Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Pennsylvania Supreme Court declares $75K mandatory fine constitutionally excessive for $200 theft

Images (2)Thanks to How Appealing, I just saw this fascinating new unanimous ruling by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in Pennsylvania v. Eisenberg, No. (Pa. Aug. 19, 2014) (available here). Here is how the lengthy opinion gets started:

The controlling issue in this unusual direct appeal from a conviction arising under the Gaming Act is whether imposition of a mandatory minimum fine of $75,000 for a conviction of a first-degree misdemeanor theft of $200 violates the prohibition of Article I, Section 13 of the Pennsylvania Constitution against excessive fines.  For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that, under the circumstances, the fine imposed indeed is unconstitutionally excessive. Accordingly, we vacate that portion of the judgment of sentence involving the mandatory fine and we remand to the trial court to determine, in its discretion, the appropriate fine to be imposed commensurate with appellant’s offense.

The full ruling is worth a full read by anyone interested in constitutional review of sentences, especially because the ruling turns in part on the fact that the punishment here involved a statutory mandatory term.  Here is an excerpt from the heart of the opinion's analysis:

In our view, the fine here, when measured against the conduct triggering the punishment, and the lack of discretion afforded the trial court, is constitutionally excessive. Simply put, appellant, who had no prior record, stole $200 from his employer, which happened to be a casino.  There was no violence involved; there was apparently no grand scheme involved to defraud either the casino or its patrons.  Employee thefts are unfortunately common; as noted, appellant’s conduct, if charged under the Crimes Code, exposed him to a maximum possible fine of $10,000. Instead, because appellant’s theft occurred at a casino, the trial court had no discretion, under the Gaming Act, but to impose a minimum fine of $75,000 – an amount that was 375 times the amount of the theft....

The Commonwealth argues that the mandatory fine is not constitutionally excessive because a fine serves both to punish and to deter, and in the Legislature’s judgment, the amount here was necessary to accomplish both in light of the public perception of the gaming industry and the significant amount of money exchanged in casinos.  We acknowledge that all fines serve the twin purposes of punishment and deterrence.  At the same time, however, we note that the extension of the mandatory fine to this offense was adopted in 2010, and it was accompanied by no separate legislative statement of purpose. The only statement of purpose is that attending the initial Gaming Act legislation, i.e., the general statement of purpose to protect the public through regulation of the gaming industry.  The Commonwealth cites nothing in the later legislation, its legislative history, or logic to explain the sheer amount of this fine for this particular added offense, and the reason for making the offense subject to a mandatory fine....

[T]he Commonwealth’s reliance on cases in which courts have upheld substantial criminal administrative penalties in light of the Legislature’s dual objectives of punishment and deterrence, is misplaced. In those cases, the fines were tailored, scaled, and in the strictest sense, calculated to their offenses.  It is undoubtedly within the Legislature’s discretion to categorize theft from a casino differently than other theft crimes in Pennsylvania, and, in turn, to fashion different penalties.  However, the prohibition against excessive fines under Article I, Section 13 requires that the Legislature not lose sight of the fact that fines must be reasonably proportionate to the crimes which occasion them.  We hold that, as imposed here, the mandatory fine clearly, palpably and plainly violates the Pennsylvania Constitution.

August 20, 2014 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Friday, August 15, 2014

"Restructuring Clemency: The Cost of Ignoring Clemency and a Plan for Renewal"

The title of this post is the title of this notable and timely new article by Rachel Barkow and Mark Osler.  Because I admire and respect the work of both these folks so much, I am going to make sure I read this joint-effort even on a sunny summer Friday afternoon.  Here is the abstract:

Over the past three decades, the pardon power has too often been ignored or used to create calamities rather than cure them.  Our most recent Presidents seem to realize the system is not working only at the end of their time in office, when they feel safe in giving grants but become aware of the fact that the system does not produce many recommendations for doing so even when asked.  As a key constitutional power, clemency deserves to be more than an afterthought to a presidential term.

The use of the pardon power is a necessary element in a fully-functioning system of criminal law.  Recent presidents, however, have largely ignored this powerful tool, even as some have sought to expand the power of the office in other ways.  This essay seeks both to describe the costs of this trend and to propose important structural reforms to reverse it.  Specifically, we advocate for the creation of an independent commission with a standing, diverse membership.  While this commission should have representation from the Department of Justice and take the views of prosecutors seriously, the commission itself should exist outside the Department and its recommendations should go directly to the White House.  This new model of clemency should also pay attention to data both to create uniform standards and to focus the use of the pardon power on policy as a management tool.  An emphasis on data will also help the new pardon commission make evidence-based decisions about risk and reentry.  It is time to view clemency reform as a priority for the office of the presidency no matter who holds the position.  This is the time to create a better machine of mercy.

August 15, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

"How Prisoners’ Rights Lawyers are Preserving the Role of the Courts"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article on SSRN authored by Margo Schlanger. Here is the abstract:

This article is part of the University of Miami “Leading from Below” Symposium. It canvasses prisoners’ lawyers strategies prompted by the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act.  The strategies not only comply with the statute’s limits but also allow U.S. district courts to remain a forum for the vindication of the constitutional rights of at least some of the nation’s millions of prisoners.
Part I summarizes in several charts the PLRA’s sharp impact on the prevalence and outcomes in prison litigation, but demonstrates there are still many cases and situations in which courts continue to play a role. Part II looks at three methods by which plaintiffs and defendants can jointly obtain injunctive-type relief in prison cases — by crafting stipulations that comply with the PLRA’s constraints, by structuring the relief as a conditional dismissal, or by setting up the possibility of state-court enforcement. Part III examines plaintiffs’ coping methods for the PLRA’s provisions easing the path to termination of decrees, whether litigated or consent. Two types of preparation for a termination motion have emerged.  First, the parties sometimes agree to stretch out the remediation period more than the PLRA’s default two years.  Second, plaintiffs have worked to ensure that they are collecting sufficient information to inform their potentially hurried response to a termination motion.
It is my hope that the examples presented can help counsel and judges in prisoners’ rights cases thread the needle that the PLRA presents

August 13, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, August 11, 2014

Three distinct takes on AG Eric Holder's recent reservations about risk-based sentencing

Attorney General Eric Holder's significant speech at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers' Annual Meeting a few weeks ago justifiably made headlines based on his expressions of concern about the use of risk assessment instruments in initial sentencing determinations (as previously discussed here).  Because this is such an important and dynamic topic, I am waiting until I have a big block of time to discuss with sophistication and nuance AG Holder's sophisticated and nuanced comments on this front. 

In the meantime, thankfully, a number of other insightful and sophisticated folks are talking up and about what AG Holder had to say.  For starters, in today's New York Times, LawProf Sonja Starr has this new commentary which starts and ends this way: 

In a recent letter to the United States Sentencing Commission, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. sharply criticized the growing trend of evidence-based sentencing, in which courts use data-driven predictions of defendants’ future crime risk to shape sentences. Mr. Holder is swimming against a powerful current. At least 20 states have implemented this practice, including some that require risk scores to be considered in every sentencing decision. Many more are considering it, as is Congress, in pending sentencing-reform bills.

Risk-assessment advocates say it’s a no-brainer: Who could oppose “smarter” sentencing? But Mr. Holder is right to pick this fight. As currently used, the practice is deeply unfair, and almost certainly unconstitutional. It contravenes the principle that punishment should depend on what a defendant did, not on who he is or how much money he has....

Criminal justice policy should be informed by data, but we should never allow the sterile language of science to obscure questions of justice. I doubt many policy makers would publicly defend the claim that people should be imprisoned longer because they are poor, for instance. Such judgments are less transparent when they are embedded in a risk score. But they are no more defensible.

In addition, Judge Richard Kopf and defense attorney Scott Greenfield have this great new blogosphere back-and-forth on this topic:

All this is highly recommended reading!

August 11, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Friday, August 08, 2014

"The High Costs of Low Risk: The Crisis of America’s Aging Prison Population"

LogoThe title of this post is the title of this notable white paper from The Osborne Association that I found via this post from The Crime Report.  Here is the report's executive summary

For the past four decades, we have witnessed the most sustained and widespread imprisonment binge known throughout recorded human history. The facts are all too familiar: the United States has roughly 5 percent of the world’s population, yet is responsible for 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population.  With an estimated 2.3 million adults in jail or prison and 1 out of every 32 adults under correctional or community supervision, the U.S. surpasses all other countries in sheer numbers and per capita incarceration rates.

The immense costs of incarceration have increasingly framed the conversation around reducing the prison population as a matter of fiscal responsibility and budgetary necessity. This discussion is often centered around reducing the arrest and prosecution of so-called “non-violent drug offenders.”  But these issues belie a much more pressing human and economic concern: the aging prison population, whose costs for incarceration and care will soon prove unsustainable if meaningful action is not taken. And though prison is expensive, cost is far from the only justification to move away from our reliance on incarceration, as the continued long-term incarceration of aging citizens has serious moral, ethical, public health, and public safety implications.

This paper aims to provide a brief contextual framework of the issues affecting elders in prison; to illuminate the ongoing efforts being undertaken to improve conditions within correctional facilities, increase mechanisms for release, and develop robust post-release services specifically targeting the unique needs of the aging population in reentry; and to sketch out preliminary recommendations to serve as a basis for further work to be done throughout several key sectors.

Despite their apparent interrelated interests in the aging prison population, the fields of gerontology, medical and mental health, philanthropy, and corrections have only sporadically interacted around this issue, and never as a unified voice.  Thus, a primary objective of this work is to encourage multi-sector dialogue, cross-pollination of ideas, and a shared foundational knowledge that will strengthen the connections among these fields and form a basis for unifying action.

We believe such a partnership will be well equipped to identify and engage in appropriate measures that will immediately impact the aging prison population, while also developing and implementing the necessary socio-structural architecture to effectively address long-term mechanisms of diversion, release, and reentry.

Austerity-driven approaches to shrinking budgets and increasing public discomfort with mass incarceration create an opportunity to seriously address the epidemic of America’s graying prison population and to imbue our criminal justice system with values and policies that are humane, cost-effective, and socially responsible.

August 8, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Saturday, August 02, 2014

"Swift, Certain, and Fair Punishment — 24/7 Sobriety and Hope: Creative Approaches to Alcohol- and Illicit Drug-Using Offenders"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Paul Larkin of The Heritage Foundation available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Local and state government officials in South Dakota and Hawaii have implemented a creative way to address some of the problems stemming from alcohol and drug use. The South Dakota 24/7 Sobriety program and Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) project seek to deal with those problems by combining an old criminological theory with modern technological devices.  Criminologists, both old and contemporary, have believed that the certainty and celerity of punishment are more effective components of deterrence than is the severity of a penalty.  In fact, anyone who has been a parent will tell you that the swift and certain use of a mild or moderate punishment is far more likely to deter unwanted conduct than the threat of an infrequently used severe punishment imposed at some point down the road.

South Dakota and Hawaii have developed innovative programs to deal with substance use and noncompliance with the conditions of supervision.  Both programs address this problem. Starting from the proposition that certainty and celerity are more important than severity when measuring the effectiveness of punishment and using a rigorous alcohol-testing regimen, South Dakota has made strides toward the reduction of problem drinking and the attendant harms that it can produce.  Hawaii has independently developed and followed a similar approach to the use of drugs and crime, subjecting certain offenders to rigorous, random drug urinalysis punished by the certain imposition of a modest stint in jail for those who fail the required tests. Those creative approaches are worth serious consideration as an effective and humane means of addressing the grim problems that alcohol- and drug-abusers pose for victims and society.

August 2, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Making a libertarian case for "Why the Death Penalty Needs to Die"

The title of this post is drawn from the headline of this notable new commentary by Nick Gillespie at The Daily Beast. Here are excerpts:

As a libertarian, I’m not surprised that the state is so incompetent that it can’t even kill people efficiently.  But I’m far more outraged by the idea that anyone anywhere seriously thinks the death penalty passes for good politics or sane policy. It’s expensive, ineffective, and most of all, deeply offensive to ideals of truly limited government.

Consider that between 1980 and 2012, California spent $4 billion administering death penalty cases while actually executing just 13 individuals, according to a study produced by Loyola Marymount Law Professor Paula Mitchell.  What’s more, Mitchell told Reason TV’s Tracy Oppenheimer, when the death penalty is in play, “the legal costs [per case] skyrocket to an extra $134 million per year, well above the cost to implement life without possibility of parole.” Given the severity and finality of the punishment, it makes all the sense in the world to make sure due process was followed in all death penalty cases. I’m sure death costs more in California (everything else does) than in other states, but there’s just never going to be a way to make it less than a huge waste of taxpayer money....

Here’s one more [reason to kill the death penalty] that would hold true even if through some miracle the government could make the finances work, guarantee absolute accuracy in convicting only guilty perps, and show that executions significantly deterred crime: The state’s first role — and arguably its only one — is protecting the lives and property of its citizens. In everything it does — from collecting taxes to seizing property for public works to incentivizing “good” behaviors and habits — it should use the least violence or coercion possible.  No matter how despicable murderers can be, the state can make sure we’re safe by locking them up behind bars for the rest of their — and our — lives.  That’s not only a cheaper answer than state-sanctioned murder, it’s a more moral one, too.

July 31, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sixth Circuit panel finds one-day prison sentence unreasonable for white-collar defendant

The Sixth Circuit today has reinforced its reputation as one of the circuits most likely to declare a below-guideline sentence unreasonable with a unanimous panel ruling in US v. Musgrave, No. 13-3872 (6th Cir. July 31, 2014) (available here).  Because post-Booker appellate sentence reversals are rare, this relatively short opinion is a must read for everyone who following federal sentencing law and policy closely.  In addition, at a time when debates over white-collar sentencing rules and practices remain hot, all those who follow white-collar crime and punishment will want to be sure to check out this opinion as well.

Here is how the Musgrave opinion starts and finishes:

A jury found Paul Musgrave guilty of one count of conspiracy to commit wire and bank fraud and to make false statements to a financial institution; two counts of wire fraud; and one count of bank fraud.  The district court sentenced him to one day of imprisonment with credit for the day of processing — a downward variance from his Guidelines range of 57 to 71 months’ imprisonment and below the government’s recommendation of 30 months’ imprisonment.  On appeal, the government asserts that Musgrave’s one-day sentence is substantively unreasonable.  For the following reasons, we vacate the district court’s sentence and remand for resentencing....

A defendant’s sentence must reflect the seriousness of the offense, promote respect for the law, and provide just punishment. 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2).  In imposing a sentence, the district court must explain, based on permissible considerations, how its sentence “‘meshe[s] with Congress’s own view of the crimes’ seriousness.’” United States v. Peppel, 707 F.3d 627, 635 (6th Cir. 2013) (quoting United States v. Davis, 537 F.3d 611, 617 (6th Cir. 2008)).  The collateral consequences of the defendant’s prosecution and conviction are “impermissible factors” when fashioning a sentence that complies with this directive.  Peppel, 707 F.3d at 636.  A district court’s reliance on these factors “does nothing to show that [the defendant’s] sentence reflects the seriousness of his offense. Were it otherwise, these sorts of consequences— particularly ones related to a defendant’s humiliation before his community, neighbors, and friends—would tend to support shorter sentences in cases with defendants from privileged backgrounds, who might have more to lose along these lines.” United States v. Bistline, 665 F.3d 758, 765–66 (6th Cir. 2012).  Thus, when a district court varies downward on the basis of the collateral consequences of the defendant’s prosecution and conviction, the defendant’s sentence will not reflect the seriousness of the offense, nor will it provide just punishment.  See Peppel, 707 F.3d at 636; Bistline, 665 F.3d at 765–66.

Impermissible considerations permeated the district court’s justification for Musgrave’s sentence.  In imposing a sentence of one day with credit for the day of processing, the district court relied heavily on the fact that Musgrave had already “been punished extraordinarily” by four years of legal proceedings, legal fees, the likely loss of his CPA license, and felony convictions that would follow him for the rest of his life.  “[N]one of these things are [his] sentence.  Nor are they consequences of his sentence”; a diminished sentence based on considerations does not reflect the seriousness of his offense or effect just punishment.  Bistline, 665 F.3d at 765.  On remand, the district court must sentence Musgrave without considering these factors....

In the context of white-collar crime, we have emphasized that “it is hard to see how a one-day sentence” would “serve the goals of societal deterrence.” Davis, 537 F.3d at 617.  “‘Because economic and fraud-based crimes are more rational, cool, and calculated than sudden crimes of passion or opportunity, these crimes are prime candidates for general deterrence.’” Peppel, 707 F.3d at 637 (quoting United States v. Martin, 455 F.3d 1227, 1240 (11th Cir. 2006)); see also Davis, 537 F.3d at 617.

Consideration of general deterrence is particularly important where the district court varies substantially from the Guidelines.  See, e.g., Aleo, 681 F.3d at 300 (explaining that the greater the variance, the more compelling the justification based on the § 3553(a) factors must be).  This is even truer here, given that the crimes of which Musgrave was convicted are especially susceptible to general deterrence and the fact that there is a general policy favoring incarceration for these crimes.  Indeed, “[o]ne of the central reasons for creating the sentencing guidelines was to ensure stiffer penalties for white-collar crimes and to eliminate disparities between white-collar sentences and sentences for other crimes.” Davis, 537 F.3d at 617.  More importantly, Congress understood white-collar criminals to be deserving of some period of incarceration, as evidenced by its prohibition on probationary sentences in this context.  Id.  Where a district court’s view of a particular crime’s seriousness appears at odds with that of Congress and the Sentencing Commission, we expect that it will explain how its sentence nevertheless affords adequate general deterrence.  Id.; Camiscione, 591 F.3d at 834.  The district court failed to do so here.

Musgrave must be resentenced.  The district court relied on impermissible considerations and failed to address adequately how what amounted to a non-custodial sentence afforded adequate general deterrence in this context. Nevertheless, it bears repeating that “[w]hile appellate courts retain responsibility for identifying proper and improper sentencing considerations after Booker, it is not our task to impose sentences in the first instance or to second guess the individualized sentencing discretion of the district court when it appropriately relies on the § 3553(a) factors.”  Davis, 537 F.3d at 618 (citing United States v. Vonner, 516 F.3d 382, 392 (6th Cir. 2008) (en banc)). The district court’s sentence is vacated, and the case is remanded for the district court, in its discretion, to impose a sentence sufficient but not greater than necessary to serve the § 3553(a) factors.

I view the main message of this Musgrave case, along with other cited cases in which the Sixth Circuit has reversed similar one-day sentences on appeal, that the Sixth Circuit generally believe that at least a short period of incarceration is nearly essential for any serious crime for which the guidelines recommend years of incarceration even if the defendant is a relatively sympathetic first offender not likely to re-offend.

July 31, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

"Attorney General Eric Holder to Oppose Data-Driven Sentencing"

The title of this post is the headline of this important new article from Time detailing that the Attorney General is formally coming out against some of the data-driven, risk-based sentencing reforms based on concerns about the potential impact on equal justice.  Here are highlights from this article (with more to follow in coming posts):

Citing concerns about equal justice in sentencing, Attorney General Eric Holder has decided to oppose certain statistical tools used in determining jail time, putting the Obama Administration at odds with a popular and increasingly effective method for managing prison populations.  Holder laid out his position in an interview with TIME on Tuesday and will call for a review of the issue in his annual report to the U.S. Sentencing Commission Thursday, Justice department officials familiar with the report say.

Over the past 10 years, states have increasingly used large databases of information about criminals to identify dozens of risk factors associated with those who continue to commit crimes, like prior convictions, hostility to law enforcement and substance abuse. Those factors are then weighted and used to rank criminals as being a high, medium or low risk to offend again.  Judges, corrections officials and parole officers in turn use those rankings to help determine how long a convict should spend in jail.

Holder says if such rankings are used broadly, they could have a disparate and adverse impact on the poor, on socially disadvantaged offenders, and on minorities.  “I’m really concerned that this could lead us back to a place we don’t want to go,” Holder said on Tuesday.

Virtually every state has used such risk assessments to varying degrees over the past decade, and many have made them mandatory for sentencing and corrections as a way to reduce soaring prison populations, cut recidivism and save money.  But the federal government has yet to require them for the more than 200,000 inmates in its prisons. Bipartisan legislation requiring risk assessments is moving through Congress and appears likely to reach the President’s desk for signature later this year.

Using background information like educational levels and employment history in the sentencing phase of a trial, Holder told TIME, will benefit “those on the white collar side who may have advanced degrees and who may have done greater societal harm — if you pull back a little bit — than somebody who has not completed a master’s degree, doesn’t have a law degree, is not a doctor.”

Holder says using static factors from a criminal’s background could perpetuate racial bias in a system that already delivers 20% longer sentences for young black men than for other offenders.  Holder supports assessments that are based on behavioral risk factors that inmates can amend, like drug addiction or negative attitudes about the law.  And he supports in-prison programs — or back-end assessments — as long as all convicts, including high-risk ones, get the chance to reduce their prison time.

But supporters of the broad use of data in criminal-justice reform — and there are many — say Holder’s approach won’t work.  “If you wait until the back end, it becomes exponentially harder to solve the problem,” says former New Jersey attorney general Anne Milgram, who is now at the nonprofit Laura and John Arnold Foundation, where she is building risk-assessment tools for law enforcement.  For example, prior convictions and the age of first arrest are among the most power­ful risk factors for reoffending and should be used to help accurately determine appropriate prison time, experts say.

And data-driven risk assessments are just part of the overall process of determining the lengths of time convicts spend in prison, supporters argue.  Professor Edward Latessa, who consulted for Congress on the pending federal legislation and has produced broad studies showing the effectiveness of risk assessment in corrections, says concerns about disparity are overblown.  “Bernie Madoff may score low risk, but we’re never letting him out,” Latessa says.

Another reason Holder may have a hard time persuading states of his concerns is that data-driven corrections have been good for the bottom line.  Arkansas’s 2011 Public Safety Improvement Act, which requires risk assessments in corrections, is projected to help save the state $875 million through 2020, while similar reforms in Kentucky are projected to save it $422 million over 10 years, according to the Pew Center on the States. Rhode Island has seen its prison population drop 19% in the past five years, thanks in part to risk-assessment programs, according to the state’s director of corrections, A.T. Wall....

Holder says he wants to ensure the bills that are moving through Congress account for potential social, economic and racial disparities in sentencing.  “Our hope would be to work with any of the Senators or Congressmen who are involved and who have introduced bills here so that we get to a place we ought to be,” Holder said.

July 31, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

"Right on Crime: A Return to First Principles for American Conservatives"

The title of this post is the title of this new article by Marc Levin and Vikrant Reddy which I recently discovered via the Right on Crime blog. Here is an excerpt from the tail-end of the article's introduction:

The idea that conservatives are ideologically committed to mass incarceration is — and always was — a caricature.  American incarceration rates increased significantly in recent decades, and many on the right supported this increase, but conservative support for increased incarceration was linked to unique historical circumstances, not to any philosophical commitment.  Moreover, while conservatives were correct in the early 1970s that some increase in incarceration was necessary to ensure that violent and dangerous offenders served significant prison terms, the sixfold increase in incarceration from the early 1970s to the mid-2000s reached many nonviolent, low-risk offenders.  Now, as crime rates are declining, conservatives are increasingly focused on developing policies that prioritize using limited prison space to house violent offenders while looking for alternative sanctions to hold nonviolent offenders accountable, restore victims, and protect public safety.  In generating and advocating these policies, conservatives are returning to first principles: skepticism of state power, insistence on government accountability, and concern for how public policy affects social norms.

In this article, we discuss the conservative return to first principles in criminal justice.  In Part II, we explain the modern problem of mass incarceration.  Then, in Part III, we note the historical reasons behind the push to increase incarceration in the 1980s and 1990s.  In Part IV, we detail legislative reforms to remedy the incarceration problem that are consistent with conservative ideological principles.

July 29, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, July 28, 2014

Fascinating Fourth Circuit split over how federal sentencing problems should inform guideline interpretation

I just noticed a notable ruling by a split Fourth Circuit panel from late last week in US v. Valdovinos, No. 13-4768 (4th Cir. July 25, 2014) (available here). The precise legal issue concerning guideline interpretation in Valdovinos is not all that compelling, but how the judges dispute the right way to resolve the issue surely is.  Here is how the panel majority opinion (running 18 pages) concludes:

For the foregoing reasons, we hold that North Carolina’s legislatively mandated sentencing scheme, not a recommended sentence hashed out in plea negotiations, determines whether an offender’s prior North Carolina conviction was punishable by more than a year in prison.  Because Valdovinos’s offense of conviction was indeed punishable by imprisonment exceeding one year, it qualifies as a predicate felony under Section 2L1.2(b)(1)(B) of the Guidelines [thereby enhancing his sentence].  We appreciate the fervor and policy arguments of our friend in dissent.  Indeed, we can agree with many of the latter.  What we cannot agree with is that “application of relevant precedent” does not require the result here.  Carachuri and Simmons do just that.  The judgment of the district court is affirmed.

Here is how Judge Davis's remarkable dissenting opinion (running 30 pages) gets revved up and concludes (emphasis in the original):

Our disagreement as to the outcome in this case stems, I think, less over the content and application of relevant precedent and more from a fundamental disagreement regarding our role as arbiters of a flailing federal sentencing regime.  Where, as here, we have been presented with a choice in how to interpret the interstices of federal sentencing law, and where one choice would exacerbate the harmful effects of over-20 incarceration that every cadre of social and political scientists (as well as an ever-growing cohort of elected and appointed officials, state and federal, as well as respected members of the federal judiciary) has recognized as unjust and inhumane, as well as expensive and ineffectual, this insight can and should inform our analysis.  I deeply regret the panel’s failure to take advantage of the opportunity to do so here....

Here, in a tiny corner of the chaotic morass that is federal sentencing law, Mr. Valdovinos has offered us a measured approach, to a novel issue of federal sentencing law, that adheres to Supreme Court and our relevant circuit precedents and is consistent with our values. If accepted by this panel, his argument, which is surely more than merely “clever”, see ante, at 8, would affect a tiny number of federal cases drawing legal relevance from North Carolina’s historical (and now superseded) sentencing regime. And Mr. Valdovinos’s sentence in this case likely would be reduced to a bottom guideline of 15 months, instead of the bottom guideline sentence he received, 27 months.  He’d soon be on his way home to Mexico, if not already arrived.

That the majority declines the opportunity to decide this case on the foundations discussed herein is regrettable, a choice that not only ignores the growing wisdom informed by widespread acknowledgement of our unjust federal sentencing jurisprudence, but actually hinders its progress.  Would that my friends could see that it’s a new century, complete with a host of profound and valuable insights at our avail.  I discern no compelling reason why, in the performance of our adjudicative responsibilities, which every member of the panel has unfailingly carried out to the best of our ability in this case and in full accordance with our solemn oath to “administer justice,” 28 U.S.C. § 453, we ought not to draw on these insights.

One of them is that sometimes, in our shared quest for justice under law, it requires so little of us to achieve so much.  Respectfully, I dissent.

July 28, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, July 27, 2014

"Grace Notes: A Case for Making Mitigation the Heart of Noncapital Sentencing"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Miriam Gohara that I just came across via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Investigation and presentation of comprehensive life history mitigation is at the heart of successful capital litigation that has contributed to a steady decline in capital sentences. Noncapital incarceration rates have also begun to level, and various legal developments have signaled a re-ascent of more individualized noncapital sentencing proceedings.  This return to individualized sentencing invites consideration of whether life history mitigation may, as it has in capital cases, hasten a turn away from mostly retributive punishment resulting in disproportionately harsh noncapital sentencing to a more merciful rehabilitative approach.  The robust capital mitigation practice required by today's prevailing professional capital defense norms developed following the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment doctrine requiring individualized capital sentences that account for the unique characteristics of the offender. No such doctrinal imperative applies to noncapital sentencing. As a result, professional noncapital defense sentencing standards, while providing a general basis for various aspects of sentencing advocacy, remain relatively underdeveloped, though the same bases for ameliorating punishment in capital cases should apply with equal practical force to noncapital cases.

At the same time, institutional and doctrinal barriers -- including high caseloads and lack of resources, the prevalence of plea bargaining, and the Supreme Court's “death is different” precedent -- present formidable challenges to routine presentation of life history mitigation in noncapital cases.  Therefore, the regular presentation of life history mitigation, lacking a constitutional mandate and operating in a structure different from that of capital sentencing, will depend in the immediate term on the initiative of criminal defense lawyers with the will to consistently present it in noncapital cases.  A more widespread adoption of comprehensive noncapital mitigation practice will benefit individual clients, change the expectations of sentencing courts concerning what information they should have available before ordering punishment, and provide insight into the social causes of various types of crimes.  Over time, as it has in capital cases, familiarity with the mitigating force of social history may serve as a powerful basis for empathy and amelioration of overly punitive noncapital punishment.

July 27, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, July 25, 2014

Is Judge Kozinski recent opinion proof that "the death penalty is doomed"?

Thw question in the title of this post is drawn from the headline of this New York Times opinion piece by Jesse Wegman entitled "Why the Death Penalty Is Doomed." Here are excerpts:

Alex Kozinski, a federal judge on the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, has gone on the record saying he is “generally not opposed to the death penalty.” But his opinion in a recent case may nevertheless find itself in the history books one day — in the section explaining why the death penalty in America finally ended....

Judge Kozinski [in a recent noted dissent]... launched into a meditation on why we kill people the way we do. The late 1970s shift to lethal injection was undertaken, as the judge suggested, in the belief that it was a “more humane” and “less brutal” method of execution than earlier ones — the firing squad, the electric chair, the gas chamber. But that belief was mistaken, he said. “Using drugs meant for individuals with medical needs to carry out executions is a misguided effort to mask the brutality of executions by making them look serene and peaceful — like something any one of us might experience in our final moments.”

The judge then shifted into a register generally associated with those firmly planted in the abolitionist camp. “But executions are, in fact, nothing like that. They are brutal, savage events, and nothing the state tries to do can mask that reality. Nor should it. If we as a society want to carry out executions, we should be willing to face the fact that the state is committing a horrendous brutality on our behalf.”

So how should we do it? Judge Kozinski made the point that the guillotine is the most foolproof method of ending a life, although he rejected it because it “seems inconsistent with our national ethos.” (Which ethos is that? The one against state-sponsored decapitation? Or against relying on the French in matters of punishment?)

Clearly, the two-hour ordeal that occurred in Arizona last night is more evidence that lethal injection is far from humane. Instead, as Judge Kozinski said, the firing squad is the most quick and reliable of the existing methods. And then he added this coup de grâce:

“Sure, firing squads can be messy,” the judge wrote, “but if we are willing to carry out executions, we should not shield ourselves from the reality that we are shedding human blood. If we, as a society, cannot stomach the splatter from an execution carried out by firing squad, then we shouldn’t be carrying out executions at all.”

July 25, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Rep. Ryan's new anti-poverty proposal calls for federal sentencing and prison reforms

Paul-ryanAs reported in this official press release, House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan today "released a new discussion draft, 'Expanding Opportunity in America,' [which] proposes a new pilot project to strengthen the safety net and discusses a number of reforms to the EITC, education, criminal justice, and regressive regulation."  Notably, an extended section of this impressive document (Chapter 4, which runs nearly 10 of the draft's 70+ pages) is focused on criminal justice reforms.  Here are segments from this portion of the draft:

About 2.2 million people are currently behind bars — a more than 340 percent increase since 1980.  As a result, we spend about $80 billion on corrections at all levels of government — an inflation-adjusted increase of over 350 percent in that same period.  This growing cost burden on society is a cause for concern.  But perhaps what’s most troubling is the effect on individuals and families....

[Federal sentencing reform] seeks to tap this overlooked potential and ameliorate the collateral impact on children and families.  Although most offenders are in state prisons or local jails, successful reforms at the federal level could encourage states and local governments to follow their example.  This discussion draft explores a number of reforms on multiple fronts — how we sentence individuals to prison, how offenders are treated inside prison, and how society helps them to reintegrate afterwards.

Public safety is priority No. 1, so these reforms would apply to only non-violent and low-risk offenders.  The punishment should fit the crime, but in many cases the punishment of incarceration extends beyond prison time.  Once people have paid their debt to society, they should be able to move on. In that spirit, this proposal suggests three possible reforms:

• Grant judges more flexibility within mandatory-minimum guidelines when sentencing non-violent drug offenders.

• Implement a risk- and needs-assessment system in federal prisons while expanding enrollment in rehabilitative programming to reduce recidivism. Allow non-violent and low-risk inmates to use enrollment to earn time off their prison stay towards prerelease custody.

• Partner with reforms at the state and local level....

Unlike state inmates, only 6 percent of federal inmates are violent offenders, while another 15 percent are guilty of weapons offenses.  In fact, most federal prisoners—nearly 51 percent — are serving time for a drug-related offense, and data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission shows that most of these federal drug offenders are in the lowest criminal-history category.   But under current law, a single gram of crack cocaine could be all that separates a convict from a less-than-five-year sentence and a 40-year sentence. Rigid and excessive mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenders, like these, may add to an already over-crowded prison system without appreciably enhancing public safety.

There are also economic and social consequences to unreasonably long sentences. Not only do they put undue burdens on families, but they may actually make people more likely to return to crime.  As Justice Fellowship notes, “Rather than encouraging criminals to become peaceful, productive citizens, prison culture often has the opposite effect, operating as a graduate school for crime.”  The federal government should follow the lead of several states and consider how sentencing guidelines, including alternative forms of detention, can both prevent crime and steer non-violent, low-risk drug offenders away from the addictions and networks that make them more likely to reoffend....

Although crime rates have fallen since the 1980s, the unintended consequence of these mandatory minimums is that some low-risk, non-violent offenders serve unreasonably long sentences....

A major challenge of criminal-justice reform is lowering the high rates of recidivism. High rates of recidivism are not only costly to the taxpayer and dangerous for society; they present a missed opportunity to bring more individuals into society as productive and contributing members....

[Proposed] reforms seek to put a greater focus upon rehabilitation and reintegration. Although the federal government’s reach is limited, these reforms would give judges the discretion they need to prevent nonviolent offenders from serving unreasonably long sentences; they would align inmates’ incentives to help reduce recidivism; and they would partner with states and community groups to expand their life-affirming work.

July 24, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

"Strictly Taboo: Cultural Anthropology's Insights into Mass Incarceration and Victimless Crime"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Brennan Hughes available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

I argue that cultural anthropology can explain two persistent riddles of American criminal justice: (1) Why do we have mass incarceration when mass incarceration is ineffective and socially destructive? (2) Why do we have victimless crimes when criminal law is ostensibly based on the utilitarian harm principle?

One answer is found in the anthropological “survivals” known as “uncleanness” and “taboos.” These visceral, often subconscious, feelings function to preserve order, the status quo, and class distinctions. Despite the gains made in civil rights, nonwhites and the underclass remain “the other,” and they threaten to “contaminate” the majority population. Crime itself, as a threat to social stability, has become charged with a powerful ability to attract and repel. Crime and criminals are described using terms for dirt and feces. The majority culture’s response to crime (which is linked with its unconscious response to the lower class and minorities) is to expel such pollution into sealed containers called prisons. The ritualism of civic religion completes the purification process.

Deeply felt taboos also persist concerning sex and drugs. While marijuana possession and use harms no one but the user, marijuana is historically taboo on account of its association with minorities and radicals. Incest is criminalized and sex with minors is hyper-punished because they violate deeply felt sexual taboos.

I argue that one promising solution is to help people develop a stronger taboo (through education) that can cancel out the dehumanizing taboos toward criminals (just as the taboo against homophobia has supplanted the taboo against homosexuality). We will continue to overpunish until hyper-punishment itself becomes repulsive.

July 22, 2014 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, July 21, 2014

"Liberal but Not Stupid: Meeting the Promise of Downsizing Prisons"

The title of this post is the title of this important and timely new paper authored by two terrific criminologists, Professors Joan Petersilia and Francis T. Cullen, and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

A confluence of factors — a perfect storm — interfered with the intractable rise of imprisonment and contributed to the emergence of a new sensibility defining continued mass imprisonment as non-sustainable. In this context, reducing America’s prisons has materialized as a viable possibility.  For progressives who have long called for restraint in the use of incarceration, the challenge is whether the promise of downsizing can be met.

The failure of past reforms aimed at decarceration stand as a sobering reminder that good intentions do not easily translate into good results.  Further, a number of other reasons exist for why meaningful downsizing might well fail (e.g., the enormous scale of imprisonment that must be confronted, limited mechanisms available to release inmates, lack of quality alternative programs).  Still, reasons also exist for optimism, the most important of which is the waning legitimacy of the paradigm of mass incarceration, which has produced efforts to lower inmate populations and close institutions in various states.

The issue of downsizing will also remain at the forefront of correctional discourse because of the court-ordered reduction in imprisonment in California. This experiment is ongoing, but is revealing the difficulty of downsizing; the initiative appears to be producing mixed results (e.g., reductions in the state’s prison population but increased in local jail populations). In the end, successful downsizing must be “liberal but not stupid.”  Thus, reform efforts must be guided not only by progressive values but also by a clear reliance on scientific knowledge about corrections and on a willingness to address the pragmatic issues that can thwart good intentions.  Ultimately, a “criminology of downsizing” must be developed to foster effective policy interventions.

July 21, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Huge reduced drug guideline retroactivity decision expected from US Sentencing Commission on 7/18

As this official public notice reports, on July 18, 2014 at 1pm EDT, the US Sentencing the Commission will hold a public meeting at which "the Commissioners will vote on whether or not to retroactively apply, in whole or in part, [its recent guideline] amendment reducing the drug quantity table by two levels." At the risk of overstating the importance of this vote, I am inclined to assert that it may be the most practically consequential USSC decision in nearly a decade. The (slightly misleading) headlines of these two media discussions of the coming vote helps to highlight why:

It is likely hard for anyone who has not followed federal sentencing very closely for decades to fully appreciate all the dynamic challenges that this vote presents for the US Sentencing Commission (as well as for the US Department of Justice and for all those who work day-to-day the federal sentencing system).  Helpfully, this extended BuzzFeed article by Evan McMorris-Santoro provide a primer on some of the issues swirling around this important USSC vote.  The article's headline highlights its themes: "Despite Rhetoric, Obama Administration Pushes To Keep Thousands Of Felons In Jail Under Old Rules: The Justice Department announced major changes to the way federal drug crimes are punished this year. But the rules for existing convicts might be different — and many White House allies are angry."

Some recent related posts on reduced drug guideline retroactivity:

July 17, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, July 14, 2014

"Moneyball Sentencing"

The title of this post is the great title of this interesting-looking new article by Dawinder Sidhu now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Sentencing is a backward- and forward-looking enterprise. That is, sentencing is informed by an individual’s past conduct as well as by the criminal justice system’s prediction of the individual’s future criminal conduct.  Increasingly, the criminal justice system is making these predictions on an actuarial basis, computing the individual’s risk of recidivism according to the rates of recidivism for people possessing the same group characteristics (e.g., race, sex, socio-economic status, education).  The sentencing community is drawn to this statistical technique because it purportedly distinguishes with greater accuracy the high-risk from the low-risk, and thereby allows for a more efficient allocation of sentencing resources, reserving incarceration for the truly dangerous and saving the low-risk from needless penal attention.

Despite these asserted benefits, risk-assessment tools are exogenous to the theories of punishment, the very foundation for sentencing in Anglo-American jurisprudence.  This Article reviews the legality and propriety of actuarial predictive instruments, using these theories and governing constitutional and statutory law as the touchstone for this analysis.  This Article then applies these normative and legal principles to seventeen major characteristics that may comprise an offender’s composite risk profile.  It argues that risk-assessment instruments are problematic for three reasons: they include characteristics that are prohibited by constitutional and statutory law; subject the individual to punishment for characteristics over which the individual has no meaningful control; and presume that the individual is a static entity predisposed, if not predetermined, to recidivate, thereby undermining individual agency and betting against the individual’s ability to beat the odds.

July 14, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Fourth Circuit to reconsider en banc its Whiteside ruling concerning reconsideration of guideline errors in 2255

As noted in this prior post, titled "Fourth Circuit deepens (via dramatic split opinion) circuit split over fixing sentencing problems via 2255 motions," a split panel of the Fourth Circuit back in April allowed a federal inmate to use a 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion to challenge a sentence that was based on the career offender enhancement under the United States Sentencing Guidelines when subsequent case law revealed the enhancement was inapplicable to him.  The ruling in Whiteside v. US, No. 13-7152 (4th Cir. Apr. 8, 2014) (available here), included both a spirited marority and dissenting opinion.   

Now, thanks to a helpful reader and this unpublished order, I have learned that the full Fourth Circuit has decided to rehear this matter en banc.  I am not to surprised by this news, though I am perhaps a bit disappointed that it does not seem as though the Fourth Circuit has invited amicus invovement at this stage.  As regular readers know, I think sentencing finality concerns raise distinct issues and I have written at length on this subject recently.  Perhaps I should be grateful that the Fourth Circuit has not solicited amicus briefs in Whiteside, as it is much easier and much more efficient for me to share some of my perspective at this stage just to linking to my series of recent prior posts about sentence finality here:

July 14, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Third Circuit approves forcible medication to enable federal sentencing

While I was on the road last week, the Third Circuit issued an interesting opinion in US v. Cruz, No. 13-4378 (3d Cir. July 10, 2014) (available here), which affirmed a district court's decision to forcible medicate a defendant in order to facilitate his federal sentencing. This opening paragraph and another section from the heart of the opinion provides highlights of the unanimous panel ruling:

We here confront an issue of first impression: whether the Government, pursuant to the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Sell, 539 U.S. 166 (2003), can have a sufficiently important interest in forcibly medicating a defendant to restore his mental competency and render him fit to proceed with sentencing.  Under the facts presented in this case, we answer that question in the affirmative and we will affirm....

[I]n Booker the Supreme Court highlighted governmental interests that are inherent in sentencing proceedings.  It repeatedly emphasized that the sentencing scheme put in place by the Sentencing Act and Sentencing Guidelines “diminishes sentencing disparity” and “move[s] the sentencing system in the direction of increased uniformity.” Booker, 543 U.S. at 250, 253.  It also repeatedly emphasized that sentencing uniformity depends in critical part on the relationship between punishment and “the real conduct that underlies the crime of conviction.” Id. at 250; see id. at 251 (“Judges have long looked to real conduct when sentencing,” and often rely on “a presentence report, prepared by a probation officer, for information (often unavailable until after the trial) relevant to the manner in which the convicted offender committed the crime of conviction.”); id. at 253-54 (“[I]ncreased uniformity . . . does not consist simply of similar sentences for those convicted of violations of the same statute . . . . It consists, more importantly, of similar relationships between sentences and real conduct, relationships that Congress’ [sic] sentencing statues helped to advance[.]”).

The Government cannot achieve the sort of uniformity contemplated in Booker without formal sentencing proceedings.  A criminal defendant enjoys the right to allocute at sentencing, and he also enjoys the right to object to the PSR, to argue for favorable sentencing variances and downward departures from the Sentencing Guidelines, and to oppose any arguments favoring upward variances or departures from the Guidelines. Those rights, which to a great degree reflect the defendant’s “real conduct,” id. at 250, necessarily require the defendant to both actively participate in sentencing proceedings and inform his attorney’s actions.  Because an incompetent defendant is presumed unable to take those actions, the Government maintains an important interest in restoring his mental competency and enabling him to do so.

July 14, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack