Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Buck's notable dis of state finality interests in "flawed" capital sentence

Though there are a number of interesting procedural and substantive elements to the Supreme Court's ruling today in Buck v. Davis reversing a Texas death sentence (basics here), I am especially intrigued by the short shrift given by the Chief Justice's majority opinion to the state's claimed interest in finality.  (Regular readers know I can get fixated on finality and have written at length about why I think convictions and sentences ought to be treated differently for finality purposes.)  Here is all that Chief Justice Roberts writing for the Court had to say about finality (with my emphasis added):

In opposition, the State reminds us of the importance of preserving the finality of judgments.  Brief for Respondent 34.  But the “whole purpose” of Rule 60(b) “is to make an exception to finality.” Gonzalez, 545 U.S., at 529.  And in this case, the State’s interest in finality deserves little weight.  When Texas recognized that the infusion of race into proceedings similar to Saldano’s warranted confession of error, it effectively acknowledged that the people of Texas lack an interest in enforcing a capital sentence obtained on so flawed a basis.  In concluding that the value of finality does not demand that we leave the District Court’s judgment in place, we do no more than acknowledge what Texas itself recognized 17 years ago.

In his dissent, Justice Thomas says the majority opinion "belittles Texas’ claimed interest in finality," and I think that is a fair characterization of the passage above.  I am also inclined to turn this belittling into a broader and enduring "Buck finality principle": a state has little or no valid interest in preserving the finality of a (capital) sentence that is obviously "flawed" in some significant way.  Though I do not expect this Buck dis of state finality interests to significantly impact finality jurisprudence, I do expect to cite this Buck the next time I need to respond to any claims that flawed sentences must be preserved in the name of finality.

February 22, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (24)

Supreme Court, voting 6-2, reverses Texas death sentence reached after defense attorney introduced expert who linked race and violence

The Supreme Court handed down three opinion this morning, and the big one for sentencing fans is the capital case from Texas, Buck v. Davis, No. 15-8049 (Feb. 22, 2017) (available here). The Chief Justice wrote the opinion for the Court, and here is that opinion's opening and some of its substantive analysis on the case's highest-profile issue:

A Texas jury convicted petitioner Duane Buck of capital murder. Under state law, the jury could impose a death sentence only if it found that Buck was likely to commit acts of violence in the future. Buck’s attorney called a psychologist to offer his opinion on that issue. The psychologist testified that Buck probably would not engage in violent conduct. But he also stated that one of the factors pertinent in assessing a person’s propensity for violence was his race, and that Buck was statistically more likely to act violently because he is black. The jury sentenced Buck to death.

Buck contends that his attorney’s introduction of this evidence violated his Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel. This claim has never been heard on the merits in any court, because the attorney who represented Buck in his first state postconviction proceeding failed to raise it....

Given that the jury had to make a finding of future dangerousness before it could impose a death sentence, Dr. Quijano’s report said, in effect, that the color of Buck’s skin made him more deserving of execution. It would be patently unconstitutional for a state to argue that a defendant is liable to be a future danger because of his race. See Zant v. Stephens, 462 U. S. 862, 885 (1983) (identifying race among factors that are “constitutionally impermissible or totally irrelevant to the sentencing process”). No competent defense attorney would introduce such evidence about his own client....

Dr. Quijano’s testimony appealed to a powerful racial stereotype—that of black men as “violence prone.” Turner v. Murray, 476 U. S. 28, 35 (1986) (plurality opinion). In combination with the substance of the jury’s inquiry, this created something of a perfect storm. Dr. Quijano’s opinion coincided precisely with a particularly noxious strain of racial prejudice, which itself coincided precisely with the central question at sentencing. The effect of this unusual confluence of factors was to provide support for making a decision on life or death on the basis of race....

[W]e cannot accept the District Court’s conclusion that “the introduction of any mention of race” during the penalty phase was “de minimis.” 2014 WL 11310152, at *5. There were only “two references to race in Dr. Quijano’s testimony”—one during direct examination, the other on cross. Ibid. But when a jury hears expert testimony that expressly makes a defendant’s race directly pertinent on the question of life or death, the impact of that evidence cannot be measured simply by how much air time it received at trial or how many pages it occupies in the record. Some toxins can be deadly in small doses.

Justice Thomas authored a dissent in Buck, joined by Justice Alito, which gets started this way:

Having settled on a desired outcome, the Court bulldozes procedural obstacles and misapplies settled law to justify it.  But the majority’s focus on providing relief to petitioner in this particular case has at least one upside: Today’s decision has few ramifications, if any, beyond the highly unusual facts presented here.  The majority leaves entirely undisturbed the black-letter principles of collateral review, ineffective assistance of counsel, and Rule 60(b)(6) law that govern day-to-day operations in federal courts.

February 22, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Reversing course, Florida Supreme Court allows capital prosecutions to proceed while state legislature still working through Hurst fix

As explained in this local article, on Monday the Florida Supreme Court issued a new ruling about the administration of the death penalty, and issue which has been a big mess for the state since the Supreme Court's Hurst ruling last year.  Here are the basics:

In what was described as an “about-face” after a previous ruling, the Florida Supreme Court on Monday ordered that death penalty cases can proceed, even with an unconstitutional law still on the books. The order came as the Legislature prepares to address a pair of Florida high court rulings last fall that struck down the state’s most recent death-penalty sentencing scheme as unconstitutional and effectively halted capital cases.

In a pair of October opinions, the state court ruled that a new law — passed in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case known as Hurst v. Florida — was unconstitutional because it required only 10 jurors to recommend death “as opposed to the constitutionally required unanimous, 12-member jury.” The October majority opinion in the case of Larry Darnell Perry also found that the new law “cannot be applied to pending prosecutions.”

But in a reversal of that decision Monday, the majority ruled that capital cases can move forward, even before lawmakers fix the statute. Attorney General Pam Bondi hailed the ruling, saying in a statement it “provides our courts with the clarification needed to proceed with murder cases in which the death penalty is sought.”...

The majority on Monday decided that the new law can be applied to pending prosecutions — and is constitutional — “if 12 jurors unanimously determine that a defendant should be sentenced to death.”

But in her dissent, Justice Barbara Pariente argued that what could be a “temporary” fix, until lawmakers address the issue, could lead to more litigation. “Such concerns are precisely why it is for the Legislature, not this (Supreme) Court, to enact legislation curing the act’s fatal 10-2 provisions, assuming the Legislature intends for the death penalty to continue to be imposed in Florida,” Pariente wrote in a dissent joined by Justice Peggy Quince.

But [House Judiciary Chairman Chris] Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said the decision “finally” tells lower courts they can proceed with capital cases. “That is what I think people within the criminal justice system would expect. What they did not expect is to have a paralysis created and that’s what the court had done. Today they have alleviated that paralysis by at least allowing cases to proceed,” he said.

Defense lawyers, however, took a harsher view. “As a society, we rely upon court precedent to determine how to interpret and apply the laws. The (Supreme) Court’s about-face within these opinions is confounding. They also seem incongruent with the court’s unanimous plea, in (a case known as) Steele, to the Legislature to fix what the court said it couldn’t,” 10th Judicial Circuit Assistant Public Defender Pete Mills, who also serves as chairman of the Florida Public Defenders Association Death Penalty Steering Committee, told The News Service. Mills was referring to a 2005 opinion in State vs. Steele in which the court urged the Legislature to require a unanimous jury vote, rather than the previous simple majority vote, in capital-case proceedings.

While Monday’s opinion may have resolved questions about how the courts can proceed, for now, it likely won’t slow down the Legislature’s rush to address the issue early in the session that begins March 7. “We still want to move it rapidly, get it up and out to make sure there’s no question that this is what the statute says and that we have a working death penalty scheme in the state of Florida,” Sprowls said.

Sprowls’ committee is slated to consider a measure (HB 527) Tuesday that would do away with the 10-2 jury recommendations and instead require unanimity for death sentences to be imposed. A Senate panel will give a final vetting to a similar proposal the following day. The issue deals only with the sentencing phase of death-penalty cases, after jurors unanimously find defendants guilty of crimes. House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, told The News Service — before the court’s decision Monday — they wanted to send a death penalty measure requiring unanimous jury recommendations to Gov. Rick Scott by the end of the session’s first week.

“My position on it is that you have about 200 death penalty cases that are in abeyance right now, because of the Supreme Court’s ruling, and I can’t think of anything more important to the family of victims and also to a person charged with a capital felony that their cases proceed justly and with due process through the criminal justice system,” Negron said Wednesday. “To me, it’s our responsibility as legislators to make sure that the law is appropriately enforced. That would be a top priority.” The cases “in abeyance” referred to more than half of Florida’s Death Row inmates who are eligible for new sentencing hearings under a separate state court ruling addressing retroactivity of the Hurst decision, which was predicated on a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case known as Ring v. Arizona.

The full Florida Supreme Court ruling discussed here is available at this link.

February 21, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Justice Sotomayor (joined by Justice Breyer) authors lengthy dissent to denial of cert in Alabama lethal injection protocol challenge

This morning, the US Supreme Court got back to work through the issuance of this lengthy order list.  The one cert grant was involves a federal criminal case, Class v. US, concerning whether a defendant who pleads guilty can still challenge the constitutionality his statute of conviction (SCOTUSblog case page here).  But the part of the order list likely to get the most attention is this lengthy dissent from the denial of certiorari  authored by Justice Sotomayor in a Alabama capital case concern lethal injection protocols.  Here is the start, heart and end of the extended opinion (which Justice Breyer joined in full):

Nearly two years ago in Glossip v. Gross, 576 U. S. ___ (2015), the Court issued a macabre challenge. In order to successfully attack a State’s method of execution as cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment, a condemned prisoner must not only prove that the State’s chosen method risks severe pain, but must also propose a “known and available” alternative method for his own execution. Id., at ___, ___ (slip op., at 13, 15).

Petitioner Thomas Arthur, a prisoner on Alabama’s death row, has met this challenge. He has amassed significant evidence that Alabama’s current lethal-injection protocol will result in intolerable and needless agony, and he has proposed an alternative — death by firing squad.  The Court of Appeals, without considering any of the evidence regarding the risk posed by the current protocol, denied Arthur’s claim because Alabama law does not expressly permit execution by firing squad, and so it cannot be a “known and available” alternative under Glossip.  Because this decision permits States to immunize their methods of execution — no matter how cruel or how unusual — from judicial review and thus permits state law to subvert the Federal Constitution, I would grant certiorari and reverse.  I dissent from my colleagues’ decision not to do so....

The decision below permits a State, by statute, to bar a death-row inmate from vindicating a right guaranteed by the Eighth Amendment. Under this view, even if a prisoner can prove that the State plans to kill him in an intolerably cruel manner, and even if he can prove that there is a feasible alternative, all a State has to do to execute him through an unconstitutional method is to pass a statute declining to authorize any alternative method.  This cannot be right....

The decision below is all the more troubling because it would put an end to an ongoing national conversation — between the legislatures and the courts — around the methods of execution the Constitution tolerates.  The meaning of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments “is determined not by the standards that prevailed when the Eighth Amendment was adopted in 1791” but instead derives from “‘the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.’” Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U. S. 407, 419 (2008) (quoting Trop v. Dulles, 356 U. S. 86, 101 (1958) (plurality opinion)).  Evolving standards have yielded a familiar cycle: States develop a method of execution, which is generally accepted for a time.  Science then reveals that — unknown to the previous generation — the States’ chosen method of execution causes unconstitutional levels of suffering.  A new method of execution is devised, and the dialogue continues.  The Eighth Amendment requires this conversation.  States should not be permitted to silence it by statute....

Twice in recent years, this Court has observed that it “has never invalidated a State’s chosen procedure for carrying out a sentence of death as the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment.” Baze, 553 U. S., at 48 (plurality opinion); Glossip, 576 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 3) (same).  In Glossip, the majority opinion remarked that the Court “did not retreat” from this nonintervention strategy even after Louisiana strapped a 17-year-old boy to its electric chair and, having failed to kill him the first time, argued for a second try — which this Court permitted. Id., at ___– ___ (slip op., at 3–4).  We should not be proud of this history.  Nor should we rely on it to excuse our current inaction.

February 21, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Front-line advocate's response to interview with former White House Counsel Neil Eggleston about Prez Obama clemency efforts

Regular readers know I am always eager to provide a forum for responses and respectful criticisms of sentencing-related activities and comments by public officials.  In that vein, I am pleased to provide here the sharp commentary sent my way by Beth Curtis, a prisoner advocate who runs the website Life for Pot.  Beth sent an extended commentary my way under the heading "Responding to: The Man Who Ran Obama’s Clemency Machine"; she was inspired to write by the recent Marshall Project interview with former White House Counsel Neil Eggleston about Prez Obama's clemency efforts (noted here).   

Beth's full commentary is available for download below, and here is a snippet to highlight why the full piece is worthy of time and attention:

For the first five years of Obama’s presidency the federal prison population grew by 13,000 incarcerated people. In 2013, the population was 214,149, the highest incarceration rate in history.

Criminal justice organizations, prisoner advocacy groups, criminal defense attorneys, law school clinics, prisoner’s families and various other lobbying groups started the drum beat for sentencing reform and an initiative of Presidential Clemency. Finally in 2013 Eric Holder announced that there would be a clemency initiative that could mean 10,000 or more acts of mercy for incarcerated people who would not be a threat if they were released.

Those of us with incarcerated loved ones who had sentences that would assure that they would die behind bars now had a reason for hope. We felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude to the President and all who were involved in the decision and the process that would lead to our loved ones freedom. We could hope to have our family member in our daily lives again. The hope was an ache, but we knew this President had compassion. It was not to be.

The lack of commitment became apparent almost immediately. I have the web site Life for Pot and the nonviolent marijuana offenders that I advocate for waited patiently for their evaluation by cp-14. Surprisingly some were rejected, and others accepted to the project and were told they would be assigned an attorney. Those fortunate inmates who were assigned an attorney would sometimes just receive a notification that they were represented and hear nothing more. We urged them to submit their own and wait.

This is not just a passing interest for me. I have a 69 year old brother, John Knock, who has two life sentences for a nonviolent marijuana conspiracy. He has been incarcerated for 20 years and never had an infraction. His prison resume is impeccable. He is a first time offender. On January 18, his clemency petition was denied by President Obama.

These are the numbers that tell you about the mercy and compassion of the Clemency Initiative. The promise was 10,000 or more. 1,715 Commutations granted – we could only find 39 for nonviolent marijuana only offenders. The rest were denied or left pending.

Over 18,000 petitions for commutation were denied. Over 4,000 petitions for commutation we closed without action. Over 8,000 petitions for commutation were left pending in the Pardon Attorney’s office for the next administration.

I must reject Mr. Eggleston’s assertion that he had better information and insight than the attorneys, advocates, or families about who was a good candidate for release. He asserts that he and President Obama looked over all the applicants and rejected all but 1,715.

Apparently Mr. Eggleston and President Obama based their denials on secret information. That implies that all the nonviolent marijuana offenders that I know who were denied should remain in prison till they die because Mr. Eggleston and President Obama have special information unknown to anyone else? What are the secrets that gave them confidence to make this Sophie’s Choice? They missed the point of Clemency. It is not a legal process but a Constitutional Power given to the President to be compassionate and merciful. In this endeavor they failed miserably.

These assertions made by Mr. Eggleston have tainted the character and behavior of all they left behind. I can only believe this was done in order to in order to burnish the administrations legacy of compassion at the expense of those they left behind without hope.

There is one secret that most of us know that the White House and the Pardon Attorney did not address. That secret is that most nonviolent offenders who receive sentences of life without parole were charged with conspiracy and went to trial. A conspiracy charge does not require definitive evidence, but only the testimony of those testifying for a plea or for part of the forfeiture. If you exercise your sixth amendment right to trial you receive the trial penalty. This charge allows the Prosecutor to tell the story.

In the spring of 2016 at a White House Briefing, it was obvious to many of us that the promise of clemency was waning and The Administration was pivoting to reentry as the major emphasis for time and money.

The White House would not pay attention to any effort to expedite the clemency project by granting clemency to categories of inmates. Many individuals and groups implored them to take this approach so that they would not fail the thousands who placed their trust in their concept of mercy. The White House and Justice Department did not seem to even understand the concept as it had been used in the past. Heals were dug in, and fates were sealed.

Download FEBRUARY 2017 CLEMENCY FAILURE

UPDATE:  For those unable to get download to work (which may be my fault, as I am working from the road), here is a link to Beth's site with her full commentary.

Prior related post:

February 19, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, February 18, 2017

BYOD in Az: spotlighting Arizona's (cheeky?) drug acquisition provision in its latest execution protocol

This AP article reports on a notable an unusual provision in Arizona's new execution protocol.  The article is headlined "Arizona to death-row inmates: Bring your own execution drugs," and here are details:

The recent revelation that condemned prisoners in Arizona can now provide the lethal drugs to be used in their executions has received attention around the world and raised questions about the state's rules for the death penalty.

The novel policy has drawn sneers from defense attorneys who were puzzled as to why the state would think that they would assist in killing their clients.  It has inspired wisecracks about Arizona's penchant for taking on envelope-pushing criminal justice policies and left some readers on social media asking whether the bring-your-own-drugs policy was actually the product of a news parody website.

Criminal defense lawyers and death penalty experts say they have never heard of a state suggesting that condemned inmates can line up drugs to be used in their executions.  However unlikely it is that any of Arizona's 119 death-row inmates will take up the offer, the change is a reflection of the difficulties that Arizona, like other states, faces in finding execution drugs now that European pharmaceutical companies have blocked the use of their products for lethal injections.

Executions in Arizona have been on hold since the 2014 death of convicted killer Joseph Rudolph Wood, who was given 15 doses of the sedative midazolam and a painkiller and who took nearly two hours to die.  The state will not be able to carry out executions until the resolution of a lawsuit that alleges Arizona has abused its discretion in the methods and amounts of drugs used in past executions.

The state hasn't publicly explained its aim in taking on the new policy, which surfaced last month in the lawsuit. The Arizona Department of Corrections, which carries out executions, didn't respond to requests for comment. The Arizona Attorney General's Office, which is defending the state in the lawsuit, declined to comment.

Under the policy, the state's top prison official would be required, in one execution drug protocol, to use the barbiturate pentobarbital that's obtained by lawyers for inmates or someone acting on their behalf.  The corrections director also would have the choice of picking one of two drug protocols involving the sodium pentothal if the barbiturate is obtained on behalf of a prisoner....

Dale Baich, an assistant federal public defender who represents the inmates in the lawsuit,... explained that the policy is unfeasible because the Controlled Substances Act prohibits attorneys and inmates from getting the drugs. "As a lawyer, I just can't go to local Walgreens and pick up a couple of vials of pentobarbital," Baich said.

It's the responsibility of the state, not condemned prisoners, to carry out executions, Baich added. The policy would seem to appeal to inmates who have abandoned their appeals and want to speed up their executions. But Baich said the Controlled Substances Act would still prevent those prisoners from getting lethal-injection drugs.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which has been critical of the way executions are carried out in the United States, said the policy also raises ethical concerns. Death-penalty lawyers are supposed to zealously represent their clients and have a duty not to take actions that harm them, Dunham said. "No one has done it before, and the fact that it is impossible, impractical, illegal and unethical may have something to do with that," he said.

Timothy Agan, a longtime criminal defense lawyer in Phoenix who has handled several death penalty cases, said he can't imagine condemned prisoners lining up to seek their own execution drugs and couldn't foresee a situation in which the policy would be used.

Arizona's revised executions protocol is available at this link, and on page 28 one finds this language (with my emphasis added):

The Director shall have the sole discretion as to which drug protocol will be used for the scheduled execution. This decision will be provided to the inmate and their counsel of record in writing at the time the state files a request for Warrant of Execution in the Arizona Supreme Court. If the inmate’s counsel or other third parties acting on behalf of the inmate’s counsel are able to obtain from a certified or licensed pharmacist, pharmacy, compound pharmacy, manufacturer, or supplier and provide to the Department the chemical pentobarbital in sufficient quantity and quality to successfully implement the one-drug protocol with pentobarbital set forth in Chart A, then the Director shall use the one-drug protocol with pentobarbital set forth in Chart A as the drug protocol for execution. If the inmate’s counsel or other third parties acting on behalf of the inmate’s counsel are unable to obtain such pentobarbital, but are able to obtain from a certified or licensed pharmacist, pharmacy, compound pharmacy, manufacturer, or supplier and provide to the Department the chemical sodium pentothal in sufficient quantity and quality to successfully implement the one-drug protocol with sodium pentothal set forth in Chart B or the three-drug protocol with sodium pentothal set forth in Chart C, then the Director shall have the sole discretion as to which drug protocol (Chart B or Chart C) will be used for the scheduled execution.

February 18, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, February 17, 2017

"The Progressive Prosecutor's Handbook"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new short piece by David Alan Sklansky now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

A growing number of chief prosecutors are winning office by pledging a more thoughtful and evenhanded approach to criminal justice — an approach more attentive to racial disparities, the risk of wrongful conviction, the problem of police violence, and the harms of mass incarceration.  But there is no roadmap for progressive prosecutors, no consensus set “best practices” for elected prosecutors who want to make criminal justice not just more effective but also fairer and more humane.

This short essay starts to develop such a roadmap.  It offers ten suggestions to reform-oriented chief prosecutors: decide in advance how you want to be judged, evaluate and reward your attorneys for what you care about, collect and share data, build in second looks, have a clear and generous disclosure policy, do not turn a profit, reduce case delays, investigate police shootings independently and transparently, pay attention to office culture, and diversity your staff.

February 17, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

"Emotional Judges and Unlucky Juveniles"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper on SSRN authored by two economists, Naci Mocan and Ozkan Eren. Here is the abstract:

Employing the universe of juvenile court decisions in a U.S. state between 1996 and 2012, we analyze the effects of emotional shocks associated with unexpected outcomes of football games played by a prominent college team in the state. We investigate the behavior of judges, the conduct of whom should, by law, be free of personal biases and emotions. We find that unexpected losses increase disposition (sentence) lengths assigned by judges during the week following the game. Unexpected wins, or losses that were expected to be close contests ex-ante, have no impact.

The effects of these emotional shocks are asymmetrically borne by black defendants. We present evidence that the results are not influenced by defendant or attorney behavior or by defendants’ economic background. Importantly, the results are driven by judges who have received their bachelor’s degrees from the university with which the football team is affiliated. Different falsification tests and a number of auxiliary analyses demonstrate the robustness of the findings.

These results provide evidence for the impact of emotions in one domain on a behavior in a completely unrelated domain among a uniformly highly-educated group of individuals (judges), with decisions involving high stakes (sentence lengths). They also point to the existence of a subtle and previously-unnoticed capricious application of sentencing.

February 15, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Interesting Q&A about Prez Obama's clemency efforts with former White House counsel Neil Eggleston

DownloadThe Marshall Project has this notable new piece that reviews Prez Obama's clemency work via an interview with former White House counsel Neil Eggleston. The piece is headlined "The Man Who Ran Obama's Clemency Machine: 'He felt strongly that this was a gift, and the gift had to be earned.'" Here are excerpts:

From one angle, former President Barack Obama was the most merciful president in U.S. history, granting commutations to more than 1,700 federal prisoners.... But his final tally was also far below earlier expectations, given that former Attorney General Eric Holder once speculated that the final number of clemency grants could reach 10,000 — one of every 19 federal prisoners. Obama also received more petitions for clemency than any recent president.

Blame has been passed around, much of it centering on the bureaucracy that emerged to handle the deluge of potential cases, as well as the role federal prosecutors played in the process. In the end, attorneys who felt they had submitted strong cases to the president often wondered why they lost. “In granting so many fewer petitions than originally projected, the administration may have done more to exacerbate the arbitrariness of the sentencing regime writ large than to remedy it,” one of those attorneys, Sean Nuttall, wrote recently at The Marshall Project.

One key figure in the process was Neil Eggleston, who served as White House counsel from April 2014 through the end of Obama’s term. We asked him to discuss the process from the inside....

How closely did President Obama look at each of the applications for clemency he received? And what did you learn about him based on how he handled them?

I would give him memos on the cases, and he would spend a long time on each one. For a significant number, he was fine with my recommendation. For others, he would say: “Why are you recommending this person to me? Look at his conduct in prison, look at his prior convictions. I’m uncomfortable that this guy is going to take advantage of a second chance.”

Or the alternative: There were times when the deputy attorney general may have recommended in favor of a commutation, and I recommended against it, and [Obama] would call me in and ask: “Why don’t you agree with this one?” Or he’d say: “Look there’s this prior conviction, I’m troubled by it, can you get me more information?”

He was really into the details. There were two parts to the way he thought. The first was he just thought a lot of these sentences from the 90’s and 2000’s were excessive. But he also felt very strongly about the idea of rehabilitation and second chances. It wasn’t enough that the person had just gotten too lengthy a sentence. He also wanted make sure these were people who would benefit from a second chance. So if someone didn’t do any programming, got into fights, had a lot of infractions, etc., I think the president was concerned they would be unlikely to do anything but go back to their life of crime when they got out. He felt strongly that this was a gift, and the gift had to be earned.

One common criticism of the process was that there were arbitrary outcomes, that two people with similar cases could be granted and denied clemency.

I think the thing the outside commentators didn’t really understand was that I had more information about these people than others did, including, frankly, their lawyers. I had records of how they performed in prison, and information about their prior crimes. And when people say there was arbitrariness it’s because they didn’t know factors that I knew. All 1,700 went through me and the small group of lawyers underneath me. And ultimately I didn’t want people in jail thinking to themselves, “How can this be?” So is there some arbitrariness? Humans making decisions will not always be perfect. But I reject the notion that there was arbitrariness....

Were you afraid that a single heinous crime by one of these released men or women would derail the whole program?

We never mentioned the words “Willie Horton.” But the answer is yes — very much so. The president wanted to make sure these were people who would take advantage of their second chances, but part of that was making sure they wouldn’t go back to jail. In the letter the president sent to released prisoners, he wrote to them that their choices “will also influence...the possibility that others in your circumstances get their own second chance in the future.” He was saying: “If you mess up, I may not be able to give clemency to other people.” It’s pretty explicit....

One criticism was that it was strange to have prosecutors — from the same department who got these sentences in the first place — weigh in on clemency decisions. Did you think about this?

I think that criticism was completely misguided and based on some sort of theoretical, potential problem. The fact is that Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, a 27-year Department of Justice prosecutor out of Atlanta, was a very strong supporter of this initiative. Loretta Lynch, too. The people who criticized their involvement did so on a theoretical conflict — not an actual conflict. It’s just not true.

That suggests the Department of Justice under incoming Attorney General Jeff Sessions could rapidly go in another direction and oppose the use of clemency.

I know Sessions publicly opposed our initiative. I hope that I’m wrong, but I worry that given his comments, this will not be pursued by the new administration. It’s going to require them to decide this is something they want to continue. I hope they do.

February 15, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Monday, February 13, 2017

Is due process violated when a plea is taken and sentence imposed on a nearly dead-drunk defendant?

I am always eager to find funny sentencing stories, but the sentencing stories that might seem funny are really never that funny.  This Omaha World-Herald article, which prompts the question in the title of this post, is one of those not-really-funny stories.  The article is headlined "Court accepts guilty plea from Omaha woman too drunk to stand, sparking concerns due process was violated," and here are the particulars:

Douglas County Judge Lawrence Barrett convened court on a Thursday morning in early February, 15 cases on his docket. The first: A 32-year-old Omaha woman accused of violating the probation term she had been given for reckless driving.

A month after Barrett had placed her on probation, Sarah E. Carr was arrested in Lincoln on suspicion of driving drunk.  Officers said her blood-alcohol content was over .15. Hence the probation violation.  Hence the Feb. 2 hearing.  Barrett called out Carr’s name.  Her aunt approached. “Your Honor, Sarah is here, but she’s passed out in the car.” Barrett: “She’s passed out in her car?”

After some discussion, the aunt and a court official went to the vehicle, pulled out a drunken Carr and loaded her into a wheelchair. What happened next shocked longtime legal observers.  Judge Barrett allowed the woman, plopped in her wheelchair, to plead guilty to a probation violation. He then found her guilty and sentenced her to 90 days in jail.  And no one protested.

After Carr received her sentence, deputies administered a breath test. Her blood-alcohol content measured .44 — 5½ times the legal limit for driving, and a level so high that it could lead to death, according to toxicology experts.

Her barely conscious plea has caused a stir in the courthouse, prompting concerns about what was done to preserve the woman’s constitutional rights to due process. Under the Fifth Amendment, a defendant must “knowingly, willingly, intelligently and voluntarily” enter a plea.  Carr has since told others she has little to no memory of being in court.  (Attempts to interview Carr at the jail last week were unsuccessful.)

After The World-Herald inquired about the case, Deborah Lee, a 16-year Douglas County public defender who represented Carr, resigned.  Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley confirmed that Lee resigned but declined to detail reasons.  Carr is far from the first defendant to show up drunk at court — especially in county courtrooms where DUIs and other drunken offenses are heard.

But courthouse veterans say this is the first case they could recall in which the typical protocol wasn’t followed when someone suspects a defendant is drunk.  In other cases, judges have had deputies or probation officers administer a breath test. T ypically, a defense attorney then asks for the case to be delayed.  The judge increases bail or revokes it.  And the defendant sobers up in jail until his or her next court date.

Riley said someone should have put a stop to the Carr hearing. “This certainly isn’t the first person who has appeared in court under the influence,” Riley said. “It was incumbent upon someone in the courtroom — whether it was our lawyer or the prosecutor or the (judge) on their own observation — to at least make further inquiry into her condition.”

Judge Barrett, a 23-year veteran of the bench and a former assistant public defender, said he hopes the woman gets help before she further harms herself. He encouraged a World-Herald reporter to listen to a digital recording of the hearing.  When the reporter asked if Carr was drunk, the judge said: “Not that I know of.” “I questioned her,” Barrett said. “She listened to everything I asked — and responded.”

Barrett’s statement that he didn’t know the woman was drunk raised eyebrows among those who observed the hearing.... An Omaha man, who was among about 30 people gathered in the courtroom, later said he was appalled at the scene, calling it a “miscarriage of justice.” An attorney in the courtroom recalled that the woman appeared “dazed and confused.”...

[Kevin] Slimp, the assistant city prosecutor, could not be reached for comment.  However, Omaha City Prosecutor Matt Kuhse said Slimp has told him that he did not know Carr was drunk. In fact, Kuhse said, Slimp had little recall of anything about the case, other than the woman being in a wheelchair.  Kuhse said city prosecutors often are balancing multiple cases — and often are having side conversations with defense attorneys while another case is being heard.

“When you notice that someone is just not getting what’s going on, we do have an obligation to step in,” Kuhse said. “That being said, I’m not convinced there’s enough evidence to show that the prosecutor should have stepped in in this case. We now know that it was a .44 (blood-alcohol level), but that’s the benefit of hindsight. My understanding is that she answered appropriately to the judge’s questions. It wasn’t like she blurted out ‘banana’ to a yes-no question.”...

Riley said he was “distressed” by the case. “Do I think the result would have been different? Probably not,” he said. “But there’s a right way to do things, and there’s a wrong way to do things. “Shame on us for not doing it the right way.” Riley said he assigned another public defender to visit Carr in jail last week. The new attorney explained to Carr that she probably would succeed if she attempted to withdraw her plea. One reason to try: Riley said his office could have argued for a lesser jail term. Barrett gave Carr the maximum term for that misdemeanor.

Carr was not interested — instead opting to focus on getting better, Riley said. “Mercifully, there would have been options to undo this,” Riley said. “I’m glad that this person wasn’t irreparably harmed. “But there were enough problems with all of this to share blame all around. I’m hopeful this will open people’s eyes up to how we should be doing things.”

February 13, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Is big data "reinforcing racial bias in the criminal justice system"?

The question in this post is prompted by this Washington Post commentary headlined "Big data may be reinforcing racial bias in the criminal justice system." The piece is authored by Laurel Eckhouse, a researcher with the Human Rights Data Analysis Group’s Policing Project at UC Berkeley, and here are excerpts:

Big data has expanded to the criminal justice system. In Los Angeles, police use computerized “predictive policing” to anticipate crimes and allocate officers. In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., machine-learning algorithms are used to set bond amounts. In states across the country, data-driven estimates of the risk of recidivism are being used to set jail sentences.

Advocates say these data-driven tools remove human bias from the system, making it more fair as well as more effective. But even as they have become widespread, we have little information about exactly how they work. Few of the organizations producing them have released the data and algorithms they use to determine risk.

We need to know more, because it’s clear that such systems face a fundamental problem: The data they rely on are collected by a criminal justice system in which race makes a big difference in the probability of arrest — even for people who behave identically. Inputs derived from biased policing will inevitably make black and Latino defendants look riskier than white defendants to a computer. As a result, data-driven decision-making risks exacerbating, rather than eliminating, racial bias in criminal justice....

We know that a black person and a white person are not equally likely to be stopped by police: Evidence on New York’s stop-and-frisk policy, investigatory stops, vehicle searches and drug arrests show that black and Latino civilians are more likely to be stopped, searched and arrested than whites. In 2012, a white attorney spent days trying to get himself arrested in Brooklyn for carrying graffiti stencils and spray paint, a Class B misdemeanor. Even when police saw him tagging the City Hall gateposts, they sped past him, ignoring a crime for which 3,598 people were arrested by the New York Police Department the following year.

Before adopting risk-assessment tools in the judicial decision-making process, jurisdictions should demand that any tool being implemented undergo a thorough and independent peer-review process. We need more transparency and better data to learn whether these risk assessments have disparate impacts on defendants of different races. Foundations and organizations developing risk-assessment tools should be willing to release the data used to build these tools to researchers to evaluate their techniques for internal racial bias and problems of statistical interpretation. Even better, with multiple sources of data, researchers could identify biases in data generated by the criminal justice system before the data is used to make decisions about liberty. Unfortunately, producers of risk-assessment tools — even nonprofit organizations — have not voluntarily released anonymized data and computational details to other researchers, as is now standard in quantitative social science research.

For these tools to make racially unbiased predictions, they must use racially unbiased data. We cannot trust the current risk-assessment tools to make important decisions about our neighbors’ liberty unless we believe — contrary to social science research — that data on arrests offer an accurate and unbiased representation of behavior. Rather than telling us something new, these tools risk laundering bias: using biased history to predict a biased future.

February 12, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, February 10, 2017

Mississippi taking steps to have firing squad, electric chair and gas chamber as execution methods again

As reported in this new Fox News piece, "Mississippi lawmakers want to bring back the firing squad, electric chair and gas chamber as execution methods, a step three other states have taken recently, but for a different reason." Here is more:

Oklahoma reintroduced the gas chamber, Utah the firing squad and Tennessee the electric chair in response to a nationwide scarcity of lethal injection drugs for death row inmates.

Mississippi legislator Andy Gipson said he introduced House Bill 638 in response to lawsuits filed by “liberal, left-wing radicals” challenging the use of lethal injection drugs as cruel and unusual punishment. "I have a constituent whose daughter was raped and killed by a serial killer over 25 years ago, and that person's still waiting for the death penalty. The family is still waiting for justice," Gipson told the Associated Press.

Gipson’s bill passed the House Wednesday, 74-43, and moves to the Senate for more debate.

Mississippi hasn't been able to acquire the execution drugs it once used, and it last carried out an execution in 2012. The state has 47 people on death row, and some have been there for decades.

The 33 states with the death penalty all have lethal injection as the primary method of execution, according to the Death Penalty Information Center and its executive director, Robert Dunham. The center says only Oklahoma and Utah have firing squads as an option; eight states have electrocution, five have the gas chamber, and three have hanging.

The firing squad became an option in Utah in 2015. That same year, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin signed legislation to use nitrogen gas as an option. Tennessee enacted a law bringing back the electric chair in 2014.

“It’s interesting that what we anticipated would happen is happening,” Dunham told FoxNews.com Friday. “As states are having difficulty obtaining drugs for lethal injections, they’re looking at different options.” He expects legal challenges in states that reintroduce old execution methods. “What you will see is when states change their method of execution, there are invariably legal challenges that arise,” Dunham said.

Jim Craig, an attorney who is suing Mississippi over lethal injection drugs, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that each of the proposed new methods of executions would be challenged in court. "Every single one, in essence, just injects a whole new series of issues in the existing case," said Craig, who is with the New Orleans-based Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center. He said with the firing squad, for example, the state would have to set protocols and procedures to reduce the risk of torture, and he doubts the Department of Corrections has prepared to do that....

Oklahoma officials told Fox 25 in November they haven’t established protocols to use nitrogen gas as a backup execution method but have heard from a company offering pain-free and mistake-free gas chamber executions. The company sent a letter to Oklahoma Department of Corrections guaranteeing the “demise of any mammalian life within four minutes,” according to the station.

February 10, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15)

Third Circuit finds death row inmates granted resentencing stuck in solitary confinement have protected liberty interests

A unanimous panel ruling by the Third Circuit yesterday in Williams v. Secretary of PA Dep't of Corrections, No. 14-1469 (3d Cir. Feb. 9, 2017) (available here) spotlights an interesting connection between death row and solitary confinement.  Here is the start of the opinion and a key paragraph from its heart:

We are asked to decide whether there is a constitutionally protected liberty interest that prohibits the State from continuing to house inmates in solitary confinement on death row after they have been granted resentencing hearings, without meaningful review of the continuing placement.  For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that there is and that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment therefore limits the State’s ability to subject an inmate to the deprivations of death row once the death sentence initially relied upon to justify such extreme restrictions is no longer operative.  However, we also hold that, because this principle was not clearly established before today, the prison officials (“Defendants”) in this consolidated appeal are entitled to qualified immunity.

Accordingly, we will affirm the district courts’ grants of summary judgment in favor of Defendants based on qualified immunity. In reaching this conclusion, we stress that this liberty interest, as explained more fully below, is now clearly established....

In our ruling today, we now explicitly add our jurisprudential voice to this growing chorus [of concerns about the use of solitary confinement]. In doing so, we rely, in part, upon the scientific consensus and the recent precedent involving non-death row solitary confinement. Those decisions advance our inquiry into the unique, yet analogous, scenario presented here. Inmates in solitary confinement on death row without active death sentences face the perils of extreme isolation and are at risk of erroneous deprivation of their liberty.  Accordingly, they have a clearly established due process right under the Fourteenth Amendment to avoid unnecessary and unexamined solitary confinement on death row.  The State must therefore afford these inmates procedural protections that ensure that continuing this level of deprivation is required for penological purposes, and is not reflexively imposed without individualized justification.

February 10, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Prez Trump in sheriffs meeting expresses support for broad civil forfeiture police powers

This Washington Post report details the notable joke Prez Trump made regarding a state legislator who apparently wants to limit police civil forfeiture powers, and highlights the broader issues raised by the surrounding discussion.  Here are the details:

At a meeting on Tuesday with sheriffs from across the country, President Trump joked about destroying the career of an unnamed Texas state senator who supported curtailing a controversial police practice for seizing people's property....

Sheriff Harold Eavenson of Rockwall County, Tex., brought up the issue of civil asset forfeiture, which allows authorities to seize cash and property from people suspected, but in some cases never convicted or even charged, with a crime. Eavenson told Trump of a “state senator in Texas that was talking about legislation to require conviction before we could receive that forfeiture money.”

“Can you believe that?” Trump interjected. “And,” Eavenson went on, “I told him that the cartel would build a monument to him in Mexico if he could get that legislation passed.”

“Who's the state senator?” Trump asked. “Do you want to give his name? We'll destroy his career,” he joked, to laughter from the law enforcement officials in the room....

While many people are unfamiliar with the practice, asset forfeiture is widespread. In 2014, federal authorities alone seized over $5 billion from suspected criminals, more than the total losses to burglary that year. That number doesn't even count seizures conducted by state and local law enforcement. Critics of asset forfeiture policies say the broad leeway afforded to law enforcement officers in most states creates a system ripe for abuse....

A 2015 ACLU investigation found that Philadelphia police routinely seized what amounted to “pocket change” from some of the city's poorest residents. A 2014 Washington Post investigation found that police seized $2.5 billion in cash from motorists not charged with crimes as part of a federal program.

When told of the practice, a large majority of Americans are opposed to it. A December 2016 survey by YouGov and the libertarian Cato Institute found that 84 percent of Americans oppose taking “a person’s money or property that is suspected to have been involved in a drug crime before the person is convicted of a crime.”...

But law enforcement groups have been resolute in their support for the practice. They say seizing money from people not charged with crimes is sometimes necessary to protect public safety, particularly in cases where it may be hard to obtain a criminal conviction against a suspect.

Law enforcement groups often cast asset forfeiture as a tool for fighting drug kingpins and foreign drug cartels, as Sheriff Eavenson implied at the White House meeting. But reports of asset forfeiture abuse suffered by American citizens have become more common. Nonetheless, police have had great success in convincing state and federal lawmakers to uphold the practice.

President Trump has not spoken much about the practice, and the White House did not immediately return a request for comment. But Trump's nominee to lead the Justice Department, Sen. Jeff Sessions, has been an enthusiastic proponent of civil asset forfeiture. In a 2015 Senate hearing, Sessions said that “95 percent” of forfeitures involve suspects who have “done nothing in their lives but sell dope.”

February 7, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Florida legislature finally moving toward really fixing its capital procedures after Hurst

As reported in this AP article, "with death penalty cases grinding to a halt across the state, the Florida Legislature is finally taking its first — and probably only steps — to fix the law so prosecutors can resume cases once again." Here is more:

Legislators are moving ahead with a measure that would require a unanimous jury verdict in cases where the death penalty is being sought. Just a year ago legislators rejected the idea, but the state Supreme Court last October struck down a 2016 law that said the death penalty could be imposed after a 10-2 jury vote.

A Senate panel on Monday approved a bill requiring a unanimous jury verdict and a similar measure is being considered in the state House. The legislation could be among the first bills passed and sent to Gov. Rick Scott when the session officially kicks off in March.

"It is important that we have an orderly system of justice in place for both families of victims and individuals charged with serious crimes," said Sen. Randolph Bracy, an Ocoee Democrat who sponsored the bill. "This legislation removes ambiguity from our death penalty statute, which will help reduce delays in due process for all parties involved in death penalty cases."

Bracy's bill, however, doesn't address other questions raised by recent court decisions, including whether or not the state's nearly 400 current death row inmates deserve a new sentencing hearing if a jury did not unanimously recommend the death penalty. Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for Senate President Joe Negron, said he wants to keep the legislation narrow to get it passed quickly....

Bracy wanted to amend his bill so all current death row inmates would be treated the same but said he didn't have the votes to get the proposal adopted. Sen. Jeff Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat, complained that legislators should be taking a comprehensive look at the death penalty to avoid having to deal with the issue year after year. But he said that some legislators are concerned they would look "weak" on the death penalty.

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee reported that there are more than 300 death penalty cases pending across the state, including 66 that are now ready for trial. Prosecutors have put some of these trials on hold while they wait for the Legislature to act.

February 7, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, February 06, 2017

Idaho judge includes celibacy for teen sex offender on intensive probation

As reported in this local article, after "sentencing a 19-year-old Twin Falls man to a year-long therapeutic prison program on a rape charge last week, a judge added an unusual caveat should the teen successfully complete the program and be placed on probation." Specifically:

“If you’re ever on probation with this court, a condition of that will be you will not have sexual relations with anyone except who you’re married to, if you’re married,” 5th District Judge Randy Stoker said.

The judge’s unusual proclamation was made during the sentencing of Cody Duane Scott Herrera, who pleaded guilty to the statutory rape of a 14-year-old girl in March 2015. Now, legal scholars are questioning whether the judge could hold Herrara to his warning.

Stoker said the condition would be put in place in part because Herrera told presentence investigators he’s had 34 sexual partners. “I have never seen that level of sexual activity by a 19-year-old,” Stoker said. Prosecutors also revealed Herrera, who could face more sex-related charges involving an underage girl, has had fantasies about a 13-year-old girl and watches pornography depicting rape.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare “did not designate Mr. Herrera as a sexual predator,” Stoker said during his sentencing, “though there seems to be an argument that could be made for that.”

The victim’s mother, making a victim-impact statement, certainly believed Herrera was a predator. “It was his intent from the beginning to take what he wanted from my 14-year-old child — her virginity,” the victim’s mother told the court. “And he stayed around until he got it from her. Cody will never understand what he has done to our family. Cody robbed her of her innocence. He destroyed the child left in her. This can never be returned.”

Stoker sentenced Herrera to an underlying prison sentence of five to 15 years, but suspended the sentence in favor of the year-long rider program. If Herrera successfully completes the program, he’ll be released to probation, and, according to Stoker, a life of celibacy unless he weds.

But that probation condition might be illegal or unenforceable, according to Shaakirrah R. Sanders, an associate professor at the University of Idaho College of Law. “I would suspect (a judge can’t do that),” Sanders said. “I think it infringes on his constitutional rights.” While judges “have quite a bit of discretion” in creating special probation terms, Sanders said, they can’t violate the federal or state constitution. “I think if he appealed, he would win,” Sanders said.

Twin Falls County Prosecutor Grant Loebs said he did think Stoker would be able to impose the probation condition.  “The judge has the ability to tell people to do or not do all sorts of things that are (otherwise) legal and constitutional,” Loebs said, pointing out that abstaining from alcohol is a condition of most probations.

“A judge’s purpose is to keep them from committing another offense,” Loebs said. “A judge has right to order things to keep him from doing that … I don’t think this goes beyond what a judge is allowed to do.”

I have personally always viewed probationary conditions that prohibit alcohol more than a bit suspect, but I know that they are regularly imposed and have often been upheld when sufficiently linked to the offense of conviction. With that background, I think the prosecutor here has a reasonable basis for arguing that this celibacy condition could be upheld if challenged. Then again, even though sex and alcohol often are linked, some significant distinctions might be made in this context were there to be legal appeals by the defendant here.

February 6, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

"Why we should free violent criminals"

The title of this post is the headline of this Boston Globe commentary authored by By David Scharfenberg. Here are excerpts:

The drug war, [some experts] say, is not the major force behind America’s huge prison growth over the last several decades. In fact, less than 20 percent of the country’s 1.5 million prisoners are serving time for such offenses. Free them all tomorrow, and the United States would still have the largest prison population in the world — larger than Russia, Mexico, and Iran combined.

Violent crime is a much more important driver, with almost half of prisoners doing time for offenses like murder and robbery. To make a real dent in mass incarceration, experts say, the country will have to do the difficult work of freeing more of these criminals sooner. “We put all of our attention — almost all of our attention — on things that aren’t nearly as important as the things we ignore,” says Fordham Law School professor John Pfaff, author of the forthcoming book “Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform.”

Pfaff says the criminal justice reform movement had to start with talk of greater leniency for nonviolent offenders.  It couldn’t leap right to a discussion of, say, cutting murderers’ sentences down to a European-style 10 years. But now, he says, it’s time for something more. Not all “violent crime” is as serious as the phrase would imply. In some states, burglarizing a house when no one is home is considered a violent offense. And what about the 18-year-old robber who was carrying a gun but didn’t actually use it?

As for long sentences, it’s true that they play a role in driving prison growth.  “Three strikes” laws, mandatory minimums, and other tough-on-crime measures have increased time served for all kinds of offenders — pot dealers and violent criminals alike.  A Pew analysis of state prison data showed that prisoners released in 2009 served 36 percent longer than those who were released in 1990.

But at three years, the average prison term is shorter than the conventional wisdom would suggest. Pfaff argues that the real concern is not sentence length, but serving any time in prison at all. Whether you serve 12 or 16 months, he says, the impact is the same. Upon release, convicted felons have a hard time getting decent jobs or good housing. And with the odds heavily stacked against them, they’re more likely to reoffend.

The criminal justice reform movement, Pfaff argues, needs a reorientation — and a willingness to show mercy for prisoners beyond the proverbial nonviolent drug offender.  That means diverting more people — whatever their offenses — away from the system, thereby sparing them from a criminal record. And there’s only one way to do that, he says: Change the behavior of the most powerful actor in the criminal justice system, the prosecutor....

Over the last couple of decades, Pfaff’s research shows, they’ve become ever-more aggressive about seeking jail time. In the mid-’90s, prosecutors filed felony charges against about one in three arrestees.  By 2008, it was more like two in three. Why are prosecutors getting more aggressive? Maybe because they’re more politically ambitious, Pfaff theorizes. They may think a tough-on-crime record can be parlayed into a run for higher office. Or maybe the police are developing stronger cases, using more surveillance-camera footage, for example.

Whatever the cause, the impact has been enormous.  The push to file more felony charges, Pfaff writes in his forthcoming book, is the single most important factor in the growth in prison admissions since crime started dropping in the early-’90s.  One solution: legislate a reduction in prosecutorial power.  Pfaff suggests creating detailed charging guidelines that would force prosecutors to steer more offenders away from the prison system.

Getting that sort of thing on the books will be difficult though; prosecutors have substantial clout in state legislatures and don’t want to see their power diminished . Which is why advocates may have better luck urging district and state attorneys’ offices to change from within and produce more flexible prosecutors.

February 6, 2017 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Thursday, February 02, 2017

"The Predictable Disarray: Ignoring the Jury in Florida Death Penalty Cases"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now available via SSRN authored by Michael Radelet and G. Ben Cohen. Here is the abstract:

Both the United States Supreme Court, and the Florida Supreme Court have now made it clear that the Florida death penalty statutes that have been in use over the past 45 years are unconstitutional.  This result has been predicted since the original adoption of the statutes, and made clear by the Supreme Court's decisions in Sullivan v. Louisiana, Apprendi v. New Jersey, and Ring v. Arizona.

How the courts address the 393 prisoners currently on Florida's death row, sentenced to death under an unconstitutional statute, is yet to be determined. This paper reviews the history of the Florida death penalty statutes and provides a census of cases in Florida.

February 2, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

"Say no to restorative justice for sex offenders"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable commentary published in The Hill authored by Michael Dolce.  Here are some of the details:

The debate around the Senate’s possible confirmation of Betsy DeVos, President-elect Trump’s nominee for Education Secretary, should kick start a national discussion on how colleges and universities handle sexual assault.  Recently, much of that conversation has revolved around “restorative justice,” programs that aim to respond to misconduct or crime by redressing the harm inflicted on victims and the community, rather than simply punishing offenders.

As a victim of childhood sexual abuse myself and an attorney who now represents sexual assault survivors every day, I can say without doubt that restorative justice is not only horribly insufficient for handling sexual abuse but, in many cases, actually serves to leave an offender free to offend again.

Whether as an alternative or a supplement to traditional discipline, restorative justice programs require offenders to make amends with victims — often with apologies and mediation — and participate in reformative programs like anger management or cultural sensitivity training, measures rarely imposed by the criminal justice system.  In an education setting, employing these programs for offenses like racial harassment and alcohol misuse have had some success, leading to understandable calls from some criminal justice reform advocates and college administrators to expand their use to college sexual misconduct cases.

It’s true that our colleges and universities routinely fail victims of sexual assault, as last year’s abhorrent handling of the Brock Turner case at Stanford University reminded us.  It’s also true, as the Chicago Tribune reported late last month, that the future of campus sex assault investigations under President Trump are “uncertain,” particularly since GOP convention platform calls for a reduced federal government role in investigations of campus sexual assault.

But, for several important reasons, restorative justice is not the answer for handling sex offenders. First, this method only works if offenders feel empathy when confronted with the impact of their misconduct.

According to prominent forensic psychology researchers Drs. Daryl Kroner and Adelle Forth, about half of convicted sex offenders exhibit psychopathology, meaning they are incapable of feeling remorse or empathizing with their victims. Sex offenders are often skilled at manipulating others into believing they are safe, which helps them gain their victims’ trust before attacking....

Second, advocates for restorative justice programs in this context often make the flawed assumption that sex offenders are similar to repeat offenders of other habitual offenses like drunk driving. But while underage drinking and alcohol abuse are certainly a common problem on university campuses, alcohol does not turn a college student into a sex offender. In fact, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, some offenders actually drink alcohol before committing sexual assault specifically to later justify their behavior. Relying on restorative justice to ‘treat’ this group would be a dangerous validation of their criminal deceit.

The third common argument – that schools might be safe relying on restorative justice methods in cases of sexual harassment that don’t involve physical assault – is risky at best. Those who sexually harass others are objectifying and dehumanizing their victims, behavior that is often a prelude to assaults....

The reality is that I believe the majority of sex offenders are largely incapable of empathy. Two-thirds of male sex offenders will re-offend if they are not treated and restrained as criminals. The consensus among mental health and criminal justice professionals is that most sex criminals cannot be reformed; they can only be monitored, controlled and contained.

These are people who look at the tears and agony on victims’ faces, show no mercy and then quickly move on to their next victim. Restorative justice can be a wonderful tool for certain types of offenses, but let’s not ask victims of sexual assault to suffer an even greater burden by making them take part in their attackers’ so-called “reformation.”

February 1, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (19)

Sunday, January 29, 2017

"A Better Approach to Violent Crime"

The title of this post is the headline given by the Wall Street Journal to John Pfaff's extended weekend commentary about crime and punishment in the United States. The subheadline provides a better summary of the themes of the extended essay: "If we’re going to end mass incarceration in the U.S., it will mean figuring out better ways to prevent violent crimes and to deal with those who commit them." John's analysis of modern mass incarceration is always in the must-read category, and here are some extended excerpts from this latest piece that help highlight why:

If we are serious about ending mass incarceration in the U.S., we will have to figure out how to lock up fewer people who have committed violent acts and to incarcerate those we do imprison for less time.

There is an obvious rejoinder, of course: Don’t we need to keep people convicted of violence locked up for long periods? Isn’t this how we’ve kept the crime rate down for so long? The answer to both of those questions is, “No, not likely.” Simply put, long prison sentences provide neither the deterrence nor the incapacitation effects that their proponents suggest. (There may be moral arguments for long sentences, but that is a separate issue from public safety.)...

Violence is a phase, not a state. People age into violent behavior and age out of it: A 24-year-old is more violent than a 7-year-old or a 60-year-old. It’s true that some people are more prone to violence than their peers, but almost everyone exhibits some sort of bell-curved trajectory of violence over their lives. Young men are simply more prone to violence than any other demographic group.

It is almost impossible, however, to predict how violent a young person will be in the future. Imposing harsh sanctions for a first violent act needlessly detains many people who are not serious future risks.  In addition — and somewhat counterintuitively — by the time a person in his 30s has generated a long criminal history suggesting that he poses a continuing risk, he is likely to have started “aging out” of crime, violent behavior in particular.

A prominent study of hundreds of at-risk men that tracked their behavior from ages 7 to 70, for example, found that most started to engage in crime in their late teens and began to stop in their mid to late 20s. Only about 10% continued to offend consistently into their 30s, and only about 3% did so at high rates.

California has tested this proposition. Since 2012, the state has granted early release to over 2,000 people convicted under its harsh three-strikes law, and their recidivism rate has been about a 10th of the state average (4.7% vs. 45%) — due in no small part to the fact that those released early are often in their 40s and 50s and thus no longer likely to offend. ​

Whether aimed at younger or older defendants, lengthy incapacitation often imposes substantial, avoidable costs — not just on prison budgets but on society at large, which loses many people who might otherwise be productive citizens.  A long prison sentence also undermines someone’s ability to find the stabilizing influence of a job or a spouse, thus increasing the long-run risk that he will reoffend.

The good news is that a growing number of proven tactics can keep violent crime low, and perhaps reduce it even further, without relying as much on prison. If governments lock up fewer people for violent crimes, they can use some of the savings to help fund these alternatives.

One widely adopted approach is what experts call “focused deterrence,” which was first tried, with great success, in Boston in the mid-1990s. Aimed at reducing the violence associated with gang membership, the program brings gang members together with the police, social-service providers and respected members of the local community. They are told that if violence continues, the police will crack down quickly and severely. Those who agree to put violence behind them, however, are offered help with housing, education, drug and alcohol treatment and other services, and community leaders make a moral plea to them.  Such programs have had a significant effect on street violence in many places. Nine of the 10 high-quality studies that have been done on focused deterrence report strong impacts — a 63% decline in youth homicides in Boston, a 35% decline in murders among “criminally active group members” in Cincinnati and so on. ​

A related but less conventional approach called “Cure Violence” has been tried in New York City and Chicago (and even as far afield as Rio de Janeiro and Basra, Iraq). This program treats gun violence as a public-health problem: If left “untreated,” a shooting will be transmitted to another victim, thanks to retaliation. The idea is to interrupt that cycle, relying on people like former gang members (as opposed to the police) to help shooting victims and their friends and family find other, nonviolent ways to resolve the conflict.

Like focused deterrence, this approach also seeks to provide at-risk youth with access to resources, ranging from housing to entertainment. In New York City, a study conducted between 2010 and 2012 found that areas where Cure Violence operated had experienced 20% fewer shootings as compared with similar areas. Conversely, shootings in Chicago began to rise sharply shortly after a stalemate over the state budget resulted in a drastic cut in funding for Cure Violence in March 2015. The biggest increases in lethal violence occurred in those neighborhoods where the program had been used most widely.

Another key tactic is “hot-spot policing.” Crime is generally concentrated in particular neighborhoods.  Some studies have found that half of all urban crimes take place in under 10% of all city blocks.  In Chicago, nearly 45% of the increase in murders between 2015 and 2016 occurred in only five neighborhoods, home to just 9% of the city’s population. Hot-spot policing identifies these high-crime blocks and significantly increases patrols and community involvement there.

It has produced significant results, even in nearby neighborhoods not subject to increased enforcement, which suggests that people are not simply changing where they commit crimes. The Philadelphia Foot Patrol Experiment, for example, identified 120 blocks that had high levels of violent crime and then assigned additional patrol officers to 60 randomly selected blocks for three months. Hot spots with extra patrols experienced a 23% drop in violent crime relative to those that didn’t. A comprehensive review of the hot-spot literature found that 20 out of 25 tests reported “noteworthy crime control gains.”...

Prison, in short, is by no means the only effective way to respond to violent behavior.  In fact, compared with these programs, prison is likely one of the least efficient approaches that we have.  The declines in incarceration over the past six years are worth celebrating.  But they are modest, in no small part because politicians are understandably afraid to confront a fundamental source of prison growth: our shortsighted policies on violent crime.

If we really hope to scale back our sprawling prison system, we must send fewer people to prison for violent crimes and keep those we do lock up for less time.  Fortunately, we can preserve the tremendous reductions of violence we have experienced over the past 25 years with smarter, safer and more humane approaches.

January 29, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, January 26, 2017

"Strict Liability's Criminogenic Effect"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Paul Robinson now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

It is easy to understand the apparent appeal of strict liability to policymakers and legal reformers seeking to reduce crime: if the criminal law can do away with its traditional culpability requirement, it can increase the likelihood of conviction and punishment of those who engage in prohibited conduct or bring about prohibited harm or evil.  And such an increase in punishment rate can enhance the crime-control effectiveness of a system built upon general deterrence or incapacitation of the dangerous.  Similar arguments support the use of criminal liability for regulatory offenses.  Greater punishment rates suggest greater compliance.

But this analysis fails to appreciate the crime-control costs of strict liability.  By explicitly providing for punishment in the absence of moral blameworthiness, the law undermines its moral credibility with the community and thereby provokes subversion and resistance instead of the cooperation and acquiescence it needs for effective crime control.  More importantly, the system's lost moral credibility undermines the law’s ability to harness the powerful forces of stigmatization, social influence, and internalized norms.  Given the serious limitations inherent in the real-world application of general deterrence and preventive detention programs, the most effective crime-control strategy is to build the criminal law's reputation for being just, which means avoiding the use of strict liability. 

January 26, 2017 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Michigan Supreme Court to take up intersection of Apprendi and Miller for juve LWOP sentencing

This local article reports on the notable decision of the top court in Michigan to consider the procedures for deciding whether a juvenile murderer may be sentencing to life without parole.  Here is the backstory:

The Michigan Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether a jury or a judge can decided to send youth offenders to prison for life.  The court issued a decision to hear the arguments in the Tia Skinner case Tuesday, the latest decision that could impact youth-lifers across the state.

In August 2015, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled the Yale woman convicted in the 2010 killing of her father and attempted murder of her mother should be sentenced by a jury after a hearing to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the killing reflects "irreparable corruption."

St. Clair County Prosecutor Mike Wendling challenged that ruling and asked the Supreme Court to intervene. He said the defense's argument is that a life sentence to a child is the same as a death penalty, which requires a jury to decide. "It's not the same as being put to death," Wendling said.

During the same period, a different panel from the court of appeals ruled a judge should be the one to decide on a life sentence in a juvenile case out of Genesee County. Because of the conflicting rulings, a special conflict panel was assembled by the court of appeals, and in July it ruled judges should handle the re-sentencings.

The legalities of how to re-sentence youth offenders follows the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that automatic life sentences to those under 18 constituted cruel and unusual punishment. That decision impacts four St. Clair County cases — Skinner, Raymond Carp, Michael Hills and Jimmy Porter....

If a jury is required to set the sentence, Wendling said his office will have to decide if the Skinner, Porter and Hills cases can be successfully recreated for a jury. He said victims and family will also weigh on that decision.

As the title of this post suggests, I think it is more the Apprendi line of jurisprudence than capital jurisprudence that really serves as a basis for contending a jury must make the key finding to permit a juve LWOP sentence. For complicated reasons, I do not think Apprendi must or even should be interpreted to impact Miller-required re-sentencings, but I can understand why some may be inclined to apply Apprendi and Miller this way.

January 26, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Blakely in the States, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Questions about guilt phase theory of case and misconduct surround Texas death row inmate schedule for next execution

Texas is scheduled to carry out its second execution of 2017 tomorrow, but there are some seemingly serious questions about the guilty theory of the case and the prosecution's conduct.  A local article and a Slate commentary provides the particulars:

January 25, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (20)

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

"Judge Gorsuch & Johnson Resentencing"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new commentary now on SSRN authored by Leah Litman about the latest "hot name" to replace Justice Scalia on the Supreme Court.  Here is the first paragraph:

Jan Crawford has reported that President Donald Trump is strongly considering appointing Judge Neil Gorsuch of the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit to the U.S. Supreme Court. I do not know Judge Gorsuch, but I do know his opinion in Prost v. Anderson, which is a rather wonky case on a somewhat technical area of federal habeas law. Prost provides an interesting insight into Judge Gorsuch’s jurisprudence.  The case concerns an issue on which the court of appeals disagree, and so it provides a nice glimpse into how Judge Gorsuch might address matters that are reasonably susceptible to different resolution, as many of the Supreme Court’s cases are.  Prost illustrates how Judge Gorsuch will balance competing considerations of fairness and administrability in criminal law.  While there is much to like about Prost — it is well written, clearly reasoned, and adopts an administrable rule — the opinion also raises some concerns. The opinion overvalues proceduralism relative to substantive rights in a way that will have the effect of eroding litigants’ access to courts.

January 24, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Making the case again against mandatory minimums

Mark Holden has this new op-ed, given the headline "Mandatory minimums are a crime in themselves," which discusses the well-known case of Weldon Angelos and then articulates the effective arguments against mandatory minimum sentencing statutes generally. Here are excerpts:

America's criminal justice system is broken. Too many of our fellow citizens are rotting behind bars, unable to atone for their mistakes, contribute to their communities and lead lives of meaning and fulfillment. It's not just a crisis — it's a crime in and of itself.

If you don't believe us, just go to the Sundance Film Festival this weekend. There you'll see a trailer for a new documentary about Weldon Angelos and his firsthand experience with the criminal justice system.  As a lawyer with Koch Industries, I learned about Weldon Angelos when he became the poster child for the unfair and unjust sentences that are all too common, especially for low-level and nonviolent offenders....

Even though he was a first-time, nonviolent offender [convicted of multiple marijuana distribution and gun possession charges], Weldon Angelos received a staggering 55-year prison sentence with a release date of October 2051. He would have received a shorter sentence for being a murderer or terrorist....

Weldon's story, thankfully, has a happy ending. Last May, after 12 years in prison, a federal court granted him an immediate reduction to his sentence. In a show of true compassion, the federal prosecutor who prosecuted him in the first place initiated this effort. Weldon has since returned to his family and his life — a life that only months ago seemed would be spent behind bars.

Yet the laws behind such grossly unjust punishments are still on the federal books. So are many other mandatory sentencing laws. Rolling them back — or repealing them outright — is one of the most important reforms before Congress.

This is especially important for federal drug offenders, over 260,000 of whom have been sentenced under mandatory minimums. Distressingly, 86 percent of current drug offenders in federal prison committed nonviolent crimes, and the same number were low-level offenders.

The case against mandatory minimum sentencing laws is simple. While initially created with good intentions, they typically do far more harm than good. Mandatory minimums empower prosecutors to a dangerous degree. They alone have the power to bring charges against offenders — if they bring ones associated with high mandatory minimums, the judge has little choice but to accept it, even if other charges might be more appropriate. Nowhere else in America's criminal justice system are judges and juries so powerless.

And while they are supposed to lower crime rates, studies have shown that mandatory minimums have had only a minor effect at best. Hardened criminals — the real bad guys — are still usually able to get favorable deals, while low-level ones get stuck with the harshest possible sentences. Last but not least, mandatory minimums create perverse incentives for the police themselves. If authorities truly felt Weldon was a threat to public safety, they would have arrested him the first time he sold marijuana to the informant. Instead, law enforcement allowed him to sell drugs two more times to enhance the sentence. This is fundamentally unjust.

The evidence points to the inescapable conclusion that mandatory minimums must be reformed, and fast. Congress has an opportunity to make law enforcement jobs less dangerous, enhance public safety for all, bring communities together, and help countless people improve their lives — people like Weldon Angelos. It's time to restore justice to America's criminal justice system.

January 22, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

Friday, January 20, 2017

You be the judge: what federal sentence for "Dance Mom" star after her guilty plea to financial crimes?

Abby-lee-millerI am not ashamed to admit that some years ago the reality show "Dance Moms" was a regular watch in the Berman home.  My dancing daughters found engaging how the young dancers in the show stood up to the pressures created by teachers and parents; I was amazed at how the adult star, Abby Lee Miller, created a media sensation despite having no obviously distinctive talents.  But now, as this local article highlights, headlined "'Dance Moms' TV star faces sentencing in federal court," Abby Lee Miller is now of interest to me for a very different reason. Here are the details:

“Dance Moms” TV star Abby Lee Miller, convicted of hiding assets from bankruptcy court and sneaking cash into the U.S. to conceal it, says she shouldn’t go to federal prison. Ms. Miller, whose real name is Abigale Miller, is asking U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti for probation.

But the government says she has shown no respect for the law — at one point she sent an email to her accountant using a vulgar term in referring to the bankruptcy judge handling her case — and deserves the two years to 30 months called for by federal sentencing guidelines.

Ms. Miller’s sentencing will start today. A second day has been set aside to finish it on Feb. 24. The unusual format was necessary because the sentencing is likely to be contentious enough to require two days and the judge also is handling the ongoing drug trial of former Pittsburgh Steelers doctor Richard Rydze.

Ms. Miller became a federal felon in June when she pleaded guilty to concealing assets from her TV show from federal bankruptcy court in Pittsburgh. She also admitted that she sneaked cash into the country in plastic bags stuffed into luggage after returning from dance trips in Australia. In pre-sentencing filings, Ms. Miller gave an accounting of her past, saying her family-run Penn Hills dance studio was in financial trouble in the late 2000s because of her lack of financial knowledge and a drop in enrollment caused by the global economic crisis and the decline of Penn Hills. She declared bankruptcy in 2010.

But when her reality TV show took off in 2011, she and her lawyer said, she suddenly became a star and didn’t know how to handle the fame that it brought. She soon became overwhelmed. “She was simply ill-equipped to manage her good fortune,” wrote attorney Brandon Verdream. He said she always intended to pay off her creditors at 100 percent and has admitted that what she did was wrong. “It was a foolish decision to skirt the law and she has accepted a felony conviction as the wages of her frivolity,” Mr. Verdream wrote.

He and Ms. Miller, who had been splitting time among homes in California, Florida and Penn Hills, also pointed to all of the people she has helped over the years as one reason she should not be jailed, including the 40-some dancers she has trained who went on to professional careers on Broadway and elsewhere. Mr. Verdream presented many letters on her behalf and asked Judge Conti to impose a “non-custodial” sentence.

But federal prosecutors say the guidelines don’t allow for probation and Ms. Miller’s calculated conduct warrants time behind bars. Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Melucci said that Ms. Miller had numerous opportunities during her bankruptcy to set the record straight about her assets, yet chose to lie repeatedly.

Among his exhibits are emails and texts she sent showing her contempt for the court and her intent to hide income even after warnings. After being dressed down by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Thomas Agresti in February 2013, for example, she sent an email to her accountant describing the judge using a derogatory term and complaining that he hated her because he was making her pay all of her creditors back at once.

Judge Agresti showed plenty of irritation at Ms. Miller as her schemes became apparent, Mr. Melucci said. At one hearing in 2012, he found out she hadn’t revealed her income from 2012 and had also struck TV show contracts without disclosing them in an amended bankruptcy plan. After she complained that she didn’t even know about the contracts, he’d had enough. “And she can shake her head and protest all she wants and go through her TV face, that’s not going to affect me, ma’am, and I’d prefer you stop it, OK?” the judge told her. “Let’s be a little stoic here. These are very serious problems you have, and a failure to disclose.”

Mr. Melucci also said her attempt to transport cash into the U.S. shows that she continued “her scheming ways” even after being caught hiding assets from bankruptcy. “It is apparent that Miller is not easily deterred by the threat of criminal prosecution,” he wrote, “even standing before a federal judge.” Judge Agresti discovered Ms. Miller’s fraud by chance. He said he was channel-surfing one night, came across her TV performances and realized she had more money than she was revealing in her Chapter 11 filings.

The U.S. Attorney’s office said she tried to hide about $755,000 from the bankruptcy trustee. In the other case, prosecutors said she did not report money that she transferred from Australia into the U.S. after trips there in 2014 to conduct dance instruction classes before large audiences. Mr. Melucci said she and her entourage brought back about $120,000 in cash tucked into Ziploc bags in amounts less than $10,000 and hidden in their luggage. Among the government’s exhibits is a photo of the cash bundles seized.

January 20, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, January 19, 2017

SCOTUS adds a qualified immunity case to its docket

Amy Howe at SCOTUSblog has this new post explaining why the Justices issued a couple cert orders today and detailing the particulars of the two cases taken up by the Court.  Here is part of that post that should interesting criminal justice fans:

With the Supreme Court closed tomorrow for the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump, the justices met today, one day early, for their private conference.  One week after adding 16 new cases to their docket, today the justices granted review in two more — potentially filling out their merits docket for the term.

The first grant came in District of Columbia v. Wesby, a case that presents important questions regarding the assessment of probable cause by police officers and qualified immunity.  The case arose when police officers in Washington responded to a noise complaint about a vacant house, where they found scantily clad women and the smell of marijuana. No one seemed to know who owned the house or precisely what the occasion was, but some of the partygoers told police that they had been invited by someone named “Peaches” or “Tasty” — who was not at the party, but who admitted that she did not have the owner’s permission to use the house.

 The partygoers were arrested for trespassing, but no charges were ever brought against them. The partygoers then filed a lawsuit, in which they alleged that the police lacked probable cause to arrest them because they had told police officers that they had been invited to the house and therefore did not intend to trespass.

The federal trial court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit agreed with the partygoers and further ruled that the police officers were not entitled to qualified immunity. The court of appeals denied the city’s motion for rehearing en banc; in dissent from that denial, Judge Brett Kavanaugh wrote (among other things) that this “should be a fairly easy case for qualified immunity.”

The court had relisted Wesby a whopping eight times. Multiple relists can often signal either that the justices are considering a summary reversal — that is, without briefing or oral argument on the merits — of the lower court’s decision or that a justice is writing a dissent from the denial of certiorari, but today the justices instead agreed to review the case on the merits.

January 19, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Using execution protocol with midazolam, Virginia completes second execution of 2017

As reported in this Reuters piece headlined "Virginia inmate executed despite arguments against drug 'cocktail'," Virginia carried out an execution last night that was notable in part because of the type of lethal injection drugs acquired and utilized.  Here are the details:

Ricky Gray, 39, died by lethal injection at 9:42 p.m. at the Greensville Correctional Center, Virginia Department of Corrections spokeswoman Lisa Kinney said in an emailed statement.

Gray's lawyers filed an emergency petition with the Supreme Court on Tuesday, saying that the three-drug combination could cause Gray unnecessary suffering and thereby violate constitutional guarantees against cruel and unusual punishment.  Kinney told reporters after the execution there did not appear to be any complications with the injection.

According to Gray's stay request, the execution marks the first time a U.S. state has used two of the drugs — midazolam and potassium chloride — provided by a compounding pharmacy. Gray's lawyers argue that compounding pharmacies typically follow an informal recipe attempting to approximate the patented process approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration....  Gray's attorneys say that midazolam has already failed to render prisoners unconscious during executions in Alabama, Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma.

Pharmaceutical manufacturers have stopped making some drugs available for use in executions, and Virginia state law allows the vendor's identity to remain secret. Arizona last month reached a settlement with lawyers for death row inmates that would bar midazolam from use in executions.

Gray was sentenced to die for the 2006 slayings of sisters Ruby Harvey, 4, and Stella Harvey, 9, in Richmond. He also killed their parents, Bryan Harvey, 49, and Kathryn Harvey, 39. His accomplice, Ray Dandridge, was sentenced to life. The pair also killed Ashley Baskerville, 21, who had been a lookout when Gray killed the Harveys as well as her mother, Mary Tucker, 47, and stepfather Percyell Tucker, 55.

Gray has said he is willing to die by firing squad, which is not an option for executions in Virginia. Gray's execution marks the second in the United States this year.

I believe the execution protocol used in Virginia in this instance is similar to the protocol that Ohio wants to use to get back into the execution game next month, and thus I suspect Ohio correction officials are hoping this execution sets a precedent allowing Ohio to move forward. Ohio, notably, has had only one execution over the last three years because of problems acquiring lethal injection drugs. But if they get these problems worked out, there is every reason to suspect the state may get back into the habit of completing five or more executions every year because it has dozens of death row inmates with "serious" execution dates.

January 19, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

A revised empirical look at outcomes achieved by federal public defenders and court-appointed attorneys

In this post from this past summer I noted an intriguing empirical paper posted on SSRN by Yotam Shem-Tov in which the authored, after taking a deep dive into "data from all multiple defendant cases in federal courts between 2001-2014," reached the finding that "that defendants assigned a public defender in co-defendant cases had slightly worse outcomes."  A few federal public defenders let me know that the author was checking his data after receiving feedback, and the revised paper now, available here, carries a slightly different title and a significantly different key finding in its abstract:

"An Investigation of Indigent Defense Systems: Public Defenders vs. Court-Appointed Attorneys" by Yotam Shem-Tov

Abstract: To provide essential, constitutionally mandated legal services for defendants without financial means, US courts employ indigent defense systems composed of private court-appointed attorneys and public defenders’ organizations. I investigate the public defender’s causal effect on defendant sentencing outcomes relative to private court-appointed attorneys using a new “twins design” identification strategy. I argue and show empirically that in multiple defendant cases the decision of who is assigned to the public defender organization in jurisdiction X, a large urban locality, can be treated as close to a randomized experiment, which can be utilized to measure the effectiveness of court-appointed private attorneys relative to public defenders. I find that public defenders out-perform court-appointed attorneys in a range of sentencing outcomes. Employing a similar identification strategy in federal courts finds that public defenders perform at least as well if not better then court-appointed attorneys in multiple defendant cases. I provide strong evidence of selection in the assignment of attorney types to defendants in both jurisdiction X and federal courts, which makes a naıve comparison invalid and misleading.

My understanding is that the new empirical analysis now more properly accounts for the fact that public defenders typically will represent the lead defendant (and thus the one usually most culpable defendant) in multiple defendant cases, and thus a proper analysis needs to account for this critical variable.

January 19, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Top Massachusetts court adopts "new protocol for case-by-case adjudication" of over 20,000 drug convictions tainted by misconduct of lab chemist

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today issues a huge new ruling to try to resolve a huge old problem caused by drug lab misconduct. The start of the opinion in Bridgeman v. District Attorney for the Suffolk District, No. SJC 12157 (Mass. Jan. 18, 2017)(available here), provides the back-story and the essential:

We once again confront the tragic legacy of the misconduct of Annie Dookhan when she was employed as a chemist at the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute (Hinton lab). In Bridgeman v. District Attorney for the Suffolk Dist., 471 Mass. 465, 487 (2015) (Bridgeman I), the petitioners and the intervener, the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), asked that we exercise our broad powers of superintendence to vacate the thousands of drug convictions affected by Dookhan's misconduct because the time and expense of case-by-case adjudication had become "untenable."  We declined at that time to adopt their proposed "global remedy."  However, the district attorneys have now provided the single justice with lists identifying more than 20,000 defendants who could be eligible for relief based on Dookhan's misconduct but who have not yet sought relief from their drug convictions.  As a result of the number of potentially aggrieved defendants, the single justice issued a reservation and report to the full court that essentially invites us to reconsider whether the time has come for a global remedy or whether further steps must be taken to realistically implement the remedy of case-by-case adjudication of potentially thousands of motions for a new trial.

After such reconsideration, we decline to adopt the district attorneys' argument that we should stay the course we had previously set and take no further action to protect the rights of the "relevant Dookhan defendants."  We also decline to adopt the petitioners' request for a global remedy in which we would either vacate the convictions of all relevant Dookhan defendants with prejudice, and thereby bar any reprosecution, or vacate the convictions without prejudice, and allow the Commonwealth one year to reprosecute, dismissing with prejudice all cases not reprosecuted within that time period.

We instead adopt a new protocol for case-by-case adjudication, which will occur in three phases, and order its implementation by the single justice in the form of a declaratory judgment.  In the first phase, the district attorneys shall exercise their prosecutorial discretion and reduce the number of relevant Dookhan defendants by moving to vacate and dismiss with prejudice all drug cases the district attorneys would not or could not reprosecute if a new trial were ordered.  In the second phase, new, adequate notice shall be approved by the single justice and provided to all relevant Dookhan defendants whose cases have not been dismissed in phase one.  In the third phase, CPCS shall assign counsel to all indigent relevant Dookhan defendants who wish to explore the possibility of moving to vacate their plea or for a new trial.  If the number seeking counsel is so large that counsel cannot be assigned despite CPCS's best efforts, the single justice will fashion an appropriate remedy under our general superintendence authority for the constitutional violation, which may include dismissing without prejudice the relevant drug convictions in cases where an indigent defendant is deprived of the right to counsel.

We recognize that the implementation of this protocol will substantially burden the district attorneys, CPCS, and the courts.  But we also recognize that Dookhan's misconduct at the Hinton lab has substantially burdened the due process rights of many thousands of defendants whose convictions rested on her tainted drug analysis and who, even if they have served their sentences, continue to suffer the collateral consequences arising from those convictions.  And we recognize as well that, more than four years after Dookhan's misconduct was revealed, more than 20,000 defendants who are entitled to a conclusive presumption that egregious government misconduct occurred in their case have yet to receive adequate notice that they may have been victimized by Dookhan's misconduct, that they may file a motion to vacate their drug conviction, and that they have a right to counsel to assist them in the preparation of such a motion.  The remedy we order, challenging as it is to implement, preserves the ability of these defendants to vindicate their rights through case-by-case adjudication, respects the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, and maintains the fairness and integrity of our criminal justice system in the wake of a laboratory scandal of unprecedented magnitude.

January 18, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Extended dissent laments First Circuit panel's rejection of Eighth Amendment attack on 160-year sentence for stash house participant

I just notices a lengthy and blog-worthy opinion issued by the First Circuit late last week in US v. Rivera-Ruperto, No. 12-2364 (1st Cir. Jan 13, 2017) (available here).  The start and final substantive paragraphs of the majority opinion provides the factual background for the Eighth Amendment claim and its formal fate:

This case arises out of a now-familiar, large-scale FBI investigation known as "Operation Guard Shack," in which the FBI, in an effort to root out police corruption throughout Puerto Rico, orchestrated a series of staged drug deals over the course of several years.  For his participation in six of these Operation Guard Shack drug deals, Defendant- Appellant Wendell Rivera-Ruperto stood two trials and was found guilty of various federal drug and firearms-related crimes. The convictions resulted in Rivera-Ruperto receiving a combined sentence of 161-years and 10-months' imprisonment.....

At oral argument, counsel for Rivera-Ruperto argued that we should be swayed by the fact that, in this case, the crime involved fake drug deals.  A near two life-term punishment where no real drugs and no real drug dealers were involved, he contended, is a punishment that is grossly disproportionate on its face. But in coming to this sentence, the judge below was guided by and correctly employed a sentencing scheme that is written into statute -- a statute that makes no distinction between cases involving real versus sham cocaine.  At each of the six stings, in fact, Rivera-Ruperto repeatedly and voluntarily showed up armed and provided security services for what he believed to be illegal transactions between real cocaine dealers.  The crime of possessing a firearm in furtherance of such a drug trafficking offense is a grave one, and Congress has made a legislative determination that it requires harsh punishment.  Given the weight of the case law, we see no Eighth Amendment route for second-guessing that legislative judgment.

We thus cannot conclude that Rivera-Ruperto has established that his sentence, which is largely due to his consecutive sentences under § 924(c), is grossly disproportionate to the crime, so as to trigger Eighth Amendment protections.

The start and end of Judge Torruella's 35+-page dissent provides a much fuller primer on the Eighth Amendment and one judge's concerns about its application in this case:

The majority today affirms a sentence of 160 years and one month without the possibility of parole for Rivera-Ruperto. The transgression for which Rivera-Ruperto was punished in such an extreme manner was his participation as a security guard in several fake transactions, while the FBI duped Rivera-Ruperto into believing that the composite was actually illegal drugs. The FBI ensured that more than five kilograms of composite moved from one agent's hands to another at each transaction; the FBI also made sure that the rigged script included Rivera-Ruperto's possession of a pistol at each transaction. This combination -- more than five kilograms of composite, a pistol, and separate transactions -- triggered the mandatory consecutive minimums of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), which make up 130 years of Rivera-Ruperto's sentence.

In a real drug transaction, all participants would be guilty of a crime. And, in general, the greater their knowledge of the crime would be, the harsher the law would punish them. In the fictitious transaction we are faced with today, however, only the duped participants, who had no knowledge of what truly transpired, are punished. The other participants are not only excused, but indeed rewarded for a job well done.

If Rivera-Ruperto had instead knowingly committed several real rapes, second-degree murders, and/or kidnappings, he would have received a much lower sentence; even if Rivera-Ruperto had taken a much more active role in, and brought a gun to, two much larger real drug deals, he would still have received a much lower sentence. For these and many other crimes Rivera-Ruperto would have received sentences that would see him released from prison during the natural term of his life. For the fictitious transgressions concocted by the authorities, however, Rivera- Ruperto will spend his entire life behind bars -- a sentence given to first-degree murderers, 18 U.S.C. § 1111, or those who cause death by wrecking a train carrying high-level nuclear waste. 18 U.S.C. § 1992.

From the majority's approval of the draconian sentence imposed in this case, I respectfully dissent. Rivera-Ruperto's sentence is grossly disproportionate to his offense, and therefore violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. While some seemingly excessively harsh sentences have withstood Eighth Amendment challenges, such harsh sentences have been sanctioned only in the context of recidivists or those who otherwise dedicated themselves to a life of crime -- a context that explained the severity of the sentences. But Rivera-Ruperto has no criminal record, nor has he dedicated himself to a life of crime.  Not even under the infamous § 924(c) has a first-time offender like Rivera-Ruperto ever been condemned to spend his entire life in jail....

Never before has a first-time offender who has not dedicated his life to crime been condemned to spend his entire life in prison for a transgression such as Rivera-Ruperto's, not even in cases in which the transgression was real -- and Rivera's-Ruperto's transgression is fictitious.

The Government has effectively asked this court to pronounce the Eighth Amendment dead for sentences for a term of years. I respectfully refuse to join in this pronouncement. "Unless we are to abandon the moral commitment embodied in the Eighth Amendment, proportionality review must never become effectively obsolete." Graham, 560 U.S. at 85 (Stevens, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, JJ., concurring).

January 17, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3)

NY Times editorial rightly notes Prez Obama's clemency failings, especially with respect to pardons

This New York Times editorial, headlined "Mr. Obama, Pick Up Your Pardon Pen," properly laments the fact that Prez Obama has used his clemency power much more for commutations than for pardons, and it even takes some astute shots at the Prez for how his has gone about his commutations.  Here is some of the criticism:

For more than four decades, Sala Udin lived under the shadow of a federal firearms conviction, the result of a search by the Kentucky police who found an unloaded shotgun in the trunk of his car in 1970.

Mr. Udin, who had been a Freedom Rider during the civil rights era, carried the gun for protection as he drove around the South.  After eight months in prison, he lived an exemplary life, serving on the Pittsburgh City Council and playing a role in the city’s redevelopment.  But when President Obama visited Pittsburgh in 2009, Mr. Udin wasn’t allowed to meet him: His criminal record prevented such an encounter.

Last month, Mr. Obama issued Mr. Udin a pardon — one of just 148 pardons the president has granted during his two terms in office.  It is an abysmally low number for a president who has stressed his commitment to second chances and the importance of helping convicted people re-enter society.

The White House has been trumpeting Mr. Obama’s use of his clemency power in the last two years, especially his nearly 1,200 commutations of prison sentences, more than the last several presidents combined.  Most of these inmates were serving outrageously long terms, including life without parole, for nonviolent drug crimes. Commuting those sentences is meaningful progress, even if Mr. Obama could and should have started much earlier and released thousands more deserving people.

But when it comes to the other type of executive clemency — pardons — Mr. Obama hasn’t been an improvement over his predecessors. Unlike a commutation, which shortens or ends a prison sentence, a pardon is an act of forgiveness granted to someone who has completed a sentence. Pardons remove the stigma of conviction and restore the right to hold office, to vote, to obtain certain business licenses and to own a gun — all activities that can be denied those with criminal records.

The reluctance to grant pardons makes even less sense than a reluctance to give out commutations, since the sentences have already been served and there is no public safety concern. In both cases, the trouble rests with the people acting as the gatekeepers of mercy. The clemency process is run out of the Justice Department, where career prosecutors have little interest in reversing the work of their colleagues. It’s a recipe for intransigence, dysfunction and injustice on a mass scale....

There is a better way. In both liberal and conservative states, from Delaware and Connecticut to Nebraska and Georgia, the pardon process is more predictable and transparent. Some states require independent boards to make pardon recommendations to the governor; others hold regularly scheduled public hearings. All take the executive’s job of granting mercy seriously, which makes those grants both more fair and more common.

On Mr. Obama’s first Inauguration Day, in 2009, President George W. Bush gave him a good piece of advice: Pick a pardon policy and stick with it. Perhaps President-elect Donald Trump will learn from Mr. Obama’s failure to heed that wisdom.

Though this is an effective editorial, it might also have noted that federal law lacks any mechanism for getting a criminal record sealed or expunged and thus a Presidential pardon is the only method for a former federal offenders to get his record cleaned. This reality makes pardon practice all that much more important at the federal level, though it also should at some point prompt federal lawmakers to consider creating a needed statutory mechanism for record sealing or expungement as exists in so many states.

January 17, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 16, 2017

SCOTUS to confront implication for immigration statute of Johnson vagueness ruling

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral argument in Lynch v. Dimaya, which comes to the Justices as part of the aftermath of their big 2015 Armed Career Criminal Act vagueness ruling in Johnson v. United States.  Over at SCOTUSblog here, Kevin Johnson has this preview of the case. It starts this way:

The U.S government targets noncitizens with criminal convictions for removal from the United States.  These efforts have allowed President Barack Obama’s administration to deport approximately 2.5 million noncitizens during Obama’s eight years in office, more than any other president in American history.  On several recent occasions, the Supreme Court has found that the administration went too far and has set aside orders of removal of criminal offenders that it has found to be inconsistent with the immigration statute. For example, in Mellouli v. Lynch, in 2015, the court held that a state misdemeanor conviction for possession of drug paraphernalia did not justify removal.  In 2013, in Moncrieffe v. Holder, the justices found that a lawful permanent resident’s conviction for possession of a small amount of marijuana — now legal in many states — did not mandate removal.  Next week, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Lynch v. Dimaya, another criminal-removal case, but one with potentially far-reaching constitutional implications.

A noncitizen, including a lawful permanent resident, who is convicted of an “aggravated felony” is subject to mandatory removal.  The Immigration and Nationality Act defines “aggravated felonies” expansively to include crimes, including some misdemeanors, that run the gamut from murder to virtually any drug and firearm offense.  That definition incorporates 18 U.S.C. §16(b), known as the “residual clause,” which defines a “crime of violence” to encompass “any … offense that is a felony and that, by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense.”

In 2015, in Johnson v. United States, the court, in an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia, struck down as unconstitutionally vague the Armed Career Criminal Act’s definition of “violent felony,” which included crimes that “involve conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”  The Johnson court held that the statutory language “fail[ed] to give ordinary people fair notice of the conduct it punishes, [and was] so standardless that it invite[d] arbitrary enforcement.”

Born in the Philippines, James Garcia Dimaya has lived in the United States as a lawful permanent resident since 1992.  Based on Dimaya’s two California burglary convictions, the U.S. government sought to remove him from the United States.  Finding that burglary was a “crime of violence” under Section 16(b)’s residual clause and thus an “aggravated felony,” an immigration judge ordered Dimaya removed.  The Board of Immigration Appeals agreed.  In a rare decision finding a removal provision of the U.S. immigration laws to be unconstitutional, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit concluded that Section 16(b) was void for vagueness.

January 16, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

After reviewing tens of thousands of requests, Obama Administration reportedly finds a few hundred more prisoners worthy of clemency

Anyone hoping Prez Obama would go out of office this week with a huge clemency bang will likely be disappointed to see this new Washington Post report headlined "Obama to commute hundreds of federal drug sentences in final grants of clemency."  I have been assuming Obama would make news with a few hundred more grants, but I know some advocates were hoping there would be perhaps thousands of commutations as Obama heads for the Oval Office exit.  Here instead is what we can expect after seemingly a whole lot of work by a whole lot of lawyers and DOJ officials:

Justice Department officials have completed their review of more than 16,000 clemency petitions filed by federal prisoners over the past two years and sent their last recommendations to President Obama, who is set to grant hundreds more commutations to nonviolent drug offenders during his final days in office.

“Everyone has killed themselves here to get the final recommendations to the president,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates said in an interview. “We were in overdrive. We were determined to live up to our commitment. It was 24-7 over the Christmas break.” U.S. Pardon Attorney Robert A. Zauzmer has not taken a day off since Yates brought him on in February 2016 to sift through the backlog of thousands of petitions. From her home in Atlanta, Yates said she reviewed hundreds of petitions during the holidays.

As President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take office, Justice officials worry that his administration will dismantle Obama’s clemency initiative, which has resulted in the early release of 1,176 drug offenders who were sentenced under the severe mandatory minimum laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s during the nation’s “war on drugs.” More than 400 were serving life sentences. Yates said Obama will grant “a significant” number of commutations this week, but would not specify a number. Several people close to the process said it will be several hundred.

Those officials also fear that the next attorney general may undo new criminal justice policies. Then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. put in place a policy three years ago to reserve the most severe drug-offense penalties for high-level or violent drug traffickers — and no longer charge low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with crimes that impose severe mandatory minimum sentences. Justice Department data indicate that prosecutors are now focusing on more-serious drug cases, and there have been fewer charges that carry mandatory sentences.

Neither Trump nor his attorney general-nominee, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), has said what actions might be taken on drug charging policy or clemency, but during his campaign, Trump criticized Obama’s initiative to grant commutations. “Some of these people are bad dudes,” he said. “And these are people who are out, they’re walking the streets. Sleep tight, folks.”...

At several points during the past two years, it appeared that Obama’s clemency initiative might have been derailed, partly by a lack of resources but also by a cumbersome review process. After Holder and then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole began the effort in the spring of 2014, thousands of inmates applied. To help them with their petitions, outside lawyers formed an organization called Clemency Project 2014, which includes Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

About 4,000 volunteer lawyers signed up to help in what has become one of the largest pro bono efforts in the history of the legal profession in the United States. Once the lawyers submitted the petitions, the U.S. pardon attorney made recommendations to the deputy attorney general, who reviewed the cases and sent them to the White House counsel, who also reviewed them before choosing which ones went to Obama.

When Yates arrived at Justice in the spring of 2015, the clemency program was overwhelmed and bogged down. Advocates criticized the inefficient process and urged the Obama administration to pick up the pace for the inmates waiting for relief from unfair sentences. “There wasn’t an apparatus set up,” Yates said. “When I arrived, they were doing the best they could . . . but we didn’t really have a playbook.”

Early last year, more than 9,000 clemency petitions were pending, and the pardon attorney at the time was so frustrated that she quit.  Yates brought on Zauzmer, a longtime federal prosecutor, who prioritized applications so that Justice lawyers could focus on inmates who met the criteria: Inmates had to have served at least 10 years; had no significant criminal history; no connection to gangs, cartels or organized crime; and probably would have received a “substantially lower sentence” if convicted today.

“These are big decisions that you’re making,” Yates said, alluding to the public-safety risks and the need to provide a “sophisticated analysis” to the president. “If it’s to let someone out of prison early, earlier than what their original sentence was, you’ve got to be careful about those decisions,” she said. “There’s lots of people whose current offense or conviction is a nonviolent drug offense . . . but you have to look at their past as well and at their criminal history.  You have to look at their conduct [in prison].”

Not all inmates who have been granted clemency will be released immediately or even in a number of months. Last summer, the Obama administration began granting clemency to some inmates by reducing their sentences; in some cases, they will remain in prison for years.  At the end of August, Yates announced that she would review and give Obama a recommendation on every petition from a drug offender that was still in the department’s possession at that time — about 6,195 petitions.  She did that, and included several hundred petitions received through Sept. 15, after her cutoff date.  She also reviewed petitions that came in as late as Nov. 30 from drug offenders serving life sentences. By last Friday, the final number of petitions reviewed was 16,776. “Sally deserves a lot of credit,” Holder said in an interview. “She set this goal of looking at every drug-clemency petition, and they accomplished that.”

I want to give DAG Yates and Pardon Attorney Zauzmer lots and lots of credit for all their efforts, and I will also give some credit to Prez Obama for ultimately making clemency an 11th hour priority.  But given that Prez Obama set of modern record for fewest clemencies during his first term in office, and especially because he leaves in place the same troublesome clemency process that has contributed to problems in the past, I will still look at Obama's tenure largely as an opportunity missed.  

January 16, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Questioning a new term of supervised release after Prez Obama commutes a life sentence

This new article at The Fix highlights an interesting legal issue that has arisen in the wake of Prez Obama's decision to commute a drug offenders life sentence.  Here are the particulars (with a few edits for keeping the legal terminology accurate):

When Jimmy Walden was granted clemency by President Obama, it was the happiest day of his life.  Walden was locked up on May 19, 2008 and given a life sentence under federal sentencing guidelines for a very minor drug offense in Tennessee.  On August 4, 2016, Walden received an Executive Grant of Clemency commuting his total trial sentence of imprisonment to expire on August 3, 2018.  He was ecstatic, but then he got a letter from the court informing him that they wanted to impose a 10-year term of supervised release. The court hadn’t deemed it necessary at the time due to Walden’s life sentence, but since he was getting out, his judge now wanted to impose [supervised release], which in effect is another sentence.

“I was arrested in September 2007.  My case was possession with attempt to distribute crack cocaine and marijuana,” Walden tells The Fix from Federal Correctional Institution, Jesup in Georgia. “They arrested me and wanted me to tell. I refused and went to trial. They found me not guilty of count one and guilty of counts two to five.  They gave me life from enhancing me because of my priors.”

The two priors were for very small amounts of crack. Walden got caught with 1.3 grams the first time and .5 grams the second time. He was charged with possession with intent to sell. He was sentenced to probation in both cases.  But the federal government used those two priors to trigger the career criminal statute and sentenced Walden to life. He was effectively doing life for around 50 grams of crack cocaine.  That’s why Obama pardoned him, because he was serving a disproportionate sentence....

But at the same time he was getting congratulated on his presidential commutation, he received a disconcerting letter from the sentencing court saying that even though his judge omitted to sentence him to [supervised release] at his original sentencing, the judge now wanted to impose a term of supervised release on Walden once he was released. The judge went back and did a re-do, issuing an order that would amend a judgement that was final nine years ago. If Walden tried to get back in court on some issue and change his sentence, he’d be time barred by the court — but it seems the court can do as it pleases when it comes to drug war prisoners, while those unjustly incarcerated must follow the rules....

For some clarity on the matter, The Fix reached out to some clemency experts — P.S. Ruckman Jr., a professor of political science who runs the Pardon Power blog, and Margaret Love, the former pardon attorney under former President Bill Clinton — to get their opinions on the legalities involved with pardons and what the courts can or can’t do in this situation. “The president has the power to grant commutations of sentence, with or without conditions,” Ruckman tells The Fix....  “Presidents have commuted sentences on the condition that prisoners never drink again, that they live with their parents, that they leave D.C., that they join the army, that they leave the United States and never return, etc. In the past, prisoners have refused attached conditions and chosen to remain in prison.  My understanding is that this was a conditional pardon.”

If 10 years [supervised release] was one of the conditions of clemency like attending the Bureau of Prisons’ Residential Drug Abuse Program was then Walden has to accept it as part of the clemency grant or stay in prison like Ruckman said. No one would do that, but if the 10 years supervised release wasn’t a condition of the grant of clemency, then the court shouldn’t have any right to impose it. That would be illegal.

“I understand that the president’s commutation order did not mention a term of supervised release,” Margaret Love tells The Fix. “In any case, the pardon power does not authorize the president to impose a new sentence (which is what a term of supervised release is). The court's power to amend the original judgment to impose a new sentence of supervised release at this point, or to impose any conditions on his release, seems highly doubtful. At this point the court has no power to impose a term of supervised release, effectively a new sentence.”...

Pursuant to Rule 36, the court sent notice to Walden that it intends to amend the Judgment and Commitment Order to correct the Court's omission of failing to impose mandatory terms of supervised release as required by the statute. The court intends to order that all terms of supervised release run concurrently for a net effective term of 10 years of supervised release. The court also intends to impose the Standards Conditions of Supervision that have been adopted by his Court. The court appointed a public defender and informed Walden that he could object to the imposition of the term of supervised release.

“I objected,” Walden says.  “The point is I have remained in zero trouble inside prison. The president gave me clemency because he believed in me.  The judge now wants to add 10 years supervised release onto my sentence after my sentence has been final for over nine years. This is a violation of due process. As an inmate I have no legal way to get back into court. They had their chance at sentencing.  I disagree with this reasoning and I have filed a statement that I object to this addition with my attorney.  This is an interesting situation. Many people seem interested in the outcome.  It is illegal and should be brought to the public's attention.”

Even Walden’s public defender wasn’t sure about the legalities involved in this case, “I am currently reaching out to defenders across the nation to see if they have input on whether this is permissible post-grant of clemency,” she wrote him. Currently the public defender is in the process of making a supplement to the objections that Walden has. Plus other prisoners who received clemency grants from Obama have not received letters from their judge and court attempting to amend a judgment that is already final. Walden is ready to get on with his life without [supervised release] hovering over his head.

“I would like to drive trucks after getting my CDL license,” Walden says. “I thank God for another chance. I have this desire to drive trucks and see the country at the same time. Perhaps I will have a chance to speak to younger people and explain to them how unwise choices have consequences. I can stop youth from making the same mistakes I have. I am blessed that Obama came into office and helped me, or I’d be just another number serving life behind bars. There may not always be a President Obama around to give people another chance. I will definitely take the opportunity to prove to people like the President-elect that some people are deserving of a second chance.  I would certainly not want to mess up someone down the line from getting the same relief as me.”

The legal issue here strikes me as an interesting mix of functionalities and technicalities.  There was, of course, no functional reason for the sentencing judge to impose any term of supervised release at initial sentencing when imposing an LWOP sentence. But now that a commutation has resulted in an offender getting released after serving less than a decade, there now is a functional reason for imposing at least some SR term (which would have been a required part of the sentence had the defendant been sentenced to less than LWOP).  But, technically, I think there is a forceful argument that if the Prez did not include the addition of an SR term in his clemency grant, then it is improper for the original sentencing judge to now add that on to the defendant's original (now commuted) sentence.

Notably, the White House clemency page reports that the "1,176 men and women" who have had their prison sentences commuted by Prez Obama includes "395 individuals who were serving life sentences." Thus there are literally hundreds of individuals who could have this kind of post-commutation issue arise (although I doubt all sentencing courts are going to be as proactive as the court that added 10 years of supervised release to Walden's sentence).

January 16, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (20)

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Nebraska Supreme Court decides "undocumented status" can be proper, but not conclusive, sentencing factor when deciding on probation sentence

As reported in this local article, headlined "Immigration status can be used to help decide sentencing, Nebraska Supreme Court says," the top court in the Cornhusker State handed down an interesting ruling late last week. Here is the effective press summary of the decision:

A person’s immigration status can be considered when deciding if someone should be sentenced to probation rather than jail, though it cannot be the sole factor, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled Friday. It was the first time the state’s highest court has weighed in on the issue of whether criminal defendants can be denied probation solely because they are in the country illegally.

Jose Cerritos-Valdez had appealed after being sentenced to 230 days in jail and a $500 fine for two misdemeanors, attempted possession of a controlled substance and driving under the influence. His driving privileges were revoked for one year.

During sentencing, Sarpy County District Judge David Arterburn expressed reluctance to sentence Cerritos-Valdez to probation. One condition of probation is to obey all laws, and to do that, the judge said, would require Cerritos-Valdez to leave the country, because he was in the United States illegally. Arterburn also said he’d like to get some guidance on the issue from a higher court.

The Supreme Court’s ruling, written by Judge Stephanie Stacy, said that while this is an unsettled area of law, a consensus has formed in other courts that defendants cannot be denied probation solely because they are in the country illegally.

The full ruling in Nebraska v. Cerritos-Valdez is available at this link, and here is the heart of the court's nuanced analysis (with footnotes/cites removed):

This case presents the narrow question of whether a defendant’s undocumented status is a relevant consideration when determining whether to grant or deny probation.  We have not previously considered this question, but other courts have.  

While the law in this area is not well settled, a consensus has developed that it is impermissible for a sentencing court to deny probation based solely on a defendant’s undocumented status.  Beyond that broad proposition, courts differ on when, or for what purpose, a sentencing judge may properly consider a defendant’s undocumented status when deciding whether to impose probation.

Generally, in discussing whether it was proper to consider a defendant’s undocumented status in connection with deciding whether to impose a sentence of probation, other courts have focused on whether the defendant’s status implicated other relevant sentencing considerations.  For instance, some courts have held it is appropriate to consider the effect of a defendant’s undocumented status on his or her ability or willingness to comply with conditions of probation.  Other courts have reasoned that a defendant’s undocumented status or a history of repeated illegal reentry into the U.S. may demonstrate an “unwillingness to conform his or her conduct to the conditions of probation” or show that a probation sentence would not “be at all effective” for that defendant.  Still others have held that the undocumented status of defendants may be considered as it relates to their criminal history.  At least one court has noted that a defendant’s undocumented status is properly considered as it relates to the defendant’s employment history or legal employability.  And we note that in some instances, defendants have specifically asked the sentencing court to consider their undocumented status, arguing it would be error not to consider it.

Based on the foregoing, we agree that a defendant’s status as an undocumented immigrant cannot be the sole factor on which a court relies when determining whether to grant or deny probation; however, a sentencing court need not ignore a defendant’s undocumented status.  When deciding whether to grant probation, a defendant’s undocumented status may properly be considered by a sentencing court as one of many factors so long as it is either relevant to the offense for which sentence is being imposed, relevant to consideration of any of the required sentencing factors under Nebraska law, or relevant to the defendant’s ability or willingness to comply with recommended probation conditions.

January 15, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 13, 2017

Supreme Court grants cert on four new criminal cases and a dozen others

After a seemingly long quiet period of avoiding taking on too many new cases, the Supreme Court this afternoon issued this order list which grants cert on 16(!) new cases.  I believe these four cases from the list are the only criminal ones, with links to case pages and descriptions via SCOTUSblog:

WEAVER, KENTEL M. V. MASSACHUSETTS: Whether a defendant asserting ineffective assistance that results in a structural error must, in addition to demonstrating deficient performance, show that he was prejudiced by counsel's ineffectiveness, as held by four circuits and five state courts of last resort; or whether prejudice is presumed in such cases, as held by four other circuits and two state high courts.

MASLENJAK, DIVNA V. UNITED STATES: Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit erred by holding, in direct conflict with the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 1st, 4th, 7th and 9th Circuits, that a naturalized American citizen can be stripped of her citizenship in a criminal proceeding based on an immaterial false statement.

McWILLIAMS, JAMES E. V. DUNN, COMM'R, AL DOC, ET AL.:  Whether, when this court held in Ake v. Oklahoma that an indigent defendant is entitled to meaningful expert assistance for the “evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense,” it clearly established that the expert should be independent of the prosecution.

DAVILA, ERICK D. V. DAVIS, DIR., TX DCJ : Whether the rule established in Martinez v. Ryan and Trevino v. Thaler, that ineffective state habeas counsel can be seen as cause to overcome the procedural default of a substantial ineffective assistance of trial counsel claim, also applies to procedurally defaulted, but substantial, ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claims.

Most of these cases look intricate, and maybe Maslenjak could even be viewed as a kind of sentencing case. But, on first look, I see no brewing blockbusters.

UPDATE: Over at Crime & Consequences here, Kent Scheidegger shares some initial reactions to this quartet of new SCOTUS criminal cases.

January 13, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)

Thursday, January 12, 2017

New report spotlights five Florida counties often condemning to death murderers have mental impairments

A few weeks ago, as noted in this prior post, Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project (FPP) released a report detailing and lamenting the composition of Oregon's death row under the title "Oregon’s Death Penalty Disproportionately Used Against Persons with Significant Mental Impairments."  Today, FPP has this new report bringing a similar analysis and criticism to a portion of a different state.  This new report is titled "Death Penalty Disproportionately Used Against Persons with Significant Mental Impairments in Five Florida Counties,"  and here are excerpts from the introduction:

The Florida Supreme Court recently held that the state’s capital punishment statute is unconstitutional. Approximately 380 people sentenced to death under the now-invalidated sentencing scheme remain on the death row. While litigation is still pending over whether the decision applies to all Florida death sentences, the Court has clarified that the approximately 150 people who were convicted after the Ring v. Arizona decision in 2002 must have their sentences reconsidered. Roughly one-third of these individuals convicted since 2002 come from just five of Florida’s 67 counties: Duval, Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Orange, and Pinellas.

This report examines the 48 invalidated death sentences from these five Florida counties. We examined legal pleadings and opinions, trial testimony, and media reports, and consulted with several legal experts in Florida who are familiar with the individuals on death row.

Our research revealed that 63 percent of these individuals exhibit signs of serious mental illness or intellectual impairment, endured devastatingly severe childhood trauma, or were not old enough to legally purchase alcohol at the time the offense occurred. The pervasiveness of these crippling impairments among Florida’s death row population is significant when evaluating whether the death penalty was the appropriate sentence. Although all murders are gruesome and deserving of serious sanction, the Constitution limits the death penalty to the most heinous murders. Even then, the Constitution and established Supreme Court doctrine have limited application of the death penalty to adults who exhibits mental and emotional functioning that is equal to or exceeds that of the typically developed adult. So, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that, regardless of the severity of the crime, the death penalty cannot be imposed upon a juvenile or an intellectually disabled person, both classes of individuals who suffer from impaired mental and emotional capacity relative to typically developed adults. To do otherwise would be so disproportionate as to violate his or her “inherent dignity as a human being.”

January 12, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

New Jersey Supreme Court addresses Miller's application to all serious juve sentencings

As reported in this local article, the top court in the Garden State "ruled unanimously Wednesday to overhaul the way New Jersey judges sentence juveniles convicted in violent crimes that could keep them in prison until they are elderly or dead." Here is more from the press report on the opinion:

The state's highest court ruled 7-0 that judges must consider a number of factors -- including age, family environment, and peer pressure -- before issuing lengthy sentences to youths in serious cases. Peter Verniero, a former state Supreme Court justice and state attorney general, said this is "one of the most significant sentencing decisions" the court has made in "many years."

And in a rare move, the court also urged the New Jersey Legislature to revise the state's current law on juvenile sentencing to "avoid a potential constitutional challenge in the future," according to the decision, written by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner.

The decision is the result of appeals filed by a pair of men who were convicted separately of violent crimes years ago in Essex County when they were 17 and were sentenced to decades in prison. Ricky Zuber was convicted for his role in two gang rapes in 1981 and was sentenced to 110 years in prison. He would not have been eligible for parole for 55 years -- a time when he would be 72. James Comer was convicted of four armed robberies in 2000, including one where an accomplice shot and killed a victim. He would have become eligible for parole when he was 85 -- after having served 68 years.

Rabner wrote that judges in both cases did not take "age or related circumstances" into account when issuing the sentences. But, Rabner said, the U.S. Supreme Court has since "sent a clear message" that "children are different" from adults and that "youth and its attendant characteristics" must be considered when sentencing a juvenile to life in prison without parole.

"Because of their young age at the time of their crimes, both defendants can expect to spend more than a half century in jail before they may be released -- longer than the time served by some adults convicted of first-degree murder," Rabner wrote.

Rabner cited how in a 2012 decision called Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that judges presiding over cases involving juveniles facing life sentences without parole must consider a number of factors before sentencing. Those include immaturity; family and home environment; family and peer pressures; an"inability to deal with police officers or prosecutors" or their own attorney; and "the possibility of rehabilitation."

But New Jersey's Supreme Court went further, saying those standards must be applied not only to sentences of life without parole but also to youths who face lengthy sentences. The court also cited a the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects defendants from "cruel and unusual punishment."

"Youth matters under the constitution," Rabner wrote.

The full opinion is available at this link, and it covers a lot of important post-Graham and post-Miller ground concerning juvenile sentencing.

January 12, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

"Is Qualified Immunity Unlawful?"

The title of this post is the title of this provocative new article authored by William Baude and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The doctrine of qualified immunity operates as an unwritten defense to civil rights lawsuits brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. It prevents plaintiffs from recovering damages for violations of their constitutional rights unless the government official violated “clearly established law,” usually requiring a specific precedent on point.  This article argues that the doctrine is unlawful and inconsistent with conventional principles of statutory interpretation.

Members of the Supreme Court have offered three different justifications for imposing such an unwritten defense on the text of Section 1983.  One is that it derives from a common law “good faith” defense; another is that it compensates for an earlier putative mistake in broadening the statute; the third is that it provides “fair warning” to government officials, akin to the rule of lenity.

But on closer examination, each of these justifications falls apart, for a mix of historical, conceptual, and doctrinal reasons.  There was no such defense; there was no such mistake; lenity ought not apply.  And even if these things were otherwise, the doctrine of qualified immunity would not be the best response.

The unlawfulness of qualified immunity is of particular importance now.  Despite the shoddy foundations, the Supreme Court has been reinforcing the doctrine of immunity in both formal and informal ways.  In particular, the Court has given qualified immunity a privileged place on its agenda reserved for few other legal doctrines besides habeas deference.  Rather than doubling down, the Court ought to be beating a retreat.

Though technically not a sentencing article, any conceptual and/or doctrinal strike against qualified immunity seems likely also to be a blow against the absolute immunity that right now protects from litigation scrutiny the sentencing decisions made by prosecutors and judges.

January 11, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Charleston Church shooter Dylann Roof sentencing to death by federal jury

As reported in this local article, only "a few hours after he told a crowded courtroom 'I still feel like I had to do it,' a federal jury sentenced Dylann Roof to death for carrying out a cold, calculated massacre inside Charleston's Emanuel AME Church in a bid to spark a race war." Here is more about an unsurprising verdict:

The 12-member panel – three white jurors, nine black – deliberated for a little less than three hours before unanimously deciding that the 22-year-old white supremacist should die for his crimes rather than spend his life in prison without the possibility of parole.

It will be up to the presiding judge to formally impose that sentence, but he is bound by law to follow the jury’s decision. U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel has scheduled the formal sentencing hearing for 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Roof, who sat stone-faced and silent through most of his hate crimes trial, betrayed no emotion as the jury’s verdict was read. During his closing argument earlier in the day, he passed on the chance to argue for his life, saying “I’m not sure what good that will do anyway.”

After the jury announced its verdict, Roof stood and asked the judge if he would appoint him new lawyers to help him file a request for a new trial. Gergel told Roof a significant amount has been spent on the current legal team that Roof sidelined for the trial's penalty phase, a team led by noted capital defense lawyer David Bruck. The judge said he would be "strongly disinclined" to bring in new lawyers at this point, but he will listen to any motions Roof wants to make during Wednesday's proceedings.

Earlier in the day, Roof told the jury that prosecutors don't understand him or the meaning of hate in their quest to put him to death for the June 2015 church massacre. “Anyone, including the prosecution, who thinks I am filled with hate has no idea what real hate is,” Roof said, speaking to jurors from a podium about eight feet away from the jury box. “They don’t know anything about hate."

After Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson delivered a two-hour closing statement, Roof walked to the podium with a single sheet of yellow notebook paper. He appeared to read from it, pausing at times to glance down. His remarks lasted less than five minutes.

January 10, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Interesting new report on impact of Prop 47 on drug arrests in California

Via email I received notice of this notable new research report, titled "Declinining Drug Enforcement After Proposition 47," coming from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and the Drug Policy Alliance. This executive summary provides the report's highlights:

In November 2014, California took a significant step toward reforming mass criminalization and over-incarceration by passing Proposition 47, a law that changed certain low-level crimes from potential felonies to misdemeanors, prioritizing drug treatment over punishment. Prop 47 reclassified three drug possession offenses (possession of a narcotic, concentrated cannabis, or a non-narcotic) and reinvested state savings in direct services. In 2015, the first full year after Prop 47, felony drug arrests fell by over 92,000 while misdemeanor drug arrests increased by only 70,000. Taken together, these shifts produced a 10 percent decline in total drug arrests.

In response to Prop 47’s reclassification statute, some law enforcement departments began redirecting drug enforcement resources to community policing or the enforcement of other, more serious, offenses. Critics of the policy, however, claim that it limits police authority and constrains the effectiveness of drug control, a contention that has led some law enforcement agencies to deemphasize the enforcement of Proposition 47-related offenses.

This report seeks to understand how enforcement and prosecution of drug possession offenses have changed after Prop 47 by analyzing arrests and citations made by Los Angeles and San Diego law enforcement, and charges filed by county prosecutors. Some of the findings include:

Prop 47 reduced inconsistencies in the classification of drug possession offenses as felonies or misdemeanors.  Prior to Prop 47, qualifying drug possession offenses could be prosecuted as misdemeanors, felonies, or “wobblers.” After the passage of Prop 47, these offenses are filed as misdemeanors, eliminating prosecutorial discretion and the presence of “justice-by-geography,” which can disproportionately impact low income communities and communities of color.

Drug arrests and citations were increasing in the years immediately preceding Prop 47.  From 2010-2014, arrests and citations for Prop 47 drug possession offenses increased in 72 percent of law enforcement agencies in Los Angeles and San Diego counties. Between 2014-2015, 58 percent of agencies reported declines.

Arrests and citations declined after Prop 47, but varied by county, city, and substance.  For example, while both San Diego and Los Angeles counties experienced declines in arrests and citations, Los Angles reported a decrease of 45 percent while San Diego reported 7 percent decline.

January 10, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 09, 2017

"In the Mold of Scalia or Alito: Recent Criminal and Habeas Decisions of Judges Pryor and Sykes"

The title of this post is the title of this new and timely short piece authored by Scott Meisler now available via SSRN that ought to be of special interest to sentencing fans.  Here is the abstract:

Recent press reports indicate that federal appellate judges William Pryor and Diane Sykes are among the finalists for the Supreme Court vacancy created by Justice Scalia’s death. But just as Justice Scalia and fellow conservative Justice Alito often differed on questions of criminal and habeas corpus procedure, so too have Judges Pryor and Sykes.  This short essay analyzes four legal issues on which the two judges have recently reached contrary results or demonstrated different approaches — including two legal issues arising from Justice Scalia’s last major criminal procedure opinion, Johnson v. United States.  The essay concludes that, though the decisions analyzed here represent only a small sample, they suggest that Judge Sykes’s approach to criminal procedure questions would more closely resemble Justice Scalia’s, while Judge Pryor’s would be more similar to that of Justice Alito.

January 9, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

SCOTUS issues per curiam opinion strengthening claim of qualified immunity after police shootout

The Supreme Court's first big order list of 2017 had no cert grants, which I think provides still more evidence that the Justices are disinclined to take up much of note until they get a replacement for Justice Scalia.  But the court found one case they could resolve through a summary opinion, White v. Pauly, No. 16–67 (S. Ct. Jan. 9, 2017) (available here). In this case, the Supreme Court vacating a split Tenth Circuit ruling that had denied qualified immunity to a New Mexico police officer after deadly shooting during a confrontation with armed suspects. Here is how the opinion starts and a key passage:

This case addresses the situation of an officer who — having arrived late at an ongoing police action and having witnessed shots being fired by one of several individuals in a house surrounded by other officers — shoots and kills an armed occupant of the house without first giving a warning....

This is not a case where it is obvious that there was a violation of clearly established law under Garner and Graham. Of note, the majority did not conclude that White’s conduct — such as his failure to shout a warning — constituted a run-of-the-mill Fourth Amendment violation. Indeed, it recognized that “this case presents a unique set of facts and circumstances” in light of White’s late arrival on the scene.  814 F.3d, at 1077.  This alone should have been an important indication to the majority that White’s conduct did not violate a “clearly established” right.  Clearly established federal law does not prohibit a reasonable officer who arrives late to an ongoing police action in circumstances like this from assuming that proper procedures, such as officer identification, have already been followed.  No settled Fourth Amendment principle requires that officer to second-guess the earlier steps already taken by his or her fellow officers in instances like the one White confronted here.

Th per curiam opinion closes with a lot of nuance as to what the Justices were not deciding, and a concurring opinion by Justice Ginsburg highlights that point.

January 9, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Will new Trump Justice Department seek death penalty for Fort Lauderdale airport mass murderer given apparent mental illness?

The question in the title of this post emerges from the news of federal charges filed and a planned court appearance for Esteban Santiago.  This Reuters article, headlined "Florida airport shooting suspect due in court Monday, could face death penalty," provides the details:

The 26-year-old Iraq war veteran accused of killing five people at a busy Florida airport in the latest U.S. gun rampage was due to appear in a federal court on Monday on charges that could bring him the death penalty.

Esteban Santiago, who had a history of erratic behavior, has admitted to investigators that he planned Friday's attack in Fort Lauderdale and bought a one-way ticket from his home in Alaska to carry it out, according to a criminal complaint.

Authorities say they have not ruled out terrorism as a motive and that they are investigating whether mental illness played a role.  In November, Santiago went to a Federal Bureau of Investigation office in Anchorage and told agents he believed U.S. spies were controlling his mind.

Bond for Santiago, who is being held at the Broward County Jail in Fort Lauderdale, may be set at the hearing scheduled for 11 a.m. EST on Monday near Fort Lauderdale, and he would be assigned a public defender if he cannot afford his own lawyer.  He could face the death penalty if convicted on charges of carrying out violence at an airport, using a firearm during a violent act, and killing with a firearm.  But it may be months before prosecutors reveal what lies in Santiago's future.

"They've then got two weeks to indict him, and then they've got to go through the whole death penalty review," said former federal prosecutor David Weinstein, who is now a partner with Miami law firm Clarke Silverglate.  Executions have been on hold in Florida since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the state's death penalty laws a year ago.  The Florida Supreme Court overturned a rewritten version in October....

Information surfaced over the weekend that police in Alaska took a handgun from Santiago in November after he told FBI agents there his mind was being controlled by a U.S. intelligence agency.  They returned it to him about a month later after a medical evaluation found he was not mentally ill....

Santiago served from 2007 to 2016 in the Puerto Rico and Alaska national guards, including a deployment to Iraq from 2010 to 2011, according to the Pentagon. Relatives have said he acted erratically since returning from Iraq.

The on-going federal capital trial of the Charleston church mass murderer Dylann Roof has prompted a number of folks, especially those in the abolitionist community, to be talking about mental illness and the inappropriateness of sentencing a mentally disturbed individual to death.  Those discussions and debates would surely reach another level if (dare I say when) the incoming Trump Administration and its new Attorney General decide to pursue capital charges against Esteban Santiago.

January 9, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, January 08, 2017

SCOTUS back in action with booking fee process as first notable criminal case of 2017

The Supreme Court returns to action tomorrow morning, and the Court's January sitting only has a couple cases that should be of serious interest to criminal justice fans.  But the very first case slated for the very first 2017 oral argument is one of procedural note, Nelson v. Colorado.  The folks over at SCOTUSblog have provided this preview by Steve Vladeck, which starts and ends this way:

Every jurisdiction in the United States requires at least some criminal defendants to make certain payments to the government tied to their convictions.  And if a defendant’s conviction is subsequently vacated — whether on appeal or through collateral post-conviction proceedings — virtually every jurisdiction directly returns those funds to the acquitted individual.  Colorado does not.  Instead, according to the Colorado Supreme Court, criminal defendants seeking a return of funds paid in conjunction with a later-vacated conviction must bring a separate civil suit under a Colorado statute — the Exoneration Act — in which, among other burdens, plaintiffs apparently have to prove their actual innocence by clear and convincing evidence in order to recover.  The very first argument the justices will hear in 2017 — Nelson v. Colorado — raises the question whether this seemingly unique scheme violates the due process clause of the 14th Amendment....

Although it is often difficult to predict from an oral argument how the justices are likely to rule, the sharp distinctions in how the parties have framed the issue in this case may allow for more than the usual tea-leaf reading at next Monday’s argument.  The more the questioning focuses on distinctions between the different types of payments made by Nelson and Madden, and the state’s interest in collecting and preserving those funds, the more it may bode well for Colorado.  But the more the justices’ attention appears drawn to how poor a fit the Exoneration Act actually is for defendants like these, the more likely the court will be to reverse.  After all, as Nelson and Madden conclude in their reply brief, Colorado appears to be the first and only jurisdiction in the United States “to require successful appellants to prove their innocence by any standard to get their money back when their convictions are reversed.”  If that fact seems to trouble enough of the justices during their first argument of the new year, then a reversal may well be in the offing.

January 8, 2017 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

"Mending the Federal Sentencing Guidelines Approach to Consideration of Juvenile Status"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new Harvard Law Review note. It gets started this way:

In a series of recent cases, the Supreme Court has reaffirmed the profound significance of a juvenile offender’s age in sentencing, seemingly rendering youth status a mandatory sentencing consideration as a constitutional matter — in at least some cases — and under the statutory sentencing directive.  Still, as a matter of policy, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines (Guidelines) — the required starting point for sentencing courts in federal cases and the benchmark for assessing the reasonableness of a sentence for appellate courts — discourage consideration of an offender’s youth and related circumstances in determining whether to depart from the recommended statutory sentencing range.  Though after United States v. Booker the Guidelines have been advisory only, the Court has recognized that even advisory Guidelines can, at times, exert an impermissible anchoring effect on sentencing courts.

This Note argues that Congress and the United States Sentencing Commission (Commission) should take seriously both the letter and spirit of the Court’s recent juveniles-are-different cases, which favor a return to a rehabilitative approach to young offenders.  Congress should address apparent conflicts between its statutory sentencing schemes and these recent cases by expanding the range of sentencing options for juvenile offenders convicted in federal court, and the Commission should promulgate new rules regarding calculation of sentences for juveniles convicted as adults in federal court.  Further, until such rules are promulgated, this Note contends that appellate courts should hesitate to presume reasonable within-Guideline sentences for juvenile offenders absent evidence that a sentencing court has considered age.

This Note proceeds in four parts.  Part I provides a brief history of the Guidelines, from development through the Court’s attempts to clarify their place post Booker. Part II describes the history of the treatment of juvenile offenders in federal courts and details the Court’s recent juveniles-are-different sentencing jurisprudence.  Part III argues that, for various reasons of law and policy, both Congress and the Commission should offer new guidance on how courts should approach the process of sentencing juvenile offenders convicted as adults.  Finally, Part IV recommends statutory changes and amendments to the Guidelines.

January 8, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, January 06, 2017

Seventh Circuit panel affirms above-guideline drug sentence ... with Judge Posner suggesting USSC involvement would be better than a sentencing "hunch"

An otherwise little and unremarkable sentencing appeal became blog-worthy because of Judge Posner's provocative opinion for the court in US v. Gibbs, No. 16-1747 (7th Cir. Jan. 6, 2017) (available here). Here is some background and the blog-notable aspect of Judge Posner's opinion:

The defendant pleaded guilty to possessing cocaine with intent to distribute it, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(C). Because of the quantity of the cocaine that he possessed and his history of drug and other criminal offenses, his guideline sentencing range was 151 to 188 months and his statutory maximum 240 months. The government recommended a 216‐month sentence ... and that was the sentence that the district judge imposed....

The judge explained that he was imposing a sentence significantly higher than the top of the defendant’s guideline range on the basis of the “[18 U.S.C. §] 3553(a) [sentencing] factors.”  He called the defendant “a poster child for being a career offender,” and told him “unfortunately you may be one of those people that will never be able to conform to be a law‐abiding person.”....

Neither the government, in recommending a 216‐month sentence, nor the district judge, in imposing it, attempted a sophisticated analysis of the likely consequences for the defendant, his family, and society (primarily the persons to whom he sold illegal drugs) of adding roughly two years to the sentence he would have been given had the judge stopped at the top of the guideline range.  Judging from the government’s brief and the judge’s sentencing statement, both the prosecution and the judge based the 216‐month sentence (proposed by the government, imposed by the judge) on a hunch.  As the prosecutors as well as the judge are highly experienced, their hunches are likely often to be reliable. And because federal prosecutors are free to suggest any sentence within the statutory range, and a federal district judge has broad latitude in picking the sentence to impose within that range, and because the briefs and argument of defense counsel in this case bordered on the perfunctory ... the sentence must be affirmed.

Some consideration, however, should be given to the possibility of basing a prison sentence — at least a very long one (and an 18‐year sentence is very long) — on something other than a hunch.  The work of the U.S. Sentencing Commission in formulating sentencing guidelines provides a clue to a possible alternative. The sentencing judge, instead of ranging at large, with little guidance, over the wide space between the statutory minimum sentence for the defendant’s crime or crimes and the statutory maximum, might consider asking the Sentencing Commission to evaluate the appropriateness in particular cases of all the possible sentencing points in the statutory sentencing range, including points that fall outside the guideline sentencing range.  In a case like the present one the Sentencing Commission might advise the prosecutors, defense counsel, and the judge why it had fixed the guideline range where it did and how disapproving it would be of sentences below or above that range.  The Commission might for example take a close look at the government’s suggested 216‐month sentence in this case and the arguments the government gives for it, and conclude that maybe it’s a proper sentence given the particular facts of the case even though it lies outside the guideline range.  The defense proposed a sentence of only 10 years, which would be about two and a half years below the sentencing guideline; and again, the Commission might agree in the special circumstances of this case that that was a plausible alternative to a sentence in the guideline range — or might explain why it was not.  Judges wouldn’t have to ask the Commission for its input, or follow its recommendations, but they might find it a valuable resource.

The Judge Posner's opinion nominally represents the opinion of the Seventh Circuit, the other two judges on the panel (Judges Kanne and Sykes) wrote separate concurring opinions (and Judge Sykes opinion is only concurring in the judgment). Judge Kanne does join Judge Posner's opinion, but his separate opinion captures some aspects of my reactions to what Judge Posner suggests:

I write further to add that although Judge Posner has envisioned an interesting method to arrive at an appropriate sentence in individual cases, it is my view that such a unique system would be fundamentally unworkable in practice and contrary to the statutory provisions enacted by Congress and approved by the Supreme Court.

January 6, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

An optimistic accounting of many areas for bipartisan federal criminal justice reform ... and good lines of inquiry for AG nominee Jeff Sessions

The week brought this extended commentary by Mark Holden at The Hill under the headline "Criminal justice reform is ripe for bipartisan achievement." I recommend the piece in full, and here are highlights of the reforms urged (with Holden's accounting of "reason it could pass" left out so readers will be encouraged to click through):

Criminal justice reform has been one of the few policy areas where Republicans and Democrats have forged bipartisan consensus.  They have come close to passing reform the past two years, and now it’s up to GOP lawmakers to pick up where they left off. Leaders as diverse as Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) agree that the current system is broken....

That’s why it’s critical that leaders in Congress take up criminal justice reform. If they focus on six key areas of reform, there’s a real possibility that legislation could pass in both the House and Senate, even with the Senate’s 60-vote threshold, a bar not easily achieved on other issues.

Here are the six areas of reform — and the reasons they have a viable path to becoming law.

First, we need to reform the grand jury process and rein in prosecutorial overreach. As Judge Kozinski has advocated, lawmakers should require open file discovery, so prosecutors hand over all evidence favorable to an accused person, and also establish truly independent prosecutorial review units to investigate abuses....

Second, we must protect every citizens’ Sixth Amendment rights.  When it comes to federal cases, Congress should ensure that all individuals — regardless of income level – have an adequate chance to retain counsel before they appear in court.  It should also explore the model that some states have moved to, which allows defendants to choose a private lawyer from a list of options, rather than being appointed a lawyer who may not offer a competent defense....

Third, the punishment must fit the crime. Congress should reform mandatory minimums that don’t make sense and increase the use of “safety valves,” which allow judges to use their discretion for non-violent offenses if the offender meets certain requirements. These reforms are particularly important for low-level and non-violent offenders (mostly involving drug crimes), who too often languish in prison for years or even decades at a time at great cost to their families and our society at large.....

Fourth, prisons should leave individuals better off than when they came in. Prison rehabilitation programs have proven to reduce the chance of re-offense and save taxpayer dollars....

Fifth, Congress should give worthy individuals a chance to rejoin society and find fulfillment in their lives.  Lawmakers could start by “banning the box” from federal employment applications so that individuals with a record can be considered for government jobs.  Congress, however, should not mandate that companies “ban the box,” but should allow them to voluntarily do so.  Congress should also clear the record of qualifying youth and non-violent federal offenders; limit solitary confinement for juveniles; and establish effective rehab, educational, and vocational programs so that every individual leaves prison a better person than when they came....

Finally, Congress needs to dramatically scale back the federal criminal code and ensure that all criminal laws have adequate criminal intent, also known as “mens rea.”  The criminal code is a stunning 27,000 pages and comprises an estimated 4,500-6,000 criminal laws — and that doesn’t even include the thousands of additional federal regulations that impose criminal punishments. Many penalize people who had no idea they were committing a crime — missing a basic historical requirement that once existed in the criminal law to protect people from being unfairly prosecuted....

Any one of these reforms would improve our federal justice system — and have a profound effect on our society.  Taken together, they will make communities safer, support our brave law enforcement officers, save taxpayer dollars, and empower individuals in need of a second chance.  That’s precisely why Republicans and Democrats alike will have a difficult time answering to their constituents if they resist such reforms.  Doing so would be a clear political move that overlooks the millions of Americans who would be better off as a result of this bipartisan achievement.

If President-elect Trump and the GOP Congress take up criminal justice reform, it will be a sure sign that they are willing to look beyond party lines in order to improve people’s lives.  That would be good start to putting individuals’ safety and wellbeing ahead of partisan politics.

As the title of this post suggests, I think this piece's accounting of six areas in need of reform would provide a fantastic guide for questions for Senator Jeff Sessions during his hearings to serve as Attorney General. These questions can be softball (e.g., do you believe prison rehabilitation programs can be valuable?) or tough (e.g., do you think there should be more means for federal inmates to earn sentence reduction for participating in prison rehabilitation programs). And I welcome readers to use the comment to make more suggestions for additional soft or tough questions on these or other fronts.

Critically, and as I hope to outline more fully in a post over the weekend, I feel very strongly that those Senators who support federal criminal justice reforms ought to use the Sessions' confirmation hearing to do much more that just simply attack the Senator for long-ago acts or statements claimed to be evidence of racism or insensitivity.  Instead, by crafting astute questions concerning specific area of the federal criminal justice system in need of reform, members of the Judiciary Committee could and should be able to get Sessions to express support for — or at least a lack of opposition to — many of the bipartisan reforms discussed above and widely embraced inside the Beltway in recent years.

January 6, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Louisiana public defenders lacking resources needed to adequately prepare for Miller resentencings in old juve LWOP cases

This interesting local article highlights the economic challenges posed for some local courts and lawyers when now having to implement retroactively the Supreme Court's Miller ruling precluding mandatory LWOP sentences for juvenile murderers.  The article is headlined "'Unfunded mandate' of individualized sentencing hearings for some juveniles causing headaches for public defenders," and here are excerpts:

A 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision ruled out laws mandating life without parole for juveniles as unconstitutional, and a subsequent decision last year made that ruling retroactive. Now, those juveniles are required to get what’s called “individualized sentencing hearings” before such a harsh sentence can be handed down, said Carol Kolinchak, a compliance officer for the Louisiana Public Defender Board.

And those hearings take resources. “You have to investigate and develop evidence (about) the youth and the circumstances surrounding the crime,” Kolinchak told [Judge Arthur] Hunter, adding that it is the defense’s “ethical obligation” to make sure each juvenile offender gets a proper investigation into their backgrounds prior to their hearing.

But, she added, the mandate isn’t cheap, and it’s also unfunded. At a cost of $60,000 to $75,000 a client, both [Orleans Parish Chief Public Defender Derwyn] Bunton and State Public Defender Jay Dixon said they were at a loss for how to properly prepare for each client’s sentencing hearing.

According to Kolinchak, there are nearly 300 juveniles eligible for such individualized hearings throughout the state. “The question in Louisiana is the same as it is nationally, which is that it has really been an unfunded mandate,” she said. “It places burdens on defense counsel with no discussion of funding.”

The issue came up in Hunter’s courtroom Tuesday in the case of Joseph Morgan, a defendant convicted in 2015 of second-degree murder in the death of Gervais "Gee" Nicholas, a teenager gunned down in 2008 outside the Chat Club at Tulane Avenue and South Lopez Street. Morgan was 16 at the time of the shooting, but prosecutors are nevertheless seeking life without parole.

Defense attorney Tom Shlosman, who is representing Morgan pro bono, told the judge he doesn't have the resources for the elaborate proceedings now required in Morgan's case. The other officials who testified before Hunter were brought in to help bolster the broader case that more money needs to be set aside statewide to handle these types of defendants....

In New Orleans, the question is how to proceed with about 72 cases that now qualify for a so-called “Miller hearing,” Kolinchak said. On Tuesday, both Bunton and Dixon said they didn’t anticipate being able to pay for those hearings, at least for indigent clients, anytime soon, because there’s no money available to properly investigate possible mitigating circumstances for those clients.

Dixon said the state public defender’s budget has been “stagnant” at about $33 million for the past several years. Moreover, he said, the threat of a 5 percent cut to his budget looms ahead, a move he said would be “devastating” for both death penalty cases and juvenile cases like Morgan’s. That’s because Dixon's office is required to distribute about 65 percent of its budget to district defenders' offices throughout the parishes, and so the cuts would have to come from the more complex pool of cases that his office contracts out to other law firms.

Bunton said he has to stretch an $8 million budget to cover nearly 22,000 cases a year — a situation that he said leaves him no room for taking on new work like individualized sentencing hearings for indigent juveniles....

“We don’t have an answer. This is the kind of thing that funding or lack of funding creates,” Dixon said. “You’re talking about basically a juggling act with a lack of funds. And we’re both in that trick box. We do not have an answer for that.”

January 4, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)