Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Will NYC terror attack become the first big federal capital case for Trump's Department of Justice?

Despite the fact that Prez Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder sometimes hinted at having some ambivalence about the modern death penalty, the Justice Department during the Obama era consistently pursued and secured federal death sentences against high-profile mass murderers such as the Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof.  Now, sadly, we have our first high-profile mass murder of the Trump era in which the murderer lives on to be subject to criminal prosecution.  The headline, "NYC terror attack leaves 8 dead, several injured; suspect's notes pledged ISIS loyalty," and first few paragraphs of this Fox News report highlight some of the reasons I would expect this latest mass murderer to soon be facing a federal capital charge:

A suspect accused of plowing a pickup truck onto a bike path and into a crowd in New York City Tuesday, killing at least eight people and injuring 11 more, is not a U.S. citizen and is originally from Uzbekistan, federal law enforcement sources have confirmed to Fox News.

The suspected driver, 29-year-old Sayfullo Saipov, had handwritten notes pledging his loyalty to the Islamic State terror network and shouted "Allahu Akbar" after the crash, law enforcement officials told Fox News. Saipov, who was shot by police, was taken into custody and remains hospitalized.

The suspect, from Ukbekistan, had a green card, a source told Fox News. Saipov came to the U.S. in 2010, and, according to The Associated Press, has a Florida license but may have been living in New Jersey.  Saipov was an Uber driver who had passed a background check, the company told Fox News.  It added that Saipov has now been banned from the app, and Uber has offered assistance to the FBI.

His notes, written in Arabic and pledging loyalty to ISIS, turned up in and near the vehicle, Fox News is told. In addition, The New York Post reported that investigators found "an image of the ISIS flag inside his vehicle."

Four of the injured were teachers and students who were riding on a short yellow school bus near Stuyvesant High School when they were hit by the suspect's Home Depot rental truck. One student remains in critical condition.

A victim killed in the attack was a Belgian citizen, Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister of Belgium Didier Reyners tweeted on Tuesday. Three Belgians were also injured.  Others killed in the attack were Argentine citizens, according to Argentina's Foreign Ministry. Argentine newspaper La Nacion reported five of the eight people killed were Argentines traveling in the U.S. on a celebratory vacation.

As I have said after other similar horrible mass killing incidents, jurisdictions that retain the death penalty presumably do so in order to have the ultimate punishment available for these kinds of ultimate crimes.  Especially because both Prez Trump and Attorney General Sessions have be express supporters of the death penalty, I would be truly shocked if Sayfullo Saipov is not soon a capital defendant.

October 31, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

"What Constitutes 'Consideration' of Mitigating Evidence?"

The question in the title of this post is the title of this new paper available via SSRN authored by Emad Atiq and Erin Lynn Miller. Here is the abstract:

Capital sentencers are constitutionally required to “consider” any mitigating evidence presented by the defense.  Under Lockett v. Ohio and its progeny, neither statutes nor common law can exclude mitigating factors from the sentencer’s consideration or place conditions on when such factors may be considered.  We argue that the principle underlying this line of doctrine is broader than courts have so far recognized.

A natural starting point for our analysis is judicial treatment of evidence that the defendant suffered severe environmental deprivation (“SED”), such as egregious child abuse or poverty.  SED has played a central role in the Court’s elaboration of the “consideration” requirement.  It is often given what we call “narrow-scope consideration,” because its mitigating value is conditioned on a finding that the deprivation, or a diagnosable illness resulting from it, was an immediate cause of the crime.  We point out, first, that the line of constitutional doctrine precluding statutory and precedential constraints on the consideration of mitigating evidence rests on a more general principle that “consideration” demands an individualized, moral — as opposed to legalistic — appraisal of the evidence.  When judges determine mitigating significance based on precedential reasoning or judge-made rules they fail to give a reasoned moral response to the evidence.  We articulate a three-factor test for when legalistic thinking prevents a judge from satisfying the constitutional requirement.  Narrow-scope consideration of SED evidence, in many jurisdictions, fails the test.

We contend, second, that, when the capital sentencer is a judge rather than a jury, she has a special responsibility to refrain from narrow scope consideration of mitigating evidence.  The Constitution requires that death sentences must be consistent with community values.  Broad scope consideration of mitigating evidence ensures that the diverse moral views of the community are brought to bear on the question of death-deservingness before a capital sentence is issued.

October 31, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

You be the state judge: what sentence for autistic man whose first convictions resulted from years of fondling young girl?

Perhaps because we recently have been discussing mandatory minimum sentences for aggravated sexual offenses in my Criminal Law class, I was intrigued by this sentencing story out of the state courts in Kansas.  The piece is headlined "Judge to weigh input before sentencing child molester, including numerous letters supporting him," and here are the basics that set up the question in the title of this post:

In August a jury convicted James M. Fletcher, 35, of Lawrence, of five counts of aggravated indecent liberties with a child, for repeatedly fondling a girl over the course of more than two years, starting when she was 11. Under sentencing guidelines, even though he has no other criminal history, Fletcher faces up to life in prison with no possibility of parole for at least 25 years, plus lifetime registration and supervision if he were to be paroled.

Fletcher’s sentencing hearing was Monday, but a ruling was delayed until Nov. 9. Judge Peggy Kittel took under advisement a request from Fletcher’s attorneys to give him a lighter sentence than what the guidelines require. Kittel said she wanted time to weigh her decision “due to the length of sentence Mr. Fletcher is facing.”

His situation is unusual, Kittel said.  “What makes this case so hard is that Mr. Fletcher has no criminal history, yet is facing a lifetime sentence,” Kittel said.

The numerous letters of support from family, friends, neighbors and co-workers are “impressive,” Kittel said. Fletcher’s co-workers lauded him as a capable electrical engineer, intelligent and even “brilliant,” she said.  “And yet a jury found him guilty of betraying the trust of (the victim),” the judge said. “…He stands convicted of something, really, ethically and morally wrong.”

More than three dozen people attended Monday’s hearing.  That included the victim, who also testified at the trial, but most were supporters of Fletcher. None spoke, and neither did Fletcher other than yes and no answers to the judge, with his head otherwise bowed. Fletcher, who has been jailed since his conviction, appeared in shackles and inmate clothing. The judge did, through prosecutors, receive and read a letter from the victim with a picture that she drew, but the letter was not read aloud nor the picture displayed in court. The judge also referenced the many letters in Fletcher’s support that she received earlier.

Fletcher’s attorneys, Sarah Swain and Cooper Overstreet, emphasized his lack of criminal history, his strong support system — pointing to Fletcher’s wife, parents, relatives and friends in the audience — his model behavior while out on bond prior to his conviction and his proactivity in seeking counseling for what was described in trial as a sexual attraction to the teenage body type. “That’s a very rare thing,” Swain said. “These can only be positive steps, steps in the right direction.”

Swain also added that, prior to legislation known as Jessica’s Law, the crimes of which Fletcher was convicted would have carried a substantially lighter sentence. That law, in part, increased penalties for certain sex crimes against children. Defense attorneys requested a total sentence for Fletcher of two and a half years, or 29 and a half months on each count, running concurrently.

Prosecutor Mark Simpson said the defense's arguments were not compelling enough to depart from sentencing guidelines. In fact, Simpson said some of those same points made Fletcher’s crimes even worse. “She trusted him,” Simpson said of the victim. “He was able to have access to her in a way that she could not have been more vulnerable.”

A psychological evaluation of Fletcher concluded that he would not be able to “groom” a child because he had autism, Simpson said, but that diagnoses only came when Fletcher was 34 and seemed to contradict descriptions of him in the numerous letters of support. The same analysis concluded that Fletcher intellectualized and rationalized behavior, limiting the ability of any treatment to be effective, Simpson said.

Simpson said the crimes occurred in a house under the same roof as several of Fletcher’s relatives, who at one point even suggested that his “cuddling” was inappropriate. Simpson said Fletcher orchestrated the abuse in part by trying to convince the girl she was only dreaming it. “This was not one bad decision,” Simpson said. “This was ongoing — years of carefully planned abuse by the defendant.”

Prosecutors are requesting a sentence of life in prison for Fletcher.  Simpson said that if Fletcher were paroled after 25 years, he would have served the equivalent of five years of prison for each count. "That does not seem like an inappropriately long sentence to me," he said.

Fletcher was charged in Douglas County District Court in September 2015 with one count of aggravated indecent liberties with a child under 14, with four more counts added in May 2016.  Charges indicate Fletcher molested the girl from December 2012 through January 2015, when the victim was 13.  The victim told the jury that numerous times when she stayed at Fletcher’s house in Lawrence, he fondled her bare breasts under her T-shirt at night. She said sometimes she was awakened by the action but that she pretended to be asleep, and that afterward she felt “scared,” “confused” and initially passed off the encounters as dreams “to give myself a reason to not have to tell anybody.”

The girl said no one else saw the alleged molestation and that she never told anyone until February 2015, after a confrontation between Fletcher and her mother, where Fletcher told her mother he was sexually attracted to teens and worried he would develop an attraction to the girl.

This kind of case is the sort that, in my view, showcases why sentencing decision-making can be so challenging for judges and why modern mass incarceration in a consequences of so many choices by so many players in the criminal justice system.  As the article reveals, the severity of the sentence here appears to be the product of, inter alia, the legislature increasing punishments under Jessica's law, prosecutors bringing multiple charges, the defendant contesting those charges at trial, and the operation of state sentencing guidelines.  And still, it appears, the sentencing judge has authority to impose a sentence as low as only 2.5 years in prison or as long as a mandatory 25 years in prison.  If/when judges regularly max out sentences in these kinds of tough cases, prison populations will always be large.

This case also serves as a notable example of how many different ways one can characterize offense conduct and offender characteristics.  Is this case properly and usefully labelled a violent offense?  Is it properly and usefully labelled a first or a repeat offense?  Is this the worst kind of sex offense because of the age of the victim and the duration of the activity or would the label repeat child rape not fairly characterize the the criminal activity.  And is the defendant here clearly autistic?  Does that matter?  Is he at high risk to reoffend if he only serves 2.5 years in prison?  Might be be at higher risk to reoffend if he were sentenced to a longer prison term? 

October 31, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

Monday, October 30, 2017

Interesting and encouraging new Gallup numbers on reports of crime victimization

Adj9kjn7qecu-5slyra5yqAs reported in this new posting from Gallup, "Twenty-two percent of Americans say a conventional crime was committed against their household in the previous 12 months, the lowest proportion since 2001." Here is more:

Over the past decade, the percentage reporting their household was victimized by any of seven different crimes averaged 26% and never dropped below 24%.

Gallup began computing its annual index of self-reported crime victimization in 2000.  The index is based on the "yes" responses from U.S. adults as to whether they or anyone in their household was the victim of any of seven common crimes -- ranging from vandalism to violent crimes -- in the past 12 months.

This year's drop in crime was not reported across all groups equally. Nonwhites and those with annual household incomes under $40,000 are about as likely this year as they were in 2016 to say their household had experienced a crime.  Some crimes were also much more likely to occur than others:

  • 12% said someone in their household had money or property stolen, down from 17% in 2016.
  • 10% were the victims of vandalism, down from 14% last year.
  • 3% had their house or apartment broken into, down from 5%.
  • 3% had an automobile stolen, compared with 4% in 2016.
  • 2% said someone in their household was mugged or physically assaulted, compared with 3% last year.
  • 2% said someone in their household was sexually assaulted, compared with 1% in 2016.
  • 1% had money or property taken by force with a gun, a knife, another weapon or physical attack, compared with 2% in 2016....

In all cases, the crime may or may not have been reported to the police. Some official statistics on crime rely only on counts of crimes reported to police, so they may underestimate crime incidence. Not included in the list are digital crimes such as identity theft or computer hacking, which will be the subject of a future Gallup report....

Americans ranked crime as one of the nation's most important problems two decades ago, but the combination of dramatically falling crime rates through most of the 1990s and the rise of other issues in the new century pushed it down the priority list of national problems.

With at least one in four American households victimized by crime every year from 2008 through last year, however, the threat of crime has continued to be a concern for many Americans.

Theories abound for why crime rates rise and fall, and it is too early to know whether this year's drop in reported crime will be sustained. But at worst, it ends the increase of recent years and, at best, it holds the potential to signal further reductions in crime in the future.

October 30, 2017 in National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (5)

"Most California Jurisdictions Show Declines In Property Crime During Justice Reform Era, 2010-2016"

The title of this post is the title of this short research report that I learned about via email from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. Here I how the email describe the report:

A new research report released today from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice examines local trends in California’s property crime from 2010 through 2016, a period marked by major justice system reform, including Public Safety Realignment, Prop 47, and Prop 57.  Despite the relative stability of recent property crime trends, the report finds substantial variation in crime at the local level, which suggests that recent crime patterns may result from local policies rather than state policy reform.

The report finds:

• From 2010 to 2016, property crime rates fell more than 3 percent statewide despite the implementation of large-scale criminal justice reforms.

• For every major crime except vehicle theft, more California jurisdictions reported decreases than increases in their crime rates from 2010 to 2016. For example, just 141 jurisdictions reported increased rates of burglary, while 367 jurisdictions showed decreases.

• Across California, crime trends have been highly localized. Of the 511 cities and local areas included in this analysis, 42 percent showed rising rates of property crime from 2010 to 2016, with an average increase of 12.8 percent, and 58 percent showed decreases, with an average decline of 18.1 percent.

• Many jurisdictions, especially those that began with higher rates of property crime, have devised successful policies and practices that are improving local safety. Jurisdictions that showed decreasing rates of property crime between 2010 and 2016 had higher rates at the start of the reform era than those showing increases.

"The divergence between the 213 cities that have shown property crime increases since 2010 versus the 298 cities with property crime decreases was so large — a 31 percentage point difference — that the two categories of cities actually swapped places. This striking result suggests that reform measures such as Proposition 47 are not the reason a minority of cities experienced crime increases." — Mike Males, Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow

October 30, 2017 in National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (4)

Appreciating ugly sentencing realities facing Paul Manafort and Rick Gates after federal indictment

The big news in the political world this morning is the indictment of Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, which flows from special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.  Along for the ride is another Trump campaign official, Rick Gates, who is also facing 12 federal criminal counts thanks to the work of a federal grand jury.  As is my tendency, I will be content to respond to this news with a few sentencing-related observations while leaving it to others to engage in political spin and other forms of legal speculation.

The full 31-page indictment of Manafort and Gates is available via this link, and the 12 federal criminal counts facing them are conspiracy against the United States (count 1), conspiracy to launder money (count 2), failure to file required reports (counts 3 to 9), being an unregistered agent of a foreign principal (count 10), false/misleading FARA statements (count 11) and false statements (count 12). Though a number of these counts, coupled with the narrative of the defendants' actions in the indictment, can sound quite ominous, it is ultimately the money laundering count that should send a Halloween chill down the spine of Manafort and Gates (and, presumably, their defense lawyers).

The money laundering count appears to carry the highest statutory sentencing range (20 years) of all the charges. In addition, because of the large amounts of money involved in these offenses — the indictment alleges Manafort laundered $18 million — the calculated guideline range for this offense is least a decade (and likely more).  In other words, if Manafort were convicted of just the money laundering allegations against him, the "starting point and the initial benchmark" for his sentencing is 10+ years in federal prison. (It is not clear from a quick review of the indictment whether the amounts involved for Gates would drive his guideline range up quite so high.)

Manafort, who is 68 years old, surely would like to avoid any prison time and he certainly does not want to risk spending the rest of his life in the federal pen.  He can, of course, choose to fight all the charges at trial, but I suspect Mueller and his team only moved forward with these indictment allegations after becoming confident they could prove them all beyond a reasonable doubt.  Moreover, thanks to the reality that federal judges can and often do consider "acquitted conduct" at sentencing, even an acquittal on most but not all of the counts may not significantly change these ugly sentencing realities for Manafort and Gates.

Of course, what can change these sentencing dynamics is a plea deal that locks in some favorable sentencing terms and/or a decision by the defendants to, in the language of 5K1.1 of the federal sentencing guidelines, "provide substantial assistance in the investigation or prosecution of another person who has committed an offense."  Those hoping that these indictments turn up the heat on current members of Team Trump can and should relish the reality that Manafort and Gates now have strong sentencing reasons to consider providing substantial assistance in the investigation of others.  What others they might have information about, and what others Mueller and his team are seeking information on, will sure keep folks inside the Beltway chattering in the coming weeks and months.

October 30, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (24)

Sunday, October 29, 2017

"A Culture that is Hard to Defend: Extralegal Factors in Federal Death Penalty Cases"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new empirical paper authored by Jon Gould and Kenneth Leon. Here is the abstract:

Empirical research has exposed a troubling pattern of capital punishment in the United States, with extralegal factors such as race, class, and gender strongly correlated with the probability of a death sentence.  Capital sentencing also shows significant geographic disparities, although existing research tends to be more descriptive than explanatory.  This study offers an alternative conception of local legal culture to explain place-based variation in the outcomes of federal capital trials, accounting for the level of attorney time and expert resources granted by the federal courts to defend against a death sentence.

Using frequentist and Bayesian methods — supplemented with expert interviews — we empirically assess the processes determining the total allocation of defense resources in federal death penalty trials at the peak of the federal death penalty — between 1998 and 2004. Our findings strongly connect extralegal factors to the lowest levels of defense resources, which in turn correlate with a higher risk of a death sentence.  Far from being idiosyncratic discrepancies, these are systemic and systematic extralegal factors that stand between a defendant and his opportunity to defend against a death sentence.  Ultimately, we argue for a reconceptualization of extralegal influences and the relationship between local legal culture and capital case outcomes.

October 29, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

SCOTUS back in action with two intricate habeas cases

After a late October break (which included for some Justices a notable trip to my alma mater), the Supreme Court is back in action on Monday.  And right out of the gate, SCOTUS hears oral argument in two habaes procedure cases: Ayestas v. Davis and Wilson v. Sellers.  Steve Vladeck has thoughtful previews of both cases at SCOTUSblog, and here are links and the start of each preview:

Ayestas v. Davis Argument preview: A subtle but significant dispute over funding federal habeas petitions in capital cases:

As part of the Criminal Justice Act, Congress has provided in 18 U.S.C. § 3599(f) that federal courts in capital cases involving indigent defendants (including suits for post-conviction relief) should fund “investigative, expert, or other services [that] are reasonably necessary for the representation of the defendant, whether in connection with issues relating to guilt or the sentence.”  When the Supreme Court returns to the bench next Monday morning to hear argument in Ayestas v. Davis, it will consider a recurring question in federal habeas cases, especially those raising claims that the prisoner’s trial lawyers provided ineffective assistance of counsel: What, exactly, must habeas counsel demonstrate to show that such services are “reasonably necessary for the representation of the [petitioner]”?

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit has imposed a high bar in such cases, holding that such funding is “reasonably necessary” only when the petitioner can demonstrate a “substantial need” for the services contemplated by the statute — i.e., “substantiated argument, not speculation, about what the prior counsel did or omitted doing.” The question at the heart of this case is whether that standard puts too high a burden on capital habeas petitioners — requiring them to all-but describe the merits of their ineffective-assistance claims in order to obtain funding to prove those claims.  Assuming the Supreme Court has jurisdiction to answer that question (an issue raised by the state of Texas), the answer could have enormous consequences for the ability of indigent death-row inmates to use federal habeas petitions to challenge the effectiveness of their trial lawyers.

Wilson v. Sellers Argument preview: To which state-court adjudications must federal habeas courts defer?

In its 2011 decision in Harrington v. Richter, the Supreme Court held that even a summary ruling by a state court can count as an adjudication “on the merits” to which federal habeas courts must defer under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.  But the court in Richter specifically distinguished, rather than overruled, its 1991 decision in Ylst v. Nunnemaker, which had erected a presumption that, “[w]here there has been one reasoned state judgment rejecting a federal claim, later unexplained orders upholding that judgment or rejecting the same claim rest upon the same ground.”  Under the Ylst presumption, federal habeas courts are supposed to “look through” the summary state-court ruling to the decision that was actually on the merits of the claim raised in the federal habeas petition.  Richter holds that, at least when the Ylst presumption doesn’t apply (i.e., when there is no reasoned state-court decision on the merits issue), a summary state-court ruling still triggers “AEDPA deference.”

The question the justices will consider next Monday in Wilson v. Sellers, a capital case out of Georgia, is whether the Ylst presumption in fact survived Richter.  Even though the state of Georgia and the petitioner, Marion Wilson, agreed below that the answer was yes, a 6-5 majority of the en banc U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit came to the opposite conclusion.  And although the state has since changed its position and is now arguing for affirmance, it may have a difficult time attracting a majority of the Supreme Court to this new and expansive take on Richter.

October 29, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Just a smattering of Fall highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

It has been quite some time since I have done a round-up of posts of note from all the blogging I now do over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform.  Here are just some (of many) legal and policy highlights from the last few months at MLP&R that sentencing fans might find worth checking out:

October 29, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 28, 2017

"The Right Way: More Republican lawmakers championing death penalty repeal"

The-Right-Way-Thumbnail-232x300The title of this post is the title of this new report released this past week by the group Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.  Here is its executive summary and part of its introduction:

More Republican lawmakers are recognizing that the death penalty is a broken policy and taking an active role in efforts to end it.  This report documents that shift by analyzing sponsorship of death penalty repeal bills in state legislatures between 2000 and 2017.

During the first part of this time period, from 2000 to 2012, Republican sponsorship of legislation to end the death penalty was relatively rare, with the number of Republican sponsors per year never exceeding single digits. But that has changed during the past five years, when there has been a significant increase in the number of Republican sponsors of repeal legislation.

In 2016 and 2017, dozens of Republican lawmakers sponsored death penalty repeal bills. In fact, during these two years, Republicans constituted around a third of all sponsors of death penalty repeal bills in state legislatures. As these data show, death penalty repeal efforts are becoming more bipartisan in many states.

These developments come as a number of conservatives have coalesced under the banner of Conservatives Concerned About The Death Penalty (CCATDP) to raise concerns about the death penalty in the media and other forums. Plagued by wrongful convictions, high costs, and delays, the death penalty has proven to be ineffective and incompatible with a number of core conservative principles. It runs afoul of conservative commitments to limited government, fiscal responsibility, and a culture of life.

Such concerns are increasingly impacting policy debates in state legislatures, among grassroots conservatives, and between conservative faith and party leaders. For many of us, our conservative principles inevitably lead to the conclusion that the death penalty is a failed government program that must end....

Conservatives Concerned About The Death Penalty launched in March 2013 at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).  At that time, death penalty use was rapidly declining. The number of executions was down to less than half of its peak in 1999. Annual death sentences were down to just over one quarter of their record high in 1996, and public support was down 20 points from its highest point in 1994....

Some of the biggest death sentencing drops occurred in reliably red states like Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Louisiana. Many point to the action of a Republican governor in January 2000 as the death penalty’s turning point when Illinois’ then-Governor, Republican George Ryan, imposed the nation’s first state-based moratorium on executions. This set off a wave of increased scrutiny and institutional opposition to the death penalty. That same year, New Hampshire’s Republican-controlled legislature voted to repeal the death penalty, only to have its Democratic governor veto it.

Despite this history of efforts from Republicans, death penalty repeal was still largely seen as a liberal concern.

CCATDP’s launch in 2013 put conservative death penalty opposition on the national radar. For many conservatives, our launch was their first exposure to the conservative case against the death penalty.  For many others, it was the first time they realized they weren’t alone.

Since then, dozens of national, state, and local conservative leaders have lent their support to CCATDP.  Eleven local CCATDP branches have formed in states across the country. More than 1,400 media stories have included our conservative take on the death penalty. Among those, we have appeared on conservative talk radio stations in every state in the country. And Republican lawmakers have taken on death penalty repeal in statehouses from Virginia to Washington, Louisiana to Utah.

This report documents this last point – the dramatic rise in Republican sponsorship of bills to end the death penalty. It includes profiles of several Republican lawmakers who are leading the way, and it highlights some of the other trends that helped contribute to this rise.

October 28, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, October 27, 2017

Expressing concerns about how risk assessment algorithms learn

This New York Times op-ed, headlined "When an Algorithm Helps Send You to Prison," is authored by Ellora Thadaney Israni, a law student and former software engineer at Facebook. In the course of covering now familiar ground in the debate over the use of risk assessment tools at sentencing, the piece adds some points about how these tools may evolve and soundly urges more transparency in their creation and development:

Machine learning algorithms often work on a feedback loop.  If they are not constantly retrained, they “lean in” to the assumed correctness of their initial determinations, drifting away from both reality and fairness.  As a former Silicon Valley software engineer, I saw this time and again: Google’s image classification algorithms mistakenly labeling black people as gorillas, or Microsoft’s Twitter bot immediately becoming a “racist jerk.”...

With transparency and accountability, algorithms in the criminal justice system do have potential for good.  For example, New Jersey used a risk assessment program known as the Public Safety Assessment to reform its bail system this year, leading to a 16 percent decrease in its pre-trial jail population.  The same algorithm helped Lucas County, Ohio double the number of pre-trial releases without bail, and cut pre-trial crime in half.  But that program’s functioning was detailed in a published report, allowing those with subject-matter expertise to confirm that morally troubling (and constitutionally impermissible) variables — such as race, gender and variables that could proxy the two (for example, ZIP code) — were not being considered.

For now, the only people with visibility into COMPAS’s functioning are its programmers, who are in many ways less equipped than judges to deliver justice.  Judges have legal training, are bound by ethical oaths, and must account for not only their decisions but also their reasoning in published opinions.  Programmers lack each of these safeguards. Computers may be intelligent, but they are not wise.  Everything they know, we taught them, and we taught them our biases.  They are not going to un-learn them without transparency and corrective action by humans.

October 27, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Is it time for new optimism or persistent pessimism on the latest prospects for statutory federal sentencing reform?

At the spectacular Advancing Justice summit yesterday (basics here), a whole set of "in-the-know" folks stated that there is wide bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for federal sentencing reform.  Specifically, as this brief Axios piece notes, Senator Mike Lee stated in the event's first session that "the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would have received 70 votes in the Senate if voted on last year, and would still get 70 votes in the Senate this year." (This Axios piece also report that Senator Lee "wants a vote on the bill before the end of the year.") Senator Lee's views here were echoed later in the day during a keynote speech by Senator Chuck Grassley and during a panel discussion by a number of in-the-know public policy advocates.

But, as optimistic as this all may sound, Matt Ford has this new this big piece at The Atlantic indicating that some key Democratic voices may be unwilling to move forward with sentencing reform proposals if mens rea reform is going to be part of the package.  The piece's headline highlights why pessimism may again be the justified perspective here: "Could a Controversial Bill Sink Criminal-Justice Reform in Congress?: A debate over mens rea stalled the last push for reform. Now, a similar battle could be brewing."   Here is a snippet:

A bill drafted by a group of Senate Republicans earlier this year would tweak the mens rea requirement in federal statutes, adding a default rule for juries to find criminal intent for federal offenses that don’t explicitly have an intent standard. (Mens rea is a legal term derived from the phrase “guilty mind” in Latin.) If enacted, federal prosecutors would need to prove a defendant’s state of mind to obtain a conviction for a host of existing crimes. Conservatives and criminal-defense organizations argue the measure is a necessary part of the congressional effort to reform sentencing and incarceration.

But some Senate Democrats fear the measure is far too sweeping and could be a back-door attack on federal health and environmental regulations that police corporate behavior. Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a member of the Judiciary Committee, told me earlier this week that he wouldn’t support a sentencing-reform bill if it included the change to mens rea. “It would turn me into a warrior against it,” he emphasized. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, would also oppose such a bill, a spokesman confirmed.

Other Senate Democrats criticized a similar measure that passed the House during the last criminal-justice-reform push, which centered on a sentencing-reform bill.  In January 2016, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, a longtime supporter of reform, said that version of the mens rea proposal “should be called the White Collar Criminal Immunity Act.” (Like Whitehouse, Durbin serves on the Judiciary Committee, which would need to sign off on any mens rea- or sentencing-reform bills.)  Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren said in a speech the following month that the House proposal would “make it much harder for the government to prosecute hundreds of corporate crimes — everything from wire fraud to mislabeling prescription drugs.”  Negotiations over criminal-justice reform ultimately collapsed that summer as the presidential election entered its final stretch.

I have said before and will say again that this kind of opposition to a reform designed to safeguard a fundamental part of a fair and effective federal criminal justice system shows just how we got to a world with mass incarceration and mass supervision and mass collateral consequences.  Nobody seems willing or able to understand that making life easier for prosecutors anywhere serves to increase the size and reach and punitiveness of our criminal justice systems everywhere.  In turn, if you want a less extreme and severe criminal justice system anywhere, the best way to advance the cause is by seeking and advocating to limit government prosecutorial powers everywhere.

So, to answer the question in the title of this post, I think I have to stick with persistent pessimism for the time being.

October 27, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

"How to Assess Real World Application of a Capital Sentencing Statute: A Response to Professor Chad Flanders's Comment"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper by John Mills now available via SSRN. As the title indicates, this piece is a response to a recent article by Chad Flanders, blogged here, about capital sentencing procedures. Here is the abstract:

In assessing the constitutionality of a capital sentencing regime, the raw number of aggravating factors is irrelevant. What matters is their scope.  To pass constitutional muster, aggravating factors (or the equivalent) must narrow the scope of death eligibility to the worst-of-the-worst.  Professor Chad Flanders wants courts to ignore empirical assessments of the scope of aggravating circumstances and uses an imagined State of Alpha as his jumping off point.  This response to Prof. Flanders makes the case for looking at the actual operation of a law, not just its reach in the abstract.  This response focuses on Arizona’s capital sentencing regime to illustrate the importance of understanding the real world operation of the law and discusses the well-established basis in law and policy for relying on empirical studies in support of narrowing claims.

Prior related post:

October 27, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Gallup reports reduced levels of support for death penalty in US

Tfkakmgl20mit7ddmcueeqAs reported in this new posting from Gallup, "Americans' support for the death penalty has dipped to a level not seen in 45 years. Currently, 55% of U.S. adults say they favor the death penalty for convicted murderers." Here is more:

The latest results, based on an Oct. 5-11 Gallup poll, continue a trend toward diminished death penalty support as many states have issued moratoria on executions or abolished capital punishment.  Gallup first asked about the death penalty using the current question format in 1936. Support has generally been 60% or higher throughout most of the past 80 years, but has been as low as 42% and as high as 80%.

The low point came in 1966 during a period spanning the late 1950s through early 1970s when a series of court cases challenged the legality of capital punishment. This culminated with the Supreme Court's 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia that halted all U.S. executions. Three months before that ruling, 50% of Americans said they favored the death penalty.  Four months after it, 57% were in favor, the last time support was below 60%.

State legislatures responded to the Furman ruling by rewriting state laws to address the high court's concerns that the death penalty was not applied fairly.  Those new laws were deemed constitutional, leading to the resumption of capital punishment in the late 1970s. Death penalty support generally increased from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, peaking at 80% in 1994, a time when Americans named crime as the most important problem facing the nation.

Most of the decline in death penalty support in recent years is attributable to a drop in support among Democrats. In the early 2000s, consistent majorities of Democrats favored capital punishment -- but their support has been below 50% in each of the past five years, including just 39% in the current poll.

In contrast, Republicans continue to largely back the death penalty, with typically around eight in 10 in favor of the practice, though slightly fewer, 72%, do so in the current poll.  Independents' support is similar to the national average, at 58%, but has been lower the past three years than it was in most of the previous two decades....

Currently, 39% of Americans say the death penalty is not imposed often enough, 26% say it is used too much, and 26% say its use is about right.  Those views have been fairly steady in recent years but reflect a decline since 2010 in the percentage saying the death penalty is not used often enough.  That decline has mostly been accompanied by an increase in the percentage saying it is used too often.

Attitudes about the fairness and usage of the death penalty correspond with basic support or opposition toward capital punishment more generally.  Thus, the declines in recent years in the percentage of U.S. adults who say the death penalty is applied fairly or who are critical of how often it is used are largely related to the decline in basic death penalty support.

Over at Crime & Consequences, Kent Scheidegger has a few comments about these Gallup numbers, including this important observation:

The question Gallup has asked since 1936 is, "Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?" The question is misleading as it asks about the death penalty for murder generally rather than just the worst murders. So understood, I would answer that question "no" myself. Gallup seems oblivious to the deficiency in this question, though, and regularly headlines the results in its reports. This year's "favor" answer to that question is the lowest since March 1972 (before Furman v. Georgia), and that is the headline on their report.

October 26, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Prez Trump to declare opioid epidemic a "public health" emergency

As reported in this piece from The Hill, "President Trump on Thursday will instruct the acting director of the Department of Health and Human Services to declare the opioid epidemic a public health emergency, White House officials said." Here is more about this notable news:

It's a move that won't free up additional federal funding and is a more narrow option recommended by the president's opioid commission.  The announcement has been months in the making and avoids declaring a more sweeping national emergency under the Stafford Act, which was one option the administration's opioid commission had previously recommended.  The commission recommended either a public health emergency or a Stafford Act emergency.

The Stafford Act “doesn't offer authority that is helpful here," a senior administration official said. "There has been some false reporting about this." A Stafford Act emergency is typically reserved for a terror attack or natural disaster in a more localized area.

Trump will formally make the announcement during a White House event Thursday.... On Aug. 10, Trump said his administration was drafting paperwork to officially declare the epidemic a national emergency, which was the “first and most urgent” recommendation in an interim report from his commission to combat the crisis. Two months later, some advocates and lawmakers were frustrated that the declaration still hadn’t come. At a press conference last week, Trump said he’d make the announcement this week, calling a declaration “a very important step” and saying “to get to that step, a lot of work has to be done and it’s time-consuming work.”

Administration officials said they felt that a public health emergency was a better use of resources.  It will allow acting HHS Secretary Eric Hargan to loosen certain regulations and issue grants and spend money that he otherwise would not be able to.  A public health emergency needs to be renewed every 90 days until the declaration is no longer needed.

Three agencies that play a role in the federal response to the opioid epidemic have acting directors instead of Senate-confirmed leaders: the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Drug Enforcement Administration.  Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) — an early backer of Trump — withdrew as the ONDCP nominee last week following a Washington Post-"60 Minutes” joint investigative report on a bill he sponsored that weakened the DEA's ability to enforce the nation’s drug laws.  Marino has vigorously defended himself. White House officials said Trump will be submitting names to lead HHS and ONDCP soon but pointed to “obstructionists” in the Senate for slowing down confirmation of lower level agency appointees who could help implement the action.

The declaration could spark a funding feud in Washington, as some say more cash is needed to make a declaration effective. The amount of money left in the public health emergency fund is paltry — just $57,000.  Administration officials said there have been ongoing discussions with Congress about securing more money for the fund as part of the year-end spending bill, but would not discuss specific dollar amounts.

Though I am sure there will criticism and debate as to whether the Trump Administration is doing enough with this latest move and other actions, I cannot help but note and praise the labeling and symbolism here.  Today's announcement involves a declaration of a "public health" emergency rather than a declaration of a "war on opioids" or advocacy for increased punishments for opioid activity.  (Although until we hear what Prez Trump actually says this afternoon, it may be premature to praise what it would seem he plans to say and I recall that last month AG Sessions talked about winning the war against opioids.)

In prior generations, such as when crack was the drug of great concern in the 1980s, the response at the federal level was to increase and emphasize the criminal justice fight in various ways.  A "public health" focus for drug problems is one that has been long urged by researchers and advocates; today's announcement suggests some rhetoric of late is shifting to embracing a "public health" model — although on-the-ground realities demonstrate that the criminal justice system is still playing a huge part of the public response to opioid and other drug issues.

A few of many recent related posts:

October 26, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

"30 Years Later: A Look Back at the Sentencing Guidelines"

The title of this post is the title of an event the took place earlier this week at the Hofstra University Club and was recorded and preserved here via YouTube. Here is a brief description of the event:

In 1987, the U.S. Sentencing Commission transformed criminal law in the United States in releasing the original Federal Sentencing Guidelines.  From the start, Hofstra Law was at the forefront of sentencing scholarship, publishing key insights from the earliest days of the Commission.  On Monday, October 23, distinguished members of the Judiciary, past and present Commissioners, and leading scholars commemorated the original U.S. Sentencing Commission and marked the 30th Anniversary of the Sentencing Guidelines at the Hofstra University Club.

Notaby, the event included a keynote address by SCOTUS Justice Stephen Breyer (which starts around the 1:05 point on the video).

October 26, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Excited to be inside the Beltway to help with "Advancing Justice"

Blogging may be light over the next 36 hours because I am in Washington DC to participate in this great event, "Advancing Justice 2017: An Agenda for Human Dignity & Public Safety." Here is how the event is described/summarized:

Criminal justice and policing reforms have made tremendous gains at both the state and federal level in the last several years.  However, the ongoing opioid crisis, questions around violent crime, and continued police militarization show us that there is still much to be done.

On Thursday, October 26, please join the Charles Koch Institute for a one-day conference in Washington, D.C. to identify the next set of criminal justice reform priorities, and showcase a broad coalition of policy makers, academics, think tanks, and community activists who’ve helped bring us this far.  Together, we are committed to supporting the best ideas and lending our voice to the national conversation for an advancement in human dignity and greater public safety. We hope you can join us.

The conference speakers include Senator Chuck Grassley, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, U.S. Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), former U.S. Senator Jim DeMint, John Pfaff, professor of law and economics at Fordham University, Doug Berman, the Robert J. Watkins/Procter & Gamble Professor of Law at Ohio State University, Anne Milgram, a professor of practice & distinguished scholar at New York University School of Law, former Baltimore Ravens Player Eugene Monroe, George J. Terwilliger III, former acting attorney general and partner at McGuireWoods, and Sharanda Jones, a criminal justice reform advocate who received clemency for a life sentence.

Given this amazing collection of 40+ speakers scheduled to speak at this event, I am amazed and humbled I got included in the summary "teaser" of conference speakers.  I will be speaking on a late morning panel titled "A Fight over Federalism: The Future of Marijuana Policy," and I am genuinely excited about attending so many of the other amazing sessions on this agenda covering so many timely and important criminal justice reform issues of the day.

October 25, 2017 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

US Sentencing Commission releases new report on "Mandatory Minimum Penalties for Drug Offenses in the Federal System"

Cover_drug-mand-minVia email, I just learned that the US Sentencing Commission has this morning released another big notable data report on mandatory minimum sentences in the federal system.  This latest report it titled "Mandatory Minimum Penalties for Drug Offenses in the Federal System," and this USSC webpage provides links to the full report and particular chapters. That same pages also provides this summary and overview of the report's key findings:

Summary

Using fiscal year 2016 data, this publication includes analysis similar to that in the 2017 Overview Publication, providing sentencing data on offenses carrying drug mandatory minimums, the impact on the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) population, and differences observed when analyzing each of five main drug types.  Where appropriate, the publication highlights changes and trends since the Commission’s 2011 Mandatory Minimum Report.  Because drug offenses are the most common offenses carrying mandatory minimum penalties, many of the trends in this publication mirror the trends seen in the 2017 Overview Publication.

Key Findings

Building directly on previous reports and the analyses set forth in the 2017 Overview Publication, this publication examines the use and impact of mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses.  As part of this analysis, the Commission makes the 10 key findings:

1. Drug mandatory minimum penalties continued to result in long sentences in the federal system.  

2. Mandatory minimum penalties continued to have a significant impact on the size and composition of the federal prison population.  

3. Offenses carrying a drug mandatory minimum penalty were used less often, as the number and percentage of offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty has decreased since fiscal year 2010.  

4. While fewer offenders were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty in recent years, those who were tended to be more serious.  

5. Drug mandatory minimum penalties applied more broadly than Congress may have anticipated.  

6. Statutory relief plays a significant role in the application and impact of drug mandatory minimum penalties and results in significantly reduced sentences when applied.  

7. Additionally, drug mandatory minimum penalties appear to provide a significant incentive to provide substantial assistance to the government pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e) and the related guideline provision at USSG §5K1.1.  

8. However, neither the statutory safety valve provision at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f) nor the substantial assistance provision at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e) fully ameliorate the impact of drug mandatory minimum penalties on relatively low-level offenders.  

9. There were significant demographic shifts in the data relating to mandatory minimum penalties.  

10. Although likely due in part to an older age at release, drug trafficking offenders convicted of an offense carrying a drug mandatory minimum penalty had a lower recidivism rate than those drug trafficking offenders not convicted of such an offense.

Kudos to the USSC for continuing to release timely and informative reports as debates over federal sentencing policies and practices continue.  I hope in coming days to find time to mine some more findings from this report that I would consider "key," and I welcome comments that flag any and all elements of this latest report that folks consider especially interesting or important.

October 25, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Can a defendant be given two maxed-out consecutive manslaughter sentences for killing one person?

The puzzling question in the title of this post would appear to be the remarkable issue that is now going to be considered by the top court in the Old Dominion State according to this local story headlined "Virginia Supreme Court will rule on Gregg sentencing."  Here is the press report that I am still trying to wrap my mind around:

Almost two years after a Fauquier jury found a Marshall man guilty of manslaughter, the legal debate over his prison sentence will go to the state’s highest court. The Virginia Supreme Court announced Friday that it will hear the prosecution’s appeal of a decision that would void one of two homicide convictions of Carroll E. “Tootie” Gregg Jr. in December 2015.

The circuit court jury recommended a 10-year sentence on each.  Judge Herman A. Whisenant Jr. exercised a state code provision that allowed him to add three years on each conviction, which he suspended. Mr. Gregg got a 26-year prison sentence, with six years suspended.

He shot and killed Junior Jordan Montero Sanchez, 23, just after midnight June 6, 2014. Mr. Sanchez and a towing company coworker had gone to Mr. Gregg’s Conde Road apartment to repossess a pickup truck for delinquent loan payments.

But, Warrenton defense attorneys Blair Howard and T. Brooke Howard II immediately objected to the pair of manslaughter sentences, contending that the U.S and Virginia constitutions protect individuals from being punished twice for the same crime.

A Virginia Court of Appeals panel last December ruled that the dual convictions — on two involuntary manslaughter charges, one of them for “unlawfully shooting at an occupied vehicle wherein death resulted” — constituted double jeopardy. The panel sent the case back to Fauquier County Circuit Court, where the prosecution would choose which conviction to apply.

But, the state attorney general’s office appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, which last week agreed to take the case.... “It will indeed be interesting to see the outcome in the Virginia Supreme Court,” Fauquier County Commonwealth’s Attorney James P. Fisher said.

The attorney general’s office handles most appeals of criminal cases that start with local prosecutors. Mr. Fisher has argued that the vehicle shooting conviction has different elements, even though state code labels it “involuntary manslaughter.”

The Virginia Court of Appeals ruling in this case is available at this link and it strikes me as eminently sensible.  Moreover, it has never really dawned on me to imagine that prosecutors could try to ramp up the punishment for a single killing by seeking multiple convictions and multiple consecutive sentences for every different type of possible homicide that the single killing might constitute. (For example, here in Ohio, we have nine different types of homicide and a drunk driver who kills one person might readily be found guilty of six different types of homicide.  I could never imagine a prosecutor looking to convict such a drunk driver of six different counts and asking for six max sentences to run consecutively on each count for a single killing.)

Perhaps I am missing something when I suggest it seems crazy for a defendant to be sentenced to two maxed-out consecutive manslaughter sentences for killing one person.  The local prosecutor and the sentencing judge obviously did not think this kind of doubling up was crazy.  Moreover, it would seem that Virginia Attorney General's office believes there is a legally defensible basis for pursuing a state Supreme Court appeal in order to preserve the double-max sentence imposed by the sentencing court. 

I would be grateful to hear in the comments if and how anyone can make the principled case for a double-max manslaughter sentence in a case involving only a single killing.

October 24, 2017 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (26)

Many (but not all) Massachusetts DAs come out against eliminating certain drug mandatory minimums and other proposed reforms

This Boston Globe article, headlined "In harsh letter, DAs pan Senate’s criminal justice proposal," reports on a notable letter signed by most of the District Attorneys of Massachusetts to oppose a set of state criminal justice reform proposals. Here is the start of the article (which includes a link to the letter to legislators):

In a blistering public rebuke, nine of Massachusetts’ 11 district attorneys came out Monday against major parts of the state Senate’s sweeping criminal justice bill, which is aimed at reducing the number of people caught in the system.  In a six-page letter that comes days before the chamber is set to take up the legislation, top law enforcement officials railed against what is a Senate priority.

Although they praise some aspects of the bill, overall it “undermines the cause and pursuit of fair and equal justice for all, largely ignores the interests of victims of crime, and puts at risk the undeniable strides and unparalleled success of Massachusetts’ approach to public safety and criminal justice for at least the last 25 years,” the DAs wrote.

The letter also marks a break among the top prosecutors, with the signatures of Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan and Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan — who is the chief law enforcement official of the state’s most populous county — notably absent.

The nine DAs are against eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes such as trafficking up to 100 grams of cocaine — one proposal in the legislation scheduled for a Thursday vote in the Senate. And they expressed particularly vociferous opposition to the part of the bill that would make those changes retroactive, allowing hundreds of drug dealers the opportunity to get out of prison early.   “Where exactly are the residents eager for violent drug traffickers to be returned to their neighborhoods?” they wrote. 

Advocates and senators say mandatory minimums are a failed tactic from the war on drugs, one that has unnecessarily ensnared generations of people, particularly from communities of color, in the criminal justice system. And making the repeal of certain drug mandatory minimums retroactive is important for equity, they say.

The DAs energetically oppose the provision that would raise the age of criminal majority to 19, meaning all but the most serious offenses committed by 18-year-olds would likely be adjudicated confidentially in front of a juvenile court judge.

Advocates and Senate leaders say scientific research shows young people’s brains keep maturing into their 20s, and it is appropriate for the law to acknowledge that evolution. They say it’s just common sense to treat all high school kids the same way, instead of punishing an 18-year-old much more harshly than a 17-year-old for the same crime.

But the DAs wrote that “adopting a law that enables anyone to declare that ‘I am not responsible for my actions, my brain is!’ is something no rational parent would accept, and creates a slippery slope.”

The DAs vehemently oppose rewriting the state’s statutory rape law, which currently makes sex with anyone under 16 against the law. The bill would legalize consensual sex between teens close in age — an 18-year-old and a 15-year-old, or a 15-year-old and a 13-year-old, for example. That provision is “both unnecessary and dangerous, especially to girls and young women,” the nine DAs wrote.  But advocates say a so-called Romeo-and-Juliet law is sensible, and criminalizing the sexual contact young people inevitably have with each other is not the best way to respond to it.

October 24, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Resolving Judicial Dilemmas"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Alex Sarch and Daniel Wodak recently posted to SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

The legal reasons that bind a judge and the moral reasons that bind all persons can sometimes pull in different directions. There is perhaps no starker example of such judicial dilemmas than in criminal sentencing.  Particularly where mandatory minimum sentences are triggered, a judge can be forced to impose sentences that even the judge regards as “immensely cruel, if not barbaric.” Beyond those directly harmed by overly harsh laws, some courts have recognized that “judges who, forced to participate in such inhumane acts, suffer a loss of dignity and humanity as well.”

When faced with such a judicial dilemma — a powerful tension between the judge’s legal and moral reasons—the primary question is what a judge can do to resolve it. We argue that the two standard responses — sacrificing morality to respect the law (“legalism”), or sacrificing the law to respect morality (“moralism”) — are unsatisfying. Instead, this Article defends an underexplored third response: rather than abandoning one ideal to maximally promote the other, we argue that judges should seek to at least minimally satisfy the demands of both.  Judges should, in other words, look for and employ what we dub Satisficing Options.  These are actions that enjoy sufficient support from both the legal reasons and the moral reasons, and thus are both legally and morally permissible — even if the acts in question would not strictly count as optimal by the lights of the law or morality.

This common sensical response to the problem is not only underappreciated in the literature, but also has great practical import.  Focusing on the sentencing context, this Article demonstrates that judicial dilemmas can be systematically resolved, mitigated or avoided through a range of concrete strategies that on their own or in conjunction can constitute Satisficing Options: these strategies include seeking out legally permitted but morally preferable interpretations of the law, expressing condemnation of unjust laws in dicta, and seeking assistance or cooperation from other actors to help defendants facing substantively unjust mandatory sentences.  While these strategies can at times also go too far, we argue that in certain contexts they can be sufficiently defensible on both legal and moral grounds to be a justifiable response to judicial dilemmas.  This Article thus provides both a novel theoretical framework for understanding the justification of judicial responses to unjust laws, as well as a practical a menu of options which judges can use to guide their responses to the judicial dilemmas that they are increasingly likely to encounter within our criminal justice system.

October 24, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, October 23, 2017

New study of Pennsylvania death penalty finds disparity based on race of victim and type of representation

This new local AP article, headlined "Study: Victim's race factor in imposing death sentences in Pa.," reports on some interesting findings of a big forthcoming report about the death penalty's application in the Keystone State.  Here are the details as reported by the AP:

A new study of capital punishment in Pennsylvania found that death sentences are more common when the victim is white and less frequent when the victim is black.  The report, which drew from court and prosecution records over an 11-year period, concluded that a white victim increases the odds of a death sentence by 8 percent.  When the victim is black, the chances are 6 percent lower.

“The race of a victim and the type of representation afforded to a defendant play more important roles in shaping death penalty outcomes in Pennsylvania than do the race or ethnicity of the defendant,” according to the 197-page report obtained by The Associated Press.

Penn State researchers produced the $250,000 study for the Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness, and its findings are expected to be incorporated into a separate, ongoing review of the state's death penalty that Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has said could affect the death penalty moratorium he imposed shortly after taking office in 2015.

The report also found the prosecution of death penalty cases varies widely among counties, calling that variation the most prominent differences researchers identified. “A given defendant's chance of having the death penalty sought, retracted or imposed depends a great deal on where that defendant is prosecuted and tried,” they concluded. “In many counties of Pennsylvania, the death penalty is simply not utilized at all. In others, it is sought frequently.”...

Researchers with Penn State's Justice Center for Research said there was no “overall pattern of disparity” by prosecutors in seeking the death penalty against black or Hispanic defendants, but did detect a “Hispanic victim effect” in which prosecutors were 21 percent more likely to seek death when the victim was Hispanic.  Black and Hispanic defendants who killed white victims were not more likely than a typical defendant to get a death sentence.

In nearly a quarter of all cases, defense lawyers did not present a single “mitigating factor” to push back against the aggravating factors that must be proven in order to justify a death sentence.... With the exception of Philadelphia, which has a unique system for providing lawyers to those who can't afford them, defendants represented by public defenders were more likely to get a death sentence than those with privately retained lawyers.

Unlike studies in some other states, the researchers said there was “no clear indication” that defendants with private attorneys — as opposed to court-appointed counsel — were more likely to get a plea deal with prosecutors that avoided a death sentence.

Notably, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association released on Monday this press release about the report titled "PA Report Refutes Death Penalty Myths."  Here is how it starts:

A study on capital punishment decisions in Pennsylvania found there is no racial bias in prosecutors’ decisions or in defendants who receive death penalty sentences. The findings of the report are in direct contrast to the racial-bias narrative pushed for years by anti-death penalty advocates and are important new facts any discussion about capital punishment must recognize.

“This report’s conclusion is clear: capital punishment in Pennsylvania is not disproportionately targeted against defendants of color,” said PDAA President and Berks County District Attorney John Adams. “For so long, those who have sought to abolish the death penalty have argued that the race of the defendant plays the critical role in decisions about who gets the death penalty. This report squarely debunks that theory.”

The report, prepared by Penn State University researchers for the Pennsylvania Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness, has not yet been made public but was provided by an unknown source to the Associated Press. In it, the report clearly states that “[n]o pattern of disparity to the disadvantage of Black or Hispanic defendants was found in prosecutorial decisions to seek and, if sought, to retract the death penalty.” Similarly, according to the report, “[n]o pattern of disparity to the disadvantage of Black defendants with White victims was found in prosecutorial decisions to seek or to retract the death penalty.”

October 23, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

"Is There a ‘Rational’ Punishment for My Rapist?"

The title of this post is the title of this powerful personal article authored by Amber Rose Carlson.  I recommend the piece in full, and I hesitate to reprint excerpts for fear of diluting the potency of the entire piece.  But this excerpt perhaps will help prompt folks to click through to read the full piece:

“Imagine your rapist had been found guilty and sentenced in court. What would you want his sentence to be?” This was the question asked to me in January 2016 by my therapist during a session of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (E.M.D.R.) — a treatment that researchers tout as one of the best remedies for severe trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.

I was raped repeatedly during a three-year span from age 13 to 16. I was also subject to physical and emotional abuse during that time. I’ve since undergone years of traditional talk and group therapy with trauma specialists, and I am more healed today than I ever thought possible.  Still, recovering from trauma is a serious endeavor, and I hoped for more healing....

I’m not a proponent of the death penalty primarily because the flaws in our criminal justice system are egregious and increasingly well-documented. The thought experiment’s framing, however, circumvented my usual concerns about unjust sanctions. I know what my rapist did to me, so I know he is guilty. Worries about the inhumanity of capital punishment were also blunted in part because this was purely hypothetical and in part because of the inhumanity he exhibited those long years with his penchant for violence.

Although the death sentence seemed wholly appropriate, I still considered how I would feel if a judge gave my rapist a less severe punishment: a natural life sentence — a life sentence with no chance for parole without a successful appeal.  In this scenario, my feelings were just as clear: I would be slightly disappointed, but I would still feel mostly satisfied.  Anything less than a death or natural life sentence, I knew, would seem inadequate....

IN FEBRUARY 2016 — only weeks after the thought experiments with my therapist — the philosopher Jennifer Lackey published an opinion piece in The Stone. In the article, she uses her experience teaching philosophy to inmates to argue for the irrationality of natural life sentences.  Lackey bases her argument against natural life sentences on two reasonable claims: (1) people (criminals, specifically) can and do change in profoundly transformative ways, and (2) we cannot know the future.

For Lackey, the fact that we have good statistical evidence that criminals can and do change is especially problematic given our vast epistemic limitations regarding the future. “Natural life sentences,” she wrote, “say to all involved that there is no possible piece of information that could be learned between sentencing and death that could bear in any way on the punishment the convicted is said to deserve, short of what might ground an appeal.” Citing the possibility of prisoner transformation, Lackey then puts her question about rationality directly: “How is it rational,” she asks, “to screen off the relevance of this information? How, that is, is it rational to say today that there can be no possible evidence in the future that could bear on the punishment that a decades-from-now prisoner deserves?”...

I read Lackey’s article very soon after the thought experiments with my therapist. I noticed that Lackey’s argument easily applied to the death penalty, and I realized that the sentences I desired for my rapist were precisely the ones Lackey condemns as irrational.  Since nothing in her argument prevented me from applying her logic to my own desires, I had to wonder if her argument also concluded that I was irrational for desiring permanent punishments.  If it is irrational for the state to prescribe a permanent punishment given our epistemic limitations and prisoners’ likelihood for change, wouldn’t it be similarly irrational for victims to ignore these considerations?

There are, of course, crucial differences between victim’s desires and punishments carried out by the state. While sometimes the criminal justice system considers the wishes of victims and their families, the criminal justice system’s central aim is to protect the interests of the state and the community.  This aim does not always coincide with the interests or wishes of the victim.  Admittedly, there are often very good reasons for the state to ignore the wishes of victims.  But my concern is less about what the state should do in practice and more about what arguments that prioritize transformation say about victims who desire permanent punishments.

Here I will be blunt: it matters very little to me whether my rapist is transformed at some point in his life. It matters to me only to the extent that I will readily agree that it would be better if he became the sort of person who did not inflict violence upon others.  I would be very happy hearing that no other women would be harmed by him. But in terms of the punishment that he deserves?  Transformation does not matter to me.  And this is not irrational: There are many carefully considered reasons one might want a natural life sentence for perpetrators of egregious and irrevocable harm.

Desiring death or a natural life sentence for those who inflict traumatic violence is a rational response because whether or not my particular rapist transforms is irrelevant to whether or not I will ever have the chance to be the sort of person I might have been.  His transformation is irrelevant to whether or not I will be able to live the sort of life I could have were it not for the injustice done to me. I desire a death or natural life sentence for my rapist because that is what seems appropriate given the amount of damage he wrought in my life....

Although my attitude is in no way representative of all victims, epistemic arguments that prioritize criminal transformation must contend with the implication that they can be used to paint trauma victims irrational when they desire retribution.  It’s certainly important to advocate for prisoners who are wrongly incarcerated and for those who were victims of the overzealous war on crime era.  The injustices in our criminal justice system are too numerous and too serious to ignore. But criminal justice reform should not be so myopic that it compounds trauma survivors’ victimization.  Those who manage to survive traumatic crimes have enough to battle without arguments that undermine their rational considerations. Advocates for criminal justice reform can, and should, do better.

October 23, 2017 in Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sex Offender Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18)

Reviewing publicity's role in federal sentencing decision-making

This new Forbes piece by Brian Jacobs, headlined "The Role of Publicity in Sentencing," reviews how a case's high-profile nature can play a role in a defendant's federal sentencing. Here are excerpts concluding with the author's closing criticism of "any substantial reliance on publicity as a sentencing factor":

Should defendants in cases that attract press coverage be given longer sentences than defendants in cases that pass unnoticed?  The knee jerk response of anyone familiar with the basic principle of equality under the law would likely be a resounding “no.”  And yet, as some recent cases have starkly demonstrated, courts can and do consider a defendant’s level of notoriety as a factor weighing in favor of harsher punishment.

The ability of courts to take publicity into account at sentencing traces back to Section 3553(a) of Title 18, United States Code, which provides a list of factors that district courts are required to consider in imposing sentence, including “the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of the defendant.”  One of the factors district courts must consider is “the need for the sentence imposed— to afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct.”...

The extent of publicity a case has received and will continue to receive naturally figures into the analysis of whether a given sentence will further the goal of general deterrence.  As one commentator wrote some time ago, “[i]f a case has for some reason attracted great publicity, a severe sentence could be expected to have great deterrent effect.  If, on the other hand, the publicity is minimal and the sentence probably will be known only to the defendant himself and the officials involved with the case, the judge could let the offender off with a light sentence without sacrificing any general preventive effects.”

As evidenced by some recent cases, courts have generally followed through on this reasoning and have considered the extent of a case’s publicity as one factor weighing in favor of higher sentences.  In Ross Ulbricht’s appeal of his conviction for crimes “associated with his creation and operation of an online marketplace known as Silk Road,” the Second Circuit Court of Appeals condoned the district court’s consideration of the extent of the case’s publicity as one factor justifying the life sentence imposed. Specifically, the Second Circuit approved the district court’s reference to the general deterrence that would result from the “unusually large amount of public interest” in the case.  (Ironically, it appears that the Ulbricht’s life sentence and the attendant publicity, far from deterring crime, “actually boosted dark web drug sales.”)

By the same token, in sentencing former congressman Anthony Weiner to 21 months’ imprisonment for transferring obscene materials to a minor, U.S. District Judge Denise L. Cote made express reference to Mr. Weiner’s high profile: “Because of the defendant’s notoriety, gained well before he engaged in this criminal activity, there is intense interest in this prosecution, in his plea, and his sentence, and so there is the opportunity to make a statement that could protect other minors,” she said.  Judge Cote elaborated that, “[g]eneral deterrence is a very significant factor in this sentence.”...

But even as courts are required to consider general deterrence, the consideration given to a case’s publicity, in particular, should be minimal.  The use of general deterrence as a sentencing factor is inherently unfair to an individual defendant, to the extent that the individual defendant’s case is used as a “means for the public good.”  To base a defendant’s sentence on the extent of the publicity a case has received or will receive only exacerbates this unfairness, as notoriety has even less to do with the individual defendant’s case, and more to do with the whims of the press corps and the Department of Justice’s media operation.  In the long run, any substantial reliance on publicity as a sentencing factor, rather than deterring crime, seems just as likely to increase the risk that people will, as one commentator wrote, “find the system unjust” in violation of “the principle of equality before the law.”

October 23, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

"In Defense of Risk-Assessment Tools"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Marshall Project commentary authored by Adam Neufeld. its subheadline highlights its main theme: " Algorithms can help the criminal justice system, but only alongside thoughtful humans." And here is an excerpt:

It may seem weird to rely on an impersonal algorithm to predict a person’s behavior given the enormous stakes.  But the gravity of the outcome — in cost, crime, and wasted human potential — is exactly why we should use an algorithm.

Studies suggest that well-designed algorithms may be far more accurate than a judge alone.  For example, a recent study of New York City’s pretrial decisions found that an algorithm’s assessment of risk would far outperform judges’ track record.  If the city relied on the algorithm, an estimated 42 percent of detainees could be set free without any increase in people skipping trial or committing crimes pretrial, the study found.

But we are far from where we need to be in the use of these algorithms in the criminal justice system.  Most jurisdictions don’t use any algorithms, relying instead on each individual judge or decisionmaker to make critical decisions based on their personal experience, intuition, and whatever they decide is relevant. Jurisdictions that do use algorithms only use them in a few areas, in some instances with algorithms that have not been critically evaluated and implemented.

Used appropriately, algorithms could help in many more areas, from predicting who needs confinement in a maximum security prison to who needs support resources after release from prison.

However, with great (algorithmic) power comes great (human) responsibility.  First, before racing to adopt an algorithm, jurisdictions need to have the foundational conversation with relevant stakeholders about what their goals are in adopting an algorithm.  Certain goals will be consistent across jurisdictions, such as reducing the number of people who skip trial, but other goals will be specific to a jurisdiction and cannot just be delegated to the algorithm’s creator....

Many criticisms of algorithms to date point out where they fall short.  However, an algorithm should be evaluated not just against some perfect ideal, but also against the very imperfect status quo.  Preliminary studies suggest these tools improve accuracy, but the research base must be expanded.  Only well-designed evaluations will tell us when algorithms will improve fairness and accuracy in the criminal justice system.

Public officials have a social responsibility to pursue the opportunities that algorithms present, but to do so thoughtfully and rigorously.  That is a hard balance, but the stakes are too high not to try.

A few (of many) prior related posts:

October 23, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Notable defense of prison labor from a former prisoner

Chandra Bozelko, a former prisoner and author of the blog Prison Diaries, has this interesting Los Angeles Times commentary headlined "Think prison labor is a form of slavery? Think again."  I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

When a prison inmate prays for release from her cell, prison industries can be her first salvation. I couldn’t wait to head to work in the kitchen of the maximum-security women’s prison in Connecticut where I did six years for identity theft and related crimes. I was paid 75 cents to $1.75 a day to make and serve a lot of casserole.  Yet I consider most of the criticism lobbed at prison labor — that it’s a form of slavery, a capitalist horror show — unfair, and even counterproductive in the effort to reform the justice system.

Among the firefighters on California’s fire lines this fall, 30% to 40% are inmates, paid $1 an hour to work side by side with crews making a lot more money. Some inmate firefighters have gone on the record saying they feel the same way I do about prison jobs.  It’s people on the outside who rail against prison work assignments, particularly hiring prisoners to fight fires.

“We don’t want prison policy driven by a desire for cheap labor,” says David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. He worries that a captive labor force incentivizes mass incarceration. Fathi can point to some unfortunate remarks made by prison administrators.  Last month, the sheriff of Caddo Parish, La., lamented the loss of the “good” prisoners who washed prison cars.  In 2014, the office of the attorney general of California balked at reducing prison overcrowding because it would deplete the prison workforce.

Still, less than half of America’s prison population works.  The most recent available Bureau of Justice statistics come from 2005, when 800,000 to 900,000 inmates, out of a population of about 2.3 million, had jobs within their facilities.  That left at least 1.3 million prisoners for the government to house, clothe and feed without getting anything in return.  It doesn’t seem likely that captive labor is the reason our prisons are overcrowded.

Most labor in prison is menial work for the state. Inmates sew hems on jackets for municipal employees; they do laundry duty or janitorial work.  These are also normal, outside-world activities and jobs. When a prisoner is cooking, mopping floors or folding clothes, she knows somewhere, an unincarcerated person is doing the same thing.  When a prisoner is working, she is the closest to free she can be, until she gets out.

My prison job made me feel like I was fulfilling my existential duty to society: I was contributing. It doesn’t surprise me that prison work assignments are credited with reducing recidivism. Any change for good that happened within me while I was incarcerated grew out of my job. If I feel that way about my time making chicken a la king, an inmate who’s saving lives fighting fires must feel it 10 times over.

Some call prison labor the new Jim Crow because of the outsized number of black and brown inmates in U.S. prisons.  It’s a facile charge, and worse, it may be keeping progressive companies away from prison projects.  Socially conscious businesses and agencies are likely to pay inmates higher wages, train them for better jobs and do more to prepare them for life after prison — if those companies aren’t scared away by vociferous critics of prison labor.

Whole Foods used to sell goat cheese made from milk produced on a prison farm in Colorado. “We felt supporting suppliers who found a way to be part of paid, rehabilitative work being done by inmates would help people get back on their feet and eventually become contributing members of society,” a company spokesman said. Whole Foods ended the program in 2015, after consumer protests I can only assume came from people who’ve never been incarcerated. Anyone who’s done time wouldn’t deny a fellow prisoner that kind of lifeline....

Don’t get me wrong, prison labor is by no means problem-free. Two inmate firefighters died in work-related accidents in California this year. It’s unclear whether a lack of training or the inherent danger of firefighting contributed to those deaths. We may never know because there is too little investigation of worker safety in all prisoner occupations. If safety and worker empowerment were the focus of prison labor reform, rather than dismantling the system, the movement would get my support.

The way to protect workers is the same inside and outside: unionization. It’s a misconception that inmate unions are against the law. The Supreme Court held 40 years ago that wardens don’t violate prisoners’ 1st Amendment rights when they bust inmate unions, but at the same time, nothing prohibits prison administrators from allowing unions to form. That’s where the pushback against prison labor should be aimed, toward persuading wardens to allow physical and organizational safeguards for inmate workers, protections they can negotiate for themselves.

October 22, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Should we call it the Sessions effect?: "enthusiastic" federal prosecutors operating at "full throttle" in the Southern District of Ohio

My local Columbus Dispatch has this fascinating new article highlighting an uptick in federal prosecution in the Southern District of Ohio.  The piece is headlined "Surge in prisoners prompts federal court to contract with northwest Ohio jail," and here are excerpts (with a few points highlighted):

Benjamin C. Glassman is costing taxpayers more money, and he’s OK with that. Glassman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, is reaching far and wide — very far, in some cases — to fight crime that could hurt Ohioans.

He persuaded the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to deposit four Ecuadorean cocaine traffickers caught off the Galapagos Islands for prosecution on his turf in Columbus. And members of the multinational gang MS-13 were charged in September with extorting money from Columbus businesses and laundering it back to the gang’s leadership in El Salvador.

The increase in the prosecution of violent crimes and drug cases such as these, especially amid the opioid crisis, had the U.S District Court for Southern Ohio looking for extra jail space to keep a record 483 defendants whose cases were pending as of Oct. 7. “That’s a lot for us,” said Chief U.S. District Judge Edmund A. Sargus Jr. 

Of the total defendants, 223 were up on drug charges, 43 for violent crimes and 38 for child pornography.

To prevent overtaxing the Franklin and Delaware County jails that hold federal prisoners, Peter C. Tobin, the U.S. marshal for the 48-county Southern District, recently contracted with a regional jail in Williams County, 150 miles northwest of Columbus, to hold some defendants.  So far, 30 defendants have been sent to the Corrections Center of Northwest Ohio near Bryan.  That jail is charging $90 a day per federal inmate, about $25 more than the local jails.

Other federal court districts are having similar problems housing the influx of defendants, Sargus said.  The largest districts, such as New York City and Los Angeles, have their own holding facilities.

An Obama administration appointee last year, Glassman swears he’s not padding his crime-fighting resume because President Donald Trump could replace him at a moment’s notice. Ohio’s U.S. senators have recommended Greg Hartmann, an attorney and former Hamilton County commissioner, to replace Glassman. “We just want to reach out as far as we can and as far as we need to go to stop crime that is hurting people in this district,” Glassman said. “I sincerely believe people in Russia can hurt us, people in China can hurt us here.”

He spoke enviously of fellow prosecutors in North Dakota who this month “beat us to indicting” two men in China with selling fentanyl over the “dark web’ that has been tied to deadly overdoses. It was unclear whether Chinese officials have taken action against the suspects.

“We have violent crime initiatives in Cincinnati, and now Columbus, that are successfully bringing more violent crime prosecutions,” he said. Glassman’s office works closely with state and local law enforcement, counting on street cops to identify the “small number of people disproportionately responsible for a large number of violence.”  Suspects are charged in state or federal court depending on which nets prosecutors the best results, meaning guilty pleas and stiff prison sentences....

Glassman said his office is operating at “full throttle, with a lot of hardworking, really enthusiastic prosecutors.”  Individual assistant U.S. attorneys specialize in handling violent crime, drugs, illegal immigration, child pornography, tax and fraud cases.  Where only the top offenders in a drug ring were usually charged, now it’s not uncommon for cases to include a list of 15 or so defendants with even the most minor players. “We are looking to dismantle entire distribution organizations,” he said.

I find fascinating that even with a violent crime initiative and directions from Attorney General Sessions to focus on violent crime, this accounting of on-going federal prosecutions indicates that less than 15% of the current caseload (and maybe less than 10%) involves violent crimes (43 out of the 304 noted above, or maybe 43 out of the full 483).  Meanwhile, nearly half or perhaps even more than half of all the cases are drug cases, and now apparently even the most minor players in a drug ring are being subject to federal prosecution — no doubt in part because guilty pleas and stiff prison sentences are more common when drug charges are brought in the federal system.

I am inclined to call much of this a "Sessions effect" because the signals from the top of the current Justice Department would seem to be urging more and more federal prosecutions across the board (while also urging tougher approaches to sentencing).  I suspect it may be still some months before we see the full impact of these dynamics in federal sentencing statistics, but I also suspect I will be talking more about the Sessions effect in the months and years ahead.

October 22, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Lengthy look into latest significant(?) execution in Alabama

This lengthy local article, headlined "'I hate you': Inside the execution chamber as Alabama cop-killer put to death," provides an extended account of the lethal injection process to complete the sentence given to Torrey McNabb for murdering a police officer back in 1997. The folks at the Death Penalty Information Center suggest in this posting that the execution is significant because of how long the lethal injection process took.  In contrast, as evidenced by posts here and here, Kent Scheidegger at Crime & Consequences instead found significant the willingness of the Supreme Court to vacate lower court stays concerning executions protocols to ensure this execution went forward.

I have put a question mark in the title of this post because I am not sure any individual executions or individual stay ruling are really all that significant in the long-running litigious lethal injection wars.  Some lower court judges still seem inclined to find problems in nearly every possible state lethal injection plan, while a majority of the Supreme Court Justices seem now content that the latest standard approaches states have been adopting are sufficient for constitutional purposes. This leads me to predict continued lower-court legal wrangling that gums up the works of the machinery of death, but still allows a few states to complete an execution or two every so often.

Notably, this DPIC review of yearly executions indicates that this latest Alabama execution was the 21st of 2017, meaning this year already represents an uptick in execution compared to 2016.  But it also means that we are still on pace this year to have the second or maybe third fewest years executions in a quarter century. 

UPDATE: This new USA Today article, headlined "Executions rise in 2017, but downward trend continues," provides a broader context for recent developments. It starts this way:

The nation's rapidly declining rate of executions has leveled off, but opponents of capital punishment say the death penalty remains on borrowed time. The execution Thursday of Alabama cop killer Torrey McNabb was the 21st this year, marking the first time that number has risen since 2009. The 2017 total could approach 30 before the year is out, depending on last-minute legal battles.

That ends a relatively steady drop in executions since 2009, when there were 52. Only three times has the annual number increased since executions peaked at 98 in 1999.

Several factors have contributed to this year's hiatus in the broader trend. Eight states carried out executions, a spike from recent years. Among them were Arkansas, which executed four prisoners over eight days in April before its supply of lethal injection drugs expired, and Florida, which had halted executions for 18 months after the Supreme Court found its sentencing procedure unconstitutional.

Other executions this year have illustrated the problems opponents highlight in their quest to end capital punishment. Claims of innocence and requests for additional forensic testing went unheeded. Faced with complaints from pharmaceutical companies, some states used secretive methods to obtain drugs for lethal injections. And amid charges of racial disparities, nearly all the murder victims were white.

Yet another issue will be on display during oral arguments at the Supreme Court next week: whether indigent defendants in capital cases must prove they need more experienced lawyers and resources before they will be provided.

Despite all those factors, death penalty opponents say they're not worried about the slight uptick in executions. They note that three-, five- and 10-year trends remain down.

October 22, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Friday, October 20, 2017

Relying on Packingham, Federal judge strikes down Kentucky limit on sex offender internet access

As reported in this local piece, "Kentucky’s registered sex offenders have the constitutional right to use Facebook, Twitter and other online social media, a federal judge ruled Friday." Here is more on a ruling that seems like a pretty easy application of the Supreme Court's work in Packingham v. North Carolina earlier this year:

Ruling in a lawsuit brought by a Lexington child pornography defendant identified only as “John Doe,” U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove struck down Kentucky’s sweeping restrictions on Internet access for registered sex offenders.

“This is a very important decision,” said Scott White, a Lexington attorney who represented Doe. “The laws effectively deprived anyone on the sex offender registry of access to the most effective forms of communication that we have today. It was a complete suppression of speech.”

One law prohibited sex offenders from using social networking websites or instant messaging or chat rooms that potentially could be “accessible” to children — which is to say, much of the Internet. The other law required sex offenders to keep their probation or parole officers updated on all of their email addresses and various online identities.

Van Tatenhove cited a unanimous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in June that struck down a similar North Carolina ban on social media for sex offenders, in part because so many civic institutions — from elected officials to news media — are now tied into social media.

For example, the Herald-Leader’s Kentucky.com website would be off-limits to sex offenders under the state’s ban because it has a comments section open to the public, Van Tatenhove wrote.

Kentucky’s law “burdens substantially more speech than necessary to further the commonwealth’s legitimate interests in protecting children from sexual abuse solicited via the Internet,” Van Tatenhove wrote.

“Indeed, rather than prohibiting a certain type of conduct that is narrowly tailored to prevent child abuse, the statute prevents Mr. Doe and others similarly situated from accessing what for many are the principal sources for knowing current events, checking ads for employment, speaking and listening in the modern public square, and otherwise exploring the vast realms of human thought and knowledge,” he wrote.

October 20, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Federal judge rules that Prez pardon for Joe Arpaio does not call for vacating his contempt conviction

As reported in this Politico piece, a "federal judge has ruled that President Donald Trump's pardon of former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio ends his prosecution for criminal contempt of court, but does not wipe out the guilty verdict she returned or any other rulings in the case."   The full (and short) ruling is available at this link, and here is more about it:

In her order Thursday, Phoenix-based U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton rejected arguments from Arpaio's lawyers and Justice Department prosecutors that the longtime Maricopa County sheriff was entitled to have all rulings in the case vacated, including the guilty verdict the judge delivered in July after a five-day trial.

“The power to pardon is an executive prerogative of mercy, not of judicial recordkeeping," Bolton wrote, quoting an appeals court ruling. "To vacate all rulings in this case would run afoul of this important distinction. The Court found Defendant guilty of criminal contempt. The President issued the pardon. Defendant accepted. The pardon undoubtedly spared Defendant from any punishment that might otherwise have been imposed. It did not, however, 'revise the historical facts' of this case."

Arpaio, known for his tough stance against illegal immigration and for humiliating treatment of prisoners, was charged with contempt for defying another federal judge's order aimed at preventing ethnic profiling of Latinos. Trump pardoned the 85-year-old Arpaio in August while he was awaiting sentencing. The official White House statement stressed Arpaio's history of public service, but the president indicated in earlier remarks that he considered the ex-sheriff's conviction unfair because he was found guilty "for doing his job." Trump also said Arpaio should have received a jury trial, something courts have said is not required if no penalty of more than a year in jail is sought.

Arpaio's attorneys filed an appeal Thursday evening that will take the issue to the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. "We will challenge that order," Arpaio lawyer Jack Wilenchik told POLITICO shortly after the judge's ruling was handed down. He said Bolton had jumbled the facts regarding a key precedent: the case of a Tyson Foods lobbyist who was pardoned by President Bill Clinton after being convicted of giving illegal gifts to Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy.

The battle over the guilty verdict and other rulings is largely symbolic since the prosecution, the defense and the judge all appear to agree Arpaio's prosecution is over and he cannot be punished for the conduct that led to the case. Arpaio's attorneys argue it is unfair for the verdict to remain on the book since the pardon effectively wipes out Arpaio's ability to appeal that decision. However, some ethics-in-government groups and Democratic lawmakers urged the judge to reject the pardon altogether as an unconstitutional intrusion by the executive branch into the judiciary branch's ability to ensure that its orders are enforced.

A few prior related posts:

October 20, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Collateral consequences, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

"State Criminal Appeals Revealed"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new empirical paper available via SSRN and authored by Michael Heise, Nancy King and Nicole Heise. Here is the abstract

Every state provides appellate review of criminal judgments, yet little research examines which factors correlate with favorable outcomes for defendants who seek appellate relief. To address this scholarly gap, this paper exploits the Survey of Criminal Appeals in State Courts (2010) dataset, recently released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Center for State Courts (hereinafter, “NCSC Study”).  The NCSC Study is the first and only publicly available national dataset on state criminal appeals and includes unprecedented information from every state court in the nation with jurisdiction to review criminal judgments.

We focus on two subpools of state criminal appeals: a defendant’s first appeal of right, and defense appeals to courts of last resort with the discretion to grant or deny review.  Error correction, of course, is paramount in the first context, for typically an appeal of right is a defendant’s only chance at review.  By contrast, courts of last resort with discretionary jurisdiction emphasize law development, selecting cases to clarify or alter legal rules, resolve conflicts, and remedy the most egregious mistakes.

Our findings imply that defense appellate success rates may have declined in recent decades.  In appeals of right, defendants who challenge a sentence enjoy a greater likelihood of success, as do those who have legal representation, file a reply brief or secure oral argument, and appellants from Florida. In high courts of last resort, appeals from sex offenses, raising certain trial issues, and appellants represented by publicly funded attorneys appear to fare better than others.  Also notable is the absence of a relationship between defense success and factors including most crime types and claims raised, the court’s workload, and, for all but one model, whether the appellate judges were selected by election. 

October 20, 2017 in Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 19, 2017

AG Jeff Sessions our "crime problem" while expression concern about the "move to even lighter sentences"

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions today delivered this speech to the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association, and the speech includes comments about rising crime and support for law enforcement that have become staples of the AG's recent speeches.  But this latest speech also indirectly addresses the latest bipartisan talk of federal sentencing reform and covers some other new ground.  Here are excertps:

But today we are fighting a multi-front battle: an increase in violent crime, a rise in vicious gangs, an opioid epidemic, threats from terrorism, combined with a culture in which family and discipline seem to be eroding further and a disturbing disrespect for the rule of law.

After decreasing for nearly 20 years because of the hard but necessary work our country started in the 1980s, violent crime is back with a vengeance.  In 2016, the nationwide homicide rate increased by another 7.9 percent, resulting in a total surge of more than 20 percent since 2014. Not a little matter.

As homicide deaths have gone up, drug overdose deaths have gone up even faster.  Preliminary data show that more than 60,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2016. Not only is that the highest drug-related death toll in our history, but it is also the fastest increase in drug deaths we’ve ever seen.  That’s more than the population of Midwest City — dead in just one year.  For Americans under the age of 50, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death.

Oklahoma isn’t immune to these problems.  This wonderful state suffered a 40 percent increase in murders between 2014 and 2016, and the number of drug overdose deaths has surged by more than 67 percent in the last decade.

And yet, despite the national surge in violent crime and the record number of drug deaths over the last two years, there is a move to even lighter sentences. We must be careful here. Federal prison population is down 15 percent — the average sentence is down 19 percent. Crime is up.

Sometimes it is prudent to review sentences and determine if some might be too harsh or too light.  For example, I led the effort with my then-colleague Senator Durbin to reduce the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine from 100 to 1 all the way down to 18 to 1.  That was the right thing to do.

But I'm afraid we don’t have a sentencing problem; we have a crime problem.  If we want to bring down our prison population then we should bring down crime.

So what should we do?  What has been proven to work?

In 1984 I had been a federal prosecutor for six years when Congress passed the Sentencing Reform Act.  This law instituted mandatory minimum sentences, sentencing guidelines, truth in sentencing, and ended federal parole.  I was a prosecutor before this law, and I was a prosecutor after it went into effect.  It’s clear to me that it worked. We saw crime rates cut in half, neighborhoods revitalized, and general law and order restored on our streets.

Why did it work?  Most people obey the law.  They have no desire to inflict violence on their neighbors or traffick deadly drugs to suffering addicts.  They want to be safe. No, most crimes are committed by a relatively few number of criminals.  Putting them behind bars makes us safer.

Experienced law enforcement officers like you understand that.  You are the thin blue line that stands between law-abiding people and criminals.  You protect our families, our communities, and our country from drugs and violence.  Every American benefits from that work, and the vast majority of our country appreciates what you do.

But some would undermine this support by portraying law enforcement officers as the enemy.  But we’ve seen a shocking and unacceptable level of violence toward police officers in this country.

Earlier this week, the FBI released its annual report on violence against police officers.  The report showed a more than 60 percent increase last year in the number of officers feloniously killed in the line of duty.  It also shows a 14 percent increase in the number of officers assaulted on duty. According to the report, 150 officers were assaulted every day on average last year....

You deserve the support and respect of every American, and I’m here today on behalf of President Trump and the Department of Justice to say thank you.  I am proud to stand with you. The Department of Justice is proud to stand with you.  We have your back.  We understand one thing, criminals are the problem, law officers are the solution....

Helping law enforcement do their jobs, helping the police get better, and celebrating the noble, honorable, essential and challenging work of our law enforcement communities will always be a top priority of President Trump and this Department of Justice.  We will always seek to affirm the critical and historic role of sheriffs in our society and we will not participate in anything that would give the slightest comfort to radicals who promote agendas that preach hostility rather than respect for police.

October 19, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

"Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017"

Women_pie_2017The title of this post is the title of this great new report authored by Aleks Kajstura and released by the Prison Policy Initiative jointly with the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice. In the tradition of other great "whole pie" efforts (see, e.g., here), this latest report details the number of women who are locked up by various correctional systems and why.  Here is part of the text of the report:

With growing public attention to the problem of mass incarceration, people want to know about women’s experience with incarceration. How many women are held in prisons, jails, and other correctional facilities in the United States? And why are they there? While these are important questions, finding those answers requires not only disentangling the country’s decentralized and overlapping criminal justice systems, but also unearthing the frustratingly hard to find and often altogether missing data on gender.

This report provides a first-of-its-kind detailed view of the 219,000 women incarcerated in the United States, and how they fit into the even larger picture of correctional control.  Since 2014, the Prison Policy Initiative has quantified the number of people incarcerated in the United States, and calculated the breakdown of people held by each correctional system by offense in an annual Whole Pie: Mass Incarceration report.  This report, done in collaboration with the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice, finally provides similar data on women incarcerated in the Unites States....

In stark contrast to the total incarcerated population, where the state prison systems hold twice as many people as are held in jails, incarcerated women are nearly evenly split between state prisons and local jails.

The explanation for exactly what happened, when, and why does not yet exist because the data on women has long been obscured by the larger picture of men’s incarceration. The disaggregated numbers presented here are an important first step to ensuring that women are not left behind in the effort to end mass incarceration.

A staggering number of women who are incarcerated are not even convicted: more than a quarter of women who are behind bars have not yet had a trial.  Moreover, 60% of women in jail have not been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial.

Avoiding pre-trial incarceration is uniquely challenging for women.  The number of unconvicted women stuck in jail is surely not because courts are considering women, who are generally the primary caregivers of children, to be a flight risk.  The far more likely answer is that incarcerated women, who have lower incomes than incarcerated men, have an even harder time affording cash bail.  A previous study found that women who could not make bail had an annual median income of just $11,071.  And among those women, Black women had a median annual income of only $9,083 (just 20% that of a white non-incarcerated man). When the typical $10,000 bail amounts to a full year’s income, it’s no wonder that women are stuck in jail awaiting trial.

Even once convicted, the system funnels women into jails: About a quarter of convicted incarcerated women are held in jails, compared to about 10% of all people incarcerated with a conviction.

So what does it mean that large numbers of women are held in jail - for them, and for their families? While stays in jail are generally shorter than in stays in prison, jails make it harder to stay in touch with family than prisons do.  Phone calls are more expensive, up to $1.50 per minute, and other forms of communication are more restricted - some jails don’t even allow real letters, limiting mail to postcards.  This is especially troubling given that 80% of women in jails are mothers, and most of them are primary caretakers of their children.  Thus children are particularly susceptible to the domino effect of burdens placed on incarcerated women.  Women in jails are also more likely to suffer from mental health problems and experience serious psychological distress than either women in prisons or men in either correctional setting.

The numbers revealed by this report enable a national conversation about the policies that impact incarcerated women held in various facilities, and also serve as the foundation for discussions to change the policies that lead to incarcerating women in the first place.  All too often, the conversation about criminal justice reform starts and stops with the question of non-violent drug and property offenses.  While drug and property offenses make up more than half of the offenses for which women are incarcerated, the chart reveals that all offenses, including violent offenses that account for roughly a quarter of all incarcerated women, must be considered in the effort to reduce the number of incarcerated women in this country.  This new data on women underlines the need for reform discussions to focus not just on the easier choices but on choices that can lead to impactful policy changes.

October 19, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

What may be the future of federal halfway houses in the Trump Administration?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Reuters article from last week that a helpful reader made sure I did not miss.  The article is headlined "Trump administration reduces support for prisoner halfway houses," and here are excerpts:

The administration of President Donald Trump has been quietly cutting support for halfway houses for federal prisoners, severing contracts with as many

The Federal Bureau of Prisons spokesman Justin Long confirmed the cuts in response to an email inquiry from Reuters, and said they only affect areas with small populations or underutilized centers. “The Bureau remains firmly committed to these practices, but has had to make some modifications to our programs due to our fiscal environment,” Long said.

Halfway houses have been a part of the justice system since the 1960s, with thousands of people moving through them each year. For-profit prison companies such as Geo Group Inc have moved into the halfway house market, though many houses are run directly by government agencies or non-profit organizations. A Geo spokeswoman declined to comment for this article.

The bureau, which falls under the U.S. Department of Justice, last year had about 180 competitive contracts with “residential reentry centers” run by non-profit and for-profit companies, such as Geo. The International Community Corrections Association says on its website there were about 249 separate halfway houses in communities nationwide that are covered by the 180 contracts.

Federal judges who spoke to Reuters said the cuts are having an impact in their districts, particularly in states with fewer facilities or larger geographic areas where the nearest center might be several hundred miles away. Judge Edmund Sargus of the Southern District of Ohio said it was a real “stumper” when in July the government ended its contract with the Alvis facility serving the Dayton area.

Long said that the cuts have not reduced referral rates or placements, and only impact “about 1% of the total number of beds under contract.”...

In 2016, of the 43,000 inmates released from federal prison, 79 percent were released into a halfway house or home confinement, according to the trade association.

“We need to improve re-entry services ... This move flies in the face of that consensus,” said Kevin Ring, whose non-profit Families Against Mandatory Minimums has recently launched a Twitter campaign to raise awareness of the problem....

For Kymjetta Carr, the cuts have had a personal impact. The 30-year-old from Cincinnati said she had expected her fiance Anthony Lamar to get out of prison and go to a halfway house in November, after serving seven years on a drug charge. But she now has to tell their 10-year-old son his father won’t be out for Christmas or his birthday because Lamar’s release to a halfway house will not come until late July. “It seems like the rug has been pulled out from under us,” she said, in an interview arranged through Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Halfway houses are low-security residences for thousands of convicted prisoners serving alternative sentences or on release from prison into partial freedom programs on the outside. The facilities are meant to help prisoners reenter their communities, find a job and get their lives back on track. A study commissioned last year by the Justice Department found that centers have come under greater strain in recent years, as more people have been released from prison.

Blair Campmier, executive director of Reality House in Columbia, Missouri, said he was notified in early June that the center’s eight-year-old contract would be terminated. Some of his clients were sent to halfway houses in Kansas City and Springfield, more than two hours away. “They were not happy, and their families were not happy,” said Campmier.

Ricardo Martinez, the Chief U.S. District Judge in the Western District of Washington and Chairman of the Committee on Criminal Law of the Judicial Conference of the United States, told Reuters he has sent a letter to the Bureau of Prisons’ new Director Mark Inch requesting discussions. “From our perspective, these facilities are not only useful - they are essential,” Martinez said.

October 19, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Texas serial killer gets prosecutors to seek at obtain a last-minute delay of execution

Texas had plans to execute a serial killer last night, but prosecutors sought and obtained a delay apparently because the killer was scheming to admit to another murder.  This local article, remarkably headlined "Potential new murder confession delays Texas serial killer's execution," reports on this remarkable turn of events:

The execution of Houston serial killer Anthony Shore was rescheduled hours away from his pending death after officials began to worry he would confess to another murder. Shore, 55, was set for execution after 6 p.m. Wednesday, but the district attorney from Montgomery County sent a plea to Gov. Greg Abbott and Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, asking for more time to look into rumors that Shore would confess to a murder in which another death row inmate was convicted.

"This office is in possession of evidence suggesting that Shore has conspired with death row inmate Larry Ray Swearingen and intends to falsely claim responsibility for the capital murder of Melissa Trotter — the crime for which Swearingen is currently scheduled to be executed on November 16, 2017," Montgomery County DA Brett Ligon said in his letter to Abbott. Ogg filed a motion to withdraw Shore's execution date after receiving Ligon's request. It has been reset for Jan. 18.  She said in a statement that Shore’s execution is still “inevitable.”...

In his letter, Ligon explained that a folder containing items on the Trotter murder were found in Shore’s cell this July. When his office discovered this in September, he called Shore’s lawyer, Knox Nunnally, who said Shore would answer questions from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office regarding other murders on the condition that his written responses would only be revealed by his lawyer after his execution.

A Montgomery County investigator also interviewed a death row visitor, who said Shore told her he murdered Trotter and would not let Swearingen be executed for it, Ligon wrote. “We remain absolutely certain of Swearingen’s guilt of Melissa Trotter’s murder, but permitting Shore to claim responsibility for that crime after his execution would leave a cloud over the judicial proceedings in Swearingen’s case,” he wrote.

Shore was known in Houston as the “Tourniquet Killer.” In 2003, he confessed to four murders of young women and girls in the 1980s and 1990s, strangling them with rope or cord and leaving their unclothed bodies behind buildings or in a field.

Swearingen was convicted in the death of 19-year-old Trotter, after her decomposing body was found in a forest nearly a month after she was last seen with Swearingen, according to court documents. He has insisted on his innocence in the murder.

In Texas, there is usually sufficient will to go forward with executions so that the folks there can find a way. But this story leads me to wonder if a serial killer might at least partially succeed with a scheme to try to kill two executions with one stony confessions.

October 19, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Special issue of Federal Probation looks at "30 Years with Federal Sentencing Guidelines"

The latest issue of the journal Federal Probation, which is published by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, features a special section looking at "30 Years with Federal Sentencing Guidelines."  As revealed by the contents reprinted below, I had the honor of contributing a short article to this issue and that authorship puts me in some notable company:

Federal Sentencing Policy: Role of the Judicial Conference of the United States and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts by Hon. Ricardo S. Martinez

The Integral Role of Federal Probation Officers in the Guidelines System by Hon. William H. Pryor Jr.

Reflecting on Parole’s Abolition in the Federal Sentencing System by Douglas A. Berman

Five Questions for the Next Thirty Years of Federal Sentencing by Steven L. Chanenson

State Sentencing Guidelines: A Garden Full of Variety by Kelly Lyn Mitchell

Brief summaries of these pieces are available at this link, but I urge everyone to download the full issue here.

October 18, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Recommended reading, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Law enforcement group pressing Trump Administration to support criminal justice reform

As detailed via this press release, a notable group of law enforcement leaders is making a notable push for federal criminal justice reform efforts.  Here are the basics (with a few links) from the press release:

More than 80 of the nation’s leading police chiefs, prosecutors, and sheriffs will gather today in the nation’s capital for the National Law Enforcement Summit on Crime in 2017.  

The Group hosting the summit [program here], Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, released an open letter and five-point policy plan this morning to President Trump and Attorney General Sessions, urging them to shift away from a “tough on crime” agenda. They urge them to, instead, join the current bipartisan movement for criminal justice reform that’s reemerging as a Congressional priority.

The Summit comes on the same morning Attorney General Sessions testifies at his first oversight hearing before Congress. U.S. Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC), former Attorney General Eric Holder, and former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates are headlining the event.

“We are grateful to the Trump Administration for prioritizing the cause of fighting crime and violence. They have consistently supported our mission, and acknowledged the difficulties and dangers of our profession. We stand ready to work with the White House and Justice Department on constructive policies to advance public safety,” said Ronal Serpas, Founding Chairman of Law Enforcement Leaders and former Superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department. “As members of law enforcement, we do not believe that public safety is served by a return to tactics that punish without strong purpose. From decades of experience on the front lines, we have learned first-hand that these responses are ineffective to reduce crime. There is an alternative to these counterproductive policies. That’s what we are here to discuss today.”

At the Summit, prominent law enforcement officials will discuss their views on why overly punitive policies are counterproductive to public safety, and will profile the work they have done in their localities to advance more modern strategies.

October 18, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Reviewing how federal prisons deny rehabilitative programming to undocumented prisoners

Jacob Schuman, a federal public defender, has this new Marshall Project commentary examining federal Bureau of Prisons policies that deny access to rehabilitative programs to a certain notable prison population.  The piece provides a review of policies that are scattered in complicated program statements that can often escape scrutiny.  The piece is fully headlined "Federal Prisons Don’t Even Try to Rehabilitate the Undocumented: The Bureau of Prisons fails to provide basic resources to undocumented prisoners." Here is how it starts:

The federal Bureau of Prisons claims its mission is to “provide work and self-improvement opportunities to assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens.” When it comes to undocumented offenders, that’s a lie.

The truth is that the BOP discriminates against undocumented people by denying them access to essential drug counseling and job training in prison.

As President Trump threatens to lock up even more undocumented immigrants, it’s time for the BOP to reform these exclusionary policies, which are both ineffective and inhumane.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission reports that about one-third of all the people sent to federal prison each year are “illegal aliens.” In 2016, more than half of all federal criminal prosecutions involved immigration-related offenses.

Despite the BOP’s rehabilitative promises, the agency excludes these prisoners from its best addiction and vocational programs. The BOP officially bars any prisoner subject to an order of deportation from participating in its “most intensive,” nine-month Residential Drug Abuse Program, as well as from its compensated job-training program, Federal Prison Industries.The BOP similarly shuts out undocumented prisoners from its reentry-focused Release Preparation Program and even from its faith-based Life Connections Program.

The BOP strictly limits the access of undocumented prisoners to its other rehabilitative services. For example, some prisons offer occupational education programs intended to teach inmates marketable skills, but regulations specify that undocumented prisoners may only participate if resources permit after “meeting the needs of other eligible inmates.”

The BOP’s three-month Nonresidential Drug Abuse Program doesn’t officially exclude undocumented prisoners, but officials still sometimes prevent prisoners from participating if they’re subject to deportation.

The only remaining rehabilitative programs are a short drug abuse education course as well as a few literacy and English classes. (Unlike other incarcerated people, however, prisoners subject to deportation aren’t required to attend.)

Even the few programs theoretically open to undocumented people are, in practice, denied to many because the government primarily incarcerates them in for-profit facilities that aren’t required to offer rehabilitative services.

October 18, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

"Prosecutors Are Banding Together to Prevent Criminal-Justice Reform"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy Nation article which carries this subheadline: "A new investigation shows that DA associations are thwarting changes to the death penalty, sentencing, and more."  My first reaction is being shocked, shocked that prosecutors oppose reductions in their power, but this story is still an interesting read.  Here is an excerpt:

District attorneys’ associations exist in most states.  They consist of dues-paying members—generally the lead prosecutors from every county or district in the state — and have bylaws, like most professional groups.  As professional organizations, they also have nonprofit status; their activities include public education and training as well as lobbying.

For the most part, these prosecutors’ associations adopt a “tough on crime” stance, advocating for legislation that would give them greater discretion to lock people up.  “They all too often act as a roadblock to significant reforms,” says Udi Ofer, director of the Campaign for Smart Justice at the American Civil Liberties Union.  “In state after state, we’ve seen DA associations hold back reforms that are supported by Democrats and Republicans alike.”

According to Fordham University law professor John Pfaff, prosecutors are the single most important factor in the increase of prison populations, because they tend to file charges even when the evidence suggests that someone should go free, and generally pursue the harshest sentence they can get.  District attorneys and county prosecutors can opt to drop charges — for example, by refusing to prosecute marijuana possession — or to favor pretrial intervention.  But Pfaff found that between 1994 and 2008, even as crime and arrest rates fell, the number of felony charges filed by prosecutors increased. From this data, he concluded that prosecutors were driving the phenomenon of mass incarceration through punitive charges and penalties.

Prosecutors have one big reason to protect harsh sentencing: Today, around 95 percent of federal and state criminal cases end in a plea bargain.  Such agreements, in which the defendant pleads guilty in exchange for a fixed sentence, avoid the time and expense of a jury trial, making it faster and cheaper for prosecutors to close cases.  And the more draconian the punishments that a prosecutor has at her disposal — high mandatory minimums, say, or the ability to charge a youthful offender as an adult — the more leverage she has to persuade someone to take a plea bargain instead of risking a trial.

In the last year or so, criminal-justice reform has topped the legislative agenda in several states, from conservative Florida and Louisiana to liberal California, and advocates for reform exist across the political spectrum, from the conservative Right on Crime, the Koch brothers, and former House speaker Newt Gingrich to the ACLU and Black Lives Matter.  In response, prosecutors’ associations have pushed legislators hard to reject such reforms.  And, in most cases, they have succeeded.

October 18, 2017 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

NFL Commish and player write to Senators to "offer the National Football League's full support for the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017"

Images (4)In this post yesterday, I noted the report that the NFL was endorsing federal sentencing reform efforts.  One form of that endorsement emerged today in this form of a letter to US Senators.  This ESPN article provides the basics:

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin co-signed a letter sent to congressional leaders in support of a bipartisan legislative bill that seeks criminal justice reform.  The letter states the NFL is offering its "full support" of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017, which seeks reforms and targets enhanced mandatory minimums for prior drug felons, increases judicial discretion for sentencing, and reforms enhanced mandatory minimums and sentences.

"The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would address many of the issues on which our players have worked to raise awareness of over the last two seasons," the letter, which is dated Oct. 16, reads. "... If enacted, it would be a positive next step in our collective efforts to move our nation forward."...

Asked Monday about a potential pushback from the White House, NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart said he didn't know the President Donald Trump's position on the bill. "I know that this has overwhelming bipartisan support, and we think it's the right thing to do, so that is our focus right now,'' he said.

Baldwin discussed the letter after the Seahawks' practice on Tuesday, saying the letter came about organically and is an important step in unifying the NFL community. "If you look at the players," he said, "we're utilizing the largest platform we have and so now, in a search for using the largest source of resources that we have, which is the NFL -- the NFL has a government affairs office that does a lot of work -- so being able to utilize that resource and make changes that we want to see obviously as players and the causes that we care about so passionately about, I thought that was a step in the right direction of us unifying the NFL community and going in the right direction toward progress."

Having Goodell co-sign the letter was also important, Baldwin said. "I think again the important aspect of it is us having a unified effort.  We don't want to be divided anymore. We don't want to continue with this divisive rhetoric, we don't want to engage with this divisive rhetoric.  We want to start showing our players, the NFL itself, the NFL community that we can be collectively united to seek the changes that we want to see, which are beneficial to the entirety of society.  So I thought it was important that we didn't do this as individuals but we did it as a collective group."

The full two-page letter is available at this link, and here is how it starts and ends:

We are writing to offer the National Football League's full support for the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 (S. 1917).  We want to add our voice to the broad and bipartisan coalition of business leaders, law enforcement officials, veterans groups, civil rights organizations, conservative thought leaders, and faith-based organizations that have been working for five years to enact the changes called for in this comprehensive legislation....

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would address many of the issues on which our players have worked to raise awareness of over the last two seasons. This bill seeks to improve public safety, increase rehabilitation, and strengthen families.  If enacted, it would be a positive next step in our collective efforts to move our nation forward.

Ultimately, we all share a responsibility to find a path towards unity, one that goes well beyond sports.  The National Football League applauds the introduction of this bipartisan criminal justice reform bill as well as your ongoing commitment to upholding America's promise of justice for all.  We stand ready to work with you to advance this important legislation.

October 17, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Lots of criminal justice coverage at start of new Harvard Law Review Blog

Logo_DesktopVia email, I learned of an old institution of legal scholarship trying its hand at a new(?) medium. Here is the explanation via the email text:

We are excited to announce the launch of the Harvard Law Review Blog.

The Harvard Law Review published its first issue more than 130 years ago with the hope that it could “enlarge our field” and be “serviceable to the profession” through thoughtful and relevant legal analysis.  Our Blog continues this effort.  By fostering legal inquiry and argument that is fast-paced and timely, the Blog will strive to complement the long-form, in-depth analysis that has filled our pages for over a century.

Like our print edition and the Forum, the Blog will bring together the scholars, practitioners, and leaders who are on the forefront of today’s biggest legal issues — who are pushing for a deeper understanding of the law. In keeping with our tradition as a generalist publication, our contributors will explore a range of topics, from Chevron deference and civil rights to international trade and immigration law.

In 1887, the editors of the Law Review’s first issue wrote, “It will be our aim to develop the Review on the lines we have indicated, in the hope of deserving the support which we have already received.” Today, we launch the Harvard Law Review Blog in the same spirit.

Notably, a number of the initial posts up on the HLR Blog have a criminal justice focus:

October 17, 2017 in On blogging, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (2)

Busting the "myth of the progressive prosecutor"

Much advocacy and debate over modern criminal justice reform has come to give particular attention to the role of prosecutors.  In turn, it sometimes seems that some reform-minded folks seem to believe or suggest that getting the right persons to serve as prosecutors can be a kind of modern magic criminal reform elixir.   Against that backdrop, I found this new New York Times op-ed refreshing and important.  It is headlined "Cyrus Vance and the Myth of the Progressive Prosecutor," and here are excerpts:

[T]he Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., ... is considered one of America’s most progressive prosecutors and has the accolades to prove it.  In 2015, he helped create the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.  Two years earlier, Attorney General Eric Holder gave him an award for having developed a partnership between local youths and law enforcement aimed at reducing violence.

Sure, he often says the right thing, as when he told New York Law School’s graduating class in 2015 that he had recognized racism in the criminal justice system “long before the term ‘mass incarceration’ entered the general conversation,” or when he wrote in the black-owned Amsterdam News last month that he has helped to reduce “unnecessary contact with the criminal justice system” among Manhattanites.

However, like many prosecutors across the country who get credit for changing the game while continuing draconian practices, Mr. Vance simply isn’t the reformer he paints himself as.  Look at the data. Manhattan holds less than 20 percent of the city’s population, but on an average day, almost 40 percent of Rikers Island inmates are from the borough.  This disparity has been attributed in part to his office’s zealous prosecution of misdemeanors.  As of 2015, Mr. Vance was more likely to prosecute a misdemeanor charge than any other district attorney in New York City.

And despite lamenting racism in the criminal justice system, Mr. Vance perpetuates worrisome racial disparities.  A 2014 Vera Institute of Justice study found that black and Latino defendants prosecuted by Mr. Vance’s office were more likely to be detained at booking, compared with similarly situated white defendants.  And last year, 51 percent of marijuana cases involving black defendants in Manhattan ended in conviction, while only 23 percent involving whites did.

Nor is Mr. Vance the only faux reformer.  The New Orleans district attorney, Leon Cannizzaro, claims that his office “has worked aggressively to reform New Orleans’s criminal justice system.”  But his actions indicate that he values convictions over his community.  He has locked up rape victims who refused to testify against their assailants and has served fake subpoenas to pressure witnesses to talk. Mr. Cannizzaro defended a sentence in which a 17-year-old was sent to prison for 99 years for an armed car robbery, even though no one was injured during the crime.  His office tried to sentence a man to 20 years in prison for stealing $31 worth of candy.

The Los Angeles district attorney, Jackie Lacey, is a Democrat who has benefited from the public’s perception that she is a reformer.  This is something she has fed herself, bragging to a Los Angeles Sentinel reporter that she has read “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander and has seen Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13,” about the connection between slavery and mass incarceration.  But Ms. Lacey’s values have consistently lagged behind those of her constituency.  In ballot initiatives, Los Angeles County residents supported shorter sentences for low-level and nonviolent property and drug crimes and wanted to legalize recreational marijuana use for adults. Ms. Lacey opposed both. And although the county voted in favor of abolishing the death penalty, she continues to support it. Last year there were just 31 death sentences nationwide. Ms. Lacey’s office secured four of them....

So it’s especially frustrating that many of those who are praised as change-makers are at best making bite-size improvements.  And because they say the right things, the public gives them a pass: Mr. Vance is running unopposed for a third term, and Ms. Lacey also ran unopposed in her last election.

The progressive bombast is meaningless if prosecutors continue to promote the same harsh practices behind the scenes. Instead, voters must look closely at their policies and hold them to high and specific standards.  We should ask: Are prosecutors opposing new mandatory minimum sentences during legislative debates? Have they declined to request cash bail in a vast majority of cases? Are they keeping children out of adult court and refusing to seek life-without-parole sentences for them?

Over 1,000 prosecutors will be up for election next year in places like Dallas, San Diego, Seattle, Oakland, Calif., and Charlotte, N.C. Voters ought to make sure the people who win these crucial races are actual criminal justice reformers, not just people who say they are.

Over at Simple Justice, Scott Greenfield here also gives attention to this notable op-ed by calling out some more current and former prosecutors for their questionable reform credentials. He also adds these sharp comments that reflect my view that reforming the law is even more critical than reforming who applies the law (though that matters, too):

[E]ven the [progressive prosecutors] who aren’t taking bribes, who can quote Maya Angelou from memory, are still prosecutors. To some extent, the conflict is inherent in the job; prosecutors prosecute based on law. They are not the avenging angels of social justice, but just avenging angels.

The irony of calling for more criminalization in one place (say, revenge porn) while bemoaning criminalization in others (say, marijuana) eludes many. But over-criminalization only seems to register in progressive minds based on fashion trends, forgetting that the crimes they hate today were once just as fashionable as the crimes they love today.

And this is where they fail to grasp how their cries for “justice” make little sense, since “justice” is mostly a matter of whose sad story prevails, the accused or the victim, at any given moment. Ask any victim about “justice” and there is a good chance their foremost concern won’t be educational opportunities in poor urban schools.

But what Duffy makes clear is that there are real ways in which prosecutors can exercise their authority, their discretion, to bring reform to their jobs, by eliminating false confessions, suggestive identifications, Brady violations, junk science, needless bail, abuse of power, covering for killer cops and the big one, not going for death.

October 17, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

You be the Army judge: what sentence for Army deserter Bowe Bergdahl?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new AP article headlined "Bergdahl guilty pleas leave room for drama at sentencing." Here is the context for the question:

Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's guilty plea to charges of endangering comrades in Afghanistan has set up a dramatic sentencing hearing that could land him in prison for life.  Bergdahl, who was captured and held by the Taliban for five years after leaving his remote post in Afghanistan in 2009, pleaded guilty Monday in North Carolina to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, a rare charge that carries a potential life sentence.

Because Bergdahl had no plea deal with prosecutors, his punishment will be decided by the judge, Army Col. Jeffery R. Nance, at a hearing starting Oct. 23.  Bergdahl was thoroughly questioned by Nance at his plea hearing at Fort Bragg, and the soldier acknowledged that his actions — and subsequent military search missions — put fellow service members in harm's way. "I left my fellow platoon mates," he told the judge. "That's very inexcusable."

At sentencing, the judge is expected to weigh factors including Bergdahl's willingness to accept responsibility by pleading guilty, his time in captivity of the Taliban and its allies, and serious wounds to service members who searched for him.  "Pleading guilty before a judge without any protection from a deal is a risky move," said Eric Carpenter, a former Army lawyer who teaches law at Florida International University. "The military judge can sentence Bergdahl to zero punishment, but he can also sentence Bergdahl to life in prison."

The guilty plea brings the highly politicized saga closer to an end eight years after Bergdahl vanished. President Barack Obama brought him home in 2014 in a swap for five Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, saying the U.S. does not leave its service members on the battlefield. Republicans roundly criticized Obama, and Donald Trump went further while campaigning for president, repeatedly calling Bergdahl a "dirty, rotten traitor" who deserved to be executed by firing squad or thrown out of a plane without a parachute.

Bergdahl, 31, has said he walked away from his remote post in 2009 with the intention of reaching other commanders and drawing attention to what he saw as problems with his unit. "At the time, I had no intention of causing search-and-recovery operations," he said in court. "I believed they would notice me missing, but I didn't believe they would have reason to search for one private."...

Bergdahl's responses to the judge Monday were some of his most extensive public comments yet. He said he tried to escape from his captors 12 to 15 times, with varying degrees of success.  Once, he was on his own for about a week — hoping U.S. drones would spot him — before he was recaptured.  He said he also tried to escape on his first day in captivity. "As I started running there came shouts, and I was tackled by people. That didn't go so well," said Bergdahl, who spoke in even tones and wore a blue dress uniform.

Meanwhile, Bergdahl's fellow service members engaged in firefights that they could have avoided had Bergdahl not gone absent without leave, the judge said.  Those firefights left a Navy SEAL with a career-ending leg wound and an Army National Guard sergeant with a head wound that put him in a wheelchair.

As for the defense contention that Trump unfairly biased the court-martial against Bergdahl, a ruling in February found that the new president's comments were "disturbing and disappointing" but did not constitute unlawful influence by the soon-to-be commander in chief.

October 17, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

Monday, October 16, 2017

"Racial Disparity in U.S. Imprisonment Across States and over Time"

The title of this post is the title of this new empirical article now available via SSRN authored by Walter Enders, Paul Pecorino and Anne-Charlotte Souto.  Here is the abstract:

The overall incarceration rate in the United States is extremely high by international standards. Moreover, there are large racial disparities, with the black male rate of imprisonment being 5.5 times the white male rate in 2014.  This paper focus on how this black-white imprisonment ratio has behaved over time within and across states. We show that the large increase in black imprisonment between 1978 and 1999 was driven by increases in the overall rate of imprisonment, while the smaller decrease which occurred between 1999 and 2014 was driven by reductions in the black-white ratio.

For many states, the black-white ratio turned upward in the mid-1980s, where this upturn may have been linked to the crack epidemic.  Many states experienced a downturn in the black-white ratio starting in the 1990s.  Whatever its other effects, this suggests that the 1994 crime bill did not aggravate the preexisting racial disparity in imprisonment. California’s experience has been strongly counter to national trends with a large increase in the racial disparity beginning in the early 1990s and continuing until near the end of our sample.

October 16, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

NFL endorses federal criminal justice reform bills

I was not familiar with professional sports leagues playing a role in modern legislative debates, but this new Washington Post piece reports that the National Football League has "decided to endorse a bipartisan bill to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders, eliminate “three-strike” provisions that require life sentences and give judges more latitude to reduce sentences for certain low-level crimes."  Here are the details:

The National Football League, still in political crosshairs over whether players should take a knee during the national anthem, is throwing its weight behind another cause in Washington’s debate over racial inequality: criminal justice reform.

The NFL’s spokesman said on Monday that the league has decided to endorse a bipartisan bill to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders, eliminate “three-strike” provisions that require life sentences and give judges more latitude to reduce sentences for certain low-level crimes.

“We felt that this was an issue over the last months, as we have continued to work with our players on issues of equality and on issues of criminal justice reform, that was surfaced for us, and we thought it was appropriate to lend our support to it,” NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart said Monday during a conference call with reporters.

The owners appear to be seeking middle ground between football players and their critics during a heated national debate over the growing phenomenon of players kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial inequality.  It is not clear what effect the NFL’s effort will have on that debate — or on President Trump, who has fueled much of the vitriol against kneeling players through his personal and official Twitter accounts....

On Capitol Hill, spokesmen for the two main sponsors of the criminal justice bill, Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), declined to comment about the timing of the NFL’s endorsement or whether it was intended to quell the heated debate over the players’ continued protests. Both said they welcomed the NFL’s support.

But a spokesman for Grassley added that the NFL had not coordinated with the bill’s congressional sponsors in advance of its decision.  In the meantime, no other sports league has signed on. A spokesman for the NFL Players Association did not immediately return a call for comment about whether the football players’ union would also endorse the bill.

In Congress, it is not clear whether the NFL’s endorsement will help the bill’s chances of passing.  The legislation has already earned the support of some influential groups from across the political spectrum, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Charles Koch Institute and Americans for Tax Reform.

In addition, the Grassley-Durbin bill is the result of a five-year, bipartisan effort. Last year, the duo released almost identical legislation backed by 37 co-sponsors, including 17 Republicans. Despite that, sponsors have struggled in years past to secure a full Senate vote for the bill, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) refusing to bring it to the floor.

October 16, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

SCOTUS grants cert on three criminal procedure issues

Before taking a break for the next two weeks, the US Supreme Court this morning issued this new order list with grants of certiorari in four new cases.  There of these cases involve criminal procedure matters, and here are brief accounts via SCOTUSblog (with links thereto):

Currier v. Virginia:  Whether a defendant who consents to severance of multiple charges into sequential trials loses his right under the double jeopardy clause to the issue-preclusive effect of an acquittal.

United States v. Microsoft Corp.:  Whether a United States provider of email services must comply with a probable-cause-based warrant issued under 18 U.S.C. § 2703 by making disclosure in the United States of electronic communications within that provider's control, even if the provider has decided to store that material abroad.

Dahda v. United States:  Whether Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2510–2520, requires suppression of evidence obtained pursuant to a wiretap order that is facially insufficient because the order exceeds the judge's territorial jurisdiction.

None of these cases get my sentencing blood racing, and the most interesting aspect of the order list for hard-core sentencing fans might be a short opinion by Justice Sotomayor (joined by Justices Ginsburg and Breyer) dissenting from the denial of certiorari in a couple of Florida capital cases in which defendants argued "that the jury instructions in their cases impermissibly diminished the jurors’ sense of responsibility as to the ultimate determination of death by repeatedly emphasizing that their verdict was merely advisory."  

October 16, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Colorado judge finds state's statutory response to Miller unconstitutionally favors certain juve defendants at resentencing

This local article reports on an interesting (and quirky?) ruling from a Colorado state judge last week finding constitutional problems with how the state responded to the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment ruling in Miller precluding any mandatory LWOP sentencing for juvenile murderers.  The full headline of the article provides the basics: "Colorado law giving a break to some serving life for crimes committed as juveniles is unconstitutional, judge rules: Judge Carlos Samour Jr. ruled state can’t set preferential sentence for offenders convicted of felony murder." Here are more particulars: 

Part of a 2016 Colorado law that offers special sentencing considerations for some of the 50 people serving life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles has been ruled unconstitutional by an Arapahoe County judge. Chief District Court Judge Carlos Samour Jr. this week entered his ruling in a case filed by Curtis Brooks, who was sentenced in 1997 to life in prison without parole after his conviction for felony murder.

The law, Samour ruled, gives preferential treatment to Brooks and 15 other offenders convicted of felony murder, offering them reduced sentences of 30 to 50 years in prison, while 34 other convicts serving life without parole could get new sentences of life in prison with the possibility of parole.  “Under the circumstances present, the court finds that the challenged provisions grant the 16 defendants a special or exclusive privilege,” his ruling says.

Brooks had applied to have his sentence reduced under the law, which the legislature passed last year. Felony murder holds defendants liable for first-degree murder if they commit or attempt certain felonies, such as burglary or robbery, and someone dies “in the course of or in furtherance of the crime.” In Brooks’ case, the owner of a car was killed by someone else as they tried to steal the vehicle. Brooks was 15.

Although Samour’s ruling is very well-reasoned, it is not binding precedent, said Ann Tomsic, chief deputy attorney for the 18th Judicial District.  Other judges probably will read Samour’s ruling and base their sentencing decisions on what he wrote, she said.... Brooks’ attorneys, including Dru Nielsen, said they could not comment on the facts of the case. Nor would they say whether they would appeal Samour’s decision....

Samour concluded that because the portion of the 2016 law applying only to those convicted of felony murder is unconstitutional, he must sentence Brooks to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

The Colorado legislature said juveniles convicted of felony murder cannot be sentenced to life without parole. Had lawmakers passed a bill that applied equally to all people convicted as an adult for crimes committed as a juvenile, it would have been constitutional, Samour said.  “What the legislature could not do, however, is what it, in fact, did: arbitrarily single out the 16 defendants and bestow preferential treatment upon them,” Samour ruled. Emphasizing his point, he wrote that the legislature cannot act as a sentencing court or a parole board.

I was unable to find on-line the formal opinion in this case, but in doing a bit of research I found this other local Colorado article from August reporting on a similar decision by another state judge which explains that Colorado prosecutors are apparently the ones objecting to the new Colorado statutory rule providing for a lower resentencing range for juveniles previously convicted of only felony murder. Here is how this other article explains the legal dynamics seemingly in play:

In his ruling, Epstein found that the state Legislature exceeded its authority when it provided the possibility of a 30- to 50-year sentence for felony murder convicts. He granted a motion by the El Paso County District Attorney's Office that attacked the law on procedural grounds, arguing that the sentencing range is unconstitutional because the reduced sentence wouldn't be available to anyone convicted of felony murder before or after the 16-year period. One of Medina's attorneys, Nicole Mooney, said prosecutors in at least three other jurisdictions have filed similar motions, and suggested that prosecutors' success in El Paso County could encourage more challenges — and embolden judges to grant them.

Prosecutor Jennifer Viehman, who mounted the successful challenge, said the 2016 law violated the state Constitution's provisions for special legislation by creating a "closed class" of beneficiaries. "You can't just single out a little special class of people, and make laws just for them," she said. "That's what the judge agreed with." Without the chance for parole after 30 years, then only one sentence is available — life in prison with the chance for parole after 40 years.

I surmise from this second article that judges are finding the distinct resentencing provisions for those convicted of felony murder to be a kind of problematic "special" legislation under Colorado constitutional law. Without expertise in state constitutional law, I cannot quite be sure if that is a sound or suspect conclusion.

UPDATE A helpful reader sent me a copy of the 48-page opinion in the Brooks case, which can be downloaded below and has the following section in its introductory paragraphs:

For the reasons articulated in this Order, the Court finds that the defendant must be resentenced, but concludes that the statutory provisions authorizing a determinate prison sentence of thirty to fifty years with ten years of mandatory parole are invalid because they constitute prohibited special legislation under the Colorado Constitution. The Court, therefore, grants the People’s motion to declare the relevant statutory provisions unconstitutional and denies the defendant’s request for a thirty-year prison sentence with ten years of mandatory parole.  In light of these rulings, and based on the legislature’s intent, the Court determines that the defendant must be resentenced to a term of life in prison with the possibility of parole after forty years.

Download Brooks - Post-Conviction Order

October 16, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, October 15, 2017

"Attorney hopes to import the best practices of European prisons to the United States"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy ABA Journal article from the October 2017 issue. Here is how it starts:

Attorney Donald Specter spent more than three decades working to protect the rights of incarcerated people before he finally saw a prison he believed in.

He was in Europe, having just won perhaps the biggest ruling of his career — a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Plata that required California to reduce its inmate population by more than 40,000. But Specter, executive director of the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office, wasn’t there to celebrate.  He was a co-instructor on a study-abroad trip about correctional practices with University of Maryland students.

This trip included visits to prisons in Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. Specter says he was blown away. The prisons were nothing like those he had spent his career trying to change in the United States.  For starters, they were physically different — built to resemble life on the outside. Inmates had their own rooms and, in some cases, were allowed to cook in communal kitchens.  But what struck Specter most was that the prisoners were treated differently, too.  “They still regarded the people in prison as members of the community who were going to return to the community,” he says. “That has a whole bunch of implications.”

Specter, who began his legal career as a volunteer at the Prison Law Office, had long been frustrated by the limits of litigation to bring about meaningful change.  In Europe, he began to wonder whether there might be a different way to approach his life’s work.  “By the end of the trip, [the students’] basic question was: Why do we have such lousy prisons when they can be so much better?” he says.  “I started thinking about whether the same kind of transformation could happen with people who were a little older and more experienced — hardened correctional officers and the like.”

In 2013, Specter launched the U.S.-European Criminal Justice Innovation Program, sponsoring weeklong tours of European prisons for U.S. corrections officials, judges and lawmakers. He funds the trips using fees from his lawsuits, including some of the $2.2 million his office was awarded after the high court’s ruling in Brown.  In that case, Specter represented prisoners who challenged the delivery of health care in the California prison system.  The high court affirmed an earlier appeals court ruling that overcrowding was the primary cause of the deficient system and ordered the state to reduce its inmate population.

Specter’s first overseas trip was with representatives from Colorado, Georgia and Pennsylvania and included stops in Germany and the Netherlands. Subsequent tours, including one this fall with officials from Alaska, have focused on Norway, which is known for the freedoms it grants eligible inmates.  So far, officials from eight states have participated, including the executive director, president and vice president of the Association of State Correctional Administrators, which has members who oversee 400,000 correctional personnel and 8 million inmates or former inmates.

Although the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world — 676 inmates per 100,000 people, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime — Specter thinks Americans still have a lot to learn about how to prepare prisoners for life on the outside.  (Norway’s incarceration rate is 80 inmates per 100,000 people.)

October 15, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Why kids don’t belong on sex offender registry"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent op-ed authored by Nicole Pittman. Here is how it starts:

California took an important step toward ending the abusive practice of putting kids on sex offender registries when Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 384, which allows juveniles to petition for their removal after five or 10 years.

When California became the first state to register children as sex offenders in 1986, there was little known about children who commit sexual offenses. At that time, treating them the same as adults seemed sensible. Today, we have research that tells us that putting them on registries does not prevent future child sexual abuse and can diminish public safety.

Roughly 200,000 people on sex offender registries — including more than 3,500 in California — went on as kids, some for serious crimes but many others for playing doctor, streaking or teenage romances.

Sex offender registration laws stigmatize and isolate the very children they were meant to protect, ensuring their youthful indiscretions follow them into adulthood. Names, photos, and addresses are often made public, leading to vigilante violence, stigmatization, and severe psychological harm. One in five attempt suicide; too many succeed. There’s also now a strong body of evidence demonstrating that very few youth commit more sexual crimes.

October 15, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6)

Pope Francis calling for evolution of formal Catholic teachings on the death penalty as always "inadmissible"

20171011T1434-12147-CNS-POPE-CATECHISM-DEATH-PENALTY-800x500As reported here via Vatican Radio, Pope Francis spoke out against the death penalty in a notable new way while addressing participants attending a meeting celebrating the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the Promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  Here is a translated account of his notable comments (with my emphasis added):

I would like now to bring up a subject that ought to find in the Catechism of the Catholic Church a more adequate and coherent treatment in the light of these expressed aims.  I am speaking of the death penalty.  This issue cannot be reduced to a mere résumé of traditional teaching without taking into account not only the doctrine as it has developed in the teaching of recent Popes, but also the change in the awareness of the Christian people which rejects an attitude of complacency before a punishment deeply injurious of human dignity.  It must be clearly stated that the death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity.  It is per se contrary to the Gospel, because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator and of which -- ultimately -- only God is the true judge and guarantor.  No man, “not even a murderer, loses his personal dignity” (Letter to the President of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, 20 March 2015), because God is a Father who always awaits the return of his children who, knowing that they have made mistakes, ask for forgiveness and begin a new life.  No one ought to be deprived not only of life, but also of the chance for a moral and existential redemption that in turn can benefit the community.

In past centuries, when means of defence were scarce and society had yet to develop and mature as it has, recourse to the death penalty appeared to be the logical consequence of the correct application of justice.  Sadly, even in the Papal States recourse was had to this extreme and inhumane remedy that ignored the primacy of mercy over justice.  Let us take responsibility for the past and recognize that the imposition of the death penalty was dictated by a mentality more legalistic than Christian.  Concern for preserving power and material wealth led to an over-estimation of the value of the law and prevented a deeper understanding of the Gospel.  Nowadays, however, were we to remain neutral before the new demands of upholding personal dignity, we would be even more guilty.

Here we are not in any way contradicting past teaching, for the defence of the dignity of human life from the first moment of conception to natural death has been taught by the Church consistently and authoritatively.  Yet the harmonious development of doctrine demands that we cease to defend arguments that now appear clearly contrary to the new understanding of Christian truth.  Indeed, as Saint Vincent of Lérins pointed out, “Some may say: Shall there be no progress of religion in Christ’s Church? Certainly; all possible progress. For who is there, so envious of men, so full of hatred to God, who would seek to forbid it?” (Commonitorium, 23.1; PL 50).  It is necessary, therefore, to reaffirm that no matter how serious the crime that has been committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.

“The Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes” (Dei Verbum, 8). The Council Fathers could not have found a finer and more synthetic way of expressing the nature and mission of the Church.  Not only in “teaching”, but also in “life” and “worship”, are the faithful able to be God’s People.  Through a series of verbs the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation expresses the dynamic nature of this process: “This Tradition develops […] grows […] and constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth, until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her” (ibid.)

Tradition is a living reality and only a partial vision regards the “deposit of faith” as something static.  The word of God cannot be moth-balled like some old blanket in an attempt to keep insects at bay!  No.  The word of God is a dynamic and living reality that develops and grows because it is aimed at a fulfilment that none can halt. This law of progress, in the happy formulation of Saint Vincent of Lérins, “consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age” (Commonitorium, 23.9: PL 50), is a distinguishing mark of revealed truth as it is handed down by the Church, and in no way represents a change in doctrine.

Doctrine cannot be preserved without allowing it to develop, nor can it be tied to an interpretation that is rigid and immutable without demeaning the working of the Holy Spirit. “God, who in many and various ways spoke of old to our fathers” (Heb 1:1), “uninterruptedly converses with the bride of his beloved Son” (Dei Verbum, 8). We are called to make this voice our own by “reverently hearing the word of God” (ibid., 1), so that our life as a Church may progress with the same enthusiasm as in the beginning, towards those new horizons to which the Lord wishes to guide us.

I have quoted this extended passage because I am struck by how much of the Pope's advocacy and themes echoes (1) Justice William Brennan's concurrence in Furman v. Georgia in which he stressed human dignity as a reason to find the death penalty per se unconstitutional, as well as (2) much Eighth Amendment jurisprudence which stresses that the "Eighth Amendment has not been regarded as a static concept" but rather has prohibitions that can and do acquire new meaning "as public opinion becomes enlightened by a humane justice" based on the "evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is not a universal view that the Pope's view on these issues is wise and in keeping with Catholic principles and teaching.  Here are two pieces from LifeSite highlighting why these latest comments on the death penalty by Pope Francis are controversial:

October 15, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Religion, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)