Friday, October 21, 2016

"Status Courts"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Erin Collins now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

This article identifies and analyzes a new type of specialized “problem-solving” court: status courts. Status courts are criminal or quasi-criminal courts dedicated to defendants who are members of particular status groups, such as veterans or girls.  They differ from other problem-solving courts, such as drug or domestic violence courts, in that nothing about the status court offender or the offense he or she committed presents a systemic “problem” to be “solved.”  In fact, status courts aim to honor the offender’s experience and strengthen the offender’s association with the characteristic used to sort him or her into court.

The article positions status courts as a troubling development in the evolution of problem-solving justice, in particular, and criminal justice reform, generally.  It reveals that status courts institutionalize the notion that certain offenders, by virtue of their inclusion in a particular status group, deserve better treatment than others.  This “moral sorting” provides an expressive release that may, counterintuitively, disincentivize widespread systemic reform.

And yet, while status courts present cause for concern, they also advance a positive, and possibly transformative, notion: that some individuals commit criminal offenses, at least in part, because of the influence of external factors beyond their control. In this way, status courts challenge the retributive notion that criminal offenders are wholly independent, rational actors and counterbalance the othering effect of many current criminal justice practices.  As the rise of retributive ideals played a prominent role in ramping up the penal machinery over the past few decades, embracing the more contextual, complicated conceptualization of the criminal offender status courts advance can temper the tendency to overincarcerate.

October 21, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Local Montana judge being assailed for short jail sentence given to father who raped 12-year-old daughter

The latest controversially lenient sexual offense sentencing garnering social and traditional media attention comes from Montana, and this Washington Post article provides some of the notable details under the headline "Father who ‘repeatedly raped his 12-year old daughter’ gets 60-day sentence. Fury erupts." Here are excerpts:

In the case of Judge John McKeon, as of early morning Wednesday, almost 20,000 people had signed a Change.org petition calling for his impeachment for the 60-day sentence he gave a Glasgow, Mont., man who pleaded guilty to repeatedly raping his prepubescent daughter. “A father repeatedly raped his 12-year old daughter,” Deputy Valley County Attorney Dylan Jenson said during an Oct. 4 sentencing hearing. “It’s time to start punishing the judges who let these monsters walk our streets,” read the petition.

Prosecutors had recommended a mandatory 25-year sentence, 100 years with 75 suspended, which is what state law calls for. Instead, though, Judge McKeon handed down a far lighter sentence: a 30-year suspended prison sentence, which means the man will only serve it if he fails to meet the conditions of his probation.

Among those conditions, which McKeon called “quite rigorous,” was the requirement for the man to register as a sex offender, the Glasgow Courier reported. He also cannot access pornography and has limited access to the Internet. In addition, the man will serve 60 days in jail, but McKeon gave him credit for the 17 days he already served, meaning he’ll only spend another 43 days in jail....

In most of these controversial cases, the judges under siege tend to remain silent. What makes McKeon’s case unusual is that he has chosen to defend himself in public. In an email to the Associated Press, McKeon said he had several reasons for handing down the seemingly light sentence.

The judge claimed that news coverage obscured state law by failing to mention an exception to the mandatory 25-year prison sentence. According to McKeon, the law allows those arrested for incest involving someone under 12 years old to avoid prison if a psychosexual evaluation finds that psychiatric treatment “affords a better opportunity for rehabilitation of the offender and for the ultimate protection of the victim and society.” The judge wrote this is one of Montana’s attempts “to encourage and provide opportunities for an offender’s self-improvement, rehabilitation and reintegration back into a community.”

In the note to the AP, McKeon also referenced letters written to him by the victim’s mother and grandmother. Both letters requested the convicted man not be sentenced to prison. The victim’s mother, who walked in on the man sexually abusing her daughter, wrote that the man’s two sons love him and she wanted his “children have an opportunity to heal the relationship with their father,” according to McKeon.

The victim’s grandmother echoed this, calling the man’s behavior “horrible” but stating that the man’s children, “especially his sons, will be devastated if their Dad is no longer part of their lives.”

For all these letters defending the convicted man, though, Deputy Valley County Attorney Dylan Jensen told the AP that no one spoke on behalf of the victim, a 12-year-old girl, at Friday’s sentencing hearing. The petition to impeach McKeon highlighted this fact. “No one spoke on behalf of the 12 year old child at trial,” it read. “No one. The victim was not given justice, but instead will have to live with the fear that she still has to face her rapist in their community. ”

McKeon’s email concluded, “All district judges take an oath to uphold the Constitution and laws of this state. These constitutional provisions and laws include certain fundamental legal principles that apply at sentencing, including a presumption of innocence for unproved criminal allegations, the varying sentencing policies and the government’s burden to counter evidence supporting an exception to mandatory sentence.”...

McKeon, who has served as a Montana state judge for 22 years, is retiring next month, according to the Associated Press. Considering that an impeachment in Montana, according to the National Center for State Courts, requires a “two-thirds vote of the house of representatives and [a] convict[ion] by a two-thirds vote of the senate,” the point is fairly moot — there simply isn’t enough time to impeach him.

October 20, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Is Florida really going to conduct full post-Hurst resentencings for hundreds of condemned murderers?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local article headlined "Death penalty ruling could mean new sentencing for 386 murderers in Florida."  Here are excerpts:

The Florida Supreme Court’s decision last week to require unanimous jury votes for executions has thrown the state’s death penalty into disarray. In a Friday ruling in Hurst vs. Florida, the justices eliminated part of Florida’s death sentencing laws, but lawyers and legislators disagree about what comes next.

Some say that it could lead to sentences being thrown out for nearly 400 convicted murderers awaiting execution at Florida State Prison, and that it may cripple the state’s death penalty long term. Others say the only thing that has changed is that a jury must now vote unanimously in favor of the death penalty. What’s clear is this: Even with the case decided, Florida’s legal fights over capital punishment are far from over.

Death-row defense lawyers say the Hurst decision leaves Florida without a functioning death penalty until the state Legislature can convene and rewrite the law. “This is so big,” said Martin McClain, a Broward County lawyer who represents death-row inmates appealing their sentences. “I don’t know of a way to overstate the significance.”

But legislative leaders say that such action won’t be necessary. “With Friday’s ruling, imposing the death sentence will require a unanimous verdict with or without legislative action,” said Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for Senate President-designate Joe Negron, R-Stuart. “In the past, the Senate has been supportive of the unanimous verdict requirement.”

Buddy Jacobs, general counsel for the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, which represents the 20 state attorneys, agrees that no legislative action is necessary. “The death penalty is certainly still legal in Florida,” he said. “The procedure is what the Supreme Court reacted to.”

The court’s ruling has raised other questions about how the state should handle the 386 inmates on death row under old sentencing rules that have since been thrown out. The Supreme Court has not indicated which inmates could be eligible to have their sentences changed. Even the most experienced death-row defense lawyers don’t know what to expect. McClain said he thinks the court will issue a ruling about which cases are going to be treated like that. “Until we have that sort of broad picture,” McClain said, “we’re kind of stuck waiting.”

Some death-row inmates — including Timothy Lee Hurst, convicted of killing a co-worker in Pensacola in 1998 — will have new sentencing hearings. The court will bring in a new jury to hear evidence and decide whether Hurst should be executed or sentenced to life in prison. But not all death penalty cases are the same. So it’s possible the court could decide that certain kinds of cases are eligible for a re-sentencing and others are not.

For example, the court could throw out sentences from time periods when the death penalty laws were overturned as unconstitutional, or they could only allow a new jury for death-row inmates who raised certain complaints in their appeals. But Maria DeLiberato, a defense lawyer with the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel in Tampa, warns that could be seen as an “arbitrary and capricious” enforcement of the law and raise new allegations that Florida’s death sentences flout the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

She’s hopeful that the court would allow all inmates a new sentencing hearing, not just some of them. The state attorneys worry about the high costs of a small wave of re-sentencing hearings, let alone 386 cases. “We do not have the manpower to do that,” said Jacobs. “We’d have to get assistance to do that from the Legislature.”

October 19, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

"Children are Different: The Abolition of Mandatory Minimum Sentencing in Florida"

The title of this post is the title of this short essay by Paolo Annino now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This essay argues that juvenile mandatory minimum sentences violate the Eighth Amendment based on the US Supreme Court's Miller v. Alabama requirement of individualized assessment and the Iowa Supreme Court's State v. Lyle application of individualized assessment to all juvenile sentencing.  This essay discusses the issue of juvenile mandatory minimum sentencing in the context of recent Florida decisions.

October 18, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 17, 2016

Federal judge troubled by how Philadelphia DA is dealing with post-Miller resentencing

This interesting local article, headlined "Federal judge blasts Philly DA's 'juvenile lifers' policy," highlights the continued struggle in some quarters to give meaningful effect to the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment ruling in Miller v. Alabama more than four years later.  Here are excerpts:

The Philadelphia District Attorney's office has conceded that a judge resentencing "juvenile lifers" may impose a minimum sentence lower than the 35 years the office has been offering in such cases.

The possibility was raised Monday as the office agreed to move ahead with resentencing for Kempis Songster, 44, serving life without parole for a murder he committed in 1987 at age 15.  An openly frustrated U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Savage — who had ordered a new sentence for Songster four years ago, and again in August with a 120-day deadline — said the office's policy of offering all inmates the same deal for a new sentence was inconsistent with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that had put back into play about 300 murder cases in Philadelphia involving juveniles.

Savage's Aug. 17 order had urged resentencings in which a judge would have discretion to impose "individualized, proportionate sentences," take into consideration an inmate's rehabilitation, and impose a maximum of life only in "the rarest of permanently incorrigible" cases.

"Here's the problem that I have," Savage told Assistant District Attorney Susan Affronti on Monday.  "If you're saying you have all these offers out, it seems you're treating all of these folks the same way — 35 years to life.  I don't get that. That to me appears to show a lack of due diligence, of looking at each case individually.  I understand you want to do this for policy reasons. Maybe because it looks good."

Songster's case and others are back in the courts as a consequence of Montgomery v. Louisiana, a U.S. Supreme Court decision in January that made retroactive the court's ban on automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. The ruling affects about 2,300 cases nationwide, about 500 of which are in Pennsylvania - including about 300 in Philadelphia.

Affronti, accompanied by Tariq el-Shabazz, one of District Attorney Seth Williams' top deputies, agreed to drop the appeal of Savage's order directing Songster to be resentenced as well as its request for a stay of the 120-day time frame. Savage's earlier ruling had questioned the district attorney's reliance on parole as the means of release by leaving maximum life sentences in place....

Bradley Bridge of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, who is handling many of the "juvenile lifer" cases, said the district attorney's dropping of its appeal was significant because it left Savage's opinion in place. "His vision of what is a lawful sentence is substantially different than the prosecutor's view of what is a lawful sentence," Bridge said. "The prosecutor has now conceded that Judge Savage wins. They're not challenging him on it."

Up until now, Williams has offered about 60 defendants plea agreements of 35 years to life, which, Savage previously noted, in effect passes the decision on release over to the parole board, which has approved the release of a handful of defendants in the oldest of the cases. Williams' office has argued that allowing parole in these cases was an acceptable way to comply with the Supreme Court ruling. Savage wrote in an earlier ruling, however, that a sentence with a maximum of less than life had to be considered by the resentencing judge. The life maximum should be ordered only in rare cases, but was allowable, he said.

Affronti acknowledged that the office had not been willing to offer a negotiated new sentence of less than 35 years to life for those were were 15 to 17 at the time of their crime, which is the current sentence set by Pennsylvania for first-degree murder involving a juvenile defendant 15 and older, set after the Supreme Court invalidated sentences of life without parole. Pennsylvania law also now allows for a more lenient sentence of 25 to life for juveniles who were younger than 15 at the time of the crime.

Affronti said the D.A.'s office would continue to use the new Pennsylvania law as a guideline for offers to the lifers, even though it does not legally apply retroactively, because "I believe a 15-year-old that commits first-degree murder in 1974 should be treated the same as a 15-year-old in 2016." The state Supreme Court ruled, however, that that new penalty could not be applied retroactively - a ruling sought by the commonwealth to avoid reopening these cases at all, prior to the U.S. Supreme Court retroactive ruling.

October 17, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"How the Sentencing Commission Does and Does Not Matter in Beckles v. United States"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new paper available via SSRN authored by Leah Litman and Luke Beasley. Here is the abstract:

This Essay considers how significant the differences between the Armed Career Criminal Act and the Sentencing Guidelines are to one question the Supreme Court is poised to address in Beckles v. United States -- namely, whether a rule invalidating the so-called "residual clause" in the Sentencing Guidelines applies retroactively to cases on collateral review.  This Essay collects evidence from resentencings that have occurred after courts have found the Guidelines' residual clause invalid.  These resentencings have resulted in defendants receiving significantly less prison time. 

The extent to which a rule invalidating the Guidelines' residual clause affects defendants' sentences -- often significantly -- justifies revisiting defendants' sentences because whatever finality interests exist in the defendants' sentences are outweighed by the effects that a rule invalidating the Guidelines' residual clause has on the amount of prison time defendants serve.  The Supreme Court should also not hesitate to make a rule invalidating the Guideline retroactive because the Sentencing Commission decided not to make retroactive an amendment deleting the Guideline's residual clause.  The Commission never investigated how difficult it would be to make that amendment retroactive.

A few of many related prior posts and related materials:

October 17, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Interesting lengthy dissent from SCOTUS cert denial from Justice Sotomayor joined (only) by Justice Ginsburg

There is a bit of interesting news with today's otherwise dull SCOTUS order list in the form of a lengthy dissent from the denial of certiorari penned by Justice Sotomayor and joined by Justice Ginsburg.  The dissent in Elmore v. Holbrook is available here, and it gets started and ends this way:

Petitioner Clark Elmore was convicted of murder in 1995 and was sentenced to death.  His court-appointed lawyer, who had never tried a capital case before, knew that Elmore had been exposed to toxins as a young adult and that he had a history of impulsive behavior.  A more experienced attorney encouraged Elmore’s lawyer to investigate whether Elmore had suffered brain damage as a young man. Instead of doing so — indeed, instead of conducting any meaningful investigation into Elmore’s life — Elmore’s lawyer chose to present a one-hour penalty-phase argument to the jury about the remorse that Elmore felt for his crime.  As a result, the jury did not hear that Elmore had spent his childhood playing in pesticide-contaminated fields and had spent his service in the Vietnam War repairing Agent Orange pumps.  The jury did not hear the testimony of experts who concluded that Elmore was cognitively impaired and unable to control his impulses. The jury heard only from an assortment of local judges that Elmore had looked “dejected” as he pleaded guilty to murder, not from the many independent witnesses who had observed Elmore’s searing remorse.

The Constitution demands more.  The penalty phase of a capital trial is “a constitutionally indispensable part of the process of inflicting the penalty of death.” Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U. S. 280, 304 (1976).  It ensures that a capital sentencing is “humane and sensible to the uniqueness of the individual.”  Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104, 110 (1982). Elmore’s penalty phase fell well below the bare minimum guaranteed by the Constitution.  His lawyer acted deficiently in choosing a mitigation strategy without fully exploring the alternatives and in failing to investigate the mitigation strategy that he did choose to present. And had the jury known that Elmore — who had never before been convicted of a crime of violence and felt searing remorse for the heinous act he committed — might be brain damaged, it might have sentenced him to life rather than death.

This Court has not hesitated to summarily reverse incapital cases tainted by egregious constitutional error, particularly where an attorney has rendered constitutionally deficient performance. See, e.g., Hinton v. Alabama, 571 U.S. ___ (2014) (per curiam); Sears v. Upton, 561 U.S. 945 (2010) (per curiam); Porter v. McCollum, 558 U.S. 30 (2009) (per curiam). This case plainly meets that standard. For that reason, I respectfully dissent from the denial of certiorari....

All crimes for which defendants are sentenced to death are horrific. See Glossip, 576 U. S., at ___ (BREYER, J., dissenting) (slip op., at 14); id., at ___ (THOMAS, J., concurring) (slip op., at 6–10).  But not all defendants who commit horrific crimes are sentenced to death.  Some are spared by juries.  The Constitution guarantees that possibility: It requires that a sentencing jury be able to fully and fairly evaluate “the characteristics of the person who committed the crime.” Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 197 (1976) (joint opinion of Stewart, Powell, and Stevens, JJ.).  That guarantee is a bedrock premise on which our system of capital punishment depends, and it is a guarantee that must be honored — especially for defendants like Elmore, whose lives are marked by extensive mitigating circumstances that might convince a jury to choose life over death.  Only upon hearing such facts can a jury fairly make the weighty — and final — decision whether such a person is entitled to mercy.  I respectfully dissent from the denial of certiorari.

UPDATE: In the comments, Cal. Prosecutor highlights this notable new post by Kent Scheidegger at Crime & Consequences to provide more context for understanding this lengthy dissent from a SCOTUS cert denial.  Here is how that post gets started and ends:

The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to review the case of Washington State murderer Clark Elmore.  Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ginsburg, dissented in an opinion castigating the defense lawyer at trial.  If the lawyer was so bad, one might ask, why did the Washington Supreme Court deny relief?  That court has certainly had no difficulty ruling in favor of murderers in past capital cases.  It is one of the country's more criminal-friendly forums.  If the lawyer was so bad, why did six of the eight Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court decline to join Justice Sotomayor's vigorous dissent?

There is, of course, more to the story.  After the break, I have copied an extensive portion of the Brief in Opposition written by Senior Counsel John Samson for the Washington AG's office....

Defending people who have committed horrible crimes is not easy.  Frequently tough choices must be made.  If the defendant is sentenced to death, as people who commit horrible crimes frequently are and should be, the capital appeal defense cult stands ready to say that the trial lawyer was incompetent for taking the path that he did at each fork in the road, regardless of which one he took.

October 17, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Thoughtful look into fairness/bias concerns with risk-assessment instruments like COMPAS

A group of Stanford professors and students have this thoughtful new Washington Post commentary headlined "A computer program used for bail and sentencing decisions was labeled racist. It’s actually not that clear." The piece is a must-read for everyone concerned about risk-assessment technologies (which should be everyone).  Here are excerpts:

This past summer, a heated debate broke out about a tool used in courts across the country to help make bail and sentencing decisions. It’s a controversy that touches on some of the big criminal justice questions facing our society. And it all turns on an algorithm.

The algorithm, called COMPAS, is used nationwide to decide whether defendants awaiting trial are too dangerous to be released on bail. In May, the investigative news organization ProPublica claimed that COMPAS is biased against black defendants. Northpointe, the Michigan-based company that created the tool, released its own report questioning ProPublica’s analysis. ProPublica rebutted the rebuttal, academic researchers entered the fray, this newspaper’s Wonkblog weighed in, and even the Wisconsin Supreme Court cited the controversy in its recent ruling that upheld the use of COMPAS in sentencing.

It’s easy to get lost in the often technical back-and-forth between ProPublica and Northpointe, but at the heart of their disagreement is a subtle ethical question: What does it mean for an algorithm to be fair? Surprisingly, there is a mathematical limit to how fair any algorithm — or human decision-maker — can ever be.

The COMPAS tool assigns defendants scores from 1 to 10 that indicate how likely they are to reoffend based on more than 100 factors, including age, sex and criminal history. Notably, race is not used. These scores profoundly affect defendants’ lives: defendants who are defined as medium or high risk, with scores of 5-10, are more likely to be detained while awaiting trial than are low-risk defendants, with scores of 1-4.

We reanalyzed data collected by ProPublica on about 5,000 defendants assigned COMPAS scores in Broward County, Fla. (See the end of the post, after our names, for more technical details on our analysis.) For these cases, we find that scores are highly predictive of reoffending. Defendants assigned the highest risk score reoffended at almost four times the rate as those assigned the lowest score (81 percent vs. 22 percent).

Northpointe contends they are indeed fair because scores mean essentially the same thing regardless of the defendant’s race. For example, among defendants who scored a seven on the COMPAS scale, 60 percent of white defendants reoffended, which is nearly identical to the 61 percent of black defendants who reoffended. Consequently, Northpointe argues, when judges see a defendant’s risk score, they need not consider the defendant’s race when interpreting it....

But ProPublica points out that among defendants who ultimately did not reoffend, blacks were more than twice as likely as whites to be classified as medium or high risk (42 percent vs. 22 percent). Even though these defendants did not go on to commit a crime, they are nonetheless subjected to harsher treatment by the courts. ProPublica argues that a fair algorithm cannot make these serious errors more frequently for one race group than for another.

Here’s the problem: it’s actually impossible for a risk score to satisfy both fairness criteria at the same time.... If Northpointe’s definition of fairness holds, and if the recidivism rate for black defendants is higher than for whites, the imbalance ProPublica highlighted will always occur.

It’s hard to call a rule equitable if it does not meet Northpointe’s notion of fairness. A risk score of seven for black defendants should mean the same thing as a score of seven for white defendants. Imagine if that were not so, and we systematically assigned whites higher risk scores than equally risky black defendants with the goal of mitigating ProPublica’s criticism. We would consider that a violation of the fundamental tenet of equal treatment.

But we should not disregard ProPublica’s findings as an unfortunate but inevitable outcome. To the contrary, since classification errors here disproportionately affect black defendants, we have an obligation to explore alternative policies. For example, rather than using risk scores to determine which defendants must pay money bail, jurisdictions might consider ending bail requirements altogether — shifting to, say, electronic monitoring so that no one is unnecessarily jailed.

COMPAS may still be biased, but we can’t tell. Northpointe has refused to disclose the details of its proprietary algorithm, making it impossible to fully assess the extent to which it may be unfair, however inadvertently. That’s understandable: Northpointe needs to protect its bottom line. But it raises questions about relying on for-profit companies to develop risk assessment tools.

Moreover, rearrest, which the COMPAS algorithm is designed to predict, may be a biased measure of public safety. Because of heavier policing in predominantly black neighborhoods, or bias in the decision to make an arrest, blacks may be arrested more often than whites who commit the same offense.

Algorithms have the potential to dramatically improve the efficiency and equity of consequential decisions, but their use also prompts complex ethical and scientific questions. The solution is not to eliminate statistical risk assessments. The problems we discuss apply equally to human decision-makers, and humans are additionally biased in ways that machines are not. We must continue to investigate and debate these issues as algorithms play an increasingly prominent role in the criminal justice system.

Some (of many) prior related posts on use of risk-assessment technologies:

October 17, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Federal inmate refuses Prez Obama's commutation

This USA Today article, headlined "Obama grants clemency to inmate — but inmate refuses," reports on a notable response by one federal inmate to receiving clemency. Here are the interesting details and some historical context:

When President Obama announced a program to grant executive clemency to drug offenders given long mandatory sentences, Arnold Ray Jones did what more than 29,000 federal inmates have done: He asked Obama for a presidential commutation. And then, after it arrived on Aug. 3, he refused to accept it.

Jones’ turnabout highlights the strings that come attached to an increasing number of Obama’s commutations: In this case, enrollment in a residential drug treatment program — which has been a condition of 92 of Obama commutation grants. Jones is the first to refuse that condition.

If Jones had agreed to complete the the program, he would be out in two years. He still has six years left on his original 2002 sentence for drug trafficking, but Jones may be counting on getting time off for good behavior, which would have him released in April 2019 — eight months longer than if he had accepted the commutation. ​Jones, 50, is in a low-security federal prison in Beaumont, Texas.

The unusual rejection came to light last week, when Obama commuted the sentences of 102 more federal inmates. With the 673 previous commutations granted, the total should have been 775 — but the White House accounting had only 774. At about the same time, the Department of Justice updated its online record of Obama's commutations and updated Jones' entry with the notation: "condition declined, commutation not effectuated."

The White House and the Justice Department declined to talk about the specifics of the case. But inmate records that Jones submitted as part of his court case show that he used crack cocaine weekly in the year before his arrest, and that drug treatment programs he's completed in the past have been unsuccessful. The Bureau of Prisons describes its Residential Drug Abuse Program as its most intensive treatment program, where offenders are separated from the general population for nine months while participating in four hours of community-based therapy programs each day.

Jones' mother said Thursday that she was excited about the news of Obama's commutation and wasn't aware that it was rejected. "I don’t know about him declining or anything. I'm looking for my son to come home," said Ruth Jones, of Lubbock, Texas.

Unlike pardons, which represent a full legal forgiveness for a crime, commutations can shorten a prison sentence while leaving other consequences intact. And as Obama has increased his use of commutations in his last year in office, he's also gotten more creative in adapting the power to fit the circumstances of each case. Unlike the more common "time served" commutations, which release a prisoner more or less immediately, many of his commutations since August have been "term" commutations, which have left prisoners with years left to serve on their sentences.

At the same time, Obama has also begun to attach drug treatment as a condition of many of those commutations, beginning with Jones' class of 214 inmates on Aug. 3 — the single largest grant of clemency in a single day in the history of the presidency.

That day, White House Counsel Neil Eggleston — who advises the president on commutation applications — explained the new drug treatment condition in a blog post on the White House web site. "For some, the president believes that the applicant’s successful re-entry will be aided with additional drug treatment, and the president has conditioned those commutations on an applicant’s seeking that treatment," Eggleston wrote. "Underlying all the president’s commutation decisions is the belief that these deserving individuals should be given the tools to succeed in their second chance."

Since Aug. 3, 22% of the commutations Obama has issued have required drug treatment.

Conditional pardons and commutations have been part of presidential clemency almost since the beginning. Presidents have used that power to induce prisoners to join the military, leave the United States or even — in the case of President Warren Harding's pardon of socialist Eugene Debs — that the clemency recipient travel to Washington to meet him. President Bill Clinton imposed conditions in 34 cases, usually insisting on drug testing....

But even with conditions, it's extremely rare for a recipient to reject clemency outright once it's granted. P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political scientist who has cataloged 30,642 presidential clemency actions dating back to President George Washington, has found just 16 clemency warrants returned to the president unaccepted.

Take President Herbert Hoover's 1930 commutation of Romeo Forlini, an Italian man serving a seven-year sentence after being caught by the Secret Service selling fraudulent Italian bonds. That commutation was granted "on condition that he be deported and never return to the United States." Forlini rejected that condition, and two weeks later Hoover granted him a full, unconditional pardon. "There's a guy who played his cards right," Ruckman said. (Alas, Forlini was arrested in New York in 1931 trying to pull off a similar scam on an undercover detective.)

October 15, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Cost-Benefit Analysis and Retroactivity: The brief for respondent in Beckles v. U.S."

The title of this is the title of this timely and astute New Jersey Law Journal commentary authored by (former federal prosecutor) Steven Sanders. I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts from its beginning and ending:

In late June, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Beckles v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 2510 (2016).  Beckles actually raises three questions, but only two of them are pertinent here: (1) is the "residual clause" of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines' career offender provision void for vagueness under Johnson v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 2551 (2014); and (2) can a defendant whose Guidelines sentence became final before Johnson issued nonetheless invoke Johnson's new rule in a motion filed under 28 U.S.C. §2255.  In its recently filed merits brief, the government argues that the answer to question (1) is "yes," but that Beckles and thousands like him have no legal remedy because the answer to question (2) is "no."

The government's non-retroactivity argument in Beckles represents a total reversal of the position it took before the en banc Eleventh Circuit only one month before Johnson issued. And that reversal seems to stem from the government's concern about the costs the justice system would incur from conducting resentencings for prisoners who very likely would receive lower sentences were they afforded a remedy.  The government's belief that the costs of dispensing justice outweigh the benefits (i.e., less prison time for thousands of people the government acknowledges have been over-sentenced) is eye-opening, to say the least.  That it has broadcast that belief in a Supreme Court brief is downright disturbing....

In sum, the government's retroactivity position in Beckles seems more like a belated attempt at damage control than a principled effort to apply the law consistently across a set of similarly situated defendants.  The government would do well to heed Solicitor General Frederick Lehmann's powerful observation — now inscribed on the walls of the Department of Justice — that "[t]he United States wins its point whenever justice is done its citizens in the courts." See Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 87 & n.2 (1963).

A few of many related prior posts and related materials:

October 15, 2016 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recommended reading, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 14, 2016

In twin post-Hurst rulings, the Florida Supreme Court concludes capital sentencing requires jury unanimity

I was not planning to blog anymore today as I continued participating in this terrific symposium. But big death penalty rulings by the Florida Supreme Court changed my plans. This local report, headlined "Florida Supreme Court rules death penalty juries must be unanimous," provides the basics:

"We conclude that the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury mandates that under Florida's capital sentencing scheme, the jury — not the judge — must be the finder of every fact, and thus every element, necessary for the imposition of the death penalty," the court wrote in a 5-2 ruling, with Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston dissenting.

Their ruling comes just months after the U.S. Supreme Court found Florida's death penalty law unconstitutional because juries played only an advisory role in recommending life or death. The court said in that case, known as Hurst vs. Florida, Florida's system was a violation of a defendant's right to a jury trial.

Florida lawmakers responded by rewriting the state law, requiring a 10-2 vote of a jury to send someone to death. The new law also requires juries to unanimously determine "the existence of at least one aggravating factor" before defendants can be eligible for death sentences.

In a separate ruling in the case of Perry vs. Florida, also issued Friday, the Florida Supreme Court found the new statute cannot apply to cases still pending in which prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. That leaves the state legislature with the task of having to again rewrite the statute to comply with the court's ruling. It is unclear how soon that might happen or whether prosecutors could then continue to seek the death penalty in pending cases....

The court's opinions did not address the issue of whether their findings would apply retroactively. Florida has 385 inmates on death row. It was not clear how many prisoners will be entitled to new sentencing hearings. The retroactivity issue will likely be decided by two other cases — Lambrix vs. Florida and Asay vs. Florida — still pending before the state Supreme Court.

Attorney General Pam Bondi's office has said that as many as 43 death row inmates could get life sentences without parole or new sentencing hearings as a result of the Hurst decision. Those 43 inmates are those who are entitled to automatic post-Hurst reviews of their cases under the state Constitution. Of those cases currently before the court, Bondi's office argued, death sentences should be carried out.

Howard Simon of the ACLU of Florida, which intervened in the case, said he was not surprised by the court's decision: "This is what we have been warning the Legislature about for years. The Legislature can complain all they want about the court's running the government, but when the Legislature ignores the warnings from the court, they should not be surprised by this ruling."

He said that it is not clear if every inmate on death row will be entitled to a new sentencing trial. "Now I think it's a moral issue,'' he said. "If someone was sentenced to death by less than an unanimous it is unconscionable to put them to death now without a unanimous verdict."

I fear I will not get a chance to read these opinions in full until well into the weekend, but here are links to the full opinions. I would be grateful to hear from readers about what they consider especially important aspects of these rulings:

Hurst vs. Florida, No. SC12-1974 (Fla. Oct. 14, 2016) (available here)

Perry vs. Florida, No. SC16-547 (Fla. Oct. 14, 2016) (available here)

October 14, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Rethinking Punishment: Sentencing in the Modern Age"

Tlrfall16The title of this post is the title of this terrific Temple Law Review symposium taking place today at Temple Law School which I have the pleasure of attending and participating in. Here is the formal description of the event:

This Symposium will gather scholars, practitioners, and judges to offer a contemporary perspective on criminal punishment and highlight alternative punishment programs and reformation efforts. The Hon. L. Felipe Restrepo, Circuit Judge, Third Circuit Court of Appeals and the Hon. Timothy R. Rice, Magistrate Judge, Eastern District of Pennsylvania, will give a keynote address focusing on the Eastern District of Pennsylvania’s Reentry Court Program. In addition to the keynote address, the Symposium will consist of three panels – “Prosecuting in the New Age,” “Defending the Convicted: Effective Sentencing Advocacy,” and “The Sentenced: Stopping the Punishment Cycle.”

The full symposium schedule is here, and readers may not be too surprised to learn that I am slated to speak on Panel 2. I was not planning to blog while participating in this event, but the first two speakers on the Panel 1, "Prosecuting in the New Age," inspired me to get on-line. Specifically, the first two speakers were Judge Risa Ferman, a long-serving Montgomery County prosecutor who just recently became a trial court judge, and George Mosee, Jr., the First Assistant Philadelphia District Attorney. And here are two notable quote (of many) from these two notable speakers:

I found both these quotes coming from state/local prosecutors (and many other similar things they had to say) quite interesting and telling, and it highlights for me some of the many ways in which "the Modern Age" for criminal justice is so much different than it was just a decade ago and especially from two decades ago. It also reinforces my strong view that it is only a matter of time before we will be getting significant sentencing reform at the federal level in some form no matter who is formally in charge in the years ahead. Indeed, for my last post before I get ready to speak, I will close with the fitting words of my favorite Literature Nobel Prize winner:

Come writers and critics who prophesy with your pen
And keep your eyes wide the chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon for the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who that it's namin'
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a' changin'!
 
Come senators, congressmen please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside and it's ragin'
It'll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a' changin'!

October 14, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Fair Punishment Project releases second part of report on small number of US counties still actively utilizing the death penalty

In this post earlier this year, I noted the significant new initiative emerging from Harvard Law School's Charles Hamilton Houston for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute called the Fair Punishment Project (FPP).   And in this post a couple of months ago, I highlighted the new big project and first part of a report from the the FPP providing an in-depth look at how the death penalty is operating in the handful of counties still actively using it.  The second part of this report has now been released under the title "Too Broken to Fix, Part II: An In-depth Look at America’s Outlier Death Penalty Counties," and it is available at this link. Here is its introduction:  

As we noted in Part I of this report, the death penalty in America is dying.

In 2015, juries only returned 49 death sentences — the fewest number since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.  Of the 31 states that legally retain the death penalty, only 14 — or less than half — imposed a single death sentence in 2015.  When we look at the county level, the large-scale abandonment of the death penalty in the country becomes even more apparent.  Of the 3,143 county or county equivalents in the United States, only 33 counties — or one percent — imposed a death sentence in 2015. Just 16 — or one half of one percent — imposed five or more death sentences between 2010 and 2015.  Among these outliers, six are in Alabama (Jefferson and Mobile) and Florida (Duval, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, and Pinellas)—the only two states that currently permit non-unanimous death verdicts.  Of the remaining 10 counties, five are located the in highly-populated Southern California region (Kern, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino). The others include Caddo Parish (LA), Clark (NV), Dallas (TX), Harris (TX), and Maricopa (AZ). As Justice Stephen Breyer noted in his 2015 dissent in Glossip v. Gross, “the number of active death penalty counties is small and getting smaller.”

In this two-part report, we have endeavored to figure out what makes these 16 counties different by examining how capital punishment operates on the ground in these outlier death-sentencing counties. In Part II, we highlight Dallas (TX), Jefferson (AL), San Bernardino (CA), Los Angeles (CA), Orange (CA), Miami-Dade (FL), Hillsborough (FL), and Pinellas (FL) counties.

Our review of these counties, like the places profiled in Part I, reveals that these counties frequently share at least three systemic deficiencies: a history of overzealous prosecutions, inadequate defense lawyering, and a pattern of racial bias and exclusion. These structural failings regularly produce two types of unjust outcomes which disproportionately impact people of color: the wrongful conviction of innocent people, and the excessive punishment of persons who are young or suffer from severe mental illnesses, brain damage, trauma, and intellectual disabilities.

This is what capital punishment in America looks like today. While the vast majority of counties have abandoned the practice altogether, what remains is the culmination of one systemic deficiency layered atop another.  Those who receive death sentences do not represent the so-called “worst of the worst.”  Rather, they live in counties with overzealous and often reckless prosecutors, are frequently deprived access to competent and effective representation, and are affected by systemic racial bias.  These individuals are often young, and many have significant mental impairments. Some are likely innocent.  This pattern offers further proof that, whatever the death penalty has been in the past, today it is both cruel and unusual, and therefore unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.

Prior related posts:

October 13, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Fascinating SCOTUS per curiam summary opinion stresses that Eighth Amendment still limits victim testimony in capital cases

The Supreme Court's order list this morning includes a little and very interesting summary opinionin Bosse v. Oklahoma, No. 15-9173 (S. Ct. Oct. 11, 2016) (available here). The order rules in favor of Shaun Michael Bosse, who was convicted and sentence to death by a jury "of three counts of first-degree murder for the 2010 killing of Katrina Griffin and her two children." Here is the per curiam Bosse ruling account of the problem below and its consequences:

Over Bosse’s objection, the State asked three of the victims’ relatives torecommend a sentence to the jury. All three recommended death, and the jury agreed. Bosse appealed, arguing that this testimony about the appropriate sentence violated the Eighth Amendment under Booth. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed his sentence, concluding that there was “no error.” 2015 OK CR 14, ¶¶ 57–58, 360 P. 3d 1203, 1226–1227. We grant certiorari and the motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis, and now vacate the judgment of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals.

“[I]t is this Court’s prerogative alone to overrule one of its precedents.” United States v. Hatter, 532 U. S. 557, 567 (2001) (quoting State Oil Co. v. Khan, 522 U.S. 3, 20 (1997); internal quotation marks omitted); see Rodriguez de Quijas v. Shearson/American Express, Inc., 490 U. S. 477, 484 (1989). The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals has recognized that Payne “specifically acknowledged its holding did not affect” Booth’s prohibition on opinions about the crime, the defendant, and the appropriate punishment. Ledbetter, 933 P.2d at 890–891. That should have ended its inquiry into whether the Eighth Amendment bars such testimony; the court was wrong to go further and conclude that Payne implicitly overruled Booth in its entirety. “Our decisions remain binding precedent until we see fit to reconsider them, regardless of whether subsequent cases have raised doubts about their continuing vitality.” Hohn v. United States, 524 U. S. 236, 252–253 (1998).

The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals remains bound by Booth’s prohibition on characterizations and opinions from a victim’s family members about the crime, the defendant, and the appropriate sentence unless this Court reconsiders that ban.  The state court erred in concluding otherwise. 

The State argued in opposing certiorari that, even if the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals was wrong in its victim impact ruling, that error did not affect the jury’s sentencing determination, and the defendant’s rights were in any event protected by the mandatory sentencing review in capital cases required under Oklahoma law. See Brief in Opposition 14–15. Those contentions may be addressed on remand to the extent the court below deems appropriate.

Justice Thomas (joined by Justice Alito) added this one paragraph concurring opinion:

We held in Booth v. Maryland, 482 U. S. 496 (1987), that the Eighth Amendment prohibits a court from admitting the opinions of the victim’s family members about the appropriate sentence in a capital case. The Court today correctly observes that our decision in Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808 (1991), did not expressly overrule this aspect of Booth.  Because “it is this Court’s prerogative alone to overrule one of its precedents,” State Oil Co. v. Khan, 522 U.S. 3, 20 (1997), the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals erred in holding that Payne invalidated Booth in its entirety.  In vacating the decision below, this Court says nothing about whether Booth was correctly decided or whether Payne swept away its analytical foundations. I join the Court’s opinion with this understanding.

October 11, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

"Slave Narratives and the Sentencing Court"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new paper authored by Lindsey Webb available via SSRN (and which certainly serves as an interesting scholarly "chaser" after watching the new documentary 13th). Here is the abstract:

The United States incarcerates a greater percentage of its population than any other country in the world.  Courts are substantially more likely to sentence African American and Latino people to prison than white people in similar circumstances, and African Americans in particular represent a grossly disproportionate percentage of the incarcerated population. Violence and other ills endemic to jails and prisons are thus disproportionately experienced by people of color.

This Article argues that criminal defense lawyers should explicitly address conditions of confinement at sentencing.  In doing so, a criminal defense lawyer has the opportunity to serve as both advocate and abolitionist.  As advocates, defense lawyers can incorporate information about conditions of confinement into sentencing narratives to support arguments for shorter sentences or against imprisonment altogether.  As abolitionists, defense lawyers can juxtapose the humanity of their clients with the poor or even dire conditions of confinement in our jails and prisons — not only to influence the court’s decision about an individual client’s sentence, but to impact the court’s view of our systems of incarceration as a whole.  Defense lawyers acting as abolitionists thus seek to disrupt and dismantle a system of imprisonment that disproportionately affects African American and Latino people in significant and damaging ways.

In examining how invoking conditions of confinement at sentencing engages defense attorneys as advocates and abolitionists, this Article seeks insight from a tool of abolitionists and advocates from a different time: Civil War-era slave narratives.  Slave narratives exposed the hidden conditions of slavery while also seeking to humanize the enslaved people subjected to those conditions.  Using slave narratives as a touchstone in a conversation about sentencing advocacy provides a new perspective on the role of storytelling in litigation and social movements, including questions of who tells the story and which stories are told, in the context of systems of control with deep disparate impacts based on race.

October 11, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 10, 2016

Coming SCOTUS argument "week" (lasting one day) should still be of interest to criminal justice fans

At Crime & Consequences here, Kent Scheidegger briefly explains why this week the "US Supreme Court has a one-day argument week": "Monday is a legal holiday, Columbus Day. No arguments are scheduled for Wednesday, which is Yom Kippur. So it's all about Tuesday." Kent also has this brief and interesting accounting of the two criminal cases to be heard by SCOTUS tomorrow:

The main action, for our purposes, is Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado, asking whether the Constitution requires an exception to the time-honored rule that you can't impeach a jury verdict by calling the jurors to testify as to what was said during deliberations.  CJLF's brief, written by Kym Stapleton, is here.  Our press release is here.

Manrique v. United States is a technical question about restitution.  The Question Presented, as drafted by counsel for defendant, occupies an entire page and is a fine example of how not to write a Question Presented.   However, the fact that the Court took it anyway is an example of why that may not matter as much as some of us think.

For those eager for a more details review of what these cases are about, factually and legally, here are case links and more fulsome previews via SCOTUSblog:

Manrique v. United States, No. 15-7250: Argument preview: Can an appellate court consider a challenge to the amount of a restitution award as part of an appeal of the underlying sentence? 

Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, No. 15-606: Argument preview: Justices to consider racial bias in jury deliberations

October 10, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 09, 2016

"Betterman v. Montana and the Underenforcement of Constitutional Rights at Sentencing"

The title of this post is the title of this new essay authored by Carissa Byrne Hessick now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This past Term, in Betterman v. Montana, the U.S. Supreme Court took up the question whether the Sixth Amendment’s speedy trial guarantee applies to sentencing proceedings. In a unanimous opinion by Justice Ginsburg, the Court held that it does not.  Perhaps in order to achieve unanimity, Betterman left open important questions, which may ultimately allow defendants, at least in some situations, to demand a speedy sentencing.  But, as this short commentary explains, Betterman represents an unfortunate example of the courts’ tendency to underenforce constitutional rights at sentencing.

October 9, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

"Victim Impact Statements and Expressive Punishment in the Age of Social Media"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper available via SSRN and authored by Erin Sheley. Here is the abstract:

Victim impact statements (VIS) are long-disfavored among legal commentators for allegedly injecting unnecessary, negative emotion into sentencing at the expense of the defendant, with ambiguous informational benefits to the sentencing body.  Most traditional arguments both for and against VIS turn on purely retributive or utilitarian grounds.

This essay takes up the Stanford sexual assault victim’s statement to propose an expressive framework for understanding the function of VIS, which resolves much of the theoretical confusion surrounding the traditional justifications.  I show how the expressive goals of criminal punishment have long been distorted by the mediation of traditional news reporting. I then analyze the legal relevance of the particular criminological values expressed in the Stanford statement to show how unmediated victim narratives may counterbalance media distortion, particularly in the age of social media transmission. I conclude that the criminal justice system better serves its expressive function by formally incorporating VIS into sentencing.

October 5, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Racial issues in death sentencing (and insider trading and malicious prosecution) next up for SCOTUS oral argument

As I noted in this recent post, the Supreme Court is back in action with a new fall season chock full of cases involving criminal justice issues.  Today's first official day of oral argument, as noted here, involved case on how to interpret the federal bank-fraud statute and on how to apply the Double Jeopardy Clause.  And the SCOTUS action gets extra exciting for sentencing fans with the first big capital case of the season, Buck v. Davis, to be heard on Wednesday.  Here are excerpts from Amy Howe's lengthy overview of the case at SCOTUSblog, "Argument preview: Justices to consider role of racial bias in death penalty case":

Even Duane Buck’s attorneys describe the facts of his crime as “horrific.” Buck believed that his former girlfriend, Debra Gardner, was in a romantic relationship with another man, Kenneth Butler. On July 30, 1995, he went to Gardner’s Houston home, where he shot and killed both Gardner and Butler. Buck also shot his step-sister, Phyllis Taylor, in the chest at point-blank range; the bullet missed her heart by only an inch, but she survived.

A Texas trial court appointed two lawyers to represent Buck at his trial.  One of those lawyers, Jerry Guerinot, has been described as the worst capital defense lawyer in the country: Twenty of his clients have been sentenced to death. When the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in Buck’s case next week, the decision by those attorneys to present racially inflammatory testimony by a defense expert will be at the heart of the debate.

A key issue at Buck’s trial was whether he would be dangerous in the future: Unless the jury unanimously concluded that he would be, it could not sentence him to death under Texas law. One of Buck’s former girlfriends, Vivian Jackson, testified that he had repeatedly abused her, but that fear had kept her from going to the police. However, Buck did not have any convictions for violent crimes, and a psychologist testified that he was unlikely to be dangerous in the future.

Buck’s lawyers also retained another psychologist, Dr. Walter Quijano. Quijano provided the defense team with a report in which he indicated that, as a statistical matter, Buck was more likely to commit violent crimes in the future because he is black. That report was admitted into evidence, at the request of Buck’s lawyers. After two days of deliberations, the jury concluded that Buck was indeed likely to be dangerous in the future and sentenced him to death....

There are several points of contention in the Supreme Court. The first is the merits of Buck’s argument that his trial counsel violated his constitutional right to an effective attorney when he introduced Quijano’s opinion.

Buck emphasizes that Quijano’s “testimony was so directly contrary to Mr. Buck’s interests, no competent defense attorney would have introduced it.” And the introduction of that evidence, he contends, likely “tipped the balance in the prosecution’s favor”: Although the key question before the jury was whether Buck was likely to be dangerous in the future, prosecutors failed to provide any evidence that Buck “had been violent outside the context of romantic relationships with two women, and the jurors learned that he had adjusted well to prison.” Moreover, he notes, the jury apparently “struggled to determine the appropriate sentence” for Buck, which suggests that, if Quijano’s testimony had not been admitted, at least one juror — all that would be necessary — might have voted against a death sentence.

The state concedes both that “race is an arbitrary, emotionally charged factor that has nothing to do with individual moral culpability” and that the introduction of Quijano’s opinion “was at least debatably deficient performance” by Buck’s trial lawyers.  But, the state contends, Buck had failed to show that the jury might have reached a different decision if the opinion had not been introduced, because there was plenty of evidence that Buck was likely to be dangerous in the future.  The state further downplays the significance of Quijano’s opinion that Buck was statistically more likely to be dangerous in the future because he is black, asserting that it “played only a limited role at trial,” particularly when the psychologist’s “ultimate conclusion” was that Buck “would likely not be a future danger.”

The other issues before the Court are more technical, but no less important: whether Buck’s case presents the kind of extraordinary circumstances that would justify relief under Rule 60(b)(6) and whether the lower courts made a mistake when they rejected his application for a certificate of appealability....

In many of the court’s recent death penalty cases, the justices have been deeply divided. Two justices — Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg — have even suggested that the court should consider whether the death penalty is constitutional at all. That question is not before the court in Buck’s case, but ... oral arguments could nonetheless elicit strong opinions on the administration of death penalty from the eight-member court.

Though the Buck case is likely to garner the most media attention, there are other big legal and practical issues before Justices in two other criminal cases tomorrow.  Again, SCOTUSblog provides helpful resources for these cases:

Salman v. United States

Argument preview: Justices to consider what constitutes a “personal benefit” in insider trading

Manuel v. City of Joliet

Argument preview: Does the Fourth Amendment govern a “malicious prosecution” claim, and if so, how?

October 4, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (29)

Monday, October 03, 2016

Ohio planning to use new three-drug execution protocol to get its machinery of death operative in January 2017

Long-time readers and/or hard-core death penalty fans perhaps recall that my own great state of Ohio way back in Fall 2009, in the wake of some problems administering the then-universal three-drug lethal injection approach, pioneered a new one-drug execution protocol.  This one-drug approach to executions seemed to work reasonably well for the Buckeye state for a period, as the state completed 19 executions in the period from 2010 to 2013.  But when Ohio struggled to get the needed supply of the drug being used in its one-drug protocol, the state in January 2014 tried a two-drug approach that did not seem to work our so well (as reported in this prior post).

Since January 2014, Ohio has been a de facto death penalty moratorium state because Ohio Gov John Kasich repeatedly delayed a long list of scheduled executions while the state sought to figure out how best to acquire drugs for conducting lethal injections.  (During this period, the Ohio legislature enacted a law to shield the identity of some who helped the state move forward with executions (background here), and some advocates started calling for the state to consider nitrogen gas as an alternative way to carry out death sentences (details here).  But today, as this new AP article reports, Ohio has now revealed that it is planning to get its machinery of death up-and-running again come January 2017 by returning to a (new kind of) three-drug execution protocol.  Here are the details and context:

Ohio plans to resume executions in January with a new three-drug combination after an unofficial three-year moratorium blamed on shortages of lethal drugs, an attorney representing the state told a federal judge Monday.

Thomas Madden with the Ohio attorney general's office said the state will use the drugs midazolam, which puts the inmate to sleep; rocuronium bromide, which paralyzes the inmate; and potassium chloride, which stops the heart. He said the drugs are not compounded and are FDA approved. Madden told Columbus federal Judge Edmund Sargus that a new execution policy will be announced at the end of the week....

The development opens the way for the execution of Ronald Phillips for the rape and murder of his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter in Akron in 1993. Ohio hasn't put anyone to death since January 2014, when Dennis McGuire repeatedly gasped and snorted during a 26-minute procedure using a never-before-tried two-drug combo.

The state also used midazolam in McGuire's execution, making it disappointing that Ohio would again turn to that drug, said Allen Bohnert, a federal public defender representing several death row inmates.

The state has more than two dozen inmates with firm execution dates sitting on death row, with executions scheduled out as far as October 2019.

After McGuire's execution, the longest ever in Ohio using lethal drugs, the prisons agency changed its policies to allow for single doses of two alternative drugs. Complicating matters, neither of those drugs — sodium thiopental and pentobarbital — is available in the United States after their manufacturers put them off-limits for executions. The state has unsuccessfully tried to find compounded or specially mixed versions.

Last year, Republican Gov. John Kasich ruled out looking for alternative methods, such as the firing squad or hanging. In 2014, Kasich signed a bill into law shielding the names of companies that provide the state with lethal injection drugs.

Supporters said such confidentiality is necessary to obtain supplies of the drugs, and the measure is needed to restart Ohio executions. Opponents said it was naive to think the bill could truly protect companies' names from being revealed.

In 2014, former federal Judge Gregory Frost sided with the state, saying the prisons agency's need to obtain the drugs outweighed concerns by death row inmates that the information was needed to meaningfully challenge the source of the drugs.

October 3, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Previewing the (very criminal) start of the new SCOTUS Term

As this October Term 2016 merits case list via SCOTUSblog highlights, six of the first seven cases that the Supreme Court has scheduled for oral argument to kick off its new season involve criminal justice issues.  And, with thanks again to the extraordinary work that SCOTUSblog always does to make it so much easier to keep up with all the Supreme Court action, here are links to case pages, issues and previews of the first two of the cases, which are to be heard on Tuesday:

Shaw v. United States: Whether, in the bank-fraud statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1344, subsection (1)’s “scheme to defraud a financial institution” requires proof of a specific intent not only to deceive, but also to cheat, a bank, as nine circuits have held, and as petitioner argued here.

Argument preview: Court to consider scope of federal bank-fraud statute

 

Bravo-Fernandez v. United States: Whether, under Ashe v. Swenson and Yeager v. United States, a vacated, unconstitutional conviction can cancel out the preclusive effect of an acquittal under the collateral estoppel prong of the Double Jeopardy Clause.

Argument preview: Double jeopardy opens the Term

And for those looking for more of an overview perspective on what the Justices might be doing in the criminal justice arena this Term, Andrew Cohen has this useful commentary over at the Brennan Center headlined "A Hindered Court Will Tweak Criminal Law."

October 3, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Happy SCOTUS new year/Term ... which has already gotten started with more Johnson fall-out

Today is the always exciting first Monday in October, the traditional first day of a new Supreme Court Term.  But because today is also Rosh Hoshanah, the Justices are not hearing the first oral argument of the Term until tomorrow. (I suspect Justices Breyer, Ginsburg and Kagan are going to be partying like it is 5777, which is the year starting today.)

But, while I was spending all my extra time Friday focused on my favorite sporting event, the Supreme Court sort-of got off to a running start for the new Term by announcing Friday afternoon that the were going to review on the merits eight new cases. This SCOTUSblog posting provides details on all these new cases, and this pair should be of particular interest to criminal justice fans:

In Lynch v. Dimaya, the justices will consider whether, for purposes of federal immigration law, the general definition of a “crime of violence” is so vague that it is unconstitutional. In 2015, the court ruled in Johnson v. United States that the so-called “residual clause” in the Armed Career Criminal Act’s definition of “violent felony” was unconstitutionally vague. Relying on that decision, the 9th Circuit ruled that the definition of “crime of violence” suffers from the same problem as the ACCA’s residual clause, and the federal government asked the court to decide the issue. The government emphasized (among other things) that the text of the definition is quite different from that of the ACCA’s residual clause – as evidenced by the fact that it “has not generated the widespread confusion and interpretive failures that led this Court to invalidate the ACCA’s residual clause.”

Nelson v. Colorado is the case of two Colorado residents who were convicted and sent to prison; they were also ordered to pay restitution and a variety of fees. After their convictions were reversed on appeal, they unsuccessfully sought a refund of the money they had paid. The question before the court is the constitutionality of the state’s requirement that defendants whose convictions are reversed can obtain a refund only if they show, by clear and convincing evidence, that they are innocent. The former inmates argue that Colorado “appears to be the only state” that imposes such a requirement, and they add that the state has “no legitimate interest to keep money that rightly belongs to people whose convictions have been reversed.”

October 3, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Untroubled by SCOTUS Hurst ruling, unanimous Alabama Supreme Court upholds state's capital punishment procedures

6a00d83451574769e201bb08b85699970d-320wiAs reported in this local article, headlined "Supreme Court of Alabama has unanimously upheld the state's capital murder sentencing scheme," a top state court has concluded that its capital punishment law is not to be consumed by the post-Hurst hydra.  "post-Hurst hydra"  (As regularly readers may recall, in this post not long after the Supreme Court in Hurst declared Florida's death penalty procedures violative of the Sixth Amendment, I coined the term "post-Hurst hydra" to describe what I expected to become multi-headed, snake-like capital litigation as judges tried to make sense of what Hurst must mean for past, present and future cases.)  Here are the basics and the context for this significant ruling:

The Supreme Court of Alabama has unanimously upheld the state's capital murder sentencing scheme, which signifies Alabama as the last state in the country that allows for this type of scheme.  The ruling allows for judicial override, which means a judge can impose the death penalty even after a jury has recommended a lesser sentence.

This happened in Montgomery county in 2008, when Circuit Judge Truman Hobbs overrode a jury’s decision to sentence Mario Woodward to life in prison without the possibility of parole for killing Montgomery police officer Keith Houts.  After finding him guilty, the jury recommended life in prison without parole, “But Hobbs said the 34-year-old should die for killing Houts in September 2006,” the Advertiser reported at the time of the sentencing.

In March, Jefferson County Circuit Judge Tracie Todd ruled that the judicial override sentencing scheme was unconstitutional in light of Hurst v. Florida — a January U.S. Supreme Court decision stating that Florida’s sentencing scheme, which also incorporated a judicial override system, was unconstitutional.  Florida’s scheme left it to the judge to find the aggravating factors, not the jury.

The case that sparked Alabama's judicial override appellate process stems from a case involving four men who were charged with three capital murders.  Defense attorneys argued the men should be barred from receiving the death penalty based on that the Supreme Court of the United States' decision.

Todd ruled in their favor, which barred prosecutors from seeking the death penalty.  In her 28-page ruling, Todd called the judicial override practice a “life-to-death override epidemic” and questioned Alabama’s partisan judicial elections. “There is a time and place for diplomacy and subtlety,” Todd wrote. “That time and place has been expunged by the dire state of the justice system in Alabama.  It is clear, from here on the front line, that Alabama’s judiciary has unequivocally been hijacked by partisan interests and unlawful legislative neglect.”

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange asked the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to vacate Todd’s order shortly after it was issued.  In June the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals vacated her decision, stating that Alabama’s scheme differs from Florida’s because in Alabama the jury determines the aggravating factors before deciding the sentence.

Jerry Bohannon, one of the defendants challenging Alabama's sentencing scheme, subsequently petitioned for a writ of certiorari.  Upon review, Alabama Supreme Court Justices echoed points made by the Court of Criminal Appeals. "Because in Alabama a jury, not the judge, determines by a unanimous verdict the critical finding that an aggravating circumstance exists beyond a reasonable doubt to make a defendant death-eligible, Alabama's capital-sentencing scheme does not violate the Sixth Amendment," wrote acting Chief Justice Lyn Stuart....

Strange praised the court’s decision, stating “Today’s ruling is an important victory for victims and for criminal justice.  The Hurst ruling has no bearing whatsoever on the constitutionality of Alabama’s death penalty, which has been upheld numerous times.”  Since Hurst, The United States Supreme Court has told the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to reconsider appeals filed on behalf of at least three Alabama death row inmates.

The full opinion from the Alabama Supreme Court is available at this link. I would call it a near certainty that some Alabama death row defendants will continue to seek certiorari review based on Hurst, and I suspect SCOTUS review will eventually be more a question of when rather than whether.

October 2, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, September 29, 2016

New HELP Act seemingly proposes death — and mandates LWOP — for spiked heroin dealing in every case in which "death or serious bodily injury results"

In this post yesterday I noted that Representative Tom Reed, who represents the 29th Congressional District of New York, last week introduced a bill (with four co-sponsors) that would respond to the current heroin epidemic by expanding the federal death penalty.  In that post, you can find Rep Reed's press release, headlined "Reed Stands with Victims: Offers Death Penalty Proposal for Heroin Dealers," explaining the background and reasons for his proposal.

This morning, I found that this page at Congress.gov providing more information about the Help Ensure Lives are Protected (HELP) Act now has this link to the (quite short) text of Rep Reed's bill.  Somewhat disconcertingly, but not really all that surprisingly, the bill is written in a way that seems to mandate federal life without parole (and permits the death penalty) in any and every case in which any user of spiked heroin suffers even serious bodily injury and even if the person distributing the heroin does not know or even have any reason to know the heroin is spiked or that it could seriously injure a user.  

In other words, as I read the key text of the proposed HELP Act, this bill calls for holding any and all heroin distributors strictly and severely criminally liable for any and all serious injuries or deaths that result from a user ingesting spiked heroin.  This is because the HELP Act simply amends the "Penalties" provision of the Controlled Substances Act by adding "if the mixture or substance [of more than 100 grams] containing a detectable amount of heroin also contains a detectable amount of [spiked substance like fentanyl], and if death or serious bodily injury results from the use of such substance, such person shall be sentenced to life imprisonment or death."

Of course, the Supreme Court long ago concluded that the Eighth Amendment precludes even felony murderers from be subject to the death penalty unless and until it can be shown they were at least extremely reckless in the causing of a death.  Thus, because of constitutional limits, there is little chance this bill if enacted would end up sending lots of drug dealers to federal death row.  But, the Eighth Amendment was interpretted in 1991 to permit Michigan to mandatorily impose LWOP on adults for just the possession of a significant quantity of drugs.  Thus, if the HELP Act were to become law, there is a real reason to expect that a huge numbers of persons involved in heroin distribution throughout the US could soon be facing mandatory life sentences if anyone who gets a spiked drug gets seriously injured.

Prior related posts:

September 29, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Important review of the politics, power and personage surrounding US prosecutors

Infographic-1This lengthy new Fusion article, headlined "America's Prosecutor Problem: Prosecutors are more powerful than judges -- but the tough-on-crime stance they take to get elected multiplies racial injustices," brings an important empirical perspective to the story of American prosecutors and just who wields arguably the most power in modern criminal justice systems.  Here are excerpts:

Gordon Weekes describes a criminal case that landed on his desk this month in Fort Lauderdale, Florida: “An old lady comes out of her house and sees three or four kids in in her yard.”  She calls the police.  The kids scatter, but get caught. They’d climbed a fence to snag mangos from a tree.  One of the boys is charged with burglary.

“I suppose because he jumped the fence with an intent to take mangos, that it was a burglary,” muses Weekes, the chief assistant public defender in Broward County.  “But the kid is 13 years old -- and he didn’t even take a mango! The state attorney’s office is supposed to decide how to charge these cases. You would think they would go with the more appropriate charge, which is trespass. No -- they’re going with the more serious charge.”....

“Prosecutors have more power in this system than any judge, any supreme court, any police officer, or any attorney,” he says. They decide what charges to file -- “or more importantly, what charges not to file.”

Even as race and justice issues dominate national headlines, few media outlets have focused on the formidable power prosecutors wield. But they should.  Of the 2,437 elected prosecutors in America (at both the both federal and county levels), 79 percent were white men --- even though white men made up only 31 percent of the population, according to a 2014 report by the San Francisco-based nonprofit Women Donors Network.  That disparity, the report said, is a “structural flaw in the justice system” that has cascading effects -- like reducing accountability for police officers who shoot unarmed minorities.

As part of “Rigged,” our investigation into the dark side of modern-day electioneering, Fusion worked with Color of Change, another organization working on social justice issues, to collect and analyze data for every jurisdiction in America.

The results are stark: 93 percent of all prosecutors in the United States are white, though only 61 percent of the U.S. population is.  At the same time, there were 1,561,500 prisoners in state and federal prisons, according to the latest (2014) data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which noted that black men “were in state or federal facilities 3.8 to 10.5 times more often than white men.”  Fusion’s data supports what social justice activists have long maintained: At the local level, America’s justice system is disproportionately white-controlled, and disproportionately oriented toward punishing minorities.  There are no straightforward answers for how and why the disparity persists, but the data shows the disparity is real....

In many places in America, people of color represent a small share of the population, so it’s natural to assume that the overwhelming whiteness of US district attorneys is due to the whiteness of large swaths of the country. However, when Fusion analyzed the data, we found the imbalance persists even in communities of color:

  • In counties in the U.S. where people of color represent between 50% and 60% of the population, only 19% of prosecutors are prosecutors of color.
  • In counties where people of color represent between 80% and 90% percent of the population, only 53% of the prosecutors are prosecutors of color.
  • Only in places where 90% of the population are people of color does the prosecutor pool reflect the diversity of the community.
  • Overall, in the 276 counties in the U.S. where people of color represent the majority of the population, only 42%, or less than half, of the prosecutors in these counties are prosecutors of color.
  • Only in places where 90% of the population are people of color does the prosecutor pool reflect the diversity of the community....

Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, said that any prosecutor can be good or bad. The problem, he said, is that to get elected, they usually position themselves as “tough on crime” and make strong alliances with police. “They’re going into the job trying to get high conviction rates,” Robinson said. “They try to rack up as many convictions as possible, even though we a have mass incarceration problem.” What we really need, he says, is progressive prosecutors of any race who realize that “the prison-industrial complex has not made us safer.”

Indeed, Color of Change is tracking prosecutor elections and gathering data such as the number of times a prosecutor is elected, what party they represent, their race, gender, and whether they were appointed or ran unopposed. Of the 2,326 prosecutors elected to office as of 2016 and tracked by Color of Change, 72 percent -- 1,691 in all -- ran unopposed in their last election....

Many factors could contribute to the gap in the number of prosecutors of color who run for office. In the data that Color of Change collected, only 94 prosecutors of color were elected to office as of 2016. Of these, 60 ran unopposed in their last election, or 64 percent. Of the 2223 white prosecutors currently elected to office, 1627 or 73 percent ran unopposed. Although the percent of white incumbents who ran unopposed is slightly higher, there is not enough data to draw a conclusion primarily because there are so few prosecutors of color in office. Interestingly, three states (New Jersey, Connecticut and Alaska) appoint prosecutors. In these states, 32 percent of the prosecutors are people of color compared to just 4 percent of prosecutors who are elected. Color of Change hopes to track election outcomes over time in order to better understand what might be driving these differences.

After police arrest a person, the prosecutor and his/her staff of assistant attorneys make a host of decisions that can transform the life of the accused:

  • They can recommend whether the defendant should be released on bail, and can recommend a bail amount.
  • They can adjust the charges, making them more or less severe, felonies or misdemeanors.
  • They can decide whether a child is charged as a juvenile or an adult.
  • They can add or subtract counts.
  • They can also convene grand juries to determine which charges to pursue.
  • The prosecutor can also decide not to press charges at all.

“At any time, until a jury is sworn or a plea taken by the court, the state attorney can chose to drop the case,” said Gordon Weekes. “That is always their power, for many reasons: not enough evidence, it’s not in the interest of the public to go forward, there’s an alternative that better suited.”

Because laws outline recommended prison sentences, or even dictate mandatory minimum sentences for particular crimes, a prosecutor can have far more latitude over a defendant’s ultimate prison sentence than a judge, based solely on what charges are brought. For example, at the federal level, someone accused of a misdemeanor charge of possession of marijuana could be fined $1,000 and spend a year in jail. With felony charge of selling marijuana, the fine could be $250,000 and the sentence, five years in prison. Weekes notes that the stronger the threat of punishment, the more inclined a defendant might be to just plead guilty and end the case rather than incur lawyer fees and take up time as the case goes to trial.

In Broward County, Florida, the site of the mango crime, the state attorney is Michael Satz, who was elected to his role in 1976 and has won every election since. He is now 73 years old. On his website, Satz makes no secret of his mission. He brags that in 1992, he “achieved the highest total conviction rate for trials and guilty pleas in the state, a high standard his office works hard to maintain.”

Satz made his reputation for being tough on crime during the drug wars of the 1980s and 90s -- and, critics, say, that reputation was built the backs of minorities. “He’s sent thousands of people to prison on very, very minor drug offenses,” Weekes said. “There’s probably more drug crime occurring on college campuses, but no one is going to any college and kicking down the dorm room door to find a bong under the bed.

“He’s a very nice guy, but he’s lost in a different age and different time,” Weekes said of Satz. “Because he doesn’t have any true connection to people who are impoverished, who have had to struggle, he can’t relate to a lot of the people entering the criminal justice system. There is a lack of empathy that comes from that office -- and countless examples in the ways they choose to prosecute cases.”

September 29, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

NY member of Congress puts forward federal bill with "Death Penalty Proposal for Heroin Dealers" ... UPDATE: With four co-sponsors

Current PortraitThis official press release from the offices of Representative Tom Reed, who represents the 29th Congressional District of New York, reports on the introduction of a bill that would respond to the current heroin epidemic by expanding the federal death penalty.  The press release is headlined "Reed Stands with Victims: Offers Death Penalty Proposal for Heroin Dealers," and here are the details form the press release:

Tom Reed continued his fight against heroin and opioid abuse by offering a proposal which would toughen penalties for drug dealers that supply users with illicit substances that cause an overdose death. “We care about the families of every overdose victim in our community and the addicts that are struggling. We’ve held several roundtable discussions and heard directly from the parents who have lost children to opioids and heroin. It’s only right that we hold those responsible for harming our loved ones accountable,” said Reed.

The bill, known as the Help Ensure Lives are Protected (HELP) Act, would allow federal prosecutor expanded access to more severe penalties, including life in prison or the death penalty, when prosecuting certain criminal drug cases where prosecutors can connect an overdose death to the drug dealer that sold heroin laced with fentanyl.

The move comes in the wake of several roundtable discussions held by Reed throughout the region as well as the recent spike in overdoses directly related to fentanyl laced heroin. The number of deaths due to synthetic opioids, mainly Fentanyl, rose 80% between 2013 and 2014.

Fentanyl is extremely addictive substance, 100 times more powerful than morphine, which is often included in heroin without the user’s knowledge, to maximize the dealer’s profits. The substance is so potent that law enforcement officers are forced to wear level ‘A’ hazmat suits following raids and seizures to avoid coming in contact with it. These hazmat suits are the same kind worn by medical professionals combating Ebola.

Reed supported the Comprehensive Opioid Abuse Reduction Act which was signed into law in July. The law provides for new programs that offer prevention and treatment options for addicts by offering grants to states, and groups of states, to implement and expand access to these services. The government funding proposal, which is expected to pass the House later this week, will designate $37 million to these efforts.

Reed says his proposal will “bring balance to the approach” by providing law enforcement with additional options to aid prosecution.  “This is about justice for the victims and their families and giving our law enforcement and prosecutors the tools they need to stop the flow of these lethal substances into our communities,” said Reed.  The proposal was introduced late last week.

I cannot yet find the Help Ensure Lives are Protected (HELP) Act on-line, but I am very interested in seeing just how this bill seeks to apply and administer LWOP and the death penalty in this setting.

UPDATE I have found this page via Congress.gov providing more information about the HELP Act, which on that site goes by this description "H.R.6158 - To provide for enhanced penalties for certain offenses relating to controlled substances containing fentanyl, and for other purposes."  Unfortunately, that webpage does not yet have either the bill text or the a substantive summary, but the page does note that H.R.6158, the HELP Act, was introduced with these four other sponsors:

Rep. Yoho, Ted S. [R-FL-3]

Rep. LaMalfa, Doug [R-CA-1]

Rep. Flores, Bill [R-TX-17]

Rep. Chabot, Steve [R-OH-1]

September 28, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, September 26, 2016

Looking at the impact of SCOTUS Johnson ruling in the heart of the state in the heart of it all

I live in the center of a state that sometimes uses the tourism slogan "Ohio, The Heart of It All."  Though some might dicker with the formal accuracy of this sloganeering, there is little basis to resist the claim that Ohio is a bellwether state, and that reality makes extra interesting this new Columbus Dispatch article about the impact of the most consequential of Supreme Court sentencing rulings in recent years.  The piece is headlined "U.S. Supreme Court ruling on sentencing law could free hundreds in Ohio," and here are excerpts:

Celia Ward has the menu planned for her son’s welcome-home dinner: fried chicken, cabbage, cornbread and mac and cheese. It’s been a while since Hozae Rodriguez Ward, 39, sat down at his mother’s table.

From 1995 to 2007, he was in the county jail and state prison. Since 2009, he has been in federal prison.  But according to the U.S. Supreme Court, he should have been home five years ago.  Ward is eligible for immediate release after the high court ruled on June 25, 2015, that the Armed Career Criminal Act, under which Ward was sentenced, was too vague.

The ruling probably affects many more than just Ward.  The federal public defender’s office in Cincinnati is conducting an “initial” review of 400 federal inmates sentenced under the act to see if they, too, have been in prison too long.  The office covers only the Southern District of Ohio.  The total number of inmates affected nationwide is unknown, but there are 89 district courts in the 50 states, including two in Ohio.

On Wednesday in Columbus, U.S. District Judge Michael H. Watson ordered Ward’s release, which should occur within 30 days.  Watson sentenced Ward on June 30, 2009, to the minimum mandatory term of 15 years after he pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of ammunition. “No one is terribly comfortable with that, given your previous record,” Watson said.  “Nonetheless, you’ve served more than twice the guideline range, as recalculated.”  The defense and prosecution agreed that, based on the high court’s ruling, Ward’s maximum sentence should have been 27 months.

The Armed Career Criminal Act imposed a mandatory minimum 15-year prison sentence on felons convicted of a firearm offense who had three previous convictions for violent felonies or serious drug offenses.  The act defined those violent felonies as burglary, arson, extortion and those involving the use of explosives.  The problem, the justices wrote in Johnson v. United States, is that the act continued to add a broad “residual clause” that included crimes that “otherwise involve conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”  The court ruled that the residual clause violated the Fifth Amendment’s due-process provision because it was too vague and “invites arbitrary enforcement” by judges....

“We’ve had numerous folks who have walked out the Bureau of Prison door,” said Kevin Schad, appellate director for the federal public defender’s office for the Southern District of Ohio.  In addition to his office’s 400 cases, others are being reviewed by attorneys appointed by the court to help, said Schad, who filed the motion in Ward’s sentencing....

Schad said the number of inmates affected by the ruling might grow.  The Supreme Court has agreed to hear an outgrowth of Johnson v. United States.  The petitioners in Beckles v. United States argue that a similarly vague clause exists in other enhanced-sentencing guidelines.  “That opened up a whole number of other cases,” Schad said. 

September 26, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, September 25, 2016

"The Under-Policed"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting and provocative new essay authored by I. Bennett Capers now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

While there is much to be said about the problem of mass incarceration and strategies for de-incarceration, the goal of this essay is to bring two things to the conversation. The first is to bring attention to the complex role misdemeanors play in compounding the problem of mass incarceration. The second is to call attention to race, but not in the usual way.

Usually, when we think of race and criminal justice, we think of racialized policing and the overrepresentation of racial minorities in jails and prisons. But what happens when we consider criminal justice not only as an issue of overcriminalization and overenforcement vis-à-vis racial minorities, but also as an issue of undercriminalization and underenforcement vis-à-vis non-minorities?

Put differently, in this time when we are again discussing white privilege and the hashtag #Crimingwhilewhite has become a phenomenon, are there advantages to talking about white privilege — or more generally, privilege — and criminal justice?  If there exists what Randall Kennedy calls a “racial tax,” are there benefits to asking who gets a “racial pass”? Are there advantages to talking about the under-policed?  Finally, how might those conversations impact the issue du jour, mass incarceration?  This essay concludes by offering some suggestions for reducing mass incarceration.

September 25, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18)

Saturday, September 24, 2016

"Originalism and the Criminal Law: Vindicating Justice Scalia's Jurisprudence ― And the Constitutution"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Adam Lamparello and Charles MacLean now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract (which unfortunately does not seem to flesh out the title or themes of the piece's focus on Justice Scalia's criminal jurisprudence):

Justice Scalia was not perfect — no one is — but he was not a dishonest jurist. As one commentator explains, “[i]f Scalia was a champion of those rights [for criminal defendants, arrestees], he was an accidental champion, a jurist with a deeper objective — namely, fidelity to what he dubbed the ‘original meaning’ reflected in the text of the Constitution — that happened to intersect with the interests of the accused at some points in the constellation of criminal law and procedure.”  Indeed, Justice Scalia is more easily remembered not as a champion of the little guy, the voiceless, and the downtrodden, but rather, as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said, an ‘unwavering defender of the written Constitution.’”

Justice Scalia’s frustration with the Court was certainly evident at times during his tenure, and understandably so.  In United States v. Windsor, Scalia lamented as follows: "We might have covered ourselves with honor today, by promising all sides of this debate that it was theirs to settle and that we would respect their resolution. We might have let the People decide. But that the majority will not do. Some will rejoice in today's decision, and some will despair at it; that is the nature of a controversy that matters so much to so many. But the Court has cheated both sides, robbing the winners of an honest victory, and the losers of the peace that comes from a fair defeat. We owed both of them better."

The above passage captures the essence of Justice Scalia’s philosophy, and the enduring legacy that will carry forward for many years after his death. At the end of the day, Justice Scalia, whether through well-reasoned decisions, blistering dissents, or witty comments at oral argument, spoke a truth that transcends time: “[m]ore important than your obligation to follow your conscience, or at least prior to it, is your obligation to form your conscience correctly.” And “[h]ave the courage to have your wisdom regarded as stupidity… and have the courage to suffer the contempt of the sophisticated world.” You will be missed, Justice Scalia. You left the Court — and the law — better than it was before you arrived.

September 24, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

US House passes significant update to federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act

Though it now seems that major federal statutory sentencing reform remains dead at least until the election (as I had thought months ago), this Marshall Project piece highlights that some other federal criminal justice reform has been moving quietly forward.  Here are the details:

Even though the year began with strong bipartisan support for federal sentencing reform, no major changes to the criminal justice system have made it out of Congress thanks to a combination of legislative gridlock, election-year rhetoric about rising crime in some cities, and Republican reluctance to hand President Obama a major victory. But on Thursday, the House of Representatives quietly — and overwhelmingly — passed what might be the most significant justice reform measure to reach Obama in his tenure.

The bill is an update of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which has been expired since 2007. It would withhold federal funding from states that hold minors in adult jails. Unlike previous versions of the law, the new bill would extend that protection to juveniles who have been charged with adult crimes but are still awaiting trial. The legislation would also ban states from locking up minors for so-called status offenses — things that are crimes only because of the age of the offender, such as truancy or breaking curfew.... “I’m delighted, but also optimistic,” said Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), a lead sponsor of the bill. “Getting a law passed on justice issues — one that doesn’t go backward — has been a challenge, to say the least. But we ought to be able to conform the House and Senate versions and get this to the president” before his time in office runs out.

The Senate version of the bill has made it out of committee and has almost unanimous support. But it still faces an obstacle in Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who has singlehandedly blocked the measure from being put to a quick voice vote. Cotton’s home state, Arkansas, locks up minors for running away and other status offenses at a disproportionately high rate, Mother Jones reported this week. A spokeswoman said Cotton is concerned the proposed law would erode the power of the bench. “It is prudent to allow states to determine if their judges — often in consultation with the parents and attorneys involved — should have the discretion to order secure confinement as a last-resort option,” Cotton spokeswoman Caroline Rabbitt said.

Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), the lead proponents of the bill on the Senate side, have been trying for months to reach a compromise with Cotton. If their effort fails, it would fall to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to take up precious floor time — in a season devoted to reaching a spending deal and funding the fight against the Zika virus — with a debate and vote on the legislation.“Since it so closely resembles the Senate bill, Chairman Grassley is optimistic that it can be passed in the Senate,” said spokeswoman Beth Levine....

The JJDPA law has existed in various forms since 1974 and provides federal grants to states on the condition they adhere to several “core principles” for detaining youth: not in adult facilities, not for status offenses, and not in ways that impact different racial groups differently. But over time, loopholes have been added to the legislation, all of which the new, reauthorized bill aims to close.

States that do not want to comply with the new law, should it pass, could choose to forgo a portion of their federal funding, a modest $92 million per year to be shared across the country — assuming Congress agrees to appropriate the money. The bill also does not contain a key goal for reformers of the juvenile system: restricting the use of solitary confinement in youth prisons.

But the bill would require states to collect new data on racial disparities at every stage of the juvenile system and to present the federal government with a concrete plan for how they will address those divides. It would also require states to ensure that academic credits and transcripts are transferred, in a timely fashion, between schools and juvenile-detention facilities, and that children get full credit toward graduation for any schoolwork they completed while incarcerated. Finally, the legislation would ban the shackling of pregnant girls, provide funding for delinquency prevention and gang-intervention programs, and require states to report data on juvenile recidivism rates and other measures.

September 24, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, September 22, 2016

"Under the Radar: Neuroimaging Evidence in the Criminal Courtroom"

The title of this post is the title of this notable (and quite lengthy) article available via SSRN authored by Lyn Gaudet and Gary Marchant. Here is the abstract (with one line emphasized therein for sentencing fans):

This Article analyzes court decisions in 361 criminal cases involving neuroimaging evidence through the end of 2015. There has been a steady upward trend in the number of criminal cases considering neuroimaging evidence with the number of reported decisions being the highest in the most recent period of 2013-2015. Neuroimaging evidence has been used in competency, guilt, and penalty phases of criminal trials, with the most efficacy being seen in the penalty phase, especially in capital cases.

In order to provide a helpful analysis of uses and trends of this specific type of evidence, this Article includes an identification of the specific neuroimaging modality used or requested in each case (CT, MRI, EEG, PET, SPECT), the reason for the request for neuroimaging, the legal argument involving the imaging data, and the court’s response. In addition, common concerns regarding the use of neuroimaging data are also addressed, including the complexity of the various techniques and analysis, individual variability of the brain, the time gap between scanning and the criminal act, and the ability to make statements about groups versus about one individual.

As supported by the trends demonstrated in this analysis, there has been a shift in recent years from discussion about whether neuroimaging evidence is relevant and admissible toward admissibility of this type of evidence and a focus on the substantive results and appropriate use of the neuroimaging data.

September 22, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

"Assessing Time Served" and the deeply under-theorized problems of criminal history

Patrick Woods has this effective and important new article now available via SSRN titled "Assessing Time Served."  Here is the abstract (which will be followed by a few comments I have about this topic):

This article examines the utility of a new way of determining when increased punishment should be imposed pursuant to “three strikes” laws or other recidivist enhancements. In the past two years, Congress and the United States Sentencing Commission have each considered criminal justice reform measures that would use the length of time an offender spent incarcerated as a proxy for the seriousness of his earlier criminal conduct.  While this reform seems sound at first glance, the article ultimately concludes that its incorporation into current state and federal sentencing laws must be done carefully, if at all, and that doing so now may be premature.

The article compares this new “time served” approach with the current methods of determining the severity of the punishment imposed upon an offender for his prior crime.  Current federal and state laws assess the seriousness of prior punishment using either the maximum statutory penalty — irrespective of the real sentence — or the sentence announced in court by the judge — even if only a small fraction of that sentence was actually served before the defendant was released.  Compared with these methods, determining the severity of a prior punishment using a “time served” measure seems to be an improvement.

Real problems, however, lurk just below the surface.  The article discusses in detail significant challenges with records gathering, defining the term of incarceration, and using the metric in a way that is consistent with due process guarantees.  It suggests how the metric might be employed to minimize each of these concerns, but also concludes that the condition of state and local incarceration records may make use of the metric in the near future impracticable.

This article effectively highlights some of the practical challenges of using time actually served in prison as a metric for recidivist sentencing enhancements, and these practical challenges must be considered against the backdrop of the host of other practical difficulties federal courts have experienced in using other metrics in application of the Armed Career Criminal Act and guideline assessments of criminal history.  Moreover, as the title of this post hints,  I think modern criminal justice theorists and scholars ought to be working a lot more on what the author calls the "philosophical underpinnings" of recidivist sentencing enhancements. (The author usefully brackets this issue because his fundamental project in this article is not conceptual.)  In many ways, I think the "war on drug" has had its biggest impact on modern incarceration through such recidivist enhancements, and I have long thought that the "philosophical underpinnings" of such enhancements can and should be greatly influenced by the types (and especially the motives) of prior offenses.

September 21, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

"The Constitutional Right to Collateral Post-Conviction Review"

The title of this post is the title of this new and timely new article authored by Carlos Manuel Vazquez and Stephen Vladeck. Here is the abstract:

For years, the prevailing academic and judicial wisdom has held that, between them, Congress and the Supreme Court have rendered post-conviction habeas review all-but a dead letter. But in its January 2016 decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court may have dramatically upended that understanding in holding — for the first time — that there are at least some cases in which the Constitution itself creates a right to collateral post-conviction review, i.e., cases in which a state prisoner seeks retroactively to enforce a “new rule” of substantive constitutional law under the familiar doctrine of Teague v. Lane.

On the surface, Montgomery held only that state courts are required to employ Teague’s retroactivity framework when and if they adjudicate habeas petitions relying on new substantive rules of federal law. But, in reaching that conclusion, the Court clarified that Teague’s holding that new substantive rules of federal law are retroactively applicable on collateral review was a constitutional one, a holding that, as we explain, was both novel and important.

We next consider which courts — state or federal — have the constitutional obligation to provide the constitutionally required collateral review recognized in Montgomery. Either way, the implications of Montgomery are far-reaching.  To conclude that the state courts must provide collateral review would run counter to the conventional wisdom that states are under no obligation to permit collateral attacks on convictions that have become final. On the other hand, the conclusion that federal courts must have jurisdiction to grant such collateral review is in significant tension with the Madisonian Compromise.  In our view, the Supreme Court’s Supremacy Clause jurisprudence establishes that the constitutionally required collateral remedy recognized in Montgomery must be available, in the first instance, in state courts — even if the state has not chosen to provide collateral post-conviction relief for comparable state-law claims.  The state courts also have the constitutional power and duty to afford such relief to federal prisoners, but Congress has the power to withdraw such cases from the state courts by giving the federal courts exclusive jurisdiction over such claims.  Thus, we conclude that the state courts are constitutionally obligated to afford collateral post-conviction review to state prisoners in the circumstances covered by Montgomery, and the federal courts should be presumed to have the statutory obligation to afford such review to federal prisoners.

Finally, we examine some of the important questions raised by the conclusion that state and federal prisoners have a constitutional right to collateral relief. Although the questions are complex, and not all of the answers are clear, the uncertainties surrounding some of the contours of the remedy recognized in Montgomery should not obscure the fact this seemingly innocuous holding about the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction actually upends a half-century’s worth of doctrinal and theoretical analyses of collateral post-conviction review, a result that could have a breathtaking impact on both commentators’ and courts’ understanding of the relationship between collateral post-conviction remedies and the Constitution.

When I got involved in writing a little commentary about the Montgomery opinion earlier this year, Montgomery's Messy Trifecta, I came to see themes and language in the Montgomery opinion that struck me as very important and very ground-breaking.  Thus, I am especially pleased to discover that I am not the only one who believes (and arguably welcomes) the fact that a "seemingly innocuous holding about the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction actually upends a half-century’s worth of doctrinal and theoretical analyses of collateral post-conviction review."

September 20, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Lethally Deficient: Direct Appeals in Texas Death Penalty Cases"

Td2The title of this post is the title of this notable new lengthy report produced by the Texas Defender Service.  The start of this news release provides an overview of the report's contents:

Texas’ system of providing direct appeal representation in death penalty cases is in dire need of reform, according to a new report by Texas Defender Service.  The report, Lethally Deficient, evaluates six years of direct death penalty appeals and concludes that the current system is broken.  The Texas Legislature should, Texas Defender Service recommends, create a capital appellate defender office to handle these appeals, establish a statewide appointment system with caseload controls and uniform compensation, and require the appointment of two qualified lawyers to each death penalty direct appeal.

Lethally Deficient: Direct Appeals in Texas Death Penalty Cases is the first report to engage in an in-depth examination of direct appeals for Texas death penalty cases. Texas law requires all death sentences to be directly appealed from the trial court to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.  A direct appeal is based on the trial record and transcript.

“This report documents that, in case after case, most death row inmates are not well represented on direct appeal,” said Kathryn Kase, Executive Director of Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit law firm that works on capital cases and related criminal justice issues. “Texas should do what it did to address the crisis in capital habeas representation: create a public defender office that handles only direct death penalty appeals.”

TDS examined all direct appeals filed in each of the 84 death penalty cases decided by the Court of Criminal Appeals between January 1, 2009 and December 31, 2015.  The study uncovers multiple deficits in capital direct appeal representation. Lawyers submitted briefs that recycled failed legal arguments without updating to reflect current law, failed to meet — and at times, correspond with — their clients, failed to request oral argument, and avoided filing reply briefs and applications for U.S. Supreme Court review.  And while other jurisdictions reported attorneys needing between 500 and 1,000 hours to brief a capital direct appeal, defense lawyers for the cases in the TDS study billed between 72.1 to 535.0 hours for each appeal, for an average of only 275.9 hours.

In the six years – 2009 through 2015 – that these deficiencies occurred, TDS found that the CCA did not reverse a single conviction in a death penalty case on direct appeal.  The CCA affirmed convictions and death sentences in 79 cases, and reversed death sentences in just three cases.

When compared to capital litigants in other jurisdictions, Texas death penalty appellants fare far worse. Death row inmates outside Texas are 2.8 times more likely to have their cases reversed on direct appeal.  TDS reviewed 1,060 capital direct appeal decisions issued by the highest courts in the 30 other death penalty states between 2005 and 2015, and these courts collectively reversed 16.0% of all death sentences.  By contrast, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed just 5.7% of the death penalty cases heard on direct appeal between 2005 and 2015.

September 20, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Do animal abuser registries make more or less sense than sex offender registries?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent Washington Post piece headlined "Animal abusers are being registered like sex offenders in these jurisdictions." Here are excerpts:

Starting in November, convicted animal abusers in the county that includes Tampa will be easier to identify. Their names, photos and addresses will be published on a county-run website that is publicly searchable and similar to the online sex offender registries that have proliferated since the 1990s.

The animal abuser registry, passed last week by commissioners in Hillsborough County, is aimed at preventing people who have harmed animals from doing so again.  Retailers and shelters will be required to have prospective pet adopters or purchasers sign an affidavit saying they’re not on the registry.  Regular people seeking pet-sitters or new homes for their animals will be able to vet candidates. Law enforcement officials will, at least in theory, be able to keep tabs on offenders’ whereabouts.

The county is the latest in a tiny but growing group of U.S. jurisdictions to adopt such registries.  A handful of New York counties have them, as does New York City, although that one isn’t accessible to the public. Cook County, Ill., whose county seat is Chicago, recently decided to create one. Tennessee started the first statewide registry in January, although it still has just three people on its list.

“Just as we place extra trust in teachers and law enforcement, so, too, should we ensure that those engaged in the handling of animals have a spotless record,” New Jersey state Rep. Troy Singleton (D) said about legislation he sponsored to make his state home to the second statewide animal abuse registry. He referred to the idea as a “first line of defense.”

The registries are part of widening efforts in the United States to punish and track animal abusers, who, research has shown, commit violence against people at higher rates than normal. All 50 states now have felony provisions for the gravest crimes against animals, although many offenses are still considered misdemeanors. The FBI has added animal cruelty to its list of Class A felonies, and this year began collecting data for such crimes the way it does for other serious offenses, including homicide.

“Most owners consider their pets to be family members,” Kevin Beckner, the Hillsborough County commissioner who pushed for the registry, said in a statement.  “This Registry not only protects animals, but it can identify — and maybe even prevent — violence against humans, too.”

The registries have several limitations. For one thing, they’re local, not national, so a person with an animal cruelty record in Tampa wouldn’t be stopped from getting a cat in Miami. Most require the cooperation of offenders themselves, requiring them to register or face a fine.

And the tool is not without its detractors — some of whom include animal advocates.  The chair of the Hillsborough County’s Animal Advisory Committee called the registry there “not sufficient at all,” according to the Tampa Bay Times.  Retailers have protested the idea of putting salespeople in the position of saying no to potentially violent customers whose names pop up in an online search.  That concern led the Florida county to require stores and adoption shelters to procure only an affidavit, which can be checked against the registry — and passed along to authorities if there’s a match — after the customer leaves. But it has been dismissed elsewhere....

Among the skeptics is the Humane Society of the United States, whose president and chief executive, Wayne Pacelle, wrote in 2010 that the “overwhelming proportion of animal abuse is perpetrated by people who neglect their own animals” and are unlikely to commit violence against other people and pets.  “Such individuals would pose a lesser threat to animals in the future if they received comprehensive mental health counseling,” Pacelle wrote at the time.  “Shaming them with a public Internet profile is unlikely to affect their future behavior — except perhaps to isolate them further from society and promote increased distrust of authority figures trying to help them.”

A few prior related posts:

September 20, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

Friday, September 16, 2016

"What crimes warrant the death penalty? Depends on the prosecutor"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Los Angeles Times editorial, which gets started this way:

If the government is going to impose a punishment as medieval and irreversible as the death penalty, it should take pains to ensure that the penalty is invoked only for the most heinous crimes and that it is applied fairly and consistently.  Data compiled by the state attorney general’s office, however, suggest that California is falling short of those ideals because of the individual judgments of local prosecutors.

To be eligible for a death sentence in this state, a person must be convicted of first-degree murder enhanced by any one of about three dozen special circumstances — more than just about any other state (if California wants to reduce death sentences, it could start by reassessing these threshold crimes). There’s murder for hire.  Murder to silence a witness.  Killing a police officer.  Wrecking a train.  Using poison.  Murder, even, when killing wasn’t the intent but occurred during the commission of any of a dozen other crimes.  And on and on.

Who decides whether a murder case involves one of those special circumstances, and thus warrants the death penalty?  A jury, followed by the trial judge’s affirmation (a judge can reduce a death sentence, but not order one if the jury didn’t recommend it).  A jury, though, doesn’t consider a death sentence unless a prosecutor asks it to. And that’s one of the places where capital punishment is inherently inconsistent.  National studies have found that whether someone faces a death sentence depends significantly on the county in which the crime is committed because county-level prosecutors are the ones who decide whether to put the death penalty in play.  In fact, 2% of counties nationwide account for a majority of death sentences.

How inconsistent is application of the death penalty?  From 2011 to 2015, California juries handed down 74 death sentences, more than half from Los Angeles and Riverside counties, with 23 each.  Yet Riverside County is only one-quarter the size of Los Angeles County and had fewer than one-sixth of the homicides during that same time. Is the nature of homicide in Riverside that much more heinous than in Los Angeles County?  No.  The difference between the two counties lies in the makeup of the prosecutorial teams deciding whether to seek the death penalty, with the standard set by the elected district attorney.

Tellingly, there was a change in the Riverside district attorney’s office in January 2015, and the current top prosecutor, Mike Hestrin, has been less aggressive in pursuing the death penalty than his predecessor, Paul E. Zellerbach, who himself sought it less often than the D.A. he replaced.  Further evidence that individual prosecutors make a difference: Hestrin inherited 22 capital cases and, after reviewing them, dropped the death penalty against seven defendants.  So two different district attorneys, looking at the same seven cases, came to different conclusions on whether the crimes merited a death sentence.

Hestrin and others argue that county district attorneys represent the views of their constituents, which explains why liberal San Francisco County tends not to seek the death penalty and more conservative Riverside County does (of the 747 people on death row, one is a San Francisco County case compared with 89 from Riverside).  Yet that is one of the many grave flaws of capital punishment in general, and in California specifically.  Capital punishment is authorized only by state law, but there is no objective statewide standard against which factors are weighed and a decision is made.  It is unconscionable that the specifics of a crime are subordinate to a prosecutor’s whim in determining whether a death sentence will be sought.

September 16, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

"Clarity in Criminal Law"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new article authored by Shon Hopwood now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Over the past thirty years, thousands of new federal criminal laws have been enacted, many of which are unclear and leave prosecutors and courts to now define the boundaries of the criminal code.  Tolerating unclear laws in the criminal arena has always been problematic, but it is especially so in this era of overcriminalization and excessive punishment, where a lack of clarity can result in arbitrary application of criminal statutes and the sentencing consequences of a conviction are so severe.  Although several justices have noted the lack of clarity in the criminal law, the Court as a whole has not fully reacted.

This Article suggests what that reaction should be.  It argues for a more robust review of unclear federal criminal laws, using amplified versions of two tools already at the Court’s disposal: the rule of lenity and void for vagueness doctrine.  Employing those doctrines vigorously would, in effect, create a clear statement rule in criminal law.

September 16, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Detailing interesting sentencing dynamics in the latest batches of "term" commutations by Prez Obama

091416-Obama-commutations-online_1USA Today has this great new article highlighting an especially interesting aspect of the most recent clemency work by President Obama.  The piece is headlined "For Obama, a shift in clemency strategy," and here are excerpts:

For 126 federal inmates who received presidential clemency last month, the good news might have come with a dose of disappointment. President Obama had granted their requests for commutations, using his constitutional pardon power to shorten their sentences for drug offenses. But instead of releasing them, he left them with years — and in some cases, more than a decade — left to serve on their sentences.

As Obama has begun to grant commutations to inmates convicted of more serious crimes, Obama has increasingly commuted their sentences without immediately releasing them. These are what are known as "term" commutations, as opposed to the more common "time served" commutations, and they represent a remarkable departure from recent past practice. Unlike a full pardon, commutations shorten sentences but leave other consequences of the conviction in place.

A USA TODAY analysis of Obama's 673 commutations shows a marked change in strategy on his clemency initiative, one of the key criminal justice reform efforts of his presidency. Before last month, almost all of the inmates whose sentences were commuted were released within four months, just long enough for the Bureau of Prisons to arrange for court-supervised monitoring and other re-entry programs. But in the last two rounds of presidential clemency in August, 39% of commutations come with a long string attached: a year or more left to serve on the sentence.

The strategy has also allowed Obama to commute the sentences of even more serious offenders. Before last month, 13% of inmates receiving clemency had used a firearm in the offense. For those granted presidential mercy last month, it was 22%. Through lawyers in the Justice Department and the White House Counsel's Office, the president is effectively recalculating the sentences using the federal guidelines in effect today — as opposed to the harsher penalties mandated by Congress in the 1980s and '90s.

While previous presidents have granted term commutations on a case-by-case basis — President Bill Clinton required a Puerto Rican nationalist convicted of seditious conspiracy to serve five more years, and President Richard Nixon made a Washington, D.C. murderer serve another decade — Obama appears to be the first to employ them as a matter of policy. "There are a number of cases where it’s a genuine re-sentencing. It’s unprecedented,” said former pardon attorney Margaret Love, who served under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton. “That signals to me that the power is being used in a way it’s never been used before.”

There may also be a political calculation to the new clemency strategy, reflecting a general understanding that there's no guarantee that a President Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump would continue Obama's signature clemency initiative. While it's not entirely settled, most scholars believe a commutation warrant cannot be revoked by a future president once it's granted, delivered and accepted.

Explaining his philosophy on commutation power at a press conference last month — the day after he set a single-day clemency record by granting 214 commutations — Obama gave the example of an inmate who has already served a 25-year sentence but would have only served 20 if sentenced under today's laws. "What we try to do is to screen through and find those individuals who have paid their debt to society, that have behaved themselves and tried to reform themselves while incarcerated, and we think have a good chance of being able to use that second chance well," he said.

But increasingly, recipients of Obama's mercy are years away from paying their debt to society.

White House Counsel Neil Eggleston, who's the last stop for a clemency application before it goes to the president, acknowledged the change in strategy on Aug. 3, the day Obama issued 214 commutations. "While some commutation recipients will begin to process out of federal custody immediately, others will serve more time," he wrote in a blog post. "While these term reductions will require applicants to serve additional time, it will also allow applicants to continue their rehabilitation by completing educational and self-improvement programming and to participate in drug or other counseling services."

Critics say Obama is no longer reserving his clemency power for extraordinary circumstances, but instead substituting his own judgment for that of Congress and the courts. "To impose these things, and to have the commutation take effect after he leaves office — and even after the presidency of someone who succeeds him — seems inappropriate to me," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

But Goodlatte also acknowledged that the power to "grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States" is one of the Constitution's most ironclad powers, and amending the Constitution would be difficult....

"He has effectively set himself up as a judge, reviewing thousands of cases where they’ve been prosecuted, convicted, sentenced and appealed beyond the district court level. And he's undercut all that work by commuting their sentences," Goodlatte said. "I think the president is taking a misguided approach to this issue when he tries to set himself up as a super-judge who would oversee the actions of a separate branch of government."

Mary Price, who has represented drug offenders seeking presidential clemency, said the president is the only person who can act under present law. "In our system, there's a heavy emphasis on finality of judgment," said Price, chief counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which advocates for changes in drug laws. "The court has no jurisdiction to go back and change that sentence." For inmates with one or two years left on their Obama-shortened sentence, the president's clemency could motivating them to prepare for reentry into society, Price said. One drug treatment program gives inmates an additional year off their sentence if they complete it.

While Obama's re-sentencing strategy is a departure from recent practice, experts note that presidents have granted term commutations before. For example, any commutation of the death penalty to life imprisonment would fit the definition of that the Justice Department calls a "term commutation," as opposed to the more typical "time served" commutation.

And if recent presidents haven't done it that way, it's more because they've granted so few commutations to begin with. As the White House is quick to note, Obama has now commuted the sentences of more prisoners than the previous 10 presidents — that's Dwight Eisenhower through George W. Bush — combined. "Is Obama doing it at some unprecedented level? I don't know. Maybe," said P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political scientist who has analyzed data on presidential clemency back to George Washington. "But I am not so sure what to make of that either," he said. "That's what checks and balances are all about."

September 16, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Interesting (and already dated) census of problem-solving courts from BJS

The Bureau of Justice Statistics just released this interesting new report titled Census of Problem-Solving Courts, 2012," and here are its identified " HIGHLIGHTS": „„

September 15, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Nickel and Dimed into Incarceration: Cash-Register Justice in the Criminal System"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing article authored by Laura Appleman now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Criminal justice debt has aggressively metastasized throughout the criminal system.  A bewildering array of fees, fines, court costs, non-payment penalties, and high interest rates have turned criminal process into a booming revenue center for state courts and corrections.  As criminal justice administrative costs have skyrocketed, the burden to fund the system has fallen largely on the system’s users, primarily poor or indigent, who often cannot pay their burden.

Unpaid criminal justice debt often leads to actual incarceration or substantial punitive fines, which turns rapidly into “punishment.” Such punishment at the hands of a court, bureaucracy, or private entity compromises the Sixth Amendment right to have all punishment imposed by a jury.  This Article explores the netherworld of criminal justice debt and analyzes implications for the Sixth Amendment jury trial right, offering a new way to attack the problem.  The specter of “cash-register justice,” which overwhelmingly affects the poor and dispossessed, perpetuates hidden inequities within the criminal justice system. I offer solutions rooted in Sixth Amendment jurisprudence.

September 15, 2016 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Eleventh Circuit judges discuss guidelines and vagueness at great length after denying en banc review in Matchett

As regular readers should recall (and as I like to remind everyone), in this post right after the US Supreme Court ruled that a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violated "the Constitution’s prohibition of vague criminal laws" in Johnson v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2551 (2015) (available here), I flagged the question of how Johnson would impact application of the (now older, pre-reform version) career-offender guideline of the US Sentencing Guidelines.  As I have noted before, the Justice Department has consistently conceded Johnson-based constitutional problems with that guideline, even though there was some prior rulings in some circuits that the federal guidelines could not be attacked based on traditional void-for-vagueness doctrines. 

In the last year, most of the circuit courts, perhaps moved a lot by DOJ 's view, have come to rule that vagueness challenges to the guidelines are proper and have concluded that there are Johnson-based constitutional problems with sentences based on the old career-offender guideline.  But, as noted in this post last September, an Eleventh Circuit panel in US v. Matchett, 802 F.3d 1185 (11th Cir. 2015) (available here), ruled that Johnson and its vagueness problem just do not apply to advisory sentencing guidelines.  

As I have previously noted, I consider the ruling Matchett suspect; but an amicus brief I helped put together urging en banc review in Matchett was not sufficiently convincing to that court.  Today, as revealed here, the Eleventh Circuit announced that a majority of its members voters against considering this issue en banc.  (For practical reasons, even though I disagree on the merits, this decision now makes sense: as blogged here this past June, we now have the ultimate judicial authority on this issue poised to weigh in:the final Supreme Court order list of last Term included a grant of certiorari in Beckles v. United States, No. 15-8544, which will explore whetherJohnson's constitutional holding applies to the residual clause in the older, pre-reform version of the career offender guideline.)

The actual order denying en banc review is only one-sentence long.  But following the order comes 80+ pages of fascinating concurring and dissenting opinions that will surely intrigue any and everyone closely following the legal and practical issues that Beckles implicates.  Highly recommended reading for all sentencing fans and law nerds.

September 13, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 12, 2016

Former GOP Ohio Attorney General explains why he is convinced "the death penalty is just not worth it any more"

Petro_OHflag_BG_0_0Over the weekend my local paper published this capital commentary by Jim Petro, a widely-respected local Republican leader who served as Ohio Attorney General from 2003 to 2007. Here are excerpts:

As Ohio attorney general, I oversaw 18 executions in accordance with Ohio law. As a state legislator before that, I helped write Ohio’s current death-penalty law. We thought maybe it would be a deterrent. Maybe the death penalty would provide cost savings to Ohio. What I know now is that we were wrong. What I am coming to understand is just how wrong we were, and what needs to be done to fix our mistake.

My direct experience with executions makes me more than a mere spectator as Ohio continues to struggle with capital punishment. Since I left office in 2007, I’ve been following developments and watching those most deeply engaged with it.

Earlier this week, Ohioans to Stop Executions (OTSE) released its third report in as many years, providing perspectives on the status of Ohio’s death penalty. I am in agreement with the report, “A Relic of the Past: Ohio’s Dwindling Death Penalty,” which details a continuing decline in executions and new death sentences in Ohio while highlighting the disparities between counties that prosecute death cases.

In 2015, only one new death sentence was handed down. Cuyahoga and Summit counties, two jurisdictions responsible for more than 25 percent of death sentences, initiated zero new death penalty cases last year. In fact, new death sentences overall were down for the fourth year in a row. There were three in 2014, four in 2013, and five in 2012.

It has become clear to me that what matters most is the personal predilections of a county prosecutor. Consider Cuyahoga County, which until 2012 was seeking the death penalty in dozens of cases a year. Last year Cuyahoga County sought none. Crime rates did not plunge. There was a new prosecutor. On the other hand, consider Trumbull County, with one of the lowest homicide rates of Ohio counties which sentence people to death. Trumbull County leads the state with the highest death-sentence-per-homicide rate. Why? Again, the personal preference of the county prosecutor matters most.

The new OTSE report addresses many other issues, including 13 wrongful convictions and exonerations in Ohio death cases. After serving as attorney general, my chief concern was that our state has sentenced individuals to death or lengthy prison sentences for crimes they did not commit....

Most urgently in my view, the new report catalogs the reluctance of Ohio legislators to consider most of the 56 recommendations made in 2014 by the Supreme Court Joint Task Force on the Administration of Ohio’s Death Penalty. The charge to that task force was to find ways to make Ohio’s death penalty more fair and accurate.

Only a handful of the recommendations have been considered, and not those which would make the biggest difference. For example, the recommendation to narrow the felony murder rule would address much of Ohio’s disparity in death sentencing. Thirteen of the recommendations, individually and collectively, would go a long way toward preventing wrongful convictions. In failing to act, legislators effectively maintain the status quo, which is a broken system that currently serves only the interest of Ohio prosecutors. That is a grave mistake.

Another grave mistake is the terrible suggestion by the director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association that Ohio adopt the gas chamber to conduct executions. I hope Gov. John Kasich and all Ohio legislators soundly reject that notion. It is offensive to the human experience and has no place in our great state.

I am convinced that the death penalty is just not worth it any more, and I don’t think it can be fixed. Starting in January 2017, 28 Ohioans have execution dates. If we’re going to have the death penalty, then it must not be carried out until the legislature implements the task force’s reforms intended to ensure fairness and accuracy.

The lengthy new report referenced by former AG Petro, which was authored by Ohioans to Stop Executions and titled “A Relic of the Past: Ohio’s Dwindling Death Penalty,” is available at this link.

September 12, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

"Does the Supreme Court still believe in prosecutorial discretion?"

The question in the title of this post is the first line in this terrific new commentary by Randall Eliason at his Sidebars blog under the title "White Collar Crime, Prosecutorial Discretion, and the Supreme Court." I recommend everyone (and not just white-collar fans) to read the entire piece, and here is a taste of the astute discussion seeking to answer the question posed:

Prosecutorial discretion – the power to decide whether to bring criminal charges, who to charge, what crimes to charge, and how ultimately to resolve the case – is a fundamental component of the criminal justice system. The legislature enacts the laws but the executive branch enforces them, which includes making judgments about when and how to bring a criminal case.

On the macro level, this means setting national and local law enforcement priorities and making decisions about the deployment of finite prosecutorial resources. Different administrations at different times have declared areas such as health care fraud, narcotics, illegal immigration, or terrorism to be top priorities and have allocated resources accordingly. Such decisions necessarily mean other areas will not receive as much attention; a dollar spent fighting terrorism is a dollar that can’t be spent investigating mortgage fraud.

On the micro level, prosecutorial discretion involves deciding whether to pursue criminal charges in a given case and what charges to pursue. Factors such as the nature of the offense, strength of the evidence, the nature and extent of any harm, adequacy of other potential remedies, any mitigating circumstances or remedial efforts by the accused, and prosecutorial resources and priorities all may come into play....

In [a series of] recent [SCOTUS] cases, when faced with the interpretation of white collar crimes such as bribery, honest services fraud, and obstruction of justice, the Court’s approach has been to interpret the statutes narrowly and consequently to remove charging discretion from federal prosecutors....

[T]he Court may believe it needs to interpret criminal statutes more narrowly because it cannot always trust prosecutors to exercise sound judgment when enforcing broadly-written statutes. As Justice Kennedy suggested during the Yates argument, it may be that the Court no longer thinks of prosecutorial discretion as a viable concept.

Of course, some critics of federal prosecutors will welcome this development and suggest it is long overdue. And some will point out that, for prosecutors, this may be considered a self-inflicted wound.  The charging decisions in cases like Yates and Bond in particular may be what led the Justices openly to question whether prosecutors should continue to be entrusted with the same degree of discretion.

But it would be unfortunate if the Justices truly come to believe they cannot rely on prosecutors to exercise sound judgment in charging decisions.  One can always argue about the merits of particular cases, but overall our system of broadly-written statutes enforced by the sound exercise of prosecutorial discretion has worked pretty well.  If the Court continues to chip away at those statutes due to concerns about controlling prosecutors, it will continue to create safe harbors for some conduct that is clearly criminal.

I could write a series of law review articles about all the interesting and important modern issues that this commentary raises. With a particular focus on sentencing issues, I think it is not a coincidence that we are seeing the trend identified here at the same time there are widespread concerns about mass incarceration, the severity of some sentences for nonviolent offenders and the spread of significant collateral consequences for all convicted persons. Also, given that states can (and often will) prosecute any serious criminal activity not clearly covered by federal statutes, I really do not think we need to worry too much about narrow interpretations of broad federal criminal statutes.

September 12, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Spotlighting the import, impact and new debates over prosecutorial control of charging juves as adults

The Atlantic has this effective new article digging deeply into the role (and possible regulation) of prosecutors in the decision to try certain juvenile defendants in adult court.  (As practioners know, the decision to bind a juvenile over to adult court is often essentially a sentencing decision because the decision will often dramatically impact the maximum and minimum sentences a juvenile defendant will face.)  The lengthy piece carries this lengthy headline: "Treating Young Offenders Like Adults Is Bad Parenting: As one state wrestles with the effects of trying juvenile defendants in adult courts, others reconsider the practice." I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

In 2000, voters in California approved Proposition 21, a ballot measure that, among other things, gave district attorneys the right to “direct file” juvenile offenders who committed felonies and other serious crimes like murder and sex offenses. Direct filing gives the D.A. alone the power to decide whether or not a young offender should be tried as an adult in an adult court instead of in the juvenile-justice system.  In all, 15 states and Washington, D.C., have such a mechanism in place. In California, the D.A. has to make that decision within 48 hours of an arrest and usually only has the police report to guide his or her decision.  In 2014, 393 young people were direct filed and tried in state adult courts. The state attorney general’s 2015 juvenile-justice report states that 88 percent of juveniles tried in adult court were convicted. Call this parenting style the tough-love approach.

Deciding to direct file a young person circumvents the role of a judge, who would otherwise conduct a “fitness hearing” to determine where an offending youth should be tried.  It’s like one parent quickly and unilaterally deciding on a child’s punishment without first talking it over with the other parent.  In some cases, the second parent might stand firmly behind the first, but in others, being eliminated from the decision can lead to feelings of disrespect, accusations of power-hoarding, and the unearthing of buried tensions in the relationship.

“With direct file, there’s no opportunity for it to go before a judge to make that very important decision on whether or not a child should be prosecuted as an adult,” said Nisha Ajmani, a lawyer and program manager at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice who opposes the practice.  She works with lawyers and young clients on direct-file cases or to prepare for fitness hearings.

But the district attorney has an incentive to eschew fitness hearings, since in California they are exhaustive and can take months. The hearings involve evaluating the young person on five criteria: the degree of criminal sophistication exhibited; whether rehabilitation is possible before the end of the juvenile court’s jurisdiction, at age 21; the delinquency history; the success of any previous attempts at rehabilitation by the juvenile court; and the circumstances and gravity of the offense that’s alleged.

California has worked in earnest in recent years to provide judges more guidance on those fitness criteria.  Now the state also emphasizes factors such as the offender’s home and family environment growing up, exposure to violence and trauma, mental and emotional development, and circumstances outside of the seriousness of the crime that might be relevant to the decision to prosecute in an adult court.  Call this parenting style the holistic approach. “A judge should really be the party making that decision after a fair, thorough, and neutral process,” Ajmani said, warning that district attorneys subject to elections often want to appear tough on crime to ensure their political viability. “It shouldn’t be the prosecutor who only has 48 hours to make that decision and is inherently biased to begin with.”

“The absolute reality is that we, as prosecutors, have an immense amount of power in California,” said Patrick McGrath, the Yuba County district attorney.  “In some respects, I think almost everybody would agree that the extent of power that we have over charging and case disposition probably really exceeds the amount of power that a judge has.”  But McGrath doesn’t think that power is misplaced: He employs direct file in his county and supports its basic premise.

September 12, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Great coverage of awful public defender realities, especially in Louisiana

The Guardian together with the Marshall Project hace done this past week a remarkable series on the remarkable shortage of public defenders in Louisiana. The series is all linked here via The Guardian, under the title "Justice Denied," and with videos and this brief general description: "A three-part series in partnership with the Marshall Project that examines the crisis of America's overburdened public defense systems, including a special report from Louisiana, where years of cuts and inconsistent funding have hit hardest." Here are the full headlines and links to the three parts of the series:

Here are snippets from the first of these articles highlighting why we ought not expect improvements to public defender systems anytime soon:

In recent years the US has begun to reckon with its role as the world’s biggest jailer, home to a manifestly unequal justice system that disproportionately punishes poor people of color. In diagnosing the causes of this problem much of the focus has centered on sentencing reform, but in a country where 95% of criminal cases are settled by plea deal, little attention has been given to the critical state of indigent defense.  Around the US, defenders routinely report an increase in overburdening and underfunding, caused by a variety of structural, political and economic drivers.

Up-to-date figures are scant, but according to a 2008 estimate by the American Bar Association, state and county governments spent a total of $5.3bn on indigent defense systems a year, just 2.5% of the roughly $200bn spent on criminal justice by states and local government every year. The depth of crisis varies in each state, indicative of the complex patchwork of defense systems that are funded and administered differently dependent on jurisdiction....

Despite the urgency of the crisis, recognized by both the US attorney general, Loretta Lynch, and her predecessor, Eric Holder, the issue remains intractable.  Congressional bills offering defender’s offices easier access to federal grant money have gone nowhere.

And in an election year during which Hillary Clinton has explicitly promised to “reform our criminal justice system from end to end”, dealing with the crisis in funding defense of the poorest people coming before the courts does not feature on her platform for change.  Donald Trump, who has promised to be “the law and order candidate”, has a vision for reform that goes no further than a vow to appoint “the best prosecutors and law enforcement officials in the country”.

September 10, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Fewer Hands, More Mercy: A Plea for a Better Federal Clemency System"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new paper by Mark Osler now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The constitutional pardon power has generated more controversy than mercy over the past three decades.  Even President Obama, who has pursued a focused clemency initiative, has struggled to meet historical standards.  While changing ideas relating to retribution play a role in this decline, there is another significant factor at play: too much bureaucracy.
Beginning around 1980, a review process has evolved that is redundant and biased towards negative decisions. No fewer than seven levels of review take place as cases course through four different federal buildings, a jagged path that dooms the process.  For years, this bureaucracy stymied even President Obama’s intention to reduce prison populations; the relative success of his clemency initiative came despite this bureaucracy, not because of it, and only after seven and a half years of futility.
This article analyzes the development of this system and the problems it creates before offering solutions based on the experience of state governments and President Ford’s successful use of a Presidential Clemency Board.

September 10, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, September 09, 2016

DOJ, wisely in my view, decides to drop prosecution against former Virginia gov Bob McDonnell and his wife

As reported in this Reuters article, "U.S. prosecutors on Thursday dropped corruption charges against former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and his wife, bringing to a close a case that tarnished the once-rising star of the Republican Party."  Here are more details and context:

"After carefully considering the Supreme Court’s recent decision and the principles of federal prosecution, we have made the decision not to pursue the case further," the U.S. Justice Department said in a statement. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out McDonnell's bribery convictions in a ruling that could make it tougher to prosecute politicians for corruption.

The eight justices, liberals and conservatives alike, overturned McDonnell's 2014 conviction, saying that his conduct fell short of an "official act" in exchange for a bribe as required for conviction under federal bribery law. Jurors had convicted McDonnell for accepting $177,000 in luxury gifts and sweetheart loans to him and his wife Maureen McDonnell from a wealthy Richmond businessman seeking to promote a dietary supplement. He was sentenced to two years in prison but remained free pending appeal.

The case was a rare instance of the nation's highest court reviewing a high-level public official's criminal conviction. The court sent the case back to lower courts to determine if there was sufficient evidence for a jury to convict McDonnell, which had kept alive the possibility of a new trial.

His lawyers applauded the decision, saying in a statement on Thursday: "Governor McDonnell can finally move on from the nightmare of the last three years and begin rebuilding his life." McDonnell served as governor from 2010 to 2014 and once was considered a possible U.S. vice presidential candidate.

His wife was convicted in a separate trial and given a one-year sentence but remained free while pursuing a separate appeal.  The Supreme Court ruling effectively applied to Maureen McDonnell too, meaning that her conviction also had to be tossed out....

Legal observers have noted that the Supreme Court ruling opens the possibility that politicians could sell meetings and other forms of access without violating federal law.  The decision was criticized by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a corruption watchdog group.  It said in a statement the Justice Department had "sent a clear signal that it would not aggressively enforce corruption laws to hold public officials accountable when they abuse their office.”

As I suggested in this prior post, I am generally pleased that the Justice Department has decided that there is now no real public benefit in continuing to use taxpayer moneys to seek to further condemn and harm former Gov McDonnell and his wife for their various suspect actions.

A few of many prior related post:

September 9, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Top Texas criminal judges wonders about value of LWOP sentencing and its lesser process

This local article from Texas reports on interesting comments by a top state judge in the state about LWOP sentences. Here are excerpts from the article:

Judge Larry Meyers, the longest-serving member of the state’s highest criminal court, has grown uncomfortable with the way Texas allows for life in prison without parole, calling it a slow-motion death sentence without the same legal protections given to defendants who face the death penalty.  It can be argued, Meyers said, that the prospect of decades of prison — ended only by death from old age, medical problems or even violence — is as harsh or harsher than execution.

Even so, life without parole can be given in some capital murder cases without jurors answering two questions that must be considered before issuing a death sentence — is the defendant a future danger to society, and are there any mitigating factors such as mental disability or childhood abuse that weigh against capital punishment?

“I’m not saying the death penalty is unconstitutional.  I think right now it’s about as fair as it could be,” Meyers said. “But there are two variations of the death penalty; one is just longer than the other.  People are getting a (life without parole) death sentence without the same safeguards and procedures that you get when there is a death sentence.”

Larry Meyers has been a judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals since 1993.  Meyers, the only Democrat on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, plans to make changing the life-without-parole system an issue of his re-election campaign, an admittedly uphill battle after he switched from the Republican Party in 2013 over disagreements in its direction under the surging tea party movement.

His Republican opponent in the Nov. 8 election, 22-year state District Judge Mary Lou Keel of Houston, believes Meyers has strayed from his principal task as a judge. “Policy issues like this are best left to the Legislature,” Keel said. “Doesn’t he have enough work to do as a judge?”...

Life without parole, an option for capital murder cases since 2005, has been credited with helping to sharply reduce the number of death row inmates by allowing prosecutors to reserve capital punishment for the worst cases, yet ensure that other convicted murderers are permanently removed from society.

Since life without parole became an option, the population of Texas’ death row has fallen to 244 inmates, down about 40 percent, as the pace of executions has outstripped the number of new death sentences. In contrast, 782 inmates were serving life without parole for capital murder as of July 31. An additional 54 inmates are serving life without parole after repeat convictions for sexually violent offenses, including crimes against children, since the Legislature allowed the punishment for the crime of continuous sexual abuse in 2007....

Seeking life without parole is by far the simpler option. Jurors are easier to seat — death penalty opponents aren’t allowed on juries if execution is an option — and there is no punishment phase trial. The appeals process also is less rigorous, with death row inmates granted two appeals before the state’s highest criminal court, while inmates serving life without parole go through the normal process. Meyers, a 23-year member of the Court of Criminal Appeals, believes life without parole has been made too simple, providing “an easy, inexpensive way of getting the death penalty.”

It would be fairer, he said, to let jurors consider some variation of the future danger question and to allow defense lawyers to present mitigating evidence. If jurors cannot agree that life without parole is appropriate, the defendant would get a life sentence and be eligible for parole after 40 years or some other suitable time, Meyers said.

The bigger reform — what Meyers called the “smarter fix” — would be for the Legislature to end capital punishment, making life without parole the ultimate punishment and including an option for parole. The political reality in Texas, by far the nation’s top death penalty state, makes that an extremely unlikely option for legislators, Meyers admits. “But right now, as I see it, there’s just two options — both for death,” he said....

Meyers said his change of heart on life without parole didn’t come about because of appeals. Nobody is going to tell his court that they improperly received a no-parole term when the alternative is a death sentence, he said. Instead, Meyers said, his qualms arose after coming to see the sentence as a delayed death penalty — one that is particularly harsh on young people — when a typical murder conviction is often enough to lock away killers until they are no longer a danger.

When the Legislature debated life without parole in the mid-2000s, prosecutors were divided on the best course to take, but many opposed adding a “long, drawn-out” sentencing hearing to determine the difference between a no-parole sentence and parole eligibility after 40 years, said Shannon Edmonds, staff attorney with the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. “You could argue that it’s not much difference. It was a lot of squeeze without much juice,” Edmonds said.

In addition, many capital murder cases are decided by a plea bargain that allows defendants to choose perpetual prison time over execution. Some prosecutors feared losing bargaining leverage to a defense lawyer who threatened, for example, to drag out a sentencing hearing for three weeks unless offered a sentence with parole for a lesser crime like murder, Edmonds said.

Life without parole raises questions about whether Texas is imprisoning people long past the point that they “will ever be dangerous,” said Kathryn Kase, executive director of Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit that provides capital murder legal representation at trial and on appeal. “We’ve got places in prisons that look like nursing homes. It makes me wonder, as a taxpayer, are these people dangerous? Why are we paying the extra cost of imprisoning them when they are geriatrics?” Kase said.

September 8, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Feds file motion seeking to limit how jury might consider mercy in capital trial of Charleston mass murderer Dylann Roof

This new BuzzFeed News article, headlined "Prosecutors Want To Limit Dylann Roof’s Use Of A “Mercy” Defense," provides an effective summary of this interesting motion filed by prosecutors in a high profile federal capital case. Here are the basic details:

Federal prosecutors trying the death penalty case against alleged Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof want to limit the use of “mercy” when he goes on trial later this year.  In a new court filing, prosecutors argue that should Roof be convicted, the jury should determine his sentence based on a weighing of the factors for and against — known as aggravating and mitigating factors — the death penalty.  Roof is accused of fatally shooting nine people inside the historically black Emanuel AME Church on July 17, 2015.

The prosecutors argue that allowing the defendant to instruct the jury that, regardless of their findings, they are never required to sentence someone to death isn’t consistent with the Federal Death Penalty Act.  In arguing against a mercy defense, prosecutors point out that during the sentencing phase of the trial, if it gets to that, the government’s burden is much higher — they must convince the jury to unanimously find that the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors.  The defendant’s burden is “significantly lower” — he needs to convince one juror that there is enough mitigating evidence to merit a sentence less than death, such as life in prison without parole.

In the filing, the prosecution did say that mercy may enter into equation when the jury debates aggravating versus mitigating factors.  “It is within that context, and that context alone, that mercy may enter into the death penalty process,” the prosecution writes....

Earlier this month, the court revealed that 3,000 people were sent jury summonses notifying them that they are being considered to serve on the jury at Roof’s trial.  

This week, a South Carolina circuit court judge set the date for Roof’s state trial, which is expected to be tried after the conclusion of the federal trial.  That case, where Roof is also facing the death penalty, is scheduled to begin in late January 2017.

September 7, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

"Non-Adversary Prosecution"

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

American prosecutors are conventionally understood as having two different roles.  They must seek the defendant’s conviction as adversary advocates, and they must also ensure the system’s fairness as ministers of justice.  But these two roles are at odds.  Legal scholarship and the organized bar try to elide this conflict by describing prosecutors as having a “dual role,” meaning that they must perform both functions.  But the resulting role confusion allows adversarial ethics to dominate in practice, leading to excessive punitiveness and wrongful convictions.

This Article argues that the “dual role” model should be scrapped, and that American prosecutors should not be understood as adversary lawyers at all.  Certain features of the American system — prosecutorial discretion, the limited role of victims, and the resolution of nearly all cases through plea bargain agreements — make it inappropriate, indeed dangerous, for American prosecutors to behave like partisan lawyers.

In seeking to move beyond the “dual role” model, this Article distinguishes three possible roles for prosecutors.  The first is adversarialism, in which a prosecutor exercises their discretion strategically in order to win convictions and punishments.   The second is legal neutrality, in which a prosecutor behaves like a disinterested adjudicator whose decisions are dictated by established rules.  The third is value weighing, in which a prosecutor exercises their discretion by choosing among a limited set of public values that are implicit in our legal institutions.

The Article ultimately argues that the American prosecutor’s role should be understood as combining the logics of legal neutrality and value weighing. When there is a binding rule and the prosecutor lacks discretion, they should act as a neutral conduit for the established legal principles.  And when the prosecutor faces a discretionary choice, they should act as an executive official committed to implementing a certain normative vision of justice.  But the prosecutor should never act as an adversary committed to winning for its own sake.  The Article also considers how the institutional structure of prosecutors’ offices, and the professional incentives that prosecutors face, might be reformed in order to accommodate such a non-adversarial role.

September 7, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)