Wednesday, August 26, 2015
Nebraska group submits signatures to halt death penalty repeal and set up fascinating 2016 vote
As reported in this new AP article, the "organization campaigning to reinstate Nebraska's death penalty after lawmakers repealed it in May said Wednesday it has collected more than enough signatures to suspend the law before it goes into effect and place it before voters in 2016." Here is more:
Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, which was heavily financed by Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts and his family, said it had gathered 166,692 signatures from all 93 of the state's counties. Nebraska's unicameral Legislature had voted to repeal capital punishment over the objection of Ricketts, becoming the first traditionally conservative state to do so in 42 years.
The pro-death penalty group needed roughly 57,000 valid signatures from registered voters to force a statewide referendum, and double that number to immediately halt the death penalty repeal going into effect. They appear to have exceeded the 10 percent of registered voters hurdle needed to block repeal pending a November 2016 ballot measure on the issue.
"Nebraskans sent a strong message about crime and punishment in our state by signing this petition in extraordinary numbers," said state treasurer and former attorney general Don Stenberg, a co-chair of the petition drive....
Republican Attorney General Doug Peterson, who supports the death penalty, said in a statement that the signatures are "presumptively valid" until determined otherwise. Stenberg said no one will know the exact number of valid signatures for at least a month, but the state constitution makes clear that petitions go into effect on the day they're submitted.
Even if the law is suspended, Nebraska currently has no way to execute any of the 10 men on death row because its lacks two of the three required lethal injection drugs and has struggled to obtain them legally. The state paid $54,400 in May to order the drugs from a broker in India, but federal authorities have said they can't be legally imported.
Nebraska lawmakers voted by the narrowest possible margin, 30-19, to override Ricketts' veto. Ricketts assailed the Legislature as out of touch with the wishes of most residents. The repeal vote was helped by an unusual coalition of conservative state senators and more traditional death penalty opponents who had fought unsuccessfully for decades to eliminate the punishment. Some conservatives said they opposed it for religious and moral reasons, while others cast it as an inefficient government program that wastes tax money....
Nebraska hasn't executed an inmate since 1997, and has never done so using the state's current three-drug lethal injection protocol.
The announcement of the number of signatures caps an 82-day petition drive backed by Ricketts and his father, TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts. The governor had given $200,000 to Nebraskans for the Death Penalty as of the last filing deadline on July 31, while his father had donated $100,000. The group raised a total of more than $652,000 from 40 individual donors and seven groups classified as businesses, political action committees and other entities.
The largest donation in July came from the conservative, Washington-based Judicial Crisis Network, which gave $200,000. Nebraskans for the Death Penalty relied on a combination of paid and volunteer petition circulators, and was aided by an Arizona-based strategist who specializes in ballot campaigns.
I find these developments fascinating, especially because it highlights that the symbolism of the death penalty seems so much more important to so many folks than the practicalities of the death penalty. Practically speaking, with no executions in nearly 20 years, the legislature's abolition largely made de jure what was already a de facto reality in the state. But that largely symbolic decision obviously troubled a lot of Cornhuskers (and motivated some folks to put some serious money into this issue), and now the issue will be decided by direct democracy rather than by representative democracy.
Because I am a huge fan of direct democracy, and especially because it will be very interesting to follow the Cornhusker capital campaigning (and its funders' capital contributions), I am pleased that this crime-and-punishment issue will now come before the voters in 2016. Sadly, because Nebraska is not likely to become a swing state in the broader presidential scene, I doubt the many wanna-be Prez candidates will feel compelled to weigh in on this "local" issue. But it still seems possible that this vote could make Nebraska a significant focal point in the (never-ending) national debate over death penalty policy and practices.
Notable talk of crimnal justice reform at GOPAC State Legislative Leaders Summit
My local Columbus Dispatch has this notable article about notable policy message that was delivered to top GOP state lawmakers at a notable conference this week. The article is headlined "Packing prisons not the answer, lawmakers told," and here are excerpts:
Meeting in a state where more than 50,000 people live in prisons built to hold about 39,000, Republican state lawmakers from across the country were told Tuesday that “tough on crime” must be replaced by a smarter approach to criminal justice.
“Conservatives recognize we have too many criminal laws,” said Patrick Purtill Jr., director of legislative affairs for the Faith and Freedom Coalition, told a room of GOP lawmakers attending the annual GOPAC State Legislative Leaders Summit, held this year in Columbus.
“We’re sending too many people to prison. We’re spending too much money to keep them there for far too long. And we’re doing too little to re-enter them into our communities. It’s becoming increasingly clear that over-criminalization and over-incarceration are making our communities less safe.”
Republicans are leading the country on criminal-justice reform, said David Avella, chairman of GOPAC, a national group that grooms Republican lawmakers and candidates and provides forums for the sharing of conservative policies. “If you want to look at how we heal some of the divisions our country faces right now, this is a winning issue for us,” he told the conference, which runs through Thursday.
The Faith and Freedom Coalition is one of seven organizations stretching across the ideological spectrum that is partnering with the U.S. Justice Action Network to implement laws that reduce prison populations, implement more rational criminal penalties, and do more to help inmates re-enter society.
Ohio, along with Pennsylvania and Michigan, currently are the Action Network’s three target states for criminal justice reform. The group is working with Ohio lawmakers such as Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, and Rep. Barbara Sears, R-Sylvania. “These reforms make us safer. They’re not just cost-saving measures,” said Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network, pointing to Pew Chartable Trusts data that shows states with the biggest drops in prison populations also are seeing some of the greatest decreases in crime rates....
Faber, an attorney and former probation officer, told the [Ohio legislature's] Recodification Committee in June to “ swing for the fences.” He told GOPAC attendees that he knows Republicans have traditionally approached criminal justice with a “tough on crime” attitude. “This isn’t about making sure the bad guys get out earlier,” he said. “But we need room for the really bad guys, and the question is what do we do about the people that aren’t so bad?”
Faber hopes the committee will have recommendations by next summer. “One of the things I hope we do is give judges discretion back,” Faber said. “Another thing we need to look at is making that finer line between what is a felony and what isn’t. I also hope they look at what we need to increase the penalties for to stop that recidivism cycle.”
August 26, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, August 25, 2015
"Federalism in Action: How Conservative States Got Smart on Crime"
Conservative states have led the way on justice reform over the last decade. By changing the culture of corrections through sentencing reforms that limit mandatory minimum prison terms to the most serious offenders and rely on treatment as an alternative to incarceration, rehabilitative programs for those who do serve time, and continued assistance when offenders reenter society, lawmakers have reduced recidivism, made communities safer, and saved taxpayers money.
The results from conservative states — these laboratories of democracy — are key as members of Congress look for ways to deal with the federal corrections system, which has seen explosive population and cost growth of its own since 1980. This is federalism in action. Through sentencing reforms and a focus on treatment as an alternative to incarceration, the federal government can lessen the cost-burden on taxpayers by using the lessons from the states to get smart on crime.
Conservatives have embraced the justice reform movement, and they should continue to do so. While passed with the best of intentions, the policies of the past have proven unsustainable, both in terms of the fiscal cost and the negative impact on poor and minority communities. The model that conservative states have provided fundamentally changes the nature of the approach. Punishments are, of course, still meted out by courts, but the sentences given offer a means for offenders to alter the direction of their lives.
One such example is a woman named Sarah Gilleland, whose story was told by Gov. Nathan Deal in a joint session of the Georgia General Assembly in January 2012. “Sarah was a drug addict. The drug use that began as recreation resulted in a destructive cocaine and methamphetamine addiction. It took control of her life. At one point, she had no means of transportation, she lost custody of her little girl, she wound up homeless,” Deal explained. “But I mention Sarah tonight because she exemplifies many of the goals we hold for our corrections system.”
“Under the supervision of a drug court, piece-by-piece, she began rebuilding her life. With help, she beat addiction, she won back her daughter, she is now a sponsor helping other women who face the same trials, and because she provides a powerful example of hope and redemption, I have asked her to join us in this chamber tonight,” he said, pointing to Sarah in the gallery of the chamber.
“Sarah was given a shot a better life and she took it. Her story is not the exception, it is playing out all across Georgia as people reclaim their lives through the work of accountability courts.”
“That is why we must focus on transforming our corrections system into a last resort of opportunity—a place where low-level offenders are reclaimed and restored to society as functioning members of the community—working to support their own families and paying taxes,” he added.
Compelling stories such as this are not just told in Georgia, they are also told in other states that have adopted conservative justice reforms that focus on rehabilitation, rather than incarceration. And as more states and the federal government adopt the effort, more prison space will be reserved for the worst offenders in society, while those who have demonstrated a willingness to change their lives become productive citizens.
August 25, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)
Monday, August 24, 2015
Aurora victims present a "parade of pain" at on-going James Holmes sentencing proceedings
One of many benefits I see in giving crime victims certain rights in the criminal justice system is to ensure their voices are heard and their experiences are memoralized in courtroom proceedings even when those voices and experiences may not directly impact sentencing outcomes. In turn, I think it now worth highlighting the on-going proceedings in a Colorado courtroom that are effectively and potently reported in this CNN piece headlined "A parade of pain at James Holmes sentencing." I recommend reading the whole piece, and here are excerpts:
One by one, the wounded and the grieving are telling a Colorado judge how the Aurora movie theater gunman stripped the normal from their lives. Some are sobbing, some are angry. All are shattered by loss. It is a parade of pain that will not change the sentence for the 27-year-old shooter. James Eagan Holmes will spend the rest of his life behind bars.
But the inevitable outcome didn't stop the grieving grandfather of the gunman's youngest victim from making a suggestion: "I would challenge the murderer to do the right thing for once in this trial and petition the court for execution by firing squad," said Robert Sullivan.
He was the doting grandfather of 6-year-old Veronica Moser-Sullivan, who had innocent, shining brown eyes. Her pregnant mother, Ashley Moser, was shot and paralyzed.
Moser said she was looking forward to being a mother of two, but now she's nobody's mommy. She needs constant nursing care. She said she wished Holmes could be sentenced to life as a quadriplegic, just as she and two other shooting victims are.
More than 40 people gave victim impact statements on Monday, and at least 40 more are expected on Tuesday....
[M]any of the victims say they feel cheated, and they appeared to seek comfort in demonizing a defendant who took so much from them. A man whose son was gunned down in the theater referred to Holmes' schizophrenia as "a mental hangnail" and said he was disgusted during the trial by his "smirk." He called Holmes' attorneys "horrible people" and said they "fabricated a defense" to pad their resumes.
Beth Craft, whose brother John Larimer was killed, said, "The defendant may be mentally ill, but he is more evil than anything else."...
The trial, Kathleen Pourciau said, was like watching someone get away with something. It felt out of whack, unbalanced. It didn't feel like justice.
"When justice isn't served, there's a brutal message delivered to the victims," she said. "When the punishment doesn't fit the crime, the message to the victims is that your loss, your pain isn't important. The message was that the state of Colorado values the life of a mass murderer more than the people he murdered.
"How many people do you have to kill to get the death penalty?" Pourciau asked. "Why do you even have a death penalty if you don't use it? What signal does this sentence send to Bonnie Kate and others? We care, but not that much?"
A sentence of 12 life terms topped by hundreds of additional years behind bars is "absurd," she added, "the judicial equivalent of beating a dead horse."
Saturday, August 22, 2015
"Guns and Drugs"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Benjamin Levin now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This Article argues that the increasingly prevalent critiques of the War on Drugs apply to other areas of criminal law. To highlight the broader relevance of these critiques, the Article uses as its test case the criminal regulation of gun possession.
The Article identifies and distills three lines of drug-war criticism, and argues that they apply to possessory gun crimes in much the same way that they apply to drug crimes. Specifically, the Article focuses on: (1) race- and class-based critiques; (2) concerns about police and prosecutorial power; and (3) worries about the social costs of mass incarceration. Scholars have identified structural flaws in policing, prosecuting, and sentencing in the drug context; in the Article, I highlight the ways that the same issues persist in an area — possessory gun crime — that receives much less criticism.
Appreciating the broader applicability of the drug war’s critiques, I contend, should lead to an examination of the flaws in the criminal justice system that lessen its capacity for solving social problems.
August 22, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Gun policy and sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)
Friday, August 21, 2015
"Who Built Prison America? Not Ted Kennedy"
Regular readers may recall a couple posts earlier this year (here and here) noting a fascinating book by Princeton Professor Naomi Murakawa titled The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison in America. Interestingly, Ron Weich, a prominent former staffer for Senator Ted Kennedy has this new commentary at The Crime Report (with the same headline of this post) asserting it is wrong to lay blame on Senator Kennedy for modern mass incarceration. Here are excerpts:
One of Kennedy’s most far-reaching bipartisan accomplishments was the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. Yet this law serves as Exhibit A for Professor Murakawa’s theory that liberals bear responsibility for the failed criminal justice policies of that era. She blames the sentencing guideline system established by the Act for contributing to mass incarceration and accuses Sen. Kennedy of advancing unduly punitive policies....
Murakawa has harsh words for all who supported the 1984 Act, but she singles out Kennedy for special criticism. She decries the fact that the man she calls “the liberal lion of the Senate” included in the law various “carceral” elements such as the abolition of parole and a reduction in the availability of good-time credits for prisoners. She tracks changes in the sentencing bills Kennedy introduced from 1977 to 1984 and argues that his bills became increasingly punitive. She regards Kennedy as a “hard test case for my claim that Democrats aided, abetted, and legitimized a punitive law and order regime.”
The first flaw in the Murakawa book is its subtitle: How Liberals Built Prison America. No fair observer of criminal justice policy could conclude that liberals -- or conservatives or Democrats or Republicans -- bear sole responsibility for the spike in incarceration over the past half century. Rather, these disastrous criminal justice policies were a bipartisan misadventure that reflected the nation’s anger and fear about crime.
Every crime bill enacted by Congress in the 1980s and 1990s passed with broad bipartisan majorities and the support of leaders from both political parties. Only a handful of liberal House Democrats sometimes voiced concern. The Senate often passed crime bills by unanimous consent.
It is certainly fair to criticize Kennedy and other liberals for supporting bad crime bills. But they did not build “Prison America” by themselves, as the subtitle of Murakawa’s book unfairly suggests.
Murakawa’s narrative also fails to appreciate the complex collaborative nature of the legislative process. She attributes to Kennedy personally the flaws she perceives in his bills. Yes, he was a lead sponsor of the Sentencing Reform Act, but he did not write the law in a vacuum. The bill’s text is the product of years of negotiations with [Strom] Thurmond and many other members of the Senate, as well as committee markups and floor debates.
Murakawa acknowledges, but does not emphasize, the huge influence of the Justice Department in shaping the final law. It is no surprise that a bill first introduced during President Jimmy Carter’s administration became more conservative by the time it was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.
Too often, Murakawa conflates the role of the guideline system and mandatory minimum sentencing laws in contributing to overincarceration. Many of the most draconian mandatory minimums for drug and gun crimes were enacted in 1986, after the passage of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 but before the guidelines took effect in 1987. Kennedy recognized that mandatory minimums were unjustified once the guideline system had been established. He repeatedly argued that guidelines are a reasonable mechanism to restrain judicial discretion, whereas mandatory minimums are blunt and unyielding.
Throughout the 1990s Kennedy fought against mandatory minimum sentencing proposals, as I detailed in my article “The Battle Against Mandatory Minimums: A Report from the Front Lines.”
He championed the safety-valve provision (18 USC 3553(f)) in the 1994 crime bill, which allows certain low-level, nonviolent offenders to be sentenced below applicable mandatory minimums. In fact, in his 1994 reelection race against Mitt Romney, Kennedy faced brutal ads claiming he was soft on crime because he had opposed mandatory sentencing.
Kennedy and other liberals can be faulted for voting in favor of the 1986 crime bill and other bills which contained mandatory minimums, but they did not lead the charge for those policies as Kennedy had for a guideline system. In fact, Sen. Kennedy was a leader in opposing mandatory minimums once their effect became clear and their inconsistency with the guideline system became apparent.
More generally, Kennedy was a voice for more rational criminal justice policies. He always opposed capital punishment and, as Prof. Murakawa notes, led the unsuccessful fight to pass the Racial Justice Act which would have allowed capital defendants to challenge their sentences using statistical evidence of racial bias....
Professor Murakawa has written a thoughtful, comprehensive academic study of federal sentencing policies. A book like hers provides an important service, but it cannot be expected to take account of the rough-and-tumble aspects of the legislative arena. During his long political career, Sen. Kennedy endured criticism that was a lot harsher and less fair than that contained in Murakawa’s book.
As someone who has been involved in criminal justice policy for many years, both before and after I worked for Sen. Kennedy, I share Murakawa’s concern about America’s overreliance on incarceration. I also applaud the current trend toward more sensible sentencing policies.
I have no doubt that if Sen. Kennedy were alive today, he would be leading the charge for criminal justice reforms. And he would be doing so in a bipartisan manner, working with Sens. Rand Paul, Mike Lee and other unlikely bedfellows. That was his way.
Prior related posts:
- "How White Liberals Used Civil Rights to Create More Prisons"
- Political scientist highlights how Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden helped produce modern mass incarcertation
August 21, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)
Tuesday, August 18, 2015
Lots and lots of good summer reads about US criminal justice problems
Among the many benefits I see in lots more political and policy attention to mass incarceration and broader American criminal justice concerns is the presence of lots more thoughtful (old and new) media coverage of problems in current US policies and pactices. Here are just a few examples of both news coverage and commentary catching my eye early in this mid-summer week:
From The Daily Beast here, "95% of Prosecutors Are White and They Treat Blacks Worse: Black men are 65 percent more likely to be hit with ‘mandatory minimum’ sentences than the average defendant."
From The Nation here, "Prison Education Reduces Recidivism by Over 40 Percent. Why Aren’t We Funding More of It?"
From the New York Times here, "With Clemency From Obama, Drug Offender Embraces Second Chance"
From Real Clear Markets here, "How Hospitals Could Help Reduce Prison Recidivism"
From The Volokh Conspiracy here, "More fuel for the movement to reform sex offender laws"
Friday, August 14, 2015
In Ohio, "State prisons chief calls for softened hearts"
The quote in the title of this post is the headline of this local AP story about notable recent comments from the Director of Ohio's Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. Here are the details:
Ohio’s prisons chief is calling for more compassion toward wrongdoers as he continues a push to reduce the state’s inmate population. Too often an “us vs. them” mentality gets in the way of instituting programs to prevent people from going to prison and to keep former inmates from returning, corrections director Gary Mohr told a legislative prison-inspection committee on Thursday in remarks that at times were closer to a sermon than a speech.
“Our hearts need to be softened to some degree,” said Mohr, director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. “We have to think about the sense of forgiveness.” When Mohr started his prisons career 41 years ago, Ohio had 8,300 inmates in seven prisons, including 291 female inmates. The total now is holding steady at about 50,000 in 27 prisons, including 4,200 female prisoners.
The state’s incarceration rate was 5.3 per 100,000 citizens, compared with 68.1 today, said Mohr in a 40-minute speech to the bipartisan Correctional Institution Inspection Committee. Mohr is also dissatisfied that 1 in 4 state employees now work in adult corrections.
Society’s tough-on-crime attitude doesn’t match statistics showing violent crime at historic lows, he added. But Mohr also sees signs of optimism as commitments from the state’s biggest counties drop thanks to the growth of community alternatives in urban areas. The next challenge is extending such programs to the 82 counties where commitments have increased. The state is taking advantage of programs seeking to better integrate prisoners into society, as well, Mohr said. And the expansion of Medicaid will help inmates as they re-enter communities.
Among other issues Mohr said:
• 8,400 Ohio inmates spend less than a year in prison, a short period of time likely better served in communities in some form.
• 1 in 4 inmates is a probation violator, a trend that needs to be reversed by giving judges more discretion when ex-offenders make mistakes.
• The high population of some Ohio prisons raises security concerns.
Under Gov. John Kasich, the state has made efforts to slow the inmate population by easing penalties on first-time offenders, providing some early-release opportunities and boosting community-based options. At the same time, the state’s painkiller- and heroin-addiction epidemic has led to a rash of thefts, burglaries and other crimes that have increased prosecutions.
Thursday, August 13, 2015
New juve research suggests punishment certainty matters over severity to achieve deterence
This recent posting via the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, titled "Report: Certainty, Not Severity, Key in Deterring Juvenile Crime," spotlights recent research on juvenile punishment's impact. Here are excerpts:
Researchers first reported several years ago that a major longitudinal study of serious adolescent offenders showed the severity of their punishments had little effect on their recidivism rates. Digging into the data, the researchers also found that teenagers who commit serious crimes do respond to the threat or risk of sanctions, though not in a one-size-fits-all way.
In a new report released by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention [available here], researchers say the findings point to the need to devote resources to change risk perceptions, rather than prisons.
The report, “Studying Deterrence Among High-Risk Adolescents,” is one of several OJJDP bulletins based on research from “Pathways to Desistance,” the study that followed more than 1,300 young offenders for seven years after their court involvement.
The resulting research has found no meaningful reduction in offending or arrests due to more severe punishment, such as correctional placement versus probation or longer periods of institutional placement, the researchers said. But it did find that the certainty of punishment can play a role in deterring future crimes. Among adolescents who commit serious offenses, “recidivism is tied strongly and directly to their perceptions of how certain they are that they will be arrested,” the report said.
Edward Mulvey, the principal investigator on the Pathways study, said the idea that adolescents respond to the certainty of punishment, not severity, has found an audience with some policymakers. They are asking whether states should have to justify why the criminal justice system should hold an adolescent offender for a long time....
The new bulletin looks at how young offenders evaluate the risks of crime, which has a deterrence effect. Young people slightly increased their risk perceptions in response to an arrest, it found. The researchers said, though, there is no standard response to the certainty of punishment because risk perceptions vary based on individuals’ prior experiences or history of offenses and other factors.
August 13, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)
Wednesday, August 12, 2015
"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.
Tuesday, August 11, 2015
"Does Plea Bargaining Add to Criminal Court Caseloads?"
The question in the title of this post is the title of this new commentary by LawProf Darryl Brown at Casetext. Here are excerpts:
Crime rates have been declining for twenty years, and more recently the caseloads in many state and federal courts have been declining as well, although somewhat more modestly. Yet as courts got a little breathing room, the rate of guilty pleas has not declined. Instead, in the federal system and some states, guilty pleas increased—usually from an already-high rate (as a share of total convictions) of 90 or 95 percent. To legal scholars who have examined plea bargaining for decades, this was not a surprise. Studies of courts in the 1970s found that plea bargaining did not decline even when caseloads for a local court system sharply fell, leaving prosecutors and judges with proportionately more time to handle the rest. Federal plea bargaining, it now seems clear, increased as prosecutors gained more bargaining leverage from mandatory sentencing laws and federal guidelines that greatly restricted judges’ sentencing discretion.
Plea bargaining, in short, is not simply of function of crime rates and the criminal caseloads that result from them. It depends many things: whether the parties want to reach a deal, strength of the evidence, and — far from least — how much bargaining leverage the law gives to prosecutors. To say merely that “plea bargaining is essential” begs the real question. It doesn’t answer whether all plea bargains we now achieve — 95 percent in federal courts — are compelled by caseloads and strapped budgets. Plea bargaining may be essential, but how many — or what percentage of — cases must be resolved by guilty pleas rather than trials?...
Discretionary decisions play out differently when courts and prosecutors can handle more cases thanks to the efficiency of plea bargaining. If it doesn’t “cost” as much to charge and convict, it is more tempting to do so. Police know courts can process some additional petty offenses, and prosecutors know that they can handle more as well. This doesn’t have to be a conscious recognition in every officials’ mind ... [but] plea bargaining helps to create a new set of norms or baselines — about how many cases prosecutors and judges ought to handle, about which defendants ought to plead guilty, and perhaps about which events deserve to be charged as crimes. Cases with evidence so weak that a trial conviction is highly uncertain now look worth the effort because, with hard-ball right plea bargaining, they can be turned into convictions. After years of achieving 95 percent of convictions through guilty pleas, a court system that suddenly had trials in 15 percent of cases would look like it is doing something wrong. The defendants who insisted on those additional trials would seem like ones whose cases didn’t “deserve” a trial and, consequently, that merit a harsher sentence because they had one.
All of these things are hard to measure. Empirical researchers have not yet demonstrated that plea bargaining actually drives up the number of cases in criminal courts. It may be the kind of phenomena that simply can’t be reliably measured. But ... recall that criminal caseloads continue to increase long after crime began to decline in the early 1990s. More tellingly, Professor John Pfaff has found that evidence that, in many states, prosecutors file charges a higher percentage of cases they receive from police than they did twenty or thirty years ago. That is, they use their discretion less often to decline to prosecute. Reasons for this are unclear. Maybe police now collectively send prosecutors case reports backed by stronger evidence. Maybe the current generation of prosecutors has tougher-on-crime views than the previous generation did. But we ought to be concerned that we have made plea bargaining so common, and so efficient, that its effect has not simply been to enable the criminal justice system to process more cases without more judges and prosecutors. There is a good chance that plea bargaining has also increased the number of criminal cases in the system.
That might be good thing if crime was increasing. Or if we simply couldn’t afford to increase funding for prosecutors and judges at the same that we do for police and prisons. Or if we placed no social and political value on trial by jury. But none of that is true. What is true is that, as we have increased the rate of guilty pleas from already high levels of 75 or 85 percent of convictions to 90 or 95 percent, the United States also created the single most punitive criminal justice system, with by far the highest incarceration rate, in modern world history. That alone ought to be reason to worry that our exceedingly efficient system of plea bargaining has triggered “rebound effects.”
Friday, August 07, 2015
"What We Learned From German Prisons"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable New York Times op-ed authored by Nicholas Turner, president of the Vera Institute of Justice. and Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Here are excerpts:
Earlier this summer, we led a delegation of people concerned about the United States criminal justice system to visit some prisons in Germany and observe their conditions. What we saw was astonishing.
The men serving time wore their own clothes, not prison uniforms. When entering their cells, they slipped out of their sneakers and into slippers. They lived one person per cell. Each cell was bright with natural light, decorated with personalized items such as wall hangings, plants, family photos and colorful linens brought from home. Each cell also had its own bathroom separate from the sleeping area and a phone to call home with. The men had access to communal kitchens, with the utensils a regular kitchen would have, where they could cook fresh food purchased with wages earned in vocational programs...
This is an encouraging moment for American advocates of criminal justice reform. After decades of callousness and complacency, the United States has finally started to take significant steps to reverse what a recent report by the National Research Council called a “historically unprecedented and internationally unique” experiment in mass incarceration. Congress, in a bipartisan effort, seems prepared to scale back draconian federal sentencing laws. Many states are making progress in reducing their prison populations. And President Obama, in a gesture of his commitment to this issue, last month became the first American president to visit a federal correctional facility.
The delegation that we took to Germany represented the emerging national consensus on this issue. It included a Democratic governor; corrections officials from across the political spectrum; chief prosecutors; formerly incarcerated individuals; a liberal scholar of race and criminal justice; and representatives from Right on Crime and the Charles Koch Institute, conservative groups that advocate reform, as well as the evangelical Christian group Prison Fellowship.
But for all the signs of progress, truly transformative change in the United States will require us to fundamentally rethink values. How do we move from a system whose core value is retribution to one that prioritizes accountability and rehabilitation? In Germany we saw a potential model: a system that is premised on the protection of human dignity and the idea that the aim of incarceration is to prepare prisoners to lead socially responsible lives, free of crime, upon release.
While the United States currently incarcerates 2.2 million people, Germany — whose population is one-fourth the size of ours — locks up only about 63,500, which translates to an incarceration rate that is one-tenth of ours. More than 80 percent of those convicted of crimes in Germany receive sentences of “day fines” (based on the offense and the offender’s ability to pay). Only 5 percent end up in prison. Of those who do, about 70 percent have sentences of less than two years, with few serving more than 15 years.
The incarcerated people that we saw had considerable freedom of movement around their facilities and were expected to exercise judgment about how they used their time. Many are allowed, a few times a year, to leave the prison for a few hours or overnight to visit friends and family. Others resided in “open” facilities in which they slept at night but left for work during the day. Solitary confinement is rare in Germany, and generally limited to no more than a few days, with four weeks being the outer extreme (as opposed to months or years in the United States).
The process of training and hiring corrections officers is more demanding in Germany. Whereas the American corrections leaders in our delegation described labor shortages and training regimes of just a few months, in the German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, less than 10 percent of those who applied to be corrections officers from 2011 to 2015 were accepted to the two-year training program. This seems to produce results: In one prison we visited, there were no recorded assaults between inmates or on staff members from 2013 to 2014.
Germans, like Americans, are greatly concerned with public safety. But they think about recidivism differently. During our visit, we heard prison professionals discussing failure in refreshingly unfamiliar terms: If, after release, an individual were to end up back in prison, that would be seen as a reason for the prison staff members to ask what they should have done better. When we told them stories of American politicians who closed a work-release or parole program after a single high-profile crime by a released inmate, they shook their heads in disbelief: Why would you close an otherwise effective program just because one client failed?...
The first article of the German Constitution reads, “Human dignity shall be inviolable.” Granted, our own Constitution bans cruel and unusual punishment and protects individuals against excessive government intrusions. As was noted by the Supreme Court justice Anthony M. Kennedy in a landmark 2011 opinion ordering California to reduce its prison population: “Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons. Respect for that dignity animates the Eighth Amendment.”
These words hold much promise, but currently they have far too little impact on actual conditions in American prisons. In Germany, we found that respect for human dignity provides palpable guidance to those who run its prisons. Through court-imposed rules, staff training and a shared mission, dignity is more than legal abstraction.
The question to ask is whether we can learn something from a country that has learned from its own terrible legacy — the Holocaust — with an impressive commitment to promoting human dignity, especially for those in prison. This principle resonates, though still too dimly at the moment, with bedrock American values.
Thursday, August 06, 2015
Is it now ungodly to oppose significant sentencing and prison reform?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable recent Crux commentary authored by Jacob Lupfer headlined "There’s a truly religious consensus on prison reform." Here are excerpts:
In an era when most faith groups’ political priorities align predictably with the two major parties, it is refreshing to behold a truly diverse religious consensus on an issue....
The budget-busting prison-industrial complex was politically popular for a time, but in the past decade the pendulum has begun swinging the other way. Harsh sentences, particularly for nonviolent drug offenders, created unsustainable fiscal pressures. States simply cannot afford to house more prisoners and pay the salaries and benefits of employees to supervise and care for them.
Already, states are taking steps to spend less on “corrections.” Fiscal conservatives now view prisons as overly expensive, hugely inefficient, bloated bureaucracies. Yet Christians and other people of faith see problems, too.
America’s denominations and faith organizations are calling for reform. Our vast criminal justice system emphasizes punishment over rehabilitation, while our faith traditions preach redemption. Citing Isaiah 61, Jesus announced that his gospel would include “release for the captives” (Luke 4:18). It seems wrong for a Christian conscience to support needless incarceration.
Catholics were early leaders in promoting restorative justice, the idea that communities must help ex-offenders re-enter society in healthy and productive ways. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a major pastoral statement in 2000 that placed criminal justice issues in the context of social ills, including family breakdown, violence, racial disparities and the perverse incentives of for-profit prisons.
Once a powerhouse in ecumenical Christian political influence, the National Council of Churches has reinvented itself as a smaller, more focused agency. Yet it has made mass incarceration its top advocacy priority. NCC President Jim Winkler has a provocative idea. “If churches want to see revival,” he told me last year, “they should pick up released prisoners and help reintegrate them into their communities.” Criminal justice reform is not just an issue. It is essential to the gospel: Redeemed sinners proclaiming mercy in the name of Jesus Christ....
Leaders from Catholic, mainline, and black Protestant traditions have been sounding this refrain for years. But the growing consensus among white evangelicals and Republican officeholders may finally make sentencing reform an urgent and truly bipartisan imperative. The National Association of Evangelicals, known to be more active on non-sex-related issues than other religious conservatives, has spoken strongly of the need for criminal justice reform....
Until recently, disparate groups have worked on the issue largely independently. That is changing. In 2014, Congress appointed a committee to study the feasibility of reform among federal prison populations, whose growth threatens other federal law enforcement and funding priorities. The committee is called the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections. Earlier this year, the task force sought input from faith leaders and saw unprecedented agreement across traditions and enthusiastic support for reform....
Sentencing and prison policy is more easily seen as a boring bureaucratic issue. Even though millions are incarcerated, most Americans know zero or one person in prison. Yet faith communities are adding urgency to the imperative for prison and sentencing reform, even as they remain divided on the death penalty (for now).
In the end, fiscal constraints will force changes in prisons and sentencing if moral concerns do not. It seems better to make these changes out of a warm-hearted, merciful impulse than through cold fiscal realities. The faith community can credibly speak with one voice on criminal justice reform, and that voice must be heard.
Tuesday, August 04, 2015
Seventh Circuit authorizes successive 2255 attack on ACCA sentence based on Johnson
A helpful reader altered me to a significant post-Johnson ruling today by the Seventh Circuit in Price v. US, No. 15-2527 (7th Cir. Aug. 4, 2015) (available here). Price, which some ACCA prisoners may come to consider priceless, authorizes a defendant serving an ACCA-influenced sentence of 20+ years imposed way back in 2006 to bring a new, successor 2255 motion based on the Johnson ruling. Here are a few key passages from this notable ruling:
Price now asks this court to authorize the district court to entertain a successive collateral attack, 28 U.S.C. § 2244(b)(3), in which he proposes to assert a claim under Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015). Johnson holds that the imposition of an enhanced sentence under the residual clause of ACCA violates due process because the clause is too vague to provide adequate notice. Id. at 2557. We invited the government to respond, and it has done so. We now conclude, consistently with the government’s position, that Johnson announces a new substantive rule of constitutional law that the Supreme Court has categorically made retroactive to final convictions....
Johnson, we conclude, announced a new substantive rule. In deciding that the residual clause is unconstitutionally vague, the Supreme Court prohibited “a certain category of punishment for a class of defendants because of their status.” Saffle, 494 U.S. at 494. 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.” Summerlin, 542 U.S. at 352. There is no escaping the logical conclusion that the Court itself has made Johnson categorically retroactive to cases on collateral review. Because Price has made a prima facie showing that he may be entitled to sentencing relief under Johnson, we GRANT Price’s application and AUTHORIZE the district court to consider a successive collateral attack presenting this claim.
We add a cautionary note in closing. Our review of Price’s substantive claim is necessarily preliminary, and as we just noted, our holding is limited to the conclusion that Price has made a prima facie showing of a tenable claim under Johnson. The district court will have the opportunity to examine the claim in more detail as the case proceeds. That court is authorized under § 2244(b)(4) to dismiss any claim that it concludes upon closer examination does not satisfy the criteria for authorization. The judge is likely to be familiar with the case (or to become familiar easily) because § 2255 motions must be filed in the applicant’s sentencing court, which has access to the criminal record and familiarity with the case. Our conclusions are tentative largely because of the strict time constraints under which we must review these applications. Tyler, 533 U.S. at 664 (“It is unlikely that a court of appeals could make such a determination in the allotted time [30 days] if it had to do more than simply rely on Supreme Court holdings.”). For example, we do not know whether Price has other qualifying convictions that were not considered at sentencing because, at that time, the three on which the court relied were sufficient. If he is successful in vacating his sentence under Johnson, the parties will be free to argue this and any other pertinent questions on resentencing.
AG Lynch and Secretary Duncan make pitch for Pell Grant pilot program for federal prisoners
Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have this notable new USA Today op-ed under the full headline "To cut crime, turn jailbirds into bookworms: We need a prison to productivity pipeline." Here are excerpts:
Few interventions have been shown to reduce recidivism and prepare people in prison to lead law-abiding, productive lives like access to quality postsecondary education and training. The benefits of investing in these opportunities, which also include improved employment outcomes, extend to the individual and to society. In a study funded by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, RAND Corporation estimated that incarcerated individuals who participate in correctional education are 43% less likely to return to prison within three years. And for every dollar invested in correctional education programs, five dollars are saved on re-incarceration costs. A recent report from the President’s Council on Economic Advisors notes the annual cost of incarceration for a single juvenile is over $100,000 — almost twice as high as tuition, room and board and fees at the most expensive college in the country and nearly 100 times as expensive as a year of intensive mentoring.
Nearly every person behind bars will one day leave prison — approximately 700,000 annually. Setting these Americans up for success is smart economics and a critically important investment in our future.
Unfortunately, for many incarcerated individuals, this type of life-changing opportunity is unavailable. In 1994, Congress amended the Higher Education Act to ban incarcerated individuals in federal and state penal institutions from accessing Pell Grants, which could be used to help qualified inmates pay for college classes or training. This ban was passed despite the fact that higher education has been shown to reduce recidivism and despite the fact that incarcerated students made up less than 1% of all Pell Grant recipients.
The Obama administration has taken an important step toward helping people in prison contribute to the economy, transition back into their communities and stay out of the justice system after they reenter society. The Department of Education announced a new Pell Grant Experimental Site program that will allow a limited number of incarcerated individuals to be eligible to receive Pell Grants to pay for education and training programs from colleges and universities. The Department of Justice is providing technical assistance to the correctional facilities under the pilot program. We will test how restoring Pell Grant eligibility could affect educational and other outcomes. This pilot will not prevent any eligible Pell recipient from receiving a grant. What we learn will inform our efforts — and the efforts of states and localities — moving forward in this area....
By preparing these learners to achieve their academic and career goals, we strengthen the families and communities that depend on their success. And that is fundamentally good for America.
"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)
Thursday, July 30, 2015
"Miller v. Alabama as a Watershed Procedural Rule: The Case for Retroactivity"
The title of this post is the title of this timely piece available via SSRN and authored by Beth Caldwell. Here is the abstract:
Three years ago, in Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to life without parole (LWOP) under mandatory sentencing schemes amounts to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Over the past few years, courts have reached conflicting conclusions regarding whether the rule the Supreme Court pronounced in Miller applies retroactively to the cases of over 2,100 prisoners whose convictions were final when the case was decided. The Supreme Court granted certiorari in Montgomery v. Louisiana and is now poised to decide whether Miller must apply retroactively. The issue has primarily been framed as a question of whether the Miller rule is substantive, and therefore retroactive, or procedural, and therefore not retroactive. Ten state supreme courts have concluded that Miller is retroactive because it created a new substantive rule. The four states that have determined Miller is not retroactive have done so on the basis that its rule is procedural, rather than substantive. However, Miller’s rule is not clearly substantive or procedural.
This Essay presents an alternative argument for concluding that Miller is retroactive — one that has been marginalized in the discourse thus far but was just relied upon by the Connecticut Supreme Court in Casiano v. Commissioner. I argue that even if the Supreme Court were to determine that Miller announced a new procedural rule, it should still apply retroactively because of its groundbreaking nature. The Miller decision has sparked a transformation in juvenile sentencing across the country. Directly in response to Miller, eight states have passed legislation expressly outlawing LWOP sentences for juveniles. Nine other states have created new resentencing or parole procedures that go far beyond the requirements of Miller to offer juvenile offenders more meaningful opportunities for release at younger ages. Given the widespread changes the opinion has inspired, it should be categorized as a watershed rule and should apply retroactively.
July 30, 2015 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)
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.
Wednesday, July 29, 2015
"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)
Taking stock of the tough-on-crime crowd's "resolute oarsman, pulling with all his might against the current"
A number of helpful readers have already made sure I did not miss this terrific lengthy Slate piece by Mark Obbie profiling Bill Otis. The article is a great read, and it generally gives Bill the respect he has earned and deserved in modern debates over modern sentencing. The piece is headlined "Last Man Standing: Nothing can stop the bipartisan coalition pressing for criminal justice reform. Nothing, except maybe Bill Otis." Here is one of the many great passages from the piece:
In congressional hearings, seminars, and news stories heralding the bipartisan reform movement and the practical inevitability of changes in federal law, Otis serves as the go-to voice for maintaining tough-on-crime sentencing.
Pundits, policy wonks, academics, and journalists seem in lockstep agreement that there really is no debate anymore about whether it’s time to pull back from the extremes that gave America its distinction as the world’s prison warden. As names like Meese, Gingrich, and Koch speak up on the other side of the divide, Otis seems increasingly isolated, the only man fighting a war that ended a long time ago.
But there are compelling reasons — strategic and substantive — not to count Otis and his views out just yet. For all the talk that criminal justice reform has finally reached critical mass, the last Congress failed to act, even when offered the low-hanging fruit of the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would only tinker modestly with the length of sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. This week, Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a longtime opponent of reform, signaled that he would finally bow to pressure from all sides and deliver a bipartisan reform bill by the time Congress takes its summer break. But a wide gulf surely separates Grassley’s version of reform from practically everyone else’s, and none of the proposals before Congress are more than a tentative first step toward undoing decades of harsh sentencing policy. Reformers’ best-case scenario is a long slog ahead, with Otis and his arguments dogging their every step.
Tuesday, July 28, 2015
Are "deep red states" really "rethinking the death penalty"?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new American Prospect piece headlined "Why Deep Red States Are Rethinking the Death Penalty." Here are excerpts:
[Marc] Hyden, 31, [is] one of the nation’s leading conservative anti-death-penalty activists, a small but growing group that sees the death penalty as antithetical to conservative values and the cause of limited government. Expensive, inefficient, and lethal, execution has come to represent much that’s wrong with big government today in many conservatives’ minds — particularly millennials.
And Hyden is one of their most visible spokesmen. As the national advocacy coordinator at Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty (CCATDP), a project at Equal Justice USA, Hyden speaks at Republican conferences and clubs, liaises with the media, attends Tea Party rallies, and is, more generally, part of an insurgency of conservative activists seeking to end capital punishment in deep red states.
That movement has been most visible in Nebraska, where a campaign to ban the death penalty has inspired fierce debate among the state’s deep red electorate. This past May, Nebraska’s heavily Republican legislature voted both to pass LB268, a repeal of the state’s death penalty, and override a veto from Republican Governor Pete Ricketts. But death penalty advocates like Ricketts have vowed not to go down without a fight. On June 1, Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, a recently formed group of the governor’s political allies, filed an initial petition with the Secretary of State to put a repeal of LB268 on the state’s ballot in 2016....
The mere concept of the state putting someone to death is antithetical to the principle of limited government. “There’s no greater power than the power to take a life, and our government currently retains that authority,” says Hyden, “If you don’t trust a government to deliver a piece of mail or launch a healthcare website, why would you trust them to take a life?”...
These conservative arguments against the death penalty aren’t just taking hold in Nebraska. They seem to be having an effect in other deeply conservative states, as well.
One state south, in Kansas, a repeal bill was introduced in the House this year, but it failed to advance. According to Mary Sloan, the executive director of the non-partisan Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty, the bill will carry over into the 2016 legislative session and is expected to have Democratic, moderate Republican, and conservative Republicans sponsors. Sloan is optimistic about the bill’s chances, citing a need to focus on more immediate issues like the budget, and not a lack of support, as the reason for its failure to advance this year.
Tennessee, another conservative state, is not, as Kansas appears to be, on the brink of abolition, but it’s still closer to getting rid of the death penalty than you may think. Stacy Rector, the executive director of Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, says a few years ago she would have said her state was a decade or so away from passing a repeal — now her best guess is three to five years. “It feels like the speed at which things are changing has kicked into high gear,” she says.
The obvious question to ask is, of course, Why now? There’s an argument to be made that it’s, at least in some part, a product of generational change. The more libertarian-leanings of young Republicans are well documented. Sixty-eight percent of millennial Republicans, for example, support the legalization of marijuana, compared to just 47 percent and 38 percent of their Gen X and Boomer counterparts, respectively. The death penalty seems to be another one of those issues in which young Republicans are choosing limited government over the traditional party line.
When he goes out and talks to young people, Hyden definitely notices how receptive they are to his arguments about government overreach. “I love talking to young people,” he says, “They tend to be much more skeptical of government power, in general.”
More talk that all the talk about federal sentencing reform is about to produce some action
As July winds down and as more opponents of sentencing reform have become more vocal, I was coming to believe that all the talk (and more talk) of bipartisan efforts to finalize a federal sentencing reform bill was going to end up as another example of inside-the-Beltway sound and fury signifying nothing. But this new New York Times article, headlined "Push to Scale Back Sentencing Laws Gains Momentum," has me wanting to believe that optimism is still more justified than cynicism on this sentencing reform front. Here are excerpts:
For several years, a handful of lawmakers in Congress have tried to scale back tough sentencing laws that have bloated federal prisons and the cost of running them. But broadbased political will to change those laws remained elusive.
Now, with a push from President Obama, and perhaps even more significantly a nod from Speaker John A. Boehner, Congress seems poised to revise four decades of federal policy that greatly expanded the number of Americans — to roughly 750 per 100,000 — now incarcerated, by far the highest of any Western nation.
Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who has long resisted changes to federal sentencing laws, said he expected to have a bipartisan bill ready before the August recess. “It will be a bill that can have broad conservative support,” said Mr. Grassley, who as recently as this year praised the virtues of mandatory minimums on the Senate floor....
Of the 2.2 million men and women behind bars, only about 207,600 are in the federal system, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. But because the federal system has grown at the fastest rate of any in the country, many on the left and the right say they believe it exemplifies the excesses of America’s punitive turn. “If we can show leadership at the federal level,” Mr. Durbin said, “I think it will encourage other states to open this issue up for debate. The notion that we can create a bipartisan force for this really has value.”...
The dynamic is similar to the fight this year over changes to the Patriot Act when younger, more libertarian members — again supported by Mr. Boehner and Mr. Obama — worked with Democrats to change the law and eventually even won over a reluctant Mr. Grassley.
Obama Administration talking up restoring Pell grants for incarcerated
As reported in this Wall Street Journal article, the "Obama administration plans to restore federal funding for prison inmates to take college courses, a potentially controversial move that comes amid a broader push to overhaul the criminal justice system." This strikes me as big (and potentially controversial) news, and here are more of the details:
The plan, set to be unveiled Friday by the secretary of education and the attorney general, would allow potentially thousands of inmates in the U.S. to gain access to Pell grants, the main form of federal aid for low-income college students. The grants cover up to $5,775 a year in tuition, fees, books and other education-related expenses.
Prisoners received $34 million in Pell grants in 1993, according to figures the Department of Education provided to Congress at the time. But a year later, Congress prohibited state and federal prison inmates from getting Pell grants as part of broad anticrime legislation, leading to a sharp drop in the number of in-prison college programs. Supporters of the ban contended federal aid should only go to law-abiding citizens....
A 2013 study by the Rand Corp. found that inmates who participated in education programs, including college courses, had significantly lower odds of returning to prison than inmates who didn’t. Some congressional Democrats have proposed lifting the ban. Meanwhile, administration officials have indicated they would use a provision of the Higher Education Act that gives the Education Department the authority to temporarily waive rules, such as the Pell-grant ban, as part of an experiment to study their effectiveness.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch are expected to announce the program, which likely would last three to five years to yield data on recidivism rates, at a prison in Jessup, Md., on Friday. Key details aren’t yet clear, such as which institutions and what types of convicts would be allowed to participate.
An Education Department spokeswoman declined to comment. Asked Monday whether the agency would restore Pell grants for prisoners, Mr. Duncan told reporters, “Stay tuned.”
Stephen Steurer, head of the Correctional Education Association, an advocacy group, said two Education Department officials told him at a conference early this month the agency was moving to restore Pell grants for prisoners and allow many colleges and universities to participate. Money from the grants would directly reimburse institutions for the cost of delivering courses in prisons rather than go to prisoners, Mr. Steurer said.
“It will be substantial enough to create some data and to create enough information for some evaluation,” said Rep. Danny Davis (D., Ill.), who is co-sponsoring a bill with Rep. Donna Edwards (D., Md.) to permanently restore Pell grants for prisoners. “I think the political landscape has actually changed since the 1990s,” said Ms. Edwards. “We haven’t really been able to get a handle on recidivism. We have to present some training and opportunities. These are programs that work.”
She said her bill would cost relatively little up front—in the tens of millions of dollars—while having the potential to cut societal costs over the long term by reducing recidivism rates. Maryland spends nearly $40,000 a year per prisoner, she said.
But spending tax dollars on college for prisoners strikes many as an affront to families that have borrowed heavily in recent years to cope with skyrocketing college costs, causing student debt to soar to $1.3 trillion. “If we really want to keep people out of prison, we need to promote education at younger ages,” said Rep. Chris Collins (R., N.Y.).
Last year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo tabled a plan to use state dollars on in-prison college courses because of opposition from lawmakers. But in California, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation in June that includes $12 million to promote statewide priorities, including college classes in state prison, said state Sen. Loni Hancock, whose 2014 bill paved the way for an agreement between California corrections officials and the chancellor of the state’s community colleges. Ms. Hancock said classes could begin as soon as this fall.
Monday, July 27, 2015
Making the case that sentencing reform should (and must) include "violent" offenders
Two different law professors have recently published, in two different major papers, two important new commentaries calling for the modern sentencing reform movement to look beyond just so-called non-violent offenders. Here I will provide links to and snippets from these pieces while suggesting both should be read in full:
In the Los Angeles Times, Andrea Roth's op-ed is headlined "Let's consider leniency for many 'violent' offenders too":
The White House's push for meaningful criminal justice reform is laudable and arguably unprecedented. But if the president and reformers hope to radically reduce the number of people in American prisons and address glaring disparities in criminal justice, focusing narrowly on nonviolent drug offenses won't get them very far.
The truth is that prosecution for violent crimes, and not prosecution for drug possession and sales, is the primary engine of mass incarceration in this country....
Conceptualizing nonviolent drug offenders as somehow qualitatively different from other offenders creates a false distinction. Many crimes labeled “violent” under our criminal codes are either directly motivated by drug addiction or directly related to drug sales or possession. A heroin-addicted veteran who walks into a garage to steal tools to feed his drug habit has committed a first-degree burglary, a “violent” crime under many state codes. A drug-motivated unarmed robbery in which the offender pushes the victim, takes cash from his wallet, and runs away is also a “violent” crime under most state laws. A person who owns a firearm and has it in his house while engaging in a drug deal has committed a “crime of violence” under the federal sentencing guidelines. In short, “violent crime” is a legally constructed term that includes within its broad reach a great deal of drug-related conduct that wouldn't be considered “violent,” as Americans colloquially use that term.
Painting nonviolent drug offenders as a special group that deserves leniency obscures the fact that even those guilty of indisputably violent acts should not be overcharged or sentenced to disproportionately long prison terms. Piling on charges and strong-arming guilty pleas under the threat of mandatory-minimum sentences are fixtures not merely of drug prosecutions, but of all prosecutions in the modern tough-on-crime era.
In the Washington Post, John Pfaff's opinion piece is headlined "For true penal reform, focus on the violent offenders":
It’s true that nearly half of all federal inmates have been sentenced for drug offenses, but the federal system holds only about 14 percent of all inmates. In the state prisons, which hold the remaining 86 percent, over half of prisoners are serving time for violent crimes, and since 1990, 60 percent of the growth in state prison populations has come from locking up violent offenders. Less than a fifth of state prisoners — 17 percent — are serving time for nonviolent drug offenses. And contrary to Obama’s claim, drug inmates tend to serve relatively short sentences. It is the inmates who are convicted of violent crimes who serve the longer terms.
Now, to be clear, not all violent offenses are especially harmful. But a significant fraction of those in prison for violent crimes are there for serious violence: murder, aggravated assault, armed robbery. Moreover, many officially nonviolent inmates have histories of violence.
In other words, for all the talk about nonviolent offenders, a majority of our prisoners have been convicted of a violent act, and even more have some history of violence. And because no one thinks we should set every drug or other nonviolent offender free, at some point we are going to have to reduce the punishments that violent offenders face if we really want to cut our breath-taking prison population down to size.
But this idea is a political third rail, and no leading politician has been willing to risk touching it. Almost all the reform proposals we have seen focus exclusively on scaling back punishments for drug and other nonviolent crimes.
That’s what made Obama’s commutations and policy speeches so disappointing. Incarceration is driven by so many local factors that neither federal sentencing reform nor presidential commutations can have much of an impact. What the president may be able to do, however, is use his national pulpit to shape the debate. Obama missed a major opportunity to influence the current conversation on how to reduce incarceration.
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.
Friday, July 24, 2015
"Convicted Republicans Plead for Mandatory Minimums Changes"
The title of this post is the hedline of this notable new Roll Call piece. Here are excerpts:
Kevin Ring, the lobbyist who was sentenced in 2011 to 20 months in federal prison for his role in a corruption scheme, was pitching to GOP aides gathered in the Rayburn House Office Building on an effort to overhaul mandatory minimum requirements. Ring, who has been working in downtown Washington, D.C., since his April prison release, wanted the staffers to understand that current guidelines more often send low-level dealers and addicts to prison, not drug kingpins....
Two other convicted Republicans who served time in federal custody joined Ring for the lunchtime forum aimed at building support for a proposal sponsored by Republican Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and Democrat Robert C. Scott of Virginia. Red states are leading the way, and now it is “time that the federal government catches up,” Sensenbrenner, a former House Judiciary Committee chairman, said during his brief talk to staffers as they munched on Chick-fil-A lunches.
Despite positive feedback from Speaker John A. Boehner, Sensenbrenner acknowledged it would be tough to prod his bill forward. House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., is not on board. Sensenbrenner also suggested he may have “worn out my welcome” in the Senate, during the recent debacle over reauthorizing the Patriot Act, though a separate effort is gaining momentum in that chamber on a bipartisan basis.
Some federal prosecutors have expressed opposition to executive branch efforts to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, arguing they are an essential tool to dismantling drug rings.
Former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, disgraced in 2004 when he was forced to withdraw from his nomination to head the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush, said it was “incumbent” that the next White House administration tackle mandatory minimums. Kerik pulled out of consideration after admitting he had not paid taxes for a domestic worker who may have been an illegal immigrant, and later pleaded guilty to eight felony charges, including tax fraud and lying under oath. He was sentenced to 48 months in federal prison.
Knitting, chess and checkers were offered as adult continuing education classes to inmates at the federal prison camp in Cumberland, Md., where Ring and Kerik served their sentences. “You can teach an inmate real estate or accounting, but that federal conviction will keep them from getting a license,” Kerik said.
“Idle hands are the devil’s playground,” echoed Pat Nolan, who served 15 years in the California State Assembly before he was nabbed accepting an illicit campaign contribution as part of an FBI sting. He pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering and served 29 months in federal custody.
Twenty-four hours earlier, in the same room, House Judiciary Democrats unveiled legislation that would end mandatory life imprisonment for incarcerated youth, as part of a package of bills focused on sentencing and incarceration. Ranking member John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, also introduced a measure aimed at increasing police accountability in the wake of high-profile deadly encounters between officers and black citizens.
“It is clear that improved national standards are necessary to address the ever-growing catalogue of incidents such as the case of Sandra Bland in Waller County, Texas, where a routine traffic stop led to an arrest and a death in custody 72 hours later,” Conyers stated Wednesday. “It is critical that we adopt smarter approaches to dealing with those involved with the criminal justice system.”
Among Republicans, the blame was on the Justice Department. Nolan fired off at U.S. attorneys, saying their jobs are “entirely political” and driven by numbers. They have the tools to protect the public and keep the streets clean, he said, “but there’s no restraint.”
Many notable passages in recent sentencing reform speech by DAG Yates
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:
- New Deputy AG suggesting every too-long federal prison sentence hurts public safety
- DAG Yates: "our thinking has evolved on [drug sentencing], it’s time that our legislation evolved as well."
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)
Wednesday, July 22, 2015
DAG Yates: "our thinking has evolved on [drug sentencing], it’s time that our legislation evolved as well."
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:
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.
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.”
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)
Tuesday, July 21, 2015
"Why all Americans should support Obama on prison reform"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable opinion piece by Michael Brendan Dougherty at The Week. Here are excerpts:
Obama's first words on prison reform last week were absolutely right: "We should not be tolerating overcrowding in prison. We should not be tolerating gang activity in prison. We should not be tolerating rape in prison — and we shouldn't be making jokes about it in our popular culture. That's no joke. These things are unacceptable."
Much of the commentariat blames our prison system's woes on the politics of "law and order" from the 1970s through the early part of the new millennium. But what Obama is asking for is "law and order" for our prisoners and prisons. He deserves bipartisan support in this.
On a philosophical level, people who think about prison conditions and sentencing issues tend to divide themselves between retributivists and rehabilitators. Backers of retributive justice believe sentences should be punishing. Rehabilitators believe the criminal justice system should aim to restore criminals to society. I agree with both of them, and think they should agree with each other. I doubt that a convict can be properly rehabilitated unless he is also punished. To punish someone for a crime is to take his moral agency seriously. Taking that agency seriously is a sign of respect not just for the victims of crime, but the perpetrators.
America's prisons cannot possibly qualify as either punitive or rehabilitative. Instead, they are vindictive, chaotic, and degrading. A prison sentence should be the punishment in and of itself. But today, prisoners are expected to cope with unimagined and uncountable horrors. They are incentivized to join gangs. They are encouraged to commit more violence in order to avoid violence. Rape is pervasive and the threat of rape encourages prisoners to submit themselves to other violent men. There is no instance in which being plunged into barely controlled danger, or being raped, can be a just punishment....
[O]ur prison system makes a mockery of the justice system. It says that our laws are a joke since we certainly don't intend to prevent them from being broken even in institutions so closely monitored by the state itself. It tells prisoners that they are human garbage, unworthy of even the most basic respect or safety. The pervasiveness of our jokes about prison rape suggest that we believe that there are some deserving victims of violent sexual assault. There are none....
President Obama has done well to help humanize prisoners. He has emphasized that some receive unduly long or harsh punishments just for being "teenagers doing stupid things" in the absence of real help from functioning families and social institutions. His statement of empathy, that he could have ended up in prison himself, will be used cynically by his haters. It may well reek of sentimentalism even to some of his supporters. But it is a more vivid way of repeating John Bradford's statement upon seeing a group of men led to execution: "There but for the grace of God, go I."
There are all sorts of social, scientific, and even fiscal reasons to justify prison reform and sentencing reform. But the key to gaining momentum in this effort is to remind the public that America's imprisoned are human beings. They may deserve punishment for their crimes, but they do not deserve to become victims of yet more crime.
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.
"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.
Friday, July 17, 2015
Gov Christie joins growing chorus of GOP leaders urging reform of "broken" criminal justice system
As highlighted by this Politico report, headlined "Chris Christie calls for ‘fresh approach’ to criminal justice," the only GOP presidential candidate with a long history as a federal prosecutor has now joined the ever-growing group of mainstream Republican voices advocating for significant criminal justice reform. Here are the basics of what the New Jersey Governor has to say on this front:
Chris Christie, decrying the large number of Americans in prison, on Thursday said it’s time to fix what he called “a broken criminal justice system.”
“Today, our prisons contain more people than any other nation in the world – 25 percent of the world’s prisoners,” the New Jersey governor and 2016 presidential candidate said in a speech in Camden, New Jersey. “I believe in American exceptionalism, but that’s not an achievement I think any of us want.”
Christie’s call for action came almost at the same time as President Barack Obama’s tour of a federal prison in El Reno, Oklahoma on Thursday as part of his administration’s push for criminal justice reform.
In recent months, a series of deaths of unarmed black men by white law enforcement officers, and resulting riots, has sparked a national discussion about racial tensions, policing, and the U.S. prison system. It’s given a boost to a rare bipartisan push on justice reform, especially mandatory minimum sentences that disproportionately affect minority communities.
On Thursday, Christie talked about the importance of getting violent criminals off the streets, but he said harsh prison sentences don’t solve everything. “Peace on our streets is more than just the absence of violence. Justice isn’t something we can jail our way to. Justice is something we have to build in our communities,” Christie said.
He also framed his argument in terms of conservative values. “I happen to be pro-life, and I believe very strongly in the sanctity of life,” Christie said. “But I believe that if you’re going to be pro-life, then you ought to care about life beyond the womb. An unborn child is life. But life is also that 16 year-old addict lying on the floor of the county lockup.”
Specifically, Christie pointed to his own record in New Jersey as a path forward. He said New Jersey’s drug court program works, calling it a policy that keeps people out of prison and saves money. He said if he becomes president he will replicate it on the national level.
“Drug court is about making every one of our citizens long-term productive members of society again – because we should want that for everyone,” Christie said. He said that first time offenders of non-violent crimes should get treatment and non-custodial sentencing options. He also said that when people are put behind bars there needs to be a plan for rehabilitation for when they get out.
I am particularly intrigued to hear a GOP Presidential candidate with a long history as a federal prosecutor (and whose campaign slogan is "telling it like it is") now calling our criminal justice system broken. Another long-time former federal prosecutor, Bill Otis, has frequently taken to Crime & Consequences to complain when former Attorney General Eric Holder said our current system is broken. And in a comment dialogue following his latest posting in this arena, Bill seemed to suggest that some establishment Republicans may only be pretending that they share such a view in order to get campaign dollars from the Koch brothers. But given Gov. Christie's personal background and campaign themes, I would be really surprised if he would now be saying the system is broken if he did not really believe it.
July 17, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and 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:
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.
New talk of abolishing the death penalty in Ohio spurred by pro-life conservative
As reported in this local piece, headlined "Renewed Effort Underway To Abolish Ohio's Death Penalty," talk of death penalty abolition is afoot again in the Buckeye State. Here are the details:
One state lawmaker is finding new allies in her fight to get rid of the death penalty. State Rep. Nickie Antonio has been down this road before. The Democratic lawmaker from Lakewood has tried several times to pass a bill that would eliminate the death penalty. “The state of Ohio needs to take the compassionate pragmatic and economically prudent step to abolish capital punishment,” Antonio said.
But while Antonio’s bill has stalled every session, this time she has picked up some support — from freshman legislator Niraj Antani, a Republican from Miamisburg. He says capital punishment is too expensive and represents the epitome of big government. “To me there can be no bigger government with no bigger power than the right to execute its own citizens,” said Antani.
Antani is alarmed that about a dozen people on death row in Ohio have had their sentences commuted or exonerated. He calls on his fellow pro-life conservatives to side with him in getting rid of the death penalty. “I believe that — just the chance that an innocent individual could be put to death is reason enough to repeal it,” Antani added.
But other Republicans disagree. State Rep. John Becker who represents a portion of Clermont County says there are criminals such as mass murderers and serial killers who deserve execution. “So part of it is the inability to rehabilitate and part of it is simply punishment and it would be reserved for the most heinous of crimes,” said Becker.
There’s another issue at play when it comes to capital punishment in Ohio. The state has delayed executions until next year due to questions over the drugs used for lethal injections. Last year, death row inmate Dennis McGuire took an unusually long time to die during his execution and was reportedly seen struggling for air.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it’s okay for states to use certain combinations of drugs, but Ohio must still find suppliers and manufacturers. And Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections Director Gary Mohr has said the state is having problems getting those drugs because international companies don’t want to sell them for lethal injections and pharmacists don’t want to create them for executions.
Antonio and Antani use this as a reason to steer clear of executions but State Rep. John Becker makes a different argument and says it doesn’t have to be death by injection. “Frankly I like the idea of giving people choices they can have death by firing squad—death by hanging—death by guillotine," Becker said. "I’m not really sure I care how they die and they can choose their own method for all I care.”
Becker and other death penalty supporters have used another argument is support of capital punishment. They say prosecutors can use the threat of execution as a bargaining chip for plea deals.
Wednesday, July 15, 2015
Politico article suggests real federal sentencing reform poised to become a reality
Almost exactly two years ago, in this July 2013 post reflecting frustration hearing lots of federal sentencing reform talk and relatively little major sentencing reform action, I speculated that the GOP gaining control of the US Senate along with the House might actually make the enactment of some significant federal sentencing reform more likely before the end of the Obama era. Thus today, thanks to this Politico article reporting on where developments in the GOP-controlled Congress stand, has me feeling a bit clairvoyant:
As President Barack Obama on Tuesday evening called on Congress to take up criminal justice reform, a bipartisan group on Capitol Hill was putting the final touches on a sentencing overhaul deal to be announced as soon as next week. Their message to the president: You’re preaching to the choir. Story Continued Below
“We’ve actually been working on it for quite a while,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), one of the key negotiators of a package being hashed by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “You may see some legislation here in the next week or so. This is active. … [W]e’re close.”...
Right now, the prospects for such legislation seem good, given that lawmakers from both parties have been wrangling with a reform bill for months. Tuesday, for example, the House Oversight Committee became at least the third congressional panel to highlight problems in the justice system, inviting two governors, a handful of senators, House members and experts to discuss a path forward for reducing the number of inmates in federal prisons.
Hours later, the House officially formed the Congressional Criminal Justice and Public Safety Caucus, which will include justice reform supporters. And across the Capitol, Cornyn joined Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I) for a public dialogue that emphasized the importance of reform.
The biggest announcement is just around the corner: Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told POLITICO on Tuesday that his panel is close to announcing a deal on the bipartisan package his panel has been working on for months. Only about four outstanding issues remain, he said, predicting the package will be unveiled before August recess.
Tuesday, July 14, 2015
In praise of GOP Rep. Sensenbrenner making the moral case for sentencing reform
Most long-time federal sentencing reform advocates likely have long shared my concern that Wisconsin GOP Representative James Sensenbrenner was a significant impediment to achieving significant federal sentencing reform. Indeed, as noted in this prior post, as recently as two years ago, Rep. Sensenbrenner was defending federal mandatory minimum statutes on very dubious grounds.
But now that Rep Sensenbrenner has been working for a couple years on bipartian federal criminal justice reform, he is a co-sponsor of the important SAFE Act (details here) and today delivered this potent testimony to the GOP-controlled House to support his call for significant sentencing reform. Here is an excerpt from the testimonty I found especially notable and important (with my emphasis added):
Over the past three decades, America’s federal prison population has more than quadrupled — from 500,000 in 1980 to more than 2.3 million today. Prison spending has increased by 595 percent, a staggering figure that is both irresponsible and unsustainable.
And yet, this increased spending has not yielded results. More than 40 percent of released offenders return to prison within three years of release, and in some states, recidivism rates are closer to 60 percent. Several studies have found that, past a certain point, high incarceration rates are counterproductive and actually cause the crime rate to go up.
Especially among low risk offenders, long prison sentences increase the risk of recidivism because they sever the ties between the inmate and his family and community. These are the ties we need to help reintegrate offenders as productive members of society.
These severed ties are also at the heart of the moral case for reform. It’s not just the people in prison who are paying the punishment for their crimes. Mass incarceration tears families apart and deprives children of their fathers and mothers. It likely means a loss of job, possibly home, and any support he or she had within the community.
And that’s where we are with our sentencing policy — we’re spending more, getting less, and destroying communities in the process. The system is broke, and it’s our job to fix it.
It is remarkable and a true sign of the modern sentencing times that this reform rhetoric, which sounds more like a passage from an opinion or article by Wisconsin District Judge Lynn Adelman, is coming from GOP Rep. Sensenbrenner. And the adjectives I have stressed in the quoted passage are, in my view, at the heart of the most compelling case for federal reforms and a broad response to modern mass incarceration: the current system is broken and counterproductive, irresponsible and unsustainable, but even beyond any data-driven, cost/benefit analysis, there is a powerful "moral case for reform" that resonates with the commitment to liberty, family, community and limited government that triggered the American Revolution.
Prior related post:
July 14, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)
Monday, July 13, 2015
Prez Obama with big plans (finally!!) to prioritize criminal justice reform efforts
Way back in 2007, then-Prez-candidate Barack Obama on the campaign trail made much of the need for nationwide (and especially federal drug sentencing) criminal justice reform in a speech to Howard Univesity (which I discussed in this 2010 law review article). In that speech, candidate Obama promised that as President he would be "willing to brave the politics" to help engineer criminal justice reforms. As long-time readers know from my commentary here and elsewhere, I have long been disappointed that Prez Obama has left us waiting a long time for the reality of his policy work to match the rhetoric of his first political campaign.
But now, roughly eight years after making campaign proimises at Howard Univesity (and, tellingly, after the conclusion of every significant nation election in which Prez Obama is the most significant player), it appears that Prez Obama is finally poised to invest his political muscle and capital on crimnal justice reform. This effective Bloomberg Politics article, headlined "Obama to Push U.S. Sentencing Change Backed by Koch Brothers," explains how and provides effective context:
The White House is preparing to seize advantage of bipartisan concern over the burgeoning U.S. prison population and push for legislation that would reduce federal sentences for nonviolent crimes.
President Barack Obama will champion sweeping reform of the criminal justice system during a speech to the NAACP annual convention on Tuesday in Philadelphia, press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday. Obama will present ideas to make the system “safer, fairer and more effective,” Earnest said.
Later in the week, Obama will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit a federal prison when he goes to a medium-security facility in El Reno, Oklahoma. He’ll also sit for an interview with Vice News for an HBO documentary on the criminal justice system, Earnest said.
Obama came to office promising to reduce the number of Americans imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses, and in 2010 he signed a law reducing disparities in sentences for possession of crack and powder cocaine. Some Republicans and police organizations criticized the moves as too lenient, but now a bipartisan coalition that includes Obama’s chief political antagonists, billionaires Charles and David Koch, have joined him to support relaxing federal sentencing guidelines.
Key lawmakers from both parties have been invited to the White House next week to discuss strategy. And Obama is expected to soon issue a spate of commutations for nonviolent drug offenders identified by a Justice Department program launched last year. Top officials from the department, including Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, have recently met with members of Congress to express support for sentencing-reform legislation.
“Engagement with the president has been lacking for the past six years, but this is one topic where it has been refreshingly bipartisan,” Representative Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican who heads the House Oversight Committee, said in a telephone interview....
Chaffetz said he was optimistic that a package of bills would advance because of a diverse coalition of supporters lined up behind it. The president dubbed the legislation “a big sack of potatoes” in a meeting with lawmakers in February, Chaffetz said. The composition of the legislation isn’t final.
The Koch brothers, who are major Republican donors, support a bill introduced last month by Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, and Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat, that would encourage probation rather than imprisonment for relatively minor, nonviolent offenses and improve parole programs in order to reduce recidivism.
The Sensenbrenner-Scott bill is modeled on state efforts to reduce incarceration. While the federal prison population has grown 15 percent in the last decade, state prisons hold 4 percent fewer people, according to Sensenbrenner’s office. Thirty-two states have saved a cumulative $4.6 billion in the past five years from reduced crime and imprisonment, his office said in a report....
Representative Bob Goodlatte, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, held a meeting in late June to listen to proposals from lawmakers in both parties. And Chaffetz, who described the Republican leadership in the House as “very optimistic and encouraging,” scheduled hearings on the issue by his committee for July 14 and 15. “I don’t normally do two days of hearings; we’re giving it that much attention,” Chaffetz said. “So it has more momentum than anybody realizes.”
There is a significant obstacle on the other side of the Capitol: Senator Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who chairs his chamber’s Judiciary Committee.... But supporters of the House legislation have reason for optimism: Last month, Grassley announced he would work on a compromise in the Senate.
While Grassley has indicated a willingness to reduce penalties for some crimes, he wants to increase mandatory minimum sentences for other offenses, a Senate Republican aide said. The person requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. That could make sentencing changes an easier sell to tough-on-crime voters, but endanger the support of lawmakers who see mandatory minimums as bad policy. “There does appear hope for a bipartisan compromise,” Earnest said Monday. “We obviously welcome that opportunity.”
Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican who has long championed criminal justice reform, is leading negotiations with Grassley. He’s backed by Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on Grassley’s committee, and Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate.
The talks remain sensitive. During a Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, Leahy -- admitting he already knew the answer -- asked Yates, who was testifying before the panel, to restate her support for sentencing reform. “I was born at night, but not last night,” Grassley interjected. “And I know that question was in reference to me, and I want everybody to know that we’re working hard on getting a sentencing-reform compromise that we can introduce. And if we don’t get one pretty soon, I’ll probably have my own ideas to put forward.”
July 13, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)
Sunday, July 12, 2015
Seventh Circuit panel affirms as reasonable probation sentence for tax dodging Beanie Babies billionaire
Late Friday, a Seventh Circuit panel rejected the government's claim that a probation sentence given to a high-profile tax cheat was unreasonable. The lengthy opinion in US v. Warner, No. 14 -1330 (7th Cir. July 10, 2015) (available here), gets started this way:
Defendant H. Ty Warner, the billionaire creator of Beanie Babies, evaded $5.6 million in U.S. taxes by hiding assets in a Swiss bank account. He pled guilty to one count of tax evasion, made full restitution, and paid a $53.6 million civil penalty. The Sentencing Guidelines provided a recommended 46- to 57-month term of imprisonment, but the district judge gave Warner a more lenient sentence: two years’ probation with community service, plus a $100,000 fine and costs. The government claims his sentence is unreasonable because it does not include a term of incarceration.
In a typical case, we might agree. But this is not a typical case. The district judge found Warner’s record of charity and benevolence “overwhelming.” Indeed, the judge remarked that Warner’s conduct was unprecedented when viewed through the judge’s more-than-three decades on the bench. In the district court’s opinion, this and other mitigating factors — including the uncharacteristic nature of Warner’s crime, his attempt to disclose his account, his payment of a penalty ten times the size of the tax loss, and the government’s own request for a sentence well below the guidelines range — justified leniency. District courts enjoy broad discretion to fashion an appropriate, individualized sentence in light of the factors in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). The court here did not abuse its discretion. Rather, it fully explained and supported its decision and reached an outcome that is reasonable under the unique circumstances of this case. We therefore affirm Warner’s sentence.
Though the panel stresses unique factors applying only in this case to support its reasonableness ruling, white-collar practitioners (especially those in the Seventh Circuit) will find a lot of broader interest and potential value in this opinion.
Prior related posts:
- You be the federal judge: what sentence should the Beanie Babies billionaire get for tax evasion?
- Feds to appeal probation sentence given to tax-dodging Beanie Babies billionaire
- Feds call probation sentence given to Beanie Babies billionaire substantively unreasonable
- Seventh Circuit panel seemingly unmoved by feds appeal of probation sentence given to Beanie Babies billionaire
July 12, 2015 in Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)
DA planning to charge Boston Marathon bomber with murder under Massachusetts law
As reported in this new Reuters article, a "Massachusetts district attorney plans to bring state murder charges against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who has been sentenced to death in a federal trial for a deadly bomb attack on the 2013 Boston Marathon, her office said on Saturday." Here is why:
Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan said she would charge Tsarnaev with murdering MIT police officer Sean Collier and for other crimes in the aftermath of the marathon attacks. Ryan said a guilty verdict in Massachusetts could keep Tsarnaev in prison if he successfully appeals his federal convictions.
"When you come into Middlesex County and execute a police officer in the performance of his duties and assault other officers attempting to effect his capture, it is appropriate you should come back to Middlesex County to stand trial for that offense," Ryan said in a statement.
"The Economic Perspective on Sentencing"
The title of this post is the title of this article authored by Joshua Fischman recently posted on SSRN. Here is the abstact:
Although economists have been actively engaged in research on criminal sentencing, the synergies between the two fields are hardly obvious. This Essay considers what economists have to contribute to the study of sentencing. One common explanation — that economists’ use of rational choice modeling has applicability to the study of deterrence — does not adequately account for much of the sentencing research that economists are producing.
This Essay considers two alternative explanations. First, empirical research in both fields is predominately observational. Due to practical limits on controlled experimentation, economists have developed a variety of tools for making causal inferences from observational data, many of which have also proved useful in the study of criminal sentencing. Second, both fields are policy-oriented social sciences. Methods developed by economists for relating data to theoretical normative constructs, such as surplus and social welfare, have also proven useful in sentencing research, particularly in the study of inter judge disparity.
Saturday, July 11, 2015
"Can capitalism keep people out of prisons?"
The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing Quartz piece discussing social impact bonds which caught my eye. Here are excerpts:
The tendency for former criminals to end up back in prison generates over $50 billion every year in corrections costs nationally. After Medicaid, it is the second fastest growing budget item in the US. Three years ago, Goldman Sachs, New York City, and then-mayor Michael Bloomberg’s foundation aimed to do something about this, and inked a $9.6 million deal to reduce the recidivism rate of youth offenders at Rikers Island Prison using cognitive behavioral therapy.
The transaction, known as a Social Impact Bond (SIB), was structured with no upfront cost to the city and let investors (Goldman) and philanthropists (Bloomberg) assume the upfront risk for the social programs provided to current and former inmates, while the government only had to pay back the investors for the programs that actually worked.
The Rikers Island Prison SIB is one example of fast-emerging interest and activity around these kinds of strategies, which are also known as pay-for-success financings. SIBs create packages for achieving social progress where government only pays when it saves money; the investor can receive higher returns for higher impact, and the provider of the service can grow.
Given the ability for SIBs to save money and deliver better social outcomes, they appeal to both fiscal conservatives and social progressives, and over $40 million has been mobilized to date in the US. In the three years since the Rikers Island SIB was initiated, four other SIBs addressing early childhood education, homelessness, and prison recidivism in the US have been implemented.
But on July 2, the independent evaluator of the Rikers Island SIB announced that the program had failed to reduce recidivism among the participants by more than the 10% minimum that would have required the city to make payment to the investors. Put another way, any change in the recidivism rate of the program participants compared to a control group was determined to be statistically insignificant.
Although the approach had been used with success on older youths, the specific program at Rikers had not been tested and was being implemented in the challenging setting of a prison. New York City will terminate the program at the end of August, and Goldman will receive $6 million of the $7.2 million it had so far lent to fund the program, due to a $6 million loan guarantee by Bloomberg.
The results of the Rikers Island SIB and the launch of the other transactions raise a host of questions about whether or not these structures can actually transform public finance and bring more capital to social services....
The case for SIBs is strong. For one thing, prevention is harder to fund than downstream problems. Government is great at running an ambulance service at the bottom of a cliff for those who fall, but it does not often take the steps needed to prevent people from falling in the first place. One reason is that prevention has no clear constituency to lobby for budget — consider the prospect of prison operators and unions lobbying legislators versus organizing people who have not been victims of crime advocating for more effective prison release programs.
What’s more, our current system for funding social programs is not tied to outcomes. Because legislators fund (or cut) social programs based on legal mandates, pressure from taxpayers, or simple political expedience, activities are funded — not outcomes. Service providers are paid for inputs rather than for producing meaningful outcomes — e.g. turning around the lives of juveniles, or preparing children for success in school. It is easier to monitor how many juveniles are institutionalized and pay a per diem than to consider what is needed to keep a troubled youth with his family and community — even though institutionalization is a bad outcome for the youth and taxpayers....
The bulk of SIBs have been in criminal justice, juvenile detention, or sheltering the homeless. These sectors use high cost strategies of institutionalizing people who would be more effectively served in de-institutionalized settings. Most people (and even elected officials) can see the benefit of spending less on prisons, shelters, and dysfunctional juvenile detention centers. But what about areas where more spending is needed, such as early childhood education or job training or mental health?
In most cases, government entities are responsible for paying if the desired outcomes are generated. Even if investors accept the counter-party risk of the government, the ability of governments to make these commitments is subject to budget constraints and requires a complete re-engineering of procurement processes.
However, there are promising SIB opportunities that do not rely on public payors, such as workforce development and job readiness programs in which private sector employers agree to pay for the program if it delivers qualified employees. In the health sector, hospital systems and insurance companies that are now responsible for managing the overall health outcomes of communities can also structure innovative contingent payment transactions....
With enabling legislation being passed around the country, and federal grants arriving to cover development costs, more and more SIBs are coming down the pike despite the Rikers Island results. SIBs have created great value simply by bringing together many unlikely parties to tackle some thorny social issues, but the jury is still out on their long-term growth and impact.
Friday, July 10, 2015
Evil doc gets 45 years in the federal pen for fraudulent cancer treatments
I noted in this prior post about his upcoming sentencing, I used the term evil to describe the Michigan oncologist who pleaded guilty to mistreating cancer patients and bilking the government through false Medicare claims. Today the doctor learned our federal criminal justuce system's response to his evil deed, as this local press account reports:
A metro Detroit cancer doctor who made nearly $20 million off hundreds of patients suffering from unneeded chemotherapy and other stunningly bad treatments was sentenced today to 45 years in federal prison.
"This is a huge, horrific series of criminal acts that were committed by the defendant," U.S. District Judge Paul Borman said, later adding that Dr. Farid Fata "practiced greed and shut down whatever compassion he had." Borman said the crimes called for "a very significant sentence for very, very terrible conduct."
Fata, 50, who openly wept in court today as he apologized for his actions, admitted to fraudulently billing Medicare, insurance companies and at least 550 patients through misdiagnoses, over-treatment and under-treatment. In some cases, he gave nearly four times the recommended dosage amount of aggressive cancer drugs; in at least one, a patient was given toxic chemotherapy for five years when the standard treatment was six months, according to former patients and experts in court this week.
"I misused my talents... because of power and greed. My quest for power is self-destructive," a sobbing Fata told the court before sentencing. He said he is "horribly ashamed of my conduct" and prays for repentance.
Defense attorney Christopher Andreoff asked Borman to sentence Fata to no more than 25 years in prison, saying even that could be a life sentence because of Fata's health. "Our recommendation will give him nothing more than a chance for release before he dies," Andreoff said.
U.S. Assistant Prosecutor Catherine Dick told the court her office has "has never seen anything like this before. ,,. And that is because of the harm."
"Fata was greedy and he wanted that money," Dick said. "What this defendant did is unquantifiable. There is no way to quantify the suffering." Dick, whose office had asked for 175-year sentence, said patients died in horrible pain from Fata's treatments.
Borman had set the sentencing guidelines to 30 years to life on Thursday based on the charges and circumstances. "My role.. is to impose a sentence sufficient but not greater than necessary," Borman said this morning.
The federal court this week heard accounts of about 22 victims, who shared unthinkable experiences of a healthy adult undergoing chemotherapy and losing nearly all his teeth, of a patient diagnosed with lung cancer when he had kidney cancer, and more. Some statements were read by family members of patients who died. Some patients with no documented iron deficiencies were given overwhelming amounts of iron, while others were given lower-than-needed doses of chemotherapy drugs, experts testified.
U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade previously called his case the "the most egregious" health care fraud case her office has seen.
Fata pleaded guilty in September to 13 counts of health care fraud, two counts of money laundering and one count of conspiring to pay and receive kickbacks. The case involves $34.7 million in billings to patients and insurance companies, and $17.6 million paid for work Fata admitted was unnecessary.
Prior related post:
Publisher of The American Conservative explains "Why We Need Criminal-Justice Reform"
Jon Basil Utley, who is the publisher of The American Conservative, has published in his magazine his own notable commentary headlined "Why We Need Criminal-Justice Reform: Our system incentivizes excessive prosecution and punishment — as I found out." Here are excerpts:
Mass incarceration in America has lifted our prisoner count to 2.3 million, dwarfing that of all other nations; of federal prisoners, only 13 percent are serving time for violent crimes, while 72 percent are imprisoned for nonviolent offenses. Altogether, Americans are held in thousands of prisons and jails. Millions more are former prisoners or arrestees. Criminal-justice reform relates to much more than occasional killings by rogue policemen: the whole over-criminalization incentive structure driving long prison sentences and the re-sentencing of parolees in the judicial system needs publicizing and reform. The multibillion-dollar cost of policing and jailing nonviolent offenders also takes money that our cities (or taxpayers) could well use for civilized betterment.
Our judicial system has some serious flaws, particularly its quest for guilty verdicts and incarceration. I first learned about the drive for convictions through an experience with a former employee. He was arrested for getting in a fight with a drunken resident in a business I once owned. He had called the police himself after hitting the man with his nightstick during a fight. (We knew the man was drunk from blood tests at the hospital where the man was treated and released the same night.) The defense attorney, paid by the city, strongly urged my man to plead guilty, telling him that he would easily get off with probation and a few hours of community service. My employee said that then he would then have a criminal record. But the attorney warned that if he went to court he risked spending years in jail. Later I learned that the attorney was paid little more to fight the charges than to have her client offer a plea bargain. I said to her that I would double whatever legal fees she earned from the court if she would defend him in pleading innocent. She agreed.
After three court dates, the other man never appeared, so my employee’s lawyer asked the prosecutor to drop the case, but the prosecutor refused. I saw that the prosecutor wanted to collect convictions to help her own career. Finally, after the other man missed yet another court appearance, the prosecutor agreed to drop the case. That’s how I saw first-hand how the judicial system obtains so many guilty verdicts, which eventually result in so many imprisonments. The system is called “meeting and pleading,” as described by former Baltimore police officer Michael Wood. And now, with computerized records, once a man has a conviction he won’t be hired by all sorts of businesses. In fact, businesses risk being sued for “negligent hiring” if an employee turns out to be a former felon and commits another crime at work.
Reason has published about related problems with sex-offender registration. Through plea bargaining, thousands of men are on sex-offender lists that don’t distinguish violence by strangers against minors from such “crimes” as urinating in public or exposure. Reason notes that according to Human Rights Watch, some states’ sex-offender lists include teenagers who had consensual sex with other teens. In Pennsylvania, 14-year-olds were subject to lifetime listing as sex offenders. The idea behind lifetime penalties for being a sex offender was the impression that most such acts were violently committed by strangers upon small children and that such offenders represented a continuing menace. But in practice the punishment can mean a lifetime of stigma and economic ruin inflicted upon people who pose no such risk and have not committed any comparable act....
Reform is beginning, but it is very slow. Both Republicans, who used to support mass incarceration, and Democrats, often beholden to police and prison-guard unions, have not been quick to respond. Pat Nolan, formerly of Justice Fellowship, told me how the Obama Justice Department dawdled for years to put forward regulations to enforce the Prison Rape Elimination Act, passed in 2003, because of prison-guard union opposition. Solitary confinement is another issue crying out for reform but also one that provides extra jobs for guards, as I was told by Jim Ridgeway, who runs SolitaryWatch.com. A very important new group is Right on Crime, a conservative coalition supported by the Heritage Foundation, tax activist Grover Norquist, Pat Nolan, and politicians such as Newt Gingrich. It’s now focusing on civil asset forfeiture, another egregious government abuse created in the name of fighting crime.
Slowly but certainly, Americans across the political spectrum are beginning to question and reform the criminal-justice system, even rethinking the panic-stricken measures of the past 30 years that led to so much imprisonment, so many ruined lives, and the runaway growth of police powers.
Thursday, July 09, 2015
ACLU and Koch reps make pitch for SAFE Act and federal sentencing reforms
This notable new Politico commentary advocating for federal criminal justice reform is authored by Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Mark Holden, general counsel of Koch Industries. The piece is headlined "A New Beginning for Criminal Justice Reform," and here are excerpts:
The U.S. criminal justice system is in a state of crisis — and Congress is finally moving to address it. On June 25, Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) introduced the bipartisan Safe, Accountable, Fair and Effective Justice Act. Known as the SAFE Justice Act, the legislation is an important step in addressing America’s ballooning, costly and ultimately unjust federal sentencing and corrections system, which needlessly throws away lives and decimates entire communities.
The criminal justice system’s problems are evident all around us. Over the past three decades, Congress has steadily increased the size and scope of the federal criminal code, ensnaring people who have no business being behind bars, without a corresponding benefit to public safety. From 1980 to 2013, the federal criminal code increased from 3,000 crimes to approximately 5,000 crimes. Over the same period, our federal prison population skyrocketed from 24,000 to 215,000 — a 795 percent overall increase — while federal spending on prisons also soared from $970 million to more than $6.7 billion — a 595 percent increase.
While we have a good handle on how much taxpayers’ money we’ve wasted on over-criminalization and mass incarceration, the cost in human lives is incalculable. Almost every single federal prisoner serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses has one thing in common: a drug offense that resulted in a de facto death sentence. This excessive reliance on punitive sentencing destroys individual lives, families and communities. It is not clear it makes communities any safer. In addition, it is fiscally irresponsible and morally repugnant.
This points to a simple conclusion: The criminal justice system must be reformed. It must be dramatically altered to maximize public safety, minimize its cost to taxpayers and ensure that justice is served — for the victims of crimes, the individuals who commit them and for society at large....
The SAFE Justice Act would incorporate lessons learned in [reform] states and apply many of them at the federal level. It seeks to address several specific issues with the current criminal justice system. Four areas of reform are particularly promising: First, it begins the process of reversing over-criminalization and the over-federalization of the criminal code. The act forces the federal government to disclose the creation of new criminal offenses — a common-sense action that would clarify just how large the criminal code is and how fast it has grown. It also empowers the victims of federal over-criminalization to seek redress via the Office of the Inspector General. It also contains various reforms to protect against wrongful conviction, reduce pre-trial detentions, and eliminate federal criminal penalties in state jurisdictions, including penalties for actions such as drug possession.
Second, it would reform sentencing. Today, mandatory minimums force too many people to plea to lengthy prison sentences — punishments that may not fit the crime. The act seeks to undo this broken system by encouraging judges to offer probation to low-level offenders, while increasing pre-judgment probation. It also would restrict mandatory minimums to specific categories of people — such as high-level members of drug-trafficking organizations rather than street dealers — as originally intended by Congress.
Third, it would reduce recidivism. Too often, the criminal justice system’s flaws turn federal prisons into revolving doors for repeat offenders. The legislation proposes to address this problem with a number of reforms, including shorter sentences for people who participate in specific educational and vocational programs. These reforms can ensure that people who leave federal prison are better equipped to rejoin their communities and contribute to society.
Fourth, it would increase transparency. The bill would require that federal agencies issue regular reports on recidivism rates, prison populations and other key statistics. It also would require that cost analyses be presented to judges prior to sentencing to help them make prudent decisions.
This is only a partial list of the reforms proposed in the SAFE Justice Act. They are a good start — but they are not enough to reverse the damage, financially and in terms of human lives, caused by decades of misguided policies. In particular, members of Congress from both parties should continue to devote particular attention to ensuring that criminal laws penalize only the people who intend to commit crimes, an important distinction that many new federal criminal laws miss. More broadly, they must identify and pass targeted policies that are smarter on crime, rather than just tougher.
Prior related post:
Wednesday, July 08, 2015
"Retribution is a valid societal interest" says local DA in advocacy for death penalty
The quote in the title of this post is from Louisiana District Attorney Dale Cox, who is profiled in this interesting front-page New York Times article. The piece is headlined "The Prosecutor Who Says Louisiana Should ‘Kill More People’," and here are excerpts:
Within Louisiana, where capital punishment has declined steeply, Caddo [Parish] has become an outlier, accounting for fewer than 5 percent of the state’s death sentences in the early 1980s but nearly half over the past five years. Even on a national level Caddo stands apart. From 2010 to 2014, more people were sentenced to death per capita here than in any other county in the United States, among counties with four or more death sentences in that time period.
Caddo ... has bucked the national trend in large part because of one man: Dale Cox. Mr. Cox, 67, who is the acting district attorney and who secured more than a third of Louisiana’s death sentences over the last five years, has lately become one of the country’s bluntest spokesmen for the death penalty. He has readily accepted invitations from reporters to explain whether he really meant what he said to The Shreveport Times in March: that capital punishment is primarily and rightly about revenge and that the state needs to “kill more people.” Yes, he really meant it.
And he has been willing to recount his personal transformation from an opponent of capital punishment, a belief grounded in his Catholic faith, to one of the more prolific seekers of the death penalty in the nation. “Retribution is a valid societal interest,” Mr. Cox said on a recent afternoon, in a manner as calm and considered as the hypothetical he would propose was macabre. “What kind of society would say that it’s O.K. to kill babies and eat them, and in fact we can have parties where we kill them and eat them, and you’re not going to forfeit your life for that? If you’ve gotten to that point, you’re no longer a society.”
Mr. Cox later clarified that he had not seen any case involving cannibalism, though he described it as the next logical step given what he at several points called an “increase in savagery.”...
Mr. Cox’s personality has been under scrutiny here since he returned to being a prosecutor after two decades in insurance law. Lawyers who knew him as a congenial and adroit trial lawyer said that in recent years he had become sullen and solitary. They also have described him as becoming increasingly aggressive in the courtroom, in some cases even threatening defense lawyers with criminal contempt for filing opposing motions.
“It’s such a dramatic change,” said Ross Owen, a former Caddo prosecutor and assistant United States attorney who now practices defense law in Shreveport. “The behavior in and of itself might not be a big deal,” he said. But given Mr. Cox’s position, and the fact that the defendants in most of these capital cases are poor and black in a part of the state with a deep history of racism, Mr. Owen added, “He’s got a loaded gun and he’s pointing it at a lot of people.”
Several said this was not so much Mr. Cox as the culture of the office. They point to a historical racial disparity in the application of the death penalty in Caddo. Or they cite an incident in 2012, when two senior assistant district attorneys, both of whom continue to prosecute capital cases elsewhere in the state, were forced to resign from the office after they obtained machine guns from a military surplus program through what an inspector general found to be falsified applications. The men had belonged to a group of prosecutors who participated in firearms exercises as part of a unit known as the Caddo Parish Zombie Response Team, sporting arm patches around the office and specialty license plates on their trucks.
Mr. Cox, who rose from first assistant to acting district attorney after his boss died unexpectedly in April, was never part of that group and disapproved of it. But he did not dispute that the work he does had changed him and left him more withdrawn.
He describes this as a natural result of exposure to so many heinous crimes, saying that “the nature of the work is so serious that there’d be something wrong if it didn’t change you.” He went on to describe violent child abuse, murders and dismemberments in extended detail, pointing to a box on his desk that he said contained autopsy photographs of an infant who was beaten to death. He volunteered that he took medication for depression.
“The courts always say, ‘Evolving standards of decency tell us we can’t do this or that,’ ” he said in an interview at his office, where he had been considering whether to seek death in one case and preparing to seek it in two others. “My empirical experience tells me it’s not evolving decently. We’ve become a jungle.”
The number of murders in Shreveport has decreased by more than 67 percent since the early 1990s. But Mr. Cox insisted that if the numbers were down, the nature of crimes had become more depraved and that it demanded a different approach.
Defense lawyers conceded that the approach was different. Mr. Cox had refused even to entertain pleas of life without parole in homicide cases for which he deemed death the only fitting remedy. In other cases, the office has prosecuted people for ancillary crimes even after they had made plea agreements. After a man was convicted in 2014 of smothering his infant son, a case that hinged almost entirely on differing interpretations of complicated forensic evidence, Mr. Cox wrote that the man “deserves as much physical suffering as it is humanly possible to endure before he dies.”
Alluding to Rousseau and Shakespeare, Mr. Cox remained unapologetic, insisting that he believed what he was doing was right. But he was not entirely untroubled. “I am humble enough and fearful enough,” he said, considering the biblical commandment not to kill and his own place in the afterlife, “that my God may say to me, ‘I meant what I said, and you’re out.’ ”
Tuesday, July 07, 2015
You be the judge: what federal sentence for evil cancer doctor?
A few weeks ago, I was discussing with my kids whether they thought some humans were innately evil. In any such discussion, it might make sense to bring up the story of the Michigan oncologist who pleaded guilty to mistreating cancer patients and bilking the government through false Medicare claims. The doctor's federal sentencing began this week, and this AP story provides an overview of the proceedings and basic information to enable any would-be judges to suggest sentences for the doc in the comments:
Patients of a Detroit-area doctor received "stunning" doses of a powerful, expensive drug that exposed them to life-threatening infections, an expert testified Monday as a judge heard details about a cancer specialist who fleeced insurance companies and harmed hundreds of people.
Dr. Farid Fata is headed to prison for fraud and other crimes. But U.S. District Judge Paul Borman first is hearing from experts and former patients about the extent of his scheme to reap millions of dollars from Medicare and other health programs.
Nearly three dozen ex-patients and family members, many dressed in black, chartered a bus to attend the hearing, which could last days. Some will testify Tuesday."This is a small fraction of the people this guy has hurt," said Terry Spurlock, 52, of Holly, who had three more years of treatments after a tumor on his neck disappeared. "He gave me so much treatment, it stopped my immune system."
Fata, 50, pleaded guilty last fall to fraud, money laundering and conspiracy. The government is seeking a 175-year prison sentence, while the Oakland County man is asking for no more than 25 years.
The government said 553 people have been identified as victims, along with four insurance companies. There were more than 9,000 unnecessary infusions or injections. "There is an aggressive approach to treating cancer. This was beyond. This was over the top," said Dr. Dan Longo, a Harvard medical professor and deputy editor at the New England Journal of Medicine, who testified Monday as a $400-an-hour expert for prosecutors after examining 25 patient files, a tiny portion of Fata's practice.
Longo was asked about patients who were given a drug called Rituximab, which can weaken the immune system if overused. It is typically given eight times for aggressive lymphoma, but one patient got it 94 times. Another got it 76 times.... Later, he told the judge that "all the files I looked at had problems, but I would not say all the treatment was inappropriate."
It was the first time that many former patients had seen Fata in months, if not years. He has been in custody since his 2013 arrest. He wore a white dress shirt and dark suit in court.
"I wanted to knock that smirk off his face," said Geraldine Parkin, 54, of Davison, who[se] husband, Tim, has survived non-Hodgkin lymphoma but has other chronic problems because of excessive treatments. "He has a lot of anger," Parkin said.
Monday, July 06, 2015
"Dividing Crime, Multiplying Punishments"
The title of this post is the title of this interesting article by John Stinneford which was recently updated on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
When the government wants to impose exceptionally harsh punishment on a criminal defendant, one of the ways it accomplishes this goal is to divide the defendant’s single course of conduct into multiple offenses that give rise to multiple punishments. The Supreme Court has rendered the Double Jeopardy Clause, the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, and the rule of lenity incapable of handling this problem by emptying them of substantive content and transforming them into mere instruments for effectuation of legislative will.
This Article demonstrates that all three doctrines originally reflected a substantive legal preference for life and liberty, and a systemic bias against overpunishment. A punishment was deemed excessive under the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause if it was greater than an offender’s retributive desert, as measured against longstanding punishment practice. Prior to the twentieth century, if prosecutors proposed a novel unit of prosecution for a given crime, judges asked two questions: (1) Does this unit of prosecution give the government the opportunity to bring multiple charges based on a single course of conduct?; and (2) If so, would the bringing of multiple charges create an arbitrary relationship between the offender’s culpability and his cumulative punishment, measured in light of prior punishment practice? If the answer to both questions was yes, judges would declare the punishment invalid under the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, the Double Jeopardy Clause, or the rule of strict construction of penal statutes (the forerunner to today’s rule of lenity). By recovering this methodology for addressing prosecutorial efforts to divide crime and multiply punishments, we can ameliorate our current mass incarceration crisis and make the American criminal justice system more just.
Former US District Judge Nancy Gertner talks about drug war casualties she had to create
As reported in this Atlantic posting, headlined "Federal Judge: My Drug War Sentences Were ‘Unfair and Disproportionate’," former US Strict Judge Nancy Gertner recently gave a provocative speech about her federal sentencing history and the impact of the drug war. The posting provides a link to a video of the speech, and Conor Friedersdorf provides this summary account:
Former Federal Judge Nancy Gertner [recently] stood before a crowd at The Aspen Ideas Festival to denounce most punishments that she imposed. Among 500 sanctions that she handed down, “80 percent I believe were unfair and disproportionate,” she said. “I left the bench in 2011 to join the Harvard faculty to write about those stories –– to write about how it came to pass that I was obliged to sentence people to terms that, frankly, made no sense under any philosophy.”
No theory of retribution or social change could justify them, she said. And that dispiriting conclusion inspired the radical idea that she presented: a call for the U.S. to mimic its decision after World War II to look to the future and rebuild rather than trying to punish or seek retribution. As she sees it, the War on Drugs ought to end in that same spirit. “Although we were not remotely the victors of that war, we need a big idea in order to deal with those who were its victims,” she said, calling for something like a Marshall Plan.
She went on to savage the War on Drugs at greater length. “This is a war that I saw destroy lives,” she said. “It eliminated a generation of African American men, covered our racism in ostensibly neutral guidelines and mandatory minimums… and created an intergenerational problem –– although I wasn't on the bench long enough to see this, we know that the sons and daughters of the people we sentenced are in trouble, and are in trouble with the criminal justice system.”
She added that the War on Drugs eliminated the political participation of its casualties. “We were not leveling cities as we did in WWII with bombs, but with prosecution, prison, and punishment,” she said, explaining that her life’s work is now focused on trying to reconstruct the lives that she undermined –– as a general matter, by advocating for reform, and as a specific project: she is trying to go through the list of all the people she sentenced to see who deserves executive clemency.
Sunday, July 05, 2015
New York Times reviews juve problems with modern sex-offender laws
The front-page of today's New York Times has this lengthy article, headlined "Teenager’s Jailing Brings a Call to Fix Sex Offender Registries." Here are excerpts:
Until one day in December, Zachery Anderson was a typical 19-year-old in a small Midwestern city.... And he dated in the way that so many American teenagers do today: digitally and semianonymously, through apps where prospects emerge with the swipe of a finger and meetings are arranged after the exchanges of photos and texts.
In December, Mr. Anderson met a girl through Hot or Not, a dating app, and after some online flirting, he drove to pick her up at her house in Michigan, just miles over the state line. They had sex in a playground in Niles City, the police report said.
That sexual encounter has landed Mr. Anderson in a Michigan jail, and he now faces a lifetime entanglement in the legal system. The girl, who by her own account told Mr. Anderson that she was 17 — a year over the age of consent in Michigan — was actually 14.... He was [later] arrested and charged and, after pleading guilty to fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct, was sentenced to 90 days in jail and probation.
As an Indiana resident, Mr. Anderson will most likely be listed on a sex offender registry for life, a sanction that requires him to be in regular contact with the authorities, to allow searches of his home every 90 days and to live far from schools, parks and other public places. His probation will also require him to stay off the Internet, though he needs it to study computer science.
Some advocates and legal authorities are holding up Mr. Anderson’s case as the latest example of the overreach of sex offender registries, which gained favor in the 1990s as a tool for monitoring pedophiles and other people who committed sexual crimes. In the decades since, the registries have grown in number and scope; the nearly 800,000 people on registries in the United States go beyond adults who have sexually assaulted other adults or minors. Also listed are people found guilty of lesser offenses that run the gamut from urinating publicly to swapping lewd texts.
As Mr. Anderson’s defenders see it, his story is a parable of the digital age: the collision of the temporary relationships that young people develop on the Internet and the increasing criminalization of sexual activity through the expansion of online sex offender registries. “The whole registry is a horrible mistake,” said William Buhl, a former judge in Michigan who has publicly argued that laws governing registries ought to be relaxed. “I think it’s utterly ridiculous to take teenage sex and make it a felony. This guy is obviously not a pedophile.”...
There are fledgling efforts in some states to change sex offender registries so that they do not include juveniles or those guilty of minor offenses. In California, the corrections department announced in March that the state would ease residency requirements for many sex offenders, allowing certain lowrisk individuals to live in areas closer to schools and parks that were previously off limits. Many sex offenders have ended up broke and homeless, living in clusters under freeways because they are routinely rejected by employers and landlords, and because they are banned from living in so many neighborhoods that contain public places like parks.
Brenda V. Jones, the executive director of Reform Sex Offender Laws, an advocacy group, said cases like Mr. Anderson’s are common in many states. Frequently, a judge will give the lightest possible sentence, but cannot change the restrictions involving the offender registry. “It’s like a conviction on steroids,” Ms. Jones said. “Being on a registry becomes a liability for employers, no matter how minor the offense was. Other people will say: ‘I saw your employee on the Internet. He’s a sex offender, and I will not come to your establishment.’ ”
Changing the laws has been a slow fight. “People talk about it, but when you actually try to introduce legislation, lawmakers start to get really nervous,” Ms. Jones said. “Because, oh, my God, we’re going to be soft on sex offenders.”
Prior related post:
- Michigan teen, guilty of misdemeanor after encounter with girl claiming to be 17, facing extreme sex offender restrictions