Monday, November 07, 2016
Split Fourth Circuit panel concludes Virginia’s geriatric release program insufficient to save juve LWOP sentences from violating Graham
A Fourth Circuit panel today handed down a lengthy split decision today in LeBlanc v. Mathena, No. 15-7151 (4th Cir. Nov. 7, 2016) (available here), concerning the application of the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment Graham ruling in Virginia. Here is how the majority opinion by Judge Wynn gets started:
Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 74 (2010), held that “the Eighth Amendment forbids the sentence of life without parole” for juvenile offenders convicted of nonhomicide offenses. Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that States must provide juvenile nonhomicide offenders sentenced to life imprisonment with “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Id. at 75.
Nearly a decade before the Supreme Court decided Graham, Respondent, the Commonwealth of Virginia, sentenced Petitioner Dennis LeBlanc to life imprisonment without parole for a nonhomicide offense he committed at the age of sixteen. In light of Graham, Petitioner sought postconviction relief from his sentence in Virginia state courts. The state courts denied Petitioner relief, holding that Virginia’s geriatric release program — which was adopted more than fifteen years before the Supreme Court decided Graham and will allow Petitioner to seek release beginning at the age of sixty — provides the “meaningful opportunity” for release that Graham requires.
Mindful of the deference we must accord to state court decisions denying state prisoners postconviction relief, we nonetheless conclude that Petitioner’s state court adjudication constituted an unreasonable application of Graham. Most significantly, Virginia courts unreasonably ignored the plain language of the procedures governing review of petitions for geriatric release, which authorize the State Parole Board to deny geriatric release for any reason, without considering a juvenile offender’s maturity and rehabilitation. In light of the lack of governing standards, it was objectively unreasonable for the state courts to conclude that geriatric release affords Petitioner with the “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation” Graham demands. Id. Accordingly, Petitioner is entitled to relief from his unconstitutional sentence.
Judge Niemeyer issued a lengthy dissent that gets started this way:
In affirming the grant of Dennis LeBlanc’s habeas petition brought under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, the majority holds that the Virginia Supreme Court concluded unreasonably that Virginia’s geriatric release program provided a meaningful opportunity for release to juveniles and therefore satisfied the requirements of Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010). Graham forbids sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole for nonhomicide crimes. In reaching its conclusion, the majority relies simply on its expressed disagreement with the Virginia Supreme Court’s decision in Angel v. Commonwealth, 704 S.E.2d 386 (Va. 2011), and effectively overrules it. The Virginia court’s opinion, however, is demonstrably every bit as reasonable as the majority’s opinion in this case and should be given deference under § 2254(d)(1).
Especially because the "swing" vote on this panel came from a district judge sitting by designation, I think there is a decent chance this case might get further consideration by the Fourth Circuit sitting en banc. I also would expect Virginia to seek Supreme Court review if it does not seek or secure en banc review.
November 7, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)
Focus on the federal death penalty as capital trial begins for Charleston mass murderer Dylann Roof
Today marks the start in Charleston, South Carolina of the highest-profile federal capital trial since the death sentencing of the Boston Marathon bomber. Here are some local and national stores/headlines providing some context and a sense of what to expect in the courtroom:
Meanwhile, for those unsure what some in the traditional media think about this capital case, here are links to a recent Los Angeles Times editorial and a New York Times op-ed arguing against capital punishment even in this case of mass murder in which there is no doubt about guilt:
Sunday, November 06, 2016
Another big NYC white-collar sentencing produces another way-below-guideline sentence
This USA Today article, headlined "Wall Street fraud sentencing prompts tears and debate," provides the highlights of a high-profile federal fraud sentencing that took place in Manhattan on this past Friday. Here are some of the details:
It was an emotional federal court sentencing, with the future of an Ivy League-educated former private equity executive hanging in the scales of justice.
The prosecution said Andrew Caspersen, a scion of a wealthy business family, should get as much as a 15-year-plus prison sentence for executing a Ponzi-like scam that collectively bilked about a dozen of his clients, family members, and his investment company out of roughly $46 million. The defense said Caspersen never intended to steal and betray. Asking for leniency, his attorney, Paul Shechtman presented evidence to show the 40-year-old father of two had been gripped by a pathological gambling addiction.
On the bench in the 14th-floor Manhattan courtroom sat U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff, a renowned legal independent and author of a recent essay that almost seemed to foreshadow the proceeding. "Distinctions of intent frequently determine, as a matter of law, the difference between going to prison and going free," Rakoff wrote in The New York Review of Books in his examination of neuroscience and the law. What ensued was a nearly three-hour debate over whether and how much gambling addiction should factor in the sentence — complete with references to "The Gambler," a short novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
By the end, Caspersen and his wife, Christina, wept as they held one another in the courtroom. Shechtman brushed away tears of his own. And Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara issued a statement that noted Caspersen had been sentenced — but made no comment on the punishment.
The prosecution attacked the gambling addiction defense from the start. Assistant U.S. Attorney Christine Magdo argued that 2014-2016 scam run by the Princeton University and Harvard Law School graduate had been carefully calculated. In a sentencing memo to the court, she noted that Caspersen fooled his roughly dozen victims by incorporating sham entities with names similar to real private equity firms.
The victims lost millions. Some, investment professionals themselves, declined to present victim statements by name, fearing the reputational loss of being fooled. Magdo added that Caspersen used much of the scam proceeds to pay the mortgage and two home equity credit lines on a Manhattan apartment, as well as a $3 million home in Bronxville, a wealthy suburb of New York City....
Shechtman submitted dozens of support letters to the court, including pleas for leniency from Caspersen's wife, friends, and even the doorman of his Manhattan co-op. The defense also turned to scientific and financial trading experts. Dr. Marc Potenza, a Yale University School of Medicine psychiatry professor and mental health expert on addiction, examined Caspersen and reviewed his health records in preparation for testifying at the sentencing hearing. "Mr. Caspersen suffered from a severe gambling disorder, a mental illness, and there is little doubt that it contributed substantially to him losing his own money and seek money by fraud from others to continue on the same destructive path," Potenza wrote in a letter to the court....
Citing the experts' conclusions, Shechtman urged Rakoff to weigh the "tragic dimension" of Caspersen's gambling addiction.... Caspersen fought back tears as he addressed the court before being sentenced. "I have committed serious crimes of fraud, and have no one to blame but myself," he said. "I stand before you asking for mercy."...
After more than an hour of testimony and questioning of Potenza, Rakoff said he deemed it "more likely than not" that gambling addiction existed and could be a mitigating factor. Still, he stressed it must be weighed with other factors in the case. "It was a substantial fraud," said the judge. "It was a fraud that involved the deception of people who had a lot of faith in the defendant."
Ultimately, Rakoff sentenced Caspersen to four years in prison, followed by three years of supervised release, and nearly $28 million in restitution. "No purpose would be served by having him rot in prison for years on end," said the judge. He characterized federal sentencing guidelines that would allow the far longer sentence sought by prosecutors as "absurd." And, referring to the likelihood that some might question the leniency, Rakoff said outsiders didn't know all the facts of the case.
I cannot find any indication that Judge Rakoff has or plans to write up his sentencing conclusions in a formal opinion, but I sincerely hope he does. For consistent and cogent sentencing even after Booker made the guidelines advisory, it is critical in my view not only for federal district judges to consider thoughtfully all the 18 USC 3553(a) sentencing factors, but also for them to produce written opinions to explain how they weighed those factors in high-profile cases in which they significantly deviate from the ranges suggested by the guidelines.
November 6, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)
Friday, November 04, 2016
"If guilt is proven, should juries always convict?"
The title of this post is the headline of this very interesting new article appearing in my own local Columbus Dispatch. Here is the context and commentary that follows the headline:
No one denied that Edwin Sobony II savagely beat his wife’s heroin supplier with a baseball bat when the man visited the couple’s Hamilton Township home in December. Sobony admitted to investigators that he did it after repeatedly begging the man to stay away. At his trial in September on charges of felonious assault, his defense attorney told jurors that Sobony’s actions were “felonious as hell.”
Yet the attorney, Sam Shamansky, encouraged the jury to acquit his client anyway. “He assaulted him with this bat,” Shamansky said, holding the weapon aloft during his closing argument. “And you say to yourself, ‘You know what, that’s OK. That’s what I would have done.’ Because no one can challenge that opinion. You can go back in that jury room and believe that and vote for it and nobody can touch you. That’s the beauty of the system. It prevents these kinds of prosecutions from ruining lives.”
Shamansky also told jurors that they could acquit by finding that Sobony acted in defense of himself and his family. But he acknowledged last week that, in case they rejected the self-defense claim, he was trying to persuade them that they could employ what is known as jury nullification to find his client not guilty.
Jury nullification occurs when jurors acquit a defendant, despite the prosecution proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt, because they believe the law is unjust or has been unjustly imposed. It appeared to happen last week in Oregon, where a jury acquitted seven defendants who had armed themselves and occupied a national wildlife refuge during a 41-day standoff with federal authorities.
Shamansky’s arguments on behalf of Sobony didn’t work. The jury deliberated for less than three hours before finding the mail carrier guilty of one count of felonious assault. Sobony, 38, is scheduled to be sentenced Wednesday by Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Charles Schneider.
Not everyone agrees that nullifying a law is an appropriate option for juries. Ric Simmons, a professor of law at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, said jurors take an oath to follow the law and return a conviction if the prosecution meets its burden of proof. “In my view, jurors are under a legal obligation to follow the law,” he said.
However, jurors can’t be punished for their decisions, regardless of their reasoning, and their verdicts can’t be appealed. “So jury nullification exists, and we can’t do anything about it,” said Simmons, a former prosecutor.
Others say jury nullification is a time-honored tradition in the United States and was seen by the Founding Fathers as a check on abuse or overreach by the government. It was used by pre-Civil War juries to acquit those charged with violating the Fugitive Slave Act. More recently, it’s been used to acquit those charged with what juries consider antiquated drug-possession laws.
“Jury nullification has played a huge role in the development of our laws,” said Clay S. Conrad, author of “Jury Nullification: The Evolution of a Doctrine.” “For instance, it’s why we have a range of charges for murder, from manslaughter to capital murder. Juries didn’t want everyone to get the death penalty.”
Conrad, a lawyer based in Houston, said police, prosecutors and judges shouldn’t be the only ones allowed to use discretion in how they apply the law. “If a jury believes the prosecution’s idea of justice is wrong, they should have every right to reflect that with their verdict,” he said. “I think the problem we have with getting more juries to nullify in cases where it is appropriate is because so many people are unwilling to challenge authority.”
The leading advocacy group for jury nullification is the Fully Informed Jury Association, a nonprofit organization founded in 1989 in Montana. The group works to educate the public about jury nullification and says that juries should be informed about it as part of jury instructions. “We’re trying to overcome a lack of information, but it’s more than that,” said Kirsten Tynan, the group’s executive director. “Jurors are almost always going to be misinformed. They’re told by the court that they must follow the law as it’s given to them. “We have to educate people that what they’re being told isn’t necessarily true.”
I got into a bit of a verbal fight with my friend and colleague Professor Ric Simmons about this issue just earlier this week (and thus I love seeing him quoted on this front). Readers may not be too surprised to hear that I am generally a fan and supporter of jury nullification. Indeed, I generally believe that juries should be instructed about their power and right to nullify, though I also believe that prosecutors should be able to explain to jurors why they think broad use of nullification powers could have an array of potentially harmful societal consequences.
In this setting and in many others dealing with jury trial rights and procedures, I suspect views are often influenced by one's broader perspectives on the operation of present (and future?) criminal justice systems (both personally and professionally). I have long viewed US criminal justice systems as bloated and inefficient, and thus I have always been inclined to embrace the jury's role as a critical "democratic" check on the criminal justice work of legislative and executive branches. (The late Justice Scalia's writings in cases like Blakely and other jury-respecting rulings have reinforced and enhanced these perspectives in recent years.) My colleague Professor Simmons obviously takes a different view, and I suspect he will not be surprised to know that I believe his views are at least somewhat influenced by his own professional history before he became an academic.
Thursday, November 03, 2016
"A Proposal to Restructure the Clemency Process — The Vice President as Head of a White House Clemency Office"
The title of this post is the title of this interesting new essay authored by Paul Larkin and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The need for reconsideration of the federal clemency process is a real one, and there is a consensus that the Justice Department should no longer play its traditional doorkeeper role. Using the vice president as the new chief presidential clemency adviser offers the president several unique benefits that no other individual can supply without having enjoyed a prior close personal relationship with the chief executive.
Whoever is sworn into office at noon on January 20, 2017, as the nation’s 45th President should seriously consider using as his principal clemency adviser the person who was sworn into the vice presidency immediately beforehand. The president, clemency applicants, and the public might just benefit from that new arrangement.
Death row defendants come up just short in big circuit panel rulings about lethal injection protocols
Though I am saddened that the lovable baseball club from Cleveland came up just short against a lovable baseball club from Chicago very early this morning, there are some death row defendants and lawyers who I suspect are much more troubled by a much more serious legal matter in which their arguments to federal circuit panels came up just short yesterday. Specifically, two court panels, one in the Sixth Circuit and one in the Eleventh Circuit, yesterday handed down two split 2-1 rulings against death row defendants in Ohio and Alabama. Here are links to the rulingsand the start of the majority opinions:
Phillips v. DeWine, No. 15-3238 (6th Cir. Nov. 2, 2016) (available here):
In this appeal, a group of inmates sentenced to death in Ohio challenge the constitutionality of the State’s newly enacted statutory scheme concerning the confidentiality of information related to lethal injection. The district court dismissed some of their claims for a lack of standing and the remainder for failure to state a claim. For the reasons stated below, we AFFIRM.
Arthur v. Alabama DOC, No. 16-15549 (11th Cir. Nov. 2, 2016) (available here):
It has been 34 years since Thomas Arthur brutally murdered Troy Wicker. During 1982 to 1992, Thomas Arthur was thrice tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for Wicker’s murder. After his third death sentence in 1992, Arthur for the next 24 years has pursued, unsuccessfully, dozens of direct and post-conviction appeals in both state and federal courts.
In addition, starting nine years ago in 2007 and on three separate occasions, Arthur has filed civil lawsuits under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 challenging the drug protocol to be used in his execution. This is Arthur’s third such § 1983 case, and this current § 1983 case was filed in 2011. For the last five years Arthur has pursued this § 1983 case with the benefit of lengthy discovery. The district court held a two-day trial and entered two comprehensive orders denying Arthur § 1983 relief. Those orders are the focus of the instant appeal.
After thorough review, we conclude substantial evidence supported the district court’s fact findings and, thus, Arthur has shown no clear error in them. Further, Arthur has shown no error in the district court’s conclusions of law, inter alia, that: (1) Arthur failed to carry his burden to show compounded pentobarbital is a feasible, readily implemented, and available drug to the Alabama Department of Corrections (“ADOC”) for use in executions; (2) Alabama’s consciousness assessment protocol does not violate the Eighth Amendment or the Equal Protection Clause; and (3) Arthur’s belated firing-squad claim lacks merit.
Wednesday, November 02, 2016
"Judicial Sentencing Error and the Constitution"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Reid Weisbord and George Thomas now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Much recent scholarship has sharply criticized the pervasive phenomenon of wrongful convictions, but the literature has overlooked an important related injustice: inaccuracy in criminal sentencing. This Article provides the first comprehensive scholarly treatment of judicial sentencing error, which has become widespread in the modern era of both ad hoc revision to criminal codes and increasingly complex criminal sentencing systems that often lack internal coherence or sensible statutory organization.
Although nearly always the product of human error, the problem of judicial sentencing error is more aptly characterized as systemic because sentencing judges often face ever-changing, overlapping statutory requirements contained in separate parts of the criminal code. We identify both the source and harmful consequences of judicial sentencing error, and then examine constitutional principles implicated by the untimely correction of an erroneous sentence.
Focusing particularly on a defendant’s interest in finality, we argue that the constitutional guarantees of substantive due process and protection against double jeopardy under the Fifth Amendment should be construed to limit the time to correct an erroneously lenient sentence, with the Double Jeopardy Clause supplying the more potent limiting principle and objective legal standard. We conclude that — by according respect for principles of finality in criminal sentencing — the law could create an effective institutional incentive for the State to ascertain the correctness of sentencing orders at or near the time of punishment, thereby preventing the harm and injustice that occur when the defendant’s reasonable expectation of finality has been frustrated for the legitimate but not indomitable sake of accuracy.
How should Californians, as taxpayers, think about the state's competing death penalty initiatives?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new Los Angeles Times article headlined "Will ending the death penalty save California more money than speeding up executions?". Here are excerpts:
Past efforts to repeal the death penalty in California have centered on moral or ethical objections. This year, proponents of Proposition 62, which would replace the punishment with life in prison without parole, are focusing on economics. Prominent supporters of the measure have repeatedly pointed out that the state’s taxpayers have spent $5 billion on the executions of only 13 people in almost 40 years. Online ads have urged voters to end a costly system that “wastes” $150 million a year.
“Sometimes, something is so broken it just can’t be fixed,” a voiceover says in one commercial, as a blue-and-white china vase shatters to the ground. “Let’s spend that money on programs that are proven to make us safer,” a crime victim pleads in another.
But as voters weigh two dueling death penalty measures on the Nov. 8 ballot — one to eliminate executions, another to speed them up — researchers are at odds over the actual costs and potential savings of each. Independent legislative analysts, meanwhile, believe Proposition 62 could save taxpayers millions, while concluding that the fiscal impact of Proposition 66’s attempt to expedite death sentences is unknown.
Death penalty cases are often the most expensive in the criminal justice system because the costs associated with capital punishment trials and the incarceration of death row offenders are vastly higher. The expenses begin to accrue at the county level. Capital cases require two trials, one to decide the verdict and another the punishment. They require more attorneys, more investigators, more time and experts and a larger jury pool.
The costs grow as the state must pay to incarcerate inmates during a lengthy appeals process: The average cost of imprisoning an offender was about $47,000 per year in 2008-09, according to the nonpartisan state legislative analyst’s office. But housing a death row inmate can lead to an additional $50,000 to $90,000 per year, studies have found.
Paula Mitchell, a professor at Loyola Law School who is against the death penalty and has advised the Yes on Prop. 62 campaign, puts the cost of the entire death penalty system since 1978 at about $5 billion. That figure, updated from data compiled in a 2011 report, includes 13 executions since the death penalty was reinstated through a 1978 ballot measure and suspended in 2006 due legal challenges over its injection protocols. It also includes the cost of trials, lengthy appeals and the housing of nearly 750 inmates on California’s death row. The initial study estimated taxpayers spent $70 million per year on incarceration costs, $775 million on federal legal challenges to convictions, known as habeas corpus petitions, and $925 million on automatic appeals and initial legal challenges to death row cases.
Mitchell and other researchers said Proposition 62, which would retroactively apply life sentences to all death row defendants, would save the state most of that money. “It is sort of a fantasy that this system is ever going to be cost efficient,” said Mitchell, who has been named the university’s executive director of the Project for the Innocent.
But proponents of Proposition 66 argue the system can be reformed. The ballot measure would designate trial courts to take on initial challenges to convictions and limit successive appeals to within five years of a death sentence. It also would require lawyers who don’t take capital cases to represent death row inmates in an attempt to expand the pool of available lawyers.
In an analysis for its proponents, Michael Genest, a former budget director for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, contends such changes would save taxpayers $30 million annually in the long run. Proposition 62, in comparison, would cost taxpayers more than $100 million due to this “lost opportunity” over a 10-year period.
But independent researchers with the legislative analyst’s office found plenty of factors could increase or reduce the chances of either ballot measure saving taxpayers money. Overall, they found Proposition 62 was likely to reduce net state and county costs by roughly $150 million within a few years.
The actual number could be partially offset if, without the death penalty, offenders are less inclined to plead guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence in some murder cases. That could lead to more cases going to trial and higher court costs, according the legislative office. Yet over time, the state could see lower prison expenses, even with a larger and older prison population, since the costs of housing and supervising death row inmates is much higher than paying for their medical bills, analysts said.
“If Prop. 62 goes into effect, they can be housed like life-without-parole inmates, some in single and some double cells,” legislative analyst Anita Lee said. “It would fall to [the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] to do an evaluation of risks.”
Calculating the fiscal impact of Proposition 66 is much more complicated, the office found, as the measure leaves more open questions on implementation, such as how the state will staff up with additional private attorneys. Legislative analysts said the costs in the short term are likely to be higher, as the state would have to process hundreds of pending legal challenges within the new time limits. Just how much is unknown, but the actual number could be in the tens of millions of dollars annually for many years.
Also unknown, analysts said, is the proposition’s effect on the cost of each legal challenge. The limits on appeals and new deadlines could cut the expenses if they result in fewer, shorter legal filings that take less time and state resources to process. But they could increase costs if additional layers of review are required for habeas corpus petitions, the initial legal challenges in criminal cases, and if more lawyers are needed....
Mitchell said it was “pretty much delusional” to expect Proposition 66 to ever save the state money. For that to happen, she said, California would have to execute “one person every week, 52 people a year for the next 15 years, assuming they are all guilty.” But Kent Scheidegger, author of the proposition and legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, argued the legislative office’s numbers were skewed, while security costs for dangerous inmates would likely have to remain just as high. “They don’t become any less dangerous if you change their sentence from death row to life without parole,” he said.
UPDATE: The article excerpted here has generate this series of notable posts (by a number of authors) at Crime & Consequences:
- The Muddled Cost Argument Against the Death Penalty
- The Muddled Cost Argument Against the DP, Part II
- The Muddled Cost Argument Against the DP, Part III
- The Muddled Cost Argument Against the DP, Part IV
- The Muddled Cost Argument Against the DP, Part V
Tuesday, November 01, 2016
A timely (and heartwarming?) story of felon enfranshisement
Particularly during an election season that seems almost intentionally designed to make everyone too depressed to want to vote, this local story from Tennessee is about as close to a "feel-good" election season sentencing story as we are likely to find. The story is headlined "Facing felony, he asked to vote first," and here are the highlights:
A young man went to federal court last week to plead guilty to a felony. He knew he was facing up to 20 years in prison. He knew he was about to lose his freedom. He didn't realize he was about to lose his right to vote. "I've been wanting to vote all my life," said Reginald Albright, who turned 20 this year.
When he was a kid, Albright would go with his grandfather to a polling place and wait in the car. "You're too young to vote now," his grandfather would tell him. That only made Albright more eager to vote.
Four years ago, he wished he could have gone with his mother to Mt. Zion Baptist Church to vote for President Barack Obama. He was 16, still too young to vote. His mother, Gloria Hill, was an election poll worker for the 2012 presidential election.... Albright said he has always felt an obligation to vote. "I know my history," he said. He knows his Mississippi ancestors were spat on, slapped, threatened or worse for merely trying to register to vote.
He knows they faced laws designed to inhibit or prevent them from voting -- taxes they couldn't possibly pay, tests they couldn't possibly pass, whites-only primaries. He knows how hard and long they struggled to gain the right to vote, and how long and hard they struggled to be allowed the privilege of voting. "My family takes voting seriously and so do I," he said. Albright could have voted in last year's city elections, but he wanted to cast his first vote for president. So he waited.
Meanwhile, he was trying to figure out how he could afford to go back to school. Albright graduated from Carver High School in 2014. His mother still has his football and weightlifting trophies on top of the TV. "He's never given me any trouble," she said. "In fact, he wanted to become a police officer." Albright started taking classes at Southwest Tennessee Community College, then dropped out when his money ran out. When he turned 18, he lost his share of his disabled mother's Social Security benefits.
Albright admits that he conspired with two others to rob a CVS drugstore in Memphis last December. The attempted robbery was botched, but one of the other robbers had a gun. Albright was just sitting outside in a car when it all happened, but he knows he has no one to blame but himself. "I made a stupid decision and hurt a lot of people who care about me," said Albright, who had no previous criminal record. "I learned a lot of lessons."
Before he went into the courtroom to face the judge last week, Albright sat down with his attorney. By pleading guilty, the attorney explained, Albright would be rendered infamous. That meant he would be deprived of some of his rights as a citizen – his rights to have a gun, to sit on a jury, to hold public office.
"What about my right to vote?" Albright asked.
"You'd lose that, too," attorney Alex Wharton replied.
"Can I vote before I plead guilty?" Albright asked.
Wharton, son of former Mayor A C Wharton, couldn't believe what he was hearing. "People will spend $20 to go to a movie, but they won't take 20 minutes to go vote," Wharton said. "And the cost has already been paid . People fought and shed blood and died for the simple right and privilege just to cast a vote."
Wharton decided to ask the judge for a brief continuance so Albright could go vote. The U.S. attorney did not object. “The government had no objection in this case to the court allowing the defendant the opportunity to exercise his constitutional right to vote before pleading guilty," said U.S. Attorney Edward Stanton III.
U.S. District Judge John T. Fowlkes Jr. said yes. "I've been in criminal law in some form or fashion as a lawyer or judge for 30 years, and I've never heard anyone ask that," Fowlkes said afterward. "It's an important right and I was glad to give that young man a chance to exercise it."
Albright left the courtroom with his mother. He pushed her wheelchair out of the federal building half a block up Front Street, then two blocks down Poplar to the Shelby County Election Commission. They waited in line about half an hour. She pushed him to vote first. "I knew he'd been waiting a long time," she said.
After they both voted, Albright pushed his mother's wheelchair back to the federal building and into the courtroom.
"Did you vote?" the judge asked.
"Yes, sir," Albright said, pointing to his Tennessee-shaped "I Voted" sticker.
He thanked the judge for allowing him to vote for the first time in his life. Then he pleaded guilty to a Class C felony and forfeited his right to vote.
He is scheduled to be sentenced in January. He faces up to 20 years in prison, but probation is an option. "It made me feel good to vote, to do this one time before it was taken away from me," he said. "Maybe I'll get another chance."
Is California's parole reform initiative, Prop 57, among the most important and consequential sentencing ballot issues?
The question in the title of this post is prompted in large part by this recent Los Angeles Times article headlined "Why Gov. Jerry Brown is staking so much on overhauling prison parole." Here are excerpts (with my emphasis added for later commentary):
Few California voters likely know much, if anything, about the state Board of Parole Hearings — from the qualifications of the 12 commissioners to their success in opening the prison gates for only those who can safely return to the streets. And yet Gov. Jerry Brown’s sweeping overhaul of prison parole, Proposition 57, is squarely a question of whether those parole officials should be given additional latitude to offer early release to potentially thousands of prisoners over the next few years. “I feel very strongly that this is the correct move,” Brown told The Times in a recent interview. “I’m just saying, let’s have a rational process.”
Prosecutors, though, contend the governor’s proposal goes too far after several years of trimming down California’s prison population to only the most hardened criminals. They believe the parole board, whose members are gubernatorial appointees, already is swinging too far away from being tough on crime. “They are recommending release of people we never would have expected would have occurred so soon,” said Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey. “I’m concerned about people who really haven’t served a significant amount of time.”
In some ways, Proposition 57 is a proxy for a larger battle over prison sentences. There are sharp disagreements between Brown and many district attorneys over the legacy of California’s decades-long push for new and longer mandatory sentences, a system in which flexibility is often limited to which crimes a prosecutor seeks to pursue in court. The warring sides have painted the Nov. 8 ballot measure in the starkest of terms, a choice for voters between redemption and real danger. “We’re dealing with deep belief systems,” Brown said.
Proposition 57 would make three significant changes to the state’s criminal justice framework. It would require a judge’s approval before most juvenile defendants could be tried in an adult court — reversing a law approved by California voters in 2000. Critics believe prosecutors have wrongly moved too many juveniles into the adult legal system, missing chances for rehabilitation.
What’s most in dispute are two other Proposition 57 provisions, either of which could result in adult prisoners serving less time than their maximum sentences. Brown tacked those two provisions onto the juvenile justice measure in January. One would allow an expansion of good-behavior credits awarded by prison officials; the other gives new power to the state parole board to allow early release of prisoners whose primary sentences were not for “violent” crimes.
In an interview last week, the governor argued that his ballot measure would add a dose of deliberative thought to a process too often driven by elected district attorneys playing to the white-hot politics of sensational crimes. “Do you want the hurly burly of candidates, running for office, being the decision makers in the face of horrible headlines?” Brown asked. “Or would you rather have a quiet parole board, not now but 10 years later, deciding what's right?”
The governor’s plan, which amends the state constitution, would only allow parole after a prisoner’s primary sentence had been served — applying only to the months or years tacked on for additional crimes or enhancements. And like the current system, a governor could override any parole board decision to release a prisoner.
Critics, though, think the parole board is already too eager to approve releases. Greg Totten, district attorney of Ventura County, said he believes parole board members are judged by how many prisoners they release. “We don't have confidence that the parole board will consider our concerns about public safety or the crime victims' concerns,” Totten said. “Those hearings have become much more adversarial than they originally were.” Totten and other prosecutors warn that an influx of new requests for early release would overload parole board commissioners and send too many cases to their deputy commissioners, state civil servants whose decisions are made outside of public hearings.
Prosecutors and Brown have sparred mightily over the assertion that Proposition 57 would only expand parole opportunities for “nonviolent” felons, a term used prominently in the ballot measure’s official title and summary. In truth, the description only means that new parole opportunities wouldn’t apply to prisoners sentenced for one of 23 defined violent crimes in California’s penal code. That list includes crimes most voters would expect to see there, such as murder, sexual abuse of a child and kidnapping. But in many ways, the list is porous. Not all rape crimes, for example, are designated as “violent.” Prosecutors insist prisoners serving time for as many as 125 serious and dangerous crimes would be eligible for parole under Brown’s ballot measure. Not surprisingly, the campaign opposing Proposition 57 is replete with images of felons who prosecutors allege could be released if the measure becomes law....
Brown, whose effort is supported by probation officers and leads in most every recent statewide public poll, suggests two overarching motivations. One is the specter of potential federal court-ordered prison releases, less likely now that massive prison overcrowding has abated after efforts to reduce penalties for less serious crimes and divert low-level offenders to county jails. Still, the governor insists that Proposition 57 is a more thoughtful way to reduce the prison population than what could some day be chosen by federal judges.
The other, to hear him tell it, is an effort to undo some of what he did in the 1970s in pushing California toward more fixed, inflexible sentences for a variety of crimes. Brown said he now believes that many convicted felons are best judged not at the time of sentencing, but once they have had a chance to change their lives. “It allows flexibility,” the governor said. “I think this case is irrefutable to anyone with an open mind.”
The sentences I have highlighted above provide some account for why I think the Prop 57 vote is potentially so important, and not just in California. If California voters strongly support this parole reform initiative (and do so, perhaps, will also supporting the preservation of the death penalty in the state), elected official in California and perhaps other states may start to feel ever more comfortable that significant non-capital sentencing reforms have significant public support even during a period in which a number of prominent folks are talking a lot about an uptick in crime. It also strikes me as quite significant that Gov Brown is still talking about the impact of the Supreme Court's Plata ruling about California prison overcrowding and justifying his reform efforts on these terms.
I have previously highlighted in this post why I think an Oklahoma ballot initiative on sentencing reform is similarly worth watching very closely. (That post from September was titled "Why Oklahoma is having arguably the most important vote in Campaign 2016 for those concerned about criminal justice reforms.") I expect that next week's post-election coverage of criminal justice issues will focus particularly on the results of big death penalty and marijuana reform votes. But I believe folks distinctly concerned about modern mass incarceration should be sure to examine and reflect upon the outcomes of these two non-capital, non-marijuana reform ballot initiatives in California and Oklahoma.
November 1, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)
Monday, October 31, 2016
"Defendant in U.S. opioid kickback case claims constitutional right to smoke pot"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable new argument about a notable motion filed in federal district court case. Here are the details:
A U.S. ex-pharmaceutical sales representative accused of paying kickbacks to induce doctors to write prescriptions for an opioid drug is asserting he has a constitutional right to continue smoking marijuana so he can remain clear-headed for his defense.
In a filing Friday, lawyers for Jeffrey Pearlman asked a federal judge for the U.S. District Court in Connecticut to modify his bail conditions so that he can continue using marijuana that was prescribed to him by a New Jersey doctor to help him kick his opioid addiction. "Forcing him off the medical marijuana and forcing him to return to addictive opioids would impair his Sixth Amendment right to participate fully in his defense and his Fifth (Amendment) right to due process," his attorneys Michael Rosensaft and Scott Resnik of Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP wrote.
The novel request is one of only at least three such attempts in a federal court to permit the use of medical marijuana. It is possibly the only motion of its kind to assert a Sixth Amendment defense that the failure to permit medical marijuana use could re-trigger an opioid addiction and impede a person's ability to participate in his own defense....
A variety of state laws have legalized marijuana for medicinal use, but federal law still prohibits it. The drug is classified as a Schedule I substance, meaning it is addictive and serves no medical purpose. Many opioids, by contrast, fall under Schedule II, meaning they are addictive, but have medical uses.
Pearlman, a former Insys Therapeutics, was charged criminally in September for allegedly arranging sham speaker programs designed to encourage medical professionals to write prescriptions for a fentanyl spray. His lawyers say Pearlman became addicted to opioids used to treat severe back and leg pain and the drugs made him "foggy" and unable to think clearly.
After being prescribed marijuana in August, they said, his pain has subsided and he is able to "think more clearly." Whether the judge will grant Pearlman's request remains to be seen. Two defendants in other federal courts previously lost their bids to continue using medical marijuana, though the facts and circumstances in those cases were different.
In this case, the U.S. Attorney's Office has not opposed the request. A spokesman for the office declined to elaborate further.
There are so many drug war ironies baked into this story, I am not sure I know where to start my fuzzy commentary on the highlights of this case. For now, I will be content to note the remarkable fact that the U.S. Attorney's Office's has here not opposed a request by a federal fraud defendant to be able to break federal drug laws while on bail.
October 31, 2016 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)
Terrifically timed Northwestern JCLC symposium to ask "The Death Penalty's Numbered Days?"
I am so very fortunate and pleased and excited that at the end of next week — and less than 100 hours after the most significant and consequential elections for the future of the American death penalty — I am going to have a chance to participate in this amazing symposium being put on by Notherwestern Law's Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. The title given to the event is "The Death Penalty's Numbered Days?", and this symposium page provides the schedule of panels and speakers. Here is how the web coverage introduced the event while also providing this quote from a notable recent SCOTUS dissent:
The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, with the significant support of the Irving Gordon Symposia Fund, is proud to announce the upcoming symposium, entitled "The Death Penalty's Numbered Days?" Since the 1970's, the existence and implementation of the death penalty has changed and evolved, as has the way the legal system and its various actors view and talk about the issue. This symposium, which includes a diverse group of some of the foremost scholars on the death penalty, will explore recent developments and attempt to provide a prognosis on the future application of the death penalty in the United States. Attendees will be eligible for up to 5 CLE credits, and no registration is necessary. Please direct any questions to our Symposium Director, Erica Stern, who can be reached at email@example.com.
Friday, November 11, 2016, 9:00 a.m. - 5: 00 p.m.
Thorne Auditorium, Northwestern University School of Law, 375 E. Chicago Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611
“Nearly 40 years ago, this Court upheld the death penalty under statutes that, in the Court's view, contained safeguards sufficient to ensure that the penalty would be applied reliably and not arbitrarily. . . . The circumstances and the evidence of the death penalty's application have changed radically since then. Given those changes, I believe that it is now time to reopen the question.” ~ Justice Stephen Breyer, Dissenting Glossip v. Gross, 135 S. Ct. 2726, 2755 (2015).
Though I am not yet sure about exactly what I will have say at this event, one theme I will be eager to stress in my comments is my strong belief that modern "evidence" concerning "the death penalty's application" actually suggests that this punishment is being imposed much more reliably and much less arbitrarily since President William J. Clinton left office.
As this DPIC chart and data reveal, during the William J. Clinton years (from 1993 to 2001), the United States averaged over 280 death sentences annually nationwide. Over the course of the next eight years (the George W. Bush years), the annual number of death sentences imposed throughout the United States declined by about 50% down to around 140 death sentences per year. And, over the last eight years (the Barack H. Obama years), we have seen yet another 50% reduction in annual death sentences imposed as we approach a BHO-term average of around 70 death sentences per year. The year 2015 hit a remarkable historic low of only 49 total death sentences imposed nationwide, and I believe 2016 is going to see a similar or even smaller number of total death sentence once the year's accounting gets completed.
For a bunch of reasons I hope to explain at this symposium, Justice Breyer's sincere concerns about death sentences being often imposed arbitrarily and unreliably seem to me to have been especially trenchant when he was first appointed to SCOTUS. At that time, states throughout our nation were imposing, on average, five or six death sentences every week. Fast forward more than two decades, and the evidence of death sentencing reveals that, circa 2016, states throughout the nation are now imposing less than a single death sentence every week. I strongly believe our death sentencing systems have become much, much more reliable and much less arbitrary as we have gotten much, much more careful about how gets subject to capital prosecution and about who ultimately gets sent to death row.
October 31, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, October 28, 2016
"Should 25-Year-Olds Be Tried as Juveniles?"
The question in the title of this post is the headline of this new lengthy New Republic article, which includes these excerpts:
Over the past year, several states — including Vermont, Illinois, New York, and Connecticut — have debated laws that would change how the justice system treats offenders in their late teens and early twenties. It remains the case that in 22 states, children of any age — even those under ten — can be prosecuted as adults for certain crimes. “Raise the Age” campaigns across the country are pushing for legal changes in order to treat all offenders under 18 as juveniles. But some advocates and policymakers are citing research to argue 18 is still too young, and that people up to the age of 25 remain less than fully grown up.
Some of the most compelling evidence comes via magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI. In 2011, brain researchers Catherine Lebel and Christian Beaulieu published a study of 103 people between the ages of five and 32, each of whom received multiple brain scans over the course of six years. The researchers were looking for changes in white brain matter, a material that supports impulse control and many other types of cognitive functioning.... Altogether, the research suggests that brain maturation continues into one’s twenties, and even thirties....
Researchers are using the term “post-adolescence” or “extended adolescence” to describe this period of development in one’s twenties and early thirties. Social change is as important as biological change in understanding why some people in this age group are drawn to crime. Individuals who are “disconnected” — neither working nor in school — are more likely to get in trouble with the law. While fewer young women are disconnected today than in previous decades, the opposite is true for young men....
Experts used to believe that “adult onset” criminals, or those who get in trouble for the first time in their twenties or older, were more likely than juvenile offenders to come from affluent backgrounds, and to have higher intelligence. New research questions those assumptions....
If people in their twenties are a lot like adolescents socially and biologically, should they really be considered full adults under the law? Many advocates who work directly with this population say no. “For many years, the idea of how to achieve public safety with this group was you want to lock them up, protect the community by not having them around,” said Yotam Zeira, director of external affairs for Roca, a Massachusetts organization that provides counseling, education, and job training to 17- to 24-year-old male offenders. “The sad reality is that after you lock them up, nothing gets better. Public safety is not really improved. Prosecutors know they are prosecuting, again and again, the same people.”...
While politically palatable, young adult prisons may not be all that successful in decreasing reoffending. Research shows that even detention in a juvenile facility is “criminogenic,” meaning it makes it more likely that a person will reoffend, compared to a juvenile who committed a similar crime, but was not incarcerated.
Beyond politics, one of the challenges of asserting that 18- to 25-year-olds are not full adults is that science shows some people in this age group are much more mature than others, with more static brains. “You can’t look at a brain scan from someone you don’t know and say that person is 18,” said Lebel, the brain researcher. “You can pick out any age, whether it’s five or 30, and you see people are distributed over a wide range.”
Moffitt, the psychologist, agrees that the policy implications of the new research are far from clear. “In our justice system, it has to be the same rule for everyone for it to be just and fair,” she said. “There will always be the sort of very serious, early onset kind of offenders that ... will have a crime career as a lifestyle.” There is also a “larger group of young people who are milling around, being young, getting in trouble, annoying everyone. But young people have always done that. You don’t want them to get a criminal record that prevents them from getting a job.” The problem, Moffitt added, is that “as long as you make a cut point based on age, you are treating both groups the same.”
Wednesday, October 26, 2016
Has DOJ's "Smart on Crime" initiative had a big impact in federal white-collar sentencing outcomes in recent years?
It has now been more than full three years since then-Attorney General Eric Holder made his historic speech to the American Bar Association (reported here and here) about excessive use of incarceration in the United States. In that speech, AG Holder announced the US Justice Department's "Smart on Crime" initiative while making the case that "too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason" and that "widespread incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable." At the time, and subsequently as a result of officials' comments (including 2015 remarks by then AG Holder and 2016 statements by now AG Loretta Lynch and Deputy AG Sally Yates), much has been made about the impact of DOJ's "Smart on Crime" initiative on the case processing and sentencing of federal drug offenders.
But recently, as the question in the title of this post suggests, I have been thinking about, and wondering if there is a good way to assess, the possible impact of DOJ's "Smart on Crime" initiative on the case processing and sentencing of white-collar offenders. Critically, as I have noted to a number of courts in a number of ways in a number of settings, DOJ's public "SMART on CRIME" materials uses a lot of language that applies to, and should impact, how non-violent white-collar offenders are sentenced. For example, DOJ has stressed the importance of alternatives to incarceration for all non-violent offenders while advocating a "shifting away from our over-reliance on incarceration" to reflect the reality that "[f]or many non-violent, low-level offenses, prison may not be the most sensible method of punishment." And AG Holder's speech was not only focused on drug offenses or offenders when he emphasized excessive incarceration "comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate," and when he stressed that "the judiciary [can] meet safety imperatives while avoiding incarceration in certain cases."
Notably, as some links above highlight, DOJ officials have in 2015 and 2016 documented and promoted how DOJ's "Smart on Crime" initiative has impacted the case processing and sentencing of federal drug offenders. But, perhaps unsurprisingly in these political times, DOJ officials have not said a word (at least that I have seen) about how DOJ's "Smart on Crime" initiative might be impacting white-collar cases (or really any other non-drug cases).
Against that backdrop, I took another look this week at recent US Sentencing Commission data published through its great Quick Facts series on Theft, Property Destruction, & Fraud and Tax Fraud. These two reports seem to cover, roughly speaking, the pools of white-collar cases I have in mind that might be readily impacted by "Smart on Crime" talk about reduced reliance on lengthy terms of imprisonment. And, perhaps significantly, two notable parallel sentencing "trends" were reported in these USSC documents:
- During the past five years, the rate of within range sentences for §2B1.1 offenders has steadily decreased (from 54.4% in fiscal year 2011 to 42.4% in fiscal year 2015).
- During the past five years, the rate of within range sentences for tax fraud offenders has decreased (from 37.8% in fiscal year 2011 to 25.8% in fiscal year 2015).
These two data notes are not, of course, conclusive qualitative proof that DOJ's "Smart on Crime" initiative has had a big impact on federal white-collar sentencing outcomes in recent years. But it does suggest something is helping to "move the sentencing needle" in these kinds of cases in recent years. Relatedly, I would love to hear in the comments or some other way any and all reports (dare I say "qualitative" evidence) from white-collar sentencing practitioners concerning whether they think what AG Holder said and DOJ did as part of its "Smart on Crime" initiative back in 2013 is having a continual tangible impact on case processing and sentencing in non-violent fraud and other white-collar cases.
October 26, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)
"Democratizing Criminal Law: Feasibility, Utility, and the Challenge of Social Change"
The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Paul Robinson now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The notion of “democratizing criminal law” has an initial appeal because, after all, we believe in the importance of democracy and because criminal law is so important – it protects us from the most egregious wrongs and is the vehicle by which we allow the most serious governmental intrusions in the lives of individuals. Given criminal law’s special status, isn’t it appropriate that this most important and most intrusive governmental power be subject to the constraints of democratic determination?
But perhaps the initial appeal of this grand principle must give way to practical realities. As much as we are devoted to democratic ideals, perhaps the path to a better society is one that must recognize inherent weaknesses in the system of democratic action, which necessarily relies upon the judgments of common people. Perhaps, when dealing with things as important as doing justice and preventing crime, we must look instead to experts, such as criminologists and moral philosophers. Perhaps the path to a better society is one that, in this instance, should skirt democratic preferences as needed?
More specifically, consider some of the realities that might derail a movement toward democratizing criminal law: First, perhaps there is no such thing as a shared community view of justice on which to base a criminal law, but simply an endless list of individual disagreements. There can be no such thing as a criminal code that reflects community views if there is no such thing as a community view. Second, even if there were a shared community sense of justice, perhaps it is brutish and draconian, something born of anger and suspicion and not something that even the people themselves feel should be enshrined in public principles of liability and punishment. Third, even if community views of justice are in fact enlightened, something that people would be proud to enshrine in public law, perhaps they are not the path to a society with less crime. That is, perhaps the path to effective crime control is not through justice -- either the community’s view of it or the moral philosopher’s view -- but through more instrumentalist crime-control mechanisms, such as general deterrence or incapacitation of the dangerous. And finally, even if relying upon the community’s views of justice did turn out to be a mechanism of effective crime-control, wouldn’t such a system condemn us to live under the status quo of current community views, when history teaches us that a society can improve itself and the lives of its members only by moving ever forward in refining its judgments of justice?
Thus, this brief essay will take up these four questions: Is there any such thing as the community’s views of justice? Are the community’s views of justice brutish and draconian? Why should a criminal law concerned with crime-control care what the community thinks is just? Should the criminal law ever deviate from the community’s shared judgments of justice?
Tuesday, October 25, 2016
"Assessing the Impact of Johnson v. United States on the Void-for-Vagueness Doctrine"
The title of this post is the title of this effective and extensive new Casetext essay authored by Carissa Hessick. It starts and ends this way:
Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), held that the so-called “residual clause” of the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) was unconstitutionally vague. Johnson generated a large amount of litigation in the federal courts. Less than a year after it was decided, the Supreme Court decided another Johnson case, Welch v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 1257 (2016), which held that the rule in Johnson should be applied retroactively to those defendants whose convictions and sentences have already become final. The Supreme Court has also agreed to hear two new Johnson cases in the 2016 Term.
Johnson raised important constitutional doubts about federal statutes that employ the so-called “categorical approach” to classifying criminal conduct, as well as doubts about certain Federal Sentencing Guidelines. This short essay describes Johnson and explores the Johnson-related issues that the Court will hear this Term....
Johnson v. United States is of the most cited U.S. Supreme Court cases from recent Terms. Johnson obviously affected the large number of defendants who were sentenced under the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act. It may, however, have a lasting impact on the vagueness doctrine itself. By questioning the viability of the categorical approach and by clarifying that the doctrine applies also to laws that fix sentences, Johnson has called into doubt the constitutionality of other federal criminal laws and various Federal Sentencing Guidelines. We will have to await the decisions in Lynch v. Dimaya and Beckles v. United States in order to fully assess the legacy of Johnson. If the government loses those cases, then we are likely to see a further challenges to laws that fall within the long shadow of Johnson.
"Skewed Justice: Citizens United, Television Advertising, and State Supreme Court Justices’ Decisions in Criminal Cases"
The title of this post is the title of this notable report authored by Joanna Shepherd and Michael S. Kang which I learned about via an email from The American Constitution Society for Law and Policy. Here is the text of that email, which provides a summary of the report's contents:
The explosion in spending on television attack advertisements in state supreme court elections accelerated by the Citizens United decision has made courts less likely to rule in favor of defendants in criminal appeals. That’s according to independent research sponsored by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy (ACS). State supreme court justices, already the targets of sensationalist ads labeling them “soft on crime,” are under increasing pressure to allow electoral politics to influence their decisions, even when fundamental rights are at stake.
The report, Skewed Justice: Citizens United, Television Advertising, and State Supreme Court Justices’ Decisions in Criminal Cases, is a compilation of data from over 3,000 criminal appeals decided in state supreme courts in 32 states from 2008 to 2013. Researchers found that the more TV ads aired during state supreme court judicial elections in a state, the less likely justices are to rule in favor of criminal defendants; and justices in states whose bans on corporate and union spending on elections were struck down by Citizens United were less likely to vote in favor of criminal defendants than they were before the Citizens United decision.
“The amount of money spent in state judicial elections has skyrocketed and the results of that spending are clear. The flood of interest group money set free by Citizens United are endangering what should be impartial judicial decision-making and putting the fundamental constitutional rights of every American at risk,” said ACS President Caroline Fredrickson. “The data show that the television campaign ads this money buys put a thumb on the scale in criminal cases, and undermine the promise of equal justice that is a cornerstone of our democracy.”
Skewed Justice, by Dr. Joanna Shepherd and Dr. Michael S. Kang, both law professors at Emory University, follows the report Justice at Risk: An Empirical Analysis of Campaign Contributions and Judicial Decisions, published by ACS in 2013. That report, authored by Professor Shepherd, revealed the growing influence of contributions on state supreme court judges. While the majority of media attention is focused on the United States Supreme Court, elected judges at the state level handle more than 90 percent of the United States’ judicial business. This gives money and advertising huge influence in American democracy. Beginning in the 1990s, and accelerating in almost every election cycle since, judicial elections have become more competitive and contentious, and campaign spending on these elections has skyrocketed, the research finds. Incumbent judges almost never lost their reelection bids during the 1980s, but by 2000 their loss rates had risen higher than those of congressional and state legislative incumbents.
UPDATE: A helpful reader realized that this ACS-sponsored study is actually not so new, as it was first released a couple tears ago. I now assume ACS was promoting it anew (and led me to think it was new) because the report is extra-timely during a big elections season.
Great back-and-forth discussion at RealClearPolicy over crime policy ideas "that should guide the next presidential administration's agenda"
During an election cycle characterized by bombast, sound bites, and sensationalism, it’s easy to forget what we, as voters, are being asked to decide: What are the best policies for our country? What concrete proposals and legislative frameworks should guide the next presidential administration?
We at RealClearPolicy are creating a conversation among the partisans to help answer that question. In this special series, we’ve asked 12 leading authorities from both Left and Right to make their best case for the policy ideas that should guide and influence the next administration. Between now and Election Day, we will publish 24 articles, focusing on 12 major policy issues from differing points of view — from education policy and economic growth to health-care reform and energy policy — including a response by each author to the opposing position and a recommended reading list. This is a rare chance to hear top thinkers try out their best policy ideas — and respond to the strongest objections — in a public forum leading up to the election.
The series so far has covered four issue, and I was very pleased to see the third issue covered was "Crime" and it was covered via these entries:
PART 3: CRIME
In Part 3, Heather Mac Donald, Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute, squares off against Danyelle Solomon, Director of Progress 2050 at the Center for American Progress:
Heather Mac Donald, "Telling the Truth About Crime and Policing."
Danyelle Solomon, "Time to Fix Our Failing Criminal-Justice System."
Heather Mac Donald and Danyelle Solomon, "Mac Donald v. Solomon: The Authors Respond."
There is so much that is interesting and effective in this back-and-forth that I am just going to encourage everyone to read the commentaries in full and also urge readers to share in the comments their views on the most important crime policy ideas to guide the next Administration.
UPDATE: I just notices that Andrew King over at Mimesis Law has this extended new commentary criticizing what both Heather Mac Donald and Danyelle Solomon say in these dueling commentaries. Here is how his commentary on the commentaries starts and finishes:
Crime has been a big issue in this presidential campaign. But the issues of crime swirling around the campaign has not been about policy—it’s been about the candidates. Hillary Clinton has had her email issues, and the detestable-yet-legal bribery surrounding the Clinton foundation. Donald Trump has been accused of sexual assault, and he has threatened his critics with re-criminalizing libel.
Besides caring a lot about who knows what about Aleppo, the debates and the recent campaigning has been relatively free of policy discussions. In an effort to interject some policy into the political dialog, Real Clear Polics asked Heather McDonald and Danyelle Solomon to discuss crime policy and represent the right and left respectively. Perhaps, not surprisingly to J.D.s who do policy work for think tanks, they begin with hyperbole....
The next President will have to budget for a trillion dollars and set policy for tens of thousands prosecutors, special agents, and support staff. And there are serious criminal law issues right now that deserve careful consideration. But it doesn’t look like either candidate will be the President to do that. The only solace is that we get to pick one of them. In the meantime, we can expect more of each side talking past the other.
Monday, October 24, 2016
Former Pennsylvania AG sentenced to 10-23 months in prison following jury convictions for perjury and obstruction of justice
I have not closely followed developments surrounding the political downfall and criminal prosecution of former Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane. But today this matter involved some interesting sentencing stories and drama, as reported via this lengthy local article headlined "Despite plea for leniency, Kane gets 10-23 months in jail." Here are excerpts:
Former Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane was sentenced Monday to 10 to 23 months in jail for orchestrating an illegal news leak to damage a political enemy, capping a spectacular downfall for a woman once seen as one of the state's fastest-rising stars.
"The case is about ego, ego of a politician consumed by her image from Day 1," Judge Wendy Demchick-Alloy told Kane at the end of a five-hour hearing in Norristown. "And instead of focusing solely on the business of fighting crime, the focus was battling these perceived enemies . . . and utilizing and exploiting her position to do it."
A tearful Kane pleaded for leniency, urging the judge to consider the impact on her sons. "I would cut off my right arm if they were separated from me and I from them," she said. "Please sentence me and not them." But Demchick-Alloy was not swayed. "It's a shame that they had to go through all of this," she told Kane. "But that's a decision you made, not this court."
Unable to immediately post $75,000 bail, Kane was led in handcuffs from the courtroom to the Montgomery County Correctional facility in Eagleville. She was released hours later — and might not have to return anytime soon. She will remain free on bail until she exhausts her state appeals, a process that could take months.
Still, the sentencing marked a bitter end to a career that drew national attention after Kane, a political neophyte and Scranton-area prosecutor, in 2012 became the first Democrat and woman to be elected as attorney general of Pennsylvania. Over hours on Monday, the judge heard Kane's supporters — including her son — extol her accomplishments and describe how devastating her conviction has been.
But Montgomery County prosecutors countered by calling to the stand Kane's current and former colleagues, who testified how she let a personal feud and paranoia poison the state's top law enforcement office and plunge it into disarray.
Erik Olsen, a top prosecutor, said he was thrilled when Kane won election, thinking her victory would bring a much-needed fresh perspective to an office he said had at times been "misogynistic and mean-spirited." Instead, he testified, "through a pattern of systematic firings and Nixonian espionage, she created a terror zone in this office."
Kane's first year was marked by political and public relations successes. She drew attention for her stands in support of marriage equality and gun control and for crippling Republican Gov. Tom Corbett's move to privatize the lottery — all positions her lawyer cited Monday in arguing for house arrest. But after her star began to dim in 2014, she leaked confidential grand jury material to a newspaper in a bid to embarrass a political enemy, and then lied about her actions under oath. The ensuing two years became a bitter war, often played out through legal filings or public statements, that at times entangled government officials, Supreme Court justices, and the legislature.
At a trial in August, a jury found her guilty of perjury, obstruction and other charges. She resigned a day later.
In her plea to the judge, Kane did not directly apologize for her crimes but rather for the consequences of her actions, saying she never intended to hurt anyone and was sorry if Pennsylvanians had lost a sense of trust in the attorney general's office. But her appeal for house arrest was a personal one: A 50-year-old mother in the throes of a divorce, she said a sentence sending her to prison could devastate her sons, 14 and 15....
Kane's lawyer, Marc R. Steinberg, said Kane's unprecedented fall from grace had been a punishment in itself. "She stands a convicted felon subject to public shame and public humiliation," he said. Steinberg also argued Kane could be in danger behind bars, a prediction echoed by Frank V. DeAndrea Jr., a former Hazleton police chief who raised the specter of drug gangs ordering a prison hit and told the judge incarceration could be a "death sentence" for the former prosecutor.
Demchick-Alloy retorted: "When you unfortunately dirty yourself with criminal behavior, you assume that risk."
Prosecutors had sought a stiff prison term, pointing to the impact of Kane's crimes and the office culture of fear and paranoia that developed under her tenure. A former state prosecutor, Clarke Madden, testified that Kane's wrongdoing caused the State Police and the FBI to refuse to cooperate with their office, discouraged victims and witnesses from being helpful to their cases and led judges and defense lawyers to subject prosecutors to sarcastic and sniggering remarks.... After the sentencing Monday, Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele and fellow prosecutor Michelle Henry told reporters they were satisfied with the outcome. "We suggest that is a significant sentence," Steele said. "Nobody is above the law."
"Autonomy and Agency in American Criminal Process"
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new short paper now available via SSRN authored by the always intriguing David Sklansky. Here is the abstract:
This is an essay about the interaction of two assumptions that shape the way fairness is pursued in American criminal procedure. The first assumption is that fairness is best advanced through a series of procedural rights that defendants can invoke or waive at their discretion. The second assumption is that the choices made by defense attorneys can fairly be attributed to their clients.
The first of these assumptions reflects a strong national commitment to individualism; the second reflects a heavy reliance on lawyers to safeguard defendants’ interests. Both reflect a deeply rooted distrust of government. Each of these two assumptions is defensible, and each relates to fundamental aspects of the national political culture. Taken together, though, they have narrowed what fairness means in American criminal adjudication; they combine with a kind of negative synergy, making each harder to defend than it might be without the other.
Friday, October 21, 2016
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.
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.”
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.
"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:
- SCOTUS grants cert on Johnson application to career offender guidelines
- Empirical SCOTUS highlights how sentencing cases of OT 15 already "have the greatest downstream effects" in lower courts
- "What Lurks Below Beckles"
- Beckles v. United States -- Amici Curiae Brief of Scholars of Criminal Law, Federal Courts, and Sentencing in Support of Petitioner
- "Cost-Benefit Analysis and Retroactivity: The brief for respondent in Beckles v. U.S."
- Topical archive of many related posts: Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter
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:
- Parole precogs: computerized risk assessments impacting state parole decision-making
- Wisconsin appeals court urges state's top court to review use of risk-assessment software at sentencing
- Looking into the Wisconsin case looking into the use of risk-assessment tools at sentencing
- Wisconsin Supreme Court rejects due process challenge to use of risk-assessment instrument at sentencing
- ProPublica takes deep dive to idenitfy statistical biases in risk assessment software
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.)
"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:
- SCOTUS grants cert on Johnson application to career offender guidelines
- Empirical SCOTUS highlights how sentencing cases of OT 15 already "have the greatest downstream effects" in lower courts
- "What Lurks Below Beckles"
- Beckles v. United States -- Amici Curiae Brief of Scholars of Criminal Law, Federal Courts, and Sentencing in Support of Petitioner
- Topical archive of many related posts: Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter
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)
"Rethinking Punishment: Sentencing in the Modern Age"
The 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:
- "Prosecutors now are problem solvers working in a holistic way"
- "Prosecutors today start with prevention [and] incarceration serves as a last resort"
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 penAnd keep your eyes wide the chance won't come againAnd don't speak too soon for the wheel's still in spinAnd there's no tellin' who that it's namin'For the loser now will be later to winFor the times they are a' changin'!
Come senators, congressmen please heed the callDon't stand in the doorway don't block up the hallFor he that gets hurt will be he who has stalledThere's a battle outside and it's ragin'It'll soon shake your windows and rattle your wallsFor the times they are a' changin'!
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:
- Harvard Law School launches "Fair Punishment Project"
- New Fair Punishment Project report takes close look at small number of US counties still actively utilizing the death penalty
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.
"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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.”
Sunday, October 02, 2016
Untroubled by SCOTUS Hurst ruling, unanimous Alabama Supreme Court upholds state's capital punishment procedures
As 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.
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:
- NY member of Congress puts forward federal bill with "Death Penalty Proposal for Heroin Dealers" ... UPDATE: With four co-sponsors
- Should I be more troubled by drug dealers facing homicide charges after customers' overdose death?
- "In Heroin Crisis, White Families Seek Gentler War on Drugs"
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
This 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.”
Wednesday, September 28, 2016
NY member of Congress puts forward federal bill with "Death Penalty Proposal for Heroin Dealers" ... UPDATE: With four co-sponsors
This 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]
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.
Sunday, September 25, 2016
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.
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.
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.