Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Finally, a bit more (though inadequate and unfair) discussion of sentencing finality issues

I am intrigued to see this potent new New York Times op-ed by civil rights attorney Alec Karakatsanis headlined "President Obama’s Department of Injustice."  But, as explained below (and as hinted in the post title), though this piece does a useful job of highlighting concerns with doctrines and policies that give too much significance to the "finality" of problematic federal prison sentences, I fear this op-ed is itself a problematic version of "shooting the messenger."  Here are excerpts (with some key phrases emphasized for the comments to follow):

Last month, President Obama used his clemency power to reduce the sentences of 46 federal prisoners locked up on drug­-related charges.  But for the last six years, his administration has worked repeatedly behind the scenes to ensure that tens of thousands of poor people — disproportionately minorities — languish in federal prison on sentences declared by the courts, and even the president himself, to be illegal and unjustifiable.

The case of Ezell Gilbert is emblematic of this injustice.  In March 1997, he was sentenced to 24 years and four months in federal prison for possession with the intent to distribute more than 50 grams of crack cocaine.  Because of mandatory sentencing laws, Mr. Gilbert was automatically sentenced to a quarter-century in prison, though even the judge who sentenced him admitted that this was too harsh.

At his sentencing, Mr. Gilbert noted a legal error that improperly increased his sentence by approximately a decade based on a misclassification of one of his prior offenses. In 1999, without a lawyer, he filed a petition seeking his release.  A court ruled against him. Nearly 10 years later, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in another prisoner’s case, confirming that Mr. Gilbert had been right.  A public defender helped him file a new petition for immediate release in light of this new decision.

Mr. Obama’s Justice Department, however, convinced a Florida federal judge that even if Mr. Gilbert’s sentence was illegal, he had to remain in prison because prisoners should not be able to petition more than once for release.  The “finality” of criminal cases was too important, the department argued, to allow prisoners more than one petition, even if a previous one was wrongly denied.

A federal appellate court disagreed, and in June 2010, three judges set Mr. Gilbert free. The judges rejected the administration’s argument as a departure from basic fairness and explained that it simply could not be the law in America that a person had to serve a prison sentence that everyone admitted was illegal.  Mr. Gilbert returned home and stayed out of trouble.

Here’s where it gets interesting. There are many people like Mr. Gilbert in America’s federal prisons — people whose sentences are now obviously illegal. Instead of rushing to ensure that all those thousands of men and women illegally imprisoned at taxpayer expense were set free, the Justice Department said that it did not want a rule that allowed other prisoners like Mr. Gilbert to retroactively challenge their now illegal sentences.  If the “floodgates” were opened, too many others — mostly poor, mostly black — would have to be released.  The Obama administration’s fear of the political ramifications of thousands of poor minority prisoners being released at once around the country, what Justice William J. Brennan Jr. once called “a fear of too much justice,” is the real justification.

In May 2011, the same court, led by a different group of judges, sided with the original judge, saying that the “finality” of sentences was too important a principle to allow prisoners to be released on a second rather than first petition, even if the prison sentence was illegal.  A contrary rule would force the courts to hear the complaints of too many other prisoners. Mr. Gilbert was rearrested and sent back to prison to serve out his illegal sentence.

Judge James Hill, then an 87-­year­old senior judge on the appellate court in Atlanta, wrote a passionate dissent.  Judge Hill, a conservative who served in World War II and was appointed by Richard M. Nixon, called the decision “shocking” and declared that a “judicial system that values finality over justice is morally bankrupt.”  Judge Hill wrote that the result was “urged by a department of the United States that calls itself, without a trace of irony, the Department of Justice.”  Judge Hill concluded: “The government hints that there are many others in Gilbert’s position — sitting in prison serving sentences that were illegally imposed. We used to call such systems ‘gulags.’ Now, apparently, we call them the United States.”

Two years later, the Justice Department used a similar tactic to overturn an entirely different federal appellate court decision that could have freed thousands of prisoners convicted of nonviolent crack cocaine offenses — again, mostly impoverished and mostly black — on the grounds that their sentences were discriminatory and unjustifiable.  The administration again did its work without fanfare in esoteric legal briefs, even as the president publicly called the crack­-cocaine sentencing system “unfair.”

In 2013, several years after sending him back to prison, Mr. Obama granted Mr. Gilbert clemency, and the president has recently won praise for doing the same for several dozen other prisoners of the war on drugs....  

But Mr. Obama must take steps to further undo the damage that he has done.  He should use his clemency power to release all those currently held in a federal prison on an illegal sentence.  And he should appoint a permanent special counsel whose job would be to review new laws and federal court cases on a continuing basis to identify and release other prisoners whose sentences retroactively become clearly unlawful.  That the Department of Justice and Bureau of Prisons have never created such a position is an outrage.  If we fail to demand change now, this moment for justice may be lost.

I very much like this author's suggestion that DOJ and BOP have special counsel who would seek to identify and advocate for the release of those currently held in a federal prison on an illegal sentence. But, as a matter of substance, given that vast majority of federal prisoners sentenced before the 2005 Booker ruling were sentenced in violation of the Sixth Amendment, the author is arguably asserting that it is unjust that any federal prisoner is still serving any pre-Booker guideline sentence (let alone any other sentence impacted by any of the many pro-defendant Supreme Court sentencing rulings of the last decade).

Even more troublesome, as a matter of process, DOJ has not really been "working behind the scenes" or using any novel "tactic... in esoteric legal briefs" in order to keep prisoners behind bars based on illegal sentences.  Rather, DOJ has been just doing its job, namely seeking to faithfully execute the laws duly enacted by Congress and interpretted by the courts.  In the Gilbert case and in the other cases referenced in this op-ed, the real "villian" in these complicated legal stories is not really DOJ, but the text of the AEDPA and the Fair Sentencing Act which DOJ is duty-bound to seek to faithfully apply.  

This op-ed is not entirely off-base for suggesting that DOJ could be more inclined to read federal statutes and court rulings in a more defendant-friendly way.  But, especially in recent years, DOJ under the Obama Administration has actually been pretty willing to help prior-sentenced defendants get an extra day in court.  For example, after a few lower courts ruled that the FSA's lower crack mandatory minimums applied to "pipeline cases," DOJ changes its litigation arguments to a more defendant-friendly position.  In addition, Obama's DOJ has generally endorsed retroactive application of defendant-friendly guideline amendments.  And, most recently, DOJ appears to be taking a pro-defendant stance on the broad retroactivity of the Supeme Court's recent constitutional rulings in Miller concerning juve LWOP sentences and Johnson concerning ACCA sentences.

As regular readers know, I pull few punches when it comes to criticizing the Obama Administration and its Justice Department when making what I view as misguided discretionary decisions concerning the application and enforcement of federal sentencing laws and procedures.  But this op-ed, rather than highlight fundamental problems with laws like AEDPA and court jurisprudence that gives excessive weight to sentence finality, seems problematically eager to suggest a star-chamber deep inside Main Justice has Obama Administration officials twirling their mustashes while devising esoteric tactics for keeping innocent people in prison for as long as possible.  

I do not want to unduly criticize this op-ed because I have long been motivated by the same concerns as the author concerning courts having ample means to remedy problematic prior-imposed prison sentences. But the core problem is not really Obama's DOJ and its litigation positions, but the laws put in place by Congress and interpretted by the courts which largely demand that DOJ take many of its seemingly hard-hearted litigation positions.

Some (of many) prior posts on sentencing finality:

August 18, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

"Can a Federal Prisoner Be Too Old to Jail?"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new National Journal article.  Here are excerpts:

When you're locked in federal prison, how old do you have to be to count as "aging"?

That's the question two federal agencies are grappling over, and the answer they pick will determine how the government spends more than $800 million in public funding for prisons.  And for tens of thousands of federal inmates, it could mean the difference between becoming eligible for a late-life release program and spending their twilight years behind bars.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons is struggling to adjust to an aging prison population, a product, in part, of criminal-justice reforms of the late 1980s that dramatically reduced federal parole and imposed mandatory minimum sentences for some offenses.  In fiscal 2013, the Federal Bureau of Prisons spent nearly 20 percent of its $6.9 billion budget to incarcerate inmates aged 50 and older.  And without a policy intervention, those costs are set to rise: Inmates aged 50 and older make up the fastest-growing segment of the prison population, according to Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz.

To meet those costs, the Bureau of Prisons is requesting a 6.1 percent increase in funding for fiscal 2016, an increase from the bureau's $6.9 billion budget in 2015.  But in a report released in May, the Justice Department Office of the Inspector General suggested the Bureau of Prisons consider an alternative solution: expand a "compassionate-release" program that reduces the term of imprisonment for elderly inmates.

To be eligible for the reduced sentencing program, inmates must have "chronic or serious medical conditions relating to the aging process" that "substantially diminish their ability to function in a correctional facility" for which "conventional treatment promises no substantial improvement," according to a statement from the Bureau of Prisons.  They must also have served more than half of their sentence.  For inmates looking for early release under nonmedical circumstances, the time-served bar is higher: "the greater of 10 years or 75 percent of their term."...

But for any of the above criteria to be considered, the inmate must be aged 65 or older. The Inspector General report did not explicitly call on the Bureau of Prisons to lower the limit in its May report.  Instead, it recommended the bureau reconsider the age bar and noted the potential advantages of setting it at age 50.

The lower threshold would cut incarceration costs and relieve prison overcrowding without significantly increasing recidivism rates, the report said.  The report notes several ways in which prisoners 50 and over differ from the rest of the prison population.  Older inmates cost an average of 8 percent more to confine, but they are also less likely to end up back in prison after release.  While the recidivism rate among all prisoners is 41 percent, for those released after age 50, the rate falls to 15 percent.

According to the Inspector General report, lowering the threshold age from 65 to 50 and instituting a 5 percent release rate for only those inmates in minimum or low-security institutions or medical centers could reduce incarceration costs by approximately $28 million per year.  Federal prisons with the most aging inmates spent "five times more per inmate on medical care" and "14 times more per inmate on medication" than institutions with the fewest aging inmates, the report said.

The 65-or-over bar for the program is relatively new, set in 2013 in an effort to clarify the release program's eligibility criteria following a separate Inspector General report released earlier that year....  For now, it's unclear whether the Bureau of Prisons will lower the minimum age for its compassionate-release program.  In its response to the May Inspector General report, the agency said it would "raise the issue with relevant stakeholders for further discussion."

August 18, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Three months after jury's death verdict, Tsarnaev lawyers move for new penalty trial

As reported in this AP article, headlined "Lawyers ask for new trial outside Boston for marathon bomber," the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's attorneys have now moved in federal district court for a new penalty phase trial based mostly their claim that "due to continuous and unrelenting publicity combined with pervasive connections between jurors and the events surrounding the Boston Marathon Bombing that precluded impartial adjudication in both appearance and fact."  (This last phrase comes from the start of the papers filed yesterday, which can be accessed at this link thanks to The Marshall Project.)  

Here is a partial summary of the filing via the AP piece (including an extra legal twist thanks to the Supreme Court's recent Johnson ruling):

They argued that, because of widespread outrage in Boston after the deadly 2013 attack, jurors in the city couldn't be objective before finding him guilty and recommending a death sentence.  As evidence of "continuous and unrelenting publicity," they provided a long list of public events held in honor of the victims, including a new city holiday and several races.

Widespread media coverage featured stories about survivors, including one "powerfully emotional" moment during the 2015 marathon when amputee Rebekah Gregory ran the last 3.5 miles on a prosthetic leg before falling to her knees at the finish line, crying, the filing said.  Banners posted around the city urged solidarity.  Even on social media, the lawyers wrote, jurors were inundated with posts from relatives and friends.

"Put simply, prejudicial media coverage, events and environment saturated greater Boston, including the social networks of actual trial jurors, and made it an improper venue for the trial of this case," the filing said.

The filing concludes that the atmosphere tainted Tsarnaev's constitutional right to an impartial trial.  It asks that his guilty verdict be overturned and that the court provide a new trial to determine his guilt and his penalty....

The defense tried unsuccessfully during the trial to have it moved elsewhere, warning that too many people had personal ties to the marathon or the attack and that anguish in Boston was too powerful to provide a fair trial.

The filing Monday reiterated that request and added new legal arguments, including that a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling throws many convictions into question.  That ruling centered on the legal definition of a "crime of violence," a distinction that can carry heavier penalties.  The court ruled that part of the federal definition was unconstitutionally vague and struck it down.

In the Tsarnaev case, jurors were told that 15 of his convictions were for crimes of violence, but the trial court didn't explain which part of the definition they met, according to the filing.  Therefore, Tsarnaev should be acquitted for all of those charges, his attorneys wrote.  Tsarnaev was charged with placing and discharging an explosive in public, for example, but his lawyers said "the 'delivery' and 'placement' of an explosive do not involve violent force."

August 18, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, August 17, 2015

"Prosecutorial Constitutionalism"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting-looking new paper available via SSRN authored by Eric Fish. Here is the abstract:

As adversary lawyers, prosecutors are obligated to seek convictions.  But as executive branch officials, prosecutors are obligated to interpret and apply the Constitution in good faith.  These two roles are fundamentally at odds.  The first requires prosecutors to interpret the Constitution strategically so as to limit defendants’ rights, while the second requires them to interpret the Constitution evenhandedly much like judges do. The crucial question is: when should prosecutors be partisan advocates, and when should they be quasi-judicial rights enforcers? 

This Article argues that prosecutors should adopt the latter role in situations where the adversary system fails.  This happens when judges are unable to effectively control prosecutors’ actions (for example, with regard to the duty to reveal exculpatory evidence), and also when judges fail to enforce the relevant right out of concern for the limits of judicial doctrine (for example, with regard to charging decisions and plea bargaining).  In such situations, prosecutors should protect defendants’ constitutional rights even if judicial doctrine does not require it, and even if doing so lowers the chance of obtaining a conviction.

But individual prosecutors can hardly be expected to decide by themselves when to switch between these two roles.  Rather, prosecutors’ offices must enforce defendants’ constitutional rights by establishing internal policies that govern prosecutorial decision-making.  Such policies can be found in places like the American Bar Association’s Rules of Professional Conduct, the United States Attorneys’ Manual, and the State of Washington’s Recommended Prosecution Standards.  Indeed, although these documents are not presently understood as tools of constitutional enforcement, they already protect defendants’ constitutional rights above the baseline set by judges in a wide variety of areas: charging decisions, plea bargaining, grand jury proceedings, the disclosure of exculpatory evidence, exonerations, and more.  Consequently, these internal systems of regulation for prosecutors function as important sites of constitutional lawmaking.

August 17, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Split Ninth Circuit panel upholds federal conviction in "stash house" sting operation

The Ninth Circuit released a notable split panel decision today in US v. Pedrin, No. 11-10623 (9th Cir. Aug. 17, 2015) (available here), which rejects a notable challenge to a conviction emerging from ATF's "stash house sting" operations. This unofficial summary of the Pedrin ruling highlights why the two opinions in the case make for an interesting read:

Affirming a conviction and sentence for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, the panel held that the defendant’s prosecution did not result from “outrageous government conduct.”

The defendant was the target of a drug “stash house” sting, in which an undercover agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms suggested that he, the defendant, and a co-conspirator join forces, rob a fictitious stash house, and split the proceeds.  Following United States v. Black, 733 F.3d 294 (9th Cir. 2014), the panel held that this reverse sting operation was not outrageous government conduct warranting the dismissal of the indictment where the co-conspirator reached out to the government, and not vice versa; the defendant readily agreed to participate in the supposed stash-house robbery; and the defendant supplied plans and materials.  These circumstances provided a sufficient basis for the government to infer that the defendant had a predisposition to take part in the planned robbery.

Dissenting, Judge Noonan wrote that the defendant was not known to the government to be predisposed to raid a stash house at the time when an agent of the ATF proposed this action to him.  Accordingly, even though the defendant did not argue entrapment, the court should hold that he was entrapped because the ATF originated the criminal design, implanted it in the defendant’s mind, and induced him to commit the crime that the government then prosecuted.

August 17, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Does the Calculation Matter? The Federal Sentencing Guidelines and the Doctrine of Alternate Variance Sentences"

The title of this post is the title of this notable federal sentencing paper available via SSRN authored by James Harlow. Here is the abstract:

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines play a central role in the sentencing of federal criminal defendants.  A decade ago, in United States v. Booker, the Supreme Court undercut the original purpose for the Guidelines — to bring binding structure to a previously discretionary sentencing scheme — by declaring that the Guidelines were advisory only.

Even though advisory, the Guidelines remain at the procedural heart of the sentencing process and provide “the framework for sentencing.”  All sentencing proceedings in the district court begin with the proper calculation of the advisory Guidelines range. Similarly, on review, the courts of appeals initially determine whether the sentencing process was free of procedural errors, including whether the advisory Guidelines range was correctly calculated.

However, the Guidelines are no longer the beginning and end of a sentencing hearing. A defendant’s advisory Guidelines range is but one of several important factors enumerated in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) that a sentencing court must consider.  In a case when other, non-Guidelines considerations clearly steered the sentencing court’s discretion, should it matter whether the advisory Guidelines range was correctly calculated in the first place?

This Article examines the Fourth Circuit’s emergent and evolving doctrine of alternate variance sentences.  Under this doctrine, a sentence will not be vacated even if the sentencing court may have erred when calculating the advisory Guidelines range.  If it is clear from the record that an advisory Guidelines issue did not influence the ultimate sentence, the appellate panel will assume any Guidelines errors are harmless and proceed to evaluate whether the sentence is substantively reasonable.  The doctrine's increasingly frequent application has a significant impact on all actors in the federal criminal sentencing process — prosecutors, defense counsel, defendants, and judges. Moreover, the doctrine implicates important debates about the meaning and effect of the Guidelines after Booker, the distribution of power between district and appellate judges in sentencing, and judicial efficiency.

August 17, 2015 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 16, 2015

"Sex Offenders Locked Up on a Hunch"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy New York Times editorial. Here are excerpts:

The essence of the American criminal justice system is reactive, not predictive: You are punished for the crime you committed.  You can’t be punished simply because you might commit one someday.  You certainly can’t be held indefinitely to prevent that possibility.

And yet that is exactly what is happening to about 5,000 people convicted of sex crimes around the country.  This population, which nearly doubled in the last decade, has completed prison sentences but remains held in what is deceptively called civil commitment — the practice of keeping someone locked up in an institution for months, years or even decades for the purpose of preventing possible future offenses.

The authorities have the power to detain people with mental illnesses or disorders who cannot function independently, or who pose a danger to themselves or others.  But since the early 1990s, this power has been used increasingly to imprison one distinct group: sex offenders....

In a decision in June, a federal judge ruled that Minnesota’s civil-commitment law for sex offenders violates the Constitution.  Federal District Judge Donovan Frank said the law imposes “a punitive system that segregates and indefinitely detains a class of potentially dangerous individuals without the safeguards of the criminal justice system.”  For example, local prosecutors — not clinicians or mental health professionals — choose whether to seek continued detention based on a screening test that claims to predict a person’s likelihood of committing another sex offense, though there is no clear evidence such tests are accurate.

Yet based largely on those screening tests, more than 700 Minnesotans who have completed their prison sentences are locked up, at an annual cost of more than $120,000 per person — triple the cost of prison.  This civil commitment rate is by far the highest in the country. Some people have been held for more than 20 years.  During that time, not one person has been released from the program unconditionally.

A central flaw, Judge Frank said, is that Minnesota does not perform reassessments of risk, so the burden lies with the detainees to prove they no longer pose a danger.  On Aug. 12, Judge Frank ordered the state to come up with constitutionally valid reforms by the end of September, or he “may demand a more forceful solution.”

Despite the public perception that all sex offenders are recidivists — a belief that drove these laws in the first place — sexual re­offense rates are in fact lower than those for other crimes (though an unknown number of sex crimes go unreported).  In addition, while some states’ laws make it easier for detainees to earn their way out, 30 states have no civil­-commitment laws at all, and there is no evidence that a state’s sexual­-violence rate is affected by whether it has such a law....

Public safety would be better served if resources were directed toward community supervision and other services for those leaving prison, rather than toward skirting the edges of the Constitution to keep them locked away.

August 16, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (12)

New York Times magazine highlights link between bail and pleas

Images (10)This cover story from today's New York Times magazine is headlined "The Bail Trap," and this pull-out quote appearing in the article captures why sentencing fans ought to pay attention to bail reform efforts: "Across the criminal-justice system, bail acts as a tool of compulsion, forcing people who would not otherwise plead guilty to do so."  Here is a bit more from a lengthy article that merits a full read:

In 1689, the English Bill of Rights outlawed the widespread practice of keeping defendants in jail by setting deliberately unaffordable bail, declaring that "excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed."  The same language was adopted word for word a century later in the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

But as bail has evolved in America, it has become less and less a tool for keeping people out of jail, and more and more a trap door for those who cannot afford to pay it. Unsecured bond has become vanishingly rare, and in most jurisdictions, there are only two ways to make bail: post the entire amount yourself up front — what’s called "money bail" or "cash bail" — or pay a commercial bail bondsman to do so. For relatively low bail amounts — say, below $2,000, the range in which most New York City bails fall — the second option often doesn’t even exist; bondsmen can’t make enough money from such small bails to make it worth their while.

With national attention suddenly focused on the criminal­-justice system, bail has been cited as an easy target for reformers.  But ensuring that no one is held in jail based on poverty would, in many respects, necessitate a complete reordering of criminal justice. The open secret is that in most jurisdictions, bail is the grease that keeps the gears of the overburdened system turning.  Faced with the prospect of going to jail for want of bail, many defendants accept plea deals instead, sometimes at their arraignments.  New York City courts processed 365,000 arraignments in 2013; well under 5 percent of those cases went all the way to a trial resolution.  If even a small fraction of those defendants asserted their right to a trial, criminal courts would be overwhelmed.  By encouraging poor defendants to plead guilty, bail keeps the system afloat....

In early 2013, Jonathan Lippman, chief judge of the State of New York, decided that the business­as­usual approach to setting bail could not be tolerated any longer. "We still have a long way to go before we can claim that we have established a coherent, rational approach to pretrial justice," he said in his annual State of the Judiciary address. "Incarcerating indigent defendants for no other reason than that they cannot meet even a minimum bail amount strips our justice system of its credibility and distorts its operation." Lippman sent a package of proposed legislation to reduce the reliance on cash bail to lawmakers in Albany, and he lobbied for the reforms hard in the press. His efforts went nowhere. "Zero," Lippman says, shaking his head. "Nothing." Lawmakers had no appetite for bail reform.

Two years later, that may be changing. This summer, the New York City Council took a tentative step toward reform by earmarking $1.4 million for a citywide fund to bail out low­-level offenders. The fund, proposed with much fanfare by Speaker Melissa Mark-­Viverito in her State of the City address in February, is modeled on a number of smaller bail funds around the city. The oldest of these, the Bronx Freedom Fund, was established in 2007 in association with the Bronx Defenders, a public­-defender organization. The founders shut down the fund after only a year and a half, after a judge argued that it was effectively operating as an unlicensed bail­bond business. But before they did, the fund bailed out nearly 200 defendants and generated some illuminating statistics. Ninety-­six percent of the fund’s clients made it toevery one of their court appearances, a return rate higher even than that of people who posted their own bail. More than half of the Freedom Fund’s clients, now able to fight their cases outside jail, saw their charges completely dismissed. Not a single client went to jail on the charges for which bail had been posted. By comparison, defendants held on bail for the duration of their cases were convicted 92 percent of the time. The numbers showed what everyone familiar with the system already knew anecdotally: Bail makes poor people who would otherwise win their cases plead guilty.

August 16, 2015 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, August 15, 2015

"The Circuit Split on Johnson Retroactivity"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective new Casetext analysis of the intricate lower-court legal story already emerging in the wake of the Supreme Court's big Johnson Armed Career Criminal Act ruling declaring the residual clause of ACCA void for vagueness.  Authored by Leah Litman, the full piece merits a full read, and here is how it gets started:

In Johnson v. United States, the Supreme Court held that the “residual clause” of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) is unconstitutionally vague.  Defendants therefore can no longer be sentenced under the residual clause to a 15-year mandatory minimum term of imprisonment.  But what about defendants who have already been sentenced under ACCA’s residual clause?  I predicted in April, before Johnson was decided, that determining who can be resentenced in light of Johnson would be fraught with difficulties.  The courts of appeals have begun to sort through this question, and I’ll highlight one such case in this post.

In In re Rivero, the Eleventh Circuit purported to decide an important question that affects who can be resentenced in light of Johnson — namely, whether the Supreme Court has made Johnson retroactive.  Generally, new rules of constitutional law do not apply to convictions that have become final.  But certain “retroactive” rules apply to convictions that have become final; prisoners can raise claims that are based on retroactive rules in post-conviction review — review that occurs after a defendant’s conviction has become final.  If a prisoner has already filed one petition for post-conviction review, he may file a second or successive petition for post-conviction review only if the Supreme Court has made a rule retroactive (as opposed to a court of appeals or district court doing so).

I said that the Eleventh Circuit “purported” to decide whether the Supreme Court has made Johnson retroactive because the Eleventh Circuit’s decision is a bit quirky.  Most importantly, the defendant wasn’t actually sentenced under ACCA — he was sentenced under an analogous provision of the Sentencing Guidelines (the “career-offender Guideline”).  But the Eleventh Circuit “assumed” that Johnson applied to the career-offender Guideline and that the career-offender Guideline was therefore unconstitutional. Working off that assumption, the Eleventh Circuit went out of its way to disagree with the Seventh Circuit on whether the Supreme Court has made Johnson retroactive.

Rivero has thus created a potentially unnecessary circuit split, as well as some uncertainty about who can be resentenced in light of Johnson.  I’ll offer some thoughts on how narrowly or broadly Rivero can be read. (Spoiler: I think it should be read pretty narrowly.)

Some prior related posts:

August 15, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Fourth Circuit reverses district court's conclusion that Eighth Amendment precluded mandatory LWOP for piracy

Thanks to a helpful reader, I saw that the Fourth Circuit today handed down a panel decision in US v. Said, No. 14-4420 (4th Cir. Aug. 13, 2015) (available here), which reverses a district court's prior ruling that the Eighth Amendment precluded the imposition of mandatory LWOP federal sentences on defendants convicted of piracy.  The main opinion in Said ends its Eighth Amendment analysis this way:

Victims of piracy are robbed of their vessels, kidnapped, held hostage, and even tortured and murdered, while pirates are often able to find safe refuge in the territorial waters off Somalia and collect multi-milliondollar ransom payments.  In these circumstances, we agree with the government “that Congress could with reason conclude [that piracy] calls for the strong medicine of a life sentence for those who are apprehended.” See Br. of Appellant 39.

We are satisfied that “the relationship between the gravity of [the defendants’] offenses and the severity of [their proposed] punishment fails to create the threshold inference of gross disproportionality that is required” to satisfy prong one of the Eighth Amendment analysis.  See Cobler, 748 F.3d at 580.  Thus, without moving to prong two, we rule that the district court erred in invalidating § 1651’s mandatory life sentence as to these defendants and is obliged to impose such sentences on remand.

Judge Davis wrote an intriguing little concurring opinion urging Congress to no longer mandate LWOP sentences in all piracy cases because "not all piracy offenses are equal in severity, in heinousness, and in the dire consequences visited on innocent seafarers."  In so doing, Judge Davis dropped this notable footnote:

Indeed, in this case, Mr. Ibrahim, who was “the group’s leader” and who “led the new mission,” ante at 7, would seem to have earned a life sentence.  But he avoided that fate through the magic of “substantial assistance” and the fiction of “acceptance of responsibility,” the coins of the federal prosecutorial realm.  The inference is unavoidable that it is not really those who participate in piracy who receive a life sentence upon conviction (as we imagine Congress might believe), but rather those who are convicted after electing to go to trial.

August 13, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (10)

Connecticut Supreme Court follows legislature's prospective DP repeal with retrospective state consitutional abolition

The Connecticut Supreme Court today finally resolved, via a split vote, what is to become of the other capital murderers on te state's death row in the aftermath of the legislative repeal of death penalty back in 2012. Here is the lengthy paragraph that starts the lengthy marjority opinion in Connecticut v. Santiago, No. SC 17413 (Conn. Aug 13, 2015) (available here):

Although the death penalty has been a fixture of Connecticut’s criminal law since early colonial times, public opinion concerning it has long been divided.  In 2009, growing opposition to capital punishment led the legislature to enact Public Acts 2009, No. 09-107 (P.A. 09-107), which would have repealed the death penalty for all crimes committed on or after the date of enactment but retained the death penalty for capital felonies committed prior to that date.  Then Governor M. Jodi Rell vetoed P.A. 09-107, however, and it did not become law.  Three years later, in 2012, the legislature passed a materially identical act that prospectively repealed the death penalty; see Public Acts 2012, No. 12-5 (P.A. 12-5); and, this time, Governor Dannel P. Malloy signed it into law.  During the public hearings on both P.A. 09-107 and P.A. 12-5, supporters argued that the proposed legislation represented a measured and lawful approach to the issue.  Others raised serious concerns, however, as to whether, following a prospective only repeal, the imposition of the death penalty would violate the state constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.  Perhaps most notably, Chief State’s Attorney Kevin T. Kane, who serves as this state’s chief law enforcement officer and represents the state in the present case, testified before the legislature that such a statute could not pass constitutional muster.  Additionally, the Division of Criminal Justice submitted written testimony, in which it advised the legislature that a prospective only repeal would be a "fiction" and that, "[i]n reality, it would effectively abolish the death penalty for anyone who has not yet been executed because it would be untenable as a matter of constitutional law . . . . [A]ny death penalty that has been imposed and not carried out would effectively be nullified."  In the present appeal, the defendant, Eduardo Santiago, raises similar claims, contending that, following the decision by the elected branches to abolish capital punishment for all crimes committed on or after April 25, 2012, it would be unconstitutionally cruel and unusual to execute offenders who committed capital crimes before that date.  Upon careful consideration ofthe defendant’s claims in light ofthe governing constitutional principles and Connecticut’s unique historical and legal landscape, we are persuaded that, following its prospective abolition, this state’s death penalty no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency and no longer serves any legitimate penological purpose.  For these reasons, execution of those offenders who committed capital felonies prior to April 25, 2012, would violate the state constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Over at Crime & Consequences, Kent has this post in reaction to the Santiago ruling titled "A Broken Promise In Connecticut."

August 13, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23)

Split Eleventh Circuit panel splits from Seventh Circuit approach on Johnson retroactivity

I had an inkling it might not take too long for lower courts to become divided on what the Supreme Court's big Johnson Armed Career Criminal Act ruling, which declared the residual clause of ACCA was void for vagueness, could and should mean for long-ago imposed sentences.  And, sure enough, less than seven weeks after the Johnson ruling, we already have a big circuit split.

As detailed in this post last week, the Seventh Circuit in Price v. US, No. 15-2527 (7th Cir. Aug. 4, 2015) (available here), decided that a defendant serving an ACCA-influenced sentence of 20+ years imposed way back in 2006 could bring a new, successor 2255 motion based on the Johnson ruling.  But, now as flagged effective via this post at the "Southern District of Florida" blog, a divided three-judge panel of the the Eleventh Circuit had a different take on this issue in In re Rivero, No. 15-13089 (11th Cir. Aug. 12, 2015) (available here). Here is a key passage from the marjority opinion in Rivero:

We acknowledge that one of our sister circuits has held that Johnson applies retroactively to decisions on collateral review, but we are unpersuaded by that decision. See Price v. United States, No. 15-2427 (7th Cir. Aug. 4, 2015).  In Price, the Seventh Circuit explained that “[t]here is no escaping the logical conclusion that the [Supreme] Court itself has made Johnson categorically retroactive to cases on collateral review” because “[a] defendant who was sentenced under the residual clause necessarily bears a significant risk of facing a punishment that the law cannot impose upon him.”  Id. at *7.  We disagree.  We can “escap[e] th[at] logical conclusion” because Congress could impose the punishment in Johnson if Congress did so with specific, not vague, language.

Our dissenting colleague assumes that the new rule announced in Johnson also applies to the residual clause of the career offender enhancement in the Sentencing Guidelines, U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(2), but that assumption makes clear that precedents of the Supreme Court do not “necessarily dictate,” In re Anderson, 396 F.3d at 1339 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted), that Rivero may file his second or successive motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence.  See Dissenting Op. at 15 n.2.  The Supreme Court has never held that the Sentencing Guidelines are subject to a vagueness challenge. And four of our sister circuits have held that the Sentencing Guidelines — whether mandatory or advisory — cannot be unconstitutionally vague because they “do not establish the illegality of any conduct” and are “designed to assist and limit the discretion of the sentencing judge.” United States v. Tichenor, 683 F.3d 358, 363–66, 365 n.3 (7th Cir. 2012); see also United States v. Smith, 73 F.3d 1414, 1418 (6th Cir. 1996); United States v. Pearson, 910 F.2d 221, 223 (5th Cir. 1990); United States v. Wivell, 893 F.2d 156, 159–160 (8th Cir. 1990).  But the absence of Supreme Court precedent provides an alternative ground for why we must deny Rivero’s application for leave to file a second or successive motion.

Especially because the Justice Department appears to be supporting Johnson retroactivity, I suspect we may end up with more circuits lining up behind Price than behind Rivero in the weeks ahead. But whatever transpires in other lower courts, it is now already clear that SCOTUS is going to need to take up Johnson's application before too long.

Some prior related posts:

August 13, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Lots of great reads via The Marshall Project

I really enjoy all the work being done by The Marshall Project, and this collection of recent items from the site highlights why sentencing fans should be making regular visits there:

August 12, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Make Them Hear You: Participatory Defense and the Struggle for Criminal Justice Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting paper available via SSRN authored by Janet Moore, Marla Sandys and Raj Jayadev. Here is the abstract:

This Article introduces participatory defense as a powerful new model for improving public defense and challenging mass incarceration.  This grassroots movement empowers the key stakeholders — people who face criminal charges, their families, and their communities — to become change agents who force greater transparency, accountability, and fairness from criminal justice systems.  After introducing the model’s core principles and goals, the Article offers innovative analyses from doctrinal, theoretical and empirical perspectives.

First, the Article connects participatory defense with the crisis-ridden history of the constitutional right to counsel, including that doctrine’s roots in the Due Process right to be heard.  Second, the Article frames participatory defense within a new theory of criminal justice that emphasizes equality in the generation and administration of law. Finally, core principles of participatory defense are applied in cutting-edge empirical research that amplifies the voices of the key stakeholders in system assessment and offers new support for reform litigation and policy advocacy. 

August 12, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

New Hampshire enacts novel law requiring defendant's presence in courtroom for victim impact statements

As reported in this Reuters piece, headlined "New Hampshire to make criminals face victims' families at sentencing," one ugly sentencing case has lead the Granite State to enact a novel sentencing procedure law. Here are the details:

New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan on Tuesday signed a law that requires convicted criminals to appear in court at sentencing when victims’ families and friends are given the opportunity to express their pain. The law, believed to be the first of its kind in the United States, was proposed after a man convicted last year of murdering a 19-year-old college student asked not to attend his sentencing, saying he didn't want to hear the victim's family “yell and whine and bitch and moan.”

In the end, convicted murderer Seth Mazzaglia, 33, dropped the request and attended the sentencing, where family members of his victim, Elizabeth "Lizzy" Marriott, expressed profound grief and anger toward him.

Her father, Bob Marriott, was among several relatives of crime victims who backed the bill. At the bill-signing ceremony, Hassan praised Marriott “for speaking up on behalf of his daughter Lizzy, for his family, and for all families impacted by crime.”...

The signing comes almost a year to the day after Mazzaglia was sentenced to life in prison without parole for first degree murder involving sexual assault, among other crimes. He was accused of having his girlfriend lure Marriott to their apartment so he could have sex with her. Prosecutors alleged Mazzaglia strangled Marriott after she rejected his sexual advances and then raped her lifeless body.

The key text of this new law, which can be found here, provides that the "defendant shall personally appear in court when the victim or victim's next of kin addresses the judge, unless excused by the court." The final phrase of this provision, which allows the court to excuse the defendant, confirms my instinct that this new sentencing law is much more about symbolism than substance. That said, especially because the symbolism of the sentencing process is often quite important to crime vicitms, this novel law strikes me as a beneficial way to give victims that much more respect in a sentencing process that sometimes forgets about their various concerns.

August 12, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 10, 2015

Could USSC's proposed amendment dealing with SCOTUS Johnson ruling be made retroactive (and how many federal prisioners could then get reduced sentences)?

Readers know that I have been making much of the potential practical impact of the Supreme Court's big ruling in Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (June 26, 2015) (available here).  Johnson declared that that a key clause defining violent offenses in the Armed Career Criminal Act violated "the Constitution’s prohibition of vague criminal laws."   I have made much of the Johnson ruling's potental impact in part because its holding is inevitably going to echo for quite some time — in some ways predictable and in some ways unpredictable — through other important parts of federal sentencing law.

Perhaps the biggest early post-Johnson federal sentencing echo emerged late last week when, as reported in this US Sentencing Commission news release, the USSC put forth "proposed changes to the existing guideline definitions of a 'crime of violence' [which are] primarily intended to make the guideline consistent with the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Johnson v. United States, __ U.S. __, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015)."   This recent post provides the basic details of what the USSC is proposing, and all the official details appear in this USSC document.  

I am still working through the potential import and impact of what the USSC is proposing, and the USSC itself stresses that its proposed guideline amendment is not just preliminary.  But, as the question in the title of this post suggests, the import and impact of what the USSC is proposing would be that much bigger and that much more consequential if any USSC post-Johnson amendments were to be made fully retroactive by the Commission to all federal prisoners currently serving long guideline-career-offender-based sentences.

As hard-core federal sentencing practitioners know, sorting through whether, how and for whom guidelines amendments are made retroactive can be a tough slog both legally and practically.  But because many current prisoners potentially impacted any post-Johnson guideline amendments may already be able to bring Johnson-based constitutional challenges to their existing sentences, it might actually prove more efficient and effective for all actors in the federal sentencing system for the USSC to make any of its post-Johnson guideline amendments fully retroactive — rather than to have everyone in the system await court rulings (and inevitable circuit splits?) on just what Johnson means for prisoners now serving long prison sentences based on the existing (constitutionally suspect) guideline definitions of "crime of violence."

Some prior posts on Johnson and its possible impact:

August 10, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Taking stock of what Glossip now means for executions throughout the US

Exec_year (1)The most important practical question in the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling in Glossip upholding Oklahoma's execution protocol — not only for the roughly 3000 murderers currently on death row throughout the United States, but also for all those eager to see death sentences carried out — is whether Glossip will increase the chances and speed with which the condemned get taken to a death chamber for a execution.  This new AP article, headlined "Justices Speak out About Death Penalty, but Executions Go On," speaks somewhat to this reality (while also highlighting that court challenges to death sentences are not going to decline anytime soon).  Here are excerpts:

Wherever their summer travels have taken them, Supreme Court justices probably will weigh in over the next few days on Texas' plans to execute two death row inmates in the week ahead.  If past practice is any guide, the court is much more likely to allow the lethal-injection executions to proceed than to halt them.

Opponents of the death penalty took heart when Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg made the case against capital punishment in late June as arbitrary, prone to mistakes and time-consuming.  Even if death penalty opponents eventually succeed, the timeline for abolition probably will be measured in years, not months.

That's because Breyer, joined by Ginsburg, was writing in dissent in a case involving death row inmates in Oklahoma, and five sitting justices, a majority of the court, believe "it is settled that capital punishment is constitutional," as Justice Samuel Alito wrote in his opinion for the court in that same case.

Texas has scheduled back-to-back executions Wednesday and Thursday for Daniel Lee Lopez and Tracy Lane Beatty.  Lopez was convicted of running over a Texas police officer with his car during a high-speed chase. Lopez' lawyer already has asked the court to stop the execution.  Beatty strangled his 62-year-old mother, then stole her car and drained her bank accounts.  He has an appeal pending in lower courts and could also end up at the Supreme Court.

The justices rarely issue last-minute reprieves to death-row inmates.  Even after Breyer's opinion calling for a re-examination of capital punishment by the Supreme Court, no justice publicly backed a Missouri inmate's plea to halt his execution to allow the court to take up the constitutionality of the death penalty.

Similarly, the three Oklahoma inmates who lost their high court case now face execution in September and October and want the justices to reconsider the decision from June in light of Breyer's dissent. The court almost never does that....

The 18 executions that have taken place so far this year have been carried out in just five states — Texas, Missouri, Georgia, Florida and Oklahoma.  Nine of those were in Texas. Twelve states with the death penalty have not had an execution in more than five years. That list includes California and Pennsylvania, which between them have more than 900 death row inmates....

Geographic disparity was among several defects Breyer and Ginsburg identified in June. Another is the length of time many inmates spend living under a sentence of death, which Breyer had previously suggested also might be a violation of the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  Six of the 18 men who have been executed in 2015 spent at least 20 years on death row, including one who served 31 years before his execution....

Among the questions surrounding the possibility that the Supreme Court would take up the constitutionality of the death penalty is the makeup of the court itself.  With four justices in their late 70s or early 80s, the next president might have the chance to fill several vacancies and could change the court's direction.

"Obviously, the composition of the court matters greatly and the biggest unknown variable about the life of the American death penalty is the presidential election of 2016.  My expected time frame for constitutional abolition varies greatly based on the result," said Jordan Steiker, a University of Texas law professor....

Steiker said he thinks Breyer's dissent will serve as a road map for death penalty lawyers and future justices who may not feel constrained to wait before grappling with executions. "It was invigorating to those who'd like to see constitutional abolition," he said. "The arguments not new, but they had not been marshaled as effectively by a justice until this opinion."

Critically, Glossip does not preclude Eighth Amendment challenges to various execution protocols, it just makes it somewhat harder for these challenges to prevail.  In addition, states continue to face practical challenges in acquiring execution drugs and often have to deal with with state-level execution administration difficulties.  For those reasons, I am not surprised we have not yet seen a significant post-Glossip up-tick in executions.  

More broadly, unless and until a handful of recently execution-dormant states with sizeable death rows get back in the execution business — states like Alabama, Arizona, California, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania — it remains likely that more condemned murderers on death rows in the US will die of natural causes than will have their capital punishments actually carried out.

August 10, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Why aren't sentencing recommendations part of the ABA-LDF's "Joint Statement on Eliminating Bias in the Criminal Justice System"?

I just came across recently this intriguing and lengthy "Joint Statement on Eliminating Bias in the Criminal Justice System" put together and released last month by the American Bar Association and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The statement has a lengthy introductory discussion of concerns about racial bias in the operation of American criminal justice systems, and here is part of this intro:

Given the history of implicit and explicit racial bias and discrimination in this country, there has long been a strained relationship between the African-American community and law enforcement. But with video cameras and extensive news coverage bringing images and stories of violent encounters between (mostly white) law enforcement officers and (almost exclusively African-American and Latino) unarmed individuals into American homes, it is not surprising that the absence of criminal charges in many of these cases has caused so many people to doubt the ability of the criminal justice system to treat individuals fairly, impartially and without regard to their race.

That impression is reinforced by the statistics on race in our criminal justice system.  With approximately 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has approximately 25 percent of the world’s jail and prison population.  Some two-thirds of those incarcerated are persons of color.  While crime rates may vary by neighborhood and class, it is difficult to believe that racial disparities in arrest, prosecution, conviction and incarceration rates are unaffected by attitudes and biases regarding race....

Given these realities, it is not only time for a careful look at what caused the current crisis, but also time to initiate an affirmative effort to eradicate implied or perceived racial bias – in all of its forms – from the criminal justice system.

The statement then goes on to list 12 detailed action items in the form of reforms viewed to be "necessary investments that are essential to strengthening public confidence in the rule of law and the legitimacy of our justice system.  Dinconcerningly, though, none of these reforms addresses directly or even indirectly reforming sentencing laws that have initially emerged from questionable (and often racialized) assumptions and that have an indisputably disproportionate impact on communities of color. Here I am thinking particularly about the enduring federal crack/powder sentencing differential and many state felon disenfranchisement laws.

In addition, missing from the urged reforms is the useful idea long promoted by Marc Mauer and The Sentencing Project: having 'Racial Impact Statements' similar to fiscal or environmental impact statements prepared for any proposed criminal justice legislation so that legislators and the public can better assess and examine possible racial effects of all proposed legal reforms.  

In the end, I guess I understand the sentencing omissions in the Joint Statement given that recent controvesial police-citizen encounters seem to have been the driving force behind the document.  Still, I find it both curious and troubling that two critical advocacy institutions, both of which have played very important roles in advocating for sentencing reform, failed to have a least one of a dozen of bias-elimination reform proposals speak directly to modern sentencing laws and practices.

August 9, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Friday, August 07, 2015

Aurora Shooter gets LWOP, not death, from Colorado jury

In a notable (but maybe not too surprising?) outcome, the Colorado jury previously quick to convict Aurora shooter James Holmes of capital murder today returned a sentencing verdict of life instead of death. More details and discussion of this verdict's significance will follow as time allows.

UPDATE: This FoxNews report's headline provides the basic reason for the outcome: "1 juror firmly opposed death penalty for theater shooter James Holmes." Here is more:

Nine of the 12 jurors in the Colorado theater shooting trial wanted to execute James Holmes, but one was steadfastly against the death penalty and two others wavering, a juror told reporters after the verdict was announced.

Because the 12 jurors failed to unanimously agree that Holmes should be executed, he will be sentenced to life in prison without parole for the 2012 attack on a midnight screening of a Batman movie in Aurora that also left 70 injured.

"Mental illness played into the decision more than anything else," said the woman, who would not give her name. "All the jurors feel so much empathy for the victims. It's a tragedy."

A juror told The New York Times that a fellow juror was solidly opposed to a death sentence. The juror said nine were in favor of the punishment, two were apparently on the fence about the decision. "There was nothing further to discuss at that point," the juror said. "It only takes one."

The verdict came as a surprise. The same jury rejected Holmes' insanity defense, finding him capable of understanding right from wrong when he carried out the attack. It also quickly determined the heinousness of Holmes' crimes outweighed his mental illness in a prior step that brought them closer to the death penalty. There were gasps and tears in the courtroom as the verdict was read. One man from the victim side got up and stormed out after the first one....

Holmes himself stood staring straight ahead as the verdicts were read, showing little emotion, but when he returned to his seat he leaned over to defense attorney Tamara Brady, grabbed her hand with a smile, and said "thank you." Loud sobbing could be heard from the family section, where some sat with their heads in their hands.

The courtroom was also full of first responders, including Aurora police department officers -- some of whom cried along with the families as the verdicts were read. Sandy Phillips, whose daughter Jessica Ghawi was killed by Holmes, shook her head no and then held it in her hands. Ashley Moser, whose 6-year-old daughter died in the attack and who was herself paralyzed by Holmes' bullets, also shook her head and then slowly leaned it against the wheelchair of another paralyzed victim, Caleb Medley....

The defense had argued that Holmes' schizophrenia led to a psychotic break, and that powerful delusions drove him to carry out one of the nation's deadliest mass shootings. At least one juror agreed — a verdict of death must be unanimous. Jurors deliberated for about six and a half hours over two days before deciding on Holmes' sentence.

They reached their decision after the judge granted their request earlier Friday to re-watch a graphic crime scene video taken immediately after the massacre. The 45 minutes of footage, played during the trial, shows 10 bodies lying amid spent shell casings, popcorn and blood.... The jury's final decision came after days of tearful testimony from relatives of the slain.

The case could have ended the same way more than two years ago, when Holmes offered to plead guilty if he could avoid the death penalty. Prosecutors rejected the offer. But the victims and the public might not have ever learned in detail what was behind the shootings had the plea deal been accepted....

Four mental health experts testified that the shooting wouldn't have happened if Holmes weren't severely mentally ill. He was having increasingly palpable delusions that killing others would increase his own self-worth, forensic psychiatrist Jeffrey Metzner said.

August 7, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (13)

"Judge orders Texas man to get married or face jail time"

The title of this post is the headline of this local report on a recent local sentencing in Texas that makes for perfect Friday afternoon follies.  (First joke alternative headline: "Judge orders Texas man to face either short-term or long-term loss of true freedom.")  Here are the (ugly? amusing? semi-sweet? unconstitutional?) details:

An East Texas couple says their choice to marry when they wanted to was taken away by a criminal court judge.  In July, a Smith County judge sentenced Josten Bundy to get married to his 19-year-old girlfriend as part of his probation, which also included writing Bible verses and getting counseling.

The court case stemmed from a February altercation between Bundy and the ex-boyfriend of his girlfriend, Elizabeth Jaynes.  “[The ex-boyfriend] had been saying disrespectful things about Elizabeth, so I challenged him to a fight,” said Bundy. “He stepped in and I felt like it was on and I hit him in the jaw twice.”

Bundy said the ex-boyfriend did not require medical attention, but pressed assault charges. “I took matters into my own hands and I know that’s wrong,” Bundy said. “I know I was raised better, but it happened.”

At his sentencing hearing, Judge Randall Rogers asked Bundy about the fight. “Is she worth it?” Judge Rogers asked Bundy, according to court transcripts. “I said, well to be honest, sir, I was raised with four sisters and if any man was talking to a woman like that,” recalled Bundy, “I’d probably do the same thing.”

Judge Rogers asked Bundy if he was married to Jaynes and then said, “You know, as a part of my probation, you’re going to have to marry her…within 30 days.” If Bundy declined to do the probation, he would be sentenced to 15 days in jail.  “He offered me fifteen days in jail and that would have been fine and I asked if I could call my job [to let them know],” said Bundy. “The judge told me ‘nope, that’s not how this works.’”

Jaynes, who was in the courtroom said the proposal from the judge embarrassed her. “My face was so red, people behind me were laughing,” said Jaynes. “[The judge] made me stand up in court.”

Afraid of Bundy losing his job if he spent two weeks behind bars, the couple applied for their marriage license and scheduled a date with the justice of the peace to get married. “It just felt like we weren't going to be able to have the wedding we wanted,” said Jaynes. “It was just going to be kind of pieced together, I didn't even have a white dress.”

The pair said a summer courthouse wedding was nothing like what they pictured when they imagined their future nuptials while they were dating. “I used to watch Say Yes to the Dress and all those shows and all the dresses and think about what kind of dress I would have,” said Jaynes. “I would have liked a spring wedding when it’s not too hot and not too cold.”...

But with only 18 days to plan, even the people most important to them were missing. "My father didn’t get to go, and that really bothers me, I know he would have liked to be there,” said Bundy. “None of my sisters got to show up, it was such short notice, I couldn’t get it together."

The father of the bride, Kenneth Jaynes, wanted answers. “[I felt] anger; I was mad. [The judge] can’t do this by court ordering somebody to be married,” said Kenneth Jaynes. “I contacted a couple of lawyers but they told me someone was trying to pull my leg…that judges don't court order somebody to get married.”

Judge Rogers declined to interview about an open probation case. He also declined to comment generally about his sentencing practices. Attorney Blake Bailey, who practices constitutional law, said an order to marry is not legal. “To say you're not going to be criminally punished if you get married is way out of left field,” said Bailey. “It sounds like the old days of shotgun weddings, but not even the judge is capable of enforcing, what he thinks is best for some people in his court.”

Bundy and Jaynes say they do not at all regret getting married, but they do regret not being able to plan or have control over their special day. “What if we [had said to the judge] we don't want to get married right now and we're not ready?” said Jaynes. “Is he going to go to jail? It scared us, a little bit.”

Attorney Bailey said the sentence would have likely been struck down on appeal to a higher court.

August 7, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

US Sentencing Commission proposes guidelines amendments to deal with SCOTUS Johnson ruling

I just finished watching on-line the brief public meeting today of the US Sentencing Commission, and the efficient event tracked closely this on-line notice/agenda.  Ever the efficient agency, within minutes of the conclusion of the meeting, the USSC got up on its website this news release reporting on the Commission's significant actions today:

The United States Sentencing Commission voted today to seek comment on proposed changes to the existing guideline definitions of a “crime of violence.” The proposed changes are primarily intended to make the guideline consistent with the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Johnson v. United States, __ U.S. __, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015).

In Johnson, the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutionally vague a portion of the statutory definition of “violent felony” used in a similar penalty provision in the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). While the Supreme Court in Johnson did not consider or address sentencing guidelines, the statutory language the Court found unconstitutionally vague, often referred to as the “residual clause,” is identical to language contained in the “career offender” sentencing guideline, and other guidelines which enhance sentences based on prior convictions for a crime of violence.

Consistent with Johnson, the proposal would eliminate from the guideline definition of “crime of violence” the residual clause, which provides that a “crime of violence” includes a felony offense that “otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another. In addition, the proposal would provide definitions for several enumerated crimes of violence.

“We already see litigation over the impact of Johnson on the sentencing guidelines,” said Judge Patti B. Saris, Chair of the Commission. “In light of uncertainty resulting from the Johnson decision, we feel that it is prudent to begin considering whether, as a matter of policy, the guidelines should also eliminate the residual clause. We want to begin the process of seeking public comment so that the Commission could vote on a guideline amendment as early as possible, perhaps as soon as January 2016. However, this proposal is only preliminary and we look forward to public comment furthering informing us on this complex topic. We also intend to continue to study recidivist enhancements including those based on prior drug convictions in the guidelines throughout the upcoming amendment cycle.”

The Commission also unanimously approved its list of priorities for the coming year. Among its top priorities again is continuing to work with Congress to reduce the severity and scope of certain mandatory minimum penalties and to consider expanding the “safety valve” statute that exempts certain low-level non-violent offenders from mandatory minimum penalties.

“The Commission has taken some steps on its own to reduce federal drug sentences and relieve some of the overpopulation in the federal prisons, but only Congress can make the more fundamental changes needed to address the severity and disparity problems associated with certain mandatory minimum penalties,” said Judge Saris. “We look forward to continuing to work with Congress on this vital issue.”

The Commission will continue to work on several multi-year projects, including an examination of the overall structure of the advisory guideline system, a comprehensive recidivism study, and a review of federal practices relating to the imposition and violations of conditions of probation and supervised release and immigration.

Here are the two key documents released by the Commission on its website today that reflect and detail the summary provided by the press release:

August 7, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 06, 2015

"Disquieting Discretion: Race, Geography & the Colorado Death Penalty in the First Decade of the Twenty-First Century"

The title of this post is the headline of this new paper just now appearing on SSRN and authored by Meg Beardsley, Sam Kamin, Justin F. Marceau and Scott Phillips. Here is the abstract:

This Article demonstrates through original statistical research that prosecutors in Colorado were more likely to seek the death penalty against minority defendants than against white defendants.  Moreover, defendants in Colorado’s Eighteenth Judicial District were more likely to face a death prosecution than defendants elsewhere in the state.

Our empirical analysis demonstrates that even when one controls for the differential rates at which different groups commit statutorily death-eligible murders, non-white defendants and defendants in the Eighteenth Judicial District were still more likely than others to face a death penalty prosecution.  Even when the heinousness of the crime is accounted for, the race of the accused and the place of the crime are statistically significant predictors of whether prosecutors will seek the death penalty.  We discuss the implications of this disparate impact on the constitutionality of Colorado’s death penalty regime, concluding that the Colorado statute does not meet the dictates of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.

August 6, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Gearing up for the Ninth Circuit's consideration of the arbitrariness of California's capital punishment system

Reader may recall that a little over a year ago, as first reported in this July 2014 post, US District Judge  Cormac Carney ruled in Jones v. Chappell (now Jones v. Davis) that California's administration of capital punishment was unconstitutional.  That ruling was based on the judge's conclusion that California operated a death penalty "system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed [, and which consequently] serves no penological purpose."   This Jones ruling was appealed by the state of California to the Ninth Circuit, and the Ninth Circuit is finally scheduled to hear oral argument in the case on the last day of this month.

As detailed in some prior posts below, a number of factors make Jones an interesting ruling that go beyond its basic significance of deeming unconstitutional the state capital system with the most persons serving time on death row.  And, as revealed via this Ninth Circuit webpage, various amici have submitted briefs to the Ninth Circuit urging reversal or affirmance of the Jones decision. 

This preview post now (with perhaps more to follow) was by this new Washington Post piece, headlined "The death penalty is about to go on trial in California. Here’s why it might lose." The piece is authored by Prof Frank Baumgartner, and here are excerpts:

Carney argued that because of the extremely low likelihood of execution and long delays on death row, the system was actually a penalty of life without parole with the remote possibility of death.  His ruling declared that execution after such a long delay serves no retributive or deterrent purpose beyond the long prison term, and is therefore arbitrary and unconstitutional.  As Carney wrote in his California decision, no rational jury or legislature would design a system that functions as the system actually works.  But, he argued, we must evaluate the system we do have, not the one we might prefer to have....

Supporters of the death penalty argue that Carney overstepped with his sweeping decision throwing out the entire California death penalty.  Oral arguments in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will begin at the end of this month.  California certainly was at the low end of the distribution of “efficiency” in carrying out its death sentences....  Out of more than 900 death sentences, the state has carried out just 13 executions.  It stands as one of the few states, along with Pennsylvania, that has large numbers of death sentences that result in very few executions.

Prior related posts:

August 5, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

"Should prison sentences be based on crimes that haven’t been committed yet?"

The question in the title of this post is subheadline of this new Marshall Project feature story about modern risk assessment tool being used at sentencing.  The lengthy piece, carrying the main headline "The New Science of Sentencing," merits a read in full, and here are excerpts:

Pennsylvania is on the verge of becoming one of the first states in the country to base criminal sentences not only on what crimes people have been convicted of, but also on whether they are deemed likely to commit additional crimes.  As early as next year, judges there could receive statistically derived tools known as risk assessments to help them decide how much prison time — if any — to assign.

Risk assessments have existed in various forms for a century, but over the past two decades, they have spread through the American justice system, driven by advances in social science.  The tools try to predict recidivism — repeat offending or breaking the rules of probation or parole — using statistical probabilities based on factors such as age, employment history and prior criminal record.  They are now used at some stage of the criminal justice process in nearly every state.  Many court systems use the tools to guide decisions about which prisoners to release on parole, for example, and risk assessments are becoming increasingly popular as a way to help set bail for inmates awaiting trial.

But Pennsylvania is about to take a step most states have until now resisted for adult defendants: using risk assessment in sentencing itself.  A state commission is putting the finishing touches on a plan that, if implemented as expected, could allow some offenders considered low risk to get shorter prison sentences than they would otherwise or avoid incarceration entirely.  Those deemed high risk could spend more time behind bars....

[T]he approach has bipartisan appeal: Among some conservatives, risk assessment appeals to the desire to spend tax dollars on locking up only those criminals who are truly dangerous to society. And some liberals hope a data-driven justice system will be less punitive overall and correct for the personal, often subconscious biases of police, judges and probation officers. In theory, using risk assessment tools could lead to both less incarceration and less crime.

There are more than 60 risk assessment tools in use across the U.S., and they vary widely. But in their simplest form, they are questionnaires — typically filled out by a jail staff member, probation officer or psychologist — that assign points to offenders based on anything from demographic factors to family background to criminal history. The resulting scores are based on statistical probabilities derived from previous offenders’ behavior. A low score designates an offender as “low risk” and could result in lower bail, less prison time or less restrictive probation or parole terms; a high score can lead to tougher sentences or tighter monitoring.

The risk assessment trend is controversial. Critics have raised numerous questions: Is it fair to make decisions in an individual case based on what similar offenders have done in the past? Is it acceptable to use characteristics that might be associated with race or socioeconomic status, such as the criminal record of a person’s parents? And even if states can resolve such philosophical questions, there are also practical ones: What to do about unreliable data? Which of the many available tools — some of them licensed by for-profit companies — should policymakers choose?...

The core questions around risk assessment aren’t about data.  They are about what the goals of criminal justice reforms should be.  Some supporters see reducing incarceration as the primary goal; others want to focus on reducing recidivism; still others want to eliminate racial disparities.  Risk assessments have drawn widespread support in part because, as long as they remain in the realm of the theoretical, they can accomplish all those goals.  But once they enter the real world, there are usually trade-offs.

August 4, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Monday, August 03, 2015

Split Fourth Circuit panel finds no means for federal prisoner to challenge collaterally wrongful LWOP

A Fourth Circuit panel on Friday issued a very intricate and thoughtful set of opinions in US v. Surratt, No. 14-6851 (4th Cir. July 31, 2015) (available here). The start of the majority opinion provides this effective overview of the issues in Surratt:

In 2005, after pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine, Raymond Surratt was sentenced to life imprisonment.  We affirmed his conviction and sentence on appeal, and Surratt’s motion to vacate his conviction and sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 was likewise denied. Neither Surratt’s direct appeal nor his § 2255 motion questioned the legality of his mandatory life sentence.

Several years later, Surratt returned to this Court and asked for permission to file a second or successive § 2255 motion.  Surratt’s request was premised on United States v. Simmons, 649 F.3d 237 (4th Cir. 2011) (en banc), which in turn overruled our prior decision in United States v. Harp, 406 F.3d 242 (4th Cir. 2005).  Had Surratt been sentenced after Simmons, he would have faced a lower mandatory minimum sentence than the mandatory life term that he actually received.  Surratt maintained that this difference entitled him to be resentenced.  But Congress set out certain conditions that must be met before a successive motion may be permitted, and Surratt did not meet those required conditions.  See 28 U.S.C. § 2255(h). We therefore denied him permission to file a successive motion. See In re Surratt, No. 12-283 (4th Cir. Sept. 13, 2012), ECF No. 6.

In the district court, Surratt had simultaneously filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 seeking the same Simmons-based relief.  As a federal prisoner, however, Surratt cannot challenge his conviction and sentence under § 2241 unless 28 U.S.C. § 2255(e) -- also called the “savings clause” -- applies.  The district court concluded that § 2255(e) did not in fact confer jurisdiction to consider Surratt’s claim in a § 2241 petition, so it denied Surratt’s petition.

Surratt now appeals from the judgment of the district court.  We are not unsympathetic to his claim; like the dissent, we recognize the gravity of a life sentence.  However, Congress has the power to define the scope of the writ of habeas corpus, and Congress has exercised that power here to narrowly limit the circumstances in which a § 2241 petition may be brought. Surratt’s petition does not present one of the permitted circumstances. Accordingly, we agree that the district court lacked jurisdiction under § 2255(e) to consider Surratt’s § 2241 petition and affirm the judgment below.

The end of the dissenting opinion in Surratt provides this alternative perspective on the case and its disposition by the majority:

I do not doubt that the majority is sympathetic to Surratt. In the end, I suppose we just have fundamentally different views on the role of habeas corpus, as well as the role of the judiciary in granting the writ.  I see it as our solemn responsibility to guard against a morbid encroachment upon that which is so precious our Framers ensured its continued vitality in our Constitution.  Instead we guard the Great Writ itself, and so closely that Surratt must spend the rest of his life in prison -- against the will of the government and the district court.  Our abdication of this responsibility begs the question: quis custodiet ipsos custodies?  Who will guard the guards themselves?

It is within our power to do more than simply leave Surratt to the mercy of the executive branch.  To hope for the right outcome in another’s hands perhaps is noble.  But only when we actually do the right thing can we be just.  I lament that today we are not the latter. Neither the plain language of our habeas statutes, our precedent, nor the Constitution demands that Surratt die in prison.  I must dissent.

August 3, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Latest reform news means still more waiting for those eager for federal sentencing reform

This new NPR piece, headlined "Despite High Expectations, Sentencing Reform Proposals Still On Ice," confirms my persistent fear that a long and uncertain slog remeains in Congress before anyone should expect to see a major sentencing reform bill on Prez Obama's desk for signature. Here is why:

Advocates and inmates working to overhaul the criminal justice system will have to wait at least a little longer for congressional action.

The Republican leader of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Charles Grassley, said he won't hold a public event on sentencing reform proposals until after the August recess, as language is still being drafted by a bipartisan working group. And in the U.S. House, lawmakers and their aides will spend at least the next five weeks making adjustments to a sweeping bill sponsored by 40 Democrats and Republicans, sources told NPR Friday....

Earlier this week, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a member of the GOP leadership team, suggested that a hearing and markup on proposals could be imminent. "This seems to be another area where there's a lot of common ground, where a lot needs to be done, and I'm reassured by the bipartisan support we've seen, an optimism that we can get something important done," Cornyn said Tuesday.

But multiple sources from Capitol Hill, the executive branch and the advocacy community said concrete language on sentencing and criminal justice overhauls is still being hotly debated behind closed doors in both the Senate and the House. The Obama administration, including Deputy U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates, has been pressing to relax mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes....

The principles on the table now in the Senate would not eliminate all mandatory minimums, and, in fact, some Republicans are pressing to create new ones, for other crimes. Another key issue is how the bill will come to define crimes of "violence," which could exclude thousands of prisoners from taking advantage of the legislative changes.

And in the House, a massive bill called the SAFE Justice Act, co-sponsored by Reps. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., got a boost this month when House leaders confirmed it would get time on the floor this year. But what the bill will look like by then is an open question, after the Justice Department and some police groups expressed concerns about its scope. Lawmakers are working to tweak the language over the next couple of months.

Congressional sources say they're moving carefully, to avoid falling into the same traps as they did in debate over the landmark 1994 crime bill, which imposed tough mandatory criminal penalties on defendants, incentivized states to build more jails and prisons, and barred inmates from being awarded grants to pursue education. All of those issues are now being rethought, more than two decades later.

As each week passes without consensus building around any specific reform proposal in the House or Senate, I am growing ever more worried that the considerable eagerness for enacting major reforms may, at least in the short term, continune to stall or ultimately prevent getting a even minor reforms into law.  (For the record, I already think this dynamic undercut the prospects of enacting, many months ago, less-controversial-but-consequential aspects of the Smarter Sentencing Act.)  I sincerely hope I am wrong to see the same forces that brought down the SSA at work here creating a growing risk that the "sentencing reform best" ends up becoming a problematic enemy of the "sentencing reform good enough to get actually enacted."

August 1, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Friday, July 31, 2015

Executive facing "unprecedented" LWOP sentence for food-poisoned peanut butter

Download (8)I just came across this AP story from last week reporting on a notable sentence being urged by federal guidelines in a notable white-collar case.  Here are the details:

Federal court officers have recommended a sentence of life in prison for a peanut company executive convicted of selling salmonella-tainted food, a move that attorneys on both sides called “unprecedented” for a food-poisoning case. The potential life sentence for former Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell was disclosed by prosecutors in a court filing Wednesday. Parnell, 61, is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 21 by a federal judge in Albany, Georgia....

Stewart Parnell ran the now-defunct company from his Bedford County home, just outside Lynchburg city limits.  Parnell's defense attorneys confirmed the recommendation Thursday to The Associated Press, calling the possible punishment “unprecedented.”  Bill Marler, a lawyer for victims sickened by peanut butter from Parnell's southwest Georgia plant, used the same word.

In fact, Marler and other experts say the trial of Parnell and two co-defendants last year was the first federal food-poisoning case to be tried by an American court.  A jury convicted Parnell of 71 counts including conspiracy, obstruction of justice, wire fraud and other crimes related to a salmonella outbreak in 2008 and 2009.  The Centers for Disease Control linked the outbreak to nine deaths and 714 illnesses.  It prompted one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history.

Justin Lugar, one of Parnell's defense attorneys, confirmed Thursday that the recommendation before Judge W. Louis Sands is for life in prison, with no lesser range. Parnell's lawyers are trying to persuade the judge to disregard numbers used as aggravating factors to boost the suggested sentence to its maximum: an estimate that Parnell's customers suffered $144 million in losses as well as health officials’ tally that 714 people got sick....

“That recommendation is truly absurd,” said Ken Hodges, an attorney on Parnell's defense team. “We hope the judge will see that Stewart Parnell never meant to hurt anyone. He ate the peanut butter himself. He fed it to his children and to his grandchildren.”...

“Life in prison, especially in a food case, it's frankly unprecedented,” said Marler, who has represented victims of food-borne illnesses for two decades. “But the case itself, on a factual basis, is unprecedented.” Marler said he suspects the judge and prosecutors will think carefully before deciding to pursue a life sentence for Parnell. Still, he said, even the possibility of such a stiff sentence sends a message to food companies....

Even if objections raised by Parnell's attorneys to the sentencing recommendation are denied, it's still possible the judge could impose a lighter sentence. Federal judges are required to consider recommendations based on complex sentencing guidelines, but they are not bound by them.

Parnell and his co-defendants were never charged with sickening or killing anybody. Instead prosecutors used the seven-week trial to lay out a paper trail of emails, lab results and billing records to show Parnell's company defrauded customers by using falsified test results to cover up lab screenings that showed batches of peanut butter contained salmonella. The tainted goods were shipped to Kellogg's and other food processors for use in products from snack crackers to pet food.

Prosecutors wrote that court officers “correctly calculated” Parnell's recommended sentence, but stopped short of saying whether they plan to ask the judge to impose a life sentence. A spokeswoman for the Justice Department in Washington, Nicole Navas, declined to comment.

Prosecutors’ legal briefs also noted stiff sentences were recommended for Parnell's two co-defendants. Punishment of 17 to 21 years in prison was recommended for Parnell's brother, food broker Michael Parnell, who was convicted on fewer counts. The recommendation for Mary Wilkerson, the Georgia plant's quality control manager, was eight to 10 years. She was convicted of obstruction of justice.

July 31, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, July 30, 2015

What accounts for decline in federal white-collar prosecutions (and should we care)?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new data report from Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), which is titled "Federal White Collar Crime Prosecutions At 20-Year Low." Here are some details from the start of the report:

Federal prosecution of individuals identified by the government as white collar criminals is at its lowest level in the last twenty years, according to the latest data from the Justice Department.

The available records show an overall decline that began during the Clinton Administration, with a steady downward trend — except for a three-year jump early in the Obama years — continuing into the current fiscal year.

During the first nine months of FY 2015, the government brought 5,173 white collar crime prosecutions. If the monthly number of these kinds of cases continues at the same pace until the end of the current fiscal year on September 30, the total will be only 6,897 such matters — down by more than one third (36.8%) from levels seen two decades ago — despite the rise in population and economic activity in the nation during this period.

The projected FY 2015 total is 12.3 percent less than the previous year, and 29.1 percent down from five years ago. These counts are based on tens of thousands of case-by-case records obtained from the Executive Office for United States Attorneys (EOUSA) under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).

The decline in federal white collar crime prosecutions does not necessarily indicate there has been a decline in white collar crime. Rather, it may reflect shifting enforcement policies by each of the administrations and the various agencies, the changing availabilities of essential staff and congressionally mandated alterations in the laws.

White collar crimes — as defined by the EOUSA — involve a wide range of activities including the violation of health care, tax, securities, bankruptcy, antitrust, federal procurement and other laws. Because such enforcement by state and local agencies for these crimes sometimes is erratic or nonexistent, the declining role of the federal government could be of great significance.

July 30, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Recent capital developments prompts query: "Is the death penalty dead in Washington?"

The question and quote in the title of this post is from the headline of this new notable local article reporting on a notable new death penalty developments in Washington state.  Here are the details:

Some believe prosecutor Dan Satterberg's announcement Wednesday will have far reaching implications. "Today I am announcing my decision to with withdraw the notice of intent to seek the death penalty in the case of the State vs. Michele Anderson.

"These sorts of the decisions reverberate all over the state," said criminal defense attorney Todd Maybrown.

Maybrown believes Wednesday's announcement about Anderson, along with the jury's decision to spare Joseph McEnroe's life for the Carnation killings, and another jury who last week sentenced cop killer Christopher Monfort to life in prison, point to a turning of a tide.

"There have been many points along the way here when it seemed clear that the time has come that we as a community say we don't need the death penalty," Maybrown said. "We get no benefit from the death penalty, and resources are so scarce that we have to be more thoughtful."

"I pretty much reject the 'It's too expensive argument,'" said Snohomish County Prosecutor Mark Roe. "The reason I reject it is because the same people who are making (the argument) are the same people who are pursuing a strategy to make it expensive."

Roe is reluctant to generalize about the death penalty because every case is different. Out of more than 30 aggravated murder cases, he was in favor of seeking the death penalty on only three of them. "I think what it really shows is prosecutors and jurors in the state of Washington are really careful. And thoughtful about when they seek the death penalty and jurors, and when they vote to carry it out," Roe said.

July 30, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Based on Alleyne, Michigan Supreme Court declares its state guidelines unconstitutional and now advisory

As reported in this local press article, "the Michigan Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the state’s sentencing guidelines that mandate prison terms are unconstitutional, and that judges should use them only in an advisory capacity." Here are excerpts from the state of the majority opinion in Michigan v. Lockridge, No. 149073 (Mich. July 29, 2015) (available here):

This case presents the question whether the Michigan sentencing guidelines violate a defendant’s Sixth Amendment fundamental right to a jury trial.  We conclude that the rule from Apprendi v New Jersey, 530 US 466; 120 S Ct 2348; 147 L Ed 2d 435 (2000), as extended by Alleyne v United States, 570 US ___; 133 S Ct 2151; 186 L Ed 2d 314 (2013), applies to Michigan’s sentencing guidelines and renders them constitutionally deficient. That deficiency is the extent to which the guidelines require judicial fact-finding beyond facts admitted by the defendant or found by the jury to score offense variables (OVs) that mandatorily increase the floor of the guidelines minimum sentence range, i.e. the “mandatory minimum” sentence under Alleyne.

To remedy the constitutional violation, we sever MCL 769.34(2) to the extent that it makes the sentencing guidelines range as scored on the basis of facts beyond those admitted by the defendant or found by the jury beyond a reasonable doubt mandatory.  We also strike down the requirement in MCL 769.34(3) that a sentencing court that departs from the applicable guidelines range must articulate a substantial and compelling reason for that departure.

Consistently with the remedy imposed by the United States Supreme Court in United States v Booker, 543 US 220, 233; 125 S Ct 738; 160 L Ed 2d 621 (2005), we hold that a guidelines minimum sentence range calculated in violation of Apprendi and Alleyne is advisory only and that sentences that depart from that threshold are to be reviewed by appellate courts for reasonableness.  Booker, 543 US at 264.  To preserve as much as possible the legislative intent in enacting the guidelines, however, we hold that a sentencing court must determine the applicable guidelines range and take it into account when imposing a sentence. Id.

Two of the seven Michigan Supreme Court Justices dissented from the majority opinion, and a lengthy dissent authored by Justice Markman ends this way:

I conclude that under the Sixth Amendment a criminal defendant is not entitled to a jury determination of facts necessary to establish his or her minimum parole eligibility date. Under Michigan’s sentencing system, the jury has the authority to render a defendant subject to the statutory maximum punishment, and the judge has no influence over this authority or any authority to usurp it.  The judge’s exercise of judgment in establishing a parole eligibility date does not infringe the authority of the jury and does not violate the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution.  Furthermore, Michigan’s indeterminate sentencing guidelines do not produce “mandatory minimum” criminal sentences, and because Alleyne only applies to facts that increase “mandatory minimum” sentences, Alleyne is inapplicable to our state’s guidelines.  Therefore, I conclude that Michigan’s sentencing system does not offend the Sixth Amendment and would therefore affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

July 29, 2015 in Blakely in the States, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Should Therapists Have to Report Patients Who Viewed Child Pornography?"

The quesion in the title of this post is the headline of this intriguing new piece from The Atlantic discussing an intriguing legal and policy issue developing in California.  The piece's subheadline highlights one reason the answer to the question should perhaps be no: "A new law meant to protect children could lead to fewer pedophiles getting treatment before acting on their sexual impulses." Here is an excerpt:

Under a California law that went into effect at the beginning of this year, ... any real life therapist who learns that a patient has viewed child pornography of any kind would be required to report that information to authorities.  The requirement applies to adults who admit to having viewed explicit images of children.  And it even applies to teenage patients who tell their therapists about having viewed images sent to them by a peer engaged in sexting.

Over four decades, “California has expanded the scenarios under which therapists are legally required to break their clients' confidentiality and report to authorities a patient's criminal confessions or threats to hurt someone else,” the L.A. Times reports. “Requirements include disclosing confidential information if patients are an imminent danger to themselves or others; if a patient is a child who is the victim of a crime and reporting is in the best interests of the patient; and if the therapist learns that a child is the victim of neglect or abuse or is in imminent danger.”

Under the old standards, therapists also had to report patients who “knowingly developed, duplicated, printed or exchanged child pornography,” the article notes. “But the statute did not mention viewing or downloading material from the Internet.”

Sean Hoffman, who works for a group that represents Golden State district attorneys, told the newspaper that the law can help police to identify people who view child pornography and create a massive market for material produced through the abuse and exploitation.  “If we don't know about it,” he said, “we can't prosecute it."  The effect would ostensibly be fewer victims of an abhorrent industry.

But it seems to me that this new standard is likelier to make California more dangerous for children, an unintended consequence some therapists are warning against in a lawsuit they’ve filed in hopes of forcing a return to the previous standard.

July 29, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19)

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

"Can a Public Defender Really Handle 700 Cases a Year?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this Mother Jones piece, which carries this subheadline: "A new ACLU lawsuit takes on a California county where 60 public defenders work 42,000 cases every year." Here is how the piece starts:

After being charged with burglary in 2013, Peter Yepez waited in the Fresno County, California, jail for a month before his assigned public defender came to talk to him.  This delay was a sign of what was to come: Between arraignment and sentencing Yepez spent more than a year being shuffled between nine different Fresno County public defenders, who he says told him they did not have time to work his case.  By then he'd missed his daughter's graduation and his young son's memorial service, and had fallen into depression.

Though he was originally accused of a domestic burglary, during those many months prosecutors added additional charges to his case, alleging that a victim had been present during burglary even though a police report filed at the time of the crime had claimed no one was there.  The new allegations would bump his original charge to a violent felony. Still, Yepez's public defender advised to him to accept all the charges and the punishment that would come — and so he did.  Now Yepez's record reflects a felony conviction.

Today Yepez is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed recently by the American Civil Liberties Union. The lawsuit, intended to expose the deficiencies in Fresno County's public defense system was filed against Fresno (a county in which close to a quarter of the population lives below the federal poverty line), the state of California, and its governor, Jerry Brown, for  systematic issues that the  ACLU claims led to thousands of poor defendants to be denied their constitutional right to adequate representation.  All of this, the ACLU says, has perpetuated greater racial inequalities in the criminal-justice system.

According to the ACLU's complaint:

  • With an annual caseload of 42,000 and fewer than 100 people on staff, the Fresno County Public Defender's Office is unable to keep up.

  • The American Bar Association and the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals recommends caseload caps at 150 felony cases or 400 misdemeanor cases per full time attorney.  But the 60 public defenders on Fresno's staff carry caseloads of more than four times that amount.

  • The county's public defenders office has high turnover rates — 50 attorneys quit between 2010 and 2014 — and new hires are often inexperienced.

  • Minorities make up about 70 percent of those arrested in Fresno.  The ACLU claims that immigrants are often instructed to plead guilty without being told how it might affect their immigration status.

July 28, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, July 27, 2015

"On the Argument That Execution Protocol Reform is Biomedical Research"

The title of this is the title of this notable and timely new piece by Paul Litton now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Regardless of whether the Supreme Court rightly upheld Oklahoma’s execution protocol in Glossip, Oklahoma officials had inadequate reason to choose midazolam as the anesthetizing agent in its procedure.  Their decision is one example illustrating Seema Shah’s point that death penalty states are engaged in “poorly designed experimentation that is not based on evidence.”  Shah argues that “an important factor” causing the high rate of botched executions is that lethal injection reform is a type of human subjects research that is going unregulated.  Shah argues that research requirements, such as informed consent and IRB review, are necessary to render the research permissible.

Part I of this essay grants Shah’s conclusion that death penalty states are engaged in human subjects research.  However, it argues that if protocol reform amounts to research, it is unethical for lacking social value, even if capital punishment is justified. The purpose of this “research” is to make executions palatable to the public and, thereby, maintain support for the death penalty.  (Its purpose is not to find a painless means of killing; we already have that knowledge).  However, the state disrespects its citizens by attempting to influence public opinion by a means that has nothing to do with reasons to support its policies.

Part II provides reasons to doubt that the law and ethics of research should govern protocol reform.  Contrary to Shah’s hopes, the application of the law and ethics of research to executions will not help ensure less suffering for the condemned.  Finally, Part III argues that describing lethal injection reform as human subjects research fails to add moral or legal reasons to condemn the way in which states have conducted recent executions.  The basic problem is not that protocols represent “poorly designed experimentation,” but rather that they are poorly designed.

July 27, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Could brain implants "make the death penalty obsolete"?

The technocorrections question in the title of this post is drawn from this intriguing Motherboard article authored by futurist Zoltan Istvan, headlined "How Brain Implants (and Other Technology) Could Make the Death Penalty Obsolete."  For those who believe (as I do) that technology could well become the most important (and mist disruptive) force in how we look at crime and punishment, this full piece is a must-read (and I am very grateful to the reader who sent this my way).  Here are excerpts:

The death penalty is one of America’s most contentious issues.  Critics complain that capital punishment is inhumane, pointing out how some executions have failed to quickly kill criminals (and instead tortured them).  Supporters of the death penalty fire back saying capital punishment deters violent crime in society and serves justice to wronged victims....

Regardless of the debate — which shows no signs of easing as we head into the 2016 elections — I think technology will change the entire conversation in the next 10 to 20 years, rendering many of the most potent issues obsolete.

For example, it’s likely we will have cranial implants in two decades time that will be able to send signals to our brains that manipulate our behaviors.  Those implants will be able to control out-of-control tempers and violent actions — and maybe even unsavory thoughts.  This type of tech raises the obvious question: Instead of killing someone who has committed a terrible crime, should we instead alter their brain and the way it functions to make them a better person?

Recently, the commercially available Thync device made headlines for being able to alter our moods.  Additionally, nearly a half million people already have implants in their heads, most to overcome deafness, but some to help with Alzheimer’s or epilepsy.  So the technology to change behavior and alter the brain isn’t science fiction.  The science, in some ways, is already here — and certainly poised to grow, especially with Obama’s $3 billion dollar BRAIN initiative, of which $70 million went to DARPA, partially for cranial implant research.

Some people may complain that implants are too invasive and extreme.  But similar outcomes — especially in altering criminal’s minds to better fit society’s goals — may be accomplished by genetic engineering, nanotechnology, or even super drugs.  In fact, many criminals are already given powerful drugs, which make them quite different that they might be without them.  After all, some people — including myself — believe much violent crime is a version of mental disease.

With so much scientific possibility on the near-term horizon of changing someone’s criminal behavior and attitudes, the real debate society may end up having soon is not whether to execute people, but whether society should advocate for cerebral reconditioning of criminals — in other words, a lobotomy.  Because I want to believe in the good of human beings, and I also think all human existence has some value, I’m on the lookout for ways to preserve life and maximize its usefulness in society.... 

Speaking of extreme surveillance — that rapidly growing field of technology also presents near-term alternatives for criminals on death row that might be considered sufficient punishment.  We could permanently track and monitor death row criminals. And we could have an ankle brace (or implant) that releases a powerful tranquilizer if violent behavior is reported or attempted.

Surveillance and tracking of criminals would be expensive to monitor, but perhaps in five to 10 years time basic computer recognition programs in charge of drones might be able to do the surveillance affordably.  In fact, it might be cheapest just to have a robot follow a violent criminal around all the time, another technology that also should be here in less than a decade’s time.  Violent criminals could, for example, only travel in driverless cars approved and monitored by local police, and they’d always be accompanied by some drone or robot caretaker.

Regardless, in the future, it’s going to be hard to do anything wrong anyway without being caught.  Satellites, street cameras, drones, and the public with their smartphone cameras (and in 20 years time their bionic eyes) will capture everything.  Simply put, physical crimes will be much harder to commit.  And if people knew they were going to be caught, crime would drop noticeably.  In fact, I surmise in the future, violent criminals will be caught far more frequently than now, especially if we have some type of trauma alert implant in people — a device that alerts authorities when someone’s brain is signaling great trouble or trauma (such as a victim of a mugging).

Inevitably, the future of crime will change because of technology.  Therefore, we should also consider changing our views on the death penalty.  The rehabilitation of criminals via coming radical technology, as well as my optimism for finding the good in people, has swayed me to gently come out publicly against the death penalty.

Whatever happens, we shouldn’t continue to spend billions of dollars of tax payer money to keep so many criminals in jail.  The US prison system costs four times the entire public education system in America.  To me, this financial fact is one of the greatest ongoing tragedies of American economics and society.  We should use science and technology to rehabilitate and make criminals contribute positively to American life — then they may not be criminals anymore, but citizens adding to a brighter future for all of us.

July 26, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

Saturday, July 25, 2015

"Federalism and Retroactivity in State Post-Conviction Proceedings"

The title of this post is the title of this notable article authored by Stephen R. McAllister appearing in the latest issue of The Green Bag. Here are excerpts from the introduction:

This article builds on an amicus brief I drafted for Kansas in Danforth v. Minnesota several years ago, and considers whether the federal retroactivity doctrines are binding on the states when it comes to the states’ own post-conviction proceedings.  The article does not take issue with the well-settled propositions that Supreme Court decisions issued before state criminal cases become “final” are binding on the states and their courts, and that the federal courts will apply Teague retroactivity principles in federal habeas proceedings.

My conclusion is that there is no federal constitutional bar to the states developing their own retroactivity doctrines for state postconviction proceedings, whether those doctrines are broader or stricter than a federal habeas counterpart such as Teague.  So long as state legislatures and state courts make that decision as a matter of state law, there is no federal constitutional principle at stake, and no federal interests are harmed.  That said, Montgomery v. Louisiana does not seem a proper case in which to decide the issue.

July 25, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thanks to death penalty, one of worst racist mass murderers gets one of best defense lawyers

Download (7)One aspect of the modern death penalty that always irks me is the all-too-common reality that some of the very worst-of-the-worst murderers often get the help of some of the very best-of-the-best defense lawyers (and almost always at taxpayer expense).  As I write this post, there are literally tens of thousands of federal drug prisoners desparate to get the help of any lawyer to help them prepare a decent clemency petition.  But, as this local article highlights, white supremacist mass murderer Dylann Roof now is going to be represented in federal court by one of the very best defense lawyer in nation:  

Legendary death penalty lawyer David Bruck, who has more than 35 years of experience in South Carolina and around the nation representing people accused of heinous killings, has been appointed lead defense lawyer for alleged white supremacist killer Dylann Roof, according to federal court records....

Roof, 21, of the Columbia area, is charged with killing nine African-Americans in June during a prayer meeting at a historic downtown Charleston church, “Mother” Emanuel AME. Evidence against him includes a purported confession, an alleged online manifesto in which he announced his intention to start a race war by going to Charleston and Internet photos on his alleged website of him and his gun.

A federal grand jury in Columbia indicted Roof on Wednesday on 12 counts of committing a hate crime against black victims, 12 counts of obstructing the exercise of religion and nine counts of the use of a firearm to commit murder....

Bruck, 66, has the kind of experience Roof needs, lawyers familiar with death penalty cases said Thursday. “He’s the total package, versed in the law and quick on his feet at trial. He never screams or yells — he’s a methodical, intentional kind of guy,” recalled Columbia attorney Dick Harpootlian, who as 5th Circuit prosecutor won a death penalty case over Bruck in a 1990s trial, only to lose to Bruck in oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in the same case.

Columbia defense attorney Jack Swerling, who has tried a dozen death penalty cases, said he has consulted Bruck on most of them.  “He’s my go-to guy,” said Swerling, known as one of South Carolina’s best criminal defense lawyers.  “He’s formidable, brilliant, and he is a passionate advocate against the death penalty.  He truly believes it’s not appropriate in any case.  That is his heart and soul.”

The Canadian-born Bruck, who graduated from the University of South Carolina law school and got his start defending S.C. death penalty cases in the early 1980s, helped win a life sentence in the nationally publicized 1995 case of child killer Susan Smith, now in state prison for drowning her children in a Union County lake.  He recently helped defend Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber who was sentenced to death in May....

But his record shows that few of his clients are acquitted by juries.  Instead, Bruck concentrates on either getting life sentences during the punishment phase of a capital case, or getting a death penalty overturned on appeal.  Over the years, Bruck has been involved in hundreds of death penalty cases across the country, either as a lawyer or adviser.

Since 2004, Bruck has been director of Washington & Lee University’s death penalty defense clinic, the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse.  Before that, Bruck practiced criminal law in South Carolina for 28 years, specializing in death penalty cases....

Most of the crimes Roof has been charged with in both state and federal arenas are death penalty eligible. However, a formal decision to seek the death penalty has not been announced by either state or federal prosecutors.  Death penalty cases are so complex that federal judges appoint defense lawyers knowledgeable in capital punishment law and trials well before a case has been formally declared a death penalty case.

“Judges don’t want to wait on the Justice Department,” said Columbia attorney Johnny Gasser who has prosecuted the only three federal death penalty cases in South Carolina’s modern era. “Judges want to go ahead ... to ensure that the accused is appointed the best legal representation possible.”

Of course, as critics of modern death penalty are right to highlight, not every capital defendant gets great (or even competent) defense representation. In fact, the sad reality in most state capital prosecutions is that poor representation has historically been much more common than top-flight lawyering. But, as we have now seen due to the mass murders committed by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Dylann Roof, when federal prosecutors get involved in a capital case, it is far more likely for some of the best lawyers in the country to be involved on the defense side. (This reality is one reason I quite seriously contend that capital punishment should be the (almost) exclusive province of federal prosecutors, and also a reason I half-jokingly suggest murderers should be sure to kill in a way that garners federal attention and triggers federal jurisdiction.)

July 25, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

Friday, July 24, 2015

Many notable passages in recent sentencing reform speech by DAG Yates

Images (5)Earlier this week in this post, I noted that US Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates has been saying a lot of interest and import in support of federal sentencing reform efforts.  Of particular note, DAG Yates on Wednesday delivered these significant remarks at the Bipartisan Summit on Fair Justice.  The full speech should be read by all those interested in federal sentencing reform debates, and these passages struck me as worth highlighting:

[I]t’s because I’m a prosecutor that I believe so strongly in criminal justice reform.  I have seen firsthand the impact that our current system and particularly our federal drug sentencing laws, can have on communities, families, the public fisc and public confidence in our criminal justice system.  And it’s because of that I believe that we can and we must do better....

I’ve been a prosecutor for 26 years.  I believe in holding people accountable when they violate the law and I believe that some people are dangerous and need to go to prison, sometimes for a very long time.  But our system of justice must be capable of distinguishing between the individual that threatens our safety and needs to be imprisoned, versus the individual for whom alternatives to incarceration better serve not only that individual, but also make our communities safer....

While the country’s population has grown by about a third since 1980, our federal prison population has grown by 800 percent, due in large part to the influx of drug defendants. And today, under the current sentencing regime, our mandatory minimum laws do not calibrate a defendant’s sentence to match the threat that he or she poses to our safety.  At its core, one of the basic problems with our mandatory minimum system is that it’s based almost exclusively on one factor — drug quantity.  And so we have a hard time distinguishing the cartel leader who needs to be in prison for a long time from the low level mope who doesn’t.  As a result, we have some defendants serving far more time in prison than necessary to punish and deter and instead, in the words of former Attorney General Holder, sometimes we warehouse and forget.  This comes with great costs.  Costs to operate our prison system, costs to our families and communities and costs to the public’s confidence in their system of justice.

From a dollars and cents standpoint, prisons and detention now account for roughly one-third of the department’s budget.  Every dollar that we spend incarcerating non-violent drug offenders is a dollar that we can’t spend investigating today’s emerging threats, from hackers to home-grown terrorists.  These costs are swallowing up funds that would otherwise be available for state and local law enforcement, victims of crime and prevention and reentry programs....

Some states have been great innovators in criminal justice reform.  I met just yesterday with the National District Attorneys Association and I learned of many programs, from drug courts to recidivism reduction programs going on across the country designed to shift from incarceration as the only answer to prevention as the first response.  And many states, red states and blue states, like Texas, Ohio, North Carolina and my home state of Georgia, faced with exploding prison costs, have enacted bold criminal justice reform not only reducing the size of their prison populations, but also and this is the important part, reducing crime rates as well.  In the 29 states that have enacted laws limiting mandatory minimum sentences, shifting funds from incarceration to prevention, virtually every state has experienced a reduction in violent crime as well.

Despite all of this, there are some who want to keep things as they are.  One of the most common concerns that I hear expressed about eliminating or reducing mandatory minimums is that long sentences for low level defendants is the only way to secure cooperation against the worst criminals.  Not only is this inconsistent with my personal experience as a prosecutor, it is inconsistent with the data we have gathered since the Department of Justice recalibrated our drug charging policy two years ago.  As I expect you know, under former Attorney General Holder’s smart on crime policy, prosecutors were directed not to charge mandatory minimums for lower level, non-violent drug offenders and our use of mandatory minimums decreased by 20 percent.  Although some feared that defendants would stop pleading guilty and stop cooperating, our experience has been just the opposite. In fact, defendants are pleading guilty at the same rates as they were before we instituted the new policy.  So the fear that not charging mandatory minimums would prevent us from being able to work our way up the chain just hasn’t been borne out....

I am here in part because I believe that sentencing reform will make prosecutors and law enforcement officers more effective, not less.  Our ability to do good in this world — to advocate for victims, to hold wrongdoers accountable, to seek justice in all its forms — depends on public confidence in the institutions we represent.  It’s based on a hard-earned reputation for fairness, impartiality and proportionality that has forever been the bedrock of our criminal justice system.

As prosecutors, it is our obligation to speak out against injustices and to correct them when we can.  That’s why the Department of Justice is so engaged on this issue and I why I look forward to working with members of both parties as we seek a more proportional system of justice. Our nation and its citizens deserve nothing less.

Related recent prior posts:

July 24, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Looking ahead to SCOTUS 2015 Term's sentencing cases on its criminal docket

Over at SCOTUSblog, Rory Little has this terrific new post highlighting that 11 of the 35 cases already on the Supreme Court's docket for its next Term involve criminal law cases. Here is an except from the start of this post, along with the description of a few of the coming SCOTUS cases that have at least one sentencing fan especially revved up:

Eleven of the cases in which review has already been granted for the next Term are criminal-law or related (under my generous standards).  The Eighth Amendment portends to be a particular focus: four cases involve the death penalty, and a fifth involves juvenile life without parole.  The other interesting note is that, so far, not a single case granted for next Term involves the Fourth Amendment.  I can’t recall a prior Term where that was true at the end of the prior Term.

 Finally, five of the eleven cases in which review has been granted are from state supreme courts, suggesting that at least some of the Justices realize that waiting for a criminal case to come to them via a later federal habeas petition can obscure the legal question presented, due to the highly deferential standards now embodied in the federal habeas statute, 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (the 1996 AEDPA amendments).

Here are brief descriptions of the criminal-law questions presented in the cases granted so far:

1. Hurst v. Florida:  Whether Florida’s death sentencing scheme, which permits a judge to find aggravating factors to impose death (and which does not require a jury to determine mental disability or to be unanimous in their findings or sentence) violates the Sixth Amendment or the Eighth Amendment in light of Ring v. Arizona.  (Florida Supreme Court)...

3. Montgomery v. Louisiana:  Whether Miller v. Alabama, which prohibits mandatory life without parole for juveniles convicted of homicide, applies retroactively. (Louisiana Supreme Court)

4 & 5.  Kansas v. Carr (along with another case with the same caption but a different case number) and Kansas v. Gleason:  (1) Whether the Eighth Amendment requires that a capital-sentencing jury be affirmatively instructed that mitigating circumstances “need not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” as the Kansas Supreme Court ruled; and (2) whether the trial court’s decision not to sever co-defendants for sentencing in a capital case violates an Eighth Amendment right to “individualized sentencing.”  (Kansas Supreme Court)....

8. Lockhart v. United States:  Whether 18 U.S.C. § 2252(b)(2), requires a mandatory minimum ten-year prison term for a defendant convicted of possessing child pornography if he “has a prior conviction … under the laws of any State relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward,” is triggered by a prior conviction under a state law relating to “aggravated sexual abuse” or “sexual abuse,” even though the conviction did not “involv[e] a minor or ward.” (Second Circuit)

July 24, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Do gubernatorial moratoria on executions impact securing of death sentences?

The question in the title of this post is raised by the start of the capital phase of the death penalty trial of Aurora theater shooter James Holmes and is discussed in this interesting Los Angeles Times article.  The article is headlined "Death penalty is sought against James Holmes, but governor stands in the way," and here are excerpts:

When the jury found James E. Holmes guilty, Marcus Weaver cried. For his friend Rebecca Wingo, who died beside him in the Aurora, Colo., multiplex. For the dozens of victims in the 2012 rampage during a midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises." For the families of the dead and wounded. Then he cautioned that last week's verdict "is just a stepping stone" on the path to justice.

The next step, Weaver hoped, would be the death penalty. But even if the jury decides to sentence Holmes to death in the penalty phase of his trial, which begins Wednesday, there are some questions about whether the sentence will be imposed. In the time since the Aurora shooting case got underway, Gov. John Hickenlooper has made it his policy that no one in Colorado will be executed as long as he is in office....

Juries across the U.S. continue to hand down death sentences, and prosecutors continue to seek them. But the effective moratorium in Colorado — no capital punishment can be carried out unless the governor signs the death warrant — is part of a political retreat that is gaining momentum. The number of U.S. executions has dropped dramatically since 1999, along with the number of death sentences handed down by juries.

Governors in four states, including Hickenlooper, have declared that they will not sign death warrants during their terms, citing the uneven way the punishment is carried out. This year, for the first time since these policies were adopted in Oregon, Colorado, Washington and Pennsylvania, major capital trials are taking place in two of those states that are testing juries' willingness to carry out the ultimate punishment. "What's the role of these reprieves? I don't think there's an independent effect, but it's part of an overall drift away from the death penalty," said Michael Radelet, a University of Colorado sociology professor who has studied the punishment for 35 years.

Although a gubernatorial moratorium will undoubtedly spur debate about a critically important issue, death penalty critics worry that the policies ultimately could end up changing nothing. Once the governors leave office, their replacements could decide to go back to signing death warrants. Anyone whose execution was on hold could again be sent to the death chamber....

In Washington state, 15 months after Gov. Jay Inslee imposed a death penalty moratorium, a Seattle jury in May refused to sentence Joseph McEnroe to death for killing six of his then-girlfriend's relatives on Christmas Eve 2007. The victims spanned three generations of Michele Anderson's family, including a 5-year-old girl and her 3-year-old brother. Anderson, also charged in the killings, goes on trial in September.

The Holmes case is the first death penalty trial in Colorado since Hickenlooper announced in 2013 that he would grant an "indefinite reprieve" to Nathan Dunlap, who killed four people at a suburban Denver Chuck E. Cheese's pizza restaurant in 1993 and was sentenced to death three years later.

The reprieve was granted as Dunlap's execution date neared and will last as long as the Democrat remains in office. Hickenlooper, who campaigned in 2010 as a death penalty supporter, has since said he is against capital punishment.

The political pushback was swift. Moments after the governor announced Dunlap's reprieve from the rotunda of the Capitol in Denver, Arapahoe County Dist. Atty. George Brauchler denounced Hickenlooper from the Capitol steps. Brauchler called Dunlap's execution "a no-brainer," according to the Denver Post, and said the governor refused "to make any hard decision today.... This is inaction. This is shrugging. This is not justice."

Brauchler is the same district attorney who said he would seek the death penalty against Holmes. He also turned down Holmes' offer to plead guilty in exchange for life in prison without a chance of parole, and he is leading the prosecution case against the gunman.

Still, a sitting governor's ability to veto a death penalty appears to be absolute in Colorado. And though many argue that such moratoriums are political posturing with no lasting effect, others say such gubernatorial declarations are a force for change.

"I think it's impactful when the governor of your state says your state should never be involved in killing anyone," said Craig Silverman, a former Denver chief deputy district attorney. "However, in the Holmes case we have jurors who are all death qualified, meaning they have committed to following Colorado law, which includes capital punishment, but we have a governor who is not."

July 22, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

DAG Yates: "our thinking has evolved on [drug sentencing], it’s time that our legislation evolved as well."

Download (6)I have noticed lots of good crime and punishment reporting at BuzzFeed lately, and this new lengthy piece discussing an interview with US Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates is the lastest must-read. It is headlined "Justice Department: You Don’t Need Mandatory Prison Sentences To Put The Right Drug Criminals In Jail," and here are excerpts:

The central argument against the sweeping changes to the war on drugs proposed by the Obama administration and others goes like this: If you take away stringent mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, prosecutors can no longer use the fear of prison to flip drug criminals. If they can’t flip drug criminals, they can’t go after more powerful and dangerous drug criminals. And if they can’t go after those criminals, they can’t hope to make a dent in the illegal drug trade.

This was the governing principle of the prosecutors fighting the war on drugs for decades. Just a year or so ago, under the direction of former Attorney General Eric Holder, prosecutors changed the way they charged some drug criminals, avoiding charges carrying mandatory minimums when possible. Some prosecutors worried they’d lose their ability to net the biggest fish.

Sally Quinlan Yates, a career federal prosecutor now leading Obama administration efforts to reduce or eliminate mandatory minimum drug sentences on Capitol Hill, says the old system was all wrong, and she can prove it. “There were some out there who were saying, and I understand this, ‘We’ll never get another defendant to cooperate with us, they’re not going to plead guilty, they’re not going to cooperate with us. We’ve lost our leverage, we won’t be able to work our way up the ladder,’” Yates, the deputy attorney general, told BuzzFeed News. “But that’s turned out just not to be true. In fact, the rate of guilty pleas has stayed exactly the same as it was prior to our new mandatory minimum policy and in fact the rate of cooperation is the same or has gone up slightly.”

Yates has been saying for years that mandatory minimums — which don’t apply in the vast majority of cases federal prosecutors coerce cooperation from all the time — aren’t necessary to put high-level drug offenders behind bars. Now she’s overseeing the process by which prosecutors move away from mandatory minimums, and she’s one of the leading advocates in the administration push to eliminate mandatory minimums altogether in most cases.

It’s a fundamental change to the way prosecutors think about their work when it comes to drug cases. Getting convictions without relying on mandatory minimums is a key legacy of Holder’s term as Attorney General, and now it’s a central part of Yates’ argument to lawmakers that it’s time to change the nation’s sentencing laws.

As real momentum builds on Capitol Hill to rewrite sentencing laws with the goal of refocusing prosecution and lowering the prison population — an issue of prime importance President Obama in the final months of his presidency — Yates is among the top administration aides helping the process along on Capitol Hill. She meets regularly with the members of the Senate in both parties attempting to hash out a bipartisan criminal justice compromise they can pass before the end of the year.

As that effort continues, Yates will continue to be among the most prominent administration faces pushing the Obama team position. On Wednesday, she’ll speak at a bipartisan criminal justice policy summit that organizers hope will solidify momentum and help keep the ball rolling in Congress.

Yates has drawn the praise of advocacy groups who say she’s able to connect with Republicans in a way the Justice Department often wasn’t able to when Holder was in charge, due in part to GOP rhetoric that cast Holder as the biggest villain in the Obama administration. Criminal justice is a top policy goal for Holder’s successor, Loretta Lynch, and Yates also works closely with top department officials to help push unilateral changes to prosecution procedure set down by first by Holder and now by Lynch. She also spends a lot of time talking to working prosecutors, the group that has expressed the greatest skepticism toward the sweeping changes pushed by criminal justice advocates and the administration.

“People get used to doing things a certain way. You ask folks to do something differently, there’s naturally some discomfort with that among certain prosecutors, I think,” she said. “So change is hard.” Yates knows how to speak their language. On paper, she is basically the prototypical tough-as-nails federal prosecutor....

Changes implemented by Holder as part of his smart on crime iniative — which guided prosecutors away from throwing the book at low-level nonviolent drug offenses — led to a reduction in prosecutions.  Yates is now in charge of implementing the new approach. She says most prosecutors welcome the changes, but Obama’s recent round of clemencies for nonviolent offenders sentenced under the old rules put into perspective how much of a culture change is still under way at the Justice Department.

“There are cases now that I see when I review clemency petitions and I see cases that were charged under different statutes, different laws at the time, and different policies [at the Justice Department] that certainly trouble me from a fairness perspective,” she said. “The prosecutors who were involved, they were following the department policies that were in place at the time. And so I’m not suggesting they were doing anything improper or unethical. But our thinking has evolved on this. And it’s time that our legislation evolved as well.”

Yates says prosecutors are open to changes, and she’s got the statistics to keep pushing those who are still skeptical. In the end she thinks the Justice Department will be continue to make the changes it can to the way the war on drugs is fought even if Congress can’t.

For Yates, the movement is a personal one. “At the risk of sounding really corny now, I’m a career prosecutor. I’ve been doing this for a very long time. And I believe in holding people responsible when they violate the law,” she said. “But our sole responsibility is to seek justice. And sometimes that means a very lengthy sentence, for people how are dangerous and from which society must be protected. But it always means seeking a proportional sentence. And that’s what this sentencing reform is really about.”

UPDATE: The speech that DAG Yates delivered today on these topics is available at this link. I will likely highlight a few notable passages in a later post.

July 22, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tough-on-crime crowd making the case for modern mass incarceration

The folks who blog at Crime & Consequences are among the most effective and eloquent advocates for the modern size, scope and operation of the American criminal justice system, and they have been especially active of late lamenting the ever-growing number of politicians calling the current system broken and urging reduced reliance on incarceration.   Here are links to just some of the major posts in this vein from C&C in the last few weeks (some of which link to others criticizing sentencing reform efforts):

July 22, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Eighth Circuit rejects "safe sex" special condition of supervised release

Thanks to a number of kind readers, I received lots of notice of an Eighth Circuit opinion today that understandably has already received lots of attention.  These excerpts from US v. Harris, No. 14-2269 (8th Cir. July 21, 2015) (available here), highlights why: 

At sentencing, the district court determined that Harris was an armed career criminal under 18 U.S.C. § 924(e), and sentenced him to the statutory minimum of 180 months’ imprisonment. The court, on its own initiative, also imposed a novel special condition of supervised release that “there be no unprotected sex activities without probation office approval during the period of supervised release.”  In a later written order and judgment, the court attempted to modify the special condition to say that Harris “shall use contraceptives before engaging in sexual activity that may otherwise cause pregnancy unless such use would violate his religious scruples or is expressly rejected by his sexual partner.” ...

The district court observed that Harris had fathered ten children out of wedlock with seven different women and declared that Harris’s conduct was “creating a very serious social problem” that was “more serious than a lot of the things that we do deal with on conditions ofsupervised release.”  During the hearing, the court again raised a “social problem of apparently a great deal of unprotected sex.”...

[T]he special condition as pronounced is even broader than the novel restriction on fathering children that the court seemed to contemplate during the hearing.  By restricting “unprotected sex activities,” without limitation, the condition purports to regulate conduct that could not result in pregnancy.  The condition is not even reasonably related to the purposes that motivated the condition.

The special condition also is not reasonably related to the statutory factors set forth in § 3583(d).  As in United States v. Smith, 972 F.2d 960 (8th Cir. 1992), where this court set aside a special condition attempting to regulate a defendant’s fathering of children while on supervised release, the condition here is not related to the nature and circumstances of Harris’s offense.  The court did not find that Harris’s sexual activity was related to his unlawful possession of a firearm.  Nor did the district court explain how restrictions on Harris’s sexual activity would deter Harris from future criminal conduct, protect the public from future crimes by Harris, or assist in Harris’s training, medical care, or correctional treatment.  For similar reasons, the condition impermissibly involves a greater deprivation of liberty than is reasonably necessary to afford adequate deterrence, protect the public from future crimes, and provide the defendant with needed training, care, or treatment. As in Smith, the district court sought to address a perceived social problem that does not have the required nexus to factors that guide sentencing in a federal criminal case.

We conclude that the district court exceeded its authority under § 3583(d) when it imposed the special condition of supervised release at sentencing.

July 21, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Sentencing the Wolf of Wall Street: From Leniency to Uncertainty"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now available via SSRN authored by Lucian Dervan. Here is the abstract:

This Symposium Article, based on a presentation given by Professor Dervan at the 2014 Wayne Law Review Symposium entitled "Sentencing White Collar Defendants: How Much is Enough," examines the Jordan Belfort (“Wolf of Wall Street”) prosecution as a vehicle for analyzing sentencing in major white-collar criminal cases from the 1980s until today.

In Part II, the Article examines the Belfort case and his relatively lenient prison sentence for engaging in a major fraud.  This section goes on to examine additional cases from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s to consider the results of reforms aimed at “getting tough” on white-collar offenders.  In concluding this initial examination, the Article discusses three observed trends.  First, today, as might be expected, it appears there are much longer sentences for major white-collar offenders as compared to the 1980s and 1990s.  Second, today, there also appears to be greater uncertainty and inconsistency regarding the sentences received by major white-collar offenders when compared with sentences from the 1980s and 1990s.  Third, there appear to have been much smaller sentencing increases for less significant and more common white-collar offenders over this same period of time.

In Part III, the Article examines some of the possible reasons for these observed trends, including amendments to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, increased statutory maximums, and judicial discretion.  In concluding, the Article offers some observations regarding what the perceived uncertainty and inconsistency in sentencing major white-collar offenders today might indicate about white-collar sentencing more broadly.  In considering this issue, the Article also briefly examines recent amendments adopted by the U.S. Sentencing Commission and proposed reforms to white-collar sentencing offered by the American Bar Association. 

July 21, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Intriguing federal civil rights case assailing New York sex offender family restrictions

A helpful reader altered me to this fascinating story, headlined "Bronx Dad's Case Tests Restrictions on Sex Offenders," concerning a fascinating federal court case being litigating in New York. Here are the basic details via the press account (with links):

With a name resembling a kindergartner's alphabet primer, the lawsuit ABC v. DEF takes on far more insidious themes -- namely the parental rights of a Bronx man who spent eight years in prison for raping his ex's teenage niece.     

A federal judge issued an order in the case last week that could earn that man unspecified financial compensation from New York state.  Three law professors interviewed by Courthouse News say they have never heard a sex offender case quite like it.

Though the case was unsealed last year, a pseudonym still shields the name of the 50-year-old plaintiff.  The docket meanwhile evinces a powerful support network for his cause, including dozens of family members and friends who wrote to the court on his behalf.  Doe's attorney, Debevoise & Plimpton partner Michael Mukasey, is a former U.S. attorney general.

It's been 10 years since a jury found that Doe committed second-degree rape and other offenses against his ex-wife's niece, who accused him of assaulting her when she lived with the family between the ages of 13 and 14.  The jury acquitted Doe of the first-degree charges, and he is appealing the counts for which he was convicted, maintaining that he is innocent.

While still behind bars, Doe and his wife divorced, and he remarried another woman he had known for 25 years.  They had a child, "M.S.," shortly before Doe successfully completed his sex-offender and substance-abuse rehabilitation programs in the fall of 2012.  Since Doe requires permission to contact anyone under the age of 18, parole officers ordered him away from his new home -- and into a homeless shelter -- when his son turned 1 month old.

A Bronx Family Court already allowed the father of six to have unsupervised visits with his teenage daughter, and social workers saw no danger with his raising a newborn son.

Doe's accuser, now in her mid-20s, complained to a parole officer about his ability to rebuild his life. "Why should he live happy and comfortable when he took something from [me] that [I] can't get back?" she asked them, according to court papers.

After this conversation, a Manhattan bureau chief of New York State's parole division ordered Doe away from his new family in a one-paragraph directive stating that the "victim's perspective is always important." Bureau Chief Joseph Lima officer noted in his decision that Doe's crimes "occurred within the family constellation and in some instances while other family members were present in the residence."

Doe's attorney Mukasey noted in a legal brief that all four of their client's adult children wrote letters to the court on behalf of their father. "He has a close relationship with his five oldest children, who range in age from 14 to 27," the brief states. "Mr. Doe has never been accused of neglecting or abusing any of these children; to the contrary, they speak fondly of their relationship with him and his importance in their lives. Mr. Doe desperately wants to establish an equally loving bond with his one-year-old son, plaintiff M.S."...

Neither Mukasey nor his co-counsel would respond to press inquiries. Their amended complaint sought a court order reuniting the family, plus unspecified monetary damages for deprivation of Doe's rights to due process and intimate association. U.S. District Judge Paul Engelmeyer pushed the case forward to discovery Wednesday, in a 36-page opinion and order.

Since parole officers can impose "several dozens" of conditions on the lives of registered sex offenders, Engelmeyer said their expansive powers must face a check. "In addition to the power to decide whether Doe may have contact with any person under age 18, a parole officer has the authority to grant or deny permission for Doe to own a camera, computer, scanner, or cell phone; possess 'any children's products' or photos of minors; rent a post office box; obtain a driver's license; 'rent, operate or be a passenger in any vehicle'; travel outside of New York City; visit an arcade, bowling alley, beach, or swimming pool; or have visitors at his approved residence," the opinion notes.

Refusing to grant immunity, Engelmeyer wrote "there are sound reasons not to give parole officers discretion, unreviewable in a subsequent court action, over so many aspects of a parolee's life." His ruling allows Doe's claims against six DOCCS officials to advance to discovery. In a phone interview, Georgetown University Law professor Abbe Smith called the decision a "terrific development."

"If you commit a crime, and you're punished, you should be allowed to serve your debt to society and then move on," said Smith, who co-directs the university's Criminal Defense and Prisoner Advocacy Clinic. "[The Bronx father] has a newborn son. I can't imagine on what basis he could be deprived from having contact from his own child."  Smith added that she never heard of a case like this before because, "typically, parole officers have immunity," and the ruling emphasizes that they cannot have "limitless discretion."

David Rudovsky, a Penn Law School professor and founding partner of the Philadelphia-based firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg, LLP, called the case "significant" because it expands upon a Second Circuit case striking down restrictive probation terms involving relationships with close family members.  Unlike that case, however, the ruling in Doe's lawsuit "extended that doctrine to a damages claim against a parole officer," Rudovsky said in an email....

Florida State University professor Wayne Logan, an expert on sex-offender registries, said he had not heard of such a case either....  Smith, the Georgetown professor, said that she felt sympathy for the Doe's victim, but she said that criminal justice must "root for people to rebuild their lives."

"Marriage and making a family, becoming gainfully employed, those are all signs that a person has abandoned their lawless ways," she said.

July 21, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, July 20, 2015

Local coverage of compelling realities to be at heart of Aurora shooter penalty phase

Not suprisingly, the Denver Post now has especially fullsome coverage of the key issues to surround the upcoming penalty phase following the capital conviction of James Holmes last week.  Here are two pieces (and their extended headlined) that caught my eye:

July 20, 2015 in Celebrity sentencings, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Trustworthiness of Inmate’s Face May Sway Sentencing"

The title of this post is the headline of this helpful summary of an interesting new study from the journal Psychological Science.  Here are highlights of the summary:

How trustworthy an inmate’s face appears to others seems to play a very large role in the severity of the sentence he receives, according to new research published in the journal Psychological Science.

The study shows that inmates whose faces were rated as low in trustworthiness by independent observers were more likely to have received the death sentence than inmates whose faces were seen as more trustworthy, even when the inmates were later cleared of the crime.

The findings reveal just how powerful appearances can be in guiding judgment and decision making, influencing outcomes in situations that are literally a matter of life and death.

“The American justice system is built on the idea that it is blind to all but the objective facts, as exemplified by the great lengths we go to make sure that jurors enter the courts unbiased and are protected from outside influences during their service. Of course, this ideal does not always match reality,” said Drs. John Paul Wilson and Nicholas Rule, psychological scientists at the University of Toronto and co-authors on the study. “Here, we’ve shown that facial biases unfortunately leak into what should be the most reflective and careful decision that juries and judges can make — whether to execute someone.”

Previous studies have confirmed a bias against faces perceived as untrustworthy, but much of the these have relied on study participants contemplating criminal verdicts hypothetically. For the new study, the researchers wanted to know whether this bias extended beyond the lab to a very real, and consequential, decision: whether to sentence someone to life in prison or to death.

The researchers used the photos of 371 male inmates on death row in Florida; 226 of the inmates were white, 145 were black, and all were convicted of first-degree murder. They converted the photos to gray to minimize any variations in the images and asked an online panel of 208 American adults to look at the photos and rate them on trustworthiness using a scale from one (not at all trustworthy) to eight (very trustworthy). The participants also evaluated photos of age- and race-matched inmates who had also been convicted of first-degree murder but received a sentence of life in prison instead of death. The raters did not know what sentence an inmate had received, or even that the photos were of inmates at all.

The findings showed that inmates who had received the death sentence tended to be perceived as less trustworthy than those sentenced to life in prison; in fact, the less trustworthy a face was deemed, the more likely it was that the inmate received the death sentence. This connection remained even after the researchers took various other factors into account, such as facial maturity, attractiveness, and the width-to-height ratio of the face.

Importantly, the inmates in the two groups had committed crimes that were technically equally severe, and neither sentence would have allowed for the inmates to return to society — as such, the motivation to protect society could not explain the harsher punishments consistently given to the less trustworthy-looking inmates. “Any effect of facial trustworthiness, then, seems like it would have to come from a premium in wanting to punish people who simply look less trustworthy,” the researchers said.

Even further, a follow-up study showed that the connection between perceived trustworthiness and sentencing emerged even when participants rated photos of inmates who had been sentenced but who were actually innocent and later exonerated. “This finding shows that these effects aren’t just due to more odious criminals advertising their malice through their faces but, rather, suggests that these really are biases that might mislead people independent of any potential kernels of truth,” said Wilson and Rule.

The published study is available here, and its actual title is "Facial Trustworthiness Predicts Extreme Criminal-Sentencing Outcomes."

July 20, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, July 17, 2015

Previewing the penalty phase after James Holmes found guilty on all charges

This article, headlined "After the guilty verdict: What happens next in theater shooting case to decide James Holmes' fate?," provides a preview of what will define the penalty phase for the Colorado mass shooter after his conviction on multiple murder counts on Thursday. Here are the basics:

Now that the gunman has been found guilty on all 165 counts, the court is preparing to move to the part of the trial where a sentence will be determined. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for James Holmes, who on Thursday was found guilty of murdering 12 people, injuring 70 others and assembling incendiary booby-traps inside his Aurora apartment....

In the first portion of the penalty process, the prosecution must prove to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the crimes included at least one statutory aggravating factor. There are several such factors in Colorado, but these are the ones that might apply to this case:

  • The defendant committed the offense in an especially heinous, cruel, or depraved manner
  • In the commission of the offense, the defendant knowingly created a grave risk of death to another person in addition to the victim of the offense
  • The defendant intentionally killed a child who has not yet attained twelve
  • The defendant unlawfully and intentionally, knowingly, or with universal malice manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life generally, killed two or more persons during the commission of the same criminal episode

Based on the defense team's statements in court Thursday evening, that phase of the case is only expected to last a few hours but the jury does have to deliberate and agree to move on.

If they do move to the next phase, jurors will be asked to hear mitigating factors presented by the defense. At this point, they're likely to hear from family and friends of the convicted shooter who could testify about his life. They are also likely to present information about his mental illness. Mitigating factors under Colorado law that could be included in this case are:

  • The defendant's capacity to appreciate wrongfulness of the defendant's conduct or to conform the defendant's conduct to the requirements of law was significantly impaired, but not so impaired as to constitute a defense to prosecution
  • The defendant was under unusual and substantial duress, although not such duress as to constitute a defense to prosecution; or
  • The emotional state of the defendant at the time the crime was committed
  • The absence of any significant prior conviction
  • The extent of the defendant's cooperation with law enforcement officers or agencies and with the office of the prosecuting district attorney
  • The good faith, although mistaken, belief by the defendant that circumstances existed which constituted a moral justification for the defendant's conduct
  • The defendant is not a continuing threat to society
  • Any other evidence which in the court's opinion bears on the question of mitigation.

After hearing those presentations, the jury needs to deliberate again to decide if the mitigating factors outweigh the aggravating factors. If they do, the case will move to the third phase.

In that third and final phase, the jury will be asked to judge the defendant's character against his crime. They need to decide if the prosecution has proven beyond a reasonable doubt if the death penalty is the appropriate penalty.

If at any point in the process the jury decides not to move to the next phase, the gunman would be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.  Also, the vote must be unanimous to deliver a death sentence.

July 17, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Lots of justified attention for Judge Alex Kozinski's new article, "Criminal Law 2.0"

Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski can gather the attention of lawyers and law professors for lots of reasons.  He is doing so these days because of his authorship of this provocative preface to the Georgetown Law Journal's 44th Annual Review of Criminal Procedure.

The piece is a must-read for everyone interested in criminal justice and criminal justice reform, and bloggers at Above the Law and at The Volokh Conspiracy are doing us the favor of highlighting especially interesting passages. Here are links to the bloggy Kozinski coverage so far:

12 reasons to worry about our criminal justice system, from a prominent conservative federal judge

Why Judges and Prosecutors Don’t Care If They’re Right

Kozinski On Juries, Sentencing, and Justice

Judge Kozinski on juries

July 16, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Highlighting significant disparities in DUI homicide sentences in Florida

The Miami Herald has this interesting new article highlighting big differences in sentences handed out in Florida when a drunk driver kills.  The piece is headlined "A Florida DUI death conviction means prison — but for how long varies widely," and here are excerpts:

At 20, Kayla Mendoza tweeted “2 drunk 2 care” before killing two young women in a drunk-driving crash. She tearfully admitted guilt, but, faced with angry relatives of the dead, a Broward judge slammed her with a 24-year prison term.

Days later, a longtime alcoholic named Antonio Lawrence, 57, faced a Miami-Dade judge for plowing into a Liberty City restaurant while driving drunk, killing two church elders. Relatives offered earnest forgiveness. Lawrence got 10 years.

Downstairs on the very same day, in a courtroom with zero television news cameras, Edna Jean-Pierre, 27, took responsibility for killing one person in a DUI crash, then killing another in a hit-and-run crash — while out on bail in the first case. A Miami-Dade judge, Dennis Murphy, sentenced her to four years in prison....

There is a four-year mandatory minimum for a DUI manslaughter conviction in Florida, but as these recent cases show, prison terms vary widely from cases to case and, a Miami Herald data analysis shows, from county to county.

In over 400 fatality cases resolved in Florida since 2012, the statewide average sentence for DUI manslaughter is just under 10 years behind bars, according to a Herald analysis of prison records. Miami-Dade by far had the most cases in that time span, 66, and among the lightest average sentences with convicts serving an average of just over 6 years in prison. In Broward’s 27 cases, defendants in that time span are serving just under 10 years. “Broward has both a reputation and a reality of being harsher than Miami-Dade,” said Miami defense attorney David Weinstein....

Legal experts say the the reasons for the disparity in sentences are complex. Outcomes are swayed by a host of factors: the strength of evidence, the skill of defense attorneys, circumstances of a crash, a defendant’s criminal history, media glare and the desires of a victim’s loved ones. “Victims drive to a good degree what the sentence outcome will be,” said Miami attorney Rick Freedman. “Victims who are not active, not engaged with the state attorney’s office, are going to see a lower number in the sentencing.”...

The four-year minimum mandatory term is a recent addition to the law, added in 2007 over concerns about judges being too soft on drunk drivers who kill. Known as the “Adam Arnold Act,” the law was named after a Key West teen who died in a crash in 1996, a case in which the driver got only three years of probation.

Drivers convicted in fatal hit-and-run crashes — whether alcohol is detected or not — now also face a minimum of four years in prison. Lawmakers in 2014 passed the law, named after Miami cyclist Aaron Cohen, whose death spurred outrage after a Key Biscayne man got only two years behind bars for killing Cohen in the hit-and-run wreck.

Drunk drivers who kill rarely escape at least some prison time, and prosecutors can waive the minimum four years mandatory — like in a highly criticized 2009 case in Miami Beach involving a pro football player. Donte’ Stallworth, who played for five NFL teams, got 30 days in jail and a lengthy probation for killing a pedestrian crossing the MacArthur Causeway. For prosecutors, there was no guarantee of victory at trial — the victim, Mario Reyes, was not in a crosswalk that dark morning. The decision to support the lighter sentence hinged on Reyes’ relatives, who pushed for the deal and also received an undisclosed settlement from Stallworth.

Forgiveness from families can make a difference. In Lawrence’s case, he met with families of the two church elders killed in the crash, became heavily involved helping recovering alcoholics and even surrendered to jail early before pleading guilty. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Diane Ward gave him 10 years, by no means a slap on the wrist, but much less than the 34 years he faced had he been convicted at trial.

“You’re dealing with people who are not criminals, not people who went to harm others,” said Assistant State Attorney David I. Gilbert, who oversees traffic homicide cases. “They are average citizens who have made a very serious mistake. Different judges deal with different cases in different ways.” The emotional reaction of relatives also can clash, with some urging leniency and others calling for heavy punishment, Gilbert said.

July 16, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (7)

"From a First Arrest to a Life Sentence"

Sharanda-1mThe title of this post is the headline of this new Washington Post article, which carries the subheadline "Clemency is the only way out for the thousands of nonviolent drug offenders serving life terms in federal prison." Here are excerpts from the start of the lengthy piece, as well as some details of the profiled LWOP defendant's case:

Sharanda Jones — prisoner 33177-077 — struggled to describe the moment in 1999 when a federal judge sentenced her to life in prison after her conviction on a single cocaine offense.  She was a first-time, nonviolent offender.

“I was numb,” Jones said in an interview at the Carswell women’s prison here. “I was thinking about my baby.  I thought it can’t be real life in prison.” Jones, who will turn 48 next week, is one of tens of thousands of inmates who received harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses during the crack-cocaine epidemic, and whose cases are drawing new attention....

Because of her role as a middle woman between a cocaine buyer and supplier, Jones was accused of being part of a “drug conspiracy” and should have known that the powder would be converted to crack — triggering a greater penalty.

Her sentence was then made even more severe with a punishment tool introduced at the height of the drug war that allowed judges in certain cases to “enhance” sentences — or make them longer.  Jones was hit with a barrage of “enhancements.”

Her license for a concealed weapon amounted to carrying a gun “in furtherance of a drug conspiracy.”  Enhancement.

When she was convicted on one count of seven, prosecutors said her testimony in her defense had been false and therefore an “obstruction of justice.”  Enhancement.

Although she was neither the supplier nor the buyer, prosecutors described her as a leader in a drug ring.  Enhancement.

By the end, Jones’s sentencing had so many that the federal judge had only one punishment option.  With no possibility of parole in the federal system, she was, in effect, sentenced to die in prison.

Jones almost certainly would not receive such a sentence today.  Federal sentencing guidelines in similar drug cases have changed, in particular to end disparities in how the courts treat crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine.  And, following a 2005 Supreme Court decision, judges have much greater discretion when they mete out punishment.  In the past decade, they gave lower sentences by an average of one-third the guideline range, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

But a lingering legacy of the crack epidemic are inmates such as Jones.  About 100,000 federal inmates — or nearly half — are serving time for drug offenses, among them thousands of nonviolent offenders sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.  Most are poor, and four in five are African American or Hispanic.

In the spring of 2014, then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. — who had called mandatory minimum sentences “draconian” — started an initiative to grant clemency to certain nonviolent drug offenders in federal prison.  They had to have served at least 10 years of their sentence, have no significant criminal history, and no connection to gangs, cartels or organized crime.  They must have demonstrated good conduct in prison.  And they also must be inmates who probably would have received a “substantially lower sentence” if convicted of the same offense today.

Jones applied. It has been a halting process, however.  Only 89 prisoners of the more than 35,000 who have filed applications have been freed.  They include 46 inmates who were granted clemency on Monday by Obama.  Jones wasn’t among them....

On Aug. 26, 1999 — after days of testimony about drug deals by people nicknamed “Weasel,” “Spider,” “Baby Jack” and “Kilo,” and a dramatic moment when Jones’s quadriplegic mother was wheeled into the courtroom — the jury acquitted Jones of all six charges of possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine and aiding and abetting.  But they found her guilty of one count of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine.

Although no drugs were ever found, U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis determined that Jones was responsible for the distribution of 30 kilograms of cocaine.  He arrived at that number based on the testimony of the co-conspirators — the couple who received sentences of seven and eight years, and the Houston dealer, who got 19.5 years.  All have since been released.

The judge determined that Jones knew or should have known that the powder was going to be “rocked up” — or converted to crack.  Using a government formula, the prosecutor said that the 30 kilograms of powder was equal to 13.39 kilograms of crack cocaine.  He then added 10.528 kilograms of crack cocaine that the prosecutors said had been distributed in Terrell and was linked to Jones’s brother.  (The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit affirmed the conviction, but said there was “barely” any evidence of Jones’s connection to the crack distributed in Terrell.)

The judge’s calculation made Jones accountable for 23.92 kilograms of crack.  That, added to the gun and obstruction enhancements, as well as Jones’s role as an “organizer,” sealed her sentence under federal rules that assign numbers to offenses and enhancements.  The final number — 46 — dictated the sentence, leaving the judge no discretion.

“Under the guidelines, that sets a life sentence, mandatory life sentence,” Solis said at a hearing in November 1999.  “So, Ms. Jones, it will be the judgment of the court that you be sentenced to the custody of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons for a term of life imprisonment.” Solis declined to be interviewed. Said McMurrey: “In light of the law and the guidelines and what the court heard during the trial, I know Judge Solis followed the law. He’s a very fair man.”

The sentencing scheme that sent Jones to prison has been widely denounced by lawmakers from both political parties.  And sentences have been greatly reduced for drug offenses. But the differing approaches over time have led to striking disparities.

One illustration: The Justice Department announced last month that one of Colombia’s most notorious drug traffickers and a senior paramilitary leader will serve about 15 years in prison for leading an international drug trafficking conspiracy that imported more than 100,000 kilograms of cocaine into the United States.

The jurors who found Jones guilty were never told about the life sentence, which came months after the trial.  Several of them, when contacted by The Washington Post, were dismayed. “Life in prison? My God, that is too harsh,” said James J. Siwinski, a retired worker for a glass company.  “That is too severe.  There’s people killing people and getting less time than that.  She wasn’t an angel.  But enough is enough already.”

July 16, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)