Sunday, June 22, 2014

New York Times editorial laments stalled federal sentencing reform

Today's New York Times has this lengthy editorial, headlined "Sentencing Reform Runs Aground," expressing justified concerning that bipartisan support for federal sentencing reform has not yet been enough to secure legislative action. Here are excerpts:

Criminal justice reform is one of the rare issues on which there has been bipartisan support in Congress and significant progress toward a legislative solution. Until recently, anyway.

Two bills, each with Republican and Democratic sponsors, were expected to come up for a vote by this summer — one that would reduce lengthy sentences for many low-level drug offenders and another that would give low-risk inmates credit toward early release if they participate in job-training and drug treatment programs. But progress on both bills has stalled, and congressional leaders who were once confident about their chances this year are now looking toward 2015, at the earliest.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of federal inmates — many of whom have already served years of unjustly long drug sentences — continue to sit in overstuffed prisons, wasting both their lives and taxpayer dollars at no demonstrable benefit to public safety....

So why the delay? One major factor has been resistance from members of the old guard, who refuse to let go of their tough-on-crime mind-set. In May, three senior Republican senators — Charles Grassley of Iowa, John Cornyn of Texas and Jeff Sessions of Alabama — came out against the sentencing reductions, arguing that mandatory minimums are only used for the highest-level drug traffickers. This assertion is contradicted by data from the United States Sentencing Commission, which found that 40 percent of federal drug defendants were couriers or low-level dealers.

Another factor was the Obama administration’s April announcement that it would consider clemency for hundreds, if not thousands, of inmates currently serving time under older, harsher drug laws. Republicans complained that this — along with other executive actions on criminal justice by Mr. Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. — took the wind out of reform’s sails.

But with the exception of some old-line prosecutors and resistant lawmakers, everyone still agrees on the need for extensive reform. The other branches of the federal government have begun to do their part: Federal judges across the country have spoken out against the mindlessness of mandatory minimums. The sentencing commission voted in April to reduce many drug sentencing guidelines. And the Justice Department under Mr. Holder has taken multiple steps to combat the harsh and often racially discriminatory effects of those laws.

The public is on board too. According to a recent Pew survey, 67 percent say the government should focus more on treating drug users than on prosecuting them.

Some members of Congress get it. On the right, the charge for reform has been led by Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas and Jeff Flake of Arizona. Yet the prospect of reform has become more precarious, even as the need for it has become more urgent.

Judicial pronouncements and executive orders only go so far. It is long past time for Congress to do its job and change these outdated, ineffective and unjust laws.

June 22, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Friday, June 20, 2014

"Ignoring Issues of Morality or Convicting the Innocent, Is Capital Punishment a Good Idea or a Bad Idea?"

The question in the title of this post is the title of this intriguing little essay by Ron Allen now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The conventional debate over the risk of executing an innocent person is examined and shown to be vacuous.  More innocent lives, by orders of magnitude, are lost through incarceration (the alternative to a death penalty) than could possibly have result from executing innocent defendants.  This is an instance of the deadly dilemma of governing, which inevitably involves tradeoffs of social goods and costs, often of precisely the same variable.

June 20, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

"A Suggested Minor Refinement of Miller v. Alabama"

The title of this post is the title of this new Comment by Devina Douglas now available via SSRN. Here is part of the abstract:

While some heralded the recent United States Supreme Court’s Miller v. Alabama decision — forbidding mandatory life without parole (LWOP) sentences for juveniles — as a step in the right direction for protecting the interests of juveniles within the adult criminal justice system, the decision is also a step backwards for the ability states to sentence their criminals as they sees fit....  This Comment argues the Court spoke too broadly applying its rule to all minors.

This essay will first summarize the Supreme Court’s previous sentencing precedent, the cases that paved the way for the Miller decision — establishing that “children are different,” — and then the Miller decision.  Next, it will highlight the troubles lower courts have faced in trying to implement the decision, the flaws in, and alternative interpretations of, the science relied upon, and then turn to the question of whether juveniles over the age of sixteen have reached sufficient maturity as to allow the system to hold them as accountable as adults for homicide crimes.  In response to the likelihood that those sixteen and over are sufficiently mature, this Comment will propose a way to preserve deference to the various state legislatures’ sentencing decisions while addressing increasing concern that juveniles should be treated differently.  The Miller pre-sentencing evaluation factors should only apply categorically to those under sixteen, and those sixteen and seventeen in cases where the juvenile offender is quite young or possesses what the Court calls twice-diminished culpability: where the system convicted the offender under an aiding and abetting or accomplice theory, or felony murder.

June 20, 2014 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"Sentencing Terrorist Crimes"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Wadie E. Said now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The legal framework behind the sentencing of individuals convicted of committing terrorist crimes has received little scholarly attention, even with the proliferation of such prosecutions in the eleven years following the attacks of September 11, 2001. This lack of attention is particularly striking in light of the robust and multifaceted scholarship that deals with the challenges inherent in criminal sentencing more generally, driven in no small part by the comparatively large number of sentencing decisions issued by the United States Supreme Court over the past thirteen years. Reduced to its essence, the Supreme Court’s sentencing jurisprudence requires district courts to make no factual findings that raise a criminal penalty over the statutory maximum, other than those found by a jury or admitted by the defendant in a guilty plea. Within those parameters, however, the Court has made clear that such sentences are entitled to a strong degree of deference by courts of review.

Historically, individuals convicted of committing crimes involving politically motivated violence/terrorism were sentenced under ordinary criminal statutes, as theirs were basically crimes of violence. Even when the law shifted to begin to recognize certain crimes as terrorist in nature — airplane hijacking being the prime example — sentencing remained relatively uncontroversial from a legal perspective, since the underlying conduct being punished was violent at its core. In the mid-1990s, the development and passage of a special sentencing enhancement, U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual section 3A1.4, offered the opportunity for district courts to significantly increase the penalty for certain activity that fell into a defined category of what was termed “a federal crime of terrorism.” Coupled with the post-9/11 trend of the government using a relatively new offense, 18 U.S.C. § 2339B, the ban on providing material support to designated foreign terrorist organizations, as its main legal tool in the war on terrorism, sentences for such crimes increased significantly, even in situations where there was no link to an act of violence. The application of section 3A1.4 invites a district court to find certain facts, under the preponderance of the evidence standard, which bring the conduct into the category of a federal crime of terrorism, thereby triggering greatly enhanced punishment. A review of the reported decisions involving section 3A1.4 reveals, however, that only in rare cases do courts find the enhancement to be improperly applied. This Article argues that, as currently understood, the application of section 3A1.4 raises serious concerns about its fidelity to the Supreme Court’s Sixth Amendment jurisprudence.

The existence of a terrorism sentencing enhancement also serves as a kind of statutory basis to embolden courts of appeals to overturn a sentence as too lenient, as has been the case in certain high-profile prosecutions, such as those of Ahmad Abu Ali, Lynne Stewart, and Jose Padilla, among others. As the examples in this Article demonstrate, those courts of review that have engaged in this practice either fail to appreciate or disregard the Supreme Court’s instructions to engage in a highly deferential type of review of a district court sentence. At the heart of these opinions lies a message that terrorism is especially heinous, and those convicted of terrorist crimes are particularly dangerous to the point of being irredeemably incapable of deterrence. While these sentiments may or may not be accurate, the courts of appeals adopting them cite no evidence or studies in support, creating the impression that a court of review may overturn a sentence in a terrorism case simply because it disagrees with the district court, something the Supreme Court has said is improper. In light of this recent development, this Article recommends that some combination of Congress, the United States Sentencing Commission, and the federal courts establish standards to better help a court decide when a heightened punishment might be warranted, free from unsupported assumptions about the nature of terrorism or a particular defendant.

June 18, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Senator Rand Paul continues making the conservative case for criminal justice reform

Regular readers know of my respect and admiration for Senator Rand Paul's modern efforts to explain to lots of folks how is modern conservative values call for modern crimnal justice reforms.  This Huffington Post article, headlined "Rand Paul Tackles Prisons 'Full Of Black And Brown Kids' Amid GOP Reach For Minority Votes," reports on how potent Senator Paul's points have become as he makes the case for criminal justice reforms:

In an ongoing effort to bridge the gap between the GOP and minority voters, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) deviated from traditional party lines during a speech at the Iowa State Republican Party Convention Saturday, criticizing racist drug policies in the United States and calling for the restoration of voting rights for ex-convicts.

After conceding that his position may not "bring everybody together" and establishing that "drugs are a scourge," Paul continued:

I also think it’s a problem to lock people up for 10 and 15 and 20 years for youthful mistakes. If you look at the War on Drugs, three out of four people in prison are black or brown. White kids are doing it too. In fact, if you look at all the surveys, white kids do it just as much as black and brown kids -- but the prisons are full of black and brown kids because they don’t get a good attorney, they live in poverty, it’s easier to arrest them than to go to the suburbs. There’s a lot of reasons.

The likely 2016 presidential contender, who previously compared federal drug laws to the racist policies of the Jim Crow era, also criticized the GOP for failing to live up to its platform emphasis on family values. “If we’re the party of family values, in 1980 there were 200,000 kids with a dad in prison. There’s now two million,” Paul said, calling on Judeo-Christian conservatives to set policies by the principle of redemption.

Some related posts:

June 18, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Is God a supporter of marijuana reform?

The question in the title of this post is my (only slightly) tounge-in-cheek response to this Christian Post article headlined "Oklahoma Senator Quotes Genesis 1:29 to Seek Marijuana Legalization." Here are excerpts:

Oklahoma state Sen. Constance Johnson announced the filing of a statewide initiative petition to legalize marijuana, telling supporters that the campaign is based on Genesis 1:29, which suggests that God created "this wonderful, miraculous plant."

"We're putting forth Genesis 1:29 as the basis of this campaign," KFOR.com quoted Sen. Johnson, a Democrat, as telling supporters at the State Capitol on Friday after filing the petition with the office of the Oklahoma secretary of state.

"God created this wonderful, miraculous plant and we know that it has been vilified for the last 100 years, and it's time to change that in Oklahoma," added the senator, who has led efforts, along with attorney David Slane, to legalize pot.  The advocates of marijuana will require 160,000 signatures from registered voters within three months to get the proposal on a statewide ballot....

The petition states that up to one ounce of marijuana should be allowed for recreational use, and three ounces for medical reasons.  The senator is of the opinion that resultant tax benefits would benefit the state.... Johnson also says that decriminalizing possession would ease the burden on prisons. "We're locking up non-violent, marijuana possessing people, giving them felonies and filling up our prisons."

"It's just the right thing to do. It's a plant. It's a God given plant and it could change the world," Fox 25 quoted a petition supporter, Pamela Street, as saying Friday....

Marijuana is different in nature from caffeine, Christian theologian John Piper wrote on the blog of his Desiring God ministry recently. While marijuana "temporarily impairs the reliable processing of surrounding reality," caffeine "ordinarily sharpens that processing," he said.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

June 15, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Religion | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

"Lawmakers should be parsimonious — not sanctimonious — on drug sentencing"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary at The Hill authored by Jamie Fellner.  Here are excerpts:

Hopes are high that the U.S. Congress will do the right thing this year and reform notoriously harsh federal drug sentencing laws that have crammed U.S. prisons with small-time offenders.

The bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act, approved by the Senate judiciary committee and now awaiting debate in the full Senate, would reduce federal mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenders, increase the number who can avoid them altogether, and permit prisoners serving time under outdated crack-cocaine sentencing laws to seek lower sentences. Passage would begin to reverse a decades-long trend that's seen "too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason," as Attorney General Eric Holder put it earlier this year.

Although legislators may not realize it, reduction of unduly severe sentences for drug offenders will help bring federal sentencing back in line with the long-overlooked principle of "parsimony." In the criminal justice context, parsimony dictates that sentences should be no greater than necessary to serve the legitimate goals of punishment, namely, retribution for past crimes, deterrence of future ones, and rehabilitation of the offender.

Congress once recognized the importance of parsimony. In the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, it instructed federal judges to impose sentences that were “sufficient, but not greater than necessary” to advance the purposes of punishment. But starting in 1986, against a backdrop of social and economic turmoil, racial tension, and the advent of crack cocaine, Congress enacted mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws with stunning disregard for whether they would yield needlessly harsh sentences -- which they invariably did for the low-level offenders who made up the bulk of those receiving them....

Opponents of the Smarter Sentencing Act, including some current and retired federal prosecutors, insist — without evidence – that the mandatory drug sentences are necessary to protect public safety. They also claim — and here the evidence is on their side — that the threat of high mandatory sentences helps convince defendants to plead guilty and cooperate with the government in exchange for lesser punishments. Because judges have no choice but to impose the mandatory minimums triggered by the charges prosecutors file, prosecutors can make good on the threat of higher sentences for those defendants who insist on going to trial: their sentences are on average three times longer than for those who plead. Not surprisingly, ninety-seven percent of drug defendants choose to plead guilty. Opponents of drug law reform seem to forget — or don't care — that the purposes of punishment do not include bludgeoning defendants into pleading.

Each year, hopes for federal drug sentencing reform are dashed by legislative inertia and a few powerful legislators who cling to outdated “tough on crime” notions. Perhaps this year will be different. A growing number of lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, realize that lengthy mandatory minimum drug sentences are ineffective, wasteful, and expensive. And though few may use the term parsimony, many have come to understand that unnecessarily harsh sentences make a mockery of justice.

June 15, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Notable indication that "smart on crime" sentencing reform in West Virginia is paying dividends

StsealAs highlighted by this local article, headlined "Governor: Justice Reinvestment Act drops W.Va. jail population by 5%," it appears that another state is having significant success with data-driven "smart-on-crime" sentencing and corrections reforms. Here are the encouraging details:

Although in effect for slightly more than a year, legislation to reduce prison overcrowding by reducing recidivism and substance abuse is having a positive impact, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said during an event Thursday in Washington, D.C.

“Since I signed West Virginia’s Justice Reinvestment Act, we have had a 5 percent reduction in our prison population,” Tomblin said. “In April 2013, we had nearly 7,100 prisoners in our state. Last Thursday, that figure was down to 6,743. We have reduced overcrowding at our regional jail facilities by nearly 50 percent.”

The legislation was enacted in May 2013, after a yearlong study coordinated by the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center, which recommended reducing prison overcrowding with accelerated probation and parole for nonviolent offenders, and better community-based resources for parolees, including substance-abuse treatment programs.

Tomblin told the Washington CSG event that, in April 2013, West Virginia’s corrections system was 1,746 inmates over capacity, a figure that has now dropped to 885. “Today, we have more than 1,000 fewer people in our prisons than what was projected just a few years ago,” Tomblin said. “Without these changes, we expected to have more than 7,800 inmates in West Virginia prisons, compared to today’s total of 6,743.”

Since the passage of the legislation, Tomblin said, the state has continued efforts to reduce re-offense rates with new workforce training programs, assistance in helping parolees find appropriate housing and efforts to ensure access to community-based substance-abuse treatment for those released from prison, funded through Medicaid expansion....

The West Virginia Democrat was joined at the event by Republican Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, who has overseen similar successes with prison-reform programs in the Keystone State. Corbett noted that, in the 1990s, Pennsylvania was building a new prison nearly every year, as mandatory sentencing laws were causing the state’s inmate population to soar.

Michael Thompson, director of the CSG Justice Center, noted that the national dialogue has changed from a partisan debate over which party could be tougher on crime to a bipartisan effort to be smart on crime, a theme echoed by Tomblin. “I hope other states will consider the justice reinvestment model to take a “smart on crime” approach to prison overcrowding and public safety,” he said.

June 14, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Ohio legislature wisely considering move to make ignition locks mandatory for DUI offenders

Though I often advocate against lengthy federal mandatory minimum prison terms, I am not categorically opposed to legislative sentencing mandates when there is good reason to believe that the particulars of the mandate will likely save lives and have a limited impact on human liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Consequently, I was very pleased to see this story in my local paper today, headlined "All drunken drivers may be subject to safeguard," discussing a proposal in Ohio to make ignition locks mandatory for all drunk driving offenders.  Here are the details:

Ohio lawmakers are considering requiring first-time drunken-driving offenders to have an ignition breathalyzer installed on their cars to confirm their sobriety during a six-month penalty period. The law now allows judges to order the ignition interlocks, but the House bill would make their use mandatory. Offenders convicted twice within six years must use the devices.

The bill sponsor, Rep. Terry Johnson, R-McDermott, cites federal figures that ignition-interlock devices reduce DUI re-arrest rates by 67 percent. About 25,000 first-time offenders are convicted each year in Ohio. The devices would replace a system in which first-time DUI offenders are not allowed to drive for 15 days and then can obtain limited driving privileges to travel to work, school and medical appointments.

“There is nothing to ensure compliance and nothing to ensure sobriety unless they happen to get caught again,” Johnson said. “This allows the offender to continue working and to minimize disruption to his life while ensuring public safety to the extent we are reasonably able to do so.”

A change in the bill last week also would require those charged with DUI but convicted of lesser offenses, such as physical control of a vehicle while intoxicated, to install the machines in their cars....

Only about 5,000 Ohioans, including repeat DUI offenders, are required each year to use ignition interlocks, said Doug Scoles, executive director of Ohio MADD. Twenty states now require their use by first-time offenders. “Requiring the use of ignition interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers will help prevent repeat offenses and, in so doing, save lives,” Scoles said.

The State Highway Patrol reports 341 people died in drunken-driving crashes last year. Seventy-seven people have been killed so far this year, 38 fewer that at the same time in 2012.

The bill is dubbed “Annie’s Law” in memory of Chillicothe lawyer Annie Rooney, who was killed last year by a drunken driver now serving eight years in prison. Her family has campaigned for passage of the bill. Lara Baker-Morrish, chief prosecutor for the city of Columbus, calls the legislation “a very good idea.”

“It does curb the behavior we’re trying to get at, and it has been proven to save lives,” she said. Courts would have to find ways to monitor the increase in ignition-interlock reports on drivers and find funding to ensure devices are made available to those who can’t afford installation and monitoring, she said.

I hope my old pal Bill Otis is heartened to hear of my support for a legislative sentencing mandate. I also hope those who advocate forcefully for rigid forms of gun control and for drug control recognize that that drunk drivers often pose a greater threat to innocent lives and the pursuit of happiness than even drunk gun owners or heroin dealers and that clever technologies, rather than crude prohibitions, may be the most politically wise and practically workable means to reduce these threats.

June 14, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Friday, June 13, 2014

Will "Dave Brat, accidental tea party leader," be a principled and vocal opponent of the federal drug war?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Politico article headlined "Dave Brat, accidental tea party leader." Here are a few passages from the lengthy piece that make me hopeful that Professor Brat shares the sentiments of many other modern Tea Party leaders that the big federal drug war and big government criminal justice systems:

He may be the new tea party hero, but Brat really isn’t a tea party guy. His writings show that he’s closer to Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand than tea party talking points. Indeed, he fits the ivory tower mold -- the kind of academic who makes small talk with his colleagues at the campus gym by chatting about how to create the perfect ethical system. He savors the role of an anti-politician, but this is not another Joe the Plumber. This is Dave the Professor....

His writings include plenty of tributes to free-market conservatism, and in one paper, he lays out Ayn Rand’s “case for liberty from the ground up.” But there are also some surprising departures — like one paper that suggests that states can prime their economies by investing in education and research. Another endorses the No Child Left Behind law and suggests mandatory teaching seminars so teachers don’t take black students less seriously than white students.

That background paints a different picture of Brat than one might expect from all the tea party support he won. As a candidate, Brat has talked about opposing “amnesty” for illegal immigrants, term limits for members of Congress, gun owners’ rights and returning power to the states through the 10th amendment. Brat’s hardline focus on opposing immigration reform has surprised some of his colleagues, who say he never talked about it that much on campus.

But even the way Brat talks about his solution to illegal immigration is straight from conservative theory: encourage free markets and private property rights around the world.

Students of Milton Friedman know well that he was not only an opponent of pot prohibition, but a vocal advocate of the legalization of all drugs. Here is a link to a video of Friedman discussing his views on this front, which are nicely summarized by this quote: "I'm in favor of legalizing drugs. According to my values, if people want to kill themselves, they have every right to do so. Most of the harm that comes from drugs is because they are illegal."

Long story short: if Dave Brat is as committed to free markets and as principled as the Politico piece suggests he is, he could very quickly become one of the most significant voices in the modern GOP advocating for significant reform of the modern big government federal criminal justice system.

Some older and recent posts on the "new politics" of sentencing reform:

June 13, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Sixth Circuit declares unreasonable way-above-guideline sentence for repeat bank robber

It remains rare for federal defendants to prevail on reasonableness appeals absent a mis-calculation of the guidelines, and thus today's Sixth Circuit panel decision in US v. Payton, No. 13-1242 (6th Cir. June 12, 2014) (available here) is a noteworthy ruling for this reason alone. But the decision's reference and incorporation of recidivism data and brain science makes the ruling extra interesting. Here are some excerpts from the start and heart of the opinion for context:

This is a direct appeal from Arthur Payton’s sentence to serve 45 years in prison for organizing a series of bank robberies in Michigan.  Payton argues that his sentence is unreasonable.  We agree, vacate his sentence, and remand....

Payton turned 46 years old before his sentencing hearing.  Taking into account Payton’s criminal record, the seriousness of his crime, and penchant for recidivism, the presentence report recommended a sentence within the Guidelines range of 210 to 262 months, or between 17 and a half to 22 years.... The government urged the sentencing court to impose a more serious sentence of “at least” 300 months, or 25 years.  Payton’s counsel requested a sentence within the Guidelines range, arguing that even with a Guidelines sentence Payton would be released as an elderly man — somewhere between 63 to 68 years old — who would present little threat to the public.

After hearing each side, the judge sentenced Payton to 540 months, or 45 years in prison. The judge discussed a number of the sentencing factors listed in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), focusing on Payton’s brazen recidivism and the threat he posed to the public. The court concluded that the 45 year sentence was “the minimum sentence” that was “reasonable and sufficient but not greater than necessary to accomplish the goals of sentencing for this defendant.”...

Payton’s 45 year sentence is a “major departure,” “unusually harsh,” and one that demands a “significant explanation.”  Gall, 552 U.S. at 51.  A sentence that more than doubles the Guidelines recommendation, stacks twenty years on to the government’s request, and keeps the defendant in prison until he is ninety one years old requires explanation about why such a sentence is “sufficient, but not greater than necessary” to achieve the goals of sentencing. 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).

We find the district court’s explanation lacking in Payton’s case.  At minimum, the court failed to adequately respond to Payton’s argument that his advanced age diminishes the public safety benefit of keeping Payton in prison an extra twenty years beyond the recommendation of the Guidelines.  Even presuming Payton’s desire to rob banks is insatiable, as the government argues, Payton contends that age will diminish his very ability to rob banks.  This argument attacks the foundations of the government’s support for the imposed sentence, and the court’s reasoning that the threat posed by a sixty-eight-year-old Payton makes a longer sentence not simply prudent but necessary.

The court's discussion to this point is notable, but the opinion then takes an especially interesting turn with this paragraph (in which I have eliminated footnote references):

The Sentencing Commission has observed that “[r]ecidivism rates decline relatively consistently as age increases.” Recent analysis from the Bureau of Justice Statistics considering the recidivism rates of released prisoners in 30 states (including Michigan) from 2005 to 2010 supported the Commission’s conclusion, finding decreased recidivism rates as prisoners age. These statistics suggest that past fifty years old there is a significantly lower rate of recidivism. Both the Guidelines and our Circuit’s cases explicitly acknowledge that a defendant’s age, and specifically old age, is a relevant consideration in sentencing. U.S.S.G. § 5H1.1; United States v. Berry, 565 F.3d 332, 341 (6th Cir. 2009); United States v. Davis, 537 F.3d 611, 616-17 (6th Cir. 2008). And observers of the criminal justice system have long acknowledged the “key” argument “that elderly offenders pose so low a risk to the public that long or otherwise harsh sentences have little to no utilitarian benefit.”  Indeed, they observe that “because of health or other reasons, elderly offenders have the lowest rate of recidivism of all types of offenders; in fact, only about one percent of elderly offenders ever face a second conviction.”   Studies indicate that neurotransmitters affecting aggression supplied at the synapses of brain neurons vary based on age, and may explain the observed decline in recidivism among older prisoners. Such evidence, together with statistical support, suffices to require a sentencing judge to explain carefully why a criminal defendant like Payton remains likely to engage in violent robberies between the age of seventy and ninety.  The district court did not address Payton’s argument on this issue, and therefore did not provide an adequate explanation for imposing such a harsh sentence.

Kudos to the Sixth Circuit for giving some real teeth to reasonable review, and especially for its willingness to bring some empirical research into an analysis of means for a sentence to be "sufficient but not greater than necessary."

June 12, 2014 in Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Some new posts highlighting the "tough-on-crime" take on federal drugs sentencing reform

Long-time readers know that we used to be able to get Bill Otis's tough-on-crime perspective on sentencing reform via the comments to posts here, but now we all need to head over to Crime & Consequences to see his take on current sentencing events.  Not surprisingly, the discussion by US Sentencing Commission about whether to make its new lower drug guidelines retroactive has Bill going strong, and here are a sampling of him recent post from C&C:

The titles of all these posts provide a flavor of their contents, but I urge all folks following closely the debates over recent federal sentencing reform to click through and read all Bill has to say on these topics.  Notably, the first post listed above highlights how perspectives on broader reform debates will necessarily inform views on particular positions taken on smaller issues.  Bill assails DOJ for advocating for "large scale retroactivity" when it decided to yesterday to "support limited retroactivity of the pending drug guideline amendment."  In notable contrast, I have received a number of e-mails from advocates of federal sentencing reform today (some of which I hope to soon reprint in this space) that assail DOJ for not advocating for complete retroactivity.

June 11, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Intriguing new report on "Compensating Victims of Crime"

Victim Compensation infographic_for rotator2_0The folks at Justice Fellowship have just released an interesting new report titled simply "Compensating Victims of Crime" as part of its advocacy for restorative justice programming. This report's Executive Summary includes these passages: 

Restorative Justice recognizes that crime harms people. Though most people affected by crime are never able to fully reclaim what was taken, victim compensation funds are a tool used within our criminal justice system to advance the much needed value of assisting victims and survivors of crime. Unfortunately, very little of the billions of dollars placed within these funds goes directly to victims and survivors of crime.  This report is an extensive overview of victim compensation funds and highlights some concerns and provides some suggestions for reform.

Victim compensation funds are funded by criminal fines and taxpayer dollars and offer monetary assistance to victims and survivors of violent crime.  Though similar in concept to restitution, they differ in eligibility requirements, funding sources, and distribution. Currently, victim compensation funds only provide monetary assistance to a small number of victims and survivors of violent crime. Of the approximately 7 million victims of violent crime per year, only 200,000 receive assistance from a compensation fund. Even more disturbing is the ratio of money spent on compensation compared to that which is spent on corrections. In 2012, federal, state, and local governments spent approximately $85 billion on corrections. In the same year, victim compensation funds paid out approximately $500 million dollars—less than 1% of what was spent on corrections.

This disparity cannot be blamed on a lack of funds.  The Crime Victims Fund — a hybrid system funded jointly by federal and state dollars, but administered at the state level —currently retains a balance of almost $11 billion, while some states have additional balances that approach $10 million. Congress, however, has capped the total annual Crime Victims Fund spending at $745 million dollars despite the large pool of victims who are eligible to receive funds.  Further, the average maximum amount that victims and survivors can receive from a victim compensation fund is $26,000.

Because victim compensation funds are administered on the state level, states differ in the eligibility requirements. All states compensate for medical expenses, mental health counseling, lost wages, funeral costs, and travel.  Many states compensate for crime scene cleanup, attorney fees, rehabilitation, replacement services, and relocation services. Few states compensate for things like pain and suffering, property loss, stolen cash, transportation, return of an abducted child, guide dog expenses, domestic services, home healthcare, and forensic exams in sexual assaults.

Unfortunately, many victims do not receive any compensation. This often occurs simply due to a lack of knowledge about the compensation fund. However, there are numerous other reasons, including the fact that there are fairly stringent requirements that one must satisfy to receive funds.  Half of all states require victims or survivors to report the crime to law enforcement within 72 hours.  12 states require a police report to be filed within 5 to 10 days. A majority of the states require victims and survivors to file a compensation claim within one to two years, and several states restrict compensation to victims who have a prior felony conviction in the last 10 years. While these requirements may not seem stringent at first glance, consider that many crimes are not ever reported for fear of retribution, continued victimization, or the stigma that comes with being a victim. Forty-two percent of victims do not report serious violent crimes to law enforcement officials.  As a result, they are denied access to compensation funds....

The system currently in place can be vastly improved. The federal cap on the dispensing of funds should be raised to $1 billion.  Awareness of these funds must be increased through additional community infrastructure and advocacy.  Overly restrictive requirements must be relaxed so that people have a chance to qualify for compensation once they know it is available. Finally, stringent oversight and transparency of state funds for victims is necessary to ensure that the money is being used properly. Increasing awareness, access, and availability of compensation funds will prioritize victims and survivors in the criminal justice system and advance the values of restorative justice.

The full text of Compensating Victims of Crime is available here.

June 10, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, June 06, 2014

More critical analysis of NRC mass incarceration analysis from John Pfaff

As I highlighted in this post late last week, through a series of astute posts at PrawfBlawg, Professor John Pfaff has started to pick apart a number of notable flaws and omissions in the National Research Council's analysis of mass incarceration.  John's first five posts in that series are linked here, and now below I have linked his latest in this important series:

June 6, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Split Fourth Circuit highlights ugly mess of SCOTUS "crime of violence" jurisprudence

If you are sentencing nerdy like me, you often wonder what crimes are properly considered "crimes of violence" under federal law.  And, if you are sentencing nerdly like me, you also know the Supreme Court's work on this issue sometimes makes very hard to answer whether a particular state crime is a "crime of violence" for federal sentencing law purposes.  This reality is on stark display in a 40-page opinion handed down today by a Fourth Circuit panel in US v. Martin, No. 12-5001 (4th Cir. June 5, 2014) (available here).

At issue in Martin is the seemingly simple question of whether the defendant's prior Maryland conviction "for fourth-degree burglary constituted a crime of violence under U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1(a)(2)."  But each judge on the panel had something distinct to say on the matter: "Chief Judge Traxler wrote the majority opinion, in which Judge Diaz joined.  Judge Diaz wrote a separate concurring opinion. Judge O’Grady wrote a dissenting opinion."   Gluttons for jurisprudential punishment will want to read the entire Martin ruling, but others will get a feel for this story from portions of Judge Diaz's concurrence:

This case raises a vexing question regarding the application of the crime of violence enhancement found in the Guidelines: To what extent does Begay’s “similar in kind” test for analyzing offenses under the residual clause survive Sykes v. United States, 131 S. Ct. 2267 (2011)?  Specifically, would the Supreme Court apply that test in determining whether Martin’s fourth degree burglary conviction under Maryland law qualifies as a crime of violence? Or would the Court again change course?...

“[T]o put it mildly,” the residual clause is “not a model of clarity.” See James, 550 U.S. at 217 (Scalia, J., dissenting).  The clause “is nearly impossible to apply consistently,” and the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence “has created numerous splits among the lower federal courts.” See Chambers v. United States, 555 U.S. 122, 133 (2009) (Alito, J., concurring in the judgment); cf. United States v. Vann, 660 F.3d 771, 797 (4th Cir. 2011) (en banc) (Davis, J., concurring) (“At the end of the day, it may well be that Justice Scalia is right: that the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act is unconstitutionally vague.”)

The Supreme Court has struggled mightily to make sense of this sphinx-like provision, but the clause remains an elusive target.  We are told that a prior conviction triggers the sentencing enhancement when “the risk posed by [the offense at issue] is comparable to that posed by its closest analog among the enumerated offenses.”  See James, 550 U.S. at 203 (majority opinion).  But, at least in some cases, the offense must also be “roughly similar, in kind as well as in degree of risk posed, to the [enumerated] examples.”  See Begay, 553 U.S. at 143.  To be roughly similar in kind, the crime must be “purposeful, violent, and aggressive.” See id. at 145.  Fear not though, because “[i]n many cases the purposeful, violent, and aggressive inquiry will be redundant with the inquiry into risk.” See Sykes, 131 S. Ct. at 2275.  As Justice Scalia noted in dissent in Sykes, however, why the inquiry will often be redundant, and when it will not be, “are not entirely clear.” See 131 S. Ct. at 2285....

Beyond this case, however, “[t]he Court’s ever-evolving interpretation of the residual clause will keep defendants and judges guessing for years to come.” Id. at 2287 (Scalia, J., dissenting).  I urge Congress or the Court to shed light on this “black hole of confusion and uncertainty.”  See Vann, 660 F.3d at 787 (Agee, J., concurring).

June 5, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Monday, June 02, 2014

House votes to preclude funding for clemency efforts as well as for pot prosecutions

I was amazed and pleased upon learning that a majority of members of the US House of Representative voted for an appropriations measure that would preclude the Justice Department from using funds to prevent states from implementing their medical marijuana laws (basics here and here).  But I was also amazed and peturbed upon learning that a majority of members of the US House of Representative also voted for an appropriations measure that would preclude the Justice Department from using funds to have more DOJ attorneys screen clemency petitions in conjunction with efforts to bring old excessive sentences in line with current laws and norms. This MSNBC article, headlined "House Republicans vote to block Obama’s new pardon attorneys," explains:

The U.S. House voted Thursday to block the Obama administration’s plan to add staff to the Pardon Attorney’s office, a potential barrier to the Justice Department’s efforts to scale back some lengthy prison sentences handed down in the war on drugs. The measure, sponsored by Republican North Carolina Rep. George Holding, bans any funding for staff who would conduct the administration’s planned review of applications from inmates seeking early release.

The measure is attached to a new Justice Department funding bill that passed on a party-line vote of 219-189. A Justice Department official told msnbc that Attorney General Eric Holder considers the new funding restriction “absurd.”

The department in April launched a new effort to review more clemency applications and expand the criteria for releasing inmates, particularly those still imprisoned under harsh sentencing laws that have since been reformed. Holding said he pushed the funding ban because he believes Obama is intent on using his presidential pardon power “solely on behalf of drug offenders.”

Speaking on the House floor, Holding also accused the administration of bulking up the Pardon Attorney’s office as a “political ploy” in order to “bypass Congress” and drug laws that are still on the books.

House Democrats objected, saying the funding ban would hamper the research and expertise of the Pardon Office. “If there were a resignation in the office and if you needed to have a temporary detailee, it would be prohibited from this amendment,” Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Chakah Fattah said. “The last thing we would want is the President using such extraordinary power without the benefit of proper staff and due diligence,” he added.

Virginia Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, said that while “no one denies the constitutional power of the president to grant clemency,” the Justice Department’s encouragement of “thousands” of clemency appeals is an improper use of the clemency power.  “Congress should not fund that office for that purpose,” Goodlatte said.

To date, President Obama has granted ten clemency petitions out of 11,218 clemency petitions received.

I am inclined to use the word asinine rather than absurd to describe this funding restriction and vote. Congress ought to pass a resolution if it is eager to provide advice or express concerns about how Prez Obama (or any other president for that matter) may be planning to use the constitutional clemency authority. But to prevent DOJ from having adequate resources to better screen the huge number of petitions coming from a huge number of federal prisoners serving now reformed sentences seems more likely to encourage misuse rather than better use of the clemency power.  Sigh.

June 2, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Effective Sentencing Project and HRW responses to Senators' letter opposing the Smarter Sentencing Act

SSAI was very pleased to learn from helpful readers that Antonio Ginatta, the US Program Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, and Jeremy Haile, federal advocacy officer for The Sentencing Project, have now both authored effective and distinct responses to the May 12th letter sent by Senators Grassley, Sessions, and Cornyn to their Senate colleagues voicing opposition to the Smarter Sentencing Act (reported here).  Haile's response appears here at The Hill under the headline "Last stand for the drug warriors." Here are excerpts:

In a letter to colleagues, Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) wrote that the legislation “would benefit some of the most serious and dangerous offenders in the federal system.” The xenators raised the specter of a violent crime wave if minimum penalties for nonviolent drug offenses are reduced.

Describing the Smarter Sentencing Act as a sort of “get out of jail free card” for dangerous criminals is highly misleading. The bill would not eliminate a single mandatory minimum, nor would it reduce any maximum penalties. Instead, it would allow judges greater discretion in low-level cases, while preserving long sentences for the most serious offenders....

Unfortunately, some longtime drug warriors seem intent on throwing cold water on the sentencing reform movement just as it is heating up. Michele Leonhart, head of the Drug Enforcement Agency, recently testified that rather than unwinding the drug war, “we should be redoubling our efforts.” A number of former federal law enforcement officials have argued that current drug sentencing penalties should be preserved.

But we have tried incarcerating our way to a drug-free America, and that approach has failed. Three decades later, evidence is mounting that federal drug laws have led to skyrocketing prison populations without making communities safer. Meanwhile, illegal narcotics are as pure and as readily available as ever.

Rather than caving in to the “tough on crime” rhetoric of another era, Congress should seize a rare opportunity for reform. State after state has reduced drug sentencing penalties without jeopardizing public safety. Polls show that Americans, Republican and Democrat, favor treatment over prison for nonviolent offenders.

The old playbook on crime and punishment is worn out. It’s time to take a new approach to nonviolent drug sentencing.

Ginatta's response appears in an open letter available here to Senators Grassley, Sessions, and Cornyn detailing with hard data why so many of their claims are misguided.  I urge ervery to read the HRW reponse in full, and here is an excerpt:

Your letter states that drug-related mandatory minimums “are used almost exclusively for high-level drug traffickers.” Data from the United States Sentencing Commission tells a much different story. According to the Commission, 40 percent of federal drug defendants were couriers or street dealers.  In fact, nine out of ten federal drug defendants come from the lower or middle tiers of the drug business.  Because mandatory minimums are triggered by the quantity of drug involved, a street-level dealer can face the same minimum sentence as the head of a large drug trafficking organization. A typical federal drug offender is someone like Jamel Dossie, a 20-year-old, small-time street-level drug dealer’s assistant who received a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for working as a go-between in four hand-to-hand sales totaling 88.1 grams or 3.1 ounces of crack (the weight of an average bar of soap)....

You next cite in your letter that “those who would benefit from these reduced sentences are not ‘non-violent’ — they would include repeat drug traffickers and criminals with a history of violence.”  This is only part of the story.  Almost half (49.6 percent) of all federal drug offenders imprisoned in Fiscal Year 2013 fell under the lowest criminal history category (zero or one criminal history point under the federal sentencing guidelines).  And 83.8 percent of federal drug offenders during the same period were found to not have a weapon involved in their crime.  A small percentage of drug offenders may have used a weapon in their offense, but the mandatory minimums you defend are wilfully blind to the vast numbers of those who didn’t.  To brand all drug offenders as violent is too broad a sweep — no sane sentencing policy should make that assumption.

Some prior posts about the SSA and debates over federal sentencing reform:

May 27, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, May 26, 2014

California DA tries to make sure marijuana crime does not pay by making the criminals pay for reduced charges

La-me-g-mendocino-potwebThe Los Angeles Times has this fascinting new article on a fascinting drug war innovation being utilized by a local districy attorney in California.  The article is headlined "Mendocino County D.A. takes a new approach to marijuana cases," and here are excerpts: 

When David Eyster took over as Mendocino County district attorney, felony marijuana prosecutions were overwhelming his staff and straining the public coffers.

With hundreds of cases active at any one time, taking an average 15 months to resolve, there were few victories to show for all the effort. "The system hadn't broken yet," Eyster said, "but it was dangerously close."

That was a little over three years ago. These days marijuana cases clear in about three months and the Sheriff's Department is flush with cash, thanks to what some are calling "the Mendocino model." To others, it's the Mendocino shakedown.

The transformation began when Eyster dusted off a section of the California health and safety code, intended to reimburse police for the cost of cleaning up meth labs and pot grows, and retooled it for a modern Mendocino County. In exchange for paying restitution, which Eyster sets at $50 per plant and $500 per pound of processed pot seized, eligible suspects can plead to a misdemeanor and get probation. (The law says restitution is reimbursement for actual enforcement costs, but defendants waive an itemized accounting and state the amount owed is "reasonable.")

The relinquishing of allegedly ill-gotten gains seized in separate civil forfeiture actions — cash, trucks and the occasional tractor — also might be part of the deal offered under Eyster's "global resolutions."

The restitution program is available only to those without troublesome criminal backgrounds who have not wildly overstepped California's somewhat gray laws on medical marijuana. Those who trespass, grow on public lands or degrade the environment need not apply.

Eyster said it's a complex calculation that he jots out himself, by hand, on the back of each case file. The size of a grow is not necessarily the deciding factor: In one current case, the defendants have records indicating they are supplying 1,500 medical users, Eyster said. Another case involved just four pounds of processed marijuana, but evidence indicated the defendant was selling for profit. Participants must agree to random searches while on probation, comply with medical marijuana laws and grow only for personal use.

Restitution funds, which have topped $3.7 million since early 2011, go directly to the investigating agencies. Asset forfeitures — the $4.4 million in cash and goods seized in 2013 was nearly double the previous year — are shared by the state, the district attorney's office and local law enforcement.

Among those who have criticized the program is Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Clay Brennan, who during a restitution hearing last year for a man with an 800-plant grow blasted it as "extortion of defendants."

A federal grand jury investigating county programs that derive revenue from marijuana enforcement has subpoenaed accounting records on the restitution program, Eyster confirmed. The reason is unclear, as the U.S. attorney's office declined to comment on the probe.

Legal analysts also have raised concerns about the potential for unequal treatment of defendants and the incentive for officers to focus on lucrative targets at the expense of those more menacing to public safety....

Eyster teamed with Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) in 2011 to try to make pot cultivation a "wobbler," prosecuted as either a felony or misdemeanor. The effort failed, but he had devised another way to thin the caseload.

He drew on past experience with welfare fraud, where considering restitution before making a filing decision was routine. Convinced that not all defendants were created equal — the mastermind behind a for-profit grow is more culpable than hired trimmers — he decided to evaluate each case, consider potentially exculpatory evidence and cut deals as he saw fit.

He offers defendants guidance on how to stay within the law, and said paying restitution "shows a step toward rehabilitation." "A month doesn't go by when someone doesn't say: 'Thank you for handling it this way,'" Eyster said.

Since he took office, 357 defendants have decided to pay restitution. About 20 of those violated their probation, resulting in 180-day jail stints and new charges. (On a second round, a straight misdemeanor charge is off the table.)

Eyster never accepts seized cash as payment of restitution, but his approach does throw such assets into the bargaining mix. It is unclear how many probationers paid restitution and forfeited seized cash or goods, but Eyster conceded the practice is common. "One hundred percent of the time, the defense wants to do a global resolution," he said. "It's saving a lot of time and costs."...

Defense attorney Keith Faulder, who practices in Mendocino County, is circumspect when discussing Eyster's program.  The district attorney, Faulder said, is "an innovator" who he believes is "operating in good faith when it comes to settling marijuana cases." However, Faulder said, Eyster "has a real policy of settling cases for civil forfeiture ... I think it gets a lot of dolphin with the tuna." That program has exploded in recent years, with law enforcement officials attributing the increased seizures to a pot trade that permeates the county....

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said his deputies do not have the time or inclination to police for profit: "If I wanted to use this as a business plan, I'd have 12 people on my eradication team," he said.  He has two.  But he credits restitution and forfeitures for a sheriff's budget that is $600,000 in the black, and said he has also been able to expand a resident deputy program and purchase a new fleet of cars.

Despite the criticism, Eyster said he was confident in the legality and effectiveness of his approach. He said that he had offered Melinda Haag, U.S. attorney for the Northern District, "first dibs on the prosecution of all marijuana cases in Mendocino County" but that she declined.  So "they should please leave us alone and let local enforcement tackle our own marijuana problems."

Regular readers should not be at all surprised that I am inclined to praise Mendocino County DA for engineering a seemingly more efficient and perhaps more effective way to wage the modern drug war. Indeed, given the muddled mess that is both California's medical marijuana laws and the opaque federal enforcement of prohibition in that state, this "Mendocino model" for modern marijuana enforcement for lower-level marijuana cases strikes me as a very wise way to use prosecutorial discretion and triage prosecutorial resources.

I would like to believe that the federal grand jury investigating the "Mendocino model" is focused on seeing if a local success story can be turned into a national program. But I fear that the feds are looking into what DA Eyster is doing because they fear even the prospect of somebody inventing any better drug war mousetraps.

Finally, though I suppose I should be concerned about the potential for prosecutors extorting criminal defendants in this setting, this form of extortion troubles me much less that when prosecutors demand that defendants give up various rights to avoid a crazy-long mandatory prison sentences in traditional plea bargaining. When DA Eyster seeks money from marijuana defendants as part of the plea process, it seems he is only seeking to have them relinquish what were likely ill-gotten gains (much of which might end up going to defense attorneys' pockets without such a deal available); when other prosecutors seek pleas and cooperation from other defendants facing extreme prison terms, these prosecutors are demanding that defendants relinquish constitutional and statutory rights created specifically to limit and check the power of government officials.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

May 26, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

"Is public shaming fair punishment?"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Los Angeles Times commentary by Patt Morrison on an alternative punishment topic I always find interesting. Here are excerpts:

You play the judge: How would you sentence a man who spent 15 years picking on his neighbor and her handicapped children? A Cleveland judge sentenced just such a man, Edmond Aviv, to jail, community service, anger management and mental health counseling — and to spend five hours alongside a busy street on a Sunday in April with a great big sign branding him an intolerant bully.

The 8th Amendment bans cruel and unusual punishment. Is this either one? Or can justice be fairly meted out in something other than years and months behind bars?

In 2012, a different Cleveland judge gave a woman a choice of going to jail or spending two days standing on a street corner with a sign reading: "Only an idiot would drive on the sidewalk to avoid a school bus." The woman chose to hold the sign.

Puritan punishments like locking someone's head and hands in the stocks seem like retribution, not justice. In "The Scarlet Letter," Hester Prynne, was an adulterer, not a thief. Puritans believed in shame as a behavior corrector. But Prynne flaunted and even co-opted the "A" she was condemned to wear.

Should shame be a component of punishment? Does taking someone down a peg set a miscreant straight, any more than locking him up? And should it be at a judge's discretion?...

Judges have sentenced a La Habra slumlord to live in his own run-down building under house arrest for two months, and made an Ohio woman who abandoned 33 kittens spend a night alone in the woods. In a case that made the legal textbooks and withstood appeal in 2005, a San Francisco mail thief was ordered to stand on the post office steps with a sign that read: "I stole mail and this is my punishment."

It's hard to track the deterrent effect of such creative punishments because they happen so rarely. And judges have so much power and discretion that creative sentencing could mean wildly and unfairly different punishments for the same crime between one courtroom and the next — one reason that sentencing guidelines and laws exist in the first place.

Daniel Markel, the D'Alemberte professor of law at Florida State University and an expert on sentencing, points out that if these punishments didn't have some efficacy, "there probably wouldn't be much resistance" from miscreants, but "in fact defendants typically don't want to be publicly shamed because they realize there is something publicly humiliating about being exposed in the streets."...

The element of choice that comes up in some kinds of creative sentencing might also give us pause. In California and elsewhere, convicted sex offenders have requested castration — chemical and actual — to get out of prison. Civil libertarians object on "cruel and unusual" constitutional grounds, because it amounts to no choice, and because it gets dangerously close to the medieval notion of cutting off a thief's hands. Markel adds another objection to asking the guilty to pick their poison: "We punish to communicate censure and condemnation. It's for a democracy to make those decisions. We ought not empower defendants to be deciding their punishments."

Edmond Aviv apparently wasn't given a choice. Will public humiliation change his behavior? He had been convicted of harassment before, so it's hard to fault the judge for trying something different. And even though we don't live in Hester Prynne's world anymore, I'll cautiously side with the slice of democracy that told a Cleveland.com reporter they approved the sentence. After all, it "communicated censure and condemnation." In this case, it seems, a bad guy got his just deserts. 

A few recent and lots of older posts on shaming sentences:

May 26, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Newt Gingrich and Van Jones say "Prison system is failing America"

Not only has CNN brought together a 2012 Republican presidential candidate and a former advisory to President Barack Obama as co-hosts of "Crossfire," but it now has published this interesting joint commentary under the headline "Prison system is failing America."  Here are excerpts from an interesting opinion piece that goes a bit beyond just the usual standard points about the various problems with modern mass incarceration:

Thirty-eight U.S. states are home to fewer people than live under the corrections system in this country. There are about as many people behind bars as live in Chicago. That's one in every 108 Americans. One in 35 are under some form of correctional supervision.

Among African Americans, the numbers are even more horrifying. According to the NAACP, one in three black males born in the United States today is likely to spend time in prison at some point in his life. That's compared with one in six Hispanic males or one in 25 white males.

It would be hard to overstate the scale of this tragedy. For a nation that loves freedom and cherishes our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the situation should be intolerable. It is destroying lives and communities.

Our corrections system is not correcting. Within three years of being released from prison, nearly half of prisoners are convicted of another crime with one out of every four ending up back in prison.

When a typical bureaucracy does its job this badly, it wastes money, time and paper. The corrections bureaucracy, in failing to correct the large majority of inmates in its charge, not only wastes money but also wastes lives, families and entire cities.

The current system is broken beyond repair. It's a human, social and financial disaster. We need a radical strategy of replacement of these huge bureaucracies that lack any meaningful oversight.... We need to rethink prisons, parole and probation for the 21st century.

At a time when high-quality education is increasingly digital and in many cases free, shouldn't we provide opportunities for prisoners to learn skills that will enable them to support themselves as upstanding citizens when they are released?

We know that inmates who earn a GED while incarcerated are substantially less likely to return to prison. There are readily available online tools that our prisons could use extensively for a minimal cost to increase the number of inmates receiving valuable education and skills training.

Khan Academy has replicated virtually the entire K-12 curriculum online for free. Udacity and other online education sites offer introductions to software programming for free. Our prisons should be using tools such as these extensively. They offer the opportunity to interrupt the cycle of poverty, a failing education system, crime and incarceration....

Technology should revolutionize more than just the prisons' rehabilitation programs. It should completely transform the corrections and criminal justice systems.... [T]echnology should enable much more effective probation and community supervision, especially new options that could allow nonviolent offenders to remain with their families living productive lives under an appropriate level of restriction.

Almost any activity to which we might sentence low-level offenders --apprenticeship programs, school, literacy or computer science boot camps, community service -- would be a better use of taxpayer dollars than sticking them idle in prison with hardened criminals. Unfortunately, the current corrections bureaucracy has embraced none of this innovation -- in part because it is captive to the prison guards' unions or the private prison lobby, and in part because it lacks any incentives or sufficient competition based on the right metrics....

Years ago, Van proposed that states give wardens a financial incentive to cut the rates of recidivism for inmates leaving their prisons. More than 65% of inmates in California return to prison within three years of their release, where they will again cost taxpayers an average of $47,000 each year.

Surely it is worth giving wardens a substantial portion of the savings for every inmate that leaves their prison and does not re-offend. Such incentives would spark dramatically more innovation and investment in rehabilitation, job training and job placement programs for prisoners. That would be a revolutionary change from prison administrators' current incentives, which are often to keep as many people in custody as possible.

Finally, we need real market competition that rewards success at every step of the process -- in probation and parole offices as well as prisons. That doesn't just mean privatizing prisons or rewarding probation services with the same failed metrics. We need competition of methods and ideas based on the right criteria: When we send prisoners home, do they have the skills to reintegrate in their communities as working, law-abiding citizens? Or do they end up coming back?...

We should start by opening our prisons and probation offices to innovation to save money, achieve better outcomes for individuals and ensure better safety for us all.

May 22, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack