Wednesday, November 05, 2014
"Fish, Shotguns and Judicial Activism"
The title of this post is the title of this terrific new Bloomberg commentary by Noah Feldman spotlighting some connected issues in the two big federal criminal justice cases being heard today by the US Supreme Court. Here are extended excerpts that explain why jurisprudes, and not just criminal justice fans, ought to be watching these cases closely:
Is a fish a tangible object? Does a sawed-off shotgun pose serious risk of injury? Laugh if you must, but the U.S. Supreme Court is taking up these questions in a pair of cases that will form another chapter in the saga of our vastly expanding federal criminal law. Funny as the cases may seem -- both funny strange and funny ha-ha -- they illustrate how policy and law constantly interact for a court deeply divided about the nature of statutory interpretation.
The fish case, Yates v. United States, involves a Florida fishing boat that was boarded and found to have 72 undersized grouper aboard. Ordered to bring the fish back to port where they would be used as evidence, the skipper, John Yates, instead threw them overboard and tried to substitute fish that were over the legal size requirement.
The criminal nature of the act seems intuitive. The part that has reached the Supreme Court on appeal stems from Yates’s conviction under a provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act that punishes anyone who “knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object.” The government says that Yates destroyed a tangible object, namely the fish. Yates says the law, passed after the Enron scandal, is intended to prohibit shredding documents, not throwing fish into the sea....
Aristotle, followed by today’s purpose-driven interpreters such as Justice Stephen Breyer, believed the solution is to interpret the law as its authors would have intended had they only thought of the future case. Others, such as Justice Antonin Scalia, reject the idea that the judge should do anything but apply the law as it is written. Ordinarily, you could expect the case to come down to this division, and to come out 5-4, depending on what Justice Anthony Kennedy thinks of it.
In Yates’s case, things are more complicated. Breyer may well reason that the underlying purpose of the statute is not to protect documents from destruction but to protect evidence in federal cases from being destroyed by defendants. If so, he would uphold Yates’s conviction insofar as Yates was clearly trying to get away with a crime by getting rid of the evidence.
For his part, Scalia may find himself affected by a special principle that he applies only in criminal cases: the “rule of lenity,” according to which an ambiguous statute should be interpreted in favor of the criminal defendant. If Scalia were to follow this principle, he might overturn the conviction.
Of course, whether to apply the rule of lenity depends on whether you think the law is ambiguous. The government says it isn’t: You can hold a fish, so it’s a tangible object. If Scalia thinks the ambiguity -- if any -- derives from context, not language, then according to his own jurisprudence, he shouldn’t apply the rule of lenity, and should uphold the conviction.
The shotgun case, Johnson v. United States, is no less challenging -- and no less odd. Samuel James Johnson, founder of something called the Aryan Liberation Movement, was arrested after he made the mistake of telling an undercover federal agent about his plans for attacking various non-Aryan targets. He was in possession of weapons including an AK-47 -- and that possession was a felony that would ordinarily have gotten him roughly 10 years in prison. But Johnson had three prior convictions. And under the federal Armed Career Criminal Act, a fourth conviction for a violent felony carries a minimum of 15 years.
The law defines “violent felony” to include a range of obvious crimes -- plus any “conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” One of Johnson’s prior state convictions was for possession of a short-barreled shotgun. Did owning the illegal shotgun pose a serious potential risk?
You won’t be surprised to hear what the gun lobby thinks about that in its friend of the court briefs -- but that’s not really the important point here. The crucial question is, what’s the meaning of the so-called residual clause of the repeat offender law? How should the courts define what counts as a serious risk of potential injury?
The Supreme Court has been answering that question on a case by case basis -- a practice disliked by, you guessed it, Justice Scalia. He thinks the law is unconstitutionally vague, because it doesn’t provide defendants sufficient notice or the courts adequate guidance. It’s easy to see why the law worries Scalia. He wants the courts to follow the law’s literal meaning, not its policy aims -- but it’s almost impossible not to inject policy when the law tells you to evaluate “serious potential risk of physical injury.”
The purpose-oriented justices look at the interpretive issue and see business as usual. To them, the courts must always consider policy and purpose, whether the subject is tangible fish or injurious firearms.
Who’s right is a deep question of jurisprudence. But as a practical matter, the cases show that Scalia’s approach, devoted to opposing judicial activism, won’t work when Congress actively wants the judiciary to make the law up as it goes along. If Scalia wants to avoid relying on his own judgment, he has to strike down the law as unconstitutional. And that isn’t judicial restraint. It’s activism.
Some previous related posts:
- SCOTUS hears argument in two notable federal criminal justice cases this week
- Terrific SCOTUSblog previews of this week's SCOTUS arguments in Johnson and Yates
- SCOTUS preview guest-post: "Measuring the Dangerousness of Felonies for Sentencing Purposes"
Monday, November 03, 2014
Arguing for releasing all drug prisoners and reparations to "right the drug war’s wrongs"
Lucy Steigerwald has this provocative new Washington Post blog/commentary piece headlined "Sentencing reform and how to right the drug war’s wrongs." Here are excerpts:
On November 1, the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s plan to reform sentencing for certain drug crimes went into effect. The details were hammered out back in April and July, and they could have been challenged by Congress. Thankfully, Congress declined to do so, and now the commission has a chance at helping nearly half of the 100,000 inmates in federal prison come home earlier than they otherwise would have.
For decades, the war on drugs rolled onward, leaving a pulpy mass of casualties in its wake. But since at least 2012, when Colorado and Washington state legalized recreational use of marijuana, there has been some serious strides against this dangerous domestic policy. Generally, however, any progress made on drugs has been confined to changing the legality of substances....
Even the tentative, good-but-not-good-enough Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine in 2010, was initially not retroactive until the USSC voted to make it so.... The USSC is doing something more substantial still with their new guidelines, which allow for retroactive petitioning for reduced time in prison starting in November 2015. Prisoners may begin petitioning for these reductions now, however. Unfortunately, those sentences cannot fall below the mandatory minimums, which can only be changed by Congress. Ideally, the Justice Safety Valve Act, introduced by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), which would give judges more flexibility to depart from mandatory minimums, will be eventually signed into law, allowing for some of the damages wrought by these mandatory sentences to be mitigated.
In addition, even though the sentencing reforms help the federal prison population, we are very far from instituting anything as optimistic on a statewide level. Most of the some-400,000 state prisoners in jail on drug-related crimes are out of luck unless they get individual commuting of their sentences.
As the war on drugs loses popularity, the question of what to do about the lives ruined and interrupted is going to come up again and again. One of the more fascinating, though politically unrealistic suggestions for what to do about this mess is one offered by a Green Party candidate for governor of New York: Howie Hawkins suggests releasing all drug prisoners, and putting together a “panel on reconciliation” between them and their communities and governments. They want voting rights restored, school grants restored, help for children of the former cons, and prevention of would-be employers asking about criminal histories. They even suggest full-on reparations for “the communities affected.”
This won’t pass muster, probably not even in the most liberal states. The slow reforms being offered by the USSC, and criminal justice advocates like Sen. Paul might be all we get. But the reparations idea does present a question of what society should do after the madness of a moral panic dims, and the end result turns out to be 2.3 million people in prison or jail. Most people wouldn’t object to a payment to any of the 147 people freed from death row, especially those who turned out to be unequivocally innocent. What happens when we realize that neither possessing nor selling drugs is a real criminal act? Doesn’t that suggest that we have a lot of innocent people in prison who will need a lot of help in restarting their lives?
Judge Rakoff highlights prosecutorial sentencing power in explaining "Why Innocent People Plead Guilty"
Regular readers know that US District Judge Jed Rakoff has become a prominent regular critic of many aspects of the modern federal criminal justice system. In the latest issue of The New York Review of Books, Judge Rakoff provides an astute and effective review of how prosecutors have come to possess considerable unregulated sentencing powers in our modern system dominated by plea bargainiang. His lengthy article's title, "Why Innocent People Plead Guilty," spotlights one key aspect of Judge Rakoff's concerns with the current system. But, as these passages reveal, his central theme in this must-read piece is unregulated prosecutorial powers:
The Sixth Amendment guarantees that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury.” The Constitution further guarantees that at the trial, the accused will have the assistance of counsel, who can confront and cross-examine his accusers and present evidence on the accused’s behalf. He may be convicted only if an impartial jury of his peers is unanimously of the view that he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and so states, publicly, in its verdict.
The drama inherent in these guarantees is regularly portrayed in movies and television programs as an open battle played out in public before a judge and jury. But this is all a mirage. In actuality, our criminal justice system is almost exclusively a system of plea bargaining, negotiated behind closed doors and with no judicial oversight. The outcome is very largely determined by the prosecutor alone....
Until late last year, federal prosecutors were under orders from a series of attorney generals to charge the defendant with the most serious charges that could be proved — unless, of course, the defendant was willing to enter into a plea bargain. If, however, the defendant wants to plead guilty, the prosecutor will offer him a considerably reduced charge — but only if the plea is agreed to promptly (thus saving the prosecutor valuable resources). Otherwise, he will charge the maximum, and, while he will not close the door to any later plea bargain, it will be to a higher-level offense than the one offered at the outset of the case.
In this typical situation, the prosecutor has all the advantages. He knows a lot about the case (and, as noted, probably feels more confident about it than he should, since he has only heard from one side), whereas the defense lawyer knows very little. Furthermore, the prosecutor controls the decision to charge the defendant with a crime. Indeed, the law of every US jurisdiction leaves this to the prosecutor’s unfettered discretion; and both the prosecutor and the defense lawyer know that the grand jury, which typically will hear from one side only, is highly likely to approve any charge the prosecutor recommends.
But what really puts the prosecutor in the driver’s seat is the fact that he — because of mandatory minimums, sentencing guidelines (which, though no longer mandatory in the federal system, are still widely followed by most judges), and simply his ability to shape whatever charges are brought — can effectively dictate the sentence by how he publicly describes the offense. For example, the prosecutor can agree with the defense counsel in a federal narcotics case that, if there is a plea bargain, the defendant will only have to plead guilty to the personal sale of a few ounces of heroin, which carries no mandatory minimum and a guidelines range of less than two years; but if the defendant does not plead guilty, he will be charged with the drug conspiracy of which his sale was a small part, a conspiracy involving many kilograms of heroin, which could mean a ten-year mandatory minimum and a guidelines range of twenty years or more. Put another way, it is the prosecutor, not the judge, who effectively exercises the sentencing power, albeit cloaked as a charging decision.
Long-time readers know that this article gets to the heart of debates that Bill Otis and I have often had over the virtues and vices of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions. Because Judge Rakoff comes down on my side of this debate, few should be surprised to hear that I am a big fan of this article (though I wish Judge Rakoff had also discussed and lamented how acquitted conduct sentencing rules in the federal system further enhances prosecutors' charging/plea/sentencing powers).
Prior related posts on Judge Rakoff's commentaries:
- "Why innocent people plead guilty": Judge Jed Rakoff suggests "tens of thousands of innocent people" have been "coerced into pleading guilty"
- Judge Rakoff calls for fraud guidelines to be "scrapped in their entirety" in favor of a "non-arithmetic, multi-factor test"
- Thoughtful response to Judge Rakoff's call to scrap fraud guidelines
Thursday, October 30, 2014
Notable criticism of Pope's advocacy against LWOP and "nurturing mommy" approach to government
As noted in this post last week, Pope Francis spoke out last week against life imprisonment and harsh sentencing systems focused more on punishment than social justice. This intriguing new American Spectator commentary by Mark Tooley takes issue with this papal advocacy, and concludes with complaints about governments failing to balance a "nurturing mommy" role with a "stern father role." Here are excerpts from an interestinf read:
Opposing life imprisonment raises questions. Should mass murderers be freed during their active lifetime? And what if they show no sign of remorse or rehabilitation? (My questions come respectfully from a Protestant who appreciates Catholic teaching.)
The Pope’s remarks acknowledged that official Catholic teaching still accepts the state’s rightful power to execute, quoting the Catechism that “the traditional teaching of the church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” News reports say he quoted the Catechism that “cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” It is not clear but presumably he also included the Catechism phrase immediately before those words, which cites the “possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm.”
What power does the state have for “rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm” except for the option of life imprisonment for recalcitrant murderers? It seems unlikely that many Americans, Catholic or otherwise, will advocate abolishing life imprisonment for heinous crimes. But recently Colorado’s pro-death penalty Republican gubernatorial candidate, a Catholic, recalled that Denver’s former bishop, Charles Chaput, had assured him that church doctrine is not against the death penalty....
The subtleties of Catholic teaching on capital punishment are difficult to translate into media sound bites or political explanations. Pope Francis’s comments against life imprisonment seem to go beyond the letter of the Catechism. Some activist American religionists, Catholic or otherwise, may latch on to them for a new campaign. But such an effort potentially would provoke a backlash and embolden defense of the death penalty.
Much of the American religious political witness today is totally uncomfortable with the state’s divine vocation for punitive action, much less lethal force. The New Testament offers little direct counsel on civil government’s responsibilities except, in St. Paul’s Romans 13, which warns that that “if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoers.” This language is pretty punitive.
But so much of modern American religious political witness prefers a highly non-punitive version of government. Their preferred vision likens the state to an indulgent, nurturing mommy, whose primary role is to feed, clothe, and ensure health care for all her children, while also welcoming all illegal immigrants, protecting the environment, lecturing against politically incorrect “hate speech,” and offering universal love, while simultaneously disarming in a way ironically that likely inhibits physical protection for her children.
Most of this mommy work the Scriptures and Christian tradition actually assign chiefly to the church, which is metaphorically a mother and the Bride of Christ. The Romans 13 focus for the state more resembles a stern father, who dispenses impartial but severe justice for the protection of his children. This sort of paternal state, unlike the sensitive mommy, reserves its interventions for dangerous misconduct. And it lets its charges pick themselves up from their stumbles, that they might grow strong, not remain immature through ceaseless coddling.
A true balance in society aligns nurturing mommy with stern father, both fulfilling their complementary roles in creation. The absence of one distorts human reality and creates corruption and tragedy. Pope Francis doubtless has earnest reasons for speaking against even life imprisonment. But his sentiments will likely only inspire the chronic mommy vision of the state already preferred by so many do-gooding religionists.
Religious leaders need to restore balance by citing Romans 13 and explaining the punitive, morally imperative stern father role of the state that is divinely ordained and essential for human justice.
Prior related post:
Monday, October 27, 2014
"Truth, Justice, and the American Style Plea Bargain"
The title of this post is the title of this article by Ken Strutin now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
In the 2011 term, the Supreme Court decided two cases, Missouri v. Frye and Lafler v. Cooper, which highlighted whether the Sixth Amendment right to counsel safeguarded the integrity of the trial or encompassed non-trial facets such as the plea bargain. This line of decisions has been followed most recently by Burt v. Titlow, which further defined the role of postconviction record-making in assessing the fundamental question: Did the right to effective assistance of counsel protect the accuracy of the verdict or the fairness of the process?
Through the prism of recent Supreme Court plea bargaining decisions this Article examines their implications for the competing goals of truth versus process. Part I frames the argument about the nature of criminal justice and the tension between fact-finding trials and resolution making plea negotiations. Then, those values are scrutinized in the context of three recent and watershed Supreme Court decisions: Part II Missouri v. Frye, Part III Lafler v. Cooper, and Part IV Burt v. Titlow. Lastly, Part V considers the lessons of wrongful incarceration as guideposts to align accuracy with certainty in the administration of justice.
Friday, October 24, 2014
Unpacking the reasons given for public support and opposition to the death penalty
Gallup now has published this intriguing piece, headlined "Americans: 'Eye for an Eye' Top Reason for Death Penalty," which provides some interesting additional insights concerning Gallup's latest polling data on support for capital punishment (reported here). Here are some of the highlights:
Americans who favor the death penalty most often cite "an eye for an eye" as the reason they hold their position, with 35% mentioning it. "Save taxpayers money" and "they deserve it" tie as the second-most-popular reasons Americans volunteer in this open-ended measure, at 14% each....
This is the fourth time Gallup has probed Americans to state, in their own words, why they hold the position they do on the death penalty. Americans who say they support the death penalty have given a variety of responses over the years, but the biblical phrase "an eye for an eye," or retaliation, consistently has been named as the No. 1 reason why the death penalty should be applied. However, this reason's pre-eminence has waned since Gallup first asked this question in 1991, when half of Americans who favor the death penalty mentioned it....
While a majority of Americans tilt in favor of the death penalty, the one in three Americans who oppose it also have a diversity of views as to why the ultimate penalty should not be used. "Wrong to take a life" has been the top reason for opposing it since 1991, by comfortable margins.
In two of the three times Gallup has asked this question, "persons may be wrongly convicted" has been the No. 2 justification Americans give for opposing the death penalty, along with reasons grounded in religious beliefs, including that "punishment should be left to God." Yet "wrong to take a life" is still the most popular open-ended response by a more than 2-to-1 margin.
Over at Crime & Consequences, Kent Scheidegger has an extended discussion of what these results should help us understand about modern death penalty perspectives and arguments. Here is how that post finishes up:
Most folks make up their minds on justice and morality. These positions are largely undebatable. One who believes that executing Ted Bundy was fundamentally right and reducing Charles Manson's sentence to life was fundamentally wrong isn't going to change his mind, and the person who believes the opposite isn't going to change his either.
The utilitarians are a minority, but a substantial one. That is where the people who might change their minds based on data and arguments are, so that is where the arguments are directed.
Thursday, October 23, 2014
"How Changes in American Culture Triggered Hyper-Incarceration: Variations on the Tazian View"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Christopher Slobogin now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
American imprisonment rates are far higher than the rates in virtually every Western country, even after taking into account differing rates of crime. The late Professor Andrew Taslitz suggested that at least one explanation for this puzzle is the relative lack of “populist, deliberative democracy” in the United States.
This article, written for a symposium honoring Professor Taslitz, examines that thesis from a comparative perspective, looking in particular at how differences between American and European attitudes toward populism, capitalism, religiosity, racial attitudes and proceduralism may have led to increased incarceration rates. It also tries to explain another puzzle that has received little attention: why these cultural differences, which have existed for some time, only had an impact on incarceration rates after the 1960s.
Pope Francis now advocating for total abolition of LWOP sentences as well as the death penalty
As reported in this story from the Catholic News Service, the leader of the Catholic Church can now be added to the list of persons vocally advocating against life without parole sentences. Here are the details:
Pope Francis called for abolition of the death penalty as well as life imprisonment, and denounced what he called a "penal populism" that promises to solve society's problems by punishing crime instead of pursuing social justice.
"It is impossible to imagine that states today cannot make use of another means than capital punishment to defend peoples' lives from an unjust aggressor," the pope said Oct. 23 in a meeting with representatives of the International Association of Penal Law.
"All Christians and people of good will are thus called today to struggle not only for abolition of the death penalty, whether it be legal or illegal and in all its forms, but also to improve prison conditions, out of respect for the human dignity of persons deprived of their liberty. And this, I connect with life imprisonment," he said. "Life imprisonment is a hidden death penalty." The pope noted that the Vatican recently eliminated life imprisonment from its own penal code.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, cited by Pope Francis in his talk, "the traditional teaching of the church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor," but modern advances in protecting society from dangerous criminals mean that "cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent."...
The pope denounced the detention of prisoners without trial, who he said account for more than 50 percent of all incarcerated people in some countries. He said maximum security prisons can be a form of torture, since their "principal characteristic is none other than external isolation," which can lead to "psychic and physical sufferings such as paranoia, anxiety, depression and weight loss and significantly increase the chance of suicide." He also rebuked unspecified governments involved in kidnapping people for "illegal transportation to detention centers in which torture is practiced."
The pope said criminal penalties should not apply to children, and should be waived or limited for the elderly, who "on the basis of their very errors can offer lessons to the rest of society. We don't learn only from the virtues of saints but also from the failings and errors of sinners."
Pope Francis said contemporary societies overuse criminal punishment, partially out of a primitive tendency to offer up "sacrificial victims, accused of the disgraces that strike the community." The pope said some politicians and members of the media promote "violence and revenge, public and private, not only against those responsible for crimes, but also against those under suspicion, justified or not."
He denounced a growing tendency to think that the "most varied social problems can be resolved through public punishment ... that by means of that punishment we can obtain benefits that would require the implementation of another type of social policy, economic policy and policy of social inclusion." Using techniques similar to those of racist regimes of the past, the pope said, unspecified forces today create "stereotypical figures that sum up the characteristics that society perceives as threatening."
Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Does new DOJ appointee want to decriminalize all drug possession ... and would that be so bad?
The questions posed by the title of this post are prompted by this recent commentary authored by Cully Stimson and titled "The New Civil Rights Division Head Wants to Decriminalize Possession of All Drugs." Here are excerpts:
So who supports decriminalizing cocaine, heroin, LSD, methamphetamine, ecstasy and all dangerous drugs, including marijuana? No, it’s not your teenage nephew. It’s President Obama’s new acting head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Vanita Gupta. In 2012, Gupta wrote that “states should decriminalize simple possession of all drugs, particularly marijuana, and for small amounts of other drugs.” (Emphasis mine).
Last week, President Obama appointed Vanita Gupta to the position of acting head. According to the Washington Post, the administration plans to nominate her in the next few months to become the permanent assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division. Her views on sentencing reform – a bi-partisan effort in recent years – have earned her qualified kudos from some conservatives. But her radical views on drug policy – including her opinion that states should decriminalize possession of all drugs (cocaine, heroin, LSD, ecstasy, marijuana etc.) should damper that support of those conservatives, and raise serious concerns on Capitol Hill....
To begin, she believes that the misnamed war on drugs “is an atrocity and that it must be stopped.” She has written that the war on drugs has been a “war on communities of color” and that the “racial disparities are staggering.” As the reliably-liberal Huffington Post proclaimed, she would be one of the most liberal nominees in the Obama administration.
Throughout her career, 39-year old Gupta has focused mainly on two things related to the criminal justice system: first, what she terms draconian “mass incarceration,” which has resulted in a “bloated prison population, and second, the war on drugs and what she believes are its perceived failures.
She is particularly open about her support for marijuana legalization, arguing in a recent CNN.com op-ed that the “solution is clear: …states could follow Colorado and Washington by taxing and regulating marijuana and investing saved enforcement dollars in education, substance abuse treatment, and prevention and other health care.”...
But Gupta does not stop with marijuana. In calling for all drugs to be decriminalized – essentially legalizing all dangerous drugs – Gupta displays a gross lack of understanding of the intrinsic dangers of these drugs when consumed in any quantity.
Heroin, LSD, ecstasy, and methanqualone are Schedule I drugs, which are defined as “the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.” Cocaine, methamphetamine, Demerol and other drugs are Schedule II drugs, defined as “drugs with a high potential for abuse…with use potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence.”
Sound public policy must be based on facts, not radical unsafe, and dangerous theories.
I concur 100% with the statement at the end of this commentary that "sound public policy must be based on facts," and that it why I am more than a bit troubled that this commentary quite false asserts that Gupta's seemingly reasonable suggestion that persons should not be deemed criminals for possessing a small amount of a narcotic is tantamount to advocacy for "legalizing all dangerous drugs."
The term "decriminalize" in this context means to treat in a less-serious regulatory manner like we treat traffic offenses. Nobody would assert that we have "essentially legalized" all speeding and other traffic offenses because we only respond to the offense with fines and limited criminal sanctions. Likewise, advocacy for decriminalizing simple possession of small amounts of drugs is not the equivalent of endorsing a fully legalized marketplace for drugs comparable to what we are seeing in a few states now with marijuana.
That all said, I think Vanita Gupta's suggestion that states decriminalize simple possession of drugs as a way to de-escalate the drug war, as well as Cully Stimson's obvious concerns with such a suggestion, are very legitimate issues for engaged political and public policy debate. (For the record, I would generally support most state drug-decriminalization efforts, though I also would generally advocate that criminal sanctions kick in based on possession of larger dealer-size quantities of certain drugs.) I am pleased to see this commentary, even in a effort to assail a new DOJ nominee, start to bring overdue attention to these important modern drug-war issues. But I hope in the future Mr. Stimson and others will make and understand the important distinction between advocating for decriminalization and advocating for full legalization.
October 22, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack
Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Bladerunner Oscar Pistorius sentenced to five years in prison for killing girlfriend
As reported in this lengthy CNN piece, "Oscar Pistorius' fall from grace culminated Tuesday with a five-year sentence in the shooting death of his girlfriend." Here is more:
The sentence was imposed for the charge of culpable homicide, which in South Africa means a person was killed unintentionally, but unlawfully. Under South African law, he will have to serve at least one-sixth of his sentence -- 10 months -- before he can ask to be placed under correctional supervision, usually house arrest, instead....
During his trial, the double-amputee sprinter often sobbed at the mention of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp's name. He insisted that he mistook her for an intruder when he shot her through a toilet door on Valentine's Day 2013. But there was very little visible reaction from Pistorius as the sentence was read out in the Pretoria court.
Speaking to CNN's Robyn Curnow in the last few weeks before his sentencing, Pistorius told her that he would respect and accept the decision of the court and that he was not afraid of imprisonment. He said he hoped to contribute while in prison by teaching people how to read or start a gym or running club. "Oscar will embrace this opportunity to pay back to society," his uncle, Arnold Pistorius, told reporters. "As an uncle, I hope Oscar will start his own healing process as he walks down the path of restoration. As a family, we are ready to support and guide Oscar as he serves his sentence."
The Steenkamp family's lawyer, Dup De Bruyn, said in a statement: "The family is satisfied. They are glad that it is over and are satisfied that justice has been done."
The prosecution had asked for a minimum prison sentence of 10 years for Pistorius. After the ruling Tuesday, South Africa's National Prosecuting Authority said it had not yet decided whether to appeal Judge Thokozile Masipa's verdict that he is not guilty of murder. Pistorius' defense had called for a sentence of house arrest and community service. There was no immediate reaction from the defense team on the sentencing. Both sides now have a 14-day period in which they can choose to lodge any appeal, according to CNN legal analyst Kelly Phelps....
Giving her reasoning Tuesday, Masipa emphasized that the decision on sentencing would be "mine and mine alone." She pointed out that sentencing is not an exact science but relies on an assessment of elements, including the nature and seriousness of the crime, the personal circumstances of the accused and the interests of society.
She said she would also take into account the factors in sentencing of retribution, deterrence and rehabilitation. In any case, she said, "sentencing is about achieving the right balance."
In her final remarks, Masipa dismissed evidence given by probation officer Annette Vergeer that prison would not be able to accommodate Pistorius' disability, saying her testimony was based on outdated information and sketchy. She said Pistorius would not present the prison system with an "insurmountable challenge."
The judge added that she felt that Pistorius' vulnerability had been overemphasized in the evidence given and that his excellent coping strategies -- shown in his ability to compete with able-bodied athletes -- had been overlooked. He would be able to continue treatment for physical problems and mental health issues while in prison, she said.
In terms of the seriousness of the offense, Masipa said Pistorius had shown gross negligence in shooting into a small toilet cubicle, knowing there was someone inside who could not escape. He also knew how to handle firearms, she said, adding that these were "very aggravating" factors.
On the other hand, mitigating factors include that Pistorius is a first offender and remorseful, Masipa said. She also mentioned his contribution to society in giving his time and money to charities and inspiring others with disabilities to believe they could succeed.
Perhaps seeking to preempt criticism from those who'd like to see either a tougher or more lenient sentence, Masipa pointed out that the purpose of the court is to serve the public interest, not make itself popular. She also indicated that her sentence wasn't affected by Pistorius' fame. "It would be a sad day for this country if the impression was to be created that there was one law for the poor and disadvantaged and another for the rich and famous," she said.
The judge also highlighted the loss suffered by Steenkamp's family, which has had a negative effect on her father's health. Steenkamp was young, vivacious and full of life at the time of her death, she said. "The loss of life cannot be reversed. Nothing I say or do today can reverse what happened," she said.
Previous related post:
October 21, 2014 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
Thursday, October 16, 2014
Author John Grisham says "we've gone nuts with this incarceration" of child porn downloaders
One of my (many) wonderful students alerted me to this notable UK press piece reporting on an interview with famous law author John Grisham who had some interesting (and likely-to-be-controversial) comments about tough sentencing for those who download child porn. The article is headlined "John Grisham: men who watch child porn are not all paedophiles," and here are excerpts:
America is wrongly jailing far too many people for viewing child pornography, the best-selling legal novelist John Grisham has told The Telegraph in a wide-ranging attack on the US judicial system and the country's sky-high prison rates. Mr Grisham, 59, argued America's judges had "gone crazy" over the past 30 years, locking up far too many people, from white collar criminals like the businesswoman Martha Stewart, to black teenagers on minor drugs charges and — he added — those who had viewed child porn online.
"We have prisons now filled with guys my age. Sixty-year-old white men in prison who've never harmed anybody, would never touch a child," he said in an exclusive interview to promote his latest novel Gray Mountain which is published next week. "But they got online one night and started surfing around, probably had too much to drink or whatever, and pushed the wrong buttons, went too far and got into child porn."
The author of legal thrillers such as The Firm and A Time to Kill who has sold more than 275m books during his 25-year career, cited the case of a "good buddy from law school" who was caught up in a Canadian child porn sting operation a decade ago as an example of excessive sentencing. "His drinking was out of control, and he went to a website. It was labelled 'sixteen year old wannabee hookers or something like that'. And it said '16-year-old girls'. So he went there. Downloaded some stuff — it was 16 year old girls who looked 30.
"He shouldn't ’a done it. It was stupid, but it wasn't 10-year-old boys. He didn't touch anything. And God, a week later there was a knock on the door: ‘FBI!’ and it was sting set up by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to catch people — sex offenders — and he went to prison for three years."
"There's so many of them now. There's so many 'sex offenders' — that's what they're called — that they put them in the same prison. Like they're a bunch of perverts, or something; thousands of ’em. We've gone nuts with this incarceration," he added in his loft-office in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Asked about the argument that viewing child pornography fuelled the industry of abuse needed to create the pictures, Mr Grisham said that current sentencing policies failed to draw a distinction between real-world abusers and those who downloaded content, accidentally or otherwise. "I have no sympathy for real paedophiles,” he said, "God, please lock those people up. But so many of these guys do not deserve harsh prison sentences, and that's what they're getting," adding sentencing disparities between blacks and whites was likely to be the subject of his next book.
There are currently some 2.2m people in jail in the US — or more than 750 per 100,000 population — which makes the US by far the heaviest user of prison sentences in the world. By contrast, Britain imprisons just 154 per 100,000 population. However Mr Grisham’s remarks are likely to anger child-rights campaigners that over the past decade have successfully lobbied the US Congress to demand tougher sentences for those who access child pornography online.
Since 2004 average sentences for those who possess — but do not produce — child pornography have nearly doubled in the US, from 54 months in 2004 to 95 months in 2010, according to a 2012 report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. However the issue of sex-offender sentencing has sparked some debate in the US legal community after it emerged that in some cases those who viewed child porn online were at risk of receiving harsher sentences than those who committed physical acts against children.
A provocative article in the libertarian magazine Reason headlined "Looking v Touching" argued last February that something was "seriously wrong with a justice system in which people who look at images of child rape can be punished more severely than people who rape children". And in January this year the US Supreme Court was unable to resolve a debate over whether a man who viewed images of a child rape should be as liable to pay the same financial compensation to the victim as the original perpetrator of the crime.
UPDATE: As I expected, John Grisham's child porn sentencing comments has stirred controversy and he has already issued a formal apology. This CNN story provides the basics of the early aftermath:
Those comments and the nature in which Grisham discussed the very serious issue of child pornography incited a flood of hurt, disappointed and angry reactions from fans.
"The day that you came out in an interview and said that watchers of child porn get too stiff of a penalty for it (you said 10 years was too much) makes you someone that I cannot support nor no longer want to read," a reader named Kendra Benefield Lausman shared on Grisham's Facebook page; another posted that she's taken her entire Grisham library to her "burn barrel" with the intent to set the books on fire.
"How do you think child porn is made?" a poster named John Kelly asked on Grisham's page. "Someone is still getting hurt you imbecile. I'm sad to say that I will never purchase, nor consume, one of your books ever again. I am disgusted."
After the uproar began, Grisham issued an apology.
"Anyone who harms a child for profit or pleasure, or who in any way participates in child pornography -- online or otherwise -- should be punished to the fullest extent of the law," the author said in a statement. "My comments made two days ago during an interview with the British newspaper The Telegraph were in no way intended to show sympathy for those convicted of sex crimes, especially the sexual molestation of children. I can think of nothing more despicable. I regret having made these comments, and apologize to all."
That may not be enough for some of his former followers. "You clearly said in the interview that people (like your drunk friend) who look at child porn don't deserve severe punishment," Facebook user Raylene Jolly Wheeler posted in response to Grisham. "Not sure how you can backtrack that statement."
"Risk and Needs Assessment: Constitutional and Ethical Challenges"
The title of this post is the title of this timely and notable new paper by Melissa Hamilton recently posted on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Across jurisdictions, the criminal justice system is enamored with the evidence-based practices movement. The idea is to utilize the best scientific data to identify and classify individuals based on their potential future risk of reoffending, and then to manage offender populations according to risk and criminogenic needs. Risk-needs tools now inform a variety of criminal justice decisions, ranging from pre-trial outcomes, to sentencing, to post-conviction supervision. While evidence-based methodologies are widely exalted as representing best practices, constitutional and moral objections have been raised.
Risk-needs tools incorporate a host of constitutionally and morally sensitive factors, such as demographic and other immutable characteristics. The constitutional analysis herein engages equal protection, prisoners’ rights, due process, and sentencing law. In addition, the text examines the philosophical polemic aimed uniquely at sentencing as to whether risk should play any role at all in determining punishment.
The Article then appraises potential alternatives for risk-needs methodologies if the concerns so raised by critics prove legitimate. Any option comes with significant consequences. Retaining offensive variables incites political and ethical reproaches, while simply excising them weakens statistical validity of the underlying models and diminishes the promise of evidence-based practices. Promoting an emphasis on risk at sentencing dilutes the focus of punishment on blameworthiness, while neglecting risk and needs sabotages a core objective of the new penological model of harnessing the ability to identify and divert low risk offenders to appropriate community-based alternatives.
October 16, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack
Wednesday, October 08, 2014
Distinctive religious perspective on the drug war for the season
In the wake of the recent Jewish high holy days, I found especially notable and timely this recent commentary appearing in The Forward authored by Hanna Liebman Dershowitz. The piece is headlined "A Drug Policy That Denies Repentance: We Are Ruining The Lives of Small Time Users," and here are excerpts:
We are emerging from the Day of Repentance — a time for contrition for misdeeds, focusing on self-improvement and making a fresh start. But what about people who don’t have the luxury of wiping their slates clean, even for minor transgressions? Are our laws and policies robbing millions of citizens of their own opportunities to turn toward good, to achieve the possibility of teshuvah, atonement, that we claim for ourselves each year?
For decades this country has pursued a policy of mass arrest and imprisonment of people for possessing drugs. The consequences of being prosecuted for simple drug possession — conduct that does not harm other people’s bodies or property — can affect people for the rest of their lives, and wreak untold cost on our country and our society.
A criminal record can cripple job prospects and much more. Individuals with a record are often denied child custody, voting rights, business financing, professional licenses, student loans and public housing....
The United States has a higher level of incarceration than any other country. Today, more than 2.3 million people are behind bars in America. Almost one in four of them are there for drug offenses, many serving extensive mandatory minimum sentences. It is costing us dearly in lives and dollars.
And what has been gained? No appreciable reduction in use or in rates of addiction. By contrast, we have degraded the conditions that promote recovery for those who are addicted — such as access to treatment, access to support networks, gainful employment and education. It feels like we are tearing apart communities when we don’t need to. In 2012, upward of 1.5 million Americans were arrested for drugs. More than 80% of those arrests were for possession of small amounts.
Meanwhile, focusing too much attention on drug possessors often leads to perverse results. For example, in 2008, in California alone, 61,000 people were arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana; that same year, 60,000 violent crimes in California went unsolved. When drug arrests are made, testing the drugs in crime labs often jumps ahead of testing rape kits and other evidence from violent crimes, because there is a suspect in custody and the courts need evidence to sustain the prosecution. In various ways, the focus on arresting drug users has atrophied our ability to address violent crime and other public safety threats.
Equally troubling, penalties for drug use fall disproportionately on people of color. Arrest rates of African-Americans for marijuana possession (the bulk of drug arrests) are many times higher — in some areas, as much as 10 times higher — than for whites in most United States cities, despite the fact that black and white people use drugs at similar rates. Although they make up 13% of America’s population, blacks make up fully 31% of arrests for drug offenses and more than 40% of incarcerations. A recent study found that prosecutors are twice as likely to pursue a mandatory minimum sentence for blacks as they are for whites. This is about dehumanizing and demoralizing large numbers of citizens and stripping them of their dignity. We as Jews should recognize and strenuously oppose these unfair and discriminatory practices.
Is this how we want our system to respond to this kind of nonviolent conduct? What does it mean to be a law-abiding citizen if a person cannot make the conscious choice to walk a positive path even after a transgression? Continuing consequences, especially for minor nonviolent acts, seem to render hollow the concepts of forgiveness, redemption and community healing.
The implications of policies should be particularly resonant to us during this season of renewal. We have fasted, made our amends and hoped we were inscribed in the book of life. We should abhor a system that erases other people’s chances to atone simply because those people chose an action we have singled out for disdain.
Criticizing the tenure of AG Eric Holder based on the death penalty as a human rights issue
This extended New Republic commentary authored by Mugambi Jouet, somewhat inaccurately titled "What Eric Holder — and Most Americans — Don't Understand About the Death Penalty," takes shots at Holder's specific record on the death penalty:
Attorney General Eric Holder's recent resignation announcement prompted a flurry of assessments on his six years of service under President Obama. He let Wall Street off too easy. He was a hero to the poor. He compromised civil liberties in the name of national security—and defended civil rights better than any attorney general before him. But the debate over Holder’s record has overlooked one of the most important aspects of his legacy. Holder has been profoundly at odds with the rest of the Western world on one of the most significant human rights issues of our time: the death penalty.
All Western democracies except America have abolished capital punishment and consider it an inherent human rights violation. America further stands out as one of the countries that execute the most people. Thirty-nine prisoners were executed by the United States in 2013. While that figure marked a continuing decline in the annual number of U.S. executions, it still placed America fifth worldwide, right behind several authoritarian regimes: China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.
No federal prisoner has been executed since 2003, yet Holder’s decisions could ultimately lead this de facto moratorium to end, as he authorized federal prosecutors to pursue capital punishment in several dozen cases. "Even though I am personally opposed to the death penalty, as Attorney General I have to enforce federal law," Holder has argued. Prosecutors actually have the discretion not to pursue the death penalty at all — at the risk of losing popularity — since enforcing the law does not require pursuing capital punishment as opposed to incarceration....
Holder notably approved the decision to seek the death penalty in the federal trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is accused of perpetrating the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013 — and whom a majority of Americans want to be executed. Nevertheless, the state of Massachusetts has abolished the death penalty and only 33 percent of Boston residents support executing Tsarnaev as opposed to sentencing him to life in prison without parole. However, Holder’s decisions supporting capital punishment have hardly been limited to terrorism cases. For example, he authorized the recent decision to seek the death penalty for Jessie Con-Ui, a Pennsylvania prisoner accused of murdering a federal correctional officer....
The death penalty is rarely framed as a human rights issue in America, unlike in other Western democracies. That's partly because the principle of human rights plays a very limited role overall in the legal and political debate in the U.S., where "human rights" commonly evoke foreign problems like abuses in Third World dictatorships — not problems at home.
The situation is different on the other side of the Atlantic, where the European Court of Human Rights tackles a broad range of problems facing European states, from freedom of speech to labor rights, discrimination, and criminal justice reform. National human rights commissions also exist in multiple countries, including Australia, Denmark, France, Germany, and New Zealand. These bodies focus mostly or exclusively on monitoring domestic compliance with human rights standards. On the other hand, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, an arm of the U.S. Congress, focuses on the human rights records of foreign countries.
The relative absence of human rights as a principle in modern America is remarkable given how U.S. leaders actively promoted the concept in its infancy. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt invoked “human rights” in his “Four Freedoms Speech” of 1941. Eleanor Roosevelt was among the architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. As the human rights movement progressed in later decades, Martin Luther King said in 1968 that “we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights.”
Even though Holder regards King as one of his models — and despite his proposals to make the U.S. penal system less punitive and discriminatory — the nation’s first black attorney general hardly put human rights at the center of his agenda.
The death penalty is far from the only human right issue where America stands apart from other Western democracies. America effectively has the world’s top incarceration rate, with 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners. America is likewise virtually alone worldwide in authorizing life imprisonment for juveniles. Its reliance on extremely lengthy periods of solitary confinement has been denounced by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture. The extreme punishments regularly meted to U.S. prisoners are generally considered flagrant human rights violations in other Western countries. Nevertheless, Holder argued that America has “the greatest justice system the world has ever known.”
By the same token, no other modern Western democracy has gone as far as America in disregarding international human rights standards as part of anti-terrorism measures. This trend has been epitomized by indefinite detention at Guantanamo and the torture of alleged terrorists under the Bush administration. These practices have sharply divided U.S. public opinion but only a segment of Americans have depicted them as “human rights” abuses....
[T]he limited weight of human rights in the U.S. legal and political debate is not without consequences. Human rights are a far stronger basis to oppose practices like the death penalty or torture than the administrative arguments frequently invoked in America. The human rights argument against such practices is largely based on the premise that they violate human dignity....
Holder's narrow focus on problems with the administration of capital punishment suggests that he is among the many U.S. public officials and reformers who believe they have no duty to assess the “moral” issues regarding the death penalty. Whether this stance is justified or not, it seems quite exceptionally American in the modern Western world. Most contemporary European, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealander jurists probably would disagree with the notion that it is not their duty to assess whether executions violate human dignity.
Martin Luther King, who considered the death penalty an affront to human dignity, argued that “a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” Perhaps Eric Holder — and his boss, Barack Obama — would have been willing to argue that the death penalty is dehumanizing if they did not fear losing popularity.
Wednesday, October 01, 2014
Peculiar (judicial?) screed against evidence-based sentencing "fad" based on the "need to be realistic"?!!?
I have long been intrigued and generally impressed by the writings and work of Colorado state judge Morris Hoffman. However, this new USA Today commentary by Judge Hoffman, headlined "Emptying prisons is no panacea: Deterring others matters as much as rehabilitation," has me scratching my head about what prompted a thoughtful judge to produce a peculiar screed against evidence-based sentencing. At the risk of making this post much too long, I will reprint the whole commentary before explaining why it made my head hurt this morning:
Just days before Attorney General Eric Holder announced his resignation, the Department of Justice announced one of his signature achievements. After growing for decades, the federal prison population has started to decline. The new data were greeted with wide acclaim, but before we embrace the idea that fewer prisoners is always good, let's step back and consider whether at least one of the drivers of our declining prison population is a good idea.
Like all humans, judges are susceptible to fads. Anger management became a popular feature of American probationary sentences in the 1980s. Teen courts and drug courts followed. The new fad is "evidence-based sentencing." It is both a refreshing attempt at rationality and a dangerous rejection of human nature.
Evidence-based sentencing purports to redirect judges' attention from old-fashioned retribution to enlightened deterrence and rehabilitation. Judges across the country are attending innumerable evidence-based sentencing conferences that focus on how incarceration affects recidivism rates. The claim is that incarceration costs much more than its deterrent benefits. Judges should think twice before throwing away the key.
We don't need conferences to make that point. One of the hidden truths of criminal justice is that most judges, including me, give criminals chance after chance before we sentence them to prison. There are exceptions, such as serious violent crimes and drug crimes that carry mandatory prison sentences. But, for the most part, defendants have to really work hard to land in prison.
We should applaud efforts to put data over gut instinct when trying to predict the future behaviors of our defendants. But we also need to be realistic. There's a reason science stinks at predicting individual behavior. An almost infinite number of bits of data contribute to human decision-making, including the billions of base pairs in our DNA and a lifetime of brain-changing individual experiences, among other things. Not to mention that unscientific interloper: free will.
There is a much more serious problem with evidence-based sentencing. It ignores the most important reason we punish wrongdoers. When I sentence a bank robber to prison, the idea is not just to deter him from robbing again ("specific deterrence"). I also want to deter other people who might be considering robbing a bank ("general deterrence").
General deterrence is what makes us a civilized society. It is the glue that holds us together under the rule of law. It is so deeply engrained, every human society that has left a record shows evidence it punished its wrongdoers. Indeed, our tendency to punish wrongdoers is most likely an evolved trait, which we needed in order to keep our intensely social small groups from unravelling in selfishness. By focusing on specific deterrence, evidence-based sentencing mavens ignore 5,000 years of civilized wisdom and 200,000 years of human evolution.
They seem to recognize this failing, but only half-heartedly. They tend to downplay crimes such as rape and murder to focus on low-harm crimes. But burglary and theft tear the social fabric more broadly simply because they are more frequent. Indeed, low-harm crimes are often crimes of cold economic predation rather than hot emotion. For them, deterrence can be more effective. Giving thieves and burglars a stern lecture and probation, just because some social scientists tell us prison doesn't rehabilitate them, is a surefire way to increase thefts and burglaries.
Those of us fortunate enough to live in civilized societies owe that civilization to the rule of law, which means nothing without the bite of punishment. Punishment must be merciful, but it should not be abandoned to misguided claims that it does not deter.
Candidly, this commentary has so many disconnected and illogical assertions, I have too many criticisms to fit into this blog space. But I can start by highlighting how curious it is that the AG's discussion of the reduction in the federal prison population, brought about largely through changes in federal drug sentencing policies and practices, leads to a state judge worrying we risk not punishing "thieves and burglars" enough to achieve general deterrence. Moreover, AG Holder was bragging last week that in recent years we have lowered prison populations AND lowered crime rates. What evidence-based sentencing seeks to do is find ways to better achieve both specific and general deterrence without continue to rely so heavily on the very costly and too-often-ineffective punishment of imprisonment.
More fundamentally, what really troubled me about Judge Hoffman's analysis is his misguided and harmful perspectives (1) that focused attention to data and evidence about imprisonment's impact on crime is a "fad," and (2) that only lengthy terms of incarceration constitute "real" punishment that can deter. On the first point, I wonder if Judge Hoffman urges his doctors not to be caught up in the "fad" of practicing "evidence-based" medicine. After all, given that "almost infinite number of bits of data contribute" to human health (not to mention that "unscientific interloper, free will"), perhaps Judge Hoffman encourages his doctors to be "realistic" that he is going to die eventually anyway. Indeed, perhaps we ought to be suspect about all efforts to improve and extend human life by "evidence-based [medicine] mavens [who] ignore 5,000 years of civilized wisdom and 200,000 years of human evolution" which shows we all end up dead anyway.
Truth be told, what is truly a "fad" in light of "5,000 years of civilized wisdom and 200,000 years of human evolution" is the extreme use of extreme terms of imprisonment that has come to define the modern American experience with punishment. Brutal physical punishments and public shaming punishment have been the norm and the means use to deter crime in most other societies throughout human history (and in the US until fairly recently). Moreover, all serious social and scientific research on human behavior has demonstrated that the swiftness and certainty of punishment, not its severity, is critical to achieving both specific and general deterrence. That is one (of many) reasons evidence-based sentencing makes long-terms of imprisonment look a lot less effective, at least relative to its high costs, than various other possible punishments.
I could go on and on, but I will conclude by encouraging everyone to appreciate that evidence-based reforms in lots of settings often provoke these kinds of old-world reactions: typically, folks who benefit from or prefer an old-world "faithful" view about how they think the world works will be eager to question and seek to discredit reformers who suggest science and data provides a new perspective that requires significant reform and changes to the status quo. And though I always hope to show respect for old-world "faithful" perspectives, I get worked up by attacks on evidence-based reforms because I am ultimately much more a creature of science than a creature of faith.
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
What should be made of the tough prosecution/punishment trend for animal abuse?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this front-page New York Times article headlined "He Kicked a Stray Cat, and Activists Growled." Here are excerpts:
On one side are the activists. Once dismissed as cat ladies or fringe do-gooders, they have come to wield real power through funding, organization and a focus on legal remedies for animal abuse. They have embraced social-media campaigns; offered rewards to potential witnesses to animal abuse; trained prosecutors; and made inroads in pushing law enforcement across the country to arrest, and seek jail time for, animal abusers.
Yet lawyers defending the accused say that punishment can seem disproportionate to the crime when an animal is the victim. They say that putting people in jail can have serious long-term effects, from starting or strengthening gang affiliations, to taking someone away from school or a job to which they may not return. “The nature of the crime should not automatically mandate a jail sentence if a person is found guilty,” said Tina Luongo, acting attorney in charge of the Legal Aid Society’s criminal practice.
At the moment, the activists seem to be winning the fight. The Federal Bureau of Investigation announced this month that it would track animal abuse as a separate crime, rather than lumping it in the “other” category.
In New York City, the Police Department took over responsibility for animal abuse complaints in January, and created an Animal Cruelty Investigation Squad. Arrests for animal abuse increased about 250 percent through September, compared with the same period last year....
Houston’s district attorney said this month that she would seek jail time in animal cruelty cases, and Massachusetts passed a bill increasing maximum prison time for animal abuse cases to seven years from five. In Virginia, after a push from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a man was sentenced in February to a year in jail for starving a pit bull. And in Texas this year, a man received five years after offering to guide a wayward pet donkey home, then dragging the donkey behind his truck. The donkey, which was found in a ditch, survived....
Not long ago, animal cruelty was “considered a side issue, relegated to something a few overpassionate people cared about, basically,” said Assemblywoman Linda B. Rosenthal of the Upper West Side, who has backed several bills strengthening animal cruelty laws. “Now, it’s a mainstream concern.”
And it is one that animal groups are trying to make even more central.... The groups say they have captured law enforcement’s attention in part by emphasizing that animal cruelty can be a “red flag” for future crimes, particularly domestic violence. Prosecutions nationwide are becoming much more frequent, said Sherry Ramsey, the director of animal cruelty prosecutions for the Humane Society of the United States, “and a lot of it’s based on what we know now about the link between animal cruelty and human violence.”
Yet defense groups say animal abuse cases ... should be handled individually, and are not necessarily predictive of worse behavior. “We don’t punish individuals for alleged future misconduct they might at some point in the future engage, but have not,” Theodore Simon, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said in an email. “To do so would be to punish a person for a ‘crime’ that has not occurred and was not committed.” Defense advocates also say more needs to be done if society wants to tamp down animal abuse.
Making the full case for Mitt Romney, drug czar
Regular readers may recall this post from a few months ago in which I highlighted the brilliant and provocative commentary by Mark Osler headlined "Mitt Romney for drug czar." Now I can post Mark's fuller explication of the ideas that lead to the notion of Drug Czar Romney as they appear in this article now available on SSRN headlined "1986: AIDS, Crack, and C. Everett Koop." Here is the abstract:
In 1986, Ronald Reagan’s America confronted twin public health crises: AIDS and crack. There were striking similarities between the two, in that both developed quietly before public alarms were raised; both were identified with traditionally oppressed groups; both spread in a similar pattern; and both created fear in the American public. Where they differed, though, was in the reaction. After initial missteps, AIDS was approached through problem-solving doctors and researchers rather than quarantine. In contrast, crack was confronted with a heavy retributive hand. AIDS was transformed to a chronic, treatable illness. In contrast, crack not only continued to plague communities, but the use of mass incarceration created new problems.
Four striking personalities shaped these differing outcomes. With AIDS, the chief strategist was the remarkable C. Everett Koop, and the public face was a young boy named Ryan White. For crack, a chief strategist was the vituperative William Bennett, and the public face was basketball player Len Bias. The latter pair drove the fight against crack towards disaster, while the former created a more humane world.
This article argues that it is not too late to learn the lessons of 1986 and take a better approach towards narcotics, and that this approach might best be led by someone who understands the driving force behind drugs (the profit motive) the way that Koop understood the driving force behind AIDS (a virus). In our present era, that person may be someone who straddles business and politics, such as former presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Monday, September 29, 2014
Notable new AG Holder memorandum on charging policies and plea negotiations
I learned over the weekend that last week Attorney General Eric Holder issued a short memo to DOJ lawyers to provide "Guidance Regarding § 851 Enhancements in Plea Negotiations." This full one-page memo, which is dated September 24, 2014, can be downloaded below. Here are its most notable sentences, with my emphasis added:
The Department provided more specific guidance for charging mandatory minimums and recidivist enhancements in drug cases in the August 12, 2013, "Department Policy on Charging Mandatory Minimum Sentences and Recidivist Enhancements in Certain Drug Cases." That memorandum provides that prosecutors should decline to seek an enhancement pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 851 unless the "defendant is involved in conduct that makes the case appropriate for severe sanctions," and sets forth factors that prosecutors should consider in making that determination. Whether a defendant is pleading guilty is not one of the factors enumerated in the charging policy. Prosecutors are encouraged to make the§ 851 determination at the time the case is charged, or as soon as possible thereafter. An § 851 enhancement should not be used in plea negotiations for the sole or predominant purpose of inducing a defendant to plead guilty. This is consistent with long-standing Department policy that "[c]harges should not be filed simply to exert leverage to induce a plea, nor should charges be abandoned to arrive at a plea bargain that does not reflect the seriousness of the defendant's conduct." "Department Policy on Charging and Sentencing," May 19, 2010.
While the fact that a defendant may or may not exercise his right to a jury trial should ordinarily not govern the determination of whether to file or forego an § 851 enhancement, certain circumstances -- such as new information about the defendant, a reassessment of the strength of the government's case, or recognition of cooperation -- may make it appropriate to forego or dismiss a previously filed § 851 information in connection with a guilty plea. A practice of routinely premising the decision to file an § 851 enhancement solely on whether a defendant is entering a guilty plea, however, is inappropriate and inconsistent with the spirit of the policy.
I am inclined to speculate that AG Holder felt a need to issue this short memo in part because of reports that some US Attorneys may have had a "practice of routinely premising the decision to file an § 851 enhancement solely on whether a defendant is entering a guilty plea."
Wednesday, September 24, 2014
Absent evidence of threats to humans, is incarceration for five years for animal abuse needed (or helpful)?
Like all good people, I really like puppies and really dislike animal abuse. Still, after being drawn in to this Florida sentencing story by the headline "Man Rapes Pit Bull Puppy, Sentenced To Five Years In Jail For Sexually Abusing Dog," I kept wondering what else the defendant must have done other than abuse his dog in order to be sentence to half a decade behinds bars. But the most complete story I could find about this "puppy rape" case, here from the Daytona Beach News-Journal, heightens my concern that Florida taxpayers are now going to have to spend a lot of money incarcerating a disturbed old man who presents no obvious threat to humans and clearly needs treatment to deal with his affinity for bestiality. Here are the basics:
A man whose sexual battery of a pit bull puppy did not rise to the level of state prison time, nonetheless received five years behind bars Friday afternoon after Circuit Judge Leah Case compared the crime to “systematic” and “chronic” child abuse.
When Case announced her decision to imprison James Bull of Daytona Beach, a crowd of mostly female animal advocates cheered and cried. Many of the advocates wore T-shirts bearing the pit bull puppy’s picture and the words “Justice For Rose.” The dog’s name was Coco, but the New York City rescue organization now fostering the milk-chocolate-colored canine renamed her Rose.
The case is the first time in Volusia or Flagler counties that a person has been convicted on the charge of sexual activity with an animal, a first-degree misdemeanor, State Attorney spokesman Spencer Hathaway said. Bull was also convicted of two counts of felony cruelty to animals and cruelty to animals. According to an article in the Mayport Florida Mirror in January, a St. Augustine man was convicted of bestiality with his dog and was sentenced to eight years in prison under the same state statute that was applied to Bull on Friday, Sept. 19, 2014....
Prosecutor Nathaniel Sebastian told Case that Bull did not score enough points criminally to be sentenced to state prison. He said perhaps the defendant could get additional jail time, probation and psycho-sexual counseling. Bull’s attorney Peter Kenny didn’t present much of an argument in his client’s favor, but did ask Case to spare Bull from prison because of his age and because he has a “bad back.”
While Case acknowledged that indeed Bull didn’t score high enough for prison, she also repeated the jarring testimony given a few minutes earlier by the state’s four witnesses regarding the dog’s daily suffering. “Although he (Bull) doesn’t score, it’s more about the intentional infliction of pain on an animal over and over again,” Case said. “It’s like child abuse. It often happens in secret behind closed doors.”
Prosecutors called three witnesses to the stand — their fourth witness, Halifax Humane Society veterinarian Tom Frieberg, testified via telephone — who provided graphic testimony about the animal’s living conditions and Bull’s abuse. Bull’s neighbor Dean Ray Gill testified that he constantly heard the dog yelping and “screaming.” Gill said that one day in March he was “fed up” and went to the back apartment to see what was happening to the animal. Gill said the door to Bull’s apartment was slightly ajar and he could hear the radio or a stereo blaring inside. Nonetheless, he could still hear the canine yelping above the music. Gill said he saw Bull sexually abusing the animal. Bull threw the dog aside and closed the front door, the neighbor testified.
Daytona Beach animal control officer Eva Burke said that when she arrived at Bull’s residence on March 18, the dog was chained to a porch and could not move because the chain was too short. Burke also said the animal’s rib cage was showing. Both Sebastian and Assistant State Attorney John Reid showed their witnesses photographs of the dog when police arrived on scene. Hathaway, the assistant state attorney who initially had the case, said the pictures were horrifying. Kenney did not call any witnesses on behalf of Bull.
At the risk of being labelled "soft on puppy rapists" or not loving animals, I cannot help but wonder and worry about the quality of representation this defendant received and about the need for such a lengthy term of incarceration if there is was indeed no evidence this defendant ever hurt a human or had plans to abuse humans. This defendant is plainly disturbed and his mistreatment of animals should be punished, but will a five-year jail term help this defendant get needed treatment or help safeguard the community upon his eventual release? Especially because there is considerable evidence suggesting certain types of offenders become MORE likely to recidivate as a result of a term of incarceration, I fear that this kind of "Justice for Rose" will actually entail greater expenses and an eventual greater threat to public safety for the people of Florida.
Brennan Center urges new orientation in "Federal Prosecution for the 21st Century"
As noted in prior posts here and here, Attorney General Eric Holder gave a big speech yesterday in New York at the Brennan Center for Justice's conference on the topic of "Shifting Law Enforcement Goals to Reduce Mass Incarceration." In that speech, AG Holder praised the Brennan Center's effort to encourage prosecutrs to "shift away from old metrics and embrace a more contemporary, and more comprehensive, view of what constitutes success." These Brennan Center efforts are reflected in this important new publication titled "Federal Prosecution for the 21st Century." Here is how the Center describes this report:
This new report from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law proposes modernizing one key aspect of the criminal justice system: federal prosecutors. Prosecutors are in a uniquely powerful position to bring change, since they make decisions about when and whether to bring criminal charges, and make recommendations for sentencing. The report proposes reorienting the way prosecutors’ “success” is measured around three core goals: Reducing violent and serious crime, reducing prison populations, and reducing recidivism. The mechanism for change would be a shift in how attorneys' performance is assessed, to give prosecutors incentives to focus on how their practices reduce crime in and improve the communities they serve, instead of making their "success" simply a measure of how many individuals they convict and send to prison.