Friday, January 22, 2016

Will FBI child porn operations generate same controversy as Fast and Furious?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new USA Today report headlined "FBI ran website sharing thousands of child porn images."  Here are the basics from the article:

For nearly two weeks last year, the FBI operated what it described as one of the Internet’s largest child pornography websites, allowing users to download thousands of illicit images and videos from a government site in the Washington suburbs.

The operation — whose details remain largely secret — was at least the third time in recent years that FBI agents took control of a child pornography site but left it online in an attempt to catch users who officials said would otherwise remain hidden behind an encrypted and anonymous computer network. In each case, the FBI infected the sites with software that punctured that security, allowing agents to identify hundreds of users.

The Justice Department acknowledged in court filings that the FBI operated the site, known as Playpen, from Feb. 20 to March 4, 2015. At the time, the site had more than 215,000 registered users and included links to more than 23,000 sexually explicit images and videos of children, including more than 9,000 files that users could download directly from the FBI. Some of the images described in court filings involved children barely old enough for kindergarten.

That approach is a significant departure from the government’s past tactics for battling online child porn, in which agents were instructed that they should not allow images of children being sexually assaulted to become public. The Justice Department has said that children depicted in such images are harmed each time they are viewed, and once those images leave the government’s control, agents have no way to prevent them from being copied and re-copied to other parts of the internet.

Officials acknowledged those risks, but said they had no other way to identify the people accessing the sites. “We had a window of opportunity to get into one of the darkest places on Earth, and not a lot of other options except to not do it,” said Ron Hosko, a former senior FBI official who was involved in planning one of the agency’s first efforts to take over a child porn site. “There was no other way we could identify as many players.”

Lawyers for child pornography victims expressed surprise that the FBI would agree to such tactics – in part because agents had rejected them in the past – but nonetheless said they approved. “These are places where people know exactly what they’re getting when they arrive,” said James Marsh, who represents some of the children depicted in some of the most widely-circulated images. “It’s not like they’re blasting it out to the world.”...

But they have also prompted a backlash of a different kind. In a court filing, a lawyer for one of the men arrested after the FBI sting charged that “what the government did in this case is comparable to flooding a neighborhood with heroin in the hope of snatching an assortment of low-level drug users.” The defense lawyer, Colin Fieman, asked a federal judge to throw out child pornography charges against his client, former middle school teacher Jay Michaud. A federal judge is scheduled to hear arguments on that request Friday.

Fieman said more than 100,000 Playpen registered users visited the site while it was under the FBI’s control. The Justice Department said in court filings that agents had found “true” computer addresses for more than 1,300 of them, and has told defense lawyers that 137 have been charged with a crime, though it has so far declined to publicly identify those cases.

“The government always considers seizing an illegal child pornography site and removing it from existence immediately and permanently,” Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said. “While doing so would end the trafficking of child pornography taking place on that one website, it would do nothing to prevent those same users from disseminating child pornography through other means.” Still, he said, “The decision whether to simply shut down a website or to allow it to continue operating for a brief period for a law enforcement purpose is a difficult one.”

Justice officials said they were unable to discuss details of the investigation because much of it remains under seal, at their request. The Justice Department said in court filings that agents did not post any child pornography to the site themselves. But it did not dispute that the agents allowed images that were already on the site to remain there, and that it did not block the site’s users from uploading new ones while it was under the government’s control. And the FBI has not said it had any ability to prevent users from circulating the material they downloaded onto other sites.

“At some point, the government investigation becomes indistinguishable from the crime, and we should ask whether that’s OK,” said Elizabeth Joh, a University of California Davis law professor who has studied undercover investigations. “What’s crazy about it is who’s making the cost/benefit analysis on this? Who decides that this is the best method of identifying these people?”

January 22, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thursday, January 21, 2016

A much deeper (too deep?) dive into mens rea and its place in criminal justice reform

As regular readers should now know, debate over mens rea reforms for federal offenses has become the latest hot-button issue in the extended discussions inside the Beltway concerning statutory federal sentencing reform.  On the terms of the statutory debate in Congress and with the White House, the federal mens rea debate is quite interesting and important.  But this interesting new commentary by sociology professor William Kelly, titled "Rethinking Criminal Intent: Why 'Mens Rea' Matters," provides an even richer perspective on what deeper mens rea concerns might entail.  I recommend the full piece, and here is a taste:

I believe the debate has so far sidestepped one of the more troubling impacts of mens rea on our justice system. I agree that there is a valid question about whether citizens can be aware of all federal crimes.  But the problem associated with mens rea is much broader than just the question of whether someone is “knowingly” breaking the law. My concern is with the psychological, neurological, psychiatric, and intellectual ability or capacity of many offenders to form the required criminal intent.

Criminal intent or criminal responsibility requires awareness, conscious will, volition, and rational decision making.  There is a routine presumption, which is rarely challenged, that criminal offenders have the ability to form intent.  I challenge that presumption.  Here is why.

Today, 40 percent of individuals in the U.S. criminal justice system (federal and state) have a diagnosable mental illness. Sixty percent of inmates in the nation’s prisons have experienced at least one traumatic brain injury.  Nearly 80 percent of justice-involved individuals have a substance abuse problem.  The prevalence in the justice system of individuals with intellectual disabilities is three to five times what it is in the general population.  There are substantial numbers of individuals in the justice system with neurodevelopmental and neurocognitive deficits and impairments.

Moreover, there’s overwhelming evidence that many individuals with mental illness, addiction, neurodevelopmental deficiencies, and intellectual deficits lack the ability to form intent as it is defined in the law. How many lack this ability we don’t really know, because we rarely inquire about intent.  But the statistics cited above should raise serious questions about how we go about the business of criminal justice in the U.S.

In the vast majority of state and federal criminal convictions, the government rarely is required to prove intent.  That’s because the vast majority of criminal indictments (roughly 95 percent) are resolved through a plea agreement.  If the offender agrees to the terms of the agreement, it’s essentially a done deal.  That puts prosecutors in charge of sorting out who is criminally responsible and who is not.  At the end of the day, the vast majority are held responsible.

Mens rea is supposed to serve as a gatekeeper at the front door of the justice system, separating innocent from criminal behavior.  The reality is that criminal intent is just not much of an issue under current criminal procedure. That in turn has significantly contributed to our incarceration problem by facilitating the punishment of more and more individuals.

It has also contributed to our recidivism problem. When we punish mentally ill, addicted, intellectually disadvantaged and/or neurocognitively impaired individuals, we tend to return them to the free world in worse shape than when they came in. This is simply more grease for the revolving door.

January 21, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Pulling Leviathan's Teeth – The Political Economy of Death Penalty Abolition"

The title of this post is the title of this provocative new article available via SSRN authored by Jerg Gutmann. Here is the abstract:

It is not immediately apparent why a state would willingly abolish the death penalty and thereby lose a powerful political instrument.  The fact that some states abolish capital punishment while others retain it has thus far been explained by systematic differences in the values of politicians or citizens.  An explanation of different behavior based on different preferences for such behavior is, however, largely tautological and not of much use to social science.  

This article proposes and empirically tests a political economy model in which rational politicians are more likely to abolish the death penalty when it is of no political use to them and if the process of abolition serves as a self-commitment in periods of transition.  The results of estimating stratified Cox regression models show that the death penalty tends to be abolished particularly during periods of democratization and transitions to peace, but also that independence of the judiciary can encourage abolition.  In contrast, military dictatorships are significantly more likely to retain capital punishment, as are countries with a common law legal system and those that are strongly politically influenced by Islam.  These findings support the view that the abolition of capital punishment is at least partly motivated by rational political considerations.

January 21, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

"Free computers for inmates? It’s latest deal at Sacramento County jail"

The title of this post is the headline of this encouraging Sacramento Bee article which reinforces my long-standing belief that lots of modern technology could and should be put to good use in our not-so-modern jails and prisons.  Here are excerpts from the piece:

On the surface, the notion seems preposterous: Hand out Samsung computer tablets to dozens of Sacramento County Main Jail inmates.  But 40 of the tablets have been in use at the Main Jail downtown for two months, and officials say they have had virtually no problems. Inmates have used them to take classes toward high school diplomas, for parenting and domestic violence courses and, once they have earned enough points from studying, to watch preapproved movies or listen to music.

The project, which officials hope soon will offer 500 tablets to inmates, is similar to others that have been launched in jails nationwide and is not costing taxpayers a dime, sheriff’s Sgt. Brian Amos said.  Instead, the tablets, which cost about $200 each, are paid for through an inmate fund that collects revenues from commissary and other purchases.  “An inmate can work on their GED, they can take anger management classes,” Amos said as he stood on the fifth floor of the jail Thursday as inmates drifted toward a table holding dozens of tablets and earphones. “There’s even parenting classes. We had an inmate here during this pilot who was learning how to fix carburetors on a car or fix brakes. There’s thousands of hours of content.”

The computers cannot be used for email or be hooked up to wireless Internet, Amos said.  Instead, they can only connect with a secure network operated by a Chicago-based company called Edovo that offers the service. If someone somehow managed to hack into the system, “they’d end up at Edovo,” Amos said.

Although Amos acknowledges the notion originally worried some deputies at the jail, which houses about 2,000 inmates, the pilot program has proved to have a calming effect on inmates who have been given access to the devices.  On two visits last week to the day room where the devices are being used, there was something present that is entirely out of the ordinary for the cacophonous jailhouse: silence.

Jason Rogers, 43, who has been in the jail for eight months on drug charges, sat with one of the tablets studying a chapter book and taking notes on a pad. “I think it’s great,” Rogers said, adding that he has used the device to study current events, such as the ongoing war in Syria, or to watch movies.  Without access to a tablet, Rogers said, he’d most likely be writing letters or watching television in the day room.

Steve Wilson, 52, who is awaiting the results of an appeal on a federal white-collar crime case, said he uses the devices to listen to TED talks and watch documentaries. In a previous stint at the jail while awaiting trial, Wilson said disputes among bored inmates were common. “At least twice a week, when those doors popped open, there was a fight,” Wilson said. “Now that I’m back I haven’t seen a fight yet. People are taking their issues and instead of taking it out on each other, they have a mechanism of escape where they can bury themselves into that. And there’s going to be more, there’s going to be games, there’s going to be magazines.”

The tablets, which officials say can also be used to eliminate paperwork by allowing inmates to request medical care or to read up on jail policies and procedures, are designed so they cannot be altered to allow communication with the outside.  “You’d have to be a genius to figure out how to do that,” Rogers said. The seven-inch tablets cannot be taken into cells, and must be locked in a charging cart at night.

Deputy Brent Snyder, who was watching over inmates on Wednesday, said he was skeptical when he heard inmates would be given access to the small computers, noting that he wanted assurances they could not access the Internet or communicate outside the jail.  Since then, Snyder said, he has been won over by the program and the effect it has had on inmates.  They are calmer, quieter and eager to use them to study and to listen to music ... and officials say they do not expect any serious violations because the inmates do not want to lose their access to the devices.

Edovo and its tablet programs are the brainchild of Sacramento native Brian Hill, a 2002 Del Campo High School graduate who says his company has about 1,000 tablets in fewer than 10 facilities nationwide, but expects to more than double that in the coming year.  As prisons and jails try to focus more on reform than simply punishment, the need for programs that can be made available to inmates is greater than ever, Hill said, and the use of tablets can help. “You’ve got 2 million people behind bars in the nation watching daytime television,” Hill said.  “That’s not a recipe for success.  With this, there’s a window, there’s a chance for success.”...

The tablets are encased in hard plastic that protects them and prevents them from being opened by inmates.  And, Hill said, if someone smuggled a cellphone or other device into the jail and hacked into the secure system, they would only gain access to the coursework Edovo offers. “It’d be the most depressing hack ever,” he said.  Hill acknowledged that there is hesitation from some — especially guards — when they first hear about the program.  “It generally takes about five minutes,” Hill said.  “The minute you see it live and 100 inmates put on headphones and they are quiet for six hours, it really changes people’s perspectives.”

Such programs have been put into use from San Francisco to Pennsylvania using iPads and other tablets and are generating a surprisingly positive response from some.  “It’s a good thing,” said Christine Ward, executive director of the Crime Victims Assistance Network Foundation in Sacramento.  “I know you don’t often hear that from me.”  But, Ward said, as long as inmates are being held accountable for their crimes, it is important for institutions to offer prisoners the ability to improve and educate themselves.

January 20, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (3)

Justified criticisms of Prez Obama's not-so-justified criticisms of proposed mens rea reform

This new National Review commentary authored by James Copland and Rafael Mangual, headlined "On Criminal-Justice Reform, Obama Should Practice What He Preaches — Civility," levels complaints at the Obama Administration for complaining about mens rea reform efforts in Congress.  Here are excerpts:

In his final State of the Union address, President Obama expressed his hope to reach across the aisle on what he described as a “priority” issue: criminal-justice reform. Although we strongly agree with the president that reforming the federal approach to criminal justice should be a priority, he has unfortunately jeopardized such reforms with an uncompromising hostility to Republicans’ — and other Democrats’ — reform ideas....

Following the lead of left-wing advocacy groups including Public Citizen and Think Progress, the White House and the Justice Department almost instantly came out against both criminal-intent bills [introduced in the House and Senate]. A White House official told the Huffington Post that these bills would “enable defendants charged with a range of offenses — including violent crimes, terrorism, and sexual offenses — to potentially escape liability for egregious and harmful conduct.”

These claims are pure poppycock and completely at odds with the president’s State of the Union call for a “rational, constructive,” and “more elevated debate.”  To be sure, there might be reasonable critiques of the draft legislation and possible amendments that could create different definitions or standards — just as the sentencing reforms supported by President Obama ought to be vetted to make sure that they are not releasing violent criminals back onto the streets.  But by drawing a line in the sand against Republican priority reforms — and by suggesting that Republican and Democratic legislators who support criminal-intent standards are somehow soft on terrorism or sexual assault — the president is hardly being constructive or elevating the debate on criminal-justice reform.

In essence, the bill so vehemently opposed by the White House would merely require Congress to be explicit whenever it wishes to criminalize conduct without regard to the intent of the actor.  It would prevent courts from assuming from congressional silence that Congress meant to send unknowing violators of a law or regulation to jail, as opposed to merely hitting them with an often-hefty civil fine or penalty.

Democrat stalwarts on the House Judiciary Committee, including John Conyers (D., Mich.) and Shelia Jackson Lee (D., Texas), are supporting this reform because they understand it’s a matter of fundamental fairness. They also understand that it is small businesses and individuals, disproportionately minorities and those less well off, that tend to get unknowingly entangled in the labyrinthine federal code; big businesses and their executives have teams of lawyers to advise them.

The fact is that 15 states have explicit “default” standards for criminal intent like those in the bipartisan task force’s bill. Michigan enacted such a reform most recently, in December 2015. The Michigan ACLU spoke in favor of the law, and it passed both houses of the legislature unanimously.

If President Obama really does care about getting something done on the issue of criminal-justice reform, he ought to heed his own advice and take a more civil tone in his own contributions to that debate. It’s hardly “constructive” to demonize others’ positions and adopt a “my way or the highway” negotiating stance. With Republicans enjoying majorities in both chambers, the criminal-intent piece of the reform effort — a product of more than two years’ effort by a bipartisan task force — is especially important if the president truly hopes to achieve meaningful progress toward criminal-justice reform in his remaining year in office.

Some recent and older related posts:

January 20, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, January 18, 2016

Some still timely phrases from MLK's "I Have A Dream" speech for advocates of criminal justice reforms

King-Jrs-speech-I-Have-A-Dream-7Long-time readers likely know that I have long stated in this space that I think Martin Luther King, whom we all should take time to honor today, would have been concerned with criminal justice and especially sentencing issues if he had lived into the modern era of mass incarceration.  I also have a tradition of spending MLK Day listening to the full legendary "I Have A Dream" speech Dr. King delivered in the "symbolic shadow" of Abraham Lincoln in August 1963. And as I was listening to the speech this year, more than a few lines had a timely resonance in light of on-going efforts to move forward with modern criminal justice reforms. Here are some of the lines catching my ear today:

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.  This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.  Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy....  Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.  This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality....

But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice.  In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds.  Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.  We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.  Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.  The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.  They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

One reason I have spent much of may professional career working on criminal justice issues is because I strongly believe that freedom is a preeminently important human value and that each and every American's freedom is, in many senses, inextricably bound to each and every other American's freedom.  These beliefs keep me ever engaged in the struggle for an ever-sounder criminal justice system, keep me ever committed to the "fierce urgency of now," and keep me ever eager to encourage all to seek to satisfy the thirst for freedom without "drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred."  

With the echoes of this remarkable speech still in my head, let me conclude this honoring of Dr. King by providing links to some prior MLK Day posts (from both of my main blogs).  As always, readers are encouraged to add their own perspectives via the comments (and also encouraged to keep it civil in honor of one of America's great civil rights leaders).

January 18, 2016 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (20)

Friday, January 15, 2016

Intriguing new poll on 2016 Californian perspectives on the death penalty

This local article, headlined "Poll: California death penalty is toss-up for voters," reports on a notable new poll of a notable group of state voters on an issue that often garners national attention. Here are the basics:

Opposition to capital punishment continues to rise in California, a new Field Poll released Friday shows, with state voters now equally divided between scrapping the death penalty altogether and speeding up the path to executing inmates on the nation's largest death row.

The poll found that 47 percent of voters favor replacing the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole in California, up from 40 percent in 2014.  But at the same time, the poll shows that 48 percent of registered voters would support proposals to accelerate the state's notoriously slow system of resolving death penalty appeals to pick up the pace of executions.

California voters are likely to be confronted with those two issues on the November ballot. Death penalty opponents are preparing a measure that would abolish California executions, while advocates of capital punishment are proposing a conflicting measure to reform and speed up the death penalty system....

Voters in 2012 rejected the last effort to abolish California's death penalty by a 52 to 48 percent margin.  If voters were to approve both measures in November, the one with the most votes would settle the death penalty question in California for now, according to both campaigns.

"I think the public really wants some action," said San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos, among the leaders of the measure to speed up the process. "We are either going to fix the death penalty or it's going away in California."

Support for such a measure, which includes shortening the timetable for the California Supreme Court to resolve death penalty appeals, has dropped since 2014, according to the Field Poll. At that time, 52 percent of state voters backed efforts to accelerate death penalty cases, four percent above the most recent poll.

California has not executed an inmate in nearly ten years as a result of legal challenges to the state's lethal injection method, leaving 750 inmates on death row whose state and federal appeals now take decades to resolve. National polls have also shown dropping support for the death penalty, which remains on the books in 30 other states.

January 15, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

"'Not Ordinarily Relevant': Bringing Family Responsibilities to the Federal Sentencing Table"

The title of this post is the title of this notable Note, which I just happened across, authored by Emily Anderson and recently published in the Boston College Law Review. Here is the abstract:

Incarceration results in negative social, psychological, and economic impacts on an inmate’s family and dependents. These impacts last well beyond the period of incarceration and can cause lifelong challenges.  Federal statutes require courts to consider mitigating factors while calculating a sentence, including a defendant’s characteristics. Family ties and responsibilities are considered an aspect of a defendant’s characteristics.  Yet the Federal Sentencing Guidelines significantly limit the extent to which courts can use family ties and responsibilities to reduce or alter a defendant’s sentence.

This Note first argues that the Guidelines should be amended to indicate that courts can consider family ties and responsibilities when determining a sentence.  This Note then argues that Rule 32 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure should be amended to require that a family impact assessment be incorporated into each presentence investigation report to provide courts with information about a defendant’s family ties and responsibilities.

January 13, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (22)

In wake of Obergefell, Alaska legislator introduces bill to ban marriage between inmates

In this post right after the Supreme Court's landmark marriage ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, I asked in my post title "Might prisons struggle with new SCOTUS jurisprudence on fundamental right to marry?".  To date, I have not yet seen many stories suggesting post-Obergefell prison problems.  But this local Alaska story, headlined "Bill would ban prison marriages, but not for the reason you think," suggests the Last Frontier could be one of the first states to change its prison marriage laws since the ruling. Here are the basics:

In his younger years, Anchorage Republican Rep. Bob Lynn served as a police officer in Tucson, Arizona. Last year, when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, that decision and Lynn’s firsthand experience merged in his mind.

On Friday, Lynn introduced House Bill 218, which would prohibit marriages at the state’s prisons.  Lynn said the bill is a matter of fairness.  If a same-sex couple falls in love within a prison’s walls, he doesn’t want them to have the ability to get married and share a cell with their spouse.  “We’ve got a lot of prisoners who have a spouse outside the prison,” he said. “That’s not fair to them where somebody in the jail can have their spouse in there.”

Lynn said the bill would apply to same-sex and heterosexual couples alike; a person would not be able to get married to an inmate on prison grounds....

To accommodate a married same-sex couple who commit a crime together, Lynn’s bill includes a provision that would prohibit the Department of Corrections from putting the couple into the same facility.  It also toughens the ban on conjugal visits — currently a regulation of the department — by putting it into law.  That makes the ban tougher to overturn.

I suppose I can (sort of) see the logic of wanting to preclude two convicted spouses from being able to live together while serving their prison terms, but I have a hard time fully understanding why that concern would or should justify a blanket prohibition on allowing prisoners to marry the person of their choice if that other person also happens to be in custody. And because the Supreme Court has long suggested that only "legitimate security concerns" can justify "placing reasonable restrictions upon an inmate's right to marry," I could readily see a successful constitutional challenge to this blanket prisoner marriage ban if it were ever to become the law in Alaska.

January 13, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Might misguided mens rea reform concerns derail federal sentencing reform's momentum?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Atlantic piece headlined "A New Hurdle in the Push for Criminal-Justice Reform: A disagreement between a House Republican and the Obama administration creates a challenge."  Here is how the article starts:

The stars seem to have aligned.  An unlikely coalition of liberals and conservatives has coalesced around criminal-justice reform, as the public appears to be paying more attention to fatal police shootings and mass incarceration. President Obama has worked to gin up momentum for reform, and is expected to press for action during his final State of the Union address Tuesday evening.

Even with that common ground, however, tensions are bubbling up.  A debate over the burden of proof for criminal convictions now threatens to throw a wrench into the effort to overhaul the nation’s criminal-justice system.  That debate was on full display Tuesday during a conversation between House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte and The Atlantic’s Washington Editor-at-Large Steve Clemons at an Atlantic Exchange event.  The Republican chairman suggested that the House of Representatives won’t approve a criminal-justice deal without changes to the way the U.S. criminal code determines criminal intent, despite the fact that the White House opposes the changes.

“A deal that does not address this issue is not going anywhere in the House of Representatives,” Goodlatte said when asked if he would oppose a deal that did not include such a provision.  “It has to be overcome.  This is a critical element to doing justice in this country.”

The disagreement points to the possibility that negotiations will break down.  It highlights the challenges, and potential pitfalls, of assembling a left-right coalition, and raises the question of how much various interests at play will be willing to compromise.  The dispute also threatens to stall sentencing reform, an issue that the president has elevated as a top priority in his second-term.

At stake is a question of fairness.  Goodlatte, along with conservative and libertarian organizations, support legal changes that they say would protect citizens from being unfairly charged with crimes they unknowingly committed. The White House, along with liberal organizations, believe that altering the burden of proof could make it more difficult to prosecute criminal activity.  Critics also fear the proposal could let big business off the hook for illicit activities that lawyers could claim a company didn’t know were illegal.

That conflict could derail sentencing reform.  Goodlatte indicated Tuesday that he would not support an effort to deal with criminal-intent and sentencing reform separately as a way of bolstering the odds of passing legislation to cut down on mandatory minimums for certain offenses.

As the question in the title of this post suggests, I think Rep. Goodlate is 100% right that a provision clarifying that nobody should face serious federal criminal charges without federal prosecutors having to prove the accused had a significantly culpable mens rea is "a critical element to doing justice in this country."  Indeed, one of the reasons I stopped considering myself a "liberal" as that term is now understood is because of these kinds of issues where so-called "liberals" seem eager to deny a premise I consider fundamental in a liberal society, namely that one should not be treated like and branded a serious criminal by the government unless and until that government can prove an individual has acted and thought like a serious criminal.

Notably, I know that at least one serious criminal justice reform group, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is supportive of mens rea reform.  Consequently, I suspect and fear the "liberal organizations" against this kind of reform are the same type that were cheerleading the laws contributing to mass incarceration passed during the Clinton era when Democrats were eagerly trying to earn political points by being even tougher on crime than their political adversaries.  Blah. 

Some recent and older related posts:

January 13, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, January 11, 2016

"Guilt, Innocence, and Due Process of Plea Bargaining"

The title of this post is the title of this recent paper authored by Donald Dripps that I just noticed on SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Threatened decades of imprisonment can exert more behavioral pressure than coercive police interrogation. Normative distinctions between confessions and guilty pleas offered in the Supreme Court's jurisprudence, and the academic literature, are unsound.  Ergo catastrophic trial penalties should be subject to the narrowest version of the due process doctrine barring involuntary confessions: When the gap between the trial and guilty plea sentences might induce an innocent person to plead guilty, the plea is unreliable and a violation of due process.  The appropriate remedy is for the defense to enter the plea subject to a trial offer, i.e., a request to the court to set the case for trial on lesser charges than those in the prosecution's trial threat; or subject to special procedures to reduce the risk of erroneous conviction at trial, such as barring proof of the defendant's prior convictions.  The Supreme Court's plea bargaining cases are not inconsistent with such a procedure, while current practice is inconsistent with the Supreme Court's coerced confessions jurisprudence.

January 11, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (8)

Saturday, January 09, 2016

"Keeping It REAL: Why Congress Must Act to Restore Pell Grant Funding for Prisoners"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper by SpearIt now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In 1994, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (VCCLEA), a provision of which revoked Pell Grant funding “to any individual who is incarcerated in any federal or state penal institution.”  This essay highlights the counter-productive effects this particular provision has on penological goals.  The essay suggests Congress acknowledge the failures of the ban on Pell Grant funding for prisoners, and restore such funding for all qualified prisoners.

January 9, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, January 08, 2016

"Full Restitution for Child Pornography Victims: The Supreme Court's Paroline Decision and the Need for a Congressional Response"

The title of this post is the title of this notable paper authored by Paul Cassell and James Marsh now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In this article, we have reviewed the legal issues surrounding restitution for child pornography victims.  In our view, the Supreme Court’s Paroline decision failed to fully implement the congressional mandate that victims receive restitution for the “full amount” of their losses.  Congress should move swiftly to ensure full restitution for child pornography victims by enacting the proposed Amy and Vicky Act — a more rational scheme for awarding restitution.

After the Supreme Court's Paroline ruling in April 2014, a number of reasonable folks reasonably predicted that Congress could and would move quickly to pass legislation to remedy the victim-oriented concerns stressed in this article. But, now nearly two years later, "Paroline fix" legislation seems stuck in Congress while victims like Amy and Vicky and others wait and wait for statutory reforms that, in the words of this article, would create "a more rational scheme for awarding restitution."

January 8, 2016 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thursday, January 07, 2016

"The Fog Around Cost-Benefit Studies of Crime and Punishment May Finally Be Clearing: Prisoners and Their Kids Suffer Too"

The title of this post is the title of this new essay authored by Michael Tonry and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Cost-benefit and cost-effectiveness studies of crime control and punishment have proliferated since the late-1980s. Especially in relation to crime prevention programs and punishment policies they have been hugely, and regrettably, influential.  “Regrettable” because many have relied on exaggerated estimates of “intangible costs” of victimization so unrealistically high that that almost any sanctioning policy no matter how severe could be shown to be effective.

Likewise, almost any prevention program estimated to have prevented rapes or robberies could be shown to generate benefits in excess of costs.  Estimates for rape and homicide were greatly exaggerated because they were initially based on jury damage awards in civil law suits, the right hand tale of any crime distribution because a successful lawsuit depends on the presence of an egregious crime and one or both of a highly sympathetic victim and a wealthy or well-insured defendant.  The latter are not common characteristics of rape and homicide defendants.

More recent studies have relied on statistical life valuations ranging from $0.7 to 26.4 million, a range so wide that any number chosen is inherently arbitrary.  Recent work, however, has shown that studies relying on estimates of intangible victim costs are fundamentally flawed for the reasons described and others.

January 7, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Two new Slate commentaries assailing the modern death penalty and modern prisons

The on-line magazine Slate has these two notable new commentaries on two topics that are often the focal point of this blog:

January 6, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Making the case for a "20-Year Maximum for Prison Sentences"

Marc Mauer has this essay in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas which makes the case for a heavy presumption that no prison sentence should be longer than two decades.  Here are excerpts from the piece:

The excessively lengthy incarceration of offenders — yes, even for violent crimes — is counterproductive, costly, and inhumane.  To remedy this problem, Congress and state legislative bodies should establish an upper limit of 20 years in prison as a maximum penalty, except in unusual cases such as a serial rapist who has not been amenable to treatment in prison or a mass murderer.  The rationale for such a policy shift is grounded in both humanitarian and public-safety concerns.  Life sentences ruin families and tear apart communities; they deprive the person of the chance to turn his or her life around.  Moreover, it has long been known that individuals “age out” of crime, and that this occurs at a surprisingly young age.  As is true of all adults, offenders mature in prison as they age and develop a longer-term vision for their lives.  Research by leading criminologists Alfred Blumstein and Kiminori Nakamura demonstrates that an 18-year-old arrested for robbery is no more likely to be arrested for this crime by the age of 26 than anyone in the general population.  Thus, each successive year of incarceration after this decline sets in produces diminishing returns for public safety.

This impact comes at great cost as well.  Estimates are that the cost of imprisoning an elderly offender is double that of a young offender, largely due to high health-care costs. Given that public-safety resources are finite, incarcerating aging prisoners inevitably diverts resources from preschool programs, substance abuse treatments, and mental health interventions that all produce demonstrated and substantial crime-reduction benefits.

Lengthy prison terms also exacerbate the dramatic racial and ethnic disparities that have defined the phenomenon of mass incarceration.  Nationwide, nearly two-thirds of the people serving life in prison are African-American or Latino. The sight of elderly men of color in prison uniforms and bound in wheelchairs only reinforces the racialized nature of incarceration in the modern era.

Some skeptics would argue that while the public-safety argument may apply to many offenders, there are nonetheless individuals who present such a threat to the community that even 20 years in prison is not sufficient for public protection.  That’s certainly correct.  But the problem is that on the day of sentencing, no one — including the judge — can predict who those people are, or how individuals may mature over a 20-year period.

For this reason, policymakers could establish a mechanism to evaluate the public-safety risk of select prisoners as they near the end of their 20-year term.  A review board comprised of psychologists and other professionals could make recommendations either to a judge or a parole board regarding whether continued confinement is necessary for public safety.  And in such cases, they should also propose appropriate treatment interventions designed to produce behavioral change leading to eventual release.

While some might think this is unrealistic, sentences of more than 20 years are quite rare in many democratic nations. Norway, for example, limits prison terms to no more than 21 years, followed by a period of civil confinement when deemed necessary.  Even the worst mass killer in the country’s history, Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in 2011, is serving such a prison term.  Contrast this to the current practice in the United States, where countless drug offenders are serving far lengthier terms.

January 6, 2016 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

"Reducing Crime Through Expungements"

The title of this post is the title of this timely and interesting (and perhaps controversial) new paper by Murat Mungan now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Expungements reduce the visibility of a person's criminal record, and thereby reduce the informal sanctions that may be imposed on him.  This reduction is enjoyed by the ex-convict only if he does not become a repeat offender, because otherwise he re-obtains a criminal record.  Thus, the value a person attaches to having his record expunged is inversely related to his criminal tendency.  

Therefore, by making expungements costly, the criminal justice system can sort out low criminal tendency individuals — who are unlikely to recidivate — from people who have high criminal tendencies.  Moreover, the availability of expungements does not substantially affect a first time offender's incentive to commit crime, because one incurs a cost close to the reduction in informal sanctions that he enjoys by sealing his criminal record.  On the other hand, expungements increase specific deterrence, because a person who has no visible record suffers informal sanctions if he is convicted a second time.  Thus, perhaps counter-intuitively, allowing ex-convicts to seal their records at substantial costs reduces crime.

January 5, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

John Gleeson, a member of my Sentencing Judges Hall of Fame, joins notable "teammates" in stepping down from federal bench

In a (personal favorite) post of mine here more than a decade ago, I mused about creating a "Sentencing Judges Hall of Fame" — an institution like the Baseball Hall of Fame which would seek to foster an appreciation of the historical development of sentencing and its impact on our justice system. In that post, I noted that the first inductee of my Sentencing Judges Hall of Fame would be easy: Judge Marvin Frankel, whose text Criminal Sentences: Law Without Order helped launch modern sentencing reforms. I thereafter went on to praise the more recent sentencing work of US District Judges Nancy Gertner and Paul Cassell, suggesting their post-Blakely sentencing opinions earn them a spot in the SJ Hall of Fame.

I bring up that long ago post in part because Nancy Gertner and Paul Cassell, in addition to having both done extraordinary sentencing work as federal district judges, both made the (fairly unusual) decision in recent years to step down from the federal bench and return to private practice. And now, as reported in this New York Daily News article, US District Judge John Gleeson — another extraordinary judge who has done extraordinary sentencing work in recent years — has told his judicial colleagues that he is soon to be stepping down from bench. Here are the basics:

Brooklyn Federal Judge John Gleeson, the former prosecutor who nailed the late Gambino boss John Gotti on racketeering and murder charges — shattering his “Teflon Don” reputation — is stepping down from the bench to practice law, the Daily News has learned. Gleeson, 62, made the announcement to his fellow judges on Monday, sources said. He said the decision was made in the best interests of his family — Gleeson is married and has two college-age daughters.

Gleeson was next in line to become the chief judge for the Eastern District of New York when Judge Carol Amon’s term as chief expires. With Gleeson out of the picture, Judge Dora Irizarry is expected to be the next chief judge, sources said.

“He’s worked in government service practically his entire life,” a source told The News. “If he wants to earn money while he’s still young, there’s nothing wrong with that.” Federal judges make about $200,000 a year, and Gleeson is expected to make in the seven figures in private practice.

It is rare, but not unheard of, for a federal judge with lifetime tenure to return to private practice. John Martin gave up his judicial robe in the Southern District of New York in 2003 to join a law firm....

President Clinton rewarded Gleeson [for his work as a federal prosecutor] in 1994 by appointing him to the bench....

In recent years, Gleeson was somewhat of a maverick on the bench, advocating against draconian sentences that took away a judge’s discretion. Federal prosecutors are also fighting him tooth and nail on a decision to expunge the criminal record of a Brooklyn woman who convinced the judge that she was trying to turn her life around but could not find a good job because of a fraud conviction years ago.

Here are links to a few prior posts reporting on just a few of Judge Gleeson's prior opinions that earned him a plac in the SJ Hall of Fame:

January 5, 2016 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (42)

Monday, January 04, 2016

Notable new reporting on juve LWOP as we await SCOTUS ruling on Miller retroactivity

As helpful reader alerted me to notable new reporting from The Marshall Project and Mother Jones focused on one particular juvenile offender serving a mandatory LWOP sentence in Louisiana as well as broader juve LWOP realities.  The lengthy main piece, available here via the Marshall Project, is headlined "This Boy’s Life: At 16, Taurus Buchanan threw one deadly punch — and was sent away for life. Will the Supreme Court give him, and hundreds like him, a chance at freedom?".  Here are a couple of paragraphs setting the table for the case-specific tale:

Taurus Buchanan stood trial in the era of the “superpredator,” the label applied to violent juveniles in the mid-1990s, when states and the federal government passed one tough-on-crime law after another. Today, two decades later, a trio of rulings from the US Supreme Court has peeled back some of those laws, recognizing the folly of assigning equal culpability to adults and kids. In October, the court heard arguments in a fourth case, and how that ruling comes down could determine what happens to hundreds of lifers sent to prison when they were kids....

Between 1992 and 1999, 49 states and the District of Columbia made it easier to try juveniles as adults.  Some states removed consideration of youth altogether, replacing discretion with compulsory triggers.  By 2012, there were 28 states across the nation that were handing out mandatory life-without-parole sentences to juveniles.

One was Louisiana, where Taurus exemplified how mandatory sentencing could render a defendant’s youth meaningless.  Once he was charged with second-degree murder, Taurus was automatically tried as an adult because he was over the age of 14.  If convicted, he would automatically be sentenced to life without parole.

By 2015, more than 2,230 people in the United States were serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles, according to data compiled by the Phillips Black Project, a nonprofit law practice that collected information on all 50 states.  In 2007, the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit law organization based in Alabama, found that there were 73 cases in which kids were sent away for crimes they committed at age 13 or 14.  One was sentenced to life for kidnapping, another for sexual battery, another for taking part in a robbery in which someone was shot but survived.

The Phillips Black data shows that, with 376, Pennsylvania currently has the most people serving juvenile life sentences.  But Louisiana has a higher number of such inmates per capita than any other state.  Of the 247 inmates in Louisiana, 199 are African American. In East Baton Rouge Parish, where Taurus stood trial, the racial disparity is even starker: Almost half of the parish population is white, but 32 of the 33 serving juvenile life-without-parole sentences are black.

These two companion pieces provide more details on the Phillips Black juve LWOP data and how it was compiled:

January 4, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Excessive federal sentencing and strict mandatory minimums at center of armed "militia" occuptation in Oregon

23rd_Ohio_Volunteer_Infantry_Color_GuardBecause I am back to full-time teaching this week, I have not yet had much time to research closely the sentencing backstory seemingly inspiring a group of Americans to take up arms against the federal government in Oregon.  But a number of readers have made sure I did not miss that federal sentencing outcomes, and particularly the application of a 5-year mandatory minimum sentencing term, have been a central catalyst for what is now going on.  Helpful, this new lengthy Washington Post piece, headlined "What spurred the armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in southeast Oregon," provides some of the key sentencing details:

The several-hundred-person procession through Burns, Ore., concluded at Dwight Hammond’s doorstep early Saturday evening. In a town of less than 3,000 tucked in Oregon’s southeast corner, it was a massive show of support for Hammond, 73, and his son Steven, 46, as they prepared to report to federal prison Monday.

“I thank everyone who came out here today,” Dwight Hammond told the supporters after he and his wife hugged each of them. “See you in five years.” The father and son had been sentenced last year for setting fires on federal land, the conclusion of two decades of clashes between the Hammond family and the federal government that have made the ranchers a cause celebre for some on the right.

For their supporters, the Hammonds represent the latest battle in a struggle as old as the American settlement of the northwest: pitting poor cattle farmers against the federal government and its land regulations in states such as Oregon, where the government owns more than half of the land.

“Most Americans, if they knew the story of the threats and the charges brought against these ranchers, they would say this isn’t right,” said Jeff Roberts, one of the organizers of Saturday’s rally. “We really wanted to show the family support and let them know that they’re not alone. That Americans don’t turn their backs on them.”

But there is a stark divide among the ranks over how to best remedy the plight of the cattle rancher. Some activists, such as Roberts, think the battle will be won through a deliberate public awareness campaign, rallies and town hall meetings. Others, including some armed militias, have another tact in mind: armed resistance.

As Saturday’s rally concluded, a small subsection of attendees, led by Ammon Bundy, began launching into impromptu speeches and, to the horror of many of the rally’s primary organizers, declared that it was time for the group to take up arms. “Those who want to go take a hard stand, get in your trucks and follow me!” Bundy declared to the group at the conclusion of the event, according to several people who were in attendance. “We were just aghast,” Roberts said.

Within the hour, Bundy and about a dozen armed supporters had seized Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, posting armed men at the front gate and vowing to occupy the federal land for “years.”

His father, Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who in 2014 had an armed standoff with federal agents who were attempting to prevent him from illegally grazing his cattle on federal land, who is not himself inside the refuge, told a reporter in Oregon that “150 militia men” had occupied the federal land. As of 6 p.m. Sunday, the armed men remained at the refuge. “There were absolutely not 150 of them,” Roberts said Sunday morning. “He had a small handful of supporters, maybe a dozen. I saw them as they pulled out in their trucks.”...

After a two-week trial, Dwight and Steven Hammond were convicted by jury. They were sentenced in October to five years in prison for committing arson on federal land in 2001 and 2006. The pair had been sentenced and served time previously, but on appeal a federal judge ruled that their initial sentences had been too short.

In the 2001 incident, the men, who had leased grazing rights to the land for their cattle, said they had started the fires on their own land to try to prevent the spread of an invasive species of plant, and that the fire had inadvertently burned onto public land. Prosecutors said the fire consumed 139 acres of public land, and was set in an attempt to hide evidence after the men were part of a hunting party that illegally killed several deer on the federal land.

In 2006, the Hammonds allegedly set a “back fire” meant to protect their land after a series of lightning storms had started a fire on the federal property. Prosecutors said that fire then spread onto the federal land.

“We all know the devastating effects that are caused by wildfires. Fires intentionally and illegally set on public lands, even those in a remote area, threaten property and residents and endanger firefighters called to battle the blaze” Acting U.S. Attorney Billy Williams said in a statement issued after the Hammonds were sentenced. “Congress sought to ensure that anyone who maliciously damages United States’ property by fire will serve at least 5 years in prison. These sentences are intended to be long enough to deter those like the Hammonds who disregard the law and place fire fighters and others in jeopardy.”

The sentence outraged many fellow ranchers and constitutionalist groups in the northwest, who considered the case an overreach of federal regulation and of the federal prosecutors. “We don’t agree with the sentencing, so we came out to stand in solidarity and support,” said Brandon Curtis, president of the Idaho chapter of Three Percent, a constitutionalist group that was heavily involved in organizing the rally for the Hammonds.

Most infuriating about the Hammond case, their supporters say, is that the two men were charged under a federal terrorism statute that requires a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for anyone convicted of arson on federal property. “I don’t think anybody would argue that arson took place . . . but to sentence this family as terrorists, we think that is absolutely egregious,” Roberts said. “These are just country folk, they’re not terrorists.”

Roberts, Curtis and others traveled to the Hammond home in recent weeks and began holding town hall meetings to try to build more local support for them — assuring residents that they were not there to “upend the town.” Despite encountering a lot of local skepticism, the men eventually found some allies — who started an organization called Harney County Committee of Safety and participated in Saturday’s rally.

But at the same time, the Bundy family had begun speaking out on behalf of the Hammonds. In early November, Ammon Bundy began posting updates on the case to his Facebook pages and website. “This last Wednesday I spent a good part of the day in the Hammond’s home. We spoke for hours. Several times, I found the Hammond’s in tears when they explained the injustices that has destroyed their lives,” Ammon Bundy wrote on Nov. 21. “They were hopeful that the American people were going to stand for them. And that, just maybe, they would be able to return to the life they once knew.”

January 4, 2016 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Sunday, January 03, 2016

"Taking Another Look at Second-Look Sentencing"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new article authored by Meghan Ryan and recently posted SSRN.  Based on the abstract alone, I am a big fan of this paper because it appears to explore rigorously a sentencing topic which I believe merits much more attention in an era marked by a record-high numbers of LWOP and other lengthy prison sentences: whether, why and how a sentence imposed long ago can and should be reconsidered anew.  Here is the abstract:

A historically unprecedented number of Americans are currently behind bars.  Our high rate of incarceration, and the high bills that it generates for American taxpayers, has led to a number of proposals for sentencing reform.  For example, bills were recently introduced in both the House and Senate that would roll back federal mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenders, and the Obama Administration has announced a plan to grant clemency to hundreds of non-violent drug offenders.

Perhaps the most revolutionary proposal, though, is one advanced by the drafters of the Model Penal Code, namely that judges be given the power to resentence offenders who have been serving long sentences on the ground that societal views about the seriousness of the offenses these individuals committed have changed.  These evolved societal views, the drafters have asserted, might justify reducing the offenders’ sentences.  The drafters of the Code have suggested that this position is based in part on retributivism — on what these particular defendants deserve as a result of committing these crimes.  

But an offender’s desert ordinarily does not change as time progresses; it is societal views of desert that change.  This raises a new question in criminal law about whether the original sentencer — the one imposing punishment at the time of trial — or a new sentencer — one imposing punishment over a decade after the offense was committed — is better positioned to determine the offender’s desert.  The drafters of the Code have proffered that a new sentencer is best because it can be more representative of modern values.  But the new sentencer does not represent the public against which the offense was committed.  And the new sentencer may not be well positioned to assess the offender’s culpability or the harm he caused.  

The new sentencer may be in a better position to know whether, as time has passed, the offender has been rehabilitated or whether he still poses a danger to society, but these factors are not based on the offender’s desert.  While these other utilitarian considerations may certainly justify second-look sentencing, and while second-look sentencing may very well be a useful innovation, this new approach to sentencing overlooks the important desert-based restraints of limiting retributivism upon which the Code is based.  Reliable assessments of an offender’s desert generally best lie with the decisionmakers in place around the time the crime was committed.

January 3, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Interesting Texas state sentencing realities surrounding the future sentencing of 'Affluenza' teen and his fugitive mother

I tend not to blog too much about sentencing stories that are already seemingly getting too much attention in the traditional media. Ergo, I have not recently posted about the fugitive status of Ethan Couch. Couch is the Texas teen who had 15-minutes of infamy in early 2014 when, after having killed four people in a drunken-driving crash, received a 10-year probation sentence from a juvenile judge who may have been influenced by a defense psychologist's statement that Couch suffered from "affluenza" as a rich kid whose parents did not set any limits on him. But now Couch has been caught while on the run in Mexico with his mother, and this new CNN article highlights some interesting sentence aspects concerning what he and his mother are facing under Texas law.

The CNN piece is headlined "'Affluenza' teen caught, but will he get off easy?", and here are excerpts that spotlight some Texas state sentencing details that strike me as now quite interesting:

Will Ethan Couch, the "affluenza" teen, get off lightly again?, Couch drew the ire of many after a judge sentenced the then 16-year-old to 10 years probation for a 2013 drunk driving crash that killed four people.

Those who felt the sentence too lenient felt validated when Couch violated his probation and fled. He was detained Monday in Mexico. But if you are expecting a judge to throw the book at him, be warned that the book might not be too heavy.

As of now, the most severe punishment Couch could face is 120 days in adult jail, Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson said at a press conference Tuesday. The district attorney explained the dilemma she faces at a news conference Tuesday:

• Ethan Couch was sentenced as a juvenile and violated his probation as ordered by juvenile court system.

• Under Texas law, Couch, now 18, would be punished for his violation in the juvenile system.

• The maximum sentence that a juvenile judge can dish out for a violation of his juvenile probation is imprisonment in a juvenile facility until Couch turns 19, which is April 11, 2016.

• The DA wants to transfer Couch's sentence to adult court. But since this violation happened in the juvenile system, Couch effectively would start with a clean slate in the adult probation system. That is, the adult court judge could not punish Couch for violations he committed as a juvenile.

• At the time a judge reassesses Couch's probation in the adult system, he has the power to put Couch in adult jail for a maximum of 120 days.

The 120 days in jail won't please those who think Couch deserves worse, but as the facts stand now, it is what the law allows. If Couch ends up on adult probation, Wilson said, and violates it as an adult, he could face up to 40 years in jail. Couch could also find himself behind bars for longer if he is found to have committed any new crimes and is charged and convicted as an adult for those crimes.

Ethan Couch's mother, Tonya Couch, has been charged with hindering the apprehension of a juvenile, and if convicted, faces between 2 and 10 years in jail, Wilson said. It's tough to explain the legal maze that stands to benefit Ethan Couch in the form of a light punishment for violating his probation.

The judge who hears the case "will throw the book at him, but the book is only a few more months because he turns 19," said Larry Seidlin, a former state court and juvenile court judge in Florida. "So the legal issue is: Can the prosecutor move this case to adult court and try to get adult sanctions, get some state prison time. It's a close question because double jeopardy is going to take effect. We've already gone through his case. We've already done a plea bargain."...

Couch is wanted by authorities in Tarrant County, Texas, for allegedly violating his probation. His mother, Tonya, was listed by Texas authorities as a missing person after her son's disappearance, and the authorities said they believed she was assisting him.

A warrant was issued in mid-December for Couch to be taken into custody after his probation officer couldn't reach him. He appears to have dropped off the radar after a video emerged that allegedly showed him at a party where alcohol was being consumed, according to authorities. Couch had been ordered to stay away from drugs and alcohol for the duration of his sentence probation.

His sudden disappearance reignited controversy over his case, which attracted widespread attention after a psychologist testified that Couch, who was 16 at the time of the crash, suffered from "affluenza," describing him as a rich kid whose parents didn't set limits for him. His lawyers argued that his parents should share some of the blame for the crash.

Prosecutors had requested that Couch be sentenced to 20 years behind bars. The juvenile court judge's decision to put him on probation for 10 years instead of sending him to prison outraged victims' families It also prompted many observers to question the term "affluenza," which isn't recognized as a medical condition in any formal sense. G. Dick Miller, the psychologist who said the word at the trial, later said he wished he hadn't used it.  And Couch's lawyers have criticized what they say is the news media's narrow focus on the term in relation to his case.

As some regular readers know, I have long been troubled by and long complained about what I perceive as unduly lenient sentences too often handed out for serious and repeat drunk driving offenses. For that reason (and others), this high-profile sentencing case has always annoyed me because it seemed to me it was more reflective of our society's general tendency to treat drunk driving offenders too leniently than reflective of a tendency to give special breaks to serious crimes committed by rich white kids with lenient parents (though I certainly believe the general impact and import of rich white privilege at sentencing also merits attention).

Prior related posts around Couch's initial sentencing:

December 29, 2015 in Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Would-be Prohibition offenders make huge donation to ACLU help real ex-offenders

Via The Marshall Project, I just saw this Washington Post story, headlined "Total Wine co-founder funding $15 million push to aid ex-convicts," on a notable private funding effort for a notable public cause. Here are the details:

A Maryland couple is donating $15 million to the American Civil Liberties Union to expand a campaign to cut prison populations and promote private initiatives to rehabilitate and employ ex-convicts, the ACLU announced.  The grant from David Trone, co-founder of Bethesda-based Total Wine & More, and his wife, June, is among the largest in the ACLU’s history.

The Trones, both 60, join a growing cadre of wealthy business­people funding a coalition of liberal, conservative and libertarian groups pushing the Obama administration and Congress to unwind sentencing laws from the era of the drug war. Those advocates argue that draconian punishments have gone too far and cost too much, incarcerating 2.2 million Americans, pouring $80 billion a year into prisons and jails and hollowing out families — particularly in low-income and minority communities.

David Trone, of Potomac, cited Total Wine’s support of the “ban the box” movement — which seeks removal of the criminal-record check box from job applications — as a factor in his gift and an example of what private-sector partners can accomplish. “Yes, people make mistakes,” he said. “But if they paid the price and now want to build a better life, why should that mistake have to carry with them the rest of their lives?”

The Trones’ grant comes one year after George Soros’s Open Society Foundations pledged $50 million over eight years to the ACLU’s political arm to push for sentencing and other criminal-justice policy changes in local, state and national elections. Unlike Soros’s grant, the Trones’ gift will pay for traditional ACLU litigation and educational activities and is tax-deductible.

The six-year bequest will establish the Trone Center for Criminal Justice and boost state-level projects — including ones in the District, Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Indiana — where incarceration rates and the prospect of bipartisan cooperation are greatest, said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU.

Romero said that while attention is focused on a gridlocked Congress, momentum for change is growing among state and local governments, which house more than 90 percent of the nation’s prisoners and spend more than 90 percent of incarceration-related tax dollars. He likened the momentum to the push for same-sex marriage, where business leaders who threatened to leave hostile states added an economic argument to the moral and legal case for anti-discrimination laws. “If business leaders take a big stake in pushing these reforms, it ensures the sustainability of long-lasting reform,” Romero said. “If you can tie the power of the private sector to this sled, then Congress and the president will be dragged into taking real action.”...

The ACLU said David Trone will chair a new private-sector advisory council that will include business and university leaders. The council will promote efforts to return former prisoners to the workforce and reduce the stigma of employing past offenders, Romero said. It also may consider the value of education and economic incentives such as tax credits for workers and companies. Council members include Michael L. Lomax, president and chief executive of the United Negro College Fund, and Paul Lewis Sagan, former chief executive of Akamai Technologies, the Web- content delivery company.

Ex-prisoners face a variety of federal and state rules that restrict their ability to get jobs, housing, student and business loans, occupational licenses and public assistance, said another member, Mark V. Holden. Holden is general counsel at Koch Industries, whose billionaire founders, Charles and David Koch, are key sentencing reform backers....

David and June Trone, who are graduates of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, have been longtime ACLU supporters, giving more than $1 million since 1994. David Trone said the new gift was timed as he and his brother, Robert, co-founders of the Total Wine chain, are bringing on a new chief executive so they can step back from daily operations. Total Wine has stores in 18 states, with 4,000 workers and $2.1 billion in annual sales. Romero said Trone’s success and status outside the “usual suspects” of supporters gives him added credibility with businesspeople.

The Trones were disrupters of the liquor industry. Their “big box” model of beer and wine stores triggered bitter battles with competitors and drew scrutiny from regulators and criminal charges related to volume discounts. Cases against the family were dismissed. One of David Trone’s attorneys, Roslyn M. Litman, is an ACLU board member.

“I was lucky. I had the resources and the representation to fight an injustice and win . . . [but] there are hundreds of thousands of people who don’t,” David Trone said. With the gift, he said, he hoped the ACLU “can stand up for those who are silenced . . . and figure out how folks who have made mistakes can become great workers with great jobs and drop recidivism.”

As the title of this post highlights, I think an interesting (and likely easily overlooked) aspect of this story is the fact that the Trones made their fortune through innovation in an industry that was entirely a criminal enterprise (and the progenator of considerable violent crime) less than 100 years ago during the Prohibition era.

December 29, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, December 28, 2015

Defense argues veteran's mental problems should make him ineligible for Oregon death penalty

This interesting local article from Oregon reports on a notable and novel argument being made by defense attorneys for a defendant accused in a brutal group murder.  The story is headlined "Lawyers cite client’s military service in arguing that death penalty should not be sentencing option if found guilty," and here are the interesting details:

Army veteran A.J. Nelson stands accused of playing a central role in a brutal Eugene murder that happened three years after his squad’s armored vehicle was destroyed by a roadside bomb during a combat tour in Afghanistan.

Nelson was badly hurt in the blast, and his attorneys say there’s a link between the mild traumatic brain injury he suffered and his alleged crimes.  They are asking a judge to exclude the death penalty as a potential sentencing option in their client’s case due to his service-­related injury.  One of Nelson’s court-­appointed lawyers, Laurie Bender of Portland, said in a telephone interview that she does not know of any prior capital case in which a judge has been asked to rule on a death penalty exclusion request made on behalf of a former soldier.

Nelson, now 25, is scheduled to go to trial in March.  If he is convicted of aggravated murder in the slaying of Celestino Gutierrez Jr., prosecutors could ask a jury to sentence Nelson to death.  Nelson was one of three people arrested and charged with kidnapping and killing Gutierrez, and then using his car to carry out an armed, takeover-style bank robbery in Mapleton in August 2012.

The plot’s mastermind, David Ray Taylor of Eugene, is now on Oregon’s death row after a jury convicted him in May 2014.  The third defendant in the case, Mercedes Crabtree, is serving life in prison with the possibility of parole after 30 years.  She pleaded guilty to the murder in 2013 and agreed to testify against both Nelson and Taylor.

Nelson’s lawyers said in a recent court filing that they intend to present evidence at trial of a mental disease or defect that interfered with their client’s ability to form the intent to commit the alleged crimes.  In addition to the brain injury, the attorneys also assert Nelson has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Those two issues change the way people see and react to the environment, can lead to other psychological problems and produce “a greater propensity for aberrant and criminal behavior,” Bender wrote in a Dec. 15 motion to exclude the death penalty in Nelson’s case.  “Nelson’s service-related injuries and illness do not exonerate him of the charged offenses but mitigate his culpability and the state’s standing to execute him,” Bender wrote... 

The Dec. 15 filing includes copies of awards and commendations Nelson received as a result of his military service. They include the Purple Heart, given to soldiers who are injured or killed while serving....  Nelson’s lawyers say sentencing a war veteran with PTSD to death is unconstitutional, and amounts to cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.  Veterans, the attorneys argue, deserve categorical death-penalty exclusions similar to those given to juvenile offenders and people with intellectual disabilities.... 

According to evidence presented at Taylor’s trial, Taylor came up with a plan to kill a stranger and take that person’s vehicle for use in a bank robbery....  Crabtree then obtained a ride from Gutierrez to Taylor’s nearby home.   Gutierrez was slain at the house, where Taylor, now 60, and Nelson are said to have dismembered his body.  Crabtree, who was 18 at the time of the incident, testified during Taylor’s trial that Nelson — at Taylor’s direction — bound Gutierrez with electrical wire and a belt, pushed a crossbow bolt through one of the victim’s ears and choked him.  

After mocking Nelson for failing to kill Gutierrez swiftly, Taylor wrapped a metal chain around Gutierrez’s neck and pulled on it until the victim stopped breathing, Crabtree told the jury.  Crabtree said Nelson went into a brief seizure as he and Taylor dismembered the body, and came out of it confused about what he had done.

It is well-established constitutional law that defendants can present mitigating evidence of all sorts, including evidence of mental battle scars of war, to argue to a jury not to impose a death sentence. But here it seems defense attorneys are pressing for a new categorical ban on the death penaty for veterans whose service-related injuries may have played a role in their capital crimes.

Some (of many) prior related posts:

December 28, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Sunday, December 27, 2015

"Prisons as addiction treatment centers?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this local article from the Buckeye State.  Here are excerpts:

With at least four of five inmates struggling with addiction, Ohio's prisons are beginning to look more like drug treatment centers.

Prisoners participate in group counseling sessions, visit with prison "alumni" who have remained sober after leaving incarceration and enroll in Medicaid to help pay for counseling and medication-assisted treatment after they are released.  Money from the state budget, $27.4 million through June 30, is paying for more counselors to treat addiction inside Ohio's prisons, said Tracy Plouck, director of the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

The concept is relatively simple: people addicted to drugs commit crimes like possessing drugs, selling drugs, stealing money or property to buy drugs and hurting others because they are under the influence of drugs. Take away the compulsion for drugs and alcohol, and these lower-level offenders might not return to prison, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction director Gary Mohr said. "What we’re attempting to do is reduce crime victims out in Ohio," Mohr said.

Before changes in July, Ohio prisons were releasing 8,000 to 9,000 people with serious addiction problems each year without treating half of them, Mohr said. Staying for less than six months?  You weren't eligible.  Too many inmates on the waiting list?  There wasn't not enough staff to help.  Now, people who will be released in three months can start counseling in prison and have their medical records sent to a halfway house when they leave.  By signing released prisoners up for Medicaid, the insurance program might pay for medication-assisted treatment and counseling — a combination considered by many physicians to be the gold standard of treatment.

"I can tell you right now we are going to be treating thousands of people that we weren’t treating before," Mohr said. When an inmate enters prison, he goes to a short-term reception center, and takes a test designed to spot mental health and addiction concerns.  From there, he is sent to the prison where he will serve out his term. If the inmate isn't a violent offender, he might participate in a therapeutic community, groups of 70 to 180 inmates who live together, attend group counseling sessions and commit to good behavior while in prison, or a reintegration unit, where inmates work eight to 10 hours a day to simulate life outside prison.

Plouck wants to triple the number of inmates in therapeutic communities by mid 2017 by expanding the number of communities from four to eight. Madison Correctional Institution and Noble Correctional Institution are next on the list.  In 2014, 569 inmates participated; by 2017, prison officials hope to have 1,500 enrolled.

Mohr also wants to have every prison enrolling eligible inmates in Medicaid by the end of 2016. Currently, 10 of 27 prisons are enrolling inmates in the low-income insurance program expanded by Gov. John Kasich.  About 2,400 people have signed up since the program began in earnest this fall, Mohr said.  Medicaid can pay for counseling and medication-assisted treatment after prisoners leave incarceration....

A smooth transition from treatment in prison to treatment outside of prison is critical. It's easy to remain sober in prison with no access to drugs or alcohol. The challenge comes when they are released back to homes where relatives or friends might still be using drugs or alcohol, Plouck said.

December 27, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Based on SCOTUS Johnson ruling, Seventh Circuit declares statutory sentence enhancement for illegal reentry offenses

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss a notable post-Johnson vagueness ruling by a Seventh Circuit panel in US v. Vivas-Ceja, No. 15-1770 (7th Cir. Dec. 22, 2015) (available here). Here is how the panel opinion gets started:

Raul Vivas-Ceja pleaded guilty to illegally reentering the United States after removal, the maximum sentence for which is raised to 20 years if the defendant has been convicted of an “aggravated felony” prior to removal.  See 8 U.S.C. § 1326(b)(2).  As relevant here, the definition of “aggravated felony” is supplied by the definition of “crime of violence” in 18 U.S.C. § 16(b), which includes “any … offense that is a felony and that, by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense.”

The district court concluded that Vivas-Ceja’s Wisconsin conviction for fleeing an officer was a crime of violence under § 16(b), raising the maximum sentence to 20 years.  The court imposed a sentence of 21 months.  Vivas-Ceja appeals, arguing that § 16(b)’s definition of “crime of violence” is unconstitutionally vague in light of Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015).

The Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause prohibits the government from depriving a person of liberty under a statute “so vague that it fails to give ordinary people fair notice … or so standardless that it invites arbitrary enforcement.”  Id. at 2556.  In Johnson the Supreme Court held that sentencing a defendant under the so-called “residual clause” of the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”), 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(ii), violates this prohibition.  Section 16(b) is materially indistinguishable from the ACCA’s residual clause.  We hold that it too is unconstitutionally vague according to the reasoning of Johnson.  We therefore vacate Vivas-Ceja’s sentence and remand for resentencing.

December 23, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Could a profit motive help improve recidivism rates (and criminal justice programming more generally)?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this intriguing new article by Alana Semuels in The Atlantic headlined "A New Investment Opportunity: Helping Ex-Convicts; A New York program asks outsiders to fund a promising initiative to reduce recidivism. If it gets results, they get a payout." Here is how the article gets started:

Every year, the government spends billions of dollars on programs designed to help America’s neediest citizens.  In many cases, whether these programs work is anyone’s guess.

Less than $1 out of every $100 of federal government spending is “backed by even the most basic evidence that the money is being spent wisely,” wrote Peter Orszag, the former head of the Office of Management and Budget, and John Bridgeland, the former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, in a 2013 piece in The Atlantic. In their article, Orszag and Bridgeland advocate for a “moneyball for government,” arguing that an era of fiscal scarcity should force Washington to become more results-oriented.

A new partnership among New York State, 40 private investors, and a nonprofit called the Center for Employment Opportunities seeks to apply this sort of thinking to an area of policy that has been particularly resistant to interventions: lowering the recidivism rate in an era of growing prison populations.

The investors, including private philanthropists and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, have put up a total of $13.5 million to fund an expansion of the work that an organization called the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) already does with people coming out of prison.  CEO’s model is simple: It prepares people who have criminal records for the workplace, gives them up to 75 days of temporary employment, and then helps them find jobs of their own.  With the $13.5 million, CEO will work with an additional 2,000 clients, targeting the highest-risk people.

But the expansion of the program isn’t charity: The project is a so-called “Pay for Success” initiative, modeled after social-impact bonds, which were first used in the United Kingdom five years ago.  The basic idea is that investors fund a program that has a promising approach, putting in place extensive data-collection points so that they can track the program’s results.  The investors are betting on the idea that the program can do a better — and less expensive — job of providing a given service than the status quo.  If they’re right, and the program meets certain expectations — in this case the benchmarks for success are to reduce recidivism by eight percent and increase employment by five percent — the government will have saved money in less prison spending.  The government then pays back the investors with its savings.  If the program succeeds, investors can earn a return.  If it exceeds those goals substantially, investors can get a bigger return, which in this case is capped at 10 percent.  The state at no point spends more money than it would have spent incarcerating the 2,000 individuals anyway.

The Pay for Success strategy isn’t just a way to test CEO’s model.  It’s a way to bring careful, data-based monitoring of a program’s effect into government spending.

There are dozens of programs that seek to help people re-enter the community once they’re released from prison.  They provide job training and housing assistance and college-preparation classes and counseling.  But a lot of people still end up back in prison.  About 700,000 individuals are released from prison nationally each year; the national recidivism rate is about 40 percent.

CEO can make a dent in this, its backers say, because it gives its clients something more: a job.  Clients come in, go through a week of job-readiness training, and then get a pair of steel-toed boots and a spot on one of CEO’s five-to-seven-person crews.  The crews rotate through the city, cleaning courtrooms and performing maintenance on community-college buildings and public-housing properties.

Getting clients back into the workforce, even temporarily, is a key part of CEO’s program, Sam Schaeffer, the executive director of CEO, told me.  People who have never worked, or who haven’t worked in decades find themselves furnished with a metro card, a place to be every morning, and a supervisor to report to.  “You’re earning a daily paycheck, and all of a sudden you’re getting on the subway, with that metro card that you couldn’t afford two weeks ago and you're reading the paper, and you’re sort of like, ‘Yea, I can do this,’” he said.

December 22, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"To forgive prisoners is divine — or as close as government gets"

The title of this post is the sub-headline of this notable new commentary published by the American Conservative and authored by Chase Madar under the main headline "The Case for Clemency."  I recommend the lengthy piece in full, and here are excerpts:

President Obama’s recent announcement that he would commute the sentences of 95 federal prisoners and fully pardon two others is welcome news.  So is a holiday press release from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has hitherto been miserly with clemency, but will pardon nonviolent offenses committed by 16 and 17 year olds (who will continue to be automatically tried as adults, a harshness almost unique among the fifty states).  But we should see these gestures for what they are: small trickles of clemency where what is demanded is a rushing, roaring pipeline scaled to the globally unprecedented size of our prison population and incarceration rate. We need industrial-scale clemency.  Here is why and how....

At the federal level — which only accounts for about 12 percent of U.S. prisoners — mild sentencing reform has both bipartisan support and bipartisan resistance in the Senate.  Looking to the states, a much hyped “moment” of criminal-justice reform is more than countervailed by the deeply ingrained punitive habits of governors and legislatures across the land, from Massachusetts, whose liberal governor signed a tough “three strikes” law in 2012, to Louisiana, where Bobby Jindal upped penalties for heroin-related offenses.

Whether we admit it or not, we are in quite a spot: our hyper-incarceration is unprecedented in U.S. history.  Rectifying this will require changes in policing, a cutting back of what we criminalize, and serious revision of our sentences, which far outstrip their deterrent value.  Another part of the solution will have to be clemency on a massive scale: pardons, which all but expunge a criminal record; commutations, which shorten a prison sentence; parole; geriatric and compassionate release; and retroactive sentencing reform.

As of this writing, Obama has issued more commutations than any other president since Lyndon Johnson.  But the supply of imprisoned Americans is orders of magnitude greater than it was in Johnson’s day, and Obama has only granted pardons or commutations at the exceedingly stingy rate of one out of 136, in line with the steep plummet in clemency since World War II. The Department of Justice has promised to routinize clemency, issuing new guidelines for nonviolent offenders who have served 10 years already, but the results so far have been bonsai-scaled in comparison to the magnitude of the federal prison population....

So much for Washington, which despite much misty-eyed self-congratulation has not shown itself up to the task of scaling back our prison state.  Washington’s timidity means less than it first appears however: despite lazy media focus on the federal justice system, the real action is at the state level, which handles most policing, sentencing, and imprisoning.  Alas, here too the general trend has been towards greater stinginess with clemency. 

Take the example of Minnesota, a state that has, by U.S. standards, a low incarceration rate and arguably the most humane penal system in the country, with perhaps more in common with Denmark and Germany than with Texas and Louisiana.  Yet it says something that Mark Dayton, one of the most progressive governors in the country, has a more merciless default setting than virtually all of his executive predecessors from the mid-20th century.  Minnesota used to grant pardons and commutations by the barrelful: from 1940-89, the state granted 741 commutations and nearly 90 percent of all pardon applications.  Minnesota’s clemency process began to tighten in the 1970s, only to be choked off further in the 1980s. From 2000-10, the number of pardons plummeted. In the past quarter-century, Minnesota has not issued a single commutation.

The barriers to mercy are dug deeply into American politics and intellectual culture.  At the same time there is a rich tradition of clemency in this country, which can and should be tapped into.... Devotion to the Rule of Law has an ugly side in resentment of executive acts of mercy, at the level of practice and high theory.... Overall, the thrust of American legalism militates against executive clemency, which seems to many a kind of short circuit, a deus ex machina, an insult to the rule of law, smelling of elitism and monarchical whims....  (And it has to be said, occasionally this image of executive mercy as sleazy end-run around the justice system is correct: think of Bill Clinton granting a full pardon to felonious oil trader Marc Rich, whose ex-wife had been a major Democratic fundraiser.)

But in the face of this hostility to the pardon power there is a great counter-tradition of American clemency.  At the founding of the country, executive power was seen not as a violation of our self-image as a “nation of laws not men” but as a necessary and healthily legitimate part of any popular government. As Hamilton wrote in Federalist 74: “the benign prerogative of pardoning should be as little as possible fettered.”  Without pardon power, “justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel.”...

U.S. history turns out to be generously littered with acts of mass clemency.  In the 1930s, Mississippi Governor Mike Conner went to Parchman Farm, the state penitentiary, and held impromptu “mercy courts” that freed dozens of African-American prisoners, in an act that entered national folklore — as did Texas Governor Pat Neff’s pardon in 1925 of Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, who issued his clemency request in song.  In the 20th century, Governors Lee Cruce of Oklahoma, Winthrop Rockefeller of Arkansas, and Toney Anaya of New Mexico all commuted their states’ death rows down to zero upon leaving office.  Among presidents, according to political scientist P.S. Ruckman Jr’s excellent blog Pardon Power, Abraham Lincoln granted clemency every single month of his administration as an act of mercy and a canny political strategy.  Woodrow Wilson, though a teetotaler himself, pardoned hundreds convicted of booze-related infractions to signal his disapproval of Prohibition....

Reversing course on hyper-incarceration and clemency will be a generational project, and an Augean one at that. Judges and prosecutors are not the most self-effacing career group, and many would sooner eat their Civil Procedure books than admit error.... But for most people, clemency in cases of judicial and prosecutorial error is a no brainer: the law’s finality should not come at the expense of justice.   The type of clemency we need today, however, is to remedy a problem several orders of magnitude larger, admitting not legal or judicial error but political or legislative disaster.  A rushing, roaring clemency pipeline would be an explicit recognition that the various state and federal tough-on-crime policies, virtually all of which passed with broad bipartisan support, were dead wrong....

Our incarcerated population is also aging rapidly, and though older prisoners have far lower recidivism rates, few states are availing themselves of geriatric release. For instance, Virginia in 2012 granted geriatric release to less than 1 percent of about 800 prisoners eligible, according to the state parole board. Meanwhile, as the Virginian Pilot reported, “during the same period, 84 inmates died in state prisons.” Running high-security nursing homes is neither compassionate nor fiscally sound—another reason to restore and expand clemency.

What is needed is a restoration of the kind of clemency that was once the everyday norm in this country, expanded to meet the needs of our enormous 21st-century prison population.  There will surely be stentorian howling that industrial-scale clemency is the invasive hand of overweening government power.  These fault-finders ought to be reminded that our incarceration regime is on a scale rarely seen in human history: our only competitors are third-century BC “legalist” China; the late, off-the-rails Roman Empire; and the Soviet Union from 1930-55.  Routinized clemency on a grand scale will be necessary to tame this beast.

To say that mass incarceration is an issue best addressed by the legislature, not by the executive, is theoretically correct.  But procedural rectitude should not be taken to the point of sadism, ignoring the tens of thousands of harshly sentenced prisoners who are already stuck halfway through the penal snake’s digestive tract.  Besides, this would hardly be the first time that elected officials have used the pardon power as a tool to alter policy.  To give one more glorious example, on Christmas Day in 1912, Governor George Donaghey of Arkansas pardoned 360 state prisoners as a condemnation of the state’s brutal and corrupt “convict leasing” system, making national headlines and dealing a death blow to the corrupt practice.

The time is as ripe as it will ever be for industrial-scale clemency . Even with an 11 percent average increase in homicides in big American cities for 2015 so far (bringing the nation back to 2012 murder levels), violent crime is as low as it’s been since the early 1960s....  How we proceed with clemency is not just about how we treat thousands of prisoners..., it is about how we treat ourselves. According to Shakespeare’s most famous courtroom speech, mercy “blesseth him that gives and him that takes: ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes the throned monarch better than his crown.” With an expansion of the pardon power, we have the opportunity to rule ourselves as monarchs, with all the magnanimity and grace that implies. Or we can remain a nation of vindictive jailers that lectures the rest of the world about freedom.

December 22, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, December 21, 2015

NY Gov Cuomo moves ahead with significant clemency effort for youthful offenders and others

635603709893412683-cuomoAs reported in this official press release, titled "Governor Cuomo Offers Executive Pardons to New Yorkers Convicted of Crimes at Ages 16 and 17," the top elected official in New York today announced a major new clemency initiative.  Here are just some of the details from the press release:

Governor Cuomo announced that he will use his pardon power to alleviate the barrier of a criminal conviction for people convicted of non-violent crimes committed when they were minors, and who have since lived crime-free for 10 or more years. This action, the first of its kind in the nation, advances the principles from his Raise the Age Campaign, which calls upon New York to join 48 other states in recognizing that 16 and 17 year old children do not belong in the adult court system.

The Governor’s action acknowledges that people can and do move beyond the mistakes of their youth, However, their adult criminal records can make it hard for them to find work, get admitted to college, find a place to live, and become licensed in certain occupations. The Governor chooses today to use his Constitutional pardon power to remove the bars created by state law that are associated with these convictions, and allow deserving individuals to move forward with their lives....

By pardoning New Yorkers who have reached this milestone crime-free, the Governor is helping people who present little danger to the public. Moreover, the pardon will be conditional, meaning that if a person defies the odds and is reconvicted, it will be withdrawn.

The Governor’s action will affect a significant number of lives. Of 16 and 17 year olds who committed misdemeanors and non-violent felonies since such records have been tracked by the state, approximately 10,000 have not been reconvicted after at least 10 years. Annually, approximately 350 people convicted as 16 and 17 year olds of misdemeanors and non-violent felonies remain conviction-free after 10 years. In addition to lifting the burden on these individuals themselves, their families will also feel the positive impact of this action. Now a son or daughter, husband or wife, father or mother will be better equipped to help their loved ones as they find it easier to attain employment, go to school, find housing, and work in licensed professions....

Agency staff will make a recommendation to the Governor to grant a pardon if:

The person was 16 or 17 at the time they committed the crime for which they were convicted.

At least 10 years have passed since the person was either convicted of the crime, or released from a period of incarceration for that crime, if applicable.

The person has been conviction-free since that time.

The person was convicted of a misdemeanor or a non-violent felony.

The person was not originally convicted of a sex offense.

The person is currently a New York State resident.

The person has paid taxes on any income.

The person is a productive member of his or her community, meaning that the individual is working, looking for work, in school or legitimately unable to work.

In addition to this general invitation to apply, the Administration will do targeted outreach to candidates for the pardon, starting with the most recent cohort of potentially eligible individuals, those convicted in the year 2004. Administrative staff will review the cohort and will attempt to contact those convicted of qualifying crimes committed while they were 16 or 17 and who have stayed conviction-free. They will be informed of their initial eligibility for a pardon and invited to apply, using the website. Once the 2004 cohort has been contacted, the process will be repeated for individuals convicted in 2003, and further back until outreach has been made to all potential candidates.

The Governor’s action reinforces his commitment to alleviating barriers for people with criminal convictions, exemplified by his creation of the Council of Community Reintegration and Reintegration in 2014, and his acceptance and implementation of 12 recommendations for executive action from that Council in September of this year. These executive actions included adopting new anti-discrimination guidance for New York-financed housing, and adopting “fair chance hiring” for New York State agencies....

With assistance from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, representatives from the Governor’s Office have developed a comprehensive training program and will begin working with these associations to train volunteer attorneys via webinar in early 2016. Although individuals may apply for clemency without the assistance of an attorney, assistance from a pro bono attorney will enhance the quality of an inmate’s application and present his or her best case to the Governor. The New York County Lawyers Association, New York State Bar Association, New York City Bar Association, the Legal Aid Society, and the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers will prepare petitions for sentence commutations and the Bronx Defenders will provide post-petition legal services with respect to benefits, housing, and employment, for successful petitioners. The trainings, delivered via webinar with accompanying materials, will walk volunteer attorneys associated with the collaborating legal organizations through each step of being assigned a case, communicating with their client, and preparing a strong petition.

Today Governor Cuomo also granted clemency relief to two individuals who have demonstrated rehabilitation and made positive strides in their lives since their criminal convictions. These individuals were granted clemency relief in the interests of justice and rehabilitation. The clemencies granted today are in addition to the four the Governor granted several weeks ago.

December 21, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Astute review of factors killing the death penalty ... with a questionable final assessment

20151219_USD001_0The Economist has this lengthy new piece (as well as this intriguing graphic) about the modern administration of capital punishment in the United States headlined "Who killed the death penalty?: Many suspects are implicated in capital punishment’s ongoing demise. But one stands out."  I recommend the full piece; but, as explained below, I am put off a bit by its concluding statement.  First, here are extended excerpts along with the closing paragraph:

Exhibit A is the corpses. Or rather, the curious paucity of them: like the dog that didn’t bark in Sherlock Holmes, the bodies are increasingly failing to materialise. Only 28 prisoners have been executed in America in 2015, the lowest number since 1991. Next, consider the dwindling rate of death sentences — most striking in Texas, which accounts for more than a third of all executions since (after a hiatus) the Supreme Court reinstated the practice in 1976.  A ghoulish web page lists the inmates admitted to Texas’s death row.  Only two arrived in 2015, down from 11 the previous year.

There is circumstantial evidence, too: the political kind. Jeb Bush, a Republican presidential candidate — who, as governor of Florida, oversaw 21 executions — has acknowledged feeling “conflicted” about capital punishment.  Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, said she “would breathe a sigh of relief” if it were scrapped.  Contrast that stance with her husband’s return to Arkansas, during his own campaign in 1992, for the controversial execution of a mentally impaired murderer.  Bernie Sanders, Mrs Clinton’s main rival, is a confirmed abolitionist.

The proof is overwhelming: capital punishment is dying. Statistically and politically, it is already mortally wounded, even as it staggers through an indeterminate — but probably brief — swansong.  Fairly soon, someone will be the last person to be executed in America.  The reasons for this decline themselves form a suspenseful tale of locked-room intrigue, unexpected twists and unusual suspects.  So, whodunnit?  Who killed the death penalty?

Where politicians follow, voters often lead.  Capital punishment is no longer a litmus test of political machismo because public enthusiasm for it is waning.  Most Americans still favour retaining it, but that majority is narrowing. And one critical constituency — the mystery’s first prime suspect — is especially sceptical: juries....

The widely available alternative of life without parole — which offers the certainty that a defendant can never be released — helps to explain that trend [of fewer jury-imposed death sentences].  So does the growing willingness of jurors, in their private deliberations, to weigh murderers’ backgrounds and mental illnesses; ditto the greater skill with which defence lawyers, generally better resourced and trained than in the past, muster that mitigating evidence. But the biggest reason, says Richard Dieter of the DPIC, is juries’ nervousness about imposing an irrevocable punishment.  Behind that anxiety stands another, unwilling participant in the death-penalty story: the swelling, well-publicised cadre of death-row exonerees....

Those mistakes implicate another suspect in the death penalty’s demise: prosecutors. The renegades who have botched capital cases — by suppressing evidence, rigging juries or concentrating on black defendants — have dragged it into disrepute.  But some responsible prosecutors have also contributed, by declining to seek death in the first place. They have been abetted by another unlikely group: victims’ relatives....

To avoid that protracted agony [of repeated capital appeals], says James Farren, district attorney of Randall County in Texas, “a healthy percentage” of families now ask prosecutors to eschew capital punishment. Mr Farren also fingers another key player in the death-penalty drama: the American taxpayer.  Capital cases are “a huge drain on resources”, spiralling costs that — especially given juries’ growing reluctance to pass a death sentence anyway — have helped to change the calculus about when to pursue one, Mr Farren says....

Even when the appeals are exhausted, enacting a death sentence has become almost insuperably difficult — because of an outlandish cameo by the pharmaceutical industry.  Obtaining small quantities of drugs for lethal injection, long the standard method, might seem an easy task in the world’s richest country; but export bans in Europe, American import rules and the decision by domestic firms to discontinue what were less-than-lucrative sales lines has strangled the supply....

Lethal injection was intended to be reassuringly bloodless, almost medicinal (as, once, was electrocution).  Should it become impractical, it is unclear whether Americans will stomach a reversion to gorier methods such as gassing and shooting: they are much less popular, according to polls.  The death penalty’s coup de grace may come in the form of an empty vial.

Or it may be judicial rather than pharmaceutical: performed in the Supreme Court, the most obvious suspect of all.  In an opinion issued in June, one of the left-leaning justices, Stephen Breyer, voiced his hunch that the death penalty’s time was up. He cited many longstanding failings: arbitrariness (its use varying widely by geography and defendants’ profiles); the delays; the questionable deterrent and retributive value; all those exonerations (Mr Breyer speculated that wrongful convictions were especially likely in capital cases, because of the pressure to solve them).  He concluded that the system could be fair or purposeful, but not both. Meanwhile Antonin Scalia, a conservative justice, recently said he would not be surprised to see the court strike capital punishment down.

Cue much lawyerly soothsaying about that prospect.  Yet the legal denouement is already in train: a joint enterprise between state courts, legislatures and governors.  Of the 19 states to have repealed the death penalty, seven have done so in the past nine years. Others have imposed moratoriums, formal or de facto, including, in 2015, Arkansas, Ohio, Oklahoma, Montana and Pennsylvania.  The number that execute people — six in 2015 — is small, and shrinking. (After their legislature repealed the death penalty in May, Nebraskans will vote in 2016 on reinstating it; but their state hasn’t executed anyone since 1997.)  These machinations may help to provoke a mortal blow from the Supreme Court. After all, the fewer states that apply the punishment, the more “unusual”, and therefore unconstitutional, it becomes.

Juries; exonerees; prosecutors, both incompetent and pragmatic; improving defence lawyers; stingy taxpayers; exhausted victims; media-savvy drugmakers: in the strange case of the death penalty, there is a superabundance of suspects. And, rather as in “Murder on the Orient Express”, in a way, they all did it. But in a deeper sense, all these are merely accomplices. In truth capital punishment is expiring because of its own contradictions.  As decades of litigation attest — and as the rest of the Western world has resolved — killing prisoners is fundamentally inconsistent with the precepts of a law-governed, civilised society.  In the final verdict, America’s death penalty has killed itself.

This article does an effective job summarizing how and why the death penalty in the US continues to be subject to attacks that could lead to its eventual demise.  But, even using just 2015 evidence, one could still build an argument that capital punishment has steady heartbeat in the United States.  Prez Obama's Justice Department sought and secured a federal death sentence against the Boston bomber in deep blue Massachusetts, while Gov Brown's Attorney General appealed and got reversed a judicial ruling threatening the largest state capital punishment system in deep blue California.  Meanwhile, officials in swing state Pennsylvania and activists in heartland Nebraska still (reasonably) think advocating for the death penalty makes for good politics.

Ultimately, I see 2016 as a make-or-break year for the future of the death penalty in the US.  If voters in Nebraska (and perhaps also California) vote for the death penalty's repeal, or if US voters elect a new Prez likely to appoint abolitionsit-minded judges and Justices, I will jump on the "death penalty is dying" bandwagon.  But, because actual voters rather than just elites still shape the direction of significant legal reforms in our democracy, I do not expect the death penalty to be truly dying until a significant majority of Americans share the legal elite's belief that "killing prisoners is fundamentally inconsistent with the precepts of a law-governed, civilised society."

It is these words at the end of this article that put me off because I continue to struggle with the notion that giving tens of thousands of lesser offenders life-without-parole prison sentences is somehow more "civilized" than giving a few of the very worst murderers a death sentence.  Though I respect and understand why abolitionists feel strongly that the death penalty is inconsistent with many American values they cherish, I find it problematic and troubling that so many abolitionists seem to have little respect and understanding for those who believe the death penalty vindicates legitimate values.  And, I think that the reduced use of the death penalty well-chronicled in this Economist article suggest reasons why, over time, it could become easier for supporters of the death penalty to show to voters that capital punishment will in the future only be used in the very worst cases involving no doubt about the guilt and the horrors of the murders committed.

December 21, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

Saturday, December 19, 2015

"On sentencing reform, we have to talk more about reentry"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary authored by Ashley McSwain recently published by The Hill. Here are excerpts:

Congress displayed a refreshing and all too rare example of bipartisanship this fall when the Judiciary Committee voted 15 to 5 to move the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 to a floor vote. If it passes, the bill would mark a significant step in fixing our broken criminal justice system. Thirty years of tough-on-crime policies — such as mandatory minimum sentencings and three-strike policies for drug-related crimes — has led to over a 750 percent increase in our prison population. People go in, but they don’t come out.

Congress can change that. But in order to ensure success, our communities need to rethink how we help citizens return to the community once their time is served -- what we call “reentry.” As we talk about sentencing reform, we have to talk more about reentry and rehabilitation. It’s not enough to simply reduce sentences; we need to increase access to education, housing, job training, mentorship, and counseling to prepare people to reenter....

As the executive director of Community Family Life Services — a non-profit organization located in the shadow of the Capitol building – We work with women and men everyday who are returning home following a period of incarceration. When they are released from prison or jail, many are homeless, have limited clothing or any possessions other than what they brought to prison. Many don’t have adequate job training or updated skills to reenter the work force. Finally, they don’t have strong family or community supports which are central to a successful reentry strategy.... Faced with these challenges, returning citizens are at high-risk of drug addiction, recidivism, and even death. Without robust reentry programs, sentencing reform will be all for naught.

Currently, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 calls for increasing rehabilitation programs for “eligible” prisoners over the next six years and monitoring reentry. That’s a good start, but it’s not nearly enough. But it’s also not up to Congress alone. It takes a village. As we rethink sentencing laws and work towards a more just and equitable criminal justice system, we need to come together — government agencies, foundations, non-profits, individuals — and help create livable communities here in Washington, D.C. and across the country.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons should be encouraged to forge more relationships with reentry programs and encourage those in prison to work towards rehabilitation from day one, regardless of the length or terms of their sentences. We need more citizens to volunteer as mentors and work with men and women both in prison and out of prison to ensure each returning citizen has the support, strength, and resolve necessary to make the transition to open society and live up to their full potential....

As Congress considers a vote on the Sentencing Bill, I invite members to visit us at 3rd and E St NW. Talk to the women returning home to DC so they can better understand the challenges they face and what it will take for them to succeed. Every person who steps into our resource center is capable of a successful reentry, but they need our support — everyone’s support — to achieve it.

December 19, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, December 18, 2015

"Dignifying Madness: Rethinking Commitment Law in an Age of Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper available via SSRN authored by Jonathan Simon and Stephen Rosenbaum. Here is the abstract:

Modern nation-states have been trapped in recurring cycles of incarcerating and emancipating residents with psychiatric disabilities.  New cycles of enthusiasm for incarceration generally commence with well-defined claims about the evils of allowing “the mad” to remain at liberty and the benefits incarceration would bring to the afflicted.  A generation or two later, at most, reports of terrible conditions in institutions circulate and new laws follow, setting high burdens for those seeking to imprison and demanding exacting legal procedures with an emphasis on individual civil liberties.  Today, we seem to be arriving at another turn in the familiar cycle.  A growing movement led by professionals and family members of people with mental health disabilities is calling for new laws enabling earlier and more assertive treatment.

December 18, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

NY Times debates " What Age Should Young Criminals Be Tried as Adults?"

The Room for Debate section of the New York Times has this new set of notable commentaries discussing the appropriate age for when an offender should (or should not be) brought into adult court for trial and sentencing. Here is the section's set up:

The governor of Connecticut has proposed raising the age juveniles can be tried as adults to 21 in attempts to keep more young people out of cycles of incarceration.  Michigan, one of few states that still charge 17-year-olds as adults, is also considering raising the age for eligibility of juvenile status to 18.  Is this a good idea?  What age is appropriate for young law-breakers to be tried as adults?

Here are the contributions, with links via the commentary titles:

December 15, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Examining the crimmigration connections between sentencing and deportation

An important and timely new and growing speciality in the legal academy is "crimmigration," a label used to describe and analyze the intersections of criminal law and immigration law.  In that vein, I just came across this notable new paper by Jason Cade available via SSRN titled "Return of the JRAD," which looks closely at the particular intersection of sentencing decision-making and deportation consequences. Here is the abstract:

Ignacio Diaz Aguilar’s felony conviction for document forgery made him a priority for deportation and disqualified him from the possibility of discretionary relief from removal, despite apparently significant equities and mitigating factors.  And yet, when Federal District Court Judge Jack B. Weinstein sentenced Mr. Aguilar on August 14, 2015, he recommended that the government not deport Mr. Aguilar, even though no legal rules provided him with a route to that result.  This essay places Judge Weinstein’s recommendation in a broader context, explaining its importance within the modern deportation regime.  Statutory reforms and new agency practices have made criminal history the primary marker of noncitizen undesirability.  Even longtime lawful permanent residents with only minor convictions often cannot escape removal or make a case for discretionary relief.  As a result, the immigration system, as it works today, is in deep tension with the principle that under a humane system of justice the penalty should fit the crime.

Judge Weinstein’s sentencing order in Aguilar points the way to an important reform that would decrease the likelihood of disproportionate removals in cases that involve noncitizens with a criminal history.  A sentencing judge’s decision to recommend against deportation in criminal cases offers immigration authorities an efficient, reliable, and cost-effective means of assessing a noncitizen’s positive and negative equities and determining whether removal is an appropriate part of the total penalty for the noncitizen’s transgression.  In short, a sentencing judge’s recommendation against deportation could serve as a disproportionality rule of thumb, tempering and refining the role that criminal history plays in deportation decisions.  This essay makes the case that immigration authorities could rely on such recommendations -- as well as other forms of relief from all-out criminal punishment (e.g., pardons, expungements, and deferred adjudications) -- as signals that a noncitizen’s encounter with the criminal system presumptively should not lead to deportation.  To be sure, in some cases, that presumption should be overcome, particularly when the government can establish the noncitizen’s dangerousness or otherwise demonstrate social undesirability.  But deportation should be the exception, not the rule, in cases where the end result of the criminal process involves elimination or mitigation of the underlying criminal conviction. 

December 15, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 13, 2015

"The Effect of Prison Sentence Length on Recidivism: Evidence from Random Judicial Assignment"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new empirical paper authored by Michael Roach and Max Schanzenbach available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Whether punishment promotes or deters future criminal activity by the convicted offender is a key public policy concern. Longer prison sentences further isolate offenders from the legitimate labor force and may promote the formation of criminal networks in prison.  On the other hand, greater initial punishment may have a deterrence effect on the individual being punished, sometimes called “specific deterrence,” through learning or the rehabilitative effect of prison.

We test the effect of prison sentence length on recidivism by exploiting a unique quasi-experimental design from adult sentences within a courthouse in Seattle, Washington.  Offenders who plead guilty are randomly assigned to a sentencing judge, which leads to random differences in prison sentence length depending on the sentencing judge’s proclivities. We find that one-month extra prison sentence reduces the rate of recidivism by about one percentage point, with possibly larger effects for those with limited criminal histories.  However, the reduction in recidivism comes almost entirely in the first year of release, which we interpret as consistent with prison’s rehabilitative role.

December 13, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1)

Encouraging DUI alternative sentencing story from South Dakota

The AP this past week had this encouraging story about an alternative approach to drunk driving offenses headlined "States encouraged to mull South Dakota sobriety program." Here are excerpts:

Twice a day for three years, Chris Mexican has showed up at the county jail in Pierre to blow into a tube and prove he hasn't been drinking.  After several drunken driving convictions, it has allowed him to remain free and to become a better, more clearheaded father to his kids....

South Dakota's 24-7 sobriety program has helped curb drunken driving and domestic violence, and some incentives for states that adopt the model were included in the $305 billion transportation law that President Barack Obama signed [earlier this month].

The program offers those accused or convicted of an alcohol-related crime an alternative to jail.  The provision in the highway law, pushed by U.S. Sen. John Thune, creates an incentive grant totaling about $18 million over four years for states that implement the sobriety program.

It's akin to existing funds for states that have adopted seatbelt requirements or ignition interlock laws.  "This will give other states a chance to find out if it works as well," said U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds, who was South Dakota governor when the program began.  The new transportation law also allows states that implement a 24-7 program to avoid a penalty that routes construction funds to highway safety.

An independent study released in 2013 by the RAND Corp., a nonprofit think tank, found that South Dakota's program cut the rate of repeat DUI arrests at the county level by 12 percent and domestic violence arrests by 9 percent in its first five years.  "These are large reductions when you consider that we're talking about the community level," said Beau Kilmer, who conducted the study and continues to research the program.

Experts say incentive grants are an effective way to encourage states.  "When it's a federal law, the word spreads and other communities that are looking for solutions find out about it, so they're much more likely to adopt it themselves," said safety advocate Joan Claybrook, a former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief.

South Dakota started the practice in 2005.  Participants come to a site each morning and evening to blow into an alcohol breath test.  Those who live farther away or who have difficulty remaining sober wear alcohol-monitoring bracelets or have ignition interlock systems in their vehicles.  Over the past decade, nearly 40,000 people have participated in South Dakota's twice-daily program, compiling a pass rate of more than 99 percent.

North Dakota and Montana have started similar monitoring systems, and more states are running or planning pilot programs. South Dakota's attorney general, Marty Jackley, has also discussed the program with his counterparts in other states.  And West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said South Dakota's "very positive" results warrant examination by his state, where a program would require legislative support.

December 13, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, December 10, 2015

NAAUSA sends letter opposing federal sentencing reforms on behalf of forty former federal officials

As reported in this new Washington Examiner article, "[f]orty former top federal law enforcement officials want senators to hit the breaks on bipartisan legislation that would roll back mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealing and other crimes." Here is more:

The group, which includes former New York mayor and U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani, former Attorney General John Ashcroft and drug control czar William Bennett, say sentencing laws enacted in the 1980s and 1990s led to the dramatic dip in crime rates that began 25 years ago, a claim disputed by many liberals and criminologists.

"Our system of justice is not broken," the former officials wrote in a Dec. 10 letter sent by the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys to Senate leaders. "Mandatory minimums and proactive law enforcement measures have caused a dramatic reduction in crime over the past 25 years, an achievement we cannot afford to give back." The officials call for leaving the current sentencing regime alone.

"Our current sentencing structure strikes the right balance between congressional direction in the establishment of sentencing levels and the preservation of public safety," they write. The former officials express alarm about proposals to retroactively alter previously applied sentencing guidances, a step they say would cause the release of "thousands of armed career criminals."...

Some senior Republicans, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, support scraping some minimum sentencing laws, though Grassley backs a less sweeping bill than [Senator Rand] Paul. The GOP support has helped make sentencing reform a popular issue, widely hailed as a rare area where bipartisan cooperation is possible.

But the law enforcement officials' letter shows reports of an emerging bipartisan consensus are exaggerated. The letter's signatories include officials who helped enact the tough sentencing laws now under fire. Michele Leonhart, who headed the Drug Enforcement Agency under Obama, is a notable Democratic appointee who broke with her former boss by signing on.

Sens. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., another a presidential hopeful, are among conservatives gearing up to oppose to sentencing reform, raising the chance the issue could divide Republicans.

I cannot yet find a copy of this NAAUSA letter on-line, but I will try to post it when I can get access to a copy.

UPDATE:  A helpful colleague sent me a copy of the letter for posting here:  Download Former_Official_Ltr_1210-2015-FINAL (1)

December 10, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

The Sentencing Project spotlights major criminal justice reform stories of 2015

The Sentencing Project is an extraordinary public policy group that does some of the most effective and important criminal justice reform research and advocacy.  I received via e-mail this letter from The Sentencing Project about its latest publication and its impressive recent:

This year, we have seen an emerging national consensus for criminal justice reform.  At The Sentencing Project, we’ve been proud to have contributed to this shift, as we have for more than a quarter century. Our 2015 annual newsletter contains highlights of criminal justice reform activities this year, including:
  • A look at the major reform developments in Washington, including the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, introduced in the Senate this fall
  • Successful reform efforts at the state level, including scaled back bans on public assistance for people with felony drug convictions in Alabama and Texas
We have had a wonderful year, and we look forward to continued success in the year ahead. 

December 10, 2015 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

"Decriminalizing Drugs: When Treatment Replaces Prison"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy New York Times commentary piece authored by Tina Rosenberg, which gives extended attention to Portugal's experience with drug decriminalization. Here are extended excerpts:

If one of my children were a drug addict, what would I want for him?

I would want what any parent would: for his addiction to be treated as a health problem, not a criminal matter, and for him to have every kind of help possible to get him off drugs. Until that happened, I would want him to be able to manage his addiction and live a normal life by taking methadone or another substitute opioid. And until that happened, for him to stay as safe as possible from overdosing, developing H.I.V., or going to prison, which would irrevocably alter the course of his post-addiction life.

What’s significant about the question is not how I would answer, but the probability that I might be asked it at all. Because I am white and middle class, society would view my addict child as a sick person who needed help. If I were African-American and poor, he would most likely be seen as a criminal to be locked up. And no one would be interested in what I wanted, or what was best for him....

New England and Appalachia have been hit particularly hard by the heroin and opioid epidemic in the United States, but all across the country, policies are emerging that treat drugs as a health problem instead of a crime. Conservative politicians who once called needle exchange the devil’s work are now establishing them in their cities. Police officers now carry naloxone, a drug that instantly reverses overdoses, and are saving lives on a daily basis. Cities all over the country are copying Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, in which police officers put low-level drug offenders into treatment and social services instead of jail. It is hard to imagine Congress decriminalizing drugs, but easy to imagine that soon, any debate at the national level may be irrelevant.

Where will that take us? We can look at what happened in various countries that have decriminalized drugs. Portugal has gone the furthest. It decriminalized the personal use of all drugs (dealing and trafficking are still crimes and use remains illegal) in 2001. Its program is the most comprehensive and the best-studied. At the turn of the century, Portugal was drowning in heroin and had the worst H.I.V. rates among injecting drug users in Europe. The country had responded with harsh drug laws, which had not helped. Indeed, the laws drove many users underground.

On July 1, 2001, Portugal reversed course, decriminalizing possession of less than 10 days’ supply of any drug. That’s not legalization. But the penalties have been made administrative, not criminal. When the police catch people using or possessing drugs, the drug is seized. Within 72 hours, the user meets with what is called a dissuasion commission. The commission has social workers and psychologists who use the police report and assess the drug user and his needs. Then the user comes before a dissuasion panel; Lisbon’s, for example, has a sociologist, a lawyer and a psychologist.

The panel can simply warn a user, or send him to appropriate social or health services — including drug treatment if the user is an addict.  Nuno Capaz, the sociologist on Lisbon’s panel, said that users were punished only if they refused to go or they were repeat offenders.  The punishment can be a fine, community service, or supervision by a local agency.

Decriminalization doesn’t work alone. “You need to invest heavily in public health response,” said Niamh Eastwood, executive director of Release, a British organization. “The success of Portugal is not just a model of law reform, but also significant harm reduction and a public health response. The whole package should be deployed.” “Decriminalization is easy,” said Capaz. “You write down that if people are caught doing illegal things, the sanctions are administrative and not criminal. The hard part is making treatment available. It works for us because it works with our health care system — drug users who want treatment can get it for free.”

As it changed its laws, Portugal set up prevention campaigns, harm-reduction measures such as needle exchange that make drug use safer, and treatment services. Although drug-free treatment is available, Portugal relies heavily on methadone and other opioid substitution therapy to gradually wean users away from drugs. Hyper-controversial when it first started, Portugal’s program is now widely accepted.  When global recession hit in 2008, the country’s health, housing and employment programs were severely cut. That may have affected its drug policies, but when drug programs themselves were cut — mostly outside of Lisbon — the losses were less than in other programs, Capaz said. Their success largely protected them, and politicians knew that cutting treatment or prevention services would only cost more later.

With those caveats, here’s what’s happened in Portugal:

Overdose deaths — down by 72 percent....

Spread of H.I.V. — down by 94 percent....

Drug crime and imprisonment — down, by definition....

Drug use — mixed....

Portugal is far from alone. At least 25 countries have decriminalized some drugs, mostly cannabis. A few countries in Europe did so in the 1970s — or had never criminalized drugs at all. But in the last 10 years more have joined in Europe and Latin America, and other countries that have not decriminalized have nevertheless softened their policies to emphasize public health and harm reduction.... The tragic exception to the trend is Russia, where even methadone is still illegal. Russia’s cruelty towards drug users is the main reason the country’s epidemic incidence of H.I.V. has doubled in the last five years....

The most surprising endorsement of decriminalization came last month from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which had always taken a hard-line approach to drugs. At a harm-reduction conference in Malaysia, the agency released a paper that began: “This document clarifies the position of UNODC to inform country responses to promote a health and human rights based approach to drug policy.” It lays out the case for decriminalization and harm reduction. (Branson put the paper on his website.)

As soon as the paper came out, the agency drew back. The author was supposed to speak at the conference, but didn’t. A spokesperson for the agency said the paper was “neither a final nor a formal document….and cannot be read as a statement of UNODC policy.” It’s not clear why the agency retreated, but in the past, the United States has pressured international organizations to retract documents that propose a softer line.

Other countries that have decriminalized have largely echoed Portugal’s results, seeing big improvements in avoiding deaths, disease and imprisonment, but very little effect on usage. Two recent British studies examined the effects of drug policy on drug use in different countries. The nongovernmental organization Release looked at decriminalization’s effects in 21 countries, and found no statistically significant increase in levels of drug consumption. Britain’s Home Office published a study last year of drug policies and their effects in countries around the world. “We did not in our fact-finding observe any obvious relationship between the toughness of a country’s enforcement against drug possession, and levels of drug use in that country,” the report concluded.

For all its advantages, decriminalization fails to alleviate many harms that come from drugs — its lack of impact on usage is one example. “Decriminalization doesn’t deal with the supply-side issues,” said Eastwood. “It doesn’t really undermine all the negative consequences from the illicit market. It doesn’t reduce violence. It doesn’t affect drug purity.” Indeed, the inconsistent purity of heroin is a big contributor to overdose deaths. In short, decriminalization is not a good solution to the drug problem. It’s just a better solution than the one we’ve got. 

December 9, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Have conservatives been "manipulated" and "duped" by abolitionists to oppose the death penalty?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by statements in the final paragraph of this lengthy American Thinker commentary authored Aaron J. Veselenak and headlined "Some Reading for Conservatives Who Oppose the Death Penalty."  I recommend the full piece, and here is how it starts and ends:

In recent years, opponents of capital punishment have leveled key criticisms against conservatives, claiming major hypocrisy in their continued approval of society's most serious criminal sanction.  One claim is that conservative support for the death penalty violates the most central tenet of conservatism — that of limited government.  How can conservatives, they ask, in their suspicion of and disdain for large, powerful government, advocate use of the greatest governmental power of all, the taking of life?  Contradiction — indeed, hypocrisy — is said to exist.

This charge is faulty, even bogus.  Unfortunately, this and other equally faulty charges have resonated with certain members of the conservative movement, among them state and federal lawmakers.

Why is the above claim so faulty, in fact lacking of substance?  The answer lies in the fact that conservatives are not anarchists.  Yes, conservatives do believe in very limited size and power of government.  However, that does not mean they abandon the most basic functions of government, chief among them protection of the people through military and police powers.  Or a court and penal system to further provide safety and administer justice....

Conservatives jumping on the anti-­death penalty bandwagon in recent years need to rethink their position.  They have been manipulated — duped by the seemingly sound and logical statements of death penalty opponents.  Deeper reflection demonstrates these claims to be very shallow and without merit.

Perhaps because I hang out and interact with a number of pretty bright people with an array of views on an array of criminal justice topics, I am disinclined to believe that conservatives who oppose the death penalty are being convinced by "very shallow" claims or are subject to being manipulated or duped by death penalty opponents.  Nor do I think one need to be drawn in by appeals to anarchy or libertarianism to have conservative-based concerns about the operation of modern death penalty in the United States.

Rather, I think one readily can embrace a strong belief/commitment to a government focused on the "protection of the people through military and police powers [and] a court and penal system to further provide safety and administer justice" while still voicing considerable disaffinity for the modern death penalty.  This disaffinity would be based on the (seemingly conservative) perspective that the governments often, even when trying really hard to be effective in its core functions, far too often end up doing more harm than good (and at an excessive cost to taxpayers).  Even apart from concerns about government dysfunction showcases by wrongful convictions (which I assume trouble conservatives as much if not more than liberals), the governmental mess we have recently seen in Oklahoma with the mixing up of execution drugs or states previously relying on unqualified executioners or even evidence of racial disparities in capitl application could all seemingly provide a principled basis for principled conservatives to conclude the government (especially state governments) ought not still be in the business of killing its killers.

December 5, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

Friday, December 04, 2015

"The Injustice of the Plea-Bargain System"

The title of this post is the headline of this op-ed authored by Lucian Dervan and appearing in today's Wall Street Journal. Here are excerpts:

The House Judiciary Committee introduced five bills this year in a bipartisan effort to reform America’s criminal-justice system.  With incarceration rates in the U.S. five to 10 times higher than in Western Europe and other democracies, the bills aim to provide sensible reforms such as rewriting mandatory-sentencing statutes.  Yet none directly addresses plea bargaining, a practice that induces too many defendants to plead guilty to avoid what has come to be known as the trial penalty....

Even in cases without mandatory sentences, it is common for sentences handed down after trial to be far more severe than those offered to induce guilty pleas.  This “trial penalty” is weighed by thousands of defendants each day when considering whether to accept a plea offer.

A 2013 Human Rights Watch study found that the average federal drug sentence for defendants who proceeded to trial in 2012 was three times longer — an increase of 10 years — than for defendants who pleaded guilty.  In that study, a federal judge in New York described the sentences defendants face if they reject plea offers as “so excessively severe, they take your breath away.”  Not surprisingly, the great majority of convictions come from guilty pleas.  According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, over 97% of convictions in the federal system arise from guilty pleas; state systems aren’t far behind at about 95%.

There are numerous documented cases of innocent defendants pleading guilty, including well-known examples such as Brian Banks.  In 2002, at the age of 17, Mr. Banks was wrongly accused of rape yet chose a plea bargain with a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.  If he rejected the offer and lost at trial, he faced 40 years to life in prison.  He took the deal and falsely confessed.  In 2012, after definitive evidence of his innocence came to light, a California court reversed the conviction.

The Supreme Court established the constitutionality of plea bargaining in Brady v. United States (1970).  But the court warned that it would have “serious doubts” if the “encouragement of guilty pleas by offers of leniency substantially increased the likelihood that defendants, advised by competent counsel, would falsely condemn themselves.”  Sadly, the trial penalty has done just that.

December 4, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

"The Promises and Perils of Evidence-Based Corrections"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Cecelia Klingele and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Public beliefs about the best way to respond to crime change over time, and have been doing so at a rapid pace in recent years.  After more than forty years of ever more severe penal policies, the punitive sentiment that fueled the growth of mass incarceration in the United States appears to be softening. Across the country, prison growth has slowed and, in some places, has even reversed.  Many new laws and policies have enabled this change. The most prominent of these implement or reflect what have been called "evidence-based practices" designed to reduce prison populations and their associated fiscal and human costs.  These practices "which broadly include the use of actuarial risk assessment tools, the development of deterrence-based sanctioning programs, and the adoption of new supervision techniques" are based on criminological research about "what works" to reduce convicted individuals' odds of committing future crimes.

Because evidence-based practices focus on reducing crime and recidivism, they are usually promoted as progressive tools for making the criminal justice system more humane. And while many have the potential to do just that, evidence-based practices are not inherently benign with respect to their effect on mass incarceration and the breadth of the penal state.  In their reliance on aggregate data and classification, many such practices have as much in common with the "new penology" that enabled mass incarceration as with the neorehabilitationism they are ordinarily thought to represent.

Without denying the contribution that such practices are making to current reform efforts, this Article seeks to highlight the unintended ways in which evidence-based tools could be used to expand, rather than reduce, state correctional control over justice-involved individuals. It explains what evidence-based practices are, why they have gained traction, and how they fit into existing paradigms for understanding the role of the criminal justice system in the lives of those subject to its control.  Finally, it calls on policymakers and practitioners to implement these practices in ways that ensure they are used to improve the quality and fairness of the criminal justice system and not to reinforce the institutional constructs that have sustained the growth of the penal state.

December 2, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Two very different (and very depressing) stories that are distinct imprints of drug war carnage

31-moma_cotc_7.01.02schneiderwarisnothealthyThe famous image uploaded with this post has a message that has stuck with me since I first saw it many decades ago.  And that message, highlighting the unhealthy carnage that always results from war, quickly came to mind as I notices these two distinct must-read stories this morning.  Here are the headlines/links and key paragraphs from both stories:

"Leaked Documents Reveal Dothan Police Department Planted Drugs on Young Black Men For Years, District Attorney Doug Valeska Complicit":

The Alabama Justice Project has obtained documents that reveal a Dothan Police Department’s Internal Affairs investigation was covered up by the district attorney. A group of up to a dozen police officers on a specialized narcotics team were found to have planted drugs and weapons on young black men for years.  They were supervised at the time by Lt. Steve Parrish, current Dothan Police Chief, and Sgt. Andy Hughes, current Asst. Director of Homeland Security for the State of Alabama.  All of the officers reportedly were members of a Neoconfederate organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center labels “racial extremists.”  The group has advocated for blacks to return to Africa, published that the civil rights movement is really a Jewish conspiracy, and that blacks have lower IQ’s.  Both Parrish and Hughes held leadership positions in the group and are pictured above holding a confederate battle flag at one of the club’s secret meetings.

The documents shared reveal that the internal affairs investigation was covered up to protect the aforementioned officers’ law enforcement careers and keep them from being criminally prosecuted.  Several long term Dothan law enforcement officers, all part of an original group that initiated the investigation, believe the public has a right to know that the Dothan Police Department, and District Attorney Doug Valeska, targeted young black men by planting drugs and weapons on them over a decade.  Most of the young men were prosecuted, many sentenced to prison, and some are still in prison. Many of the officers involved were subsequently promoted and are in leadership positions in law enforcement. They hope the mood of the country is one that demands action and that the US Department of Justice will intervene.

"How Big Pharma Gave America Its Heroin Problem: OxyContin, designed for cancer pain relief, became the drug prescribed for back and tooth aches":

As addiction specialists look back on the current heroin addiction crisis — which the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention calls the "worst drug overdose epidemic in [US] history" — most agree that the whole operation started out as the sort of marketing scheme Don Draper might have dreamed up. "[The marketing effort for opioid sales] was a promotional campaign unlike we have ever really seen," says Dr. Andrew Kolodny, the chief medical officer for the Phoenix House treatment centers and co-founder of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing. "Drug reps were going to family care doctors, and insisting that OxyContin had no real risks — only benefits. What they were selling was the idea that pain was a disease, and not a symptom."...

What followed was not all that surprising. Many grew addicted to the opioids, and when the prescriptions ran out, they turned to heroin because of its availability and relatively low cost. The Mexican drug cartels saw this trend and promptly began growing their opium plants, which they consciously made purer and less expensive.  And those cartels targeted the suburbs, where those introductory OxyContin prescriptions were being filled — and where the money was.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, some 2,000 people died in 2001 from heroin overdose in the U.S. By 2013, that number had climbed to about 8,000. Coinciding with that rise: the number of opioid deaths caused by prescription drugs like OxyContin.  About 6,000 deaths from opioid prescription drug overdose in 2001 spiked to roughly 15,000 by 2013.  Over two million Americans are currently addicted to opioids, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, and 467,000 are addicted to heroin.  What makes those numbers even more startling: Four out of five heroin users reportedly started out on opioids.

The issues and problems discussed in both theses stories are, obviously, about a whole lot more than just the impact of criminal prohibition and intense criminal prosecutions of persons involved with certain controlled substances. Nevertheless, stories like these remind me that the long-run "war on drugs," like so many other wars, has produced an array of unexpected consequences and collateral damages that must should not be overlooked whether we consider whether and how to continue to use massive criminal justice systems to deal with drug use and abuse.

December 2, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

"Negotiating Accuracy: DNA in the Age of Plea Bargaining"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Alexandra Natapoff and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Hundreds of exonerations have made DNA a kind of poster child for the innocence movement and the demand for more accurate evidence in criminal cases.  But most wrongful convictions are not simply the result of evidentiary mistakes. In the marketplace of plea bargaining, convictions are the result of numerous inputs — a defendant’s criminal record, prosecutorial bargaining habits, the size of the trial penalty, whether the defendant is out on bail — that have nothing to do with the accuracy of the evidence.  The bargained nature of these convictions means that accurate evidence is just one piece — and not always the most important piece — of the larger negotiation process that establishes guilt.

We might say that the plea process is structurally tolerant of inaccuracy, precisely because it transforms accuracy into a commodity that may be traded and negotiated away in exchange for agreement.  This is a recipe for wrongful conviction.  The innocence movement, for example, has uncovered numerous cases where innocent defendants pled guilty to homicide and rape in order to avoid the death penalty.  The pressures to plead are likewise pervasive in the misdemeanor system, in which thousands of people are rushed through assembly-line processes and routinely plead guilty to minor crimes of which they are demonstrably innocent.  Ultimately, we should recognize plea bargaining as a source of wrongful conviction in its own right, and add it to the canonical list of wrongful conviction sources such as mistaken eyewitness testimony, lying informants, and bad forensics.

December 1, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4)

You be the judge: what federal sentence for beloved elderly preist who embezzled half-million dollars?

Fatheredwardbelczakashxjpg-79869763239fae48This local article, headlined "Dozens ask judge for mercy in sentencing of embezzling Detroit-area Catholic priest," provides the interesting backstory for an interesting federal sentencing scheduled for late today. Here are the basics:

A beloved Catholic priest in Troy was scorned when allegations came forth that he embezzled more than $500,000 from church coffers.  Rev. Edward A. Belczak, 70, admitted to diverting $572,775 collected by the church, most of which he kept in a secret private bank account.  He also spent $109,570 to purchase a Florida condo in 2005.

Despite the admissions, dozens of people, including many of the parishioners he defrauded, have come forward to ask for a lenient sentence on behalf of the priest who headed St. Thomas More church in Troy from 1984 until 2013. He's scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday.

Belczak pleaded guilty to mail fraud as part of the plea agreement. In exchange, the U.S. Attorneys Office dismissed more serious charges and asked U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Tarnow to sentence Belczak to just over three years in prison.

Attorney John J. Morad, a friend and supporter of the priest, thinks any prison time is too much. "He made a terrible mistake and I know that he is embarrassed, ashamed and humiliated by the fact that he disappointed so many people who have grown to love and respect him for the work he has done among the people," Morad wrote in a letter to the judge. " ... I know he has confessed his sins and I'm certain God has forgiven him. Should we do anything less?"

The defense has asked for home detention, while sentencing guidelines call for a prison term of between 33 and 41 months.  The theft from the church is believed to have occurred between 2004 and 2012.

UPDATE This Detroit Free-Press article about the sentencing of Father Belczak report on the basic outcome via its headline: "Embezzling priest gets 27 months: 'It's .. my destiny'"

December 1, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (12)

Friday, November 27, 2015

"Prisons as Panacea or Pariah?: The Countervailing Consequences of the Prison Boom on the Political Economy of Rural Towns"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by John Major Eason available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

The nascent literature on prison proliferation in the United States typically reveals negative impacts for communities of color.  Given that southern rural communities of color were the most likely to build during the prison boom (1970-2010), however, a more nuanced understanding of prison impact is warranted.

Using a dataset matching and geocoding all 1,663 U.S. prisons with their census appointed place, this study explores the countervailing consequences of the prison boom on rural towns across multiple periods.  For example, locales that adopted prisons at earlier stages of the prison boom era received a short-term boon compared to those that did not, but these effects were not lasting.  Furthermore, later in the boom, prison building protected towns against additional economic decline.  Thus, neither entirely pariah nor panacea, the prison serves as a state-sponsored public works program for disadvantaged rural communities of color but also supports the perverse economic incentives for prison proliferation.  Methodological, substantive, theoretical, and policy implications regarding the intersection of race and punishment are explored.

November 27, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Might Prez Obama seek to do something bold on the death penalty in his final year?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new AP article, headlined "Obama Still Pondering Death Penalty's Role in Justice System."  Here are excerpts:

Even as President Barack Obama tries to make a hard case for overhauling sentences, rehabilitating prisoners and confronting racial bias in policing, he has been less clear about the death penalty.  Obama has hinted that his support for capital punishment is eroding, but he has refused to discuss what he might call for.

A Justice Department review has dragged on for 18 months with little mention or momentum.  The president recently repeated he is "deeply concerned" about the death penalty's implementation, though he also acknowledges the issue has not been a top priority. "I have not traditionally been opposed to the death penalty in theory, but in practice it's deeply troubling," Obama told the Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism group, citing racial bias, wrongful convictions and questions about "gruesome and clumsy" executions.  His delay in proposing solutions, he said, was because "I got a whole lot of other things to do as well."

Obama said he plans to weigh in, and considers the issue part of his larger, legacy-minded push for an overhaul of the criminal justice system. White House officials say the president is looking for an appropriate response and wading through the legal ramifications.

Capital prosecutions are down across the United States.  A shortage of lethal injection drugs has meant de facto freezes in several states and at the federal level.  Spurred in part by encouragement from Supreme Court justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, advocates are debating whether the time is right to push the court to take a fresh look at whether the death penalty is constitutional....

Obama isn't alone in struggling with the issue.  "We have a lot of evidence now that the death penalty has been too frequently applied and, very unfortunately, often times in a discriminatory way," Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton said.  "So I think we have to take a hard look at it."  She also said she does "not favor abolishing" it in all cases.

For Clinton's Democratic presidential rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the issue is settled. "I just don't think the state itself, whether it's the state government or federal government, should be in the business of killing people," he said.  On the Republican side, candidate Jeb Bush says he's swayed by his Catholic faith and is "conflicted."...

In September, Pope Francis stood before Congress and urged that the death penalty be abolished. Obama specifically noted the comment when talking about the speech to aides. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama was "influenced" by what the pope said. Such hints have death penalty opponents likening Obama's deliberations to his gradual shift toward supporting gay marriage.

Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor who taught the president, said: "Though not definitive, the idea that the president's views are evolving gives me hope that he — like an increasing number of prosecutors, jurors, judges, governors and state legislators — recognizes that the death penalty in America is too broken to fix."

White House officials caution that any presidential statement disputing the effectiveness or constitutionality of the death penalty would have legal consequences.  For example, would the administration then commute the sentences of the 62 people currently on federal death row to life in prison?

I suspect hard-core capital abolitionists are growing ever more eager to hear Prez Obama say ASAP that he has evolved now to believe, in the words of Prof Ogletree, that "the death penalty in America is too broken to fix."  But any statement by Prez Obama to that effect would likely trigger a significant backlash among an array of GOP leaders (including most running to be Prez), and could refocus death penalty debate away from persistently problematic state capital cases to higher-profile (and less problematic) federal capital cases like the Boston Marathon bomber.  With another White House occupant coming soon, I am not sure such a change in focus would enhance the success of the broader abolitionist effort in the long run.

This all said, I could still imagine Prez Obama and his Justice Department moving ahead on a number of lower-profile efforts that would continue to advance an abolitionist agenda.  DOJ could file SCOTUS amicus briefs in support of state capital defendants or provide additional funding for research on some of the issues Justice Breyer flagged as the basis for a broadsided constitutional attack on the death penalty.  And I would not be at all surprised if Prez Obama around this time next year, when he is a true lame duck and we all know who will be following him into the Oval Office, does something genuinely bold in this arena.

Speaking of doing something genuinely bold, the headline of this San Francisco Chronicle piece provides one possibility: "Obama considers clemency for 62 federal Death Row prisoners." Here is an excerpt from the extended piece:

The bulk of the more than 3,000 Death Row inmates nationwide, including nearly 750 in California, were sentenced under state law.  They are beyond the president’s authority.  But, by commuting federal prisoners’ sentences to life without the possibility of parole, Obama would stamp the issue as part of his legacy and take a bold action that no successor could overturn.

It is “a quantitatively small gesture that could make the point he’d want to make,” said Stanford Law Professor Robert Weisberg, co-director of the law school’s Criminal Justice Center and a veteran death penalty lawyer.  Like other commentators, he offered no prediction of what action Obama would take, but said the president would probably wait until after the November 2016 election, to avoid voter reaction against whoever the Democratic candidate is.

November 27, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Thursday, November 26, 2015

So thankful for federal sentencing reform moving ahead in Congress... but...

this recent article from the New York Times highlights why I will not celebrate the reform movement's accomplishments until a bill is being signed by the President.  The article, headlined "Rare White House Accord With Koch Brothers on Sentencing Frays," details what has become more controversial elements of bipartisan criminal justice reform efforts.  Here are excerpts:

For more than a year, a rare coalition of liberal groups and libertarian­minded conservatives has joined the Obama administration in pushing for the most significant liberalization of America’s criminal justice laws since the beginning of the drug war.  That effort has had perhaps no ally more important than Koch Industries, the conglomerate owned by a pair of brothers who are well­known conservative billionaires.

Now, as Congress works to turn those goals into legislation, that joint effort is facing its most significant test — over a House bill that Koch Industries says would make the criminal justice system fairer, but that the Justice Department says would make it significantly harder to prosecute corporate polluters, producers of tainted food and other white­collar criminals.

The tension among the unlikely allies emerged over the last week as the House Judiciary Committee, with bipartisan support, approved a package of bills intended to simplify the criminal code and reduce unnecessarily severe sentences. One of those bills — which has been supported by Koch Industries, libertarians and business groups — would make wholesale changes to certain federal criminal laws, requiring prosecutors to prove that suspects “knew, or had reason to believe, the conduct was unlawful,” and did not simply unknowingly violate the law.

Many laws already carry such a requirement — known as “mens rea” — but Congress left it out of many others, and libertarian groups say that has made it too easy to unknowingly violate obscure laws.  Some environmentalists argue, however, that the real motive of Charles Koch, the philanthropist and the company chairman, in supporting the legislation is to block federal regulators from pursuing potential criminal actions against his family’s network of industrial and energy companies, a charge the company denies.

If the bill passes, the result will be clear, said Melanie Newman, the Justice Department spokeswoman. “Countless defendants who caused harm would escape criminal liability by arguing that they did not know their conduct was illegal” she said.

The debate over the bill, sponsored by Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, has become particularly complicated for House Democrats, who have been warned that its passage would be essential for obtaining support from Republicans for a larger package of criminal justice bills.  Many liberal Democrats see this session of Congress as a rare chance to address what they see as significant unfairness in the criminal justice system.  Many of them feel that anything that jeopardizes that opportunity, like trying to block Mr. Sensenbrenner’s bill, is not worth doing.  Two liberal members of the Judiciary Committee, Representatives John Conyers Jr. of Michigan and Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, were co­sponsors of the bill.

Mr. Conyers, in a statement on Tuesday, said he supported the bill, which the Judiciary Committee approved by voice vote last week, because outside parties had raised “a number of concerns about inadequate, and sometimes completely absent, intent requirements for federal criminal offenses.”  But he said he was committed to finding a way to address the Justice Department’s concern....

“There are some groups on the left that mistrust the people who have put this proposal forward,” said John G. Malcolm, who served in the Justice Department’s criminal division during the Bush administration.  He now works at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research center, where he has aggressively pushed for the change in the mens rea provisions.  “It is an unfair and unwarranted characterization,” he added.

Koch Industries and conservative groups have some important liberal allies on the matter, including the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Norman L. Reimer, the organization’s executive director, said it was not surprising the Justice Department opposed the legislation. “D.O.J. is always up in arms over anything that looks like they’d have to do their jobs,” he said.  If the Justice Department’s job was harder in some cases, he said, that would be a good thing. For example, he cited a case in which prosecutors charged a fisherman with violating federal accounting laws by tossing undersized fish overboard. (Koch Industries made a major donation to the defense lawyers’ group last year.)

November 26, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Notable Ninth Circuit panel squabble over computer-search supervised release condition

Yesterday, a split Ninth Circuit panel rejected a defendant's claim that a computer-search condition in his supervised release terms was clearly unreasonable.  The majority opinion in US v. Bare, No. 14-10475 (9th Cir. Nov. 24, 2015) (available here), found adequate the government's contention that, since "Bare kept paper records of his illicit firearms pawn business," if officers were permitted to search "only paper records — but not computers — [it] might enable Bare to evade discovery of recidivist activity by switching his records into an electronic format."  Judge Kozinski dissent starts this way:

Persons on supervised release may have diminished expectations of privacy, but they have privacy rights nonetheless. Moreover, Congress has instructed us to adopt conditions of supervised release that impose “no greater deprivation of libertythan is reasonablynecessary” to achieve the goals of supervised release. 18 U.S.C. § 3583(d)(2).  The majority today disregards this command by allowing probation officers to search defendant’s computer at anytime, for any reason or no reason, even though defendant did not use a computer to carry out his crime, and (so far as we know) did not even own a computer when he committed the offense.

The majority’s rationale, that defendant’s crime could be committed with the help of a computer, is no limitation at all.  Pretty much any federal crime can be committed by using a computer in some way — to maintain records, to case the premises using Google Street View or to track down accomplices, methods and supplies necessary for committing the crime.  If a hypothesis about how the crime might have been committed is a sufficient justification for imposing a supervised release condition, then any condition can be justified by supposing that the crime could be committed in a way that’s different from the method employed by the defendant.  I cannot subscribe to such a broad and amorphous standard.

November 25, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3)

Intriguing findings on race and criminal justice issues from 2015 American Values Survey

Screen-Shot-2015-11-11-at-1.18.33-PM-640x826I just came across this recently released publication by the Public Religion Research Institute, which "conducted the 2015 American Values Survey among 2,695 Americans between September 11 and October 4, 2015."  The lengthy survey report, titled "Anxiety, Nostalgia, and Mistrust: Findings from the 2015 American Values Survey," covers lots of ground on lots of issues, and the last four pages discuss findings under the heading "Race and the Criminal Justice System."  Here are just a few highlights from this discussion:

Most Americans do not believe that police officers treat blacks and other minorities the same as whites.  Only about four in ten (41%) Americans say that the police generally treat racial and ethnic groups equally, while nearly six in ten (57%) disagree....  

White Americans are divided in their views about police treatment of racial minorities. Half (50%) say police officers generally treat blacks and other minorities the same as whites, while 48% disagree.  In contrast, more than eight in ten (84%) black Americans and nearly three-quarters (73%) of Hispanic Americans say police officers do not generally treat non-whites the same as whites....

Additionally, more than six in ten Republicans (67%) and Tea Party members (63%) say police treat blacks and other minorities the same as whites, while only about one-quarter (23%) of Democrats agree. Three-quarters (75%) of Democrats — including two-thirds (67%) of white Democrats — say that police do not treat blacks and whites the same.  The views of political independents closely mirror the general public....

Americans’ views on racial disparities in the criminal justice system largely mirror views on racial disparities in treatment by police.  Nearly six in ten (58%) Americans do not believe blacks and other minorities receive equal treatment as whites in the criminal justice system, while four in ten (40%) believe they are treated equally.  In 2013, Americans were evenly divided on whether nonwhites receive the same treatment as whites in the criminal justice system (47% agreed, 47% disagreed).

There are stark racial and ethnic divisions in views about the fairness of the criminal justice system.  White Americans are closely divided: slightly less than half (47%) say blacks and other minorities receive equal treatment as whites in the criminal justice system, while a slim majority (52%) disagree.  In contrast, more than eight in ten (85%) black Americans and two-thirds (67%) of Hispanic Americans disagree that minorities receive equal treatment in the criminal justice system.

White Americans’ attitudes on racial disparities in the criminal justice system differ substantially by class.  White working-class Americans are divided: 52% say blacks and other minorities receive equal treatment as whites in the criminal justice system, while 47% disagree.  In contrast, just 36% of white college-educated Americans say whites and non-whites are treated equally in the criminal justice system, while nearly two-thirds (64%) disagree.

Partisan divisions on this issue closely mirror divisions on the question of police treatment of whites versus non-whites. More than six in ten Republicans (64%) and Tea Party members (65%) say blacks and other minorities are treated the same as whites in the criminal justice system, while about three-quarters (74%) of Democrats disagree.  The views of independents are identical to the views of Americans overall....

When asked which punishment they prefer for people convicted of murder, a majority (52%) of Americans say they prefer life in prison with no chance of parole, compared to 47% who say they prefer the death penalty.  Views about the death penalty have held roughly steady since 2012 when the public was closely divided.

Partisan attitudes on this question are mirror opposites.  Two-thirds (67%) of Republicans prefer the death penalty over life in prison with no chance of parole for convicted murderers, while nearly two-thirds (65%) of Democrats prefer the opposite. The attitudes of independents mirror the general population.

Americans are also closely divided over whether there are racial disparities in death penalty sentencing.  A majority (53%) of Americans agree that a black person is more likely than a white person to receive the death penalty for the same crime, while 45% of Americans disagree.  American attitudes about the way that the death penalty is applied are virtually unchanged from 1999, when half (50%) of Americans said a black person is more likely than a white one to be sentenced to the death penalty for an identical crime, and 46% disagreed.

American attitudes about the fairness of death penalty sentences continue to be sharply divided along racial and ethnic lines.  More than eight in ten (82%) black Americans and roughly six in ten (59%) Hispanic Americans, compared to fewer than half (45%) of white Americans, report that a black person is more likely than a white person to receive a death penalty sentence for the same crime.  A majority (53%) of white Americans disagree.  White Americans’ views on this question differ significantly by social class.  A majority (54%) of white college-educated Americans say a black person is more likely than a white person convicted of the same crime to receive the death penalty, compared to four in ten (40%) white working-class Americans.  A majority (58%) of white working-class Americans say that this is not the case.

Consistent with previous patterns, there are stark partisan divisions in views about the administration of the death penalty.  Roughly six in ten (64%) Republicans and Tea Party members (58%) do not believe a black person is more likely than a white one to be sentenced to the death penalty for the same crime, while fewer than three in ten (28%) Democrats agree.  Seven in ten (70%) Democrats say that a black person is more likely than a white person to receive the death penalty.  Independents are evenly divided over whether a black person convicted of the same crime as a white person is more likely to receive the death penalty (49% agree, 49% disagree).

There is a strong correlation in views about how fairly the death penalty is applied and support for it as punishment for people convicted of murder.  A majority (59%) of those who say that there is no racial disparity in death penalty sentencing support capital punishment, compared to 37% who say there are racial disparities.

November 25, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)