Sunday, April 26, 2015

Arguments against death penalty abolition prevail in great Intelligence Squared debate

DownloadI have long been a fan of the Intelligence Squared debate series, which I often hear on my local NPR station (and which too often leads me to stay in my car longer than I had intended).  I was especially excited when I learned that the series was finally going to focus on the death penalty.  The live debate took place earlier this month, and this NPR link provides access to the 50-minute audio recording, as well as this account of the event (with my emphasis added):

The death penalty is legal in more than 30 states, but the long-controversial practice has come under renewed scrutiny after a series of botched executions in several states last year.

Opponents of capital punishment argue that the death penalty undermines the fair administration of justice, as wealth, geography, race and quality of legal representation all come into play, with uneven results.

But proponents of the death penalty believe capital punishment serves a moral and social purpose in American society. They argue that while the administration of the penalty is not perfect, improvements can be made in the justice system to address some opponents' concerns without doing away with the punishment altogether. Some people deserve to die, they say, for committing certain types of crime.

Two teams faced off over these questions in the latest event from Intelligence Squared U.S., debating the motion, "Abolish The Death Penalty." In these Oxford-style debates, the team that sways the most people to its side by the end is the winner.

Before the debate, 49 percent of the audience at the Kaufman Music Center in New York voted in favor of the motion, while 17 percent were opposed and 34 percent were undecided. After the event, 54 percent agreed with the motion and 40 percent disagreed, making the team arguing against abolishing the death penalty the winners of the debate.

For The Motion

Diann Rust-Tierney became the executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty in 2004. With 30 years of experience in public policy and litigation advocacy, she manages the operations of NCADP and directs programs for the organization and its 100 affiliate organizations....

Barry Scheck is the co-founder and co-director, with Peter Neufeld, of the Innocence Project and a professor at the Cardozo School of Law. Known for landmark litigation that has set standards for forensic applications of DNA technology, he and Neufeld have shaped the course of case law nationwide, leading to an influential study by the National Academy of Sciences, as well as important state and federal legislation....

Against The Motion

Robert Blecker is a professor at New York Law School, a nationally known expert on the death penalty and the subject of the documentary Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead. After a brief stint prosecuting corruption as a New York special assistant attorney general, he joined New York Law School, where he teaches constitutional history and criminal law, and co-teaches death penalty jurisprudence with leading opponents....

Kent Scheidegger has been the legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation since 1986. A nonprofit, public interest law organization, CJLF's purpose is to assure that people who are guilty of committing crimes receive swift and certain punishment in an orderly and constitutional manner. Scheidegger has written over 150 briefs in U.S. Supreme Court cases....

I think it is fair to assert that both sides in this debate had a "dream team" arguing, and I also think it is very notable that an audience in New York City by its votes determined, essentially, that arguments against abolition of the death penalty are more compelling than argument for abolition. For that reason (and many others), anyone interested in the death penalty should find 50 minutes to listen to this terrific IS debate.

April 26, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Is there a "growing movement against death penalty – on the right"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new press article with this full headline: "Nebraska highlights growing movement against death penalty – on the right: Seventeen Republican lawmakers seek abolition of capital punishment in the state as Christians, conservatives and libertarians band together for change." Here are excerpts:

A growing coalition of Christian, fiscally conservative and libertarian lawmakers are pushing to repeal the death penalty in some of America’s reddest states. And after years of working against state-sponsored executions, historically a Democratic platform, some conservatives say they believe the efforts are gaining traction.

The push for reform was on full display last week in Nebraska, as 17 Republican lawmakers in the one-house legislature advocated for passage of abolition bill LB268. “I know many of you, when you went door to door, you said to the constituent you talked to: ‘You send me to Lincoln, [Nebraska,] and when I get down there I’m going to find government programs that don’t work, and I’m going to get rid of them,’” Senator Colby Coash told fellow lawmakers. “And that’s exactly what LB268 does … We can get justice without this method.”

The bill passed its first hurdle with a 30 to 12 vote in favor of repeal, potentially enough to override Republican governor Pete Ricketts’ veto threat. Two more successful votes are needed to send the bill to the governor’s desk, and there is strong opposition, including filibuster threats, to overcome. Still, conservative advocates said they believe it is one of the most promising developments in decades.

“We’re probably in the best position we’ve been in since the bill passed in 1979,” said Stacy Anderson, the conservative executive director of Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, about the last time the state’s legislature passed an abolition bill. “From the conservative standpoint, the death penalty fails on all of our core values.”...

Republicans are still the most likely group to support capital punishment, with 77% in support of the death penalty. Still, conservative activists point to the 10% decrease in Republican support over 20 years, growing support for life without parole as an alternative to the death penalty, and the issue’s low priority ranking among voters.

The most widely cited reasons for opposing the death penalty seem in line with some of the most fervent strains of American Republicanism: fiscal conservatism, pro-life principles and small government ideals. And with increasing scrutiny on states that continue to execute prisoners despite a shortage of lethal injection drugs, the issue appears poised to continue to attract attention.

“It’s a government program that risks innocent life, costs more than the alternative, and is certainly not about limited government,” said Marc Hyden, an outreach specialist with Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. “When I’m first speaking, I think conservatives give me kind of a weird look,” said Hyden. “But about halfway through the presentation, it starts clicking with them – that this is a program that just doesn’t mesh with conservative ideals.”

The campaign has seen growing interest in red states such as Georgia, Kentucky, Kansas and Tennessee, both Hyden and abolitionists said.

In Montana, a fiercely conservative state, a death penalty abolition bill made it out of the House judiciary committee for the first time perhaps ever, according to death penalty abolition advocates there. “I was shocked,” Moore told the Missoulian. “I didn’t expect it to come out of committee.” At the time that the bill passed to the floor, a stunned Moore described it as having “a tiger by the tail”. The abolition bill failed in a vote on the house floor, but many see its progress out of the judiciary committee as nothing short of stunning. “We were very excited,” said Jennifer Kirby about the bill’s progress. “It’s about time.”

April 22, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, April 20, 2015

Anyone have predictions for the penalty phase of the Boston Marathon bombing trial?

As highlighted by this new AP article, headlined "Bombing trial enters penalty phase amid life or death debate,"the real legal intrigue surrounding the capital trial of the Boston Marathon bombing is about to begin:

The guilt phase of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's trial was considered a slam dunk for prosecutors, especially after his lawyers bluntly admitted during opening statements that he participated in the deadly 2013 attack. But the outcome of the next phase of the trial is much more difficult to predict. The same jury must decide whether Tsarnaev, 21, should be put to death or spend the rest of his life in prison. The penalty phase begins Tuesday in U.S. District Court.

Debate over whether Tsarnaev should get the death penalty intensified recently after the parents of Martin Richard, an 8-year-old boy who was killed in the bombings, urged federal authorities to consider taking death off the table in exchange for Tsarnaev spending the rest of his life in prison and giving up his rights to appeal....

A married couple who lost limbs in the attack also asked the U.S. Justice Department not to pursue the death penalty. "If there is anyone who deserves the ultimate punishment, it is the defendant. However, we must overcome the impulse for vengeance," Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes said in a statement to the Globe Sunday....

Others have said they favor the death penalty for Tsarnaev. Liz Norden, whose two adult sons each lost a leg in the bombings, said nothing short of execution is warranted. "He destroyed so many families that day," she said. "I want the ultimate justice."

Legal experts differ on whether the pleas from victims will persuade the federal government to drop its bid for the death penalty. "If the Justice Department seriously takes into consideration the feelings of the family members in this case, they have every justification to take death off the table," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

But New York Law School professor Robert Blecker said the Justice Department has to consider the larger question of denouncing terrorism. "They'll go forward with it. It will not change the decision. Denunciation is a legitimate purpose," Blecker said....

During the penalty phase, the defense will continue to portray Tsarnaev's brother, Tamerlan, 26, as a domineering follower of radical Islam who convinced his then 19-year-old brother that America had to be punished for its wars in Muslim countries. Tamerlan died four days after the bombings when he was shot during a firefight with police and run over by Dzhokhar during a getaway attempt.

Prosecutors are expected to emphasize the brutality of the bombings by calling more survivors to testify. During the first phase, several survivors testified about devastating injuries, including lost limbs....

If even one juror votes against the death penalty, Tsarnaev will get a life sentence.

April 20, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

"Local Cook County Prosecutors To Focus On Treatment Over Prison For Small-Time Drug Cases"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable local news story emerging today from Chicago.  Here are the details:

Cook County prosecutors were set to announce major changes in how they prosecute low-level drug cases, including sending more nonviolent drug offenders to treatment, rather than prison.

State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez was scheduled to announce reforms to how her office handles minor drug cases, including dismissal of all future misdemeanor marijuana cases. The move also is expected to cover how prosecutors handle cases involving small amounts of other drugs; including ecstasy, cocaine, and heroin. The program would be focused on defendants with less than three arrests or citations for misdemeanor drug charges.

The announcement comes on April 20, also known as “4-20” day, in reference to a term used by marijuana smokers as slang for “lighting up,” but officials said the timing of the announcement and the date were only coincidental.

Alvarez was expected to detail the new drug prosecution strategy Monday morning, as part of an effort to keep nonviolent repeat drug offenders out of jail, and instead treat such cases as a public health issue. A spokeswoman for Alvarez’s office said, defendants currently facing a Class 4 felony drug possession charge could be sentenced to up to 3 years in prison, and a $25,000 fine. Her proposed changes to drug prosecutions would mean those same defendants would be sent to treatment programs instead of prison.

The move could free up prosecutor and law enforcement resources. In Cook County, such Class 4 felony drug cases made up 25 percent of all felony prosecutions last year. It was not immediately clear when the reforms would go into effect, but the changes would not affect pending cases already in the system.

April 20, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Intricate federal criminal law statutory questions on SCOTUS docket this week

Most casual Supreme Court fans are surely looking ahead to next week's oral arguments in the same-sex-marriage and lethal injection cases.  But this week brings two other exciting and intricate cases before SCOTUS for federal criminal justice fans, as these SCOTUSblog brief summarizes reveal: 

Johnson v. US, No. 13-7120: Whether mere possession of a short-barreled shotgun should be treated as a violent felony under the Armed Career Criminal Act [and whether ACCA's residual clause is unconstitutionally vague].

McFadden v. US, No. 14-378: Whether, to convict a defendant of distribution of a controlled substance analogue -- a substance with a chemical structure that is “substantially similar" to a schedule I or II drug and has a “substantially similar” effect on the user (or is believed or represented by the defendant to have such a similar effect) -- the government must prove that the defendant knew that the substance constituted a controlled substance analogue, as held by the Second, Seventh, and Eighth Circuits, but rejected by the Fourth and Fifth Circuits.

Regular readers know that the Johnson case is getting a second argument this week after SCOTUS asked the parties to brief the constitutional issue it raised on its own after the first oral argument. And helpful Rory Little via SCOTUSblog provides these informative new posts with more on what can be expected in this week's arguments:

In addition, Garrett Epps has this extended new Atlantic piece discussing both Johnson and McFadden headlined "Too Vague to Be Constitutional: Two indecipherable criminal laws passed in the 1980s now face scrutiny at the Supreme Court."

April 20, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

"Database Infamia: Exit from the Sex Offender Registries"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Wayne Logan available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Since originating in the early-mid 1990s, sex offender registration and community notification laws have swept the country, now affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals. The laws require that individuals provide, update and at least annually verify personal identifying information, which governments make publicly available via the Internet and other means.  Typically retrospective in their reach, and sweeping in their breadth, the laws can target individuals for their lifetimes, imposing multiple hardships.

This symposium contribution surveys the extent to which states now afford registrants an opportunity to secure relief from registration and community notification and examines the important legal and policy ramifications of the limited exit options made available.

April 15, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

"Trending Now: The Use of Social Media Websites in Public Shaming Punishments"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new piece authored by Lauren Michelle Goldman now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This Note proposes that a social media shaming sanction might be an effective addition to the menu of public shaming punishments the judiciary already offers.  Section II of this Note lays the foundation of shaming punishments in America, giving an overview of their history and development.  Section III discusses the Ninth Circuit’s recent decision in Gementera, in which the court upheld a modern-day public shaming punishment, as well as other select cases that have upheld public shaming punishments that involve print media.

Section IV outlines the current scholarly debate surrounding the use of public shaming punishments.  Section V gives an overview of the presence of social media and Internet usage in today’s society, discusses a new trend among parents in which parents have begun to utilize social media to punish their children, and evaluates public shaming punishments via social media websites from the vantage point of various criminal law theories.  Finally, Section VI advocates for the inclusion of online social media public shaming punishments into the judiciary’s already expansive list of sentencing options, but with some limitations and guidelines.

April 15, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Interesting recent Buckeye death penalty headlines (despite extended extended moratorium)

After Ohio Governor (and future GOP Prez candidate?) John Kasich and other executive officials put off all Ohio executions for the entire 2015 calendar year, I figured Ohio would not be make all that much death penalty news until at least 2016.  But, as these recent local headlines help highlight, an executive branch moratorium on executions does not stop others from taking about the death penalty in the Buckeye state:

April 14, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Senator Grassley again expresses interest in talking about federal criminal justice reform

Senator Charles Grassley is right now arguably the most significant and most important player in all on-going debates over federal sentencing and criminal justice reform.  As Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Grassley can (and seems eager to) block the advancement of any and every federal criminal justice reform bill that he does not personally favor.  

Consequently, even if the vast majority of Senators strongly support significant reforms to federal mandatory minimum sentencing provisions or to federal marijuana provisions, Senator Grassley can ensure— at least until 2017, and perhaps after that if the GOP retains control of the Senate — that federal reform bills do not even get a committee hearing, let alone a committee vote.   Indeed, even if the vast majority of 300 million Americans, and even if the vast majority of the 718,215 Iowans who voted for Senator Grassley in 2010, would strongly favor a reform bill, the bill is likely DOA if Senator Grassley himself is not keen on the bill's particulars.  Frustratingly, that is how our democracy now functions.

Bill Otis, whom I believe has Senator Grassley's ear and with whom he shares many sentencing views, predicted after the 2014 election that Senator Grassley's position as Judiciary Chair all but ensured that there would be almost no chance of significant federal sentencing reform until at least 2017.  But this new piece in Roll Call, headlined "Grassley Resistant to Criminal Justice Overhaul, but Says He’s Willing to Talk,"  provides at least of glimmer of hope that this old Senate dog might be open to some new sentencing tricks.  Here is an excerpt:

Grassley has made no bones about his passionate opposition to reducing mandatory minimum prison sentences, as proposed by Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois in the so-called Smarter Sentencing Act (S 1410). On the floor, Grassley has called rolling back such fixed sentences “dangerous,” “ill-conceived” and “indefensible.” Last year, he tried to gut a version of the bipartisan bill, which the Obama administration backs, with an amendment in committee.

Even so, Grassley told CQ Roll Call that he’s ready to start looking for common ground with the bill’s supporters. What’s been missing, he adds, is an invitation — from Obama, from the senators sponsoring the bill, from their staffs — from anyone willing to start a conversation. “First of all, nobody’s asked me even though for three months, including my speech last week, I said I would be glad to meet people about what we could possibly do because I’m open to some reform,” Grassley says.

Juvenile justice is among his top legislative priorities, and he has said he plans to co-sponsor a bill with Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse to reauthorize the 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. That law has not been reauthorized since 2002.

Grassley says he thinks there could be some reductions in mandatory minimums, but at the same time he wants to see increases in minimum sentences in other areas, such as child pornography and white-collar crime. He has also cited the need to prevent abuses in the forfeiture of civil assets, and to ensure that offenders receive fair representation. “It may just be time” to start criminal justice talks, Grassley says.

Long story short: anyone and everyone seriously interested in the passage of federal criminal justice reform anytime soon would be wise to invest considerable time and energy figuring out exactly what Senator Grassley is now willing to talk about.  Notably, as stressed in this prior post, Senator Grassley recently penned a strong commentary extolling the importance of transparency and accountability in the federal criminal justice system, and I urge advocates to highlight for Senator Grassley and others how statutory mandatory minimums and other laws that empower and enhance federal prosecutorial overreaches significantly undermine these important goals.

A few prior related recent posts:

April 14, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

'Cause all of me, loves all of you ... who are harmed by mass incarceration's imperfections

Images (1)The title of this post is my weak effort to merge John Legend's most popular song lyrics with his notable new campaign.  This AP story provides the details:

John Legend has launched a campaign to end mass incarceration. The Grammy-winning singer announced the multiyear initiative, FREE AMERICA, on Monday.  He will visit and perform at a correctional facility on Thursday in Austin, Texas, where he also will be part of a press conference with state legislators to discuss Texas' criminal justice system.

"We have a serious problem with incarceration in this country," Legend said in an interview.  "It's destroying families, it's destroying communities and we're the most incarcerated country in the world, and when you look deeper and look at the reasons we got to this place, we as a society made some choices politically and legislatively, culturally to deal with poverty, deal with mental illness in a certain way and that way usually involves using incarceration."

Legend, 36, will also visit a California state prison and co-host a criminal justice event with Politico in Washington, D.C., later this month.  The campaign will include help from other artists — to be announced — and organizations committed to ending mass incarceration.

"I'm just trying to create some more awareness to this issue and trying to make some real change legislatively," he said.  "And we're not the only ones. There are senators that are looking at this, like Rand Paul and Cory Booker, there are other nonprofits that are looking at this, and I just wanted to add my voice to that."

Legend's speech at the Academy Awards this year struck a chord when he spoke about mass incarceration.  He won the Oscar for best original song with rapper Common for "Glory" from the film "Selma."

The singer said an early victory for his campaign was the approval of Proposition 47 in California in November, which calls for treating shoplifting, forgery, fraud, petty theft and possession of small amounts of drugs — including cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines — as misdemeanors instead of felonies.  "Once you have that tag of a felony on your name, it's hard for you to do anything," Legend said. "Getting those reduced to misdemeanors really impacted a lot of lives and we hope to launch more initiatives like that around the country."

Perhaps "Weird Al" Yankovic or John Legend himself can pen a version of "All of Me" that could become the movement's theme song.

April 14, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

"Lex Mitior: Converse of Ex Post Facto and Window into Criminal Desert"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting and timely new piece on SSRN authored by Peter Westen. Here is the abstract:

In 2009 New Mexico prospectively repealed the death penalty. Three years later in 2012, New Mexico prosecuted a defendant for a capital murder that was committed before repeal, and it sought to subject him to the death penalty. If state prosecutors had prevailed with the jury, they would have secured the very kind of sentence — death — that state officials had been lauded in Europe for outlawing three years earlier.

A prosecution like New Mexico’s could never occur in Europe, and not merely because Europe has long outlawed the death penalty.  It could never occur because, in contrast to the law of most American jurisdictions, European states embrace a doctrine known as “lex mitior” (“the milder law”).  The latter doctrine is a counterpart to the ex post facto prohibition.  Both doctrines both concern retroactivity in criminal law, but they are the converse of one another.

The ex post facto doctrine prohibits retroactivity by prohibiting the state from prosecuting persons under criminal statutes that either retroactively criminalize conduct that was hitherto lawful or retroactively increase penalties for conduct that, while unlawful all along, was hitherto punishable less severely.  In contrast, lex mitior mandates retroactivity by mandating that criminal defendants receive the retroactive benefits of repealing statutes that either decriminalize conduct altogether or reduce punishments for it. After surveying laws in the United States regarding the retroactive effect of ameliorative repeals, the author addresses whether punishing offenders under harsher laws that obtained at the time of their conduct can serve consequentialist and/or retributive purposes of punishment.  He concludes that, although doing can be morally justified under limited circumstances, typically it is not — a conclusion that bears upon lex mitior’s proper scope, whether it consists of a binding norm (as it is among European nations), a nonconstitutional norm (as it presently is within the United States), or, when legislative intent is uncertain, a function of the rule of lenity.

April 14, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, April 13, 2015

Judge Jed Rakoff gives provocative speech on mass incarceration and the responsibility of lawyers and judges

A helpful reader alerted me to a notable speech (made available in full here by Bloomberg BNA) delivered by US District Judge Jed Rakoff as part of a Harvard Law School conference about lawyers' roles and responsibilities. Titled "Mass Incarceration and the 'Fourth Principle'," the full speech is a must read in full for all sentencing fans. Here are excerpts providing a taste of why:

I want to build my little talk around ... the responsibility of lawyers to help create a safe, fair, and just society even when legal issues, in the narrow sense, are not directly at stake.  I want to discuss that responsibility — which I will refer to here simply as the “Fourth Principle”— as it applies to lawyers and as it applies to judges...

Of course, even lawyers devoted to the Fourth Principle may have different views as to what societal issues are of such central concern that lawyers should feel a professional responsibility to speak out about them.  Nevertheless, I want to suggest one such issue, and I submit that it is one that is so deeply connected to the administration of law that [lawyers] would have no difficulty seeing it as an appropriate subject for bar association resolutions and the like: and that is the issue of mass incarceration in our country today.

But I should mention at the outset that the relative failure of organized bar associations and lawyers in general to speak out on this issue pales in comparison to the silence of the judges, who, I submit, have a special duty to be heard on this issue.  Indeed, the commentary to Canon Four of the Code of Conduct for United States judges expressly encourages federal judges to speak out on issues relating to the administration of justice in general and criminal justice in particular.  Yet, for too long, too many judges (including me) have been too quiet about an evil of which we are ourselves a part: the mass incarceration of people in the United States today.

The basic facts are not in dispute.  More than 2.2 million people are currently incarcerated in U.S. jails and prisons, a 500 percent increase over the past 40 years. Although the United States accounts for about 5 percent of the world’s population, it houses nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population.  The per capita incarceration rate in the U.S. is one-and-a-half times that of second-place Rwanda and third-place Russia, and more than six times the rate of neighboring Canada.  Another 4.8 million Americans are subject to the state supervision imposed by probation or parole....

And whom are we locking up?  Mostly young men of color.  Over 840,000, or nearly 40 percent, of the 2.2 million U.S. prisoners are young African-American males.  Put another way, one in nine African-American males between the ages of 20 and 34 is currently in prison, and, if current rates hold, one third of all black men will be imprisoned at some point in their lifetimes.  Another 440,000, or 20 percent, of the 2.2 million U.S. prisoners are Hispanic males.

This mass incarceration — which also includes about 800,000 white and Asian males, as well as over 100,000 women (the great majority of whom committed non-violent offenses) — is the product of statutes that were enacted, beginning in the 1970s, with the twin purposes of lowering crime rates in general and deterring the drug trade in particular.  These laws imposed mandatory minimum terms of imprisonment on many first offenders.  They propounded sentencing guidelines that initially mandated, and still recommend, substantial prison terms for many other offenders.  And they required life-time imprisonment for many recidivists.  These laws also substantially deprived judges of sentencing discretion and effectively guaranteed imprisonment for many offenders who would have previously received probation or deferred prosecution, or who would have been sent to drug treatment or mental health programs rather than prison.

The unavoidable question is whether these laws have succeeded in reducing crime. Certainly crime rates have come down substantially from the very high rates of the 1970s and 1980s that gave rise to these laws.  Overall, crime rates have been cut nearly in half since they reached their peak in 1991, and they are now at levels not seen in many decades.  A simple but powerful argument can be made that, by locking up for extended periods the people who are most likely to commit crimes, we have both incapacitated those who would otherwise be recidivists and deterred still others from committing crimes in the first place.

But is this true?  The honest answer is that we don’t know.  And it is this uncertainty that makes changing the status quo so difficult: for, the argument goes, why tamper with what seems to be working unless we know that it isn’t working?

There are some who claim that they do know the answer to whether our increased incarceration is the primary cause of the our decline in crime.  These are the sociologists, the economists, the statisticians, and others who assert that they have “scientifically” determined the answer.  But their answers are all over the place....

Put another way, the supposition on which our mass incarceration is premised — namely, that it materially reduces crime — is, at best, a hunch. Yet the price we pay for acting on this hunch is enormous.  This is true in the literal sense: it costs more than $80 billion a year to run our jails and prisons.  It is also true in the social sense: by locking up so many young men, most of them men of color, we contribute to the erosion of family and community life in ways that harm generations of children, while creating a future cadre of unemployable ex-cons, many of who have learned in prison how better to commit future crimes.  And it is even true in the symbolic sense: by locking up, sooner or later, one out of every three African-American males, we send a message that our society has no better cure for racial disparities than brute force....

But why, given the great decline in crime in the last quarter century, have most of the draconian laws that created these harsh norms not been repealed, or at least moderated?  Some observers, like Michelle Alexander in her influential book The New Jim Crow, assert that it is a case of thinly-disguised racism.  Others, mostly of an economic-determinist persuasion, claim that it is the result of the rise of a powerful private prison industry that has an economic stake in continuing mass incarceration.  Still others blame everything from a continuing reaction to the “excesses” of the ‘60s to the never-ending nature of the “war on drugs.”

While there may be something to each of these theories, a simpler explanation is that most Americans, having noticed that the crime-ridden environment of the 1970s and 1980s was only replaced by the much safer environment of today after tough sentencing laws went into force, are reluctant to tamper with the laws they believe made them safer.  They are not impressed with academic studies that question this belief, suspecting that the authors have their own axes to grind; and they are repelled by those who question their good faith, since they perceive nothing “racist” in wanting a crime-free environment.  Ironically, the one thing that might convince them that mass incarceration is not the solution to their safety would be if crime rates continued to decrease when incarceration rates were reduced.  But although this has in fact happened in a few places (most notably, New York City), in most communities people are not willing to take the chance of such an “experiment.”

This, then, is a classic case of members of the public relying on what they believe is “common sense” and being resentful of those who question their motives and dispute their intelligence.  What is called for in such circumstances is leadership: the capacity of those whom the public does respect to point out why statutes prescribing mandatory minimums, draconian guidelines, and the like are not the key to controlling crime, and why, in any case, the long-term price of mass incarceration is too high to pay, not just in economic terms, but also in terms of societal values.  Until quite recently, that leadership appeared to be missing in both the legislative and executive branches, since being labeled “soft on crime” was politically dangerous.  Recently, however, there has been some small signs of progress. For example, in 2013, Attorney General Holder finally did away with the decades-old requirement that federal prosecutors must charge offenders with those offenses carrying the highest prison terms.  And in the last Congress, a bill to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders was endorsed not only by the Department of Justice, but also by such prominent right-wing Republican Senators as Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. On the other hand, prosecutors still have discretion to charge offenders with the most serious offenses available, and they usually do. And the aforementioned bill to modify the applicability of mandatory minimum sentences never reached a vote.

As for the organized bar, the American Bar Association, to its great credit, has increasingly spoken out about the dangers of mass incarceration and, most recently, has created a Task Force on Overcriminalization to suggest alternatives . But no other bar association, so far as I am aware, has openly denounced mass incarceration, called for outright repeal of mandatory minimum laws, supported across-the-board reductions of statutory and guideline imprisonment levels, or otherwise taken the kind of forceful positions that would cause the public to sit up and notice.

And where in all this stands the judiciary?  In some ways, this should be our issue, not just because sentencing has historically been the prerogative of judges, but also because it is we who are forced to impose these sentences that many of us feel are unjust and counter-productive.  It is probably too much to ask state judges in the 37 states where judges are elected to adopt a stance that could be characterized as “soft on crime.” But what about the federal judiciary, protected by lifetime tenure from political retaliation and, according to most polls, generally well-regarded by the public as a whole?

On one issue — opposition to mandatory minimum laws — the federal judiciary has been consistent in its opposition and clear in its message. As stated in a September 2013 letter to Congress submitted by the Judicial Conference of the United States (the governing board of federal judges), “For 60 years, the Judicial Conference has consistently and vigorously opposed mandatory minimums and has supported measures for their repeal or to ameliorate their effects.”  But nowhere in the nine single-spaced pages that follow is any reference made to the evils of mass incarceration; and, indeed, most federal judges continue to be supportive of the federal sentencing guidelines....

Several brave federal district judges — such as Lynn Adelman of Wisconsin, Mark Bennett of Iowa, Paul Friedman of the District of Columbia, and Michael Ponsor of Massachusetts, as well as former federal judges Paul Cassell and Nancy Gertner — have for some time openly denounced the policy of mass incarceration.  More recently, a federal appellate judge, Gerard Lynch of New York, expressed his agreement (albeit in an academic article) that “The United States has a vastly overinflated system of incarceration that is excessively punitive, disproportionate in its impact on the poor and minorities, exceedingly expensive, and largely irrelevant to reducing predatory crime.”

Perhaps the most encouraging judicial statement was made just a few weeks ago, on March 23, 2015, when Justice Anthony Kennedy — the acknowledged centrist of the Supreme Court — told a House subcommittee considering the Court’s annual budget that “This idea of total incarceration just isn’t working,” adding that it many instances it would be wiser to assign offenders to probation or other supervised release programs.  To be sure, Justice Kennedy was quick to tie these views to cost reductions, avoidance of prison overcrowding, and reduced recidivism rates — all, as he said, “without reference to the human factor.”  Nor did he say one word about the racially disparate impact of mass incarceration.  Yet still, his willingness to confront publicly even some of the evils of mass incarceration should be an inspiration to all other judges so inclined.

In many respects, the people of the United States can be proud of the progress we have made over the past half-century in promoting racial equality.  More haltingly, we have also made some progress in our treatment of the poor and disadvantaged.  But the big, glaring exception to both these improvements is how we treat those guilty of crimes. Basically, we treat them like dirt.  And while this treatment is mandated by the legislature, it is we judges who mete it out.  Unless we judges make more effort to speak out against this inhumanity, how can we call ourselves instruments of justice?  We may be the Third Branch, but we have yet to learn the Fourth Principle.

April 13, 2015 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Sunday, April 12, 2015

"Defending the Jury: Crime, Community, and the Constitution"

9781107650930The title of this post is the title of this notable new book authored by Professor Laura Appleman. Here is a brief description of the book via the publisher's website:

This book sets forth a new approach to twenty-first-century criminal justice and punishment, one that fully involves the community, providing a better way to make our criminal process more transparent and inclusive.  Using the prism of the Sixth Amendment community jury trial, this book offers fresh and much-needed ways to incorporate the citizenry into the procedures of criminal justice, thereby resulting in greater investment and satisfaction in the system.  It exposes the various challenges the American criminal justice system faces because of its ongoing failure to integrate the community's voice. Ultimately, the people's right to participate in the criminal justice system through the criminal jury — a right that is all too often overlooked — is essential to truly legitimizing the criminal process and ensuring its democratic nature.

Slate provides a helpful discussion of the book in this piece titled "No Deal: Should prosecutors be forced to have their plea bargains approved by juries?". Here is how the Slate piece starts:

One of the most reliably shocking facts about the American justice system is that 97 percent of criminal convictions are the result of plea bargain negotiations — and that jury trials, which many people think of as our society’s primary vehicle for determining a defendant’s guilt or innocence, have become vanishingly rare.

Why are plea deals so common?  Because a guilty verdict at trial tends to result in a much longer prison sentence than what a defendant can get if he or she agrees to a plea agreement.  For many people, this means admitting guilt on some but not all of the charges brought against them and waiving their right to a jury trial in exchange for a shorter sentence.  In many cases, this is an irresistible option, especially because, as the late Harvard Law School professor William Stuntz explained in his landmark book, The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, the sheer number of laws on the books makes it possible for prosecutors to charge people with so many crimes that the risk of going to trial and being convicted of all of them — as opposed to copping to just one or two — carries an unfathomable penalty.

There’s no question that the plea bargaining process allows our criminal justice system to function more efficiently than it would otherwise.  But critics see it as a coercive end run around the rights of the accused — especially the poor, who can’t afford lawyers and must rely on overworked public defenders to represent them — as well as a tool for overzealous prosecutors who prioritize winning over seeing justice done.  One of these critics is Laura Appleman, a professor at the Willamette University College of Law, and in her new book, Defending the Jury: Crime, Community, and the Constitution, she proposes an intriguing and original solution to the plea bargaining problem: Instead of letting prosecutors and defense attorneys hammer out plea deals behind closed doors and then get them rubber-stamped by judges, we should introduce regular people into the process — by convening a “plea jury.”

April 12, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Terrific review of possible USSC fraud guideline amendments (and DOJ's foolish opposition)

As detailed in this official notice, the US Sentencing Commission has a public meeting scheduled for tomorrow, April 9, 2015, at 1:00 pm (which is to be live-streamed here). The big agenda item of note for the meeting is the "Vote to Promulgate Proposed Amendments," and the most consequential amendments being considered concerns proposals to tweak § 2B1.1, the key guideline for fraud cases and many other white-collar offenses.  

I doubt the actual USSC meeting will be a must-see event, though I have urged my sentencing students to tune in.  (I plan to watch the meeting live on my iPad while also keeping an eye on another notable on-going event in Augusta, Georgia.)  But I have a must-read for anyone interested in white-collar federal sentencing: this fantastic Jurist commentary by Prof Randall Eliason titled "The DOJ Opposition to the Proposed Sentencing Guideline Amendments: Fighting the Wrong Battles in Fraud Cases." The entire commentary is a must-read (with lots of great links) for all federal sentencing fans, and here are a few choice excerpts:

On March 12, 2015, the US Sentencing Commission held a public hearing on its annual proposed amendments to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. A number of the proposals concern the guideline for economic crimes and fraud cases, § 2B1.1. The amendments would reduce the recommended sentence in many such cases, particularly those involving large dollar amounts.

At the hearing the US Department of Justice opposed most of these amendments. DOJ argued that any move to reduce the sentences in fraud cases would be bad policy and would ignore the "overwhelming societal consensus" in favor of harsh punishment for these crimes.... But given the current realities of federal sentencing, DOJ is fighting the wrong battles....

At the March 12 hearing DOJ opposed the inflation adjustment; opposed the amendments concerning sophisticated means, intended loss, and fraud on the market; and supported the new enhancement based on causing victims substantial hardship. In other words, DOJ opposed virtually any amendment that could lead to lower sentences while supporting changes that could lead to higher ones. While this may seem predictable, I think it's a mistake.

DOJ was a lonely voice at the hearing and is definitely swimming against the tide by opposing the amendments. There is a widespread and growing belief that the sentences called for in major fraud cases have become excessive. More broadly, there is an emerging bipartisan movement in the country favoring criminal justice reform, including measures to reduce skyrocketing sentences (particularly for non-violent offenders) and our enormous prison population.

Law professor Frank Bowman provided some compelling hearing testimony tracing the history of the fraud guideline and demonstrating how various forces, both intentional and unintentional, have combined over the years to escalate the sentences in such cases dramatically. As he pointed out, given the large dollar values involved in some recent Wall Street frauds, it's relatively easy for a white-collar defendant to zoom to the top of the sentencing table and end up with a recommended sentence of 30 years or even life in prison—on a par with sentences recommended for homicide, treason, or a major armed bank robbery.

DOJ's resistance to virtually any amendment that might lead to lower sentences in economic crime cases appears short-sighted and runs the risk of looking reflexive. The Sentencing Commission has researched these questions for several years, gathering input from all stakeholders. The proposals seem reasonable and justified, and in fact are more modest than many had hoped.

It's hard to see what criminal justice purpose is being served by the escalating sentences in fraud cases. The prospect of prison does have a powerful and important deterrent effect that is unique to criminal law. But for a typical business executive it's hard to believe there's much additional marginal deterrent value in a possible twenty or twenty-five year sentence as opposed to, say, a fifteen year one.

But the more important fact is that legal developments have rendered DOJ's position in favor of higher guidelines sentences increasingly beside the point. It's been ten years since the Supreme Court ruled in US v. Booker that the mandatory sentencing guidelines were unconstitutional and the guidelines must be advisory only. Later in Kimbrough v. US the Court made it clear that a judge is free to depart from the recommended sentence if the judge disagrees with a policy decision underlying the guidelines.

In this legal environment, DOJ's push for higher guidelines looks like a struggle to keep the barn door closed when the horse left for greener pastures long ago. In the post- Booker/Kimbrough world, if judges believe a sentence called for by the guidelines is out of whack they will simply reduce it. For example, in the recent public corruption case involving former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell, the judge called the recommended guidelines sentence of six to eight years in prison "ridiculous" and proceeded to sentence McDonnell to only two years.

There's evidence that the same thing is already happening in fraud cases. According to the Sentencing Commission's data, judges sentence below the recommended guidelines range in about 21 percent of fraud cases (not counting those cases where the government itself requests a reduced sentence). But in the Southern District of New York, home to Wall Street and many of the big-dollar fraud cases, judges depart below the guidelines in a whopping 45.6 percent of such cases. It does no good for DOJ to continue to push for extremely high guidelines numbers only to have judges ignore the guidelines and impose the lower sentences that they feel are just and reasonable.

DOJ's approach is worse than futile, it's counter-productive. The more that judges come to regard the guidelines as calling for inappropriate sentences, the more comfortable they may become not following them. This could lead to more widespread departures from the guidelines not merely in fraud cases but in cases across the board, accelerating a deterioration in the force and influence of the guidelines that so far has been held relatively in check since Booker.

April 8, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

"What’s the right way to compensate someone for decades of lost freedom?"

The question in the title of this post is the subheadline of this new lengthy New Yorker article about the aftermath of wrongful convictions.  Here is an excerpt:

One of the earliest arguments for financial compensation for the wrongly incarcerated came in 1932, from the Yale law professor Edwin Borchard.  In an influential book called “Convicting the Innocent: Sixty-five Actual Errors of Criminal Justice,” Borchard wrote, “When it is discovered after conviction that the wrong man was condemned, the least the State can do to right this essentially irreparable injury is to reimburse the innocent victim, by an appropriate indemnity for the loss and damage suffered.”  He noted, “European countries have long recognized that such indemnity is a public obligation.”  But it would be many years before the United States began puzzling through what constituted an “appropriate indemnity.”  It wasn’t until the first DNA exoneration, in 1989, that most states began to seriously consider compensation.

There is still no consensus about the value of lost time.  Missouri gives exonerees fifty dollars a day for time served, California twice that much.  Massachusetts caps total compensation at half a million dollars.  In Maine, the limit is three hundred thousand; in Florida, it’s two million.  The variation is largely arbitrary.  “If there’s a logic to it, I haven’t seen it,” Robert J. Norris, a researcher at SUNY Albany who has studied compensation statutes, told me.  In Wisconsin, no matter how long an exoneree has served, the state will pay no more than twenty-five thousand dollars — the same figure that its legislators established in 1979.  “They just never changed it,” Norris said. “They even amended their statute in 1987, but they didn’t change the amount.”  Most states levy taxes on payment.  Twenty states have no compensation statutes at all.

Fifteen hundred and seventy-five people have been exonerated in the U.S.  The best off are those whom Brandon Garrett, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law who has written extensively on post-conviction litigation, describes as “the ones that win the tort lottery.”  These are exonerees who seek compensation through the courts, arguing that their fundamental civil rights were violated by the police or by prosecutors.  (The same legal principle is at issue in federal suits brought by people who have been shot by the police.)  In such cases, the potential damages are unlimited.  But the standard of proof is high.  “Police officers have qualified immunity,” Garrett told me.  “They can violate your constitutional rights — reasonably but not egregiously.”

April 7, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

"A Republican Governor Is Leading the Country's Most Successful Prison Reform"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new piece from The New Republic.  Here are excerpts:

During his second inaugural address this past January, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal shared the story of Sean Walker. After serving 12 years of a life sentence for murder, Walker was paroled in 2005 and began working in the governor’s mansion while in a state transitional center. At the time of Deal’s address, Walker was working for Goodwill as a banquet catering sales coordinator and was nominated for Goodwill International Employee of the Year. As of January, Walker was planning to take college courses with the hope of becoming a counselor.

Deal, who got to know Walker at the governor’s mansion, shared the story to underscore his own “message to those in our prison system and to their families: If you pay your dues to society, if you take advantage of the opportunities to better yourself, if you discipline yourself so that you can regain your freedom and live by the rules of society, you will be given the chance to reclaim your life.” He continued, “I intend for Georgia to continue leading the nation with meaningful justice reform.”

That last sentence could seem at best like optimism, and at worst like hyperbole. However, one could reasonably argue that Georgia is doing more to reform its criminal justice system than any other state in the country — from sentencing to felon employment after release to juvenile detention.

Over the last four years, mandatory sentencing minimums have been modified, and judges’ discretion in sentencing has been expanded. The adult prison population has been given enhanced access to educational resources, including a program that enables two charter schools in the state to go into prisons to teach inmates, and those participating earn a high school diploma instead of a GED. (Studies suggest that some recipients of a GED tend not to fare any better in employment prospects than high school dropouts do.)

In addition, inmates with felonies applying to work for the state no longer have to check a box on their job applications that discloses their criminal histories and would often disqualify them from being considered for a job from the outset. “We banned the box,” said Deal, “It is not going to affect them getting an interview.” The state has also invested $17 million into measures aimed at reducing recidivism and rehabilitating low-risk, nonviolent offenders — including expanding accountability courts like those for drug use and DUIs, and funding community-based programs that have already proven to be more cost-effective than a prison sentence and are designed to reduce crime in the long run....

Some, like Vikrant Reddy, a senior policy analyst at Right on Crime and at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Effective Justice, label Georgia’s criminal justice reforms conservative because they are saving the state millions, putting them in line with conservative fiscal values. Others, like Alison Holcomb, the national director of ACLU’s Campaign to End Mass Incarceration, call the reforms expansive for their holistic agenda—with improving educational and re-entry opportunities for inmates at the top of the list. The reforms have been called innovative, though some argue that it isn’t the reform initiatives themselves, so much as the way they’re being applied together that is unprecedented.

April 1, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

"Plea Bargaining and the Substantive and Procedural Goals of Criminal Justice: From Retribution and Adversarialism to Preventive Justice and Hybrid-Inquisitorialism"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new article by always interesting Christopher Slobogin. Here is the abstract:

Plea bargaining and guilty pleas are intrinsically incompatible with the most commonly-accepted premises of American criminal justice — to wit, retributivism and adversarialism. This article argues that the only way to align plea bargaining with the substantive and procedural premises of American criminal justice is to change those premises. It imagines a system where retribution is no longer the lodestar of criminal punishment, and where party-control of the process is no longer the desideratum of adjudication.

If, instead, plea bargaining were seen as a mechanism for implementing a sentencing regime focused primarily on individual crime prevention rather than retribution (as in the salad days of indeterminate sentencing), and if it were filtered through a system that is inquisitorial (i.e., judicially-monitored) rather than run by the adversaries, it would have a much greater chance of evolving into a procedurally coherent mechanism for achieving substantively accurate results.

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

Sunday, March 29, 2015

"Federal Sentencing 'Reform' Since 1984: The Awful as Enemy of the Good"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new article by Michael Tonry now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The federal sentencing system was conceived in one era and delivered in another. When the first bills that culminated in passage of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 were introduced, they aimed at reducing the worst excesses of indeterminate sentencing and achieving greater fairness, consistency, equality, accountability, and transparency in sentencing federal offenders. The overriding goal was reduction of unwarranted racial and other disparities.

In the different political climate of the mid-1980s the federal sentencing commission instead sought to achieve greater rigidity and severity and to respond to the law-and-order policy preferences of the Reagan administration and the Republican-controlled US Senate. Probation, formerly the sentence of half of convicted federal offenders, was nearly eliminated as a stand-alone punishment. Lengths of prison sentences increased enormously. After the federal guidelines took effect, buttressed by a plethora of mandatory minimum sentence laws, the growth of the federal prison population far outpaced that of the states and the federal system became the extreme example nationally and internationally of the dangers of politicization of crime policy. The political climate may be changing and the federal system may change with it. Only time will tell.

March 29, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Notable effort by "World’s Worst Mom" to take on sex offender registries

This new Salon piece provides an interesting Q&A with notable author who has become famous for criticizing overprotective parenting and who is now criticizing what she sees as ineffective sex offender registries.  The piece is headlined "Stop the sex-offender registry panic: 'A lot of those dots on the map would never hurt your kids'," and here is how the Q&A is introduced:

Lenore Skenazy came to fame for letting her 9-year-old son ride the New York subway home by himself.  Or rather, she came to fame by letting him ride the subway home alone and then writing about it for the New York Sun.

The piece led to an outcry — she was dubbed “America’s worst mom” — which, of course, meant that the essay had to become a book: “Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry).”  In the five years since its publication, the book has inspired a movement among parents who want to give their children the freedom to do things like walk home from school alone.  It’s a backlash to our age of “helicopter” and “bubble wrap” parenting. (If you suspect these monikers are exaggerations, consider that a Skenazy devotee recently had five police cars arrive at his house after his 10- and 6-year-old were seen walking alone.)  Now Skenazy has a show on the Discovery Life channel, “World’s Worst Mom,” which sees her swooping into homes and coaching overprotective parents in a style reminiscent of the ABC reality-TV show “Suppernanny.”

Recently, Skenazy has taken on a new, albeit related, cause: reform of the sex offender registry. Clearly, this lady is not afraid of controversy. On Sunday, she held a “Sex Offender Brunch” at her house to introduce “her friends in the press to her friends on the Registry.” One of her guests was Josh Gravens, who at age 12 inappropriately touched his 8-year-old sister and landed on the registry as an adult.... The materials accompanying her press release contend that the sex offender registry, which was created to “let people identify dangerous individuals nearby…has failed to have any real impact on child safety, and may actually do more harm than good.”  

She’s effectively flinging open the closet door and saying, “See? There’s no boogeyman in there” (or, if you will, flipping on the lights to offer assurance that the “monster” in the corner is actually just a lamp that made some mistakes when it was younger and means no harm).  This is entirely consistent with her “Free-Range Kids” activism, but she’s taking it a step further now, moving beyond just squashing parental fears about stranger danger to helping those who have been unfairly labeled as dangerous strangers.

March 28, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

You be the judge: what federal sentence for modern sheriff playing Robin Hood?

ImagesIn the legend of Robin Hood, the Sheriff of Nottingham is the tale's primary villain. But this sentencing story out of South Carolina raises the question of what federal sentence ought to be given to a local sheriff who was committing fraud as a kind of modern Robin Hood. The press report is headlined "Convicted Williamsburg sheriff asks for sentencing leniency," and here are the details:

The convicted former sheriff of Williamsburg County should be sentenced to less than the three years in prison recommended by federal officials because he succeeded despite a troubled upbringing and is being treated for a painkiller addiction, his lawyer said.

Ex-sheriff Michael Johnson faces a judge Wednesday to learn his fate after a federal jury convicted him in September of mail fraud. Prosecutors said Johnson created hundreds of fake police reports for a friend who ran a credit repair business so people could claim their identities were stolen and get out of credit card debt. The sentencing recommendation for Johnson is 30 months to 37 months in prison, according to court papers filed this week.

Johnson's attorney said that is too harsh for a man with no criminal record who cooperated with authorities. Johnson's request asks for a lesser sentence, but is not specific. Johnson has suffered from depression and anxiety the past four years. He also has migraines, high blood pressure and insomnia, lawyer Deborah Barber said in court papers.

The former sheriff also was raised in a broken home, saw his mother abused by a boyfriend and left at age 17 to relieve her of financial burden, Barber said. "He resided in a poverty-stricken area in Kingstree, South Carolina, with the family not having enough money to adequately survive," Barber wrote....

Johnson joined the Williamsburg County Sheriff's Office in 1997, two years after graduating high school and rose to chief deputy, becoming sheriff in April 2010 when the former sheriff, Kelvin Washington, was named U.S. Marshal for South Carolina.

He is one of nine sheriffs in South Carolina's 46 counties to be charged or investigated while in office since 2010. Seven have pleaded guilty or been convicted, and another died while under investigation. Only two of those sheriffs so far have been sentenced to prison.

Intriguingly, this long earlier article explains some of the details of the fraud, and it suggests that sheriff Johnson may not have made any money from the scheme designed to help people to (falsely) improve their credit rating. I am disinclined to assert that sheriff Johnson is as noble or heroic as Robin Hood, but it does seem like his fraud involved trying to help some folks down on their luck by pulling a fast one on the (big bad monarchy?) credit companies. Given that the federal sentencing guidelines still call for a prison term of at least 2.5 years, I am now wondering what the real Robin Hood might have been facing in a federal fraud guideline range if he were facing sentencing today.

March 25, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack