Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Spotlighting significant back-end impact of Prop 47 sentencing reform in California

This notable recent Los Angeles Times article, headlined "Under Prop. 47, former felons find themselves shedding a stifling label," details a significant (and perhaps unexpected) back-end effect of the sentencing reform California voters put in place the last election cycle. Here are excerpts:

Proposition 47, an initiative that reduced drug possession and several other nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors ... has prompted the release of more than 3,700 inmates from state prison.

Opponents of the measure said it would make California's streets more dangerous by releasing criminals and would strip away much of the incentive that got people into drug treatment — keeping a felony off their record.  But another part of the law that drew less attention allows people who have already served their time to ask a court to reduce years-old convictions from felonies to misdemeanors.

Thousands of people ... have taken advantage. Since the measure passed, judges in Los Angeles County have received more than 6,660 applications to reduce old felonies to misdemeanors.  Los Angeles County estimates that as many as 300,000 applications could be filed in cases stretching back decades.  (A spokeswoman for the court said officials are not tracking the outcomes of the applications.)

Alhambra Police Chief Mark Yokoyama, president of the California Peace Officers' Assn., which lobbied against the measure, said he's not opposed to people with an old felony or two getting reductions if they've turned their lives around.  He likes that they have that option, he said, but he thinks only a small sliver of the population with felony records falls into that category.

Christine Ward, executive director of Crime Victims Action Alliance, another opponent of the law, said reducing old felonies undermines accountability for offenders. "In our state right now," she said, "we're really minimizing criminal behavior."

But others say the law helps people who are now law-abiding eliminate the barriers of a felony record.  For [some], being labeled a felon affected [doing their] job.  For others, it held them back from getting work or housing. Some say it prevented them from getting custody of their grandchildren.  And many agreed the stigma of a "felon" label felt stifling....

From a back office in the Compton courthouse, Deputy Public Defender Carole Telfer runs a one-stop shop for people looking to reduce their felonies under the ballot measure.  Light pink memo notes — all scribbled with phone numbers and nearly identical "Call re: Prop 47" messages — explode from a green shoe box on her desk.  Nearby, there's a brown accordion folder filled with prisoners' handwritten letters....

Even people who aren't eligible for early release under Prop. 47 are grateful, Telfer said, calling it one of the most rewarding assignments in her 35-year career as a public defender.

After the measure passed, Telfer began with the cases of people still behind bars on charges eligible for reduction. But it was often people with decades-old convictions ... who were most anxious to get through the process. They often call to tell her how eager they are to put the felonies — crimes committed by someone who no longer felt like them — behind.

June 3, 2015 in Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Notable application of Padilla by Fifth Circuit even after judicial deportation warning

The Fifth Circuit yesterday in US v. Batamula, No. 12-20630 (5th Cir. June 2, 2015) (available here), engaged in an extended and interesting discussion of a Padilla claim. The opinion's conclusion highlights why Padilla fans will also like this panel ruling:

For these reasons, we conclude that a judge’s statement at the guilty plea proceeding that deportation is “likely” is not dispositive of whether a petitioner whose counsel failed to advise him regarding the immigration consequences of his plea can demonstrate prejudice as a result therefrom.  Batamula thus is not foreclosed from challenging his guilty plea under Padilla solely because the district court notified him that deportation following the service of his sentence is “likely,” and the district court erred in holding to the contrary. The record is currently insufficiently developed for us to apply the fact-intensive, totality of the circumstances prejudice analysis necessary to determine whether Batamula is entitled to relief on his Sixth Amendment claim.  We therefore REVERSE and REMAND for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

June 3, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Bifurcation Nation: Strategy in Contemporary American Punishment"

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

Important recent work by penal scholars recognizes the need to study the interplay between federal and state initiatives and between state and local structures.  But the sociology of punishment has been less cognizant of late of the importance of studying the relation between the divergent treatment of high-level and low-level offenses and offenders as a means of understanding those federal, state or local approaches to penality. By one conventional view, the divergent policy trends for violent and nonviolent offenders are unrelated operations working at different ends of an ambivalent carceral spectrum; by another emergent perspective, the increasing decarceration of low-level offenders marks a general shift away from mass incarceration that has yet to extend to serious offenders and offenses.

This paper suggests that, rather than a unidirectional force or mere ambivalent mix of old and new, contemporary sentencing policy is better understood as a bifurcation strategy — one that responds uniquely to the new dilemmas and new constraints presented by a moment we might call, with cautious optimism, late mass incarceration.

June 3, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

New Deputy AG suggesting every too-long federal prison sentence hurts public safety

This recent NPR piece, which provide a mini-profile on the new Deputy Attorney General, Sally Yates, has a headline and some quotes that might be effectively utilized by defense attorneys to argue that any unduly long federal prison sentence damages national public safety.  The piece is headlined "No. 2 At Justice Warns Growing Prison Budget Detracts From Public Safety," and here are excerpts:

Prosecutors usually spend their energy putting criminals behind bars — not urging their release. But racial disparities in the system and the huge costs of locking up so many people are pushing some government officials to call for a new approach. One of them is the woman who now runs day-to-day operations at the Justice Department. Sally Yates says she's hardly soft on crime: "I'm a career prosecutor."...

"I've been at this for 27 years now," Yates says. "I believe that it's really imperative that we do everything we can to keep our communities as safe as possible but to do that in a way that is just and fair."

The Senate confirmed Yates last month as deputy attorney general. She's using her new platform as the second in command at the Justice Department to warn the expanding prison budget has begun to threaten public safety.

The federal government spends $7 billion a year to incarcerate about 200,000 inmates. That's money she says that could pay for more FBI agents and local police. "We know that it's the cop on the street that's one of the most important things to be able to keep our communities safe. But yet over the past decade, there's been a 40 percent reduction in the grant money that's available for cops on the street," Yates says.

New Justice Department estimates obtained by NPR suggest the situation will only get worse over the next decade. If nothing changes, the projections say authorities will need to take tens of millions of dollars that could have been devoted to community policing and local law enforcement, and instead, pour that money into federal prisons. "It is simply not sustainable for us to continue at the present rates that we are now of our incarceration levels," she says.

Yates is taking that message to Capitol Hill. She wants members of Congress to dial back long mandatory prison sentences for nonviolent drug criminals. Red States like Texas and Georgia launched efforts to overhaul their justice systems years ago. Now a left-right coalition of groups from the ACLU to Koch Industries is advocating for a smarter approach at the federal level too....

The Obama administration says it has reduced both the violent crime rate and the number of people going to prison. Former Attorney General Eric Holder, one of Yates's main supporters, crowed about the data in a speech last year: "This is the first time, the first time that these two critical markers have declined together in more than 40 years."

June 3, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

California agrees to model new lethal injection protocol on whatever SCOTUS says is good enough

As reported in this local piece, headlined "California death penalty: state agrees to propose execution method,"  a state with a remarkable inability (and disinclination?) to get its machinery of death operational has now agreed that the Supreme Court's latest review of lethal injection will provide a script for its next efforts.  Here are the details:

California's death penalty system, dormant for nine years, might soon move slowly toward resuming executions. As part of a court settlement reached on Tuesday, the state's corrections department agreed to unveil a new execution method by the fall that will be tied to the outcome of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling expected sometime this month in a challenge to Oklahoma's lethal injection protocol.

While California is still far from executing one of the 750 condemned killers on death row, the development marks movement on the issue for the first time in years. There are at least 17 inmates on death row who have exhausted their legal appeals and would be eligible for execution dates.

State prison officials resolved a lawsuit filed last year by the families of victims of condemned killers who argued the state has a legal obligation to implement an execution method. A Sacramento judge earlier this year found the state should be required to move forward in a case brought by two families, including former UCLA and NFL star Kermit Alexander, whose mother, sister and nephews were murdered 31 years ago by a man now on death row. Death penalty supporters have accused state leaders such as Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris of dragging their feet in getting executions back on track. The state has not had an execution since 2006 as a result of legal challenges to its lethal injection method.

Several years ago, the courts invalidated one state effort to revise its three-drug execution method, prompting California to explore switching to a single lethal drug as other states have done. But the state had not made progress until Tuesday's settlement.

The Supreme Court is expected to clarify the legality of lethal injection methods in the case out of Oklahoma, which still has a three-drug procedure. Deborah Hoffman, spokeswoman for the California corrections department, confirmed that the prison system, which has been developing its regulations, will submit its new execution method within 120 days of the Supreme Court's ruling.

Lawyers for the families said it "made sense" for California to await that ruling. Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said he expects the state to adopt a single drug method using a sedative he maintains can be obtained. However, states around the country, including California, have encountered problems securing supplies of execution drugs because drug manufacturers have refused to sell the drugs to prisons.

June 2, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Might Charles Koch put big money behind big reform of federal clemency process?

Post - March 2013 (5)The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new USA Today article headlined "Koch urges Obama administration to speed up clemency program." Here are excerpts:

Billionaire industrialist Charles Koch and top officials in his company are calling for the Obama administration to release from prison the thousands of non-violent offenders who qualify for clemency under a Justice Department initiative.  The push to shorten long federal sentences, mostly for drug offenses, has had a sluggish start since it was announced in April 2014. President Obama has commuted the sentences of only a few dozen inmates since the program took effect.

"I'm not faulting the administration," Mark Holden, Koch Industries' senior vice president and general counsel told USA TODAY on Monday. But, he said, "people got their hopes up. Why isn't it going any faster?"

Koch Industries officials did not offer a specific policy changes but hope their statement of unequivocal support for the clemency initiative will focus attention on the program. "When Charles says something … it helps to highlight the issue and bring other like-minded people to the table," Holden said.

Charles Koch, whose multibillion-dollar industrial conglomerate is one of the nation's largest private companies, has an outsize influence in Republican politics. His expansive network plans to spend about $900 million ahead of 2016 elections — about $300 million of which will be spent on electoral politics, he said. Koch also recently told USA TODAY that he might financially support up to five Republican presidential contenders in next year's primary: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida.

"We're going to be supportive of those candidates who are supportive of the issues that are important to us," Holden said Monday, when asked what role the clemency issue might play in the 2016 race. Criminal-justice reform, he said, is a key part of Koch's "freedom framework." Holden noted that Paul and Cruz have pushed for changes to the system. Both have signed on to a Senate bill that would cut mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses....

Lawyers involved in the clemency initiative say the process has been slowed, in part, because the eligibility standards may be too tough for the inmates to meet. The main targets of the program are drug offenders who were sentenced under a strict crack-cocaine law that was eased by Congress in 2010. To be eligible, inmates must be non-violent offenders who already have served 10 years and would have received shorter prison terms had they been sentenced under today's laws. They also must have a record of good conduct in prison and no significant criminal history....

More than 30,000 federal inmates applied for representation through the Clemency Project 2014, a consortium of legal organizations, including the American Bar Association and The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, that are helping eligible inmates seek commutations.

Justice Department officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday but have said they are likely to recommend more commutations to the White House. The administration also has requested a 66% budget increase for the Justice Department's Office of Pardon Attorney, which reviews the clemency requests.

Holden and Koch Industries spokeswoman Melissa Cohlmia said company officials decided to publicly support the clemency initiative and call for the faster release of inmates after receiving requests both from organizations and individual inmates, seeking Koch support for clemency applications. In a statement, Holden said Koch and the company back both the program and the Obama administration's eligibility criteria. He said the company also would like to see Congress revise more laws to cut prison time for inmates who would have received shorter terms had they been sentenced today.

"Until there is a change in that legal process, we believe that everyone who meets the common-sense criteria set by the Department of Justice should be granted clemency," Holden said in the statement. "We do not believe that keeping these individuals in prison under these circumstances is just nor does it enhance public safety."

I am always pleased to see prominent folks like the Koch brothers, and others who talk prominently about the importance and virtues of freedom, bringing their message to the criminal justice arena and pushing for reforms. I am especially pleased to see Koch Industries prominently "throwing its weight around" in support of more federal clemency grants ASAP. That all said, though, I would really like to see the Koch brothers start prominently throwing some money around to engineer systemic changes to clemency procedures and politics.

Together, the Koch brothers are estimated to be worth $80 billion; a high-profile investment of just, say, .01% of these riches spent on creating and staffing what I might call a "Supernova Federal Clemency Institute" could and would go a long way to transforming the modern clemency conversation.  I am branding this suggested clemency effort on the kind of stellar explosion that briefly outshines an entire galaxy, radiating as much energy as possible before burning out: a "Supernova Federal Clemency Institute," especially if funded by just .01% of the Koch fortune ($8 million), would explode on the clemency scene and could burn very bright for the final 18 months of the Obama presidency.

With $8 million in resources (and perhaps more coming from others committed to personal freedom in the United States), the "Supernova Federal Clemency Institute" could hire and effectively compensate a staff of lawyers, researchers and advocates who surely could produce, perhaps in a matter of weeks, a robust list of meritorious federal clemency candidates.  This imagined "Supernova Federal Clemency Institute" also could work on rentry project for those granted clemency, could produce reports on best-practices in the states, and could make recommendations to the President and to Congress about how best to ensure federal and state clemency procedures are enduringly committed to helping "secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."  

June 2, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Spotlighting the role and importance of federal prosecutors in the drug war

Mona Lynch has this notable new op-ed in today's New York Times headlined "Reining In Federal Prosecutors." here are excerpts:

In recent months, police departments and prison systems have been taking heat for the systemic abuses that mar our nation’s justice system. But one key player has been notably absent: For decades, our federal court system has been quietly perpetrating some of the deepest injustices in the name of the war on drugs.

Federal laws passed at the height of our punitive frenzy in the 1980s have been abused by overzealous federal prosecutors to compel guilty pleas and obtain long, unjust prison sentences, especially against black drug defendants. We must rein in these practices if we are to reshape our country’s criminal justice system for the 21st century.

Prosecutors have a number of tools at their disposal, the most powerful of which is the “851,” which can be filed against those with prior drug convictions to at least double mandatory minimum sentences. In the worst case, a 10-year mandatory minimum becomes a life sentence without parole for a defendant with two prior convictions. The 851 statute was passed in 1970 to give prosecutors more discretion to seek harsh sentences against only the most serious offenders, and exempt lower-level defendants. But it has been deployed in exactly the opposite manner.

I have conducted in-depth qualitative research and interviews in four federal districts; in each, the 851 threat loomed for nearly everyone with the eligible prior record. In the words of one of my interviewees, “the 851 is the ultimate lever” used by prosecutors to force a guilty plea. And it almost always worked: Defendants were compelled to waive their rights and plead guilty to ensure that their sentences were not doubled, or worse.... [N]o entity tracks the threat or use of the 851 in drug cases. We do know, however, from qualitative research like mine and recent work by the United States Sentencing Commission that its coercive use has been pervasive.

Data also indicate that mandatory minimums and enhancements like the 851 have been disproportionately used against black defendants. While research shows that illicit drug use and distribution is generally proportionate to the racial makeup of the nation’s population, black people are overrepresented as drug defendants in federal courts, constituting 30 percent of all those sentenced for drug crimes, and a full two-thirds of those who receive life sentences.

Between 1992 and 2012, about 2,300 black men have been sentenced to life for federal drug convictions, 72 percent of whom had asserted their right to trial. While data cannot pinpoint the 851 as the trigger of those life sentences, it does indicate that 96 percent were subject to drug mandatory minimums at sentencing.

Some effort has been made to address the overzealous use of the 851 threat. In 2014, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. directed prosecutors to refrain from using the 851 as a threat or inducement in plea negotiations. But while his directive has clearly changed behavior in some districts, the 851 threat remains alive in others.

As we grapple with the consequences of a three-decade-long law-and-order binge that has disproportionately affected black communities, we must repair the damage done in the past and prevent a repeat in the future. That means revisiting the unconscionably long sentences that keep Brandon and others behind bars for most or all of their lives, and it means removing hammers like the 851 from the prosecutors’ toolbox to prevent their future abuse.

June 2, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Managing Collateral Consequences in the Sentencing Process: The Revised Sentencing Articles of the Model Penal Code"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Margaret Colgate Love now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The debased legal status that results from a criminal conviction makes possible a regime of restrictions and exclusions that feels like punishment to those who are subject to it and looks like punishment to the community.  Policy makers are beginning to understand that the goal of reintegrating criminal offenders into society is not well served by a legal system that makes them permanently ineligible for many of its benefits and opportunities and effectively marks them as social outcasts.  Because courts have failed to address issues of severity and proportionality raised by punitive mandatory collateral penalties, and because legislatures have been unwilling to dial them back in any meaningful fashion, reformers have turned to the sentencing system to restore collateral consequences to an appropriate regulatory role.

One such reform proposal is the American Law Institute’s Model Penal Code: Sentencing (MPC), which integrates collateral consequences into a sentencing system that gives the court rather than the legislature responsibility for shaping and managing criminal punishment in particular cases.  Just as the court decides what sentence it will impose within a statutory range, the court also decides which mandatory collateral penalties will apply and for how long.  This gives sentencing courts new tools to further the rehabilitative goals of sentencing, and at the same time it enables them to avert issues of proportionality an

June 2, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Has anyone systematically studied whether "creative" sentences are more effective than others?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Huffington Post piece headlined "Judge Michael Cicconetti's Unorthodox Sentences Include Walking 30 Miles, Getting 'Pepper Sprayed'." Here are excerpts:

An Ohio judge known for his unusual sentencing methods ordered a woman to walk 30 miles -- the same distance a taxi took her before she skipped out on the fare.  On Thursday, Judge Michael Cicconetti gave Fairport Harbor resident Victoria Bascom the choice to either spend 60 days in the local slammer, or walk 30 miles in the next 48 hours. She chose to walk, according to WOIO.

It was the 18-year-old's punishment for refusing to pay the $100 cab fare from Cleveland to Painesville, according to the News-Herald. She'll also have to pay the cabbie $100 and will be on probation for four months over the misdemeanor theft count.

The same day, Cicconetti gave 19-year-old Diamond Gaston a similarly unusual option after Gaston assaulted a man with pepper spray.  Gaston could see jail time, or could allow the victim to spray him with pepper spray to see how it felt.  Gaston chose pepper spray, not knowing that he'd really be sprayed with a saline solution. The plan was to teach him a lesson.

Cicconetti has been known to hand down eye-for-an-eye sentences to misdemeanor offenders for years. He's been a polarizing figure over the practice, but he told The Huffington Post on Monday that it works. "I would put my recidivism rate up against anybody's," the judge told HuffPost Crime. "You can send someone to jail and make it the sheriff's problem; they get out and nobody follows up. With these sentences, they're on probation, and in most cases, I'll end up taking it off their record."

He said traditional sentencing, especially for first-time offenders, doesn't do much to show defendants the impact of their actions.  Instead, he once ordered a suspect caught speeding in a school zone to be a crossing guard for a shift.  He made a man who called cops "pigs" stand on a street corner with a real pig and a sign that states, "This is not a police officer." He says he even ordered a man who sped past a school bus' flashing red lights to ride a school bus for a day.  

Critics reportedly say Cicconetti is just trying to grab headlines. The judge told HuffPost he'd be happy if that were the case, and would like to see more courts adopt this type of sentencing for first-timers. "These people aren't coming back [into the court system]," he said. "It really works. I started with baby steps, but as I got braver or dumber or crazier, I started handing these sentences down more."

You can't sentence everyone like Bascom or Gaston, he said. He says only "1 percent" of his cases get that type of treatment, and he has criteria for his style of justice: Suspects need to be first-time offenders, generally young and impressionable, and "remorseful for what they did."

June 2, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, June 1, 2015

"The Missing Statistics of Criminal Justice"

QuestionmarkThe title of this post is the headline of this interesting commentary by Matt Ford in The Atlantic.  The subheadline sets out its themes: "An abundance of data has fueled the reform movement, but from prisons to prosecutors, crucial questions remain unquantified." Here are excerpts:

After Ferguson, a noticeable gap in criminal-justice statistics emerged: the use of lethal force by the police.  The federal government compiles a wealth of data on homicides, burglaries, and arson, but no official, reliable tabulation of civilian deaths by law enforcement exists....

This raises an obvious question: If the FBI can’t tell how many people were killed by law enforcement last year, what other kinds of criminal-justice data are missing?  Statistics are more than just numbers: They focus the attention of politicians, drive the allocation of resources, and define the public debate.  Public officials — from city councilors to police commanders to district attorneys — are often evaluated based on how these numbers change during their terms in office.  But existing statistical measures only capture part of the overall picture, and the problems that go unmeasured are often also unaddressed. What changes could the data that isn’t currently collected produce if it were gathered?

In one sense, searching for these statistical gaps is like fishing blindfolded — how can someone know what they don’t know? But some absences are more obvious than others. Bruce Western, a professor of sociology at Harvard University, cited two major gaps. One is the racial demography of arrests and criminal records....

There may be many missing statistics from the realm of policing, but even greater gaps lie elsewhere.  Thanks to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, police departments might actually be one of the better quantified parts of the criminal-justice system.  Prisons also provide a wealth of statistics, which researchers have used to help frame mass incarceration in its historical and demographic content.  The Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics maintains an annual report on the size of the U.S. prison population. The report includes state-by-state demographic statistics like inmate ages, races, crimes committed, and other crucial data for researchers and policymakers.

But while current prison statistics give a good sense of the size and scale of mass incarceration, they provide little information on conditions inside the vast constellation of American prisons.  Perhaps the most glaring gap is solitary confinement.  No one knows exactly how many people are currently kept in isolation in American prisons. “There are estimates, but no official count nationwide,” Western said....

Another major gap in prison statistics is the number of non-sexual assaults behind bars. Although Congress mandated the collection of sexual assault statistics with the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2002, prisons are not required to report ordinary assaults to the Bureau of Justice Statistics....

Prisons and police departments may be the most visible parts of the criminal-justice system, but they are not necessarily the most powerful.  As judges lost flexibility with the growth of mandatory-minimum sentences during the tough-on-crime era, prosecutors became the most pivotal actors within the criminal-justice process.  This rise in influence was matched with a decline in transparency.  “Up until the late 1980s and early 1990s, we used to collect more data — not a whole lot of data, but more data — on what prosecutors do,” [Professor Marie] Gottschalk explained.  “[Now] the police are certainly much more accountable than prosecutors are, in terms of the visibility of what they do and the transparency of what they do.”

One prosecutorial tool with little transparency is plea dealing.  In 2013, more than 97 percent of all federal criminal charges that weren’t dismissed or dropped were resolved through plea deals.  (State-by-state totals are incomplete or unavailable, but often estimated to be similarly high.)  For prosecutors, the benefits are clear: Offenders are punished without expending manpower and resources in lengthy trials.  But plea deals are also one of the least-scrutinized parts of the criminal-justice system.  “In most cases, that’s a complete black box,” Gottschalk said.  “It allows prosecutors to have this enormous power without much transparency to the public.”

In the absence of reliable statistics, anecdotal evidence often fills the void. This is especially true when studying racial bias in the prosecutorial process.  Prosecutors are not required by law to compile data on racial disparities.  They also have little incentive to gather and publish it voluntarily, partly because of resource constraints and partly because of its potential negative implications.

A small number of offices have sought answers nonetheless, often with troubling results.  In 2011, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance invited the Vera Institute to examine his office’s internal records for evidence of racial disparities.  The institute’s final report found that disparities plagued every step of the process.  Among its findings: Black and Hispanic defendants were more likely to be offered plea deals on misdemeanors that included imprisonment than white and Asian defendants.  Would similar reviews of prosecutors’ offices nationwide produce similar results?...

This data’s absence shapes the public debate over mass incarceration in the same way that silence between notes of music gives rhythm to a song.  Imagine debating the economy without knowing the unemployment rate, or climate change without knowing the sea level, or healthcare reform without knowing the number of uninsured Americans. Legislators and policymakers heavily rely on statistics when crafting public policy. Criminal-justice statistics can also influence judicial rulings, including those by the Supreme Court, with implications for the entire legal system.

Beyond their academic and policymaking value, there’s also a certain power to statistics. They have the irreplaceable ability to both clarify social issues and structure the public’s understanding of them.  A wealth of data has allowed sociologists, criminologists, and political scientists to diagnose serious problems with the American criminal-justice system over the past twenty years.  Now that a growing bipartisan consensus recognizes the problem exists, gathering the right facts and figures could help point the way towards solutions.

June 1, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Has the approach and administration of Clemency Project 2014 actually made the federal clemency process worse?

Download (10)The depressing question in the title of this post is prompted by this depressing new USA Today article headlined "Obama administration clemency push gets slow start."  I have long tried to avoid being too pessimistic about what has been unfolding on the federal clemency front over the last 18 months, in part because I sincerely believed it would be nearly impossible to make the modern federal clemency process and products even worse. But this USA Today piece has me fearing that my own pessimistic instincts perhaps should now turn even darker (based on the statements and data points I have highlighted below):

A Justice Department push to shorten long drug sentences through President Obama's clemency powers has gotten off to a slow start: Obama has commuted the sentences of just two of the tens of thousands of federal inmates who have applied through the program.  Lawyers involved in the effort say the year-old clemency initiative has been hampered by the complexity of the cases and questions about the eligibility criteria, which may still be too strict to help most of the prison population.

The result is a system that appears even more backlogged than it was before the initiative began.  "The criteria basically suggest that a whole bunch of good citizens who committed one little mistake got significantly more than 10 years in prison, and fortunately that's pretty rare," said Johanna Markind, a former attorney-adviser in the Office of Pardon Attorney who left in March.  "I think they've kind of belatedly realized that people are doing their jobs, and those perfect cases they think are there don't really exist," she said.  "For all the sound and fury about the commutations, the clemency initiative has only come up with a handful of cases that fit" the criteria.

The clemency initiative was intended to help federal inmates who would have received shorter prison terms had they been sentenced today.  That applies mostly to drug offenders after Congress shortened sentences for crack cocaine in 2010.  To be eligible, inmates must have already served 10 years of their sentence.

Last year, a record 6,561 federal prisoners — three times the usual number — filed petitions with the Justice Department's Office of Pardon Attorney, which advises the president on all requests for clemency.  Under the constitution, the president has the absolute power to grant pardons and commute sentences.

More than 30,000 federal inmates applied for representation through the Clemency Project 2014, a consortium of lawyers who have volunteered to help eligible inmates through the often complicated and time-consuming process of seeking a commutation. But 13 months later, those lawyers have submitted just 31 petitions. And while Obama has used his pardon power to shorten the sentences of 43, most of those cases predate the clemency initiative.  Over six years, Obama has granted just 0.2% of the commutation petitions submitted.

The Justice Department says it expects to recommend more commutations to Obama as it reviews the petitions.  But that could take a while: In its 2016 budget request to Congress, the department said the deluge of clemency applications is too much for the current staff to manage.  "As OPA's existing staff has discovered, expending the substantial resources required simply to manage such a volume of clemency requests significantly decreases those available for analyzing and evaluating the merits of individual applications and preparing the appropriate letters of advice to inform the president," the Justice Department said in its congressional budget justification.

Obama has proposed a 66% budget increase for the Office of Pardon Attorney in 2016, and is seeking twice as many lawyers to process all the paperwork.  And that paperwork can be daunting, requiring an examination of trial transcripts, the pre-sentence report (which is often sealed) and Bureau of Prisons files.

To be eligible under the program, inmates must be low-level offenders with no ties to gangs or cartels.  They must have demonstrated good conduct in prison, have no significant criminal history and no history of violence.  "There are gray areas, What is 'demonstrated good conduct in prison,' for example? Is that a pristine record?" said Cynthia Roseberry, a career public defender who now manages the Clemency Project 2014.

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Without knowing how the Obama administration will apply those vague criteria, it's impossible to know how many could be eligible.  "My hope is that thousands of those will meet the criteria, but I just can't speculate." Roseberry said.  She said she expects the numbers to increase as the Clemency Project continues to screen for likely candidates for commutation.  A Clemency Project screening committee has already notified more than 3,000 inmates it won't be accepting their cases.  Once a case is accepted, it's parceled out to a volunteer attorney such as Mary Davis.

Davis represents Byron McDade, a Washington man sentenced to 27 years for cocaine trafficking even as his co-conspirators — who testified against him — got no more than seven. In 2009, after McDade had served his first seven years, the judge who sentenced him urged Obama to commute his sentence.  "While the Court is powerless to reduce the sentence it was required by then-existing law to impose, the president is not," U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman wrote in another opinion last year,

So Davis assembled a 168-page petition with the help of two West Virginia University law students — Laura Hoffman and Amanda Camplesi — who spent a combined 122 hours on the case, collecting paperwork and visiting McDade at a federal prison in Pennsylvania. Davis said the work was complicated, even as a veteran federal defense attorney specializing in sentencing appeals.  "I know there were attorneys signing up for this who don't do criminal defense work, and I would think it would be extremely difficult," she said.

McDade is an unusual case: Before being convicted in 2002, his only offense was a minor misdemeanor with a $10 fine.  Markind, who worked on commutation cases as a Justice Department lawyer, said the clemency initiative did not relax Obama's "three strikes" policy making anyone with three or more criminal convictions ineligible for clemency. "Criminals with a record do not make the most appealing poster children," she said....

Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis and a former prosecutor ... said the clemency process is already too bureaucratic and too distant from the ultimate decision-maker: the president.  The Clemency Project hopes to cut through the process by helping to provide the Justice Department with better, more complete case files to review.  But that solution has also led to criticism from Capitol Hill, where Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, says that the administration is outsourcing a government responsibility.

"We've failed the same way through different kinds of administrations, and the problem isn't the administration, it's the process," Osler said. "The sad thing is, every president recently has gotten to the end of their term and said, 'Hey, where are all the good clemency cases?' I sure hope that will change, but it's going to be a furious last year as these things start to come in even greater numbers."

It is hard to fault, and I am very disinclined to criticize excessively, all of the well-meaning and dedicated lawyers and administrators operating now in a system taking on Rube-Goldberg-quality with seemingly too many elements, criteria and moving parts.  Still, by now having so many more people applying for clemency, along with so many more lawyers trying to figure out the meaning and importance of so many vague criteria, it is not surprising that the clemency push/project has been most successful in producing a lot more paperwork and so many more questions about what this system is seeking to achieve.

I have long believed that President Obama could and should create an independent commission or task force or working group that would be tasked with making federal clemency reform a priority in a very short period of time.  Notably, as highlighted here, such a proactive approach to policing reform achieved a whole lot in just a matter of months:

On December 18, 2014, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order establishing the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing.  The Task Force Members sought expertise from stakeholders and input from the public as they worked to identify best practices and make recommendations to the President.  The Task Force submitted an initial report to the President on March 2, 2015 and released the final report on May 18, 2015.

Especially in light of all the new troubles and costs that the current approach is generating, I would urge the President to sign an Executive Order ASAP establishing the President's Task Force on 21st Century Clemency.  The Task Force Members could seek expertise from stakeholders and input from the public as they worked to identify best clemency practices and make recommendations to the President no later than December 1, 2015. That would still give Prez Obama a full year to implement an improved clemency process and would leave truly helpful legacy and structure in place from whomever becomes his successor.

Some prior related posts:

June 1, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Via similar 7-2 rulings, SCOTUS narrows reach of federal criminal and deportation statutes in Elonis and Mellouli

Via excerpts and links from this post at How Appealing I can effectively summarize the interesting Supreme Court work on criminal justice issues this morning:

The Court today issued four rulings in argued cases.

1. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court in Mellouli v. Lynch, No. 13-1034. Justice Clarence Thomas issued a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. joined....

4. And Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. delivered the opinion of the Court in Elonis v.United States, No. 13-983. Justice Alito issued an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. And Justice Thomas issued a dissenting opinion....

In early news coverage, The Associated Press has reports headlined "High court throws out conviction for Facebook threats";... "Justices reverse deportation of man over minor drug crime"; ... Richard Wolf of USA Today reports that "Violent threats on Facebook may be OK, justices rule"; ... and "Justices sock it to Justice Department over drug deportations."

As the title of this post suggests, there are considerable similarities between what the Justices did in both Melloni (a low-profile immigration case) and Elonis (a high-profile federal criminal case). In both setting, via a 7-2 vote with Justices Thomas and Alito dissenting, the Court adopted a norrower construction of an applicable federal statute based on concerns that the federal government's (and lower courts') interpretation goes too far (for deportation purposes in Melloni, for criminal prosecution in Elonis).  The rulings and opinions are quite limited in both cases, and Justice Alito's dissent in Elonis fittingly laments this reality at its outset: 

In Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137, 177 (1803), the Court famously proclaimed: “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” Today, the Court announces: It is emphatically the prerogative of this Court to say only what the law is not.

I hope and expect to have more to say about the lengthy opinions in Elonis in future posts, although I suspect that the ruling will ultimately prove more consequental for what it failed to do and say than for what it actually does and says.

June 1, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Seriously exploring — finally! — execution alternatives to lethal injection

The Marshall Project has this lengthy new feature article on execution alternatives headlined "After Lethal Injection: Three states, three ways to kill a human being."  Here are excerpts:

The Supreme Court is expected to declare any day whether the injection of a drug called Midazolam violates the Eighth-Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.  Given the difficulty of procuring other suitable drugs, states devoted to the death penalty are lining up alternative ways to efficiently end human life.  In Oklahoma (48 prisoners on death row), the answer seems to be nitrogen gas, a method favored by some proponents of assisted suicide but not something that has been employed in an execution chamber. Utah (nine on death row) proposes to revive the firing squad. Tennessee (67 on death row) is preparing to fire up its electric chair.  Decisions, decisions. The Marshall Project took a closer look at the thinking that goes into the logistics of execution....

The [Oklahoma] bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Christian, told a German online newspaper that nitrogen inhalation “is the most humane way to die.  You just sit there and a few minutes later, you’re dead.” Whatever the method, he added, “We will put these beasts to death.” Christian first conceived of using nitrogen for execution after watching a BBC documentary called “How to Kill a Human Being,” in which a retired member of the British parliament sampled various execution protocols (obviously stopping short of death) before deciding that nitrogen was “a perfect killing device.”...

It’s been a year and a week since Tennessee became the first state in the nation to require the use of the electric chair for executions should the primary means of capital punishment, lethal injection, become unavailable for one reason or another.  And it has been about eight months since that new law was challenged in court by ten death row inmates who argue that the mandated use of “Old Sparky” would constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Going from lethal drugs back to electrical currents as a means of killing, the condemned contend, is legally inconsistent with the “evolving standards of decency” that the U.S. Supreme Court employs in Eighth Amendment cases....

In March, Utah governor Gary Herbert signed a law to reinstate the firing squad as a legal method of execution in his state.  Utah had abandoned the method in 2004 only to be swayed back by a shortage of lethal injection drugs.  Herbert called the punishment “a little bit gruesome,” but the practical concerns were overwhelming; even if the state can find lethal injection drugs, defending them in court would be expensive, and Utah already has in place a formal protocol for death by firing squad.  It involves a blindfold, sandbags, four loaded rifles, and one with a non-lethal wax bullet so executioners will never know who fired the fatal shots.

Lawmakers have publicly considered the firing squad as a backup plan for lethal injections in Arkansas, Missouri, South Carolina, and Wyoming.  Idaho maintained the method as an option until 2009.  It is on the books in Oklahoma, as a fourth option after lethal injection, nitrogen gas, and the electric chair.  The firing squad has consistently been found to be more reliable than many of the alternatives.  Botches — in the form of bullets that miss the heart — have been rare.  In 1938, a Utah murderer named John Deering allowed doctors to hook him up to an electrocardiogram as he faced the guns.  His heart stopped 15.6 seconds after the bullets hit.  Lethal injection, at its fastest, takes minutes.

Long-time readers know that I have been talking for a long time about the need for states (and Congress) to get serious about alternatives to lethal injection for carrying out death sentences. But now, nearly a decade after lethal injection protocols were starting to be subject to serious legal scrutiny, it has taken a drug shortage and still more SCOTUS litigation to get serious consideration of execution alternatives. But I fear, based in part on the oral argument in Glossip, that the latest round of Supreme Court litigation is not likely to require many more states to get much more serious about finding other viable methods of state killing.

June 1, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

"The GOP should turn its attention to prosecutorial misconduct"

The title of this post is the subheadine of this notable new National Review commentary authored by Kevin Williamson.  The provocative main headline for the piece is "When District Attorneys Attack," and here are excerpts:

Prosecutorial misconduct is a plague upon these United States, from the vodka-pickled Democratic political jihadists in Austin to California, where judges complain of an “epidemic” of prosecutorial misconduct abetted by Democratic attorney general Kamala Harris, who is seeking to replace retiring Barbara Boxer in the Senate.

The Democrats have long been acculturated to the climate of corruption that attends government agencies that are largely free of ordinary accountability, where a carefully cultivated lack of transparency shields operatives from scrutiny and normal oversight. Republicans can rouse themselves to action, if only barely, when this involves the federal Internal Revenue Service or Environmental Protection Agency.  But deference to police agencies and prosecutors is so habitual among the members of the law-and-order party that they instinctively look for excuses when presented with obvious examples of police misconduct, and twiddle their thumbs in the 99 percent of cases of prosecutorial misconduct that do not involve a Republican elected official.

But only the Republican party has the credibility and the political capital to take on the difficult and sure-to-be-thankless task of reining in rogue police agencies and abusive prosecutors — and they may as well take a look at our scandalous prisons while they are at it.  Some Republican leaders, notably Texas’s former governor Rick Perry, have been active and energetic partisans of reform, largely under the banner of the excellent Right on Crime campaign.  But this is not really a job for presidents or even governors: This is a job for mayors, city councilmen, district attorneys, sheriffs, and police chiefs.

June 1, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

How even same-sex marriage becomes a prison story in incarceration nation

My students never — or perhaps always — get tired of hearing me say that every notable legal or social issue in the United States is always, in some way, a significant sentencing or corrections issue.  The latest example proving my point comes from this local article headlined "Prison weddings in Oklahoma on hold until U.S. Supreme Court rules on same-sex marriage." Here is how it gets started:

The state Corrections Department has halted all weddings within prison walls until after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on whether same-sex couples are guaranteed the right to marry, The Oklahoman has learned.

If the high court rules in favor of gay marriage, corrections officials will alter department policy to allow an offender to marry someone of the same sex, spokeswoman Terri Watkins said. “If same-sex marriages are ruled legal, then the policy will need to be changed. We will follow the law,” she said.

Prison facilities in Oklahoma designate up to two days a year on which inmates are allowed to marry. But the department stopped permitting such ceremonies earlier this year and doesn’t expect to resume until the fall, Watkins said.

The temporary halt drew criticism from Ryan Kiesel, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, who said a state agency should be following the law as it stands now, not waiting to see if the law changes. “To hit the pause button on marriages performed in prison is completely at odds with what the state of Oklahoma is obligated to do,” he said. “There is simply no justification for what DOC is doing.” Even a temporary delay is an unnecessary restriction and a burden to the engaged couples, he added.

Prisoners have a constitutionally guaranteed right to marry, though states can impose restrictions. In Oklahoma, the prisoner and fiance or fiancee must have the mental capacity to enter into marriage, be at least 18 years old and, if previously married, provide proof of divorce.

Twenty prisoners were married in Oklahoma in 2014 and two have married so far in 2015, Watkins said.

Of the offenders’ pending requests for marriage, none are same-sex couples, Watkins said. The department’s current policy doesn’t address same-sex marriages behind bars, but does prohibit two currently incarcerated offenders from marrying.

June 1, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Fascinating fight over fate of offenders on Nebraska's death row after capital repeal

This Fox News piece, headlined "Nebraska AG fighting to block death penalty repeal from reversing death row sentences," highlights the fascinating fight now developing in the Cornhusker state following its formal repeal of its death penalty statutes:

Nebraska's top lawyer is headed to court to prevent the state's sweeping death penalty repeal from reversing sentences of those already on death row -- in the latest flare-up between the legislature and Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts' administration.

The legislature delivered a blow to the governor Wednesday when it voted 30-19 to override Ricketts' veto of legislation that would put an end to capital punishment in Nebraska. With the power play by the state's Republican-dominated legislature, Nebraska becomes the first conservative state in decades to end the death penalty.

But Ricketts' administration is not giving up the fight. While not contesting the ban's impact on future prosecutions, the administration is battling to prevent it from undoing prior death penalty sentences for the 10 inmates currently on death row.

In a written statement, state Attorney General Doug Peterson challenged part of the bill that says the "intent" of the legislature is that any death penalty "imposed but not carried out prior to the effective date of this act" be changed to "life imprisonment." Peterson said: "We believe this stated intent is unconstitutional."

He said that Nebraska's Board of Pardons has exclusive power to change final sentences imposed by courts. "Thus, the Attorney General intends to seek a court decision, at the appropriate time, to definitively resolve the issue of the State's authority to carry out the death sentences previously ordered by Nebraska's courts for the 10 inmates now on death row."

A Ricketts spokesman told FoxNews.com Friday that the governor agrees with the AG's assessment and will pursue the court's legal opinion on the matter as soon as possible....

"My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical tool to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families," Ricketts said in a statement after Wednesday's vote, which broke across party lines and captured the votes necessary to override Ricketts' veto. The legislature had passed the anti-death penalty bill last week, 32-15.

Immediately after the vote, Republican Sen. Beau McCoy, who was against the ban, announced the formation of Nebraskans for Justice to start a petition drive to get reinstatement on the ballot in November.

But this was the third time the legislature voted to repeal capital punishment, which Republicans against it said no longer held to the values of their party, be it morally or fiscally. "The taxpayers have not gotten the bang for their buck on this death penalty for almost 20 years," said Sen. Colby Coash, a Republican and death penalty opponent. "This program is broken. How many years will people stand up and say we need this?"

Other senators said they philosophically support the death penalty, but were convinced legal obstacles would prevent the state from carrying out another execution ever again. The last one in Nebraska was a 1997 electrocution. The state lost its practical ability to execute inmates in December 2013, when one of the three lethal injection drugs required by state law expired. Opponents charged that it was a poorly managed and inefficient government program.

May 31, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sentencing message sent: blazing a Silk Road for drugs gets you LWOP

Images (10)A high-profile prosecution of a high-tech drug dealer culminated on Friday with the sentencing of Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht.  This Wired story provides an effective account of the sentencing, and includes these excerpts:

On Friday Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for his role in creating and running Silk Road’s billion-dollar, anonymous black market for drugs. Judge Katherine Forrest gave Ulbricht the most severe sentence possible, beyond what even the prosecution had explicitly requested. The minimum Ulbricht could have served was 20 years.

“The stated purpose [of the Silk Road] was to be beyond the law. In the world you created over time, democracy didn’t exist. You were captain of the ship, the Dread Pirate Roberts,” she told Ulbricht as she read the sentence, referring to his pseudonym as the Silk Road’s leader. “Silk Road’s birth and presence asserted that its…creator was better than the laws of this country. This is deeply troubling, terribly misguided, and very dangerous.”

In addition to his prison sentence, Ulbricht was also ordered to pay a massive restitution of more than $183 million, what the prosecution had estimated to be the total sales of illegal drugs and counterfeit IDs through the Silk Road—at a certain bitcoin exchange rate—over the course of its time online. Any revenue from the government sale of the bitcoins seized from the Silk Road server and Ulbricht’s laptop will be applied to that debt.

Ulbricht had stood before the court just minutes earlier in navy blue prison clothes, pleading for a lenient sentence. “I’ve changed. I’m not the man I was when I created Silk Road,” he said, as his voice grew hoarse with emotion and cracked. “I’m a little wiser, a little more mature, and much more humble.”

“I wanted to empower people to make choices in their lives…to have privacy and anonymity,” Ulbricht told the judge. “I’m not a sociopathic person trying to express some inner badness.”

Ulbricht’s sentencing likely puts the final seal on the saga of Silk Road, the anarchic underground market the 31-year-old Texan created in early 2011. At its peak, the Dark Web site grew to a sprawling smorgasbord of every narcotic imaginable — before Ulbricht was arrested in a public library in San Francisco in October of 2013. Eighteen months later, he was convicted in a Manhattan court on seven felony charges, including conspiracies to traffic in narcotics and launder money, as well as a “kingpin” charge usually reserved for the leaders of organized crime groups....

Ulbricht’s defense team has already said it will seek an appeal in his case. That call for a new trial will be based in part on recent revelations that two Secret Service and Drug Enforcement Administration agents involved in the investigation of the Silk Road allegedly stole millions of dollars of bitcoin from the site. One of the agents is even accused of blackmailing Ulbricht, and of allegedly selling him law enforcement information as a mole inside the DEA. But the judge in Ulbricht’s case ruled that those Baltimore-based agents weren’t involved in the New York FBI-led investigation that eventually took down the Silk Road, preventing their alleged corruption from affecting Ulbricht’s fate.

Speaking to press after the sentencing, Ulbricht’s lead attorney Joshua Dratel said that Forrest’s sentence was “unreasonable, unjust, unfair and based on improper consideration with no basis in fact or law.” He added: “I’m disappointed tremendously.”

In emotional statements at the hearing, the parents of drug users who had overdosed and died from drugs purchased from the Silk Road called for a long sentence for Ulbricht. “I strongly believe my son would still be alive today if Mr. Ulbricht had never created Silk Road,” said one father whose 25-year old son had died from an overdose of heroin, requesting “the most severe sentence the law will allow.”

In the weeks leading up to his sentencing hearing, Ulbricht’s defense team attempted to lighten his punishment with arguments about his motives and character, as well as emphasizing the Silk Road’s positive effect on its drug-using customers. In more than a hundred letters, friends, family, and even fellow inmates pointed to Ulbricht’s idealism and lack of a criminal history. And the defense argued that Silk Road had actually reduced harm in the drug trade by ensuring the purity of the drugs sold on the site through reviews and ratings, hosting discussions on “safe” drug use, and giving both buyers and sellers an avenue to trade in narcotics while avoiding the violence of the streets.

But the prosecution countered that any protection the Silk Road offered drug users was dwarfed by the increased access it offered to dangerous and addictive drugs. And beyond the two parents who spoke at the Friday hearing, it pointed to six individuals who it claimed had died of drug overdoses from drugs purchased on the Silk Road.

In her statement preceding Ulbricht’s sentencing, Judge Forrest fully sided with the prosecution against the defense’s “harm reduction” argument, arguing that the Silk Road vastly expanded access to drugs. “Silk Road was about fulfilling demand, and it was about creating demand,” she said. “It was market-expanding.”

She also tore into the argument that the Silk Road reduced violence in the drug trade, pointing out that most of the academic papers submitted by the defense to support that argument focused only on the protection for the final buyer of drugs. But that digital remove, she argued, did nothing to prevent violence at any other point in the narcotics supply chain, from production to distribution. “The idea that it’s harm reducing is so very narrow,” she said. “It’s…about a privileged group, sitting in their own homes, with their high speed internet connections.”

The Justice Department also argued in their letter to Judge Forrest that Ulbricht should be made an example of to stop even more Dark Web market kingpins from following in his footsteps. After all, dozens of copycat sites and advancements on the Silk Road market model have sprouted in the years since its takedown, including the Silk Road 2, Evolution, and the currently largest Dark Web black market to survive law enforcement’s attacks, Agora. To combat the spread of those anonymous bazaars, prosecutors asked Judge Forrest to “send a clear message” with a sentence for Ulbricht well beyond the mandatory minimum.

Judge Forrest sided with the prosecution on that point, too, arguing that she needed to create a strong deterrent for the next Dread Pirate Roberts. “For those considering stepping into your shoes…they need to understand without equivocation that there will be severe consequences,” Forrest said.

The defense’s arguments about Ulbricht’s character and his idealistic motives were also undercut by accusations that Ulbricht had paid for the murder of six people, including a potential informant and a blackmailer. Those accusations never became formal charges in Ulbricht’s case — five out of six of the murder-for-hires appear to have been part of a lucrative scam targeting Ulbricht, with no actual victims.

But those murder accusations nonetheless deeply colored Ulbricht’s trial, and strongly influenced his sentence. “I find there is ample and unambiguous evidence that [Ulbricht] commissioned five murders to protect his commercial enterprise,” Forrest said, leaving out one alleged attempted murder for which Ulbricht was charged in a different case.

With those attempted murders as context, Forrest was merciless in her assessment of Ulbricht’s seeming multiple personalities: the altruistic and admirable young man described in the letters sent to her as evidence of his character, versus the callous drug lord she saw in his actions. “People are very complicated, and you are one of them,” she said simply. “There is good in you, Mr. Ulbricht. There is also bad. And what you did with the Silk Road was terribly destructive.”

May 31, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19)

Friday, May 29, 2015

Light blogging until Monday because I am Going Back, Going Back...

Going Back to Nassau Hall... Going Back, Going Back to the Best Old Place of All: Download (5)  Download


May 29, 2015 | Permalink | Comments (12)

Highlighting that GOP candidates are so far way ahead of candidate Hillary Clinton on mandatory minimum reforms

Jacob Sullum has this new Reason posting which highlight that, so far, two high-profile Republican candidate for President have had more interesting and important things to say about mandatory minimum reform than the presumptive Democratic nominee.  The piece is headlined "Paul and Cruz Are Running to Clinton's Left on Sentencing Reform: The presumptive Democratic nominee wants to do something about mandatory minimums but won't say what." Here are excerpts:

In its story on the repeal of Nebraska's death penalty,The New York Times notes that "liberals and conservatives have been finding common ground on a range of criminal justice issues in Washington and around the country." One example it cites: "On the presidential trail, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have all called for easing mandatory minimum sentences." That is literally true, but the implied equivalence is misleading, since the two Republicans are advocating specific reforms, while Clinton has not ventured beyond vague generalities...

Although Clinton refers to "measures," she cites just one: the Drug Sentencing Reform and Cocaine Kingpin Trafficking Act of 2007, which she cosponsored six months after it was introduced. That bill, which would have eliminated the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and cocaine powder, did not go anywhere. Three years later, Congress almost unanimously approved a law that reduced crack penalties, although they are still more severe than the penalties for powder. If you combine Clinton's talk about reform with her end note referring to the 2007 bill, you might surmise that she thinks the smoked and snorted forms of cocaine should be treated the same. But as far as I know she has not said that explicitly or endorsed any other specific change in sentencing.

By contrast, Paul on Cruz are both on record as supporting substantial sentencing reforms, including, in Paul's case, effectively abolishing mandatory minimums. "I am here to ask that we begin today the end of mandatory minimum sentencing," Paul said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in 2013.  On Bill Maher's HBO show last fall, Paul declared, "I want to end the war on drugs because it's wrong for everybody, but particularly because poor people are caught up in this, and their lives are ruined by it."  I have never heard Clinton take a position halfway as bold as those, and I doubt I ever will.

It is pretty striking when self-identified conservatives seeking the Republican presidential nomination are more credible on criminal justice reform than the presumptive Democratic nominee.  Paul in particular is not only bolder than Clinton on this issue, which is traditionally identified with left-leaning Democrats, but more passionate as well. 

May 29, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

"For Juvenile Sex Offenders, State Registries Create Lifetime Of Problems"

The title of this post is the headline of this NPR piece.  Here are excerpts:

Forrest Hampton is about to become a family man and he couldn't be happier. He's 25 and he lives in a suburb of Dallas with his fiancée, who's due to have their baby practically any minute. They've already picked out a name: Raven.

In most ways they are a normal family. Except for one thing. Until last year, Hampton was a registered sex offender. "I honestly don't believe I was supposed to be registered in the first place," he says, "but I wasn't in the position to fight my case." That's because Hampton was found guilty at age 13 of having sexual contact with a 9-year-old girl. He says he was a troubled kid, but not a pedophile.

Texas is one of about 40 states that will put children on sex offender registries; half make those registries public. Hampton went through an adolescent sex offender therapy program, and, by the time he was 18, was ready to start fresh. But he says being registered made that impossible....

Hampton's situation is fairly common. That's why, in the last few years, courts and legislatures in states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wyoming, have started to question the practice of registering juveniles.

Bruce Burkland is the director of Teton Youth and Family Services near Jackson Hole, Wyo. Counselors work with kids who were victims of sex crimes as well as juvenile sex offenders. Burkland says a lot of those offenders are technically in their mid-teens, but "developmentally and emotionally their age is much more around eight or nine."

Juvenile sex offenders also re-offend at a much lower rate than adult offenders, according to the Justice Department. Burkland says his therapy is designed to help them build healthy relationships with their peers. But he's not advocating for the registries to go away: some minors are a real threat. "The juvenile who is looking for multiple opportunities and just prefers and likes to have contact with younger children would be a high risk to re-offend, and should be on the registry," he says.

Instead Burkland says prosecutors and judges should have more discretion to figure out who needs to be registered and who doesn't. One of the few people working to change this practice is Nicole Pittman, a director at the advocacy group Impact Justice. "We are criminalizing normative child sexual behavior in large fashion," she says.

Pittman adds that the practice of registering juveniles developed in the '90s, when a series of federal and state laws establishing registries ran head-on into the child super predator scare. In 2006, a federal law started to hold back funding to states that didn't register kids for certain sex crimes. Pittman says the result is that kids are labelled as sex offenders for acting like kids.

May 29, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, May 28, 2015

US District Judge John Gleeson finds extraordinary circumstances to order expungement of old federal fraud conviction

20-1n004-gleeson-c-ta-300x300Regular readers are likely to recall the remarkable series of opinions issued by US District Judge John Gleeson in recent years in which the judge has forcefully expressed deep concerns with how federal prosecutors sometimes exercise their charging and bargaining powers in the application of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions. Now I have learned, thanks to this great new Margy Love post at the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, that Judge Gleeson's latest opinion examines the collateral workplace consequences of an old federal fraud conviction in the course of ordering expungement. Here is how the must-read opinion in Doe v. US, No. 14-MC-1412 (EDNY May 21, 2015) (available here), starts and ends:

Jane Doe filed an application on October 30, 2014, asking me to expunge her thirteen-year old fraud conviction because of the undue hardship it has created for her in getting — and especially keeping — jobs.  Doe gets hired to fill home health aide and similar positions only to be fired when her employers learn through subsequent background checks about her conviction.  Since the conviction was for health care fraud, it’s hard to blame those employers for using the conviction as a proxy for Doe’s unsuitability.

However, even if one believes, as I do, that employers are generally entitled to know about the past convictions of job applicants, and that their decisions based on those convictions are entitled to deference, there will nevertheless be cases in which all reasonable employers would conclude that the conviction is no longer a meaningful consideration in determining suitability for employment if only they had the time and the resources to conduct a thorough investigation of the applicant or employee.

I have conducted such an investigation, and this is one of those cases.  In addition to presiding over the trial in Doe’s case and her subsequent sentencing, I have reviewed every page of the extensive file that was created during her five years under probation supervision.  I conclude that the public’s interest in Doe being an employed, contributing member of society so far outweighs its interest in her conviction being a matter of public record that the motion is granted and her conviction is expunged....

Doe is one of 65 million Americans who have a criminal record and suffer the adverse consequences that result from such a record. Her case highlights the need to take a fresh look at policies that shut people out from the social, economic, and educational opportunities they desperately need in order to reenter society successfully.

The seemingly automatic refusals by judges to expunge convictions when the inability to find employment is the “only” ground for the application have undervalued the critical role employment plays in re-entry. They are also increasingly out of step with public opinion. The so-called “ban the box” practice, in which job applications no longer ask the applicant whether he or she has been convicted of a crime, is becoming more prevalent. There is an increasing awareness that continuing to marginalize people like Doe does much more harm than good to our communities.

Accordingly, Doe’s application for an order expunging her conviction is granted. It is hereby ordered that the government’s arrest and conviction records, and any other documents relating to this case, be placed in a separate storage facility, and that any electronic copies of these records or documents and references to them be deleted from the government’s databases, electronic filing systems, and public record. Doe’s real name is to be removed from any official index or public record. It is further ordered that the records are not to be opened other than in the course of a bona fide criminal investigation by law enforcement authorities and only when necessary for such an investigation. The government and any of its agents may not use these records for any other purpose, nor may their contents be disseminated to anyone, public or private, for any other purpose.

Finally with respect to the relief granted here, I welcome the input of the parties. My intention is clear: no inquiry of the federal or state government by a prospective employer should result in the disclosure of Doe’s conviction. Effectuating that intent without unduly burdening those governments or impairing their legitimate law enforcement interests is not so clear, at least not to me. Thus I welcome any proposed modifications to the relief set forth above, and of course any such proposals by the government would not be regarded as a waiver of its opposition to my decision to expunge the conviction.

It will be interesting to see how the Justice Department responds to this decision, and also how the Second Circuit will consider this matter if (when?) the feds appeal.

May 28, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack (0)

Time magazine devotes cover story to "Why the End of Capital Punishment Is Near"

Death-penalty-final-coverI am intrigued to see that the new issue of Time magazine has a cover picture of an empty electric chair and this text: "The Last Execution: Why the Era of Capital Punishment is ending." Here are excerpts from the magazine's lead article:

Despite extraordinary efforts by the courts and enormous expense to taxpayers, the modern death penalty remains slow, costly and uncertain. For the overwhelming majority of condemned prisoners, the final step—that last short march with the strap-down team—will never be taken. The relative few who are killed continue to be selected by a mostly random cull. Tsarnaev aside, the tide is turning on capital punishment in the U.S., as previously supportive judges, lawmakers and politicians come out against it.

Change is not coming quickly or easily. Americans have stuck with grim determination to the idea of the ultimate penalty even as other Western democracies have turned against it. On this issue, our peer group is not Britain and France; it’s Iran and China. Most U.S. states authorize the death penalty, although few of them actually use it. We value tolerance and ­diversity — but certain outrages we will not put up with. Maybe it’s the teenage terrorist who plants a bomb near an 8-year-old boy. Maybe it’s a failed neuroscientist who turns a Colorado movie theater into an abattoir. We like to think we know them when we see them. Half a century of inconclusive legal wrangling over the process for choosing the worst of the worst says otherwise....

Even in Texas, which leads the nation in executions since 1976 (when the U.S. Supreme Court approved the practice after a brief moratorium), the wheels are coming off the bandwagon. From a peak of 40 executions in 2000, the Lone Star State put 10 prisoners to death last year and seven so far in 2015. According to the state’s Department of Corrections, the number of new death sentences imposed by Texas courts this year is precisely zero. There, as elsewhere, prosecutors, judges and jurors are concluding that the modern death penalty is a failed experiment.

The shift is more pragmatic than moral, as Americans realize that our balky system of state-sanctioned killing simply isn’t fixable. As a leader of the Georgia Republican Party, attorney David J. Burge, recently put it, “Capital punishment runs counter to core conservative principles of life, fiscal responsibility and limited government. The reality is that capital punishment is nothing more than an expensive, wasteful and risky government program.”

This unmistakable trend dates back to the turn of the century. The number of inmates put to death in 2014 was the fewest in 20 years, while the number of new death sentences imposed by U.S. courts — 72 — was the fewest in modern American history, according to data collected by the Death Penalty Information Center. Only one state, Missouri, has accelerated its rate of executions during that period, but even in the Show Me State, the number of new sentences has plunged.

Thirty-two states allow capital punishment for the most heinous crimes. And yet in most of the country, the penalty is now hollow. Since the start of 2014, all but two of the nation’s 49 executions have been carried out by just five states: Texas, Missouri, Florida, Oklahoma and Georgia.

Accompanying this coverr story are these two commentaries for and against capital punishment:

Why The Death Penalty Should Live: If you take lives, yours can be taken

Why the Death Penalty Should Die: Killing killers won't bring back victims

May 28, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

"Do the Supreme Court and other federal courts need a watchdog?"

The question in the title of this post is from the headline of this Lyle Denniston story at Constitution Daily discussing a notable new proposal by Senator Charles Grassley to create an inspector general for the judiciary.  Here are excerpts from the piece: 

Acting within the judicial sphere, the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts are assured of independence by the dual protection of lifetime tenure for the Justices and judges, and the guarantee that they can keep their jobs unless they commit a “high crime or misdemeanor” that would justify their removal by impeachment.

But impeachment is a drastic remedy, and the Constitution deliberately makes it hard to bring about. That gives the Justices and judges, in their day-to-day work, the freedom to regulate their own ethical conduct. Congress has given the judges some rules for when they should not take part in a decision because of a conflict of interest. But the Supreme Court has largely exempted itself from those rules, preferring to impose some self-limiting restraints. And that streak of independence by the Supreme Court from time to time rankles some members of Congress, who would like to do something about it.

The latest idea in Congress to impose some restraint on judicial behavior has just been introduced by the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Iowa Republican Charles Grassley. His idea is to create the office of “inspector general,” a kind of super watchdog, inside the judicial branch. It works in the Executive Branch, he says, and so there is no reason it should not work in the judiciary, too.

While the senator appears to be most interested in having someone to monitor serious misconduct within the judicial branch, perhaps as a prelude to impeachment, the constitutionally risky part of his proposition is to make this new watchdog a monitor of judicial ethics. That, of course, is part of the title of his new bill, the Judicial Transparency and Ethics Enhancement Act.

As Grassley has fashioned the terms of this office, the watchdog would not be a creature entirely of the judicial branch. The Chief Justice would name the “inspector general,” but the bill specifies that an appointment would only come after “consultation” with the leaders of the Senate and the House. Is that a form of veto power? Or would the Chief Justice be free to ignore any legislative input?

And, on the all-important question of removal of such an appointee from office, the Chief Justice could do so but would be required to give his reasons to both houses of Congress. Is that a sign that Congress would not quite trust the Chief Justice to use that authority?

While the Grassley bill says explicitly that the new “inspector general” would have no power to “investigate or review any matter that is directly related to the merits of a decision or procedural ruling” by any federal court, the officer would have explicit authority to “conduct investigations of alleged misconduct in the Supreme Court that may require oversight or other action” by Congress or by the judiciary itself. (Similar investigative power would exist for lower courts, too.)

That investigative power is not spelled out in the bill, so it presumably would be up to the “inspector general” to define the kind of “misconduct” to be monitored. Would it only be a “high crime or misdemeanor” of the kind sufficient to justify impeachment? Would it have to be criminal behavior? If not either of those, would it be a breach of some ethical principle or norm. and, if so, defined by whom?

Policing ethics is not a process that lends itself to nice precision. What is “good” or “bad” behavior by a judge? The Constitution itself specifies that federal judges may keep their jobs “during good behavior.” But the only constitutional definition of behavior contrary to that is “high crimes and misdemeanors,” in the impeachment provision; it is not further clarified.

May 28, 2015 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Newt Gingrich and Van Jones lament treatment of mentally ill in US criminal justice system

CNN has this notable new commentary authored by the notable twosome of Newt Gingrich and Van Jones headlined "Mental illness is no crime." Here are excerpts:

Today, mentally ill Americans are disproportionately more likely to be arrested, incarcerated, suffer solitary confinement or rape in prison and commit another crime once released.

Quick: Name the largest provider of mental health care in America. If you guessed "our prisons and jails," you would be right. A 2006 U.S. Department of Justice study found that three out of four female inmates in state prisons, 64% of all people in jail, 56% of all state prison inmates and 45% of people in federal prison have symptoms or a history of mental disorder.

America's approach when the mentally ill commit nonviolent crimes -- locking them up without addressing the problem -- is a solution straight out of the 1800s.

When governments closed state-run psychiatric facilities in the late 1970s, it didn't replace them with community care, and by default, the mentally ill often ended up in jails. There are roughly as many people in Anchorage, Alaska, or Trenton, New Jersey, as there are inmates with severe mental illness in American prisons and jails, according to one 2012 estimate. The estimated number of inmates with mental illness outstrips the number of patients in state psychiatric hospitals by a factor of 10.

Today, in 44 states and the District of Columbia, the largest prison or jail holds more people with serious mental illness than the largest psychiatric hospital. With 2 million people with mental illness booked into jails each year, it is not surprising that the biggest mental health providers in the country are LA County Jail, Rikers Island in New York and Cook County Jail in Chicago.

Our system is unfair to those struggling with mental illness.  Cycling them through the criminal justice system, we miss opportunities to link them to treatment that could lead to drastic improvements in their quality of life and our public safety.  These people are sick, not bad, and they can be diverted to mental health programs that cost less and are more effective than jail time. People who've committed nonviolent crimes can often set themselves on a better path if they are provided with proper treatment....

A new initiative, "Stepping Up," unites state and local governments and the American Psychiatric Foundation to promote research-based practices to tackle our overreliance on jail as mental health treatment, such as in-jail counseling programs that reduce the chances of repeat offenders.

State and local officials have shown us the way.  We've seen large communities such as Miami-Dade County, Florida, completely redesign their systems at every level, training police officers in crisis intervention, instituting careful assessments of new jail admissions and redirecting their mentally ill populations into treatment, effectively reducing the rates of re-arrest....

Perhaps most surprisingly in these partisan times, Republicans and Democrats in Congress are standing shoulder-to-shoulder to support mental health reform.  The bipartisan Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act, co-sponsored by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in the Senate, passed unanimously out of the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month. The legislation includes simple measures that would fund alternatives to jail and prison admissions for those in need of treatment and expand training programs for law enforcement personnel on how to respond to people experiencing a mental health crisis.

The notion of bipartisan, comprehensive criminal justice reform is not just idle talk.  It is happening.  Both sides see practical alternatives to incarceration that can reduce prison populations, improve public safety, save lives and save money.  If Congress moves swiftly to pass the great ideas now percolating in the House and Senate, it will become a reality. Take it from a conservative and a liberal: A good place to start is by addressing the needs of our mentally ill citizens in jails and prisons.

May 28, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Feds seeking LWOP sentence for Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht

As reported in this Wired piece, "headlined "Silk Road Prosecutors Ask to 'Send a Message' in Ulbright Sentencing," the federal government has now asked for the toughest possible sentence for the defendant convicted of creating the on-line drug market known as Silk Road. Here is part of the story:

Ross Ulbricht's billion-dollar black market Silk Road was in many ways the first of its kind, blending encryption and online drug sales in a business model that plenty of other online drug lords have since sought to emulate. So as Ulbricht’s sentencing for running that massive narcotics-selling experiment approaches, the Department of Justice wants to make an example of Ulbricht’s punishment, too.

Ahead of Ulbricht’s sentencing Friday, prosecutors in his case have sent the judge a 16-page letter asking that Ulbricht be given the maximum possible punishment of life in prison. And one of the reasons for that harsh sentence, the Department of Justice attorneys argue, is to “send a clear message” to anyone who would follow in Ulbricht’s footsteps and create the next Dark Web drug market.

“Ulbricht’s conviction is the first of its kind, and his sentencing is being closely watched,” the prosecution’s letter reads. “The Court thus has an opportunity to send a clear message to anyone tempted to follow his example that the operation of these illegal enterprises comes with severe consequences.”

That deterrence argument is just one in a series of calls for a life sentence made by the prosecution in its letter. At other points, it lists the details of six deaths it argues were caused by drug overdoses facilitated by the Silk Road’s anything-goes drug sales. It rebuts the positive arguments about Ulbricht’s character made by the defense, as well as the over 100 letters from friends, family, and even fellow inmates about Ulbricht’s character, pointing to his cold-blooded recording of his attempted murders of enemies in the journal found on his laptop. And it counters the argument made in the defense’s pre-sentencing letter to the judge: That the Silk Road actually reduced harm for drug users with a rating and review system that assured drugs’ quality and purity....

Indeed, several iterations of the Silk Road have come and gone in the two short years since it went offline. Those copycat sites have included the Silk Road 2, which was shut down in law enforcement’s dark web purge last fall, and Evolution, a giant black market for drugs, guns, and stolen financial information whose leaders absconded with users’ funds in March. Today the black market site Agora reigns as the largest black market still online, with tens of thousands more products listed for sale than the Silk Road ever offered.

In its letter, the Silk Road prosecution points to the difficulty of tracking down and punishing the creators of those markets as one more reason that Ulbricht should be imprisoned for life: If anonymous market administrators can’t be easily caught, perhaps they can be deterred from a life of Dark Web crime by their fear of Ulbricht’s fate. “Although the Government has achieved some successes in combating these successor dark markets, they continue to pose investigative challenges for law enforcement,” reads the letter. “To the extent that would-be imitators may view the risk of being caught to be low, many are still likely to be deterred if the stakes are sufficiently high.”

The government's full sentencing memorandum is available at this link.

Prior related posts:

May 27, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

"A new report could have a big impact on New York’s prison population — if anyone pays attention"

The title of this post is the astute subheadline of this effective Marshall Project piece by Beth Schwartzapfel talking about a sentencing reform report finally released in New York. Here are excerpts:

A new report by some of New York’s key criminal justice players recommends major changes to the state’s sentencing system.  The report, which [is available here], would reduce the length of prison sentences and broaden eligibility for probation and other alternatives to incarceration for about one-third of the felony convictions New York hands down each year.  The report would also end the state parole board’s traditional role as the arbiter of when, exactly, prisoners go home.

With more than 50,000 people imprisoned in New York State, even small sentencing changes can make a big difference. “If you increase the time served even by three months across 10,000 people, you’re going to generate a whole lot more imprisonment,” says Martin Horn, executive director of the New York State Sentencing Commission, which produced the report.

Jonathan Lippman, chief judge of the state’s highest court, established the commission in 2010 to craft a simpler, more transparent sentencing scheme. “He did not specifically charge us to reduce the prison population,” Horn says. “If that turns out to be a side benefit, that’s terrific.”

At this point, the commission’s recommendations are just that — recommendations. The suggested changes were compiled into a piece of draft legislation that the committee has submitted to the state legislature.  But the bill so far has no sponsor, and the prospect of fewer prison beds — and, by extension, fewer prisons — has traditionally faced fierce opposition by the New York state correctional officers union and by legislators representing the upstate communities where most of the state’s prisons are located.  As it is, upstate District Attorney Kathleen Hogan, who served on the Commission, says she would not support the legislation. “I would support the idea of migrating to determinate sentences, but I think that the numbers are too low,” she told The Marshall Project. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not said whether he will support the proposals.

New York’s body of sentencing laws is a patchwork, with the history of the state’s changing politics woven into it and over it.  As a result, the new report says, sentencing is “confusing and misleading” for prisoners and victims alike.

Historically, New York State’s sentences were all indeterminate: a judge could hand down a range of years that a prisoner might serve (such as 1-to-3 or 5-to-15).  When during that window the person would actually go home was unpredictable: it was up to a parole board.

The changes began in 1995 under Gov. George Pataki. The nation had just kicked off a federally-funded prison-building boom, and a get-tough attitude prevailed. Pataki proposed eliminating parole for those convicted of violent felonies.  Under the resulting law, judges handed down determinate sentences — a specific number of years, with very little wiggle room — and they were long.

In the 2000s, the public began calling for a change to the 1973 Rockefeller drug laws, which mandated draconian sentences like 15 years to life for even low-level drug crimes. The resulting reforms in 2004 and 2009 eliminated indeterminate sentences for most drug crimes, too.

So now, sentences for violent felonies and drug crimes are fixed, and sentences for everything else depend on the parole board. The crimes still subject to the parole board’s discretion are a hodgepodge, from filing a false tax return to second-degree stalking. The commission’s report is aimed at these crimes — class C, D, and E felonies — considered “non-violent” under the law but not always so in reality.  About 5,500 out of the 14,000 people who enter the New York State prison system each year are convicted of these crimes.

The commission, composed of judges, victims’ representatives, professors, and attorneys, recommended bringing these sentences into line with those for other crimes by eliminating the parole board’s discretion. They suggested a new matrix of sentence lengths that judges can hand down, eliminating mandatory minimums for a wide range of crimes and expanding the number of crimes eligible for alternatives to incarceration like drug treatment and community service. They also recommended much shorter terms of supervision once people are out of prison; for most offenders, researchshows that longer periods on parole do not improve public safety but do increase the odds that someone will go back to prison for a technical violation....

Similar recommendations by the 2007 O’Donnell Commission, established by Gov. Eliot Spitzer, never gained any legislative traction, in part because the recommended sentence ranges in that report were too harsh, Horn says: “The Assembly rejected that. They felt those maximums were too high, were too broad.”

This time around the opposite might be true; with these recommendations shaving months off of thousands of sentences, district attorneys and other tough-on-crime advocates might push back. Lake George District Attorney Kate Hogan submitted a letter — included as an addendum to the report — expressing “grave concerns” about the shortened sentence ranges.  She told the Marshall Project that reducing the maximum penalty available for certain crimes “discounts plea bargaining in its entirety. No one pleads the maximum. That’s how you incentivize someone to resolve a case by plea.”

May 27, 2015 in Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Senator Paul talking about crime and punishment in Chicago

As reported in this Chicago Tribune article, headlined "Rand Paul in Chicago: Crime 'not a racial thing, it is a spiritual problem'," the most interesting man in sentencing politics had lots of interesting things to say about crime and sentencing in the Windy City today. Here are some details:

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul brought his presidential campaign to Chicago on Wednesday, appealing to African-Americans on the South Side, entrepreneurs downtown and Republicans in the suburbs. On a stage set up on a blacktop parking lot in front of an American flag mural at 66th Street and South Martin Luther King Drive, Paul continued a unique approach for GOP White House contenders — making an appeal to African-Americans who tend to favor Democrats....

"There is crime going on all across America. It is not a racial thing, it is a spiritual problem," Paul said. "I think government can play a role in public safety, but I don't think government can mend a broken spirit. Government can't provide you salvation, government can't save you. … Ultimately, salvation is something you accept yourselves."

A white, libertarian Republican senator from Kentucky urging African-American voters in an impoverished, heavily Democratic neighborhood on the South Side to look within themselves to "find your inner grace" isn't a typical scene in a GOP presidential bid. Paul, though, isn't running a conventional campaign. His stop in Chicago came a day after the release of his book "Taking a Stand," in which he makes the case for a new, more inclusive Republican Party, proclaiming the "Republican brand sucks."

On Wednesday, Paul sought to bring that theme to the stump. He advocated for reclassifying nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors as part of his call to end "mass incarceration" in America.

"We've got to rethink the war on drugs. We've got to find a better way," Paul said. "We've got to treat drugs as a health problem, not an incarceration problem."

Paul also called for providing "second chances" for felons to vote and seek jobs. And he pitched a tax-cutting program for businesses in low-income areas. "If you want more jobs in your communities, if you want more businesses in your communities, we can't keep doing the same thing," Paul said. "For years, we've had this war on poverty and all we have is more poverty."

May 27, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Nebraska legislature, with every vote counting, repeals death penalty by overriding Gov veto

As reported in this local article, the "death penalty has been repealed in Nebraska."  Here is how:

In a historic vote Wednesday, senators voted 30-19 to override a veto from Gov. Pete Ricketts. The bill (LB268) had passed a week ago on a 32-15 vote. 

Ricketts had worked hard in the last week to get senators to flip their votes.  He needed three to change their minds, but only two -- Sens. Jerry Johnson of Wahoo and John Murante of Gretna -- changed their votes to sustain the veto.

"This is it," said Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha as he entered the legislative chamber to begin the debate on a motion to override the veto.  Chambers has offered a bill to repeal the death penalty 40 times in his tenure of the Legislature.  In 1979, Chambers won legislative approval of death penalty repeal, but the bill fell victim to a veto by Gov. Charles Thone.

Nebraska lawmakers debated more than two hours Wednesday on a motion to override Gov. Pete Ricketts' veto of a death penalty repeal bill.  "Once we take this step, there is not going to be a falling apart of this state," Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers said at the start of discussion on the floor of the Legislature.  "This building will not implode."

The historic significance of the event attracted a large group of onlookers, legislative staffers and media watched as debate began at 1:30 p.m....  Miriam Thimm Kelle, sister of Rulo murder victim James Thimm, was among onlookers in the legislative chamber Wednesday.  Thimm's murderer, Michael Ryan, died this week on death row.  Kelle has lobbied in support of abolishing the death penalty.

On Tuesday, Vivian Tuttle, whose daughter Evonne Tuttle was killed in the Norfolk bank robbery, joined the governor at a press conference to ask senators to sustain the veto. "I want justice for my grandchildren," she said. "I want justice for all the other families."

May 27, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

"Will Mike Huckabee's Forgiveness of Joshua Duggar Extend to Other Youthful Offenders?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this provocative Huffington Post commentary authored by Steve Drizin. Here are excerpts: 

I confess that I had never heard of Josh Duggar before Friday. I never watched TLC's 19 Kids and Counting show, never knew that Duggar was the eldest son of the Duggar family clan which includes ten boys and nine girls, never knew that Duggar worked for the Family Resource Council, the influential conservative Christian lobbying group. Mr. Duggar's name didn't register with me until the news broke this week that he had molested young girls, including several of his sisters, when he was a 14-year-old.

Now he matters to me.  Not because of who he is or what he has done, but because Republican Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee came to Mr. Duggar's defense. While other potential Republican conservative candidates, many of whom have been pictured with Duggar over the years or have publicly supported his family's values, stayed silent on the sidelines, Mr. Huckabee moved quickly to call for forgiveness for Mr. Duggar....

Mr. Huckabee's statements have aroused the ire of many of his supporters.  His Facebook page lit up with angry comments from fans.  But I am not writing to join those who want to bury Mr. Huckabee.  As someone who has represented many teenage offenders, I want to praise him.

Mr. Huckabee's call for mercy in this age of retribution is an act of political courage. Although his recognition that youthful offenders are less culpable for their crimes due to their immature judgment and more amenable to rehabilitation is, in the words of the United States Supreme Court, something that "every parent knows" and a matter of "common sense," few politicians -- conservatives, moderates, or liberals -- have echoed his words.  In my book, he gets points for being willing to take a risk, even if he is simply stating the obvious when talking about young people who commit crimes.

But the book is not yet closed on Mr. Huckabee with regard to the Duggar affair.  Will Mr. Huckabee stand silent on these issues in his run for the Presidency? O r will he use this case as a "teachable moment" and engage other conservatives (and moderates, liberals and progressives) in a debate about juvenile justice reform?

Will Mr. Huckabee's endorsement of forgiveness and privacy for Mr. Duggar, extend to the thousands of other adolescent sex offenders, who unlike Mr. Duggar, were convicted of sex offenses and are paying the price by being required to register as sex offenders. Will he call for mercy for these young men and women as well?  Will he support efforts to allow them to prove that they are no longer a danger and no longer need to register? ...

Will Mr. Huckabee's recognition that "being a minor means that one's judgment is not mature" lead him to oppose prosecuting juveniles as adults, housing them in adult jails and prisons, or sentencing them to mandatory prison sentences?  If he truly believes that young people are capable of rehabilitation, will he oppose life without parole and other draconian sentences for juveniles? Will he support greater funding for programs aimed at rehabilitating them? ...

Just how far will Mr. Huckabee's grace extend? Does he believe in second chances only for wealthy, white, or religious teenagers who use their influence and connections to get diverted from our juvenile and criminal justice systems or will he support the same second chances for the poor, mostly black and brown teenagers who fill our juvenile and criminal jails and prisons?

Is this true political courage or one-off favor for a politically connected friend and his family?  Only time will tell.

May 27, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Offender Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Split Connecticut Supreme Court applies Miller retroactively to 50-year discretionary juve sentence

Yesterday the Connecticut Supreme Court, splitting 4-3, gave the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment jurisprudence concerning juvenile LWOP sentencing the furthest reach of any major ruling I have seen through its opinion in Casiano v. Commissioner of Correction, No. SC19345 (Conn. May 26, 2015) (majority opinion here, dissents here and here).  Here is how the majority opinion gets started:  

We recently held in State v. Riley, 315 Conn. 637, 659, A.3d (2015), that, to comport with the eighth amendment to the federal constitution, the trial court must give mitigating weight to the youth related factors set forth in Miller v. Alabama, U.S. , 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2464–65, 2468, 183 L.Ed. 2d 407 (2012), when considering whether to impose a life sentence without the possibility of parole on a juvenile homicide offender.  In Riley, the defendant challenged on direct appeal a total effective sentence of 100 years with no possibility of parole before his natural life expired, a sentence that the state conceded was the functional equivalent to life without parole.  State v. Riley, supra, 642. The different procedural posture and sentence in the present case raises two significant issues regarding the reach of Miller: whether Miller applies retroactively under Connecticut law to cases arising on collateral review, and, if so, whether Miller applies to the imposition of a fifty year sentence on a juvenile offender.  We answer both questions in the affirmative and, therefore, reverse the habeas court’s decision rendering summary judgment in favor of the respondent, the Commissioner of Correction, on the petition for a writ of habeas corpus filed by the petitioner, Jason Casiano.

May 27, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

More evidence for sentencing fans that soccer can be very exciting

Tumblr_laum40igMI1qafnx3o1_500This lengthy official Justice Department press release provides all the basic details on the sentencing and soccer story breaking in New York this morning.  Here is the extended heading of the press release:

Nine FIFA Officials and Five Corporate Executives Indicted for Racketeering Conspiracy and Corruption

The Defendants Include Two Current FIFA Vice Presidents and the Current and Former Presidents of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF); Seven Defendants Arrested Overseas; Guilty Pleas for Four Individual Defendants and Two Corporate Defendants Also Unsealed

Here are some of the particulars:

A 47-count indictment was unsealed early this morning in federal court in Brooklyn, New York, charging 14 defendants with racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracies, among other offenses, in connection with the defendants’ participation in a 24-year scheme to enrich themselves through the corruption of international soccer.  The guilty pleas of four individual defendants and two corporate defendants were also unsealed today.

The defendants charged in the indictment include high-ranking officials of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the organization responsible for the regulation and promotion of soccer worldwide, as well as leading officials of other soccer governing bodies that operate under the FIFA umbrella.  Jeffrey Webb and Jack Warner – the current and former presidents of CONCACAF, the continental confederation under FIFA headquartered in the United States – are among the soccer officials charged with racketeering and bribery offenses.  The defendants also include U.S. and South American sports marketing executives who are alleged to have systematically paid and agreed to pay well over $150 million in bribes and kickbacks to obtain lucrative media and marketing rights to international soccer tournaments....

The guilty pleas of the four individual and two corporate defendants that were also unsealed today include the guilty pleas of Charles Blazer, the long-serving former general secretary of CONCACAF and former U.S. representative on the FIFA executive committee; José Hawilla, the owner and founder of the Traffic Group, a multinational sports marketing conglomerate headquartered in Brazil; and two of Hawilla’s companies, Traffic Sports International Inc. and Traffic Sports USA Inc., which is based in Florida.

“The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States,” said Attorney General Lynch.  “It spans at least two generations of soccer officials who, as alleged, have abused their positions of trust to acquire millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks.  And it has profoundly harmed a multitude of victims, from the youth leagues and developing countries that should benefit from the revenue generated by the commercial rights these organizations hold, to the fans at home and throughout the world whose support for the game makes those rights valuable.  Today’s action makes clear that this Department of Justice intends to end any such corrupt practices, to root out misconduct, and to bring wrongdoers to justice – and we look forward to continuing to work with other countries in this effort.” 

May 27, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, Sports, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

"Charging Inmates Perpetuates Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new Brennan Center white paper authored by Lauren-Brooke Eisen.  Here is its introduction (with endnotes omitted):

The American criminal justice system is replete with fees that attempt to shift costs from the government to those accused and convicted of breaking the law.  Courts impose monetary sanctions on a “substantial majority of the millions of U.S. residents convicted of felony and misdemeanor crimes each year.”  Every aspect of the criminal justice process has become ripe for charging a fee.  In fact, an estimated 10 million people owe more than $50 billion in debt resulting from their involvement in the criminal justice system. In the last few decades, additional fees have proliferated, such as charges for police transport, case filing, felony surcharges, electronic monitoring, drug testing, and sex offender registration.  Unlike fines, whose purpose is to punish, and restitution, which is intended to compensate victims of crimes for their loss, user fees are intended to raise revenue.  The Justice Department’s March 2015 report on practices in Ferguson, Mo. highlights the overreliance on court fines as a primary source of revenue for the jurisdiction.  The New York Times noted that the report found that “internal emails show city officials pushing for more tickets and fines.”

Fees and debts are increasing partially because the criminal justice system has grown bigger.  With 2.2 million people behind bars, courts — and all the relevant agencies — have expanded as well.  Since the 1970s, incarceration in the U.S. has risen steeply, dwarfing the incarceration rate of any other nation on Earth.  The U.S. added about 1.1 million incarcerated people, almost doubling the nation’s incarcerated population, in the past 20 years.  The fiscal costs of corrections are high — more than $80 billion annually — about equivalent to the budget of the federal Department of Education.6 A recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities finds that corrections is currently the third-largest category of spending in most states, behind education and health care.  In fact, somewhat disconcertingly, 11 states spent more of their general funds on corrections than on higher education in 2013.

Fees already on the books have increased.  And, these fees are extending into state and local corrections.

As a result of these runaway costs, counties and states continue to struggle with ways to increase revenue to pay for exorbitant incarceration bills.  In 2010, the mean annual state corrections expenditure per inmate was $28,323, although a quarter of states spent $40,175 or more.  Not surprisingly, departments of corrections and jails are increasingly authorized to charge inmates for the cost of their imprisonment.  Although this policy is alarming, less widely understood but equally troubling is the reality that these incarceration fees perpetuate our nation’s addiction to incarceration.  This policy brief exposes how the widespread nature of charging fees to those who are incarcerated connects to the larger problem of mass incarceration in this country.

May 26, 2015 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Nebraska Gov officially vetoes bill to repeal death penalty in the Cornhusker State

As reported in this local article, "Gov. Pete Ricketts delivered Tuesday on his promise to veto legislation that would repeal the death penalty for murderers in Nebraska." Here is more on the decision and what is likely to follow it:

"This is a matter of public safety," Ricketts said. "We need to have strong sentencing. We need to be sure our prosecutors have the tools to put these hardened criminals behind bars."

"I urge our senators to stand with Nebraskans and law enforcement," Ricketts said.

The governor was joined by Attorney General Doug Peterson and family members of Evonne Tuttle, who was one of five people killed in the 2002 Norfolk bank robbery. Three of the killers involved in the robbery are on death row. Evonne's mother, Vivian Tuttle, said she sat through the trials. In each one, she watched the surveillance video that showed Jose Sandoval put a gun to her daughter Evonne's head as she knelt on the floor and was shot to death. "I want justice for my grandchildren. I want justice for the other families," she said.

The Legislature passed the death penalty bill (LB268) on Wednesday on a 32-15 vote. Thirty votes would be required to override the governor's veto. The governor said Friday that senators who voted to repeal the death penalty weren't in touch with their constituents. But a number of those senators said Tuesday at least half of their constituent contacts are telling them to stick to their votes in favor of repeal.

Supporters have lost at least one override vote -- Sen. Jerry Johnson of Wahoo. Johnson said he was shaky on his repeal vote last week. Then, most of his emails urging him to vote for repeal were from the faith community. What he has learned since last week's vote is that people in the pews aren't necessarily on the same page as church leadership, he said....

Another senator who voted for repeal -- Sen. John Murante of Gretna -- also is reconsidering his vote, he said. He is discussing it with many constituents who have called him over the past few days, he said. "I've always been torn on the issue of the death penalty," he said, "and I'm gathering as many opinions as I can before rendering a vote on the veto override."

Sounds like every single vote is going to matter now in Nebraska's unicameral legislature. Stay tuned.

May 26, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

"Implementing Just Mercy"

The title of this post is thew title of this notable new piece authored by William Berry III now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This book review essay explores the connection between Bryan Stevenson's recent book, "Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption", and the development of concepts of individualized sentencing under the Sixth and Eighth amendments by the Supreme Court.

In light of these steps toward individualizing sentencing, this book review essay imagines a serious application of the principles of just mercy that Stevenson has championed in his legal career to the criminal justice system.  Specifically, this essay argues that individualized consideration of criminal offenders throughout the criminal justice process — from policing to sentencing — is necessary to achieve the compatible (not competing) goals of justice and mercy.

The essay proceeds in three parts.  Part One describes Stevenson’s book, highlighting the principles of just mercy latent in his narrative and their connection to the individualized consideration of criminal offenders.  In Part Two, the essay shifts to argue that many of the current shortcomings of the criminal justice system result directly from stigmatizing alleged offenders rather than considering them individually as people possessing human dignity.  Finally, in Part Three, the essay outlines a series of criminal justice reforms drawn from Stevenson’s experiences and the concepts of individualized consideration that emerge from pursuing just mercy.

May 26, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

SCOTUS grants cert on a federal sentencing case and state capital case

This morning's Supreme Court order list, available here, includes two grants of certiorari.  Both cases are criminal cases, Lockhart v. US and Foster v. Humphrey, and here are the links to casepages and the issues via SCOTUSblog:

Lockhart v. US:  Whether the mandatory minimum sentence of 18 U.S.C. § 2252(b)(2) is triggered by a prior conviction under a state law relating to "aggravated sexual abuse" or "sexual abuse," even though the conviction did not "involv[e] a minor or ward," an issue that divides the federal courts of appeals.

Foster v. Humphrey: Whether the Georgia courts erred in failing to recognize race discrimination under Batson v. Kentucky in the extraordinary circumstances of this death penalty case.

May 26, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, May 25, 2015

Swish or brick as basketball great calls upon US to "Abolish the Death Penalty"?

Download (4)The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable recent Time commentary authored by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.  (We learned in the classic movie Airplane! that Abdul-Jabbar could fly a commercial jet, so I suppose I am not too surprised he also is an effective sentencing advocate.)  Here are excerpts from a commentary which suggests to me that Abdul-Jabbar could take over my professional responsibilities much better than I could ever have done his professional work:

The death penalty is suddenly trending again.  On Wednesday, Nebraska lawmakers voted to repeal the state’s death penalty.  Last week, the jury in the Boston Marathon bombing case decided that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be executed. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently reviewing the constitutionality of lethal injection in the death-penalty case Glossip v. Gross.  Last month, the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the Justice Department admitted that almost every examiner in the FBI microscopic hair forensic unit overstated matches in favor of the prosecution in 95% of the cases in which they testified over the past 20 years.  (This included 32 defendants sentenced to death, 14 of which have been executed or died in prison.)  Norman Fletcher, the former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court who during his tenure upheld numerous death sentences, announced last week that the death penalty is “morally indefensible,” makes no business sense, and is inconsistent and applied unfairly....

Traditional reasons to support the death penalty are going the same way as conventional wisdom for denying same-sex marriage and gender equality.  Some will talk about how justice demands the death penalty, and some will say that the only way to enforce the sanctity of human life is by executing those who recklessly and arrogantly take it away. Some will argue that it protects innocent lives, others that it brings closure to victims’ families. Some will offer personal tales of loss.  These are all heartfelt points, but ultimately they are simply wrong in terms of doing what is best for society.

The primary purpose of the death penalty is to protect the innocent.  Theoretically, if someone deliberately murders someone else, executing that person protects the rest of us by removing him from society, never again to be a threat.  But, as always, there’s a big difference between theory and practice.  While it’s true that the death penalty may protect us from the few individuals it does execute, it does not come without a significant financial and social price tag that may put us all at an even greater risk....

In the states that have abolished the death penalty in the last decade, politicians from both parties have cited cost as the main reason.  This isn’t a matter of morality versus dollars.  It’s about the morality of saving the most lives with what we have to spend. Money instead could be going to trauma centers, hospital personnel, police, and firefighters, and education.

Some will ask, “How can you put a price on justice?” and “What if it were your mother or son who’d been murdered?” Fair enough. But given the current cost of the death penalty, my family is much more at risk from not having enough police on the street, firefighters in their stations, and staff in hospitals. The question every concerned taxpayer needs to ask is whether or not we should be spending hundreds of millions of dollars on executing prisoners when life without parole keeps the public just as safe but at a fraction of the cost. The money saved won’t solve all our financial woes, but it will solve some — and could save lives doing so....

The second major problem with the death penalty is that there’s a high probability that we execute innocent people. The traditional test of a person’s philosophy about justice is a simple question: If you had 10 people sentenced to death but you knew one was innocent, would you keep them all in prison for life with the hopes that the innocent person will be discovered and released? Or would you execute all of them with the idea that the occasional innocent person is an acceptable loss for a greater good? If you answer that you’d keep them in prison, you’re against the death penalty....

The third problem with the death penalty is that the system is biased based on race and economic standing. Minorities have Favorite Son status when it comes to being executed. According to a study by law professor David Baldus and statistician George Woodworth, a black defendant is four times more likely to receive a death sentence than a white defendant for a similar crime. Part of the reason for this may be that those most responsible for determining which cases to pursue are white. Nearly 98% of chief district attorneys in counties using the death penalty are white; about 1% are African American....

Another unfair application is the lack of adequate representation received by poor defendants. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg addressed this issue: “People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty.” Although poor defendants are guaranteed representation, they aren’t guaranteed the best representation. This is evident when we examine the records of some these court-appointed attorneys: Nearly 1 in 4 death row inmates were represented by court-appointed attorneys who were disciplined for professional misconduct during their careers. A report by the Texas Defender Service concluded that death row inmates have a 1 in 3 chance of being executed “without having the case properly investigated by a competent attorney and without having any claims of innocence or unfairness presented or heard.” The attorneys for one-fifth of the death row inmates in Washington state over the last 20 years were disbarred, suspended, or arrested. This list of incompetent representation goes on....

Supporters of the death penalty may say it deters other would-be murderers, but 2009 study in the Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology states that “the consensus among criminologists is that the death penalty does not add any significant deterrent effect above that of long-term imprisonment.” Some argue that it brings closure for families of victims. In some cases it does; in others it doesn’t. That’s why there are various organizations—California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights—made up of family members of murder victims who oppose the death penalty....

Some people deserve to die. They commit acts so brutal that they cannot ever be a part of society. But we can’t let our passion for revenge override our communities’ best interest. The death penalty is an elaborate Rube Goldberg device with a thousand moving parts, each one expensive and in serious disrepair, to achieve a dubious end. With something as irrevocable as death, we can’t have one system of justice for the privileged few and another for the rest of the country. That, more than anything, diminishes the sanctity of human life.

Yes, there are many ways the death penalty system might someday be improved so that it will cost less, not risk innocent lives, and be fairly applied to all. Until that day, life without parole will bring us justice and allow us the opportunity to correct our mistakes before it’s too late. 

May 25, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Providing a script for "How To Lock Up Fewer People" in the United States

Given that there has been plenty of talk, but still relatively little action. on proposals for significant federal sentencing reform, perhaps it is especially timely for Marc Mauer and David Cole to have this New York Times commentary providing someting of a how-to guide for dealing with modern mass incarceration.  The piece is headlined "How To Lock Up Fewer People," and here are excerpts:

Today, nearly everyone acknowledges that our criminal justice system needs fixing, and politicians across the spectrum call for reducing prison sentences for low-­level drug crimes and other nonviolent offenses.  But this consensus glosses over the real challenges to ending mass incarceration.  Even if we released everyone imprisoned for drugs tomorrow, the United States would still have 1.7 million people behind bars, and an incarceration rate four times that of many Western European nations.  Mass incarceration can be ended.  But that won’t happen unless we confront the true scale of the problem.

A hard­nosed skeptic would tell you that fully half the people in state prisons are serving time for violent offenses.  And most drug offenders behind bars are not kids caught smoking a joint, but dealers, many with multiple prior convictions.  We already have about 3,000 drug courts diverting those who need it to treatment rather than prison.  Recidivism remains astonishingly high for those we release from prison, so releasing more poses real risks....

It’s true that half the people in state prisons are there for a violent crime, but not all individuals convicted of violent crimes are alike. They range from serial killers to minor players in a robbery and battered spouses who struck back at their abusers. If we are going to end mass incarceration, we need to recognize that the excessively long sentences we impose for most violent crimes are not necessary, cost­-effective or just.

We could cut sentences for violent crimes by half in most instances without significantly undermining deterrence or increasing the threat of repeat offending.  Studies have found that longer sentences do not have appreciably greater deterrent effects; many serious crimes are committed by people under the influence of alcohol or drugs, who are not necessarily thinking of the consequences of their actions, and certainly are not affected by the difference between a 15-­year and a 30­-year sentence....

Offenders “age out” of crime — so the 25-­year-­old who commits an armed robbery generally poses much less risk to public safety by the age of 35 or 40.  Yet nearly 250,000 inmates today are over 50.  Every year we keep older offenders in prison produces diminishing returns for public safety.  For years, states have been radically restricting parole; we need to make it more readily available.  And by eliminating unnecessary parole conditions for low­-risk offenders, we can conserve resources to provide appropriate community­based programming and supervision to higher-­risk parolees.

It’s true that most individuals incarcerated for a drug offense were sellers, not just users. But as a result of mandatory sentencing laws, judges often cannot make reasonable distinctions between drug kingpins and street­corner pawns.  We ought to empower judges to recognize the difference, and to reduce punishment for run­-of­-the-­mill offenders, who are often pursuing one of the few economic opportunities available to them in destitute communities....

Recidivism is also a serious obstacle to reform.  Two­-thirds of released prisoners are rearrested within three years, and half are reincarcerated.  But many of the returns to prison are for conduct that violates technical parole requirements, but does not harm others.  And much of the problem is that the scale and cost of prison construction have left limited resources for rehabilitation, making it difficult for offenders to find the employment that is necessary to staying straight. So we need to lock up fewer people on the front end as well as enhance reintegration and reduce collateral consequences that impede rehabilitation on the back end.

Criminal justice is administered largely at the state level; 90 percent of those incarcerated are in state and local facilities.  This means mass incarceration needs to be dismantled one state at a time.  Some states are already making substantial progress. New Jersey, California and New York have all reduced their prison populations by about 25 percent in recent years, with no increase in crime.  That should be good news for other states, which would reap substantial savings — in budgetary and human terms — if they followed suit. While the federal government cannot solve this problem alone, it can lead both by example and by providing financial incentives that encourage reform....

Today, at long last, a consensus for reform is emerging. The facts that no other Western European nation even comes close to our incarceration rates, and that all have lower homicide rates, show that there are better ways to address crime. The marked disparities in whom we choose to lock up pose one of the nation’s most urgent civil rights challenges. But we will not begin to make real progress until we face up to the full dimensions of the task.

May 25, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, May 24, 2015

"Before sentencing, Ulbricht begs for leniency: 'please leave me my old age'"

This new ars technica posting provides the title of this post and it provides background and links to a high-energy effort by a high-profile defendant to get a lower sentence for his high-tech drug dealing crimes for which he will be sentenced in the coming week.  Here are excerpts:

Convicted Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht and no less than 97 of his friends and family members have written to a judge just days prior to sentencing, asking her to impose the most lenient sentence possible. (Ars has posted the letters online along with the court filing of photos of Ulbricht and many family and friends.)

 Under federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, Ulbricht faces at least 20 years in prison and possibly as long as life behind bars.  “Silk Road turned out to be a very naive and costly idea that I deeply regret,” he wrote in his own 1.5 page letter to United States District Judge Katherine Forrest filed on Friday.

Ulbricht’s own letter marks the first time he has shown any public remorse during the entire saga, during which he did not testify. His attorney, Joshua Dratel, spun unsubstantiated theories that while Ulbricht created Silk Road, unnamed mysterious others took over the site and should be the ones prosecuted for the crime. Dratel previously vowed to appeal the verdict.

In February 2015, Ulbricht was convicted of seven charges including three drug counts: distributing or aiding and abetting the distribution of narcotics, distributing narcotics or aiding and abetting distribution over the Internet, and conspiracy to violate narcotics laws. He was also convicted on a fourth count of conspiracy to run a "continuing criminal enterprise," which involves supervising at least five other people in an organization. In addition, Ulbricht was convicted on conspiracy charges for computer hacking, distributing false identification, and money laundering.

Prior related posts:

May 24, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Effective review of effective(?) use of sentencing mitigation videos ... and concerns about equity

Today's New York Times has this lengthy discussion of a digital development in modern sentencing proceedings.  The piece is headlined "Defendants Using Biographical Videos to Show Judges Another Side at Sentencing," and here are excerpts:

Lawyers are beginning to submit biographical videos at sentencings, and proponents say they could transform the process. Defendants and their lawyers already are able to address the court before a sentence is imposed, but the videos are adding a new dimension to the punishment phase of a prosecution. Judges “never knew the totality of the defendant” before seeing these videos, said Raj Jayadev, one of the people making the[se videos].... “All they knew was the case file.”

Yet as videos gain ground, there is concern that a divide between rich and poor defendants will widen — that camera crews and film editors will become part of the best defense money can buy, unavailable to most people facing charges.  Videos, especially well­produced ones, can be powerful.  In December, lawyers for Sant Singh Chatwal, a millionaire hotelier who pleaded guilty in Federal District Court in Brooklyn to illegal campaign donations, submitted a 14­minute video as part of his sentencing.  Elegantly produced, it showed workers, family members and beneficiaries of Mr. Chatwal describing his generosity.

As he prepared to sentence Mr. Chatwal, Judge I. Leo Glasser said he had watched the video twice, including once the night before.  The judge, echoing some of the themes in the video, recounted Mr. Chatwal’s good works.  Judge Glasser then sentenced Mr. Chatwal to probation, much less than the approximately four to five years in prison that prosecutors had requested.

Yet efforts like those on behalf of Mr. Chatwal are hardly standard.  While every criminal defendant is entitled to a lawyer, a day in any court makes it clear that many poor people do not receive a rack­-up-­the-­hours, fight-­tooth-and-­nail defense like Mr. Chatwal did.

Even in cities with robust public defense programs, like New York City, lawyers may be carrying as many as 100 cases at once, and they say there is little room to add shooting and editing videos to their schedules.  “It’s hard for me to imagine that public defenders could possibly spare the time to do that,” said Josh Saunders, who until recently was a senior staff attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, adding that lawyers there are often physically in court for the entire workday.  He sees the humanizing potential of videos, he said, but “I would also be concerned that defendants with means would be able to put together a really nice package that my clients generally would not be able to.”

Mr. Jayadev’s nonprofit, Silicon Valley De­Bug, a criminal justice group and community center in San Jose, Calif., believes that videos are a new frontier in helping poor defendants, and is not only making videos but encouraging defense attorneys nationwide to do the same.  The group has made about 20 biographical videos for defendants, one featuring footage of the parking lot where a homeless teenage defendant grew up.  With a $30,000 grant from the Open Society Foundation, De­Bug is now training public defenders around the country....

LaDoris H. Cordell, a former state court judge in Santa Clara County who is now the independent police auditor in San Jose and who has seen some of Mr. Jayadev’s videos, said she would like them to be used more widely at sentencings.

“I’m very wary, and I was as a judge, of the double standard,” where wealthy defendants can afford resources that poorer defendants cannot, she said. “It is a problem, and what Raj is doing, these videos, is something that should be available to anyone who needs to have it done.” A prosecution, she said, is “usually is a one­sided process, and now it’s like the scales are being balanced out.

May 24, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, May 23, 2015

You be the prosecutor: what sentence will you recommend for convicted "sex on beach" couple?

Regular readers may recall this post from earlier this month, titled "Imprisonment for 15 years for sex on the beach?!?! Really?!?!," which covered the possibility of one member of an indecent couple in Florida facing a mandatory 15-year prison sentence for shoreline dirty dancing with his girlfriend.  But this follow-up post reported that State Attorney Ed Brodsky indicated that "he will not seek the maximum possible punishment — 15 years in prison — for the couple convicted of having sex in public on Bradenton Beach."  Now this news update on the notable case indicates that sentencing is likely to be scheduled in the coming weeks and includes this partial preview:

Jose Caballero, 40, and Elissa Alvarez, 20, were convicted May 4 on two counts each of lewd and lascivious behavior for having sex on Cortez Beach on July 20, 2014. The convictions carry a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison and require both to register as sex offenders....

The State Attorney's Office has said it will not seek the maximum penalty for either defendant, but is looking into jail time for both of them. [Assistant state attorney prosecutor Anthony] Dafonseca said they'd seek a harsher punishment against Caballero, who has served prison time for cocaine trafficking.

The defendants were represented by attorney Ronald Kurpiers, but Alvarez will be represented at sentencing by Greg Hagopian, according to Dafonseca. Hagopian said he didn't want to discuss the reason for Alvarez's switch. She had no criminal record before her conviction.

A few people filed letters on behalf of the defendants, saying the judge should take it easy on Alvarez and Caballero and not make them register as sex offenders. "You are likening these two individuals to deplorable people who have actually taken advantage of or violated children," read a letter signed by Femi Olukoya. "This state needs to grow up and that can start with you," read another letter.

The jury found the couple guilty after a 1 1/2 day trial and only 15 minutes deliberation. One of the witnesses took video of the two in July, showing Alvarez moving on Caballero in a sexual manner in broad daylight.

Unsuprisingly, prior posts about this case generated a lot of notable commentary, and now I am eager to focus discussion on how folks think the state prosecutors here ought to exercise their sentencing discretion. Specifically, I would really like folks to put themselves in the shoes of the Florida prosecutors and state, with some specificity, exactly what sentence they think should be recommended to the sentencing judge in this unusual criminal case.

Prior related post:

May 23, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, May 22, 2015

"Who Are Woman Sex Offenders and Why Are They Treated Like Men?"

The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing piece posted at Dissident Voice written by Sonia Van den Broek, who admits at the start of the piece how she became a female charged with a sex offense:

For the first quarter of my life, I didn’t think much about sex offenders. Call it thoughtlessness or a naïve little bubble; it was probably both. This thoughtlessness might not be unique. But I began thinking about sex offenders when, at age 25, I was charged with a sex crime.

I had had sexual contact with my 17-year-old neighbor. I’m not proud of this and, if given the chance, would absolutely reverse that decision. But I slept with him once and joined the burgeoning ranks of women charged with sex offenses.

Here is some of what she goes on to say about this very interesting topic:

While women sex offenders are a low portion of the population, they do exist and in higher numbers than before 1994 (when the Jacob Wetterling Improvements Act was established).  There is a trend toward sexual contact with teenage males.  Often, the women are motivated by a desire for companionship or have a sense that their current adult-age relationships are unfulfilling.

In other instances, the women are prison guards or case managers who have had sex with inmates. In the state of Colorado, any incarcerated person is legally incapable of consenting to sex, so that any sexual contact he or she does have is considered a crime. Once in a while, a woman will have sexual contact with an intellectually disabled person, sometimes without realizing that this person’s consent is not actually legal.

Women very rarely have sexual contact with children younger than 13. I’ve known only two women in this category and both were motivated by other factors: anger, a history of abuse in their own childhoods, resentment, and a feeling of being trapped.  Most female sex offenders aren’t motivated by power and control, which, among male offenders, is the leading motivation for sexual contact with someone before the age of puberty.  Actually, regardless of the victim’s age, power and control are a much more compelling motivator for men than for women.

Of course, I don’t condone this behavior in the least.  I’m not saying that women who sleep with 17-year-olds should be given a free pass or skip blithely past the consequences. But I do believe we need to rethink the way that we treat and rehabilitate these women. We need to focus less on the scintillating sexual details and more on the emotions and needs that motivated them.

Here lies perhaps the greatest injustice: in the sex offender system, women are treated exactly like men.  Treatment providers aren’t given special instruction in dealing with women.  The treatment programs are written for men, using statistics about male offenders and past treatment models of men.  Imagine!  Although women’s motivations and victims are diabolically different, they receive the same treatment model as men who rape women, prey on young children, and commit serial crimes.

At the moment, the justice system hides behind the fact that there isn’t enough research into female offenders.  This is partly true: women offend at a much lower rate than men, and so studying their motivations takes a little more work.  But as the sex offender laws expand to include more and more actions, there are an increasing number of women caught in sex crimes.

A lack of evidence should never be the reason for poor rehabilitation.  It should be the impetus, in fact, for working harder to understand why some women commit sex crimes and how to prevent it in the future.  When I asked a treatment provider for data about the effects on teenage males of sex crimes committed by women, she had one study. It was a tiny example, too: 13 males from the Midwest. Only that. In a nation that routinely penalizes women for sexual contact with teenage males, only one study existed that documented this phenomenon.  By contrast, decades of research and hundreds of studies have informed the treatment material and methods for men who commit sex crimes.

Research about recidivism rates is also based primarily on male populations and varies drastically.  Estimates about recidivism rates for sex offenders range from 2.5% for another sex crime to to 43% for any crime at all.  But since the law doesn’t differentiate among sex offenders, these studies are nearly useless.  A woman who has sex with a teenager is in the same category with a developmentally disabled person who is an exhibitionist, and those two are in the same category with a man who raped and murdered a child.  The lumping-together of sex offenses creates confusion even while it feeds public hysteria....

Treating sex offenders, especially women offenders, has become drastically un-therapeutic. “Treatment” revolves around complex rules, low self-esteem, and the constant fear of punishment.  It does nothing to address the complex emotional choices that led people to their crimes.  Rather, the justice system beats down already hurting women.

May 22, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack (0)

"Federal Sentencing Error as Loss of Chance"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new piece available via SSRN authored by Kate Huddleston. Here is the abstract:

Federal courts have taken the wrong approach to discussing sentencing error.  Circuit court opinions in career offender cases have framed the debate over collateral review of federal sentencing error as a conflict between finality and fairness.  This Comment contends that disagreement over the cognizability of such claims is actually a dispute about the nature of the harm in sentencing error.  What federal courts are actually asking, in effect, is whether the lost probability of a lower sentence is itself a cognizable injury.

The Comment draws on an analogy to tort law to argue that sentencing debates are, at their core, about loss of chance.  Part I highlights the role that probability plays in recent sentencing opinions.  It argues that, as an empirical matter, loss of chance is an accurate way to describe sentencing error given the anchoring effect of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines on sentencing practices.  Part II makes the structural case for conceptualizing Guidelines sentencing error as a problem of probability, arguing that failure to recognize the probability dispute has obscured an underlying debate about the continued vitality of the Guidelines system.  After United States v. Booker, the Sentencing Guidelines are advisory in principle and influential in practice. Part II argues that treating Guidelines error as loss of chance — and a loss that may constitute a fundamental miscarriage of justice — is necessary in order to enforce a Guidelines regime that is neither too rigid nor wholly indeterminate.

May 22, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Two notable voices from the (far?) right calling again for drug war and sentencing reform

Download (2)The two recent stories about recent comments by notable advocates reinforce my sense that more and more traditional (and not-so-traditional) conservative voices are feeling more and more confortable vocally criticizing the federal drug war and severe drug sentencing:

Headline: "Grover Norquist: Malloy Right On Drug Sentencing Reform"

Money Quotes:   If you told me a year ago that I [Grover Norquist] would be speaking out in favor of one of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's top priorities, I would have said you were crazy. The governor is a tax-and-spend liberal and I have spent my entire career fighting high taxes and wasteful government spending. Yet, just as a broken clock gets it right once in a while, Gov. Malloy is right about the need to reform mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

Contrary to their original intent, mandatory minimum laws have done little to reduce crime. They have, however, been significant drivers of prison overcrowding and skyrocketing corrections budgets. That's why conservatives and liberals in Washington, D.C., and in statehouses all across the country are coming together to repeal and reform these one-size-fits-all laws. Oklahoma, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas and Florida are just a handful of the states where conservatives have not simply supported, but led, the efforts to scale back mandatory minimum sentences.

Conservatives in Connecticut should support the governor's mandatory minimum proposals for two reasons. First, the reforms are very modest — addressing only drug possession. In some states, such as Connecticut's neighbor, Rhode Island, and Delaware, lawmakers have repealed mandatory minimum sentences for all drug offenses. Still more states have enacted significant reform to their drug mandatory minimum laws so that judges have discretion to impose individualized sentences that fit the crime. In all of these states, crime rates have dropped.

Conservatives in Connecticut also should embrace sentencing reform because of the state's awful budget mess. For too long, fiscal hawks have turned a blind eye to wasteful law enforcement spending. Not wanting to appear "soft on crime," they have supported every program and policy to increase the prison population without subjecting those ideas to cost-benefit analysis.

Those days are over. After watching state spending on prisons skyrocket more than 300 percent over the last two decades, state leaders across the country seem to understand that they can no longer afford to warehouse nonviolent offenders in prison.

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Headline: "Glenn Beck Calls for the Repeal of Federal Drug Prohibition"

Money QuotesToday on Glenn Beck's radio (and TV) show, I [Jacob Sullum] debated marijuana prohibition with Robert White, co-author (with Bill Bennett) of Going to Pot: Why the Rush to Legalize Marijuana Is Harming America The conversation turned to the war on drugs in general and also touched on federalism, the Commerce Clause, the nature of addiction, and the moral justification for paternalistic interference with individual freedom.  Reading from my recent Forbes column, Beck said he is strongly attracted to the Millian principle that "the individual is sovereign" over "his own body and mind," which rules out government intervention aimed at protecting people from their own bad decisions. "I'm a libertarian in transit," he said. "I'm moving deeper into the libertarian realm.... Inconsistencies bother me." By the end of the show, Beck was declaring that the federal government should call off its war on drugs and let states decide how to deal with marijuana and other psychoactive substances.

Addendum: Marijuana Majority's Tom Angell notes that Beck indicated he favored marijuana legalization back in 2009, saying, "I think it's about time we legalize marijuana...  We either put people who are smoking marijuana behind bars or we legalize it, but this little game we are playing in the middle is not helping us, it is not helping Mexico and it is causing massive violence on our southern border...  Fifty percent of the money going to these cartels is coming just from marijuana coming across our border." As far as I know, however, this is the first time Beck has explicitly called for an end to federal prohibition of all the other currently banned drugs.

May 22, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Examining what qualifies as an LWOP sentence for purposes of Graham and Miller

This new piece at The Marshall Project, headlined "Life Expectancy: How many years make a life sentence for a teenager?," spotlights an Eighth Amendment issue that has been engaging lower courts in the five years since SCOTUS in Graham began putting limits of LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders.  Eventually the Supreme Court will have to resolve the issue of just what qualifies as an LWOP sentence, and here is an account of issue (with some links to notable rulings):

James Comer was 17 when he, an older cousin, and their friend made a series of violent and irreversible decisions: One night in April 2000, they robbed four people at gunpoint. They followed one of their victims for miles as she drove home from her night shift as a postal worker, then pointed a gun at her head outside her house.  Comer’s friend, 17-year-old Ibn Ali Adams, killed their second victim when he discovered the man had no money.

Comer’s youth, his lawyers argue, was at least partly responsible for his poor judgment and impulsive behavior. And it is his youth that may save him from dying in prison. Earlier this month, an Essex County, New Jersey, judge ordered a new sentencing hearing for Comer in light of Miller v. Alabama. ...

But Comer isn’t serving life without parole, at least not technically. For felony murder and multiple counts of armed robbery, he was sentenced to 75 years. He will be eligible for parole, but not until his 86th birthday — more than 20 years past his life expectancy, according to actuarial data his lawyers cited. This sentence “amounts to de facto life without parole and should be characterized as such,” the judge wrote.

Miller v. Alabama was the third in what’s come to be known as the “Roper/Graham/Miller trilogy” of cases in which the Supreme Court ruled, essentially, that kids are different. Teenagers’ still-developing brains make them more impulsive, more susceptible to peer pressure, and less able to understand the consequences of their actions. This makes them less culpable than adults and more amenable to rehabilitation as they mature, the court said.

With Roper, the court outlawed the death penalty for juveniles. With Graham, it struck down life-without-parole sentences for non-homicide crimes. With Miller, the justices forbid mandatory life-without-parole sentences, even for murder. Life sentences for juveniles are allowed only if the judge first has the chance to consider how youth and immaturity may have contributed to the crime....

Now a growing number of courts are interpreting the trilogy even more broadly, applying their principles to cases, like Comer’s, that aren’t explicitly covered by the court’s rulings.

“When read in light of Roper and Graham,” Miller v. Alabama “reaches beyond its core holding,” the Connecticut Supreme Court held last month in State v. Riley. In that case, 17-year-old Ackeem Riley was sentenced to 100 years in prison after he shot into a crowd in a gang-related incident, killing one teenager and wounding two children.  The court ordered a new sentencing hearing, finding that the sentencing judge had not adequately considered Riley’s youth.  Though Miller specifically targeted mandatory life without parole sentences — technically, Riley’s sentence was neither mandatory nor life without parole — the Supreme Court’s reasoning “counsels against viewing these cases through an unduly myopic lens,” the Connecticut court said.

Courts have handed down similar rulings in Wyoming, Florida, California, Iowa, and Colorado.  Another case is pending in Ohio.

In Brown v. Indiana, the state supreme court ordered a new sentencing hearing for Martez Brown, who was 16 when he and two friends killed a couple in a botched robbery. Quoting Miller, the court ruled that “similar to a life without parole sentence, Brown’s 150 year sentence ‘forswears altogether the rehabilitative ideal.’”  Although Brown’s sentence was not formally a life-without-parole sentence, they wrote, “we focus on the forest — the aggregate sentence — rather than the trees — consecutive or concurrent, number of counts, or length of the sentence on any individual count.”

May 21, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

"How America Overdosed on Drug Courts"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy and critical analysis of the modern drug courts movement appearing in the Pacific Standard magazine.  The subheadling highlights its main themes: "Hailed as the most compassionate way for the criminal justice system to deal with addicts, drug courts were designed to balance punishment with rehabilitation. But after 25 years, the verdict is in: Drug courts embolden judges to practice medicine without a license—and they put lives in danger." I consider this piece a must-read for all those interested in drug sentencing reform, and here are excerpts:

The first drug court opened in Florida’s Miami-Dade County in 1989, near the height of the hysteria in this country over drugs, particularly crack cocaine.  Both conservatives and liberals found something to love: Conservatives liked the potential for reduced prison spending, and liberals liked the emphasis on therapy.  From the start, however, critics voiced concerns about “cherry picking,” because the courts only allowed into the program defendants who seemed likely to succeed whether or not they received help. This sort of selectivity was built into the system: The federal laws that determine eligibility for grants to create new drug courts (ongoing funding is primarily state and local) require that the courts exclude people with a history of violent crime.  Many drug courts also bar people with long non-violent criminal histories.  Predictably, this eliminates many of those who have the most serious addictions — the very people the courts, at least in spirit, are supposed to help.

Proponents of drug courts celebrate the fact that those who participate do better than similar defendants who are simply incarcerated or given standard probation. This is unquestionably true.  “The average effect is to reduce new crimes by 10 to 15 percent,” says Douglas Marlowe, the chief of science, policy, and law for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.  (Those crimes include not only drug sales and possession but also crimes committed to pay for drugs, such as burglary and robbery.)  “The vast majority of evaluations show that they work,” says Ojmarrh Mitchell, an associate professor of criminology at the University of South Florida, “and the effect size is larger than any other large-scale criminal justice intervention.”

These improvements are seen mainly in people who graduate, however, which is only roughly half of those who participate — a fact that the NADCP and other advocates tend to play down.  Worse, defendants who start but do not complete drug court often serve longer sentences, meted out by judges as punishment, than they would have had they simply taken a plea and not tried to solve their drug problem.  That strikes many critics as a manifest injustice.  “This is intensifying the drug war on half of the people,” says Kerwin Kaye, an assistant professor of sociology at Wesleyan University.  “It’s not stopping the drug war, it’s continuing it by other means.”  Not only that, many people who fail to graduate drug court often go on to become worse offenders, compared to both graduates and to similar defendants who do not participate in drug courts.  According to a 2013 study of New York’s drug courts conducted by the Urban Institute and the Center for Court Innovation, which included data on more than 15,000 defendants, 64 percent of non-graduates were rearrested within three years, whereas only 36 percent of graduates were. Among comparable defendants who did not participate in drug courts, just 44 percent were re-arrested in that period, suggesting that those who tried but flunked drug court did worse than those who served their time.

May 21, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

After Boston bomber's condemnation in liberal Massachusetts, is the death penalty really "withering away"?

Download (1)The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy new commentary by George Will carrying the headline "Capital punishment’s slow death." Here is the full commentary, which claims to be making a "conservative case against capital punishment":

Without a definitive judicial ruling or other galvanizing event, a perennial American argument is ending. Capital punishment is withering away.

It is difficult to imagine moral reasoning that would support the conclusion that an injustice will be done when, years hence, the death penalty finally is administered to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon terrorist who placed a bomb in a crowd and then strolled to safety. Sentencing to death those who commit heinous crimes satisfies a sense of moral proportionality. This is, however, purchased with disproportionate social costs, as Nebraska seems to be concluding.

Nebraska is not a nest of liberals. Yet on Wednesday its 49-member unicameral legislature passed a bill abolishing the death penalty 32 to 15. Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, vows to veto it.

This comes at a time when, nationwide, exonerations of condemned prisoners and botched executions are dismayingly frequent. Nebraska’s death penalty opponents, including a majority of Nebraskans, say it is expensive without demonstrably enhancing public safety or being a solace to families of murder victims. Some Nebraska families have testified that the extended legal processes surrounding the death penalty prolong their suffering. That sentiment is shared by Bill and Denise Richard, whose 8-year-old son was killed by Tsarnaev.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments about whether one component of a three-drug mixture used in lethal injection executions — and recently used in some grotesquely protracted ones — is unreliable in preventing suffering that violates the Eighth Amendment proscription of “cruel and unusual punishments.” States use the drug in question because more effective drugs are hard to acquire, partly because death penalty opponents are pressuring drug companies not to supply them.

For this, Justice Antonin Scalia blamed a death penalty “abolitionist movement.” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. asked, “Is it appropriate for the judiciary to countenance what amounts to a guerrilla war against the death penalty, which consists of efforts to make it impossible for the states to obtain drugs that could be used to carry out capital punishment with little, if any, pain?” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wondered, “What bearing, if any, should be put on the fact that there is a method, but that it’s not available because of opposition to the death penalty? What relevance does that have?”

The answers are: Public agitation against capital punishment is not relevant to judicial reasoning. And it is not the judiciary’s business to worry that a ruling might seem to “countenance” this or that social advocacy.

The conservative case against capital punishment, which 32 states have, is threefold. First, the power to inflict death cloaks government with a majesty and pretense of infallibility discordant with conservatism. Second, when capital punishment is inflicted, it cannot later be corrected because of new evidence, so a capital punishment regime must be administered with extraordinary competence. It is, however, a government program. Since 1973, more than 140 people sentenced to death have been acquitted of their crimes (sometimes by DNA evidence), had the charges against them dismissed by prosecutors or have been pardoned based on evidence of innocence. For an unsparing immersion in the workings of the governmental machinery of death, read “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, executive director and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.

Third, administration of death sentences is so sporadic and protracted that their power to deter is attenuated. And the expensive, because labyrinthine, legal protocols with which the judiciary has enveloped capital punishment are here to stay. Granted, capital punishment could deter: If overdue library books were punishable by death, none would be overdue. But many crimes for which death is reserved, including Tsarnaev’s crime of ideological premeditation, are especially difficult to deter.

Those who favor capital punishment because of its supposed deterrent effect do not favor strengthening that effect by restoring the practice of public executions. There has not been one in America since 1937 (a hanging in Galena, Mo.) because society has decided that state-inflicted deaths, far from being wholesomely didactic spectacles, are coarsening and revolting.

Revulsion is not an argument, but it is evidence of what former chief justice Earl Warren called society’s “evolving standards of decency.” In the essay “Reflections on the Guillotine,” Albert Camus wrote, “The man who enjoys his coffee while reading that justice has been done would spit it out at the least detail.” Capital punishment, say proponents, serves social catharsis. But administering it behind prison walls indicates a healthy squeamishness that should herald abolition.

May 21, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

New Vera Institute of Justice report highlights the true, high "Price of Jails"

Vera-300x188The Vera Institute of Justice has just published this important new report titled, "The Price of Jails: Measuring the Taxpayer Cost of Local Incarceration." I received a press release about the report which provides this summary of its coverage and findings:

Hidden costs make jails far more expensive than previously understood, according to a new report released today by the Vera Institute of Justice, The Price of Jails: Measuring the Taxpayer Cost of Local Incarceration. Because other government agencies, whose expenditures are not reflected in jail budgets, bear a large share of costs, the report finds that Americans significantly underestimate how much of their tax dollars are being spent on incarceration.

While the U.S. Department of Justice estimated that local communities spent $22.2 billion on jails in 2011, that figure fails to take into account significant costs such as employee benefits and inmate medical care that may not be included in jail budgets. For example, in addition to the $1.1 billion spent by the City of New York Department of Corrections in 2014, other agencies spent $1.3 billion on jail employee benefits, health care and education programs for incarcerated people, and administration, bringing the total cost to $2.4 billion—more than double the official jail budget....

Despite growing national attention to the large number of Americans confined in state and federal prisons, significantly less attention has been paid to local criminal justice systems, where over-incarceration begins. There are nearly 12 million local jail admissions every year — almost 20 times the number of prison admissions, and equivalent to the populations of Los Angeles and New York City combined. The report found that the high cost of jails is most directly tied to inmate population and associated personnel costs, rather than to misspent funds in any one particular budget area.

The report’s findings are based on surveys of 35 jail systems, representing small, medium, and large jails in 18 states from every region of the country, and representing 9% of the total jail population. The survey results confirm that determining the total cost of a jail is not a simple task, even for the agency that runs it. In documenting jail expenses—which in every case surveyed extended beyond the reported corrections budget—and who pays for them, the report finds that, by and large, local taxpayers foot the bill for jails, and the costs are much higher than most people realize.

“Jails are a tremendous public cost,” said Julia Stasch, President of the MacArthur Foundation, which supported the report. “This new report proves those costs are even higher than previously thought, adding urgency to the need for reform that addresses their overuse and misuse in fiscally strapped jurisdictions nationwide.”

In addition to developing a first-of-its-kind survey for jurisdictions to use that accurately measures all of the costs of running a jail, the report reveals:

May 21, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Nebraska legislature votes by large margin to repeal state's death penalty

As reported in this new AP article, " Nebraska lawmakers gave final approval on Wednesday to a bill abolishing the death penalty with enough votes to override a promised veto from Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts."  Here is more:

The vote was 32 to 15 in Nebraska's unicameral Legislature.  If that vote holds in a veto override, Nebraska would become the first conservative state to repeal the death penalty since North Dakota in 1973.  The Nebraska vote is notable in the national debate over capital punishment because it was bolstered by conservatives who oppose the death penalty for religious reasons and say it is a waste of taxpayer money.

Nebraska hasn't executed a prisoner since 1997, and some lawmakers have argued that constant legal challenges will prevent the state from doing so again.

Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, a death penalty supporter, has vowed to veto the bill. Ricketts announced last week that the state has bought new lethal injection drugs to resume executions.  Ricketts, who is serving his first year in office, argued in his weekly column Tuesday that the state's inability to carry out executions was a "management problem" that he is committed to fixing.

Maryland was the last state to end capital punishment, in 2013. Three other moderate to liberal states have done so in recent years: New Mexico in 2009, Illinois in 2011, Connecticut in 2012. The death penalty is legal in 32 states, including Nebraska.

May 20, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Spotlighting who profits from "Piling on Criminal Fees"

Professors Ronald Wright and Wayne Logan have this important new Huffington Post article summarizing the important themes from their important article titled "Mercenary Criminal Justice." Here are excerpts:

Criminal courts sometime function as fee-generating machines....  The problem here is not any single criminal fee; the problem is how they stack up to create injustice.  That's why we are calling for a statewide Commission on Criminal Fees.

In a recent law review article, "Mercenary Criminal Justice," we chronicled the historically central role of fee-generation in U.S. criminal justice systems, a tendency that became even more pronounced as a result of the recent fiscal crisis.  We call this system "mercenary" because the revenues affect the enforcement decisions of actors in the justice system, who start to depend on that revenue, and put their own job security above the job of doing individual justice.  As the Justice Department's report on Ferguson noted, city officials there asked the police and courts to increase ticket collection, explicitly to increase their revenue, basically treating minor criminal offenders as ATM machines.  This mistreatment is all the more troubling when the fees and fines land most heavily on racial minorities and the poor, as they routinely do...

The beneficiaries of the revenue hail from diverse and powerful institutions. Courts, crime labs, prosecutors, and even public defenders all see the dollar signs and make their requests.  What's the harm, after all, in asking for another $100 from an arrestee, convict, or probationer?

And it is not only government employees who have their hands out: private sector actors (with profit motives) have increasingly gotten a piece of the action. Courts, for instance, ask private contractors to collect fees and fines, allowing them to add their own service charges to the total bill.  Private companies, moreover, have been active in probation services. More recently, the American Legislative Exchange Council (or ALEC) started promoting a variation on this theme -- called "post-conviction bail" -- that empowers private bail bond dealers to monitor defendant compliance with post-release conditions. If the released inmate does not comply, the dealer tracks him down and collects a new financial penalty.

Any one of these fees or fines might be a reasonable part of a non-prison punishment, promoting public safety and the interests of defendants alike.  The trouble comes when nobody minds the total effects of all these fees on individuals.  Taken together, even the most modest and well-justified fees can trap the indigent in the control of criminal courts, always paying but never paying their debt down to zero.  We believe that a statewide Commission on Criminal Fees can see the big picture and prevent this piling-on effect. Before authorizing a new fee to support the state crime lab, for instance, the Commission would ask how that fee interacts with the public defender's application fee, the probation supervision fee, and all the other fees currently imposed on individuals ensnared in the justice system.

May 20, 2015 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Has death penalty administration now become a "testing ground for toxic drugs"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the subheadline of this lengthy new New Republic piece: "Lethal Entanglements: Lethal injection was supposed to be a cleaner, more humane version of capital punishement. Over the past five years, it has become a messy, largely unmonitored testing ground for toxic drugs."  Here are is a passage from the center of the lengthy article:

Lethal injection was first adopted in Oklahoma in 1977 as a less violent alternative to the gas chamber and the electric chair. Over the next 25 years, almost every death-penalty state copied Oklahoma’s three-drug formula: first the barbiturate sodium thiopental to knock the prisoner out, then the paralytic pancuronium bromide to immobilize him, and finally potassium chloride to stop his heart.  The second and third drugs would cause intense suffering on their own, but the Supreme Court ruled that the method was constitutional in Baze: As long as the thiopental rendered the prisoner unconscious, he would be insensate to the agonizing effects of the next two drugs.  Just one year after the Baze decision, though, in late 2009, the pharmaceutical company that sold thiopental to every death-penalty state, Hospira, reported a shortage.

As a consequence, the death penalty has undergone in the past five years its biggest transformation since states began switching to lethal injection decades ago.  As thiopental disappeared, states began executing prisoners with experimental one-, two-, or three-drug cocktails.  States have essentially been improvising what is supposed to be one of their gravest and most deliberate duties, venturing deep into the shadows to carry out executions.  They have turned to mail-order pharmaceutical suppliers and used untested drugs.  They have sidestepped federal drug laws, minimized public disclosure, and, on multiple occasions, announced changes to execution protocols just hours before prisoners were set to die.  The machinery of death in the United States has become a kluge.

In April, the Supreme Court acknowledged this when it heard oral arguments in Glossip v. Gross.  A group of prisoners from Oklahoma — including Richard Glossip, a convicted murderer — challenged the state’s use of a drug called midazolam because they feared it would not anesthetize them.  The court had hoped Baze would obviate future lethal injection lawsuits, but the thiopental shortage had stripped the decision of any practical relevance almost as soon as it was issued. Now, just seven years later, the justices were considering whether they should invalidate a specific method of execution for the first time in U.S. history.  The court’s decision won’t overturn the death penalty, but it will define the way we practice it for years to come.

Though the challenge comes from Oklahoma, it is Arizona that provides the best case study of the rapid, slipshod evolution of lethal injection since Baze. The desert state hasn’t executed the most prisoners since the thiopental shortage began — that distinction belongs, as always, to Texas — but it has used more methods than any other state, killing prisoners with four different drug combinations.  No other state has been quite so dogged in its determination to carry out executions. And no other state has left so detailed a paper trail.  Judges, lawyers, and journalists (most notably Michael Kiefer at The Arizona Republic) have brought much of the abuses to light over the years, but the story has been told in disparate pieces: a deposition here, an uncovered email there. The complete narrative is more troubling than any one of its components.

May 20, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)