washington, the toll was 105, compared with 73 people a year ago. And in St. Louis, 136 people had been killed this year, a 60 percent rise from the 85 murders the city had by the same time last year.
Law enforcement experts say disparate factors are at play in different cities, though no one is claiming to know for sure why murder rates are climbing. Some officials say intense national scrutiny of the use of force by the police has made officers less aggressive and emboldened criminals, though many experts dispute that theory.
Rivalries among organized street gangs, often over drug turf, and the availability of guns are cited as major factors in some cities, including Chicago. But more commonly, many top police officials say they are seeing a growing willingness among disenchanted young men in poor neighborhoods to use violence to settle ordinary disputes....
Urban bloodshed — as well as the overall violent crime rate — remains far below the peaks of the late 1980s and early ’90s, and criminologists say it is too early to draw broad conclusions from the recent numbers. In some cities, including Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Newark, homicides remain at a relatively steady rate this year.
Yet with at least 35 of the nation’s cities reporting increases in murders, violent crimes or both, according to a recent survey, the spikes are raising alarm among urban police chiefs. The uptick prompted an urgent summit meeting in August of more than 70 officials from some of the nation’s largest cities. A Justice Department initiative is scheduled to address the rising homicide rates as part of a conference in September....
The police superintendent in Chicago, Garry McCarthy, said he thought an abundance of guns was a major factor in his city’s homicide spike. Even as officials in both parties are calling for reducing the prison population, he insisted that gun offenders should face stiffer penalties. “Across the country, we’ve all found it’s not the individual who never committed a crime before suddenly killing somebody,” Mr. McCarthy said on Monday. “It’s the repeat offenders. It’s the same people over and over again.”
Among some experts and rankandfile officers, the notion that less aggressive policing has emboldened criminals — known as the “Ferguson effect” in some circles — is a popular theory for the uptick in violence. “The equilibrium has changed between police and offenders,” said Alfred Blumstein, a professor and a criminologist at Heinz College, Carnegie Mellon University.
Others doubt the theory or say data has not emerged to prove it. Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said homicides in St. Louis, for instance, had already begun an arc upward in 2014 before a white police officer killed an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, in nearby Ferguson. That data, he said, suggests that other factors may be in play.
Less debated is the sense among police officials that more young people are settling their disputes, including one started on Facebook, with guns....
In New Orleans, Michael S. Harrison, the police superintendent, said the city’s rise in homicides did not appear to reflect any increase in gang violence or robberies of strangers, but rather involved killings inside homes and cars by people who know their victims — particularly difficult crimes to predict or prevent....
In New York, there have been a larger number of gang-related killings, Stephen Davis, the department’s top spokesman, said. But he also said many homicides remained unexplained, the result of disputes with murky origins. “There are a lot of murders that happen in the spur of the moment,” Mr. Davis said.
Especially because 2014 was a year with record-low homicide rates in many jurisdictions, I am not too surprised (though I am much troubled) by these new homicide data. I share the view that it is too early to draw any firm conclusions as to what is causing or what should be done about this uptick in deadly urban violence. But I also think it is not too early for researchers to be asking a lot of hard questions about what sets of legal and social factors which were previously successful in reducing homicide rates are now proving less effective.
Astute readers should see that I threw ganja into the alliterative mix of factors in the title of this post because changes in national marijuana policies and practices are among the legal and social factors that I have been watching closely lately in relation to crime rates. This New York Times article does not discuss this factor — or many others crime and punishment factors like increases in opioid addiction, or reduced use of the death penalty — surely because there are so many different and hard-to-track factors which might play some role in any changing nationwide crimes patterns.
Monday, August 31, 2015
District Judge struggles with impact of reduced guidelines for (long-ago) kingpin crack dealer
NPR has this notable new story about a notable request by a notable federal crack offender seeking a reduced sentence based on the new reduced crack guidelines. Ths piece is headlined "Notorious Cocaine Dealers' Release Requests Test New Sentencing Guidelines," and here are excerpts:
A longtime federal judge struggled Monday over what constitutes justice for members of one of Washington, D.C.'s most notorious drug rings. Senior U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth pressed a public defender about the fate of Melvin Butler, a man who helped flood the city with cocaine that contributed to waves of violence in the late 1980s.
"You're saying that I can't consider the fact that he was one of the biggest drug dealers in the history of our city?" the judge asked. "Congress has tied my hands and I can't consider that?"
The issue arrived in a spotless second-floor room in the federal courthouse on a request from Butler, now 52, for a sentence reduction that would allow him to leave prison in November, after spending half of his life behind bars.
Butler landed in federal custody on April 28, 1989 — so long ago that most of his court records are lost somewhere in storage. Butler, based in California, was a top associate of Rayful Edmond III, Washington's most infamous drug kingpin. The two men allegedly connected at a heavyweight boxing match in Las Vegas in 1987. Two years later, their trial riveted the country. Officials outfitted the courtroom with bulletproof glass and flew Edmond in each day from a lockup in Quantico, Va.
Butler had initially been sentenced to life in prison, Judge Lamberth pointed out, as "one of the two top ringleaders" of a gang that made more than $1 million a week. But the judge who presided over the case, and died in 1997, later reduced the sentence. Now, Butler and his lawyer are trying to shave off more time using a process the U.S. Sentencing Commission approved last year for drug offenders to secure early release from prison.
"I recognize this man's stature and what happened in the '80s," said Assistant Federal Public Defender Dani Jahn. "He's now 52 years old. He's not the person that he was. This is a very lengthy sentence." Jahn said that if Butler were sentenced under laws in place now, he'd face far less time. And, she said, if the judge refuses to grant the request, Butler will still win release in 2017, having served his full term. She pointed out that Butler will remain under supervised release, subject to sanctions if he breaks the law again. "These guys have everything to lose by screwing up when they get out," Jahn said, adding that appearing before Judge Lamberth under those circumstances "would not be a good experience."...
Another member of the Edmond drug gang, lower down on the ladder, James Jones, also is seeking a sentence reduction. Now 58, Jones is scheduled to leave prison in February 2018. But he too wants to take advantage of a change in the sentencing guidelines that would allow him to go free in November with the judge's permission. Thousands of prison inmates across the country already have won the ability to leave prison early under that mechanism.
But in his courtroom, across from the U.S. Capitol, Judge Lamberth expressed reservations. "It still gives me pause what Congress is doing," the judge said. "I would have thought the top drug kingpins in the country wouldn't be the beneficiaries of what we're trying to do here."
The questions of crime and punishment are particularly timely now as the Obama administration has prioritized sentencing reform and clemency initiatives that would deliver shorter sentences and other relief to nonviolent drug criminals. Lawmakers from both political parties are preparing to advance their own proposals for overhauling the criminal justice system in September....
But the question before Judge Lamberth, and others deliberating notorious cases across the country, is what standards to consider for criminals involved at higher levels in violent drug gangs. The judge said he recalled Edmond testifying that many of his lieutenants wielded firearms. Lamberth also asked about an apparently unresolved murder allegation involving Jones dating to the 1980s. But the prosecutor, the public defender and the probation officer couldn't remember back that far, so they asked for time to research the question.
Prosecutor Barry Wiegand said he didn't want to opine about changes in criminal justice policy. But he said he lived several blocks away from what used to be a drug market under Edmond's control. "I wouldn't presume as an assistant United States attorney to be privy to the wisdom of Congress," he said. "I observe that 31- and 32-year sentences are long. I observe that a lot of places aren't what they used to be. What we did in the 1980s and 1990s was the right thing to do, and we did it well."
SCOTUS lets convicted former Virginia Gov to remain free pending cert decision
As reported in this local article, headlined "U.S. Supreme Court lets McDonnell stay free for now," a high-profile white-collar federal defendant has gotten a kind of prison sentence reprieve while continuing to pursue his appeals. Here are the basics:
In a surprise to many observers Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed former Gov. Bob McDonnell to remain free while the justices decide whether to take up his appeal....
Should the justices not take the case, the stay ordered this afternoon will end automatically. If the court takes the case the stay will continue, the court ordered.
"Wow," said Randall Eliason, former chief of the Public Corruption/Government Fraud Section at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington. "It suggests there is some level of interest at the Supreme Court in reviewing the case, even though not a single appellate judge in the 4th Circuit agreed with his arguments.”
Henry Asbill, one of McDonnell’s lawyers, said “We’re very grateful for this order and we’re gratified that the justices recognize that this case raises substantial and important legal questions and we look forward to a full merits briefing."
McDonnell’s lawyers made the request to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who referred the matter to the full court. McDonnell needed a majority vote for the stay - it is unclear if the full court voted - but only needs four votes for the court to agree to take up his appeal.
"I am surprised," said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of law. "There's no explanation" provided by the justices, "so it's really hard to know what the vote might have been. But I think it may be a hopeful sign for McDonnell," he said.
"It certainly buys some time," perhaps four months or more while the court considers taking the case, he said. "I think it shows there is some interest on the court in this case," but not necessarily the ultimate outcome. "There's still a lot of steps to go," he said.
The government opposed continued bond for McDonnell and argued that he should begin serving his two-year term. A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney had no comment on the order. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were convicted of corruption charges stemming from $177,000 in gifts and loans from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the former CEO of Star Scientific, in exchange for helping with the promotion of a product.
I am a bit disinclined to assert that the former Gov is getting the benefit of celebrity justice, especially because there is good reason to believe McDonnell would have possibly served the majority of his two-year prison sentence before SCOTUS would be able to decide the case on the merits if it ultimately chooses to take up his appeal. Still, many white-collar defendants (despite presumably not being a risk to public safet) do not often get the opportunity to remain free on bail pending an appeal of right to a circuit court, let alone a cert appeal to SCOTUS.
Prior related posts:
- Former Virginia Gov McDonnell (and wife) now facing high-profile federal sentencing after jury convictions on multiple charges
- Former Virginia Gov McDonnell facing significant (trial?) penalty in his federal guideline calculation
- Former Virginia Gov McDonnell gets (way-below-guideline) sentence of two years in prison
- Fourth Circuit refuses to allow convicted former Virginia Gov to remain free pending SCOTUS appeal
India Law Commission urges nation to abolish death penalty for all common crimes
This new article reports on an interesting and notable international sentencing reform development coming from India, a large nation within a continent which has long embraced and preserved a commitment to capital punishemnt. The piece's extended headline provides the basics: "Law Commission recommends abolishing death penalty except in terror cases: In its 272-page draft report, the commission favoured speedy abolition of the death penalty from the statute books, except in cases where the accused is convicted of involvement in a terror case or waging war against the nation."
The full text of this lengthy report from the Law Commission of India, which is titled simply "Report No. 262: The Death Penalty," can be accessed at this link. Here is one of many key passages leading up to the report's final recommendations:
In sum, the death penalty operates in a system that is highly fragile, open to manipulation and mistake, and evidently fallible. However objective the system becomes, since it is staffed by humans, and thus limited by human capacities and tendencies, the possibility of error always remains open, as has been acknowledged the world over, including by the most highly resourced legal systems.
As the instances cited above indicate, while the existence of appellate procedures may reduce the chances of error, these cannot be eliminated altogether. Given the irreversibility of the death penalty, this punishment can only be justified where the entire system works in a fool proof manner, having regard to the highest standards of due process, the fairest of investigation and prosecution, the most robust defence, and the most impartial and astute judges. However, experiences the world over, including in India suggest, that “all it takes is one dishonest police officer, one incompetent lawyer, one over-zealous prosecutor or one mistaken witness and the system fails.” In a perfect criminal justice system, the death penalty may be imposed error free. However, no such system has been devised so far. The death penalty therefore remains an irreversible punishment in an imperfect, fragile and fallible system.
"The Just-Barely-Sustainable California Prisoners’ Rights Ecosystem"
The title of this post is the title of this interesting new paper by Margo Schlanger now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Nationwide, litigation currently plays a far smaller role as a corrections oversight mechanism than in decades past, a change largely caused by the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). Yet no such decline is evident in the nation’s most populous state, California, where prisoners’ rights litigation remains enormously influential and was the trigger to the criminal justice “Realignment” that is the subject of this symposium. Indeed, every prison in California is subject to numerous ongoing court orders governing conditions of confinement.
This article examines why California is different. It argues California’s very large bar includes a critical mass of highly expert prisoners’ rights lawyers. Working for both non-profits and for-profit firms, they benefited from a pipeline of large-scale, pre-PLRA, fees-paying cases that sustained them while they learned to cope with the statutory obstacles. And the Ninth Circuit’s hospitable bench awarded them some favorable fee-related rulings in support of their coping strategies. In short, they learned how to — just barely — maintain a prisoners’ rights docket nothwithstanding very substantial financial hurdles. They continue to litigate old and new cases, but ongoing challenges pose a real threat to the fragile litigation ecosystem they have created.
Sunday, August 30, 2015
Gearing up for the Ninth Circuit oral argument concerning California's (capricious?) capital cae review
As I have noted in a few recent posts (linked below), panel oral argument is scheduled for tomorrow, August 31, 2015, in the Ninth Circuit appeal of last year's ruling by US District Judge Cormac Carney in Jones v. Chappell (now Jones v. Davis) that California's administration of capital punishment was unconstitutional. Unsurprisingly, media both old and new are giving significant attention to this appeal in a case that could possibly preclude any further executions in the state with the largest death row, and here are headlines/titles and links to a melange of recent media coverage I have come across recently:
As I have mentioned in prior posts, Jones was an interesting ruling from the federal district court for various reasons, and a lot of interconnected issues are in play on appeal. As revealed via this Ninth Circuit webpage, various amici have submitted briefs to the Ninth Circuit urging reversal or affirmance of the Jones decision. And I believe we can all watch the panel arguments live via this link from the Ninth Circuit tomorrow at 12noon EDT (9am PDT).
Prior related posts:
- Federal district judge declares California's death penalty unconstitutional under Eighth Amendment
- Lots of notable discussion of yesterday's notable decision striking down California's death penalty
- Furman and randomness (not just delay) at heart of California capital ruling
- Thoughtful Teague-based criticism of the remarkable California capital ruling in Jones v. Chappell
- California Attorney General seeking appeal in Jones v. Chappell capital case
- Gearing up for the Ninth Circuit's consideration of the arbitrariness of California's capital punishment system
- Ninth Circuit panel set for California's appeal of its (unconstitutional?) death penalty administration
UPDATE: Here are two more new (old media) pieces previewing today's oral argument in Jones v. Davis:
Following the industries that follows incareration nation (with only limited concerns about sentencing reform)
Today's New York Times has this interesting article authored by David Segal about various corrections-oriented industries and their (limited) worries about the impact of sentencing reform on their bottom lines. The article is headlined "Prison Vendors See Continued Signs of a Captive Market," and here are a couple excerpts:
[There were] 264 vendors in booths at the Indiana Convention Center for what is essentially a trade show for the prison industry. It is the shiny, customer-friendly face of a fairly grim business. The A.C.A. accredits jails and prisons and is also the country’s largest association for the corrections field, with a membership filled with wardens and state and county correctional administrators.
The convention is where those people windowshop. The United States currently imprisons about 2.2 million people, making it the world’s largest jailer. Those in charge of this immense population need stuff: food, gas masks, restraints, riot gear, handcuffs, clothing, suicide prevention vests, health care systems, pharmacy systems, commissary services — the list goes on. These outlays are a small fraction of the roughly $80 billion spent annually on incarceration, though precise sales figures are hard to come by because most companies in this niche market are private. Two publicly traded players, the private prison operators Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, have a combined market capitalization of almost $5.8 billion. Both companies had booths in Indianapolis.
For prison vendors, this would appear to be a historically awful moment. Sentencing reform has been gaining momentum as a growing number of diverse voices conclude that the tough-on-crime ethos that was born 40 years ago, and that led to a 700 percent increase in the prison population since 1970, went too far....
My goal ambling through the oddly colorful bazaar in Indianapolis for three days was to see what effect — if any — this much discussed change was having on the hardnosed bottom line. Was anyone here experiencing a slump, or even bracing for one? Nobody wants businesses to suffer financially, but if you think the current incarceration system is a calamity, there is no way around it: Bad news for these companies is good news for the country. And if change was coming, or had already arrived, these vendors would be among the first to know.
I had no idea what I would find. But a few days before the exhibition doors opened, I spoke on the telephone to a skeptic, a guy who just didn’t believe that the country was really on the verge of a correctional system makeover. “It’s hard for me not to be cynical about it,” said Jack Cowley, a retired warden who lives in Oklahoma. “Think about the size of our system, all the judges and lawyers, putting their kids through college, people that make leg irons, Tasers. Crime is driving the train. It’s like a business that is too big to fail.”...
In Indianapolis this summer, there were the ingratiating smiles that are always part of sales, but nobody seemed giddy. Concern about sentencing reform was in the air, but more than a few vendors seemed to regard the trend as a business opportunity....
[M]any companies are trying to diversify. In 2013, Corrections Corporation of America, the country’s largest private prison company, purchased Correctional Alternatives, which specializes in reentry programs, like work furloughs and home confinement. “We have continued to look for opportunities in this service area,” a spokesman for C.C.A. wrote in an email. “It aligns with the needs of our government partners, who are increasingly looking to this type of solution.”
Saturday, August 29, 2015
"Is It Ethical to Chemically Castrate a Child Sex Offender?"
The question in the title of this post is the headline of this RYOT piece discussing an alternative sentencing debate afoot in Australia. Here is how the piece gets started (with links from the original):
When it comes to its convicted child sex offenders, Australia is considering nipping the problem in the bud, literally. The country may soon require perpetrators to be chemically castrated instead of sent to prison, VICE News reports.
New South Wales’ justice minister, Troy Grant, would like the treatment to be made mandatory since the rate of recidivism for sex offenders is so high, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. About 17 percent are arrested for a similar crime within two years of being released from prison. Currently, sex criminals can volunteer for treatment, but are not required to undergo it.
Child sexual abuse runs rampant in Australia. Thirty percent of the population reports having fallen victim to it in their lifetime, 10 percent of whom say the abuse was “severe,” a report by the Australian Institute of Criminology found.
Anti-libidinal treatment is nothing new. In fact, courts in Western Australia and Victoria can already mandate libido-reduction treatment to convicts who have been deemed dangerous by prison standards.
In the US, child sex offenders could potentially be sentenced to life in prison; many opt to undergo anti-libidinal treatment instead of extended prison stays, especially since even after sex-offending convicts are released, at least seven states mandate they remain in confinement.
Compared to other offenses, recidivism rates for sex criminals in America are not as high. Only about 5 percent are sent back to prison within three years for a similar crime. Yet states such as Iowa, Florida and California can require sex offenders to be administered libido-eliminating treatment.
Sex offenders may not be a particularly sympathetic group since they pose a serious threat to the most vulnerable members of society, children. Still, many feel chemical castration goes too far.
Both Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union in the US have condemned the practice, calling it inhumane. “At first sight, forced chemical castration could be taken as a matter-of-course decision; however, it is incompatible with human rights, which are the foundation of any civilized democratic society,” read a statement by Amnesty International in March 2012.
In addition to the controversy around forcing people to take drugs they may not want in their bodies, the drugs used for chemical castration don’t come without their fair share of side effects, namely symptoms mimicking menopause in women.
"Federal Drug Sentencing Laws Bring High Cost, Low Return"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new Pew Public Safety Performance Project Issue Brief, which gets started this way:
More than 95,000 federal prisoners are serving time for drug-related offenses—up from fewer than 5,000 in 1980. Changes in drug crime patterns and law enforcement practices played a role in this growth, but federal sentencing laws enacted during the 1980s and 1990s also have required more drug offenders to go to prison— and stay there much longer—than three decades ago. These policies have contributed to ballooning costs: The federal prison system now consumes more than $6.7 billion a year, or roughly 1 in 4 dollars spent by the U.S. Justice Department.
Despite substantial expenditures on longer prison terms for drug offenders, taxpayers have not realized a strong public safety return. The self-reported use of illegal drugs has increased over the long term as drug prices have fallen and purity has risen. Federal sentencing laws that were designed with serious traffickers in mind have resulted in lengthy imprisonment of offenders who played relatively minor roles. These laws also have failed to reduce recidivism. Nearly a third of the drug offenders who leave federal prison and are placed on community supervision commit new crimes or violate the conditions of their release—a rate that has not changed substantially in decades.
Friday, August 28, 2015
Massachusetts SJC rules local sex offender restrictions preempted by state law
As reported in this Boston Globe article, "Massachusetts cities and towns cannot broadly restrict where sex offenders can live, the state’s highest court ruled Friday, declaring that measures in place in more than 40 municipalities were in conflict with state law." Here is more on the ruling:
The decision came as the Supreme Judicial Court upheld a lower court ruling on a Lynn ordinance that the judges said would have affected 95 percent of the city’s residential properties. The court decried the measure, which it said conflicted with a 1999 state law that set up a system to keep track of sex offenders in communities.
“Except for the incarceration of persons under the criminal law and the civil commitment of mentally ill or dangerous persons, the days are long since past when whole communities of persons, such Native Americans and Japanese-Americans may be lawfully banished from our midst,” the ruling said.
Timothy Phelan, who sponsored the Lynn ordinance when was City Council president in 2011, called the decision discouraging and disappointing. SJC rules against sex offender zone laws in Mass. “It seems like the rights of children are taking a back seat to what is politically correct,” Phelan said.
The ordinance placed strict limits on the ability of Level 2 and 3 sex offenders — those deemed by the state to have moderate and high risks of reoffending — from living within 1,000 feet of a park or school.
John Reinstein, the attorney who argued the case on behalf of three registered sex offenders, said the strong language in the ruling is “a shot across the bow to any attempt to provide the authority for broad-based restrictions to cities and towns.” Reinstein began work on the subject while he was legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and continued after his retirement in 2013.
He and his colleagues had urged the court to reject the law on constitutional grounds, arguing that it violated the fundamental rights of sex offenders to move freely within the state and choose where they live.
Friday’s decision instead followed a lower court ruling in deciding that the ordinance violated “home rule” provisions because it is a local measure in conflict with state law. The outcome leaves open the possibility that lawmakers could restore the ability of municipalities to create residency restrictions for sex offenders.
The full unanimous Massachusetts SJC ruling is available at this link.
August 28, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)
Arkansas political corruption case showcases corruptness of federal sentencing guidelines
This local reporting from Arkansas, headlined "Martha Shoffner gets 30 months in bribery case," details today's federal sentencing of a significant political figure in the Natural State. Here are the basics, with some commentary to follow:
Judge Leon Holmes has sentenced former Arkansas Treasurer Martha Shoffner to 30 months in prison for taking bribes for state bond business. It will be followed by some supervised release. No fine was assessed. The 71-year-old will have to report to a Fort Worth prison in 60 days.
She faced as much as 15 years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines. Her attorney had asked for 12 to 18 months, with half that in home detention. U.S. Attorney Chris Thyer, who'd asked for 60 months, said he was satisfied with the outcome....
Judge Leon Holmes said Shoffner had netted little — he ordered restitution of $31,000 she'd kept in bribes — but as a public official should do prison time....Shoffner's attorney argued that the only loss was $36,000 in bribes, not the value of the bond business of $1.7 million. Holmes held there were multiple payments for multiple actions and the $36,000, paid in six installments, didn't amount to a single payment, which also means a potential enhancement of the sentence. He said [bribe giver Steele] Stephens benefited from the bribes to the tune of $900,000 the amount by which his $1.7 million in commissions exceeded the next biggest bond dealer who did business with Shoffner.
[Defense attorney Chuck] Banks asked the court to show mercy on Shoffner, saying she "made a terrible, terrible error in judgment" and characterizing her as "gullible" and "clueless." He said that she was inclined to accept the bribes from Stephens in large part because she was in a bad financial situation, having underestimated the cost of commuting on a regular basis between Newport and Little Rock.
Banks asked Holmes to consider Shoffner's "good deeds," including her work for the Humane Society. He presented the court with a picture of her dog, Fred, and said he was moved by the fact that after Shoffner was first arrested, she asked Banks to call her sister to check on Fred. He called two character witnesses to the stand to testify on her behalf.
He also said that in her capacity as treasurer, Shoffner's books consistently balanced and audits found no problems in the accounts of the office itself. "She was in all honesty doing a pretty dadgum good job," Banks said. "I'm proud to be standing with this poor woman here at this dark hour ... she really is gullible. She really is naive."...
Banks said Shoffner has experienced the most public vilification that he has ever seen in his career as an attorney. He compared her haggard appearance today with a picture of her being sworn in a few years ago, to show the physical toll her ordeal has taken. He said she was now "disgraced," "broke" and "ostracized" and noted that she drove to the courthose in a 2003 Oldsmobile this morning.
He also pointed out that Steele Stephens received complete immunity from prosecution for his cooperation with the FBI. Stephens got a $25,000 fine and lost his brokers license, and "that's it," Banks said.
The attorney argued that sentencing Shoffner to a long period in jail would not serve the public interest, and urged Holmes to give her only as much punishment needed "to repair people's confidence in the office." She might not live out a harsh sentence, he said.
Especially because to this day I remain grumpy Bill Clinton never got prosecuted for his crimes while in office, I tend not to be eager to argue for mercy for lawbreaking politicians. But, if I read the facts here right, it seems the bribe-giver netted nearly $1 million dollars in benefits and gets only a small fine for his misdeeds because of his FBI cooperation while the bribe-taker is headed off the prison for a couple years even though she has already been disgraced and likely never posed any real risk to public safety.
That all said, I do not find either the 30-month sentence imposed by the federal judge or even the 5-year sentence recommended by the federal prosecutor too troublesome. What offends me is a guideline structure that would recommend a 15-year(!) prison sentence for a 71-year-old, first-time offender who poses no risk to public safety. That guideline recommendation strikes me as crazy on these facts, and it is reassuring that the prosecutor here had the good sense to only urge a sentence only 1/3 as long as the guidelines recommend and that the judge imposed a sentence only half as long as the prosecutor requested. And it is cases like this that still lead me to consider circuit courts misguided in the post-Booker jurisprudence to embrace any kind of presumption of reasonableness for within-guideline sentences.
Despite copious reform talk, big and tough federal drug sentencing system churns on
As regular readers know, talk of federal sentencing reform, especially drug sentencing reform, has been all the rage in recent years. And yet, as this new report from the US Sentencing Commission details, in the last fiscal year, the federal criminal justice system still sentenced tens of thousands of drug offenders to hundreds of thousands of years of federal imprisonment.
The new report, titled excitingly "Overview of Federal Criminal Cases, Fiscal Year 2014," actually reports a decline in the overall number of federal criminal case sentences in the last fiscal year. But this overall decline was driven mostly by a significant decline in immigration cases. Here are some snippets from the report which highlight some of modern federal sentencing trends:
The number of individual offenders sentenced each year grew steadily after the Commission began reporting sentencing data in 1988, reaching a high of 86,201 individual offenders sentenced in fiscal year 2011. Since then the number of cases has decreased each year. In fiscal year 2014, the number of individual offender cases reported to the Commission fell by 4,199 (5.2%) cases from the previous year to 75,836. Since fiscal year 2011, the number of these cases has declined by 12.0 percent....
Drug cases have traditionally been the most common federal cases. However, beginning in fiscal year 2009, the number of immigration cases steadily increased, reaching a high of 29,717 such cases in fiscal year 2011. That year immigration cases were the most common offense in the federal system.... In fiscal year 2014, 24,011 drug cases were reported to the Commission, accounting for 31.7 percent of all cases. Most of these cases involved drug trafficking offenses. That year there were 22,238 immigration cases, accounting for 29.3 percent of the total federal caseload that year....
Several factors affect the average prison sentence for drug offenders, including statutory mandatory minimum punishments, the quantity of the drugs involved in the case, the prior criminal history of the offender, and whether the offender assisted the government in the investigation of his or her crime and other crimes.
For more than 20 years, crack cocaine offenders have been the most severely punished, however the length of imprisonment imposed in these cases has decreased steadily since 2007. In fiscal year 2014, the average imprisonment for drug crimes involving crack cocaine was 93 months of imprisonment (with a median sentence of 72 months). This compares to a high of 129 for these offenders in fiscal year 2007. Methamphetamine offenders are the next most severely punished drug crimes, with an average length of imprisonment of 88 months (and a median sentence of 70 months). Marijuana offenders have the lowest average imprisonment at 36 months (with a median sentence of 24 months)....
Mandatory minimum penalties enacted by Congress play a large part in determining the sentence for drug offenders, either outright or through the impact of these statutes on the structure of the guidelines. In fiscal year 2014, half of all drug offenders were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty, however, this proportion was the lowest it has been since the Commission began reporting data about mandatory minimum penalty application in 1993. The portion of drug cases carrying a mandatory minimum penalty in fiscal year 2013 was 62.1 percent. This significant reduction was due, in large part, to a change in the policy of the Department of Justice as to how to charge drug cases.
In fiscal year 2014, powder cocaine offenders and methamphetamine offenders were convicted of an offense that provided for the imposition of a mandatory minimum sentence at the highest rates — 65.4 percent in powder cocaine cases and 61.8 percent in methamphetamine cases. Mandatory minimum penalties were least common in drug cases involving “other” drugs (mostly prescription drugs) and marijuana, accounting for 4.3 percent and 33.2 percent, respectively, of those cases.
These data highlight that DOJ's new charging policies have a measurable impact of the operation of the federal sentencing system. But that change did not dramatically alter the modern annual pattern of more than 125,000 cumulative years of future federal prison time being imposed on all federal drug defendants. All those years, at a conservative average taxpayer cost of $30,000 per year, means just federal drug sentencing in 2014 served to commit nearly $4,000,000,000 in future federal taxpayer funds to incarcerating those drug defendants sentenced over the last USSC fiscal year.
August 28, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)
Do tough sex offender restrictions really hurt women and children more than keeping them safe?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy new Al-Jazeera America article headlined "Collateral damage: Harsh sex offender laws may put whole families at risk: Research says that registries and residency bans leave children of sex offenders vulnerable to bullying, homelessness." Here are excerpts:
In 1996, Congress passed Megan’s Law, which allowed states to publicize the names of those convicted of sex offenses. A wave of federal and state laws followed that created online sex offender registries, broadened who is listed and restricted where registrants can live.
But today there’s a growing body of research and court opinions questioning those laws’ effectiveness and constitutionality. No studies have looked at what proportion of the country’s nearly 850,000 people on state registries are providing for families of their own. Activists say, however, that thousands of female partners and children are being hurt by laws that aim to protect kids....
Vicki Henry, who runs Women Against the Registry, a group trying to roll back registration and residency laws nationwide, [with] volunteers operate a hotline for family members of registrants seeking help in dealing with the consequences of those laws. They field about 100 calls a month, Henry says.
The only quantitative study to date suggests how serious those consequences may be. In the American Journal of Criminal Justice in January 2009, researchers Jill Levenson and Richard Tewksbury reported on their survey of nearly 600 immediate family members of registrants. More than 20 percent said they had to move out of a rental because their landlord found their relative’s name on the registry, and 40 percent said they found it hard to find an affordable place to live.
Respondents said that their kids didn’t fare well either. Two-thirds reported that their children felt left out of activities because of their parent’s status, more than three-quarters said their children were depressed, and almost half reported that their children were harassed....
Two new qualitative studies provide more backing for the 2009 study findings. From 2010 to 2012, a team of researchers from four universities surveyed almost 450 registrants about the consequences for their families of their being on the list. Their report on the study ran in the October 2014 Justice Policy Journal. Another by two University of Delaware researchers involved surveys last year of 36 family members and interviews with 16 of them; it’s still under review for publication. Both studies asked open-ended questions, so the researchers couldn’t crunch any numbers. But key themes run through the responses — children being shunned and harassed, families struggling to find a place to live, wives losing friends and jobs because a husband is on the list....
Those families may be the collateral damage in a war on sex crimes that’s been underway since passage of Megan’s Law. But it’s far from clear that the chief weapons politicians have employed — registries and residency bans — are helping to protect children or the public.
None of the six studies on sex offender registries conducted between 1995 and 2011 found that registries lowered recidivism, according to a meta-analysis of 20 years of research in the November 2012 Journal of Crime and Justice. “Over the last 15 years, sex offender registries have been established in all empirical forums not to reduce sexual offending behavior, violence, or the number of victims,” Kristen Zgoba, coauthor of that study, wrote in an email.
There’s an even broader consensus on residency restrictions. A U.S. Department of Justice brief released last month concluded that “research has demonstrated that residence restrictions do not decrease and are not a deterrent for sexual recidivism.” And a December 2013 study report in the journal Criminal Justice Policy Review noted that Florida’s residency laws likely play a “significant role” in homelessness and transience among sex offenders.
Thursday, August 27, 2015
"Criminal Justice Reform Begins With Fair Sentencing and Fair Chances"
The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary which strikes me as especially notable because (1) it is authored by the Coaltion for Public Safety's senior policy advisor, Lance Lemmonds, who recently worked for the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and on a number of Republican campaigns, and (2) it is published by The American Spectator. Here are excerpts:
Political conservatives who, since at least the Nixon administration, have worn with pride the badge of “tough on crime” are beginning to realize that tough doesn’t necessarily mean the same as being “smart on crime.”
Just as the private sector has embraced the mantra of “working smarter, not harder,” it’s time for federal and state officials to acknowledge the need for a smarter and more cost-effective criminal justice system.
Reducing life-without-parole sentences is one of several planks in the Coalition for Public Safety’s nonpartisan campaign for fair sentencing and fair chances, the overall goal of which is aimed at reducing the nation’s burgeoning jail and prison populations and breaking down the barriers to successful re-entry into society.
The coalition supporting the fair sentencing and fair chances campaign believes that we can dramatically reduce the enormous amount of money — currently $80 billion — that American taxpayers spend annually on incarceration in the state and federal jail and prison systems — and do so without jeopardizing public safety. That coalition includes the conservative groups Americans for Tax Reform, Faith & Freedom Coalition and FreedomWorks.
In addition to calling for a reduction in the number of life-without-parole sentences, CPS’ fair sentencing and fair chances campaign is also calling for reducing the length of federal mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses, so that the punishment fits the crime. That will help safely alleviate prison overcrowding while also curbing burgeoning costs....
At both the federal and state levels, we also advocate greater use of alternatives to incarceration, where appropriate. These include restitution, community supervision and residential re-entry centers, both pre-trial and post-sentencing, as well as expanded access to mental health care, substance-abuse treatment, education and job training.
Programs that allow inmates to reduce their sentences through credit for good behavior and participation in recidivism-reduction training should be expanded. So should the sealing of criminal records, where appropriate, to encourage rehabilitation and to make it easier for ex-offenders to find gainful employment and reintegrate into society....
Clearly, something needs to be done when, since 1980, the federal prison population has increased nearly tenfold and the state prison population has quadrupled. More than 1 percent of all U.S. adults are now behind bars, by far the highest rate of any nation in the world.
By addressing much-needed reforms to the current one-size-fits-all approach to prison sentencing, and by also reducing barriers to education, housing, and employment that so many ex-offenders face, we can protect our communities and increase public safety. We must seize this unique opportunity for progress to make the justice system smarter, fairer, and more effective.
BJS releases latest data on crime victimization throughout United States
This new press release from the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports on encouraging crime news for 2014 based on one notable metric. Here are the basic data from the press release:
The violent crime rate did not change significantly in 2014 compared to 2013, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) announced today. Violent crimes include rape or sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault and simple assault. In 2014, the violent crime rate was 20.1 victimizations per 1,000 U.S. residents age 12 or older.
The rate of domestic violence, which includes crime committed by intimate partners (current or former spouses, boyfriends or girlfriends) and family members was also unchanged from 2013 to 2014 (4.2 per 1,000). Likewise, in 2014 the rates of intimate partner violence (2.4 per 1,000), violence resulting in an injury (5.2 per 1,000) and violence involving a firearm (1.7 per 1,000) did not change significantly.
In comparison, the property crime rate, which includes burglary, theft and motor vehicle theft, fell from 131.4 victimizations per 1,000 households in 2013 to 118.1 per 1,000 in 2014. The overall decline was largely the result of a decline in theft....
From 2013 to 2014, crime rates varied slightly by region. There was no significant difference in the rate of violent crime in the Midwest and South, while the Northeast and West had slight decreases. Property crime rates decreased in the Midwest, South and Western regions of the country, but there was no significant change in the rate of property crime in the Northeast....
From 2013 to 2014, there were no significant changes in rates of violent crime across urban, suburban and rural areas.
The full new BJS report, excitingly titled "Criminal Victimization, 2014," is available here and the findings are based on data from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). Interestingly, while the press release quoted above emphasizes there has been no change in violent crime rate, the first few paragraphs of the full report provides a slightly more encouraging story based on the detailed numbers (and the broader multi-year trends) and highlighted by my emphasis below:
In 2014, U.S. residents age 12 or older experienced an estimated 5.4 million violent victimizations and 15.3 million property victimizations, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ (BJS) National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). There was no significant change in the overall rate of violent crime, defined as rape or sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, and simple assault, from 2013 (23.2 victimizations per 1,000 persons age 12 or older) to 2014 (20.1 per 1,000) (figure 1). However, the rate of violent crime in 2014 was lower than the rate in 2012 (26.1 per 1,000). From 1993 to 2014, the rate of violent crime declined from 79.8 to 20.1 per 1,000.
The overall property crime rate (which includes household burglary, theft, and motor vehicle theft) decreased from 131.4 victimizations per 1,000 households in 2013 to 118.1 victimizations per 1,000 in 2014. The decline in theft accounted for the majority of the decrease in property crime. Since 1993, the rate of property crime declined from 351.8 to 118.1 victimizations per 1,000 households.
This particular BJS data source had shown an uptick in overall crime in the period from 2010 to 2012. It is encouraging news that this data source is now showing that crime seemed to be going back down again in the period from 2012 to 2014.
Might Tennessee soon have its machinery of death up and running?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this AP story headlined "Judge upholds Tennessee lethal injection method." Here are the basics:
A Tennessee judge on Wednesday upheld the state's lethal injection process for executing inmates.
Davidson County Chancery Judge Claudia Bonnyman said from the bench that the plaintiffs, 33 death row inmates, didn't prove that the one-drug method led to a painful and lingering death. She also said the plaintiffs didn't show during a lengthy trial that there have been problems in states where the method has been used. "Plaintiffs were not able to carry their burdens ... on any of their claims," Bonnyman said.
Plaintiffs' attorney Kelley Henry said they plan to appeal.
Attorney General Herbert Slatery said in a statement he hoped the families of victims would be comforted by the ruling. "The State of Tennessee has worked very hard to make sure the protocol used is reliable and humane, today the Court recognized that," the statement said. While much of the focus of this case has been on the inmates, we should not forget the victims and the heartache suffered by their families."
Tennessee's protocol calls for the use of pentobarbital mixed to order by a pharmacist, because the only commercial producer of the drug has placed restrictions on its distribution to prevent it from being used in executions. Tennessee has not executed an inmate for more than five years because of legal challenges and problems in obtaining lethal injection drugs.
Lawmakers moved from a three-drug lethal injection method to a one-drug method and to reinstate the electric chair as a backup. Both changes brought challenges, and all previously scheduled executions have been put on hold.
This ruling and the planned appeals by the death row defendants suggests that Tennessee might be a good state to watch to see if the Supreme Court's ruling in Glossip can really help states finally get their death penalty machinery back up and running. In the wake of Glossip and absent any evidence of illicit chicanery by Tennessee officials, any appeals in this case ought to be resolved fairly expeditiously (especially if Tennessee were now set execution dates for some condemned murderers). But, of course, the condemned still have every reason, and surely will seek every opportunity, to continue to extend the lethal injection litigation for as long as possible in both state and federal courts. I have thought that Glossip should speed things along in this state and others, but only time will tell.
"When Prisons Need to Be More Like Nursing Homes"
The title of this post is the headline of this new lengthy Marshall Project piece about the challenges posed by an aging prison population. Here is how it begins:
America’s prison population is rapidly graying, forcing corrections departments to confront the rising costs and challenges of health care in institutions that weren’t designed to serve as nursing homes.
Between 1995 and 2010 the number of inmates aged 55 and up almost quadrupled, owing in part to the tough-on-crime sentencing laws of the 1980s and 90s, according to a 2012 ACLU report. In 2013, about 10 percent of the nation’s prison inmates — or 145,000 people — were 55 or older. By 2030, the report said, one-third of all inmates will be over 55. At the same time, it is widely accepted that prisoners age faster than the general population because they tend to arrive at prison with more health problems or develop them during incarceration. Caring for elderly inmates can cost up to twice as much as caring for younger ones.
In North Carolina, for example, it costs an estimated four times as much. During the fiscal year 2006-2007 — its most recent figures — the state’s corrections department spent $33,824,060 on health care for inmates over 50, a 35% increase from just two years earlier.
Despite these runaway costs, there is no national oversight to determine how prisons handle the challenges of an aging population, says Marc Stern, a consultant in correctional health care. “If a Medicaid or Medicare auditor walked into [a large urban hospital] to do an audit’’ Stern said, “they would say, ‘O.K., where's your geriatric unit? Where's your dementia unit?’ It's part of the audit process, it's part of the intelligence phase that is part of being part of a national organization.”
But some states are confronting the costs and the problems. Here is a look at some innovative programs in New York, California and Connecticut.
A few (of many) recent and older related posts:
- Examining the sources of an ever-aging US prison population
- New major report documents costs and concerns with aging prison populations
- Big new ACLU report highlights the high cost of high numbers of elderly prisoners
- "Aging Prisoners, Increasing Costs, and Geriatric Release"
- What should Florida and other states do with all their old sex offenders?
- Are all states going to need to create old-age prisons?
- The high costs of an aging prison population
- The story of prisons becoming nursing homes in Virginia
- "Frail and Elderly Prisoners: Do They Still Belong Behind Bars?"
- The never-aging (and ever-costly) story of ever-aging US prison populations
Wednesday, August 26, 2015
Nebraska group submits signatures to halt death penalty repeal and set up fascinating 2016 vote
As reported in this new AP article, the "organization campaigning to reinstate Nebraska's death penalty after lawmakers repealed it in May said Wednesday it has collected more than enough signatures to suspend the law before it goes into effect and place it before voters in 2016." Here is more:
Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, which was heavily financed by Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts and his family, said it had gathered 166,692 signatures from all 93 of the state's counties. Nebraska's unicameral Legislature had voted to repeal capital punishment over the objection of Ricketts, becoming the first traditionally conservative state to do so in 42 years.
The pro-death penalty group needed roughly 57,000 valid signatures from registered voters to force a statewide referendum, and double that number to immediately halt the death penalty repeal going into effect. They appear to have exceeded the 10 percent of registered voters hurdle needed to block repeal pending a November 2016 ballot measure on the issue.
"Nebraskans sent a strong message about crime and punishment in our state by signing this petition in extraordinary numbers," said state treasurer and former attorney general Don Stenberg, a co-chair of the petition drive....
Republican Attorney General Doug Peterson, who supports the death penalty, said in a statement that the signatures are "presumptively valid" until determined otherwise. Stenberg said no one will know the exact number of valid signatures for at least a month, but the state constitution makes clear that petitions go into effect on the day they're submitted.
Even if the law is suspended, Nebraska currently has no way to execute any of the 10 men on death row because its lacks two of the three required lethal injection drugs and has struggled to obtain them legally. The state paid $54,400 in May to order the drugs from a broker in India, but federal authorities have said they can't be legally imported.
Nebraska lawmakers voted by the narrowest possible margin, 30-19, to override Ricketts' veto. Ricketts assailed the Legislature as out of touch with the wishes of most residents. The repeal vote was helped by an unusual coalition of conservative state senators and more traditional death penalty opponents who had fought unsuccessfully for decades to eliminate the punishment. Some conservatives said they opposed it for religious and moral reasons, while others cast it as an inefficient government program that wastes tax money....
Nebraska hasn't executed an inmate since 1997, and has never done so using the state's current three-drug lethal injection protocol.
The announcement of the number of signatures caps an 82-day petition drive backed by Ricketts and his father, TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts. The governor had given $200,000 to Nebraskans for the Death Penalty as of the last filing deadline on July 31, while his father had donated $100,000. The group raised a total of more than $652,000 from 40 individual donors and seven groups classified as businesses, political action committees and other entities.
The largest donation in July came from the conservative, Washington-based Judicial Crisis Network, which gave $200,000. Nebraskans for the Death Penalty relied on a combination of paid and volunteer petition circulators, and was aided by an Arizona-based strategist who specializes in ballot campaigns.
I find these developments fascinating, especially because it highlights that the symbolism of the death penalty seems so much more important to so many folks than the practicalities of the death penalty. Practically speaking, with no executions in nearly 20 years, the legislature's abolition largely made de jure what was already a de facto reality in the state. But that largely symbolic decision obviously troubled a lot of Cornhuskers (and motivated some folks to put some serious money into this issue), and now the issue will be decided by direct democracy rather than by representative democracy.
Because I am a huge fan of direct democracy, and especially because it will be very interesting to follow the Cornhusker capital campaigning (and its funders' capital contributions), I am pleased that this crime-and-punishment issue will now come before the voters in 2016. Sadly, because Nebraska is not likely to become a swing state in the broader presidential scene, I doubt the many wanna-be Prez candidates will feel compelled to weigh in on this "local" issue. But it still seems possible that this vote could make Nebraska a significant focal point in the (never-ending) national debate over death penalty policy and practices.
Notable talk of crimnal justice reform at GOPAC State Legislative Leaders Summit
My local Columbus Dispatch has this notable article about notable policy message that was delivered to top GOP state lawmakers at a notable conference this week. The article is headlined "Packing prisons not the answer, lawmakers told," and here are excerpts:
Meeting in a state where more than 50,000 people live in prisons built to hold about 39,000, Republican state lawmakers from across the country were told Tuesday that “tough on crime” must be replaced by a smarter approach to criminal justice.
“Conservatives recognize we have too many criminal laws,” said Patrick Purtill Jr., director of legislative affairs for the Faith and Freedom Coalition, told a room of GOP lawmakers attending the annual GOPAC State Legislative Leaders Summit, held this year in Columbus.
“We’re sending too many people to prison. We’re spending too much money to keep them there for far too long. And we’re doing too little to re-enter them into our communities. It’s becoming increasingly clear that over-criminalization and over-incarceration are making our communities less safe.”
Republicans are leading the country on criminal-justice reform, said David Avella, chairman of GOPAC, a national group that grooms Republican lawmakers and candidates and provides forums for the sharing of conservative policies. “If you want to look at how we heal some of the divisions our country faces right now, this is a winning issue for us,” he told the conference, which runs through Thursday.
The Faith and Freedom Coalition is one of seven organizations stretching across the ideological spectrum that is partnering with the U.S. Justice Action Network to implement laws that reduce prison populations, implement more rational criminal penalties, and do more to help inmates re-enter society.
Ohio, along with Pennsylvania and Michigan, currently are the Action Network’s three target states for criminal justice reform. The group is working with Ohio lawmakers such as Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, and Rep. Barbara Sears, R-Sylvania. “These reforms make us safer. They’re not just cost-saving measures,” said Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network, pointing to Pew Chartable Trusts data that shows states with the biggest drops in prison populations also are seeing some of the greatest decreases in crime rates....
Faber, an attorney and former probation officer, told the [Ohio legislature's] Recodification Committee in June to “ swing for the fences.” He told GOPAC attendees that he knows Republicans have traditionally approached criminal justice with a “tough on crime” attitude. “This isn’t about making sure the bad guys get out earlier,” he said. “But we need room for the really bad guys, and the question is what do we do about the people that aren’t so bad?”
Faber hopes the committee will have recommendations by next summer. “One of the things I hope we do is give judges discretion back,” Faber said. “Another thing we need to look at is making that finer line between what is a felony and what isn’t. I also hope they look at what we need to increase the penalties for to stop that recidivism cycle.”
August 26, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)
New research report examines impact of "Realignment" on crime in California in 2014
Via an email from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ), I received news about this notable new research report titled "Realignment and Crime in 2014: California’s Violent Crime in Decline." Here is how the CJCJ report was summarized in the email I received:
A new report from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice examines the impact of Public Safety Realignment on county crime given newly produced 2014 data. CJCJ finds no causal relationship between Realignment and changes in rates of reported Part I offenses.
• Since Realignment was implemented in 2011, statewide violent crime and property crime have generally decreased. This decline seems to be a continuation of the downward crime trend of the past two decades that has not demonstrably been affected by Realignment.
• Almost all counties experienced a decrease in their rates of state prison commitments for non-violent offenses in 2013 versus 2010. However, these declines showed no correlation with changes in crime rates in individual counties in 2014 versus 2010. For example, Orange County’s rate of non-violent prison admissions decreased by 53 percent along with substantial reductions in crime, while adjacent Riverside County saw a 30 percent decrease in non-violent prison admission rates along with less favorable crime trends.
• Trends in motor vehicle theft, which some researchers have connected to Realignment, were highly erratic among individual counties (for example, down 35 percent in Fresno County; up 102 percent in Shasta County). No correlations between Realignment and motor vehicle theft were apparent.
This report builds on CJCJ's previous county-level analyses finding that no definitive conclusions can be drawn about the impact, if any, of Realignment on crime at this time. Instead, this report highlights nine “model counties” that have shown uniquely large decreases in reliance on state prisons alongside uniquely large reductions in property, violent, and total crime. Policymakers should study the measures taken in these nine counties to better implement effective and safe statewide decarceration strategies.
August 26, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, National and State Crime Data, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2)
"Why the U.S. is No. 1 -- in mass shootings"
In light of sad and tragic news of yet another multiple-murder shooting in Virginia (CNN report here), I found especially notable this Los Angeles Times article about some sociology research on high-profile crimes in the United States. The piece has the headline given to this post, and it gets started this way:
The United States is, by a long shot, the global leader in mass shootings, claiming just 5% of the global population but an outsized share -- 31% -- of the world's mass shooters since 1966, a new study finds.
The Philippines, Russia, Yemen and France -- all countries that can claim a substantial share of the 291 documented mass shootings between 1966 and 2012 -- collectively didn't even come close to the United States.
And what makes the United States such a fertile incubator for mass shooters? A comprehensive analysis of the perpetrators, their motives and the national contexts for their actions suggests that several factors have conspired to create in the United States a potent medium for fostering large-scale murder.
Those factors include a chronic and widespread gap between Americans' expectations for themselves and their actual achievement, Americans' adulation of fame, and the extent of gun ownership in the United States.
Set those features against a circumstance the United States shares with many other countries -- a backdrop of poorly managed mental illness -- and you have a uniquely volatile brew, the new study says.
With those conclusions, University of Alabama criminologist Adam Lankford set out to illuminate the darker side of American "exceptionalism" -- the notion that the United States' size, diversity, political and economic institutions and traditions set us apart in the world. Lankford's paper is among those being presented this week at the American Sociological Assn.'s annual meeting, in Chicago.
Perhaps no single factor sets the United States apart as sharply as does gun ownership, wrote Lankford. Of 178 countries included in Lankford's analysis, the United States ranked first in per-capita gun ownership. A 2007 survey found 270 million firearms in U.S. civilian households -- an ownership rate of 88.8 firearms per 100 people. Yemen followed, with 54.8 firearms per 100 people.
How did Boston bombing jurors not get informed some victims did not favor death sentence for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev?
As regular readers may recall from this post back in April, Bill and Denise Richard, parents of 8-year-old Martin who was one of three people killed in the April 2013 explosions at the Boston marathon's finish line, wrote this stirring Boston Globe commentary about their hopes for the outcome in the federal criminal case against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The Richards there expressed disinterest in a death sentence for Tsarnaev because of all the attention and appeals that such a sentence would necessarily bring for the duration of Tsarnaev's life behind bars. As they explained, in order to be able to "turn the page, end the anguish, and look toward a better future," they were calling upon "the Department of Justice [to take] the death penalty off the table in an exchange for the defendant spending the rest of his life in prison without any possibility of release and waiving all of his rights to appeal."
As regular readers know, federal statutory law gives crime victims an inpedendent right to express their views in federal sentencing proceedings. For that reason, and especially because the feelings and desires of all victims seems important, relevant and proper evidence for jurors trying to decide on a life/death capital verdict, I took for granted that anti-death-sentence victim views would get relayed in some way to the jurors deciding on the sentence for Tsarnaev. (Indeed, I had long thought that one of many benefits of the federal Crime Victim Rights Act was to ensure federal court proceedings would regularly incorportate the views and voices of all victims, not just those prosecutors and/or defense attorneys brought forward.)
But this local interview with the first Boston bombing juror to speak publicly suggests that (1) the jurors were unaware of the Richards' perspective on how best to sentence Tsarnaev, and (2) at least one juror might have reached a different verdict if he knew of what the Richards had said. Here is part of the introduction and transcript of the interview with Kevan Fagan, Juror 83, covering this ground:
Kevan Fagan, “Juror 83″ in the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, sat down for an interview in our studio with WBUR’s Jack Lepiarz and David Boeri, who both covered the trial. The 23-year-old became the first juror to agree to be named, to have his picture taken and to talk about the trial, though he would not discuss the jury’s deliberations.
Fagan told WBUR that he may not have voted for the death penalty had he known that some bombing victims wanted Tsarnaev to get life in prison. He said he likely would have changed his vote had he been aware of opposition to the death penalty by the parents of 8-year-old Martin Richard, the youngest victim killed in the bombing.
“If I had known that, I probably — I probably would change my vote. But then again, if I knew that I wouldn’t be on the jury either,” he said in the interview. The jurors were ordered to avoid media coverage of the trial.
He is co-authoring a book about his experience titled “Juror 83 — The Tsarnaev Trial: 34 Days That Changed Me” that is expected to be released at the end of September....
DB: What impressed you? Did you find anything persuasive in the defense case?
KF: I think it was a very hard case, and I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know if there have been harder cases to defend. I think they did the best that they could for their client.
DB: You didn’t know at the time that the Richard family and other families had written to the U.S. Attorney and to the Justice Department saying they were opposed to the death penalty?
KF: Oh sure. No, I had no clue about that.
JL: If you had known that, would you have changed your vote?
KF: If I had known that, I probably — I probably would change my vote. But then again, if I knew that I wouldn’t be on the jury either.
DB: What do you mean?
KF: If I went out of my way and disrespected the judge and went against his orders about researching things. That wouldn’t have been very fair or judicious of me.
Because this juror is writing a book about his experience as a juror — and especially because this juror will likely benefit personally from the publicity that provocative interviews will generate — I am a bit suspicious of his suggestion that his sentencing vote would have been different if he had full information about all victim perspectives. Nevertheless, I now am wondering a lot about (a) whatever legal or strategic or practical issues surrounded decisions to keep jurors unaware of the Richards' (and other victims'?) perspectives on how best to sentence Tsarnaev, and (b) whether this jury unawareness, coupled with this juror's comments about the impact such information could have had, will become a key part of direct and collateral appeals of the Tsarnaev death sentence.
I cannot help but note a particular and particularly sad irony here: the commentary authored by the Richards movingly "urge[d] the Department of Justice to bring the case to a close"; but now this commentary, now combined with its failure to get known to the jury during the sentencing proceedings, seems itself likely to continue to generate legal issues and media attention. The commentary not only noted, but now adds the reality that, a death sentence for Tsarnaev is all but certain to ensure this case will not be coming to a close for decades. So sad.
A few prior related posts:
- Parent of Boston bombers' young victims: "To end the anguish, drop the death penalty"
- "Sister of slain MIT officer opposes death penalty for Tsarnaev"
- Varied perspectives on the varied challenges facing varied victims
- Capital jury concludes character of crime matters most in death sentencing of Boston bomber
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Paul Larkin Jr. now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
A trope heard throughout criminal justice circles today is that the system is a dystopia. Although most of the discussion and proposed remedies have centered on sentencing or release, this article focuses on clemency, which has become a controversial subject. The last few Presidents have rarely exercised their pardon power or have used it for ignoble reasons. The former withers the clemency power; the latter besmirches it.
President Obama sought to kick start the clemency process through the Clemency Project 2014, which sought to provide relief to the 30,000 crack cocaine offenders unable to take advantage of the prospective-only nature Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. That initiative, however, is unlikely to jump-start the clemency power since it is quite limited — to drug offenders unable to benefit from the new crack-to-powder sentencing ratio. But the vast expansion in the size of the federal correctional system, combined with the corresponding increase in the costs of federal corrections, may spur the president to renew his resort to clemency. If so, the question becomes, How?
The discussion proceeds as follows: Part I traces the history of the clemency process, focusing on the President’s Article II power to grant an offender mercy. Part II will ask why the clemency power has fallen into desuetude or disdain over the last few decades, and Part III will discuss whether clemency is likely to be reborn in the near future. Part IV will conclude by recommending that the problem lies not in the power it-self, but in the process by which cases are brought to the President for his review and maybe in the people we have elected to make those decisions.
Tuesday, August 25, 2015
Despite Glossip, federal judge orders halt to Mississippi's lethal injection plans
I had thought that the Supreme Court's big Glossip Eighth Amendment ruling a couple of month ago could make it at least somewhat easier for states to get their condemned murderers to execution chambers. But, intriguingly, only two executions have been carried out since Glossip was decided, and the United States thus remains on track in 2015 for the lowest yearly total of executions in a quarter-century.
Moreover, as reported via this (somewhat confusing) AP article, headlined "Federal judge halts executions in Mississippi," even claims that would seem to have been resolved by Glossip are still disrupting state execution efforts in a least one state. Here are the basic details:
A federal judge on Tuesday temporarily blocked the state of Mississippi from using two drugs in executions, shutting down the death penalty in the state for now.
U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate issued a temporary restraining order saying Mississippi officials cannot use pentobarbital or midazolam, two drugs used to render prisoners unconscious. Mississippi law requires a three-drug process, with the sedative followed by a paralyzing agent and a drug that stops an inmate's heart.
Jim Craig, a lawyer for two inmates, said Wingate gave the order verbally Tuesday in a phone conference with him and other lawyers. Wingate was supposed to issue a written order, but no written copy was yet available later in the day.
Grace Simmons Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Corrections, wrote in an email that the order bars the state from using any drug to execute a condemned inmate. The state quickly filed notice Tuesday saying it will ask the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal to overturn Wingate's order.
"We are extremely disappointed that the federal court has frustrated the State of Mississippi's lawful duty to enforce its criminal sentence of capital punishment," Attorney General Jim Hood said in a statement. "Just months ago the United States Supreme Court approved Oklahoma's method of lethal injection. Mississippi's method follows that of Oklahoma. We feel strongly that the district court misapplied the law."
Craig expects Wingate to issue a preliminary injunction that could freeze executions until the case is complete. Craig said Wingate told lawyers he would expedite the case.
Mississippi is one of a number of states facing legal challenges to lethal injections. Hood's office asked the state Supreme Court in July to set a Thursday execution for convicted murderer Richard Jordan, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, but the state court never acted.
Prisoners say they face risks of excruciating pain and torture during an execution, and that such pain violates the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The suit says there's no guarantee Mississippi can mix a safe and effective anesthetic to knock out prisoners, and even then, prisoners could remain conscious during execution.
As the case was proceeding, Hood's office told Wingate that Mississippi was abandoning its plans to use pentobarbital and instead would use midazolam to knock out prisoners. Mississippi officials have said they've struggled to buy pentobarbital as death penalty opponents pressured manufacturers to cut off the supply.
"Why Europe Is Exploring Drug Decriminalization"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable article about international drug war developments. Here is how the piece gets started:
Fourteen years ago, fed up with the losing fight against overdose deaths and the rising prevalence of HIV/AIDS, Portugal embarked on a bold experiment by decriminalizing all drugs and taking a public health approach to illegal drug use. It now has the second-lowest number of drug-induced deaths in all of Europe and has seen a steady decrease in the number of newly diagnosed HIV and AIDS patients. Now, other countries are looking to Portugal’s success. Chief among them is Ireland, which is inching toward the notion that drug abuse should be handled as a public health rather than a criminal justice issue.
In late July, Minister of State for the National Drugs Strategy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin invited representatives from regional drug and alcohol task forces to a roundtable discussion in Dublin on a possible move toward Portugal-style drug policy. The meeting produced wide consensus on the decriminalization of all drugs, according to The Irish Times. Ó Ríordáin is particularly interested in diverting funding for the prosecution and incarceration of drug users to rehabilitation programs.
“[Decriminalization] can’t happen by itself,” Ó Ríordáin, who was appointed in May, told The Irish Times. “There has to be a continuum of care. There has to be an understanding around supports and resources and counseling and all those different things.” One tangible outcome Ó Ríordáin would like to see is the introduction of “consumption rooms” staffed with public health workers, where intravenous drug users can safely use drugs such as heroin and access clean needles. Portugal first established a consumption room in a facility near a health center and a police department in Lisbon in 2014.
Ireland’s legislative Committee on Justice, Defense, and Equality sent some of its members to Lisbon in June to learn more about the 15-year experiment with decriminalization. The delegation found a dramatic drop in the number of HIV/AIDS cases, a decrease in drug-related crime, and no increase in drug use. Predictions that Portugal would become a destination for drug tourists, the committee members wrote in their report from the trip, haven’t come true. Since the report’s release, the committee has invited comments on decriminalization from the public and expects to issue recommendations in October for how Ireland should move forward.
Ninth Circuit panel set for California's appeal of its (unconstitutional?) death penalty administration
Readers may recall that a little over a year ago, as first reported in this July 2014 post, US District Judge Cormac Carney ruled in Jones v. Chappell (now Jones v. Davis) that California's administration of capital punishment was unconstitutional. That ruling was based on the judge's conclusion that California operated a death penalty "system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed [, and which consequently] serves no penological purpose." This Jones ruling was appealed by the state of California to the Ninth Circuit, and a Ninth Circuit panel is finally scheduled to hear oral argument in the case next week.
As reported in this local article, headlined "3 judges appointed by Democrats will hear California death penalty appeal," a notable troika of circuit judges will be the first to hear California's appeal:
The constitutionality of California’s death penalty system will be reviewed next week by a panel of three Democratic appointees on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Judges Susan P. Graber and Johnnie B. Rawlinson, Clinton appointees, and Paul J. Watford, an Obama appointee, were randomly assigned Monday to hear an appeal of a federal judge’s ruling that struck down the state’s death penalty law as unconstitutional.
Graber is a former Oregon Supreme Court justice. After joining the federal appeals court, she was once asked to recuse herself from a death penalty case out of Arizona because her father was killed in a carjacking nearly 40 years earlier. One of the teenagers sentenced to death for her father's killing later had his sentence overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. Graber declined the recusal request in the Arizona case, which also involved a carjacking and killing.
Rawlinson is viewed as one of the most conservative Democratic appointees on the court. A former prosecutor from Las Vegas, Rawlinson was the only member of an 11-judge panel to vote to uphold a felony conviction of Barry Bonds, the former San Francisco Giants baseball player.
Watford, a former federal prosecutor, is viewed as a potential candidate for the U.S. Supreme Court if a seat opens up while President Obama is in office. He is generally described as a moderate.
The three are scheduled to hear arguments in Pasadena on Aug. 31 on last year’s death penalty ruling by U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney, appointed by former President George W. Bush.
As detailed in some prior posts below, a number of factors make Jones an interesting ruling for reasons that go beyond its basic significance of declaring unconstitutional the administration of the state capital punishment system with the most persons serving time on death row. And, as revealed via this Ninth Circuit webpage, various amici have submitted briefs to the Ninth Circuit urging reversal or affirmance of the Jones decision.
In the end, I am inclined to assert that the composition of this panel is relatively inconsequential. Whichever side prevails on appeal, the other side is all-but-certain to appeal to the full en banc Ninth Circuit and/or the Supreme Court. And, especially in the wake of all the dissents in Glossip, I think there is a reasonable likelihood SCOTUS will eventually take up this case no matter how the Ninth Circuit first deals with it.
Prior related posts:
- Federal district judge declares California's death penalty unconstitutional under Eighth Amendment
- Lots of notable discussion of yesterday's notable decision striking down California's death penalty
- Furman and randomness (not just delay) at heart of California capital ruling
- Thoughtful Teague-based criticism of the remarkable California capital ruling in Jones v. Chappell
- California Attorney General seeking appeal in Jones v. Chappell capital case
- Gearing up for the Ninth Circuit's consideration of the arbitrariness of California's capital punishment system
Might Pope Francis seek to (and succeed in getting) more federal sentencing reforms moving along?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new Yahoo Politics piece headlined "Criminal justice reformers await holy ally: Pope Francis." Here are excerpts:
There’s a long history of religious leaders writing and teaching from inside prisons — from Martin Luther King to Paul the Apostle. But 78-year-old Pope Francis may be the most prominent religious leader to ever advocate for prison reform from the outside.
Last year, Francis called for an end to solitary confinement, the death penalty and life imprisonment. He has knelt down to wash and then kiss the feet of Roman inmates on two of the first Holy Thursdays of his papacy. Visiting a group of Bolivian prisoners recently, the pope told them he sees no difference between them and himself — they are all sinners.
Now Francis is coming to the United States, much to the delight of criminal justice reformers who have waged a growing bipartisan battle to scale back and remake the mammoth U.S. penal system. Reformers hope Francis’ visit to the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia next month as part of his six-day U.S. tour will grab lawmakers’ attention. A few days before visiting the inner-city prison, the pope will address Congress and could raise the issue of criminal justice reform there as well....
Francis is not the first pontiff to urge mercy and redemption for convicts. Pope Innocent X visited inmates in the late 1600s. Pope John Paul II famously forgave and asked for a pardon for the man who almost killed him in a 1981 assassination attempt, and Pope Benedict visited at least two prisons. But Francis is unique in how much emphasis he’s put on the issue and how specific he’s been about how societies should treat their prisoners. He’s visited at least four prisons in his short tenure as pope, including one of the most dangerous in Latin America, and responded to hundreds of letters from U.S. prisoners serving life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles.
In a speech to penal-law representatives from around the world in October 2014, the pope laid out his vision for criminal justice reform. He called for an end to solitary confinement, which he compared to torture, and spoke out against pre-trial detention. (The U.S. sends thousands of people to prison each year because they cannot afford bail.) He spoke out against both the death penalty and life sentences. (“A life sentence is just a death penalty in disguise,” said Francis.) And he urged law enforcement to take pity on pregnant, old and young offenders.
The pope also urged countries to more broadly reflect upon the point of imprisonment. Is it about bringing justice to victims and reforming the offenders? Or is it simply revenge and a way to “scapegoat” stereotyped people for all social ills? Addressing prisoners in Italy last year, Francis spoke passionately about how locking people up for years and years without giving them hope for reintegrating into society is wrong.
“Some consider taking a path of punishment, of misdeeds, of sins and just to suffer, suffer, suffer,” he said in a penitentiary in the Italian town of Isernia. “To cage people … for the mere fact that if he is inside we are safe, this serves nothing. It does not help us.”
It’s unclear if Francis will use his visit with roughly 100 inmates in the Philadelphia prison’s gymnasium to advocate for specific reforms. And his congressional speech could well focus instead on poverty, the need to care for the environment or welcoming immigrants — all major themes of his ministry. “What we’re really hoping for are some specific United States statements,” said Karen Clifton, the executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, an anti-death-penalty group. “We do incarcerate per capita more than anyone else in the world. He’s got to bring those facts to life.”
This could lead legislators to think twice about their priorities. “If this good and holy man says this is a concern, I think it affects the conscience of all legislators and especially Catholics,” said Pat Nolan of the American Conservative Union, a leader in the reform movement.
Some prior related posts on Pope Francis and criminal justice reform:
- Might Pope Francis shame Prez Obama into doing more about mass incarceration?
- Pope Francis categorically condemns death penalty as "inadmissible" in today's world
- Pope Francis now advocating for total abolition of LWOP sentences as well as the death penalty
- Notable criticism of Pope's advocacy against LWOP and "nurturing mommy" approach to government
"Federalism in Action: How Conservative States Got Smart on Crime"
Conservative states have led the way on justice reform over the last decade. By changing the culture of corrections through sentencing reforms that limit mandatory minimum prison terms to the most serious offenders and rely on treatment as an alternative to incarceration, rehabilitative programs for those who do serve time, and continued assistance when offenders reenter society, lawmakers have reduced recidivism, made communities safer, and saved taxpayers money.
The results from conservative states — these laboratories of democracy — are key as members of Congress look for ways to deal with the federal corrections system, which has seen explosive population and cost growth of its own since 1980. This is federalism in action. Through sentencing reforms and a focus on treatment as an alternative to incarceration, the federal government can lessen the cost-burden on taxpayers by using the lessons from the states to get smart on crime.
Conservatives have embraced the justice reform movement, and they should continue to do so. While passed with the best of intentions, the policies of the past have proven unsustainable, both in terms of the fiscal cost and the negative impact on poor and minority communities. The model that conservative states have provided fundamentally changes the nature of the approach. Punishments are, of course, still meted out by courts, but the sentences given offer a means for offenders to alter the direction of their lives.
One such example is a woman named Sarah Gilleland, whose story was told by Gov. Nathan Deal in a joint session of the Georgia General Assembly in January 2012. “Sarah was a drug addict. The drug use that began as recreation resulted in a destructive cocaine and methamphetamine addiction. It took control of her life. At one point, she had no means of transportation, she lost custody of her little girl, she wound up homeless,” Deal explained. “But I mention Sarah tonight because she exemplifies many of the goals we hold for our corrections system.”
“Under the supervision of a drug court, piece-by-piece, she began rebuilding her life. With help, she beat addiction, she won back her daughter, she is now a sponsor helping other women who face the same trials, and because she provides a powerful example of hope and redemption, I have asked her to join us in this chamber tonight,” he said, pointing to Sarah in the gallery of the chamber.
“Sarah was given a shot a better life and she took it. Her story is not the exception, it is playing out all across Georgia as people reclaim their lives through the work of accountability courts.”
“That is why we must focus on transforming our corrections system into a last resort of opportunity—a place where low-level offenders are reclaimed and restored to society as functioning members of the community—working to support their own families and paying taxes,” he added.
Compelling stories such as this are not just told in Georgia, they are also told in other states that have adopted conservative justice reforms that focus on rehabilitation, rather than incarceration. And as more states and the federal government adopt the effort, more prison space will be reserved for the worst offenders in society, while those who have demonstrated a willingness to change their lives become productive citizens.
August 25, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)
Monday, August 24, 2015
Aurora victims present a "parade of pain" at on-going James Holmes sentencing proceedings
One of many benefits I see in giving crime victims certain rights in the criminal justice system is to ensure their voices are heard and their experiences are memoralized in courtroom proceedings even when those voices and experiences may not directly impact sentencing outcomes. In turn, I think it now worth highlighting the on-going proceedings in a Colorado courtroom that are effectively and potently reported in this CNN piece headlined "A parade of pain at James Holmes sentencing." I recommend reading the whole piece, and here are excerpts:
One by one, the wounded and the grieving are telling a Colorado judge how the Aurora movie theater gunman stripped the normal from their lives. Some are sobbing, some are angry. All are shattered by loss. It is a parade of pain that will not change the sentence for the 27-year-old shooter. James Eagan Holmes will spend the rest of his life behind bars.
But the inevitable outcome didn't stop the grieving grandfather of the gunman's youngest victim from making a suggestion: "I would challenge the murderer to do the right thing for once in this trial and petition the court for execution by firing squad," said Robert Sullivan.
He was the doting grandfather of 6-year-old Veronica Moser-Sullivan, who had innocent, shining brown eyes. Her pregnant mother, Ashley Moser, was shot and paralyzed.
Moser said she was looking forward to being a mother of two, but now she's nobody's mommy. She needs constant nursing care. She said she wished Holmes could be sentenced to life as a quadriplegic, just as she and two other shooting victims are.
More than 40 people gave victim impact statements on Monday, and at least 40 more are expected on Tuesday....
[M]any of the victims say they feel cheated, and they appeared to seek comfort in demonizing a defendant who took so much from them. A man whose son was gunned down in the theater referred to Holmes' schizophrenia as "a mental hangnail" and said he was disgusted during the trial by his "smirk." He called Holmes' attorneys "horrible people" and said they "fabricated a defense" to pad their resumes.
Beth Craft, whose brother John Larimer was killed, said, "The defendant may be mentally ill, but he is more evil than anything else."...
The trial, Kathleen Pourciau said, was like watching someone get away with something. It felt out of whack, unbalanced. It didn't feel like justice.
"When justice isn't served, there's a brutal message delivered to the victims," she said. "When the punishment doesn't fit the crime, the message to the victims is that your loss, your pain isn't important. The message was that the state of Colorado values the life of a mass murderer more than the people he murdered.
"How many people do you have to kill to get the death penalty?" Pourciau asked. "Why do you even have a death penalty if you don't use it? What signal does this sentence send to Bonnie Kate and others? We care, but not that much?"
A sentence of 12 life terms topped by hundreds of additional years behind bars is "absurd," she added, "the judicial equivalent of beating a dead horse."