Monday, February 23, 2015

SCOTUS denies review for Eighth Amendment challenge to 15-year mandatory minimum sentence for possessing shotgun shells

I am quite bummed, and more than a bit grumpy, that the Supreme Court this morning denied certiorari review via this new order list of the case of Edward Young, who is serving a "mandatory fifteen-year prison sentence for the crime of possessing seven shotgun shells in a drawer."  I am bummed because, as detailed in this post, I helped file an amicus brief in support of Young's Eighth Amendment claim in the Sixth Circuit and also in support of his SCOTUS cert petition.

I am grumpy because the Supreme Court's willingness to deny review in this case, without even requiring the feds to file a brief in opposition and without any noted dissents, highlights yet again that modern Supreme Court Justices remain much more concerned with whether the worst-of-the-worst state murderers might feel some momentary pain while being executed than with whether Congress and federal prosecutors have gone to far in their application of extreme mandatory prison sentencing terms.   In my amicus brief, I had these concluding sentiments about the Young case and its implications:

The essential facts of this case read like a fictional story about a totalitarian dystopian state imagined by the likes of Franz Kafka or George Orwell: after unintentionally coming into possession 18 of a handful of shotgun shells while helping his widowed neighbor — conduct which is not a crime in his home State or in the vast majority of States in our Union — Edward Young was prosecuted by federal officials using a federal law that mandated a sentencing judge to order Mr. Young to spend the next 15 years of his life locked in a cage.  Disconcertingly, this nightmare tale of extreme punishment is not only true, but it has occurred in the United States of America — a country which was supposedly “conceived in liberty,” Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, and in which school children still recite their commitment to “liberty and justice for all.”  Pledge of Allegiance (codified in Title 4 of the United States Code § 4)....

[I]f Mr. Young’s fifteen-year mandatory federal prison term based on his harmless possession of shotgun shells is allowed to remain in place without further review, this Court would essentially signal to Congress that it very well could constitutionally make even “overtime parking a felony punishable by life imprisonment.” Rummel v. Estelle, 445 U.S. 263, 274 n.11 (1980).

Edward Young can, and I hope will, continue to assail his prosecution and sentencing via a 2255 petition, but such actions are subject to all sorts of additional difficulties (including the absence of a right to counsel).  Moreover, for me this case was not just about how Young's minor crime was treated by the feds, but whether federal judges believe that the Eighth Amendment provides any limit on the mandatory prison terms that could be imposed by federal authorities.  I strongly believe the Framers thought they were doing something about extreme sentences like the one given to Edward Young when they enacted the Eighth Amendment, but it seems no modern federal judges agree with me on this front.  Grrr.

Prior related posts:

February 23, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Senators respond to NY Times criticisms of their sentencing work

I noted and commented here last week on this New York Times editorial about on-going debates over proposed federal sentencing reforms.  Today, the New York Times reprints two letters from the Senators whose work was subject to the Times' criticisms under the headline "Sentencing Reform: 3 Senators Speak Out."  Here are excerpts:

JOHN CORNYN & SHELDON WHITEHOUSE:  “The Roadblock to Sentencing Reform” (editorial, Feb. 17) expressed concerns about our legislation to enable federal inmates to earn earlier release from prison if they complete programs proved to reduce the risk that they’ll commit future crimes.

You worry that our “risk assessment” tools could disproportionately help white prisoners over minorities. But states across the country have found that risk assessments typically lead to results that are fairer for all groups, including minorities.  You yourself wrote last year that data­-based risk-assessment tools have been used in “at least 15 states ...with good results” (editorial, Feb. 17, 2014).  And our bill would emphasize “dynamic” risk factors — things prisoners can change — so that all inmates can lower their risk of recidivism....

We agree that we should reform other aspects of our criminal justice system. But no one should minimize the importance of ending the cycle of recidivism, reducing prison costs and helping inmates succeed upon release.

----

CHUCK GRASSLEY:  I disagree with your editorial.  The reality is that reductions in federal mandatory minimum sentences are misguided.  These sentences are vital in obtaining the cooperation necessary to prosecute leaders in the drug trade. The so-­called Smarter Sentencing Act, sponsored by Senators Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, and Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, would arbitrarily cut in half the mandatory minimum sentences for importing, manufacturing and distributing drugs like heroin, PCP, methamphetamine and cocaine. Enacting such a bill during a well­-documented heroin epidemic would be irresponsible.

Both the Drug Enforcement Administration and the United States attorney in Manhattan have warned that terrorist organizations are using the drug trade to fund their operations. Under Supreme Court rulings, mandatory minimum sentences are the only tool available to Congress to ensure that judges impose adequate and more uniform sentences.

According to the United States Sentencing Commission, unlike in the states, virtually no citizen is in federal prison for drug possession.  Because a “safety valve” eliminates mandatory minimums and lowers sentences for first-time offenders, most federal drug inmates are repeat offenders who did not respond to shorter sentences, and many have extensive criminal histories, including violence.

A few recent related posts on federal sentencing reform:

February 23, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Sentencing as racial education: federal judge schools killers when imposing punishment

Reeves-f610c40457f259110600b974ae67c43aa313beb8-s400-c85A number of helpful readers have made sure I did not miss the remarkable story, highlighted in sources as diverse as NPR and The American Conservative, of the remarkable speech by U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves read to three young white men before sentencing them earlier this month for killing a 48-year-old black man in a parking lot. The speech merits a read in full, and here are excerpts:

Mississippi has expressed its savagery in a number of ways throughout its history — slavery being the cruelest example, but a close second being Mississippi's infatuation with lynchings. Lynchings were prevalent, prominent and participatory. A lynching was a public ritual — even carnival-like — within many states in our great nation. While other states engaged in these atrocities, those in the Deep South took a leadership role, especially that scar on the map of America — those 82 counties between the Tennessee line and the Gulf of Mexico and bordered by Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama.

Vivid accounts of brutal and terrifying lynchings in Mississippi are chronicled in various sources: Ralph Ginzburg's 100 Years of Lynching and Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, just to name two. But I note that today, the Equal Justice Initiative released Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror; apparently, it too is a must-read....

How could hate, fear or whatever it was transform genteel, God-fearing, God-loving Mississippians into mindless murderers and sadistic torturers? I ask that same question about the events which bring us together on this day. Those crimes of the past, as well as these, have so damaged the psyche and reputation of this great state.

Mississippi soil has been stained with the blood of folk whose names have become synonymous with the civil rights movement like Emmett Till, Willie McGee, James Cheney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Vernon Dahmer, George W. Lee, Medgar Evers and Mack Charles Parker. But the blood of the lesser-known people like Luther Holbert and his wife, Elmo Curl, Lloyd Clay, John Hartfield, Nelse Patton, Lamar Smith, Clinton Melton, Ben Chester White, Wharlest Jackson and countless others, saturates these 48,434 square miles of Mississippi soil. On June 26, 2011, four days short of his 49th birthday, the blood of James Anderson was added to Mississippi's soil.

The common denominator of the deaths of these individuals was not their race. It was not that they all were engaged in freedom fighting. It was not that they had been engaged in criminal activity, trumped up or otherwise. No, the common denominator was that the last thing that each of these individuals saw was the inhumanity of racism. The last thing that each felt was the audacity and agony of hate, senseless hate: crippling, maiming them and finally taking away their lives.

Mississippi has a tortured past, and it has struggled mightily to reinvent itself and become a New Mississippi. New generations have attempted to pull Mississippi from the abyss of moral depravity in which it once so proudly floundered in. Despite much progress and the efforts of the new generations, these three defendants are before me today: Deryl Paul Dedmon, Dylan Wade Butler and John Aaron Rice. They and their co-conspirators ripped off the scab of the healing scars of Mississippi ... causing her (our Mississippi) to bleed again.

Hate comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, and from this case, we know it comes in different sexes and ages. A toxic mix of alcohol, foolishness and unadulterated hatred caused these young people to resurrect the nightmarish specter of lynchings and lynch mobs from the Mississippi we long to forget. Like the marauders of ages past, these young folk conspired, planned, and coordinated a plan of attack on certain neighborhoods in the city of Jackson for the sole purpose of harassing, terrorizing, physically assaulting and causing bodily injury to black folk. They punched and kicked them about their bodies — their heads, their faces. They prowled. They came ready to hurt. They used dangerous weapons; they targeted the weak; they recruited and encouraged others to join in the coordinated chaos; and they boasted about their shameful activity. This was a 2011 version of the nigger hunts....

What is so disturbing ... so shocking ... so numbing ... is that these nigger hunts were perpetrated by our children ... students who live among us ... educated in our public schools ... in our private academies ... students who played football lined up on the same side of scrimmage line with black teammates ... average students and honor students. Kids who worked during school and in the summers; kids who now had full-time jobs and some of whom were even unemployed. Some were pursuing higher education and the Court believes they each had dreams to pursue. These children were from two-parent homes and some of whom were the children of divorced parents, and yes some even raised by a single parent. No doubt, they all had loving parents and loving families....

The simple fact is that what turned these children into criminal defendants was their joint decision to act on racial hatred.  In the eyes of these defendants (and their co-conspirators) the victims were doomed at birth. ... Their genetic makeup made them targets....

Today, though, the criminal justice system (state and federal) has proceeded methodically, patiently and deliberately seeking justice.  Today we learned the identities of the persons unknown ... they stand here publicly today.  The sadness of this day also has an element of irony to it: Each defendant was escorted into court by agents of an African-American United States Marshal, having been prosecuted by a team of lawyers which includes an African-American AUSA from an office headed by an African-American U.S. attorney — all under the direction of an African-American attorney general, for sentencing before a judge who is African-American, whose final act will be to turn over the care and custody of these individuals to the BOP — an agency headed by an African-American.

Today we take another step away from Mississippi's tortured past ... we move farther away from the abyss. Indeed, Mississippi is a place and a state of mind. And those who think they know about her people and her past will also understand that her story has not been completely written. Mississippi has a present and a future. That present and future has promise. As demonstrated by the work of the officers within these state and federal agencies — black and white, male and female, in this Mississippi they work together to advance the rule of law. Having learned from Mississippi's inglorious past, these officials know that in advancing the rule of law, the criminal justice system must operate without regard to race, creed or color. This is the strongest way Mississippi can reject those notions — those ideas which brought us here today....

These sentences will not bring back James Craig Anderson nor will they restore the lives they enjoyed prior to 2011. The court knows that James Anderson's mother, who is now 89 years old, lived through the horrors of the Old Mississippi, and the court hopes that she and her family can find peace in knowing that with these sentences, in the New Mississippi, justice is truly blind. Justice, however, will not be complete unless these defendants use the remainder of their lives to learn from this experience and fully commit to making a positive difference in the New Mississippi. And, finally, the court wishes that the defendants also can find peace.

February 22, 2015 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Saturday, February 21, 2015

New Oregon Gov pledges to continue curious capital moratorium created by her corrupt predecessor

Images (2)As reported in this new Reuters piece, headlined "New Oregon Governor Kate Brown to extend death penalty moratorium," a change in leadership at the top of the executive branch in the Beaver State is apparently not going to bring any change to the state's current peculiar death penalty practices. Here are the details:

Oregon's new Democratic Governor Kate Brown said on Friday she planned to extend a moratorium on executions that her predecessor enacted in 2011, well before an influence-peddling scandal forced him from office earlier this week.

But like fellow Democrat John Kitzhaber, Brown stopped short of formally commuting death sentences for the 34 inmates currently awaiting execution in the state, which has executed only two people in the past half century, both in the 1990s.  “There needs to be a broader discussion about fixing the system," Brown said in her first press briefing since she took Oregon's helm on Wednesday.  "Until that discussion, I'm upholding the moratorium imposed by Kitzhaber.” 

In a major salvo in the nation's long-running battle over capital punishment, Kitzhaber imposed a blanket reprieve on all Oregon death row inmates in 2011, saying he believed the death penalty was morally wrong.  He had faced growing calls in the waning days of his administration to commute all Oregon death sentences to life in prison before leaving office following an ethics scandal over accusations his fiancée used her role in his office for personal gain.

But Kitzhaber, who has not been seen publicly since announcing his resignation last week, remained silent on that issue, although he did commute the prison sentence of a young man serving time for attempted murder in a non-capital case.

Brown, who had been Oregon's secretary of state before this week, said she met with Kitzhaber on Monday and he advised her of his legislative priorities and recommendations. In addition to her death penalty plans, Brown told reporters she supports raising the minimum wage, increasing transparency and improving access to public records. 

Four years seems to me like plenty of time for the policy-makers and the public in Oregon to have a "broader discussion about fixing the system" used for administering the death penalty in the state. Notably, since Kitzhaber put the moratorium in place, I believe the Oregon legislature has enacted other forms of sentencing reform dealing with prison sentences as well as significant state health-care reforms.  In addition, Oregon public policy groups placed on the ballot in both 2012 and 2014 significant legal reform intended to "fix" perceived problems with marijuana laws and policies in the state.  If the last four years (and a number of election cycles) have not provided sufficient time for Oregonians to have a "broader discussion about fixing the system," I have a hard time imagining that the next few years are likely to engender such a discussion.

In the end, I seriously doubt that the new Oregon governor (or many others in the state) are really looking forward to having a "broader discussion about fixing the system" used for administering the death penalty in the state.  Rather, I think this phrase was the one that the new gov thought would best allow her to duck a controversial, high-profile issue for the time being (and maybe even for the full duration of her term).  For a handful of advocates, death penalty policy and practices in any state are very important, but for most citizens and voters the death penalty is a high-salience but low-significance concern.  Keeping Kitzhaber's execution moratorium in place allows the new gov to focus on other issues without the distorting distractions that death penalty politics can often create.

Some recent related posts:

February 21, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Still more bipartisan talk (and even more bureaucracy) focused on criminal justice reform

This extended New York Times article, headlined "Unlikely Cause Unites the Left and the Right: Juctice Reform," spotlights that the Grey Lady never gets tired talking about lots of other people talking about the need for criminal justice reforms.  Here is how the piece starts:

Usually bitter adversaries, Koch Industries and the Center for American Progress have found at least one thing they can agree on: The nation’s criminal justice system is broken.

Koch Industries, the conglomerate owned by the conservative Koch brothers, and the center, a Washington-­based liberal issues group, are coming together to back a new organization called the Coalition for Public Safety.  The coalition plans a multi-million­dollar campaign on behalf of emerging proposals to reduce prison populations, overhaul sentencing, reduce recidivism and take on similar initiatives. Other groups from both the left and right — the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Tax Reform, the Tea Party-­oriented FreedomWorks — are also part of the coalition, reflecting its unusually bipartisan approach.

The coalition will have initial backing of more than $5 million, with groups also spending independently on their own criminal justice initiatives.  Organizers of the advocacy campaign, which is to be announced on Thursday, consider it to be the largest national effort focused on the strained prison and justice system.  They also view the coalition as a way to show lawmakers in gridlocked Washington that factions with widely divergent views can find ways to work together and arrive at consensus policy solutions.  “We want to both do good policy work and try to improve the system, but also to send the message to politicians that we always ask you to work together, and we are going to lead the way,” said Denis Calabrese, the president of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, who helped organize the coalition.

For groups traditionally considered opponents, working together has required something of a leap of faith. But they say that they see an opening and are giving the new coalition three years to demonstrate results.

Though I never want to criticize the folks interested in serious criminal justice reform and advocacy, I am not sure what is really need right now is yet another coalition or group advocating in general for reform. What is really needed is people working really hard in the trenches to move courts and legislators who are now standing in the way of significant reforms. I sincerely believe with a lot less money and in a lot less time, empowering and aiding the work of the best folks in the trenches could and should get some serious reforms achieved in a lot less than three years.

February 19, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

AP report details that, functionally, California kills many more sex offenders than murderers

Formally, California sends many more murderers to its death row than any other state and it has more condemned capital prisoners than two dozen other US death penalty states combined.  But California has only managed to actually execute fourteen of those sentenced to die and nobody has been executed by the state in nearly a decade.  Meanwhile, as this new AP report details, over the last eight years, while California has not moved forward with an execution of a single condemned murderer, a total of 78 sex offenders have been slaughtered inside California's prisons.  Here are the basics:

California state prisoners are killed at a rate that is double the national average — and sex offenders ... account for a disproportionate number of victims, according to an Associated Press analysis of corrections records.

Male sex offenders made up about 15 percent of the prison population but accounted for nearly 30 percent of homicide victims, the AP found in cataloging all 78 killings that corrections officials reported since 2007, when they started releasing slain inmates' identities and crimes.

The deaths — 23 out of 78 — come despite the state's creation more than a decade ago of special housing units designed to protect the most vulnerable inmates, including sex offenders, often marked men behind bars because of the nature of their crimes.

In some cases, they have been killed among the general prison population and, in others, within the special units by violence-prone cellmates. Officials acknowledge that those units, which also house inmates trying to quit gangs, have spawned their own gangs.

Corrections officials blamed a rise in the prison homicide rate on an overhaul meant to reduce crowding. As part of the effort, the state in 2011 began keeping lower-level offenders in county lockups, leaving prisons with a higher percentage of sex offenders and violent gang members....

The problem is most acute with sex offenders. Last fall, the corrections department's inspector general reported that so many homicides occurred in the "increasingly violent" special housing units reserved for vulnerable inmates that the department could no longer assume that inmates there could peacefully co-exist. The report looked at 11 homicide cases that were closed in the first half of 2014 and found that 10 victims were sensitive-needs inmates. Using corrections records, the AP found that eight of them were sex offenders.

For a variety of reasons, most states have special facilities incorporated into their "death row," and condemned prisoners on death row are often eager to be well behaved in the hope of increasing their odds of getting out from under a death sentences eventually. Consequently, it can often be much safer for certain prisoners to be condemned and confined to death than to be in the general population. And this new AP report reinforces my sense that a serious California criminal likely would lead a more peaceful and safe life in prison if and when he murders and gets condemned to death than if he just commits a sex offense. (In addition to being a disturbing practical reality, these dynamics might perhaps prompt and incentivize a "rational rapist" in California to murder one or more his victims in order to ensure he can potentially avoid the dangers of the general prison population and live out his life peacefully pursuing appeal after appeal while safe and secure on death row.)

February 18, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"How to Talk About Sentencing Policy — and Not Disparity"

The title of this post is the title of this terrific new piece by Nancy Gertner just published by the Loyola University Chicago Law Journal.  I consider most everything Prof (and former Judge) Gertner writes about sentencing to be a must-read, and these passages from the start of the piece reinforce my sense that this new commentary is especially timely and important:

I want to talk about why I don’t want to discuss sentencing disparity, why this is an issue far, far less important than issues of sentencing fairness, of proportionality, of what works to address crime. Disparity-speak has sucked the air out of all interesting and meaningful discussion of criminal justice reform for the past several decades....

The mythology of rampant sentencing disparity without guidelines has driven American sentencing for decades. The problem is that you cannot build a rational sentencing regime if the only important question is this one: Am I doing the same thing in my courtroom that you are doing in yours, even if neither of us is imposing sentences that make sense, namely, that work to reduce crime? You cannot talk about disparity unless you understand the context—disparity in sentencing with respect to what? What purposes? What characteristics? Similarly situated with respect to what? The offense? The chances of deterrence? Amenability to treatment?...

To eliminate sentencing disparity, the United States Sentencing Commission and Congress chose to treat drug quantity the same across contexts, contexts that were very different. I want to talk about those contexts and the content of a just sentence. How do we deal with drug addiction? What is the punishment that makes sense? When is drug treatment appropriate in lieu of imprisonment? I want to talk about problem solving courts, reentry programs, and meaningful diversions. How can neuroscience help us craft treatment? What evidence based practices should we implement? What works?

And, above all, I want to talk about how to meaningfully undo the catastrophe of mass incarceration in this country, the catastrophe that we have created with our dual emphasis on eliminating disparity, and imprisonment as a cure all. It is a “one size fits all” approach, and that “size” has been ever more imprisonment. I want to talk about our uniformity-focused, criminal-record emphasis, incarceration-obsessed criminal justice policy.

February 17, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

AG Holder brags about achievements of DOJ's Smart on Crime initiative

The Department of Justice has just made available these two notable items:

I view both of these documents to be must-reads for any and all sentencing fans, and I will here highlight the data reported by AG Holder in his speech that strike me as most intriguing, as well as the AG's closing policy pitch:

In the year before our Smart on Crime charging policy took effect, roughly 64 percent of federally-charged drug trafficking offenses carried a mandatory minimum sentence. Last year, the new policy brought that number down to approximately 51 percent — a reduction of 20 percent relative to the prior year.  Put another way, we have gone from seeking a mandatory minimum penalty in two out of every three drug trafficking cases, to doing so in one out of two.  That’s a major reduction.  In fact, it is historic.  The Sentencing Commission confirms that these numbers show that federal prosecutors sought mandatory minimum penalties at a lower rate in 2014 than in any other year on record....

Even though mandatory minimums have been charged significantly less frequently under our new policies, the percentage of cases in which we receive substantial cooperation from defendants has remained exactly the same.  This also holds true of the ability of our prosecutors to secure guilty pleas in these cases. In the year before Smart on Crime took effect, our prosecutors won guilty pleas in approximately 97 percent of drug trafficking cases.  A year later, despite significant reductions in our uses of mandatory minimums, this percentage stands at 97.5.  So the notion that the Smart on Crime initiative has somehow robbed us of an essential tool is contradicted not only by our history – but by clear and objective facts....

The work we have done is nothing short of groundbreaking.  But this is no time to rest on our laurels. Significant challenges remain before us.  And a great deal of work remains to be done.

Our prisons are still overcrowded.  Across the country, far too many people remain trapped in cycles of poverty, criminality, and incarceration.  Unwarranted disparities are far too common. Law enforcement is distrusted in far too many places and cops are not appreciated for the tough job they do so well.  And if we hope to build on the record we’ve established so far — and to make the Smart on Crime initiative not only successful, but permanent — it will be incumbent upon all Americans — most especially our Congress — to work together to ensure that all of this is just the beginning. From critical improvements to the juvenile justice system, to a range of back-end criminal justice reforms, we must continue to advance promising, bipartisan legislation to make our communities safer, treat individuals more justly and allow more efficient use of law enforcement resources.

Our efforts over the last six years have laid a strong foundation for a new era of American justice. Congress can help us build on this foundation by passing important, bipartisan legislation like the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would give judges more discretion in determining sentences for people convicted of certain federal drug crimes. And going forward – with measures like this one, and with the tireless work of our United States Attorneys and their colleagues, the strong leadership of our outstanding new Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General, and the robust engagement of the American people – I believe there’s good reason for confidence in where this work will lead us.

February 17, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Would you urge out-going (and apparently corrupt) Oregon Gov Kitzhaber to commute all death sentences?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new commentary authored by Frank Thompson, a retired assistant director of institutions and superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary.  Here are excerpts:

I know what it is like to execute someone. I am a retired prison superintendent who conducted the only two executions that have taken place in Oregon in the past 53 years.

The death penalty in Oregon comes at a high cost to our state in both human and fiscal resources.  I call on Gov. Kitzhaber to convert 35 death sentences to life without the possibility of release before he leaves office at mid-morning on Wednesday.

Based on my experiences as a correctional professional, capital punishment is a failed public policy — especially in Oregon where we have funded a death penalty system for over 30 years, yet only put to death two inmates who volunteered themselves for execution by abandoning their appeals. No other corrections program exemplifies such a complete failure rate.

During my more than two decades of running correctional facilities, I saw the population of those who are capable of extreme violence up close. I have no doubts at all that these offenders did not think about the death penalty for one second before committing their violent acts. Instead, research has been shown that public safety is greatly improved when our limited tax dollars are redirected to law enforcement agencies to solve cases and prevent crimes.

I understand exactly what is being asked of public employees whose jobs include carrying out the lawful orders of the judiciary to end another person's life.  The burden weighs especially heavily on my conscience because I know firsthand that the death penalty is not applied fairly or equally in Oregon.  I have known hundreds of inmates who are guilty of similar crimes yet did not get the death penalty because they reached a plea bargain of life without parole simply because they had the means for professional legal assistance.

I also understand, from my experiences in corrections, the potential awful and lifelong repercussions that can come from participating in the execution of prisoners.  Living with the nightmares is something that some of us experience.  This is particularly the case with those of us who have had more hands-on experience with the flawed capital punishment process, and/or where an execution under our supervision did not go smoothly.

I am never troubled when people make a forceful argument that "capital punishment is a failed public policy."  But I find it troubling that this argument is being made now to a disgraced (apparently corrupt) out-going governor rather than to the new incoming governor and other public-policy officials who are going to be staying in their jobs and would need to deal with the administrative and political implications and consequences of their actions.

Notably, it is not just Oregonians urging out-going Gov Kitzhaber to clear the state's death row.  Professors Charles Ogletree and Rob Smith have this new Huffington Post commentary headlined "Gov. Kitzhaber: Your Job Is Not Yet Done." here is how it concludes:

Governor Kitzhaber declared a moratorium on the death penalty back in 2011. He labeled the State's practice of imposing death sentences "neither fair nor just" and concluded that a "compromised and inequitable" capital punishment system is not befitting of Oregon. Nothing has changed and nothing will: the death penalty in Oregon is too broken to fix.

In his resignation letter, Governor Kitzhaber told us that he was proud to not have presided over any executions. Yet, as Governor, he presided over a state that has sentenced people to death under the same unjust system that led him to impose the moratorium. The Governor has the power to leave the troubled history of this disreputable death penalty system in Oregon's rearview mirror; and doing so would enhance the integrity of the criminal justice system without compromising public safety.

Governor Kitzhaber: You lit the torch in 2011; and now, in these few remaining hours, please carry that torch across the finish line.

February 17, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

NY Times editorial laments "The Roadblock to Sentencing Reform" ... while creating another

This lengthy new New York Times editorial spotlights and laments that one powerful Senator now appears to be the main impediment to federal sentencing reform moving forward in Congress.  Here are excerpts:  

For more than a year, members of Congress have been doing a lot of talking about the need to broadly reform harsh federal sentencing laws, which are a central factor in the explosion of the federal prison population.  It’s an overdue conversation, and one of the few in which Democrats and Republicans find some agreement — but, so far, they have nothing to show for it.

In the last session, senators introduced three bipartisan bills.  Two proposed “front end” reforms, like reducing or eliminating ridiculously long mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes.  The other focused on “back end” fixes, like increasing opportunities for good-­time credit to allow certain prisoners early release.

None of the bills got anywhere, but it was encouraging to see all three reintroduced in the new Republican­-led Senate. At least it was until they ran into a roadblock in the shape of Senator Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa.  Mr. Grassley, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, wields great power over any sentencing legislation....

Mr. Grassley, for reasons that defy basic fairness and empirical data, has remained an opponent of almost any reduction of those sentences.  In a speech from the Senate floor this month, he called the bills “lenient and, frankly, dangerous,” and he raised the specter of high-­level drug traffickers spilling onto the streets.

Mr. Grassley is as mistaken as he is powerful.  Mandatory minimums have, in fact, been used to punish many lower­-level offenders who were not their intended targets. Meanwhile, the persistent fantasy that locking up more people leads to less crime continues to be debunked.  States from California to New York to Texas have reduced prison populations and crime rates at the same time. A report released last week by the Brennan Center for Justice found that since 2000 putting more people behind bars has had essentially no effect on the national crime rate.

The bill that appears to have the best chance of passing anytime soon is known as the Corrections Act — that’s actually a sprawling acronym for Corrections Oversight, Recidivism Reduction, and Eliminating Costs for Taxpayers in Our National System. Co­sponsored by Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, the bill’s name is more ambitious than its goals, which include giving a narrow group of inmates the chance to participate in educational and other programs in exchange for earlier release. (The bill authorizes no financing for these programs, relying instead on, among other things, the volunteer efforts of faith­-based groups.)

Rehabilitation is a laudable aim, and it should be a part of any sentencing reform package. But the Cornyn-­Whitehouse bill would exclude nearly half of all federal prisoners — in many cases without any evidence that they pose a greater risk to public safety.

The bill also relies on an inmate’s criminal history.  This is a legitimate measure when it is used with the awareness that law enforcement disproportionately targets minorities. The danger is that white-­collar prisoners, who are most often white, will receive the law’s benefits, while, say, drug offenders, who are disproportionately African­-American, will be left out.

Finally, the bill pushes the use of data­-based risk­-assessment tools, which sound smart but again — because they rely on factors like a person’s employment history, neighborhood and education level — often have racially disproportionate effects....

Sentencing reform is a big and complicated issue, and may take some time to get right.  It would be a mistake to pass an incomplete bill and pretend that the hard work of reform is done.

Though I obviously laud the New York Times editorial board for complaining about a "roadblock" to reform created by Senator Grassley, I am troubled that this editorial goes on to create some more hurdles of its own through its (somewhat chaotic) criticisms of the Corrections Act. Every possible sentencing reform bill is sure to be an "incomplete bill" from somebody's perspective, but that should never serve alone as a reason to stall any needed reforms. The Fair Sentencing Act passed in 2010 was incomplete for only partially reducing the crack/powder disparity and for failing to make its reforms retroactive. But that reform still achieved a lot even though it did not achieve enough. Same goes, in my opinion, for all the sentencing reform bills now making the rounds.

Moreover, as a matter of substance, this editorial hammers Senator Grassley for defiance of empirical data, but that assails the Corrections Act for incorporating "data­-based risk­-assessment tools" and criminal history in its structures for back-end reform.  I fear the NYT editorial board wants policy-makers to be concerned only with the public safety data that it likes and to ignore the public-safety data that might undermine the Grey Lady's own mysterious sense of "fairness."  In this way, this editorial provides still more support for roadblocks to reform because any and everyone concerned about any part of the reform bills are encouraged to let their vision of the best reforms serve as an enemy and hurdle for any and all good and needed reforms.  

February 17, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, February 16, 2015

Notable new commentary on the notable work of the Colson Task Force

ImagesA helpful reader shared with me this notable commentary authored by Jim Liske, who is CEO of Prison Fellowship and is serving on the Charles Colson Federal Corrections Task Force. The FoxNews piece is headlined "Colson Task Force offers chance for Restorative Justice," and here are excerpts:

I am honored to serve on the new Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, which met for the first time in late January. Named for my organization’s founder, the Task Force is a bipartisan, nine-member panel chaired by J.C. Watts, that will address long-existing challenges in federal corrections and make data-driven recommendations to make the system more effective and just—for the sake of prisoners and our communities alike....

In the last several years, individual states have already begun to pursue prison reform that hold offenders accountable and yet give them hope for restoring their lives once they’ve served their time. Hawaii has seen success through its HOPE program, which guarantees “swift and sure sanctions” for those who violate the terms of their probation. This accountability-intensive approach, which affirms offenders’ potential by expecting them to do better, has been so effective, it’s being copied in courtrooms nationwide. Some states are increasing their use of earned-time credits, which allow people to earn the right to rejoin the community earlier by using their time productively, and still others are reducing sentences for non-violent offenses.

Reforms like these offer hope for evidence-based, cost-effective changes the Task Force will examine. But we can go a step farther. The time is right for prison reforms that aren’t just evidence-based, but values-based, reflecting our beliefs in the God-given dignity, value, and potential of every human being. Justice can be restorative when we make sure that the opportunity for both accountability and redemption are balanced at the core of our criminal justice system.

Why should justice be restorative? At its heart, crime isn’t about law-breaking; it’s about violating the peace and wholeness of the entire community. Public safety may require that we lock someone up, but that alone will not heal victims or the community or change the conditions that help breed crime. When the responsible party has the opportunity for redemption and restoration — by making amends to his victims, changing his thinking, and earning back the public’s trust by living a law-abiding, constructive life upon release—the community can find healing and move beyond the vicious cycle of crime and incarceration....

The Charles Colson Task Force is an important first step that honors the legacy of a visionary leader, but the challenges facing our criminal justice system cannot be solved by this group alone. It’s time for everyone with a stake in criminal justice and public safety—which is all of us—to call for reforms that elevate and prioritize victims’ voices, provide genuine opportunities for prisoners’ moral rehabilitation, and engage the entire community in breaking the cycle of crime.

We all need to speak up to create the kind of restorative society, based on the dignity and value of every life, that each of us wants to call home.

Prior related post:

February 16, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, February 13, 2015

"Pick a stat, any stat. They all tell you the same thing: America is really good at putting people behind bars."

The title of this post is a line from the start of this detailed analysis of incarceration rates and crime by Oliver Roeder, a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight. The piece merits a full read, and here are excerpts from the start and end of the piece: 

There are 2.3 million Americans in prison or jail. The U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners. One in three black men can expect to spend time in prison. There are 2.7 million minors with an incarcerated parent. The imprisonment rate has grown by more than 400 percent since 1970.

It’s supposed to help the country reduce crime in two ways: incapacitation — it’s hard to be a habitual offender while in prison — or deterrence — people scared of prison may do their best to not end up there. But recent research suggests that incarceration has lost its potency. A report released this week from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law finds that increased incarceration has had a very limited effect on crime over the past two and a half decades. At incarceration’s current elevated levels, the effect of more incarceration on crime is not statistically different than zero. It’s no longer working....

[C]rime trends are complicated. Surely no one is complaining about the recent decline, but no one fully understands it either. One thing is becoming clear: Increased incarceration’s role was minimal.

Recent related post:

February 13, 2015 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 12, 2015

New Brennan Center report asks "What Caused the Crime Decline?"

What_Caused_the_Crime_Decline_CoverThis press release highlights the publication of this important new report by the Brennan Center for Justice titled "What Caused the Crime Decline?".  This report looks like a must-read for all advocates (and opponents) of modern sentencing reform, and here are excerpts of the summary appearing in the press release:

Since 1990, increased incarceration had a limited impact on reducing crime nationwide, concludes a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.  In What Caused the Crime Decline?, a team of economic and criminal justice researchers examine over 40 years of data, gathered from 50 states and the 50 largest cities. Among the report’s new findings:

Incarceration: Increased incarceration had some effect, likely in the range of 0 to 10 percent, on reducing crime in the 1990s. Since 2000, however, increased incarceration had a negligible effect on crime.

State Success: A number of states, including California, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Texas, have successfully reduced their prison populations while crime continues to fall.

Other Factors: Increased numbers of police officers, some data-driven policing techniques, changes in income, decreased alcohol consumption, and an aging population played a role in the crime decline. In particular, the report finds CompStat is associated with a 5 to 15 percent decrease in crime. The report also includes new information on the effects of unemployment, the death penalty, and other theories on crime.

During the 25 years since 1990, incarceration rates have exploded — almost doubling in size — and added about 1.1 million additional people behind bars.  During that same time, crime rates have been cut almost in half. Using an economic model that accounts for the diminishing returns of extremely high levels of incarceration and includes the latest 13 years of data, the report bolsters past research suggesting increased incarceration had little impact on crime rates, but finds an even smaller impact on crime.

“Some have argued that despite the immense social and economic costs of America’s mass incarceration system, it has succeeded at reducing crime,” said report co-author Dr. Oliver Roeder.  “The data tells a different story: if reducing crime is the end goal of our criminal justice system, increased incarceration is a poor investment.”

“This report amplifies what many on the left and the right have come to realize in recent years: mass incarceration is not working. It simply isn’t necessary to reduce crime,” said Inimai Chettiar, director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program and author of the executive summary.  “The prison explosion has been very expensive.  A better use of public resources would be improving economic opportunities, supporting 21st century policing practices, and expanding treatment and rehabilitation programs, all of which have proven records of reducing crime without incarceration’s high costs.”

“This groundbreaking empirical analysis from the Brennan Center shows that, on examination, the easy answers do not explain incarceration’s effect on crime,” wrote Dr. Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics and University Professor at Columbia University, in the foreword.  “This report presents a rigorous and sophisticated empirical analysis performed on the most recent, comprehensive dataset to date.”

February 12, 2015 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, February 09, 2015

"In praise of the firing squad"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Washington Post commentary by Radley Balko. Here are excerpts:

[F]rankly, if we insist on executing people, the firing squad may be the best option. Before I explain why, I’ll first disclose that I’m opposed to the death penalty, and I have no doubt that my opposition to state-sanctioned killing influences my opinions on which method of execution we ought to use.  So read the rest of this post with that in mind.

If you support the death penalty, the most obvious benefit of the firing squad is that unlike lethal injection drugs, correctional institutions are never going to run out of bullets. And if they do, more bullets won’t be very difficult to find. Ammunition companies aren’t susceptible to pressure from anti-death penalty activists, at least not to the degree a pharmaceutical company might be.  This would actually remove a barrier to more efficient executions. As someone who would like to see executions eliminated entirely, I don’t personally see this as a benefit.  But death penalty supporters might. And there are other benefits to the firing squad, benefits that I think people on both sides of the issue can appreciate.

Traditional lethal injection is more humane if you consider the humanity of the procedure from the perspective of everyone except the person being executed. There is now a storm of controversy about the procedure because those botched executions last year produced some really gruesome images, which were then relayed to the public by witnesses. Had the condemned men in Oklahoma, Ohio and Arizona suffered the same pain and agony, but under the cloak of a more thorough paralytic, we probably wouldn’t be having this discussion. We consider a method of execution humane if it doesn’t make us uncomfortable to hear or read about it. What the condemned actually experience during the procedure is largely irrelevant. The lethal injection likely became the most common form of execution in the United States because it makes a state killing resemble a medical procedure. Not only doesn’t it weird us out, it’s almost comforting.

By contrast, the firing squad is violent and archaic, and judging by the reaction to the bills in Utah and Wyoming, it most certainly does weird a lot of people out. And yet in only the way that should matter, the firing squad is likely more humane than the lethal injection....

This sets up a final argument in favor of the firing squad: There is no mistaking what it is. There are no IVs, needles, cotton swabs or other accoutrements more commonly associated with healing. When we hear about an execution on the news, we won’t hear about an inmate slowly drifting off to sleep. We’ll hear about guns and bullets. Killing is an act of violence. That’s what witnesses will see, and that’s what the reports will tell us has happened. If we’re going to permit the government to kill on our behalf, we should own what we’re doing.

This is where a critic might argue that as a death penalty opponent, I’m merely arguing for the method of execution that I think is most likely to turn people off to the death penalty.  I’ll be honest: I hope that’s what will happen. I hope that when confronted with a method of execution that’s less opaque about what’s actually transpiring, more of us will come to realize that we no longer need capital punishment.  But I’m not particularly optimistic that will happen. I suspect that there’s a strong segment of the public (and probably a majority) that will support the death penalty no matter how we carry out executions.

Regardless of its impact on the death penalty debate, if we must continue to execute people, the firing squad has a lot to offer.  It isn’t just the most humane form of execution now realistically under consideration, it is the most humane from the correct perspective — the experience of the condemned.  It brings no concerns about the supply of execution materials.  It raises no issues about medical ethics — it doesn’t blur the lines between healing and hurting.  It’s honest.  It’s transparent.  And it is appropriately violent.

February 9, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, February 08, 2015

"Just Violence"

The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing new paper by Alice Ristroph now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Ethical reflections on war — and the positive laws these reflections have inspired — have framed their undertaking as the effort to limit and regulate state violence. Ethical reflections on punishment have not been framed in the same way, but they should be.

Three characteristics of the philosophy (and laws) of war prove especially instructive for the philosophy (and laws) of punishment.  First, the ethics of war is an ethics of violence: it acknowledges and addresses the gritty and often brutal realities of actual armed conflict.  Punishment theory too often denies the violence of punishment or otherwise neglects the realities of penal practices. Second, philosophers of war tend to keep the usual agent of war’s violence — the state — squarely in view, whereas punishment theory tends to focus on the target of punishment rather than its agent.  Third, and most importantly, commentators on the ethics of war have come to realize that the humanitarian project of limiting violence is a different and more difficult task than the project of justifying violence. This insight has produced the jus in bello: a set of principles aimed at limiting the violence of war without adopting a view of the war’s justification.

Punishment theory has long been focused on the project of justifying punishment, but this Article sketches the contours of a jus in poena: philosophical and legal principles designed to regulate the conduct of punishment without adopting any particular theoretical justification for punishment.

February 8, 2015 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Ohio Gov John Kasich advocating significant resources devoted to addiction services for prisoners

As reported in this local article, headlined "Addiction programs for incarcerated included state budget," Ohio's GOP Governor John Kasich is now showing through his latest budget proposal that he remains deeply committed to "smart on crime" sentencing and prison reforms. Here are the details:

Eight of 10 people come to Ohio prisons with a history of abusing drugs and alcohol.  Most leave without treatment or a recovery plan, with predictable results. On the outside, they return to old addictive habits that often trigger criminal behavior.

Gov. John Kasich’s proposed state budget calls for a $61.7 million collaboration by two agencies to treat offenders both behind bars and once they are released. “This is not tinkering with recovery programs. This is going to be a remarkable leap forward, addressing a large group of people coming to our prisons who in many cases aren’t being served at all,” said Gary Mohr, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

The big-picture goal is to help ex-offenders succeed outside prison and, in the long run, to cut prison costs charged to taxpayers. Statistics show that about 10 percent of inmates who get alcohol and drug treatment later return to prison, compared with about 27 percent of those who don’t get treatment.

The change pushed by Kasich would shift responsibility for inmate-recovery services from Rehabilitation and Correction to the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. It involves moving 120 people who work for prisons to the mental-health agency budget at a cost of $12.5 million annually. They will, however, continue working in the same jobs.

Prison officials estimate that about 4,500 of the roughly 30,000 inmates with moderate to severe addiction problems are getting recovery services. Officials from the two agencies won’t predict how many more inmates will be treated until the program is in place, but Stuart Hudson, prison chief of medical services, said it will be a “substantial increase.”...

Mental-health director Tracy Plouck said much of the $61.7 million, beyond the $25 million to absorb the DRC staff, will go for community recovery services once inmates return home.

Prison officials have struggled for years with an influx of inmates who commit nonviolent crimes, many of them related to their addictions.  For about 20 percent of new prisoners, a drug charge is their most serious offense.  Many are in and out of prison so quickly there isn’t time or resources to get them involved in recovery programs, Mohr said.

“We’re not reaching enough people and we’re not reaching them early enough,” Mohr said. “Ohioans are paying $22,500 a year for each prisoner, and we should be doing more than warehousing them. We are committed to helping people improve their lives.” Ohio’s recidivism rate of 27.1 percent is far better than the national average of over 40 percent.

February 7, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, February 06, 2015

Bipartisan Recidivism Risk Reduction Act introduced in US House

This notable press release from the office of Representative Jason Chaffetz provides the details of a federal prison reform bill that would be extremely consequential if it can get enacted. Here are excerpts from the release providing basic details about the bill:

Republicans Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Trey Gowdy (R-SC) joined with Democrats Cedric Richmond (D-LA) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) to introduce H.R. 759, Recidivism Risk Reduction Act. This bipartisan legislation uses risk assessment tools to reduce recidivism, lower the crime rate, and reduces the amount of money spent on the federal prison system....

H.R. 759 would implement a post-sentencing dynamic risk assessment system to identify an inmate’s risk of recidivism. Then, using evidence-based practices developed by states, effective recidivism reduction programs are identified and utilized. The bill would then provide incentives for inmates to participate in those programs.

Ultimately, inmates could earn credits toward an alternative custody arrangement – such as a halfway house or home confinement – at the end of their term. Such arrangements reduce the cost of housing an inmate in the federal prison system.

The program will be phased in over a five year period. The savings will be reinvested into further expansions of proven recidivism reduction programs during this time. After that, it is anticipated that the savings can be used either for other Justice Department priorities such as FBI agents, US Attorney offices etc., or the savings can be used to help reduce the deficit. Similar programs have found success on a state level in several states including Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio, and North Carolina.

In addition, Reps. Chaffetz and Jefferies introduced HR 760, the Bureau of Corrections Renaming Act. This bipartisan legislation would simply rename the “Bureau of Prisons” – under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice – the “Bureau of Corrections.” Over ninety percent of all federal prisoners will eventually be released. This small change will help the Bureau remember that its mission is not just to house people, but also to rehabilitate prisoners such that they are productive members of society when released. Forty-eight states throughout the country use the word ‘corrections’ in describing their prisons.

The Attorney General is directed to consult with appropriate federal agencies and stakeholders to design, develop, implement, and regularly upgrade an actuarial Post Sentencing Risk Assessment System which shall include one or more comprehensive risk and needs assessment tools, which shall be peer-reviewed and validated, and periodically re-validated, on the federal prison population for the specific purposes of this Act.

Prisoners will be divided into high, moderate, or low risks of recidivism. Prisoners will be periodically re-evaluated and have the opportunity to progress to low risk of recidivism. Prisoners who misbehave can move the other way – i.e. from low to moderate risk of recidivism. Bureau of Prisons shall incentivize prisoners to reduce their individual risk of recidivism by participating in and completing recidivism reduction programs.

Prisoners who have committed more serious crimes such as child abuse, terrorism, and violent felonies, are not eligible for the program.

If a prisoner is successfully participating in and/or completing programs, holding a prison job, participating in educational courses, participating in faith-based services and courses, or delivering programs or faith-based services and courses to other prisoners, the prisoner can earn [certain credits based on their risk levels]. Low risk prisoners will be eligible for consideration for alternative custody such as halfway houses, home confinement, ankle bracelets, etc.

This is not automatic – it must be reviewed and approved by the prison warden, the chief probation officer in the relevant federal district, and a judge in the relevant federal district.

This is not a reduction in sentence – prisoners are not being released and nothing in this Act affects Truth in Sentencing requirements that prisoners complete at least 85% of their sentence.

Some recent related posts:

UPDATE:  Not to be overlooked (even though I managed to overlook it), this past week also saw another notable bipartisan federal bill of not introduced in both houses of Congress.  This press release from the office of Senator Rand Paul provides the basics:

Today, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Representative Thomas Massie (R-KY), and Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced the Justice Safety Valve Act (S. 353/H.R. 706) in the Senate and House of Representatives.  The Justice Safety Valve Act would give federal judges the ability to impose sentences below mandatory minimums in appropriate cases based upon mitigating factors.

February 6, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 05, 2015

"Could 2015 be the year Congress finally gets serious about criminal-justice reform?"

The title of this post is the subheading of this new Mother Jones piece which carries this main headline: "On These 5 Things, Republicans Actually Might Work With Dems to Do Something Worthwhile." Here are highlights (mostly) from the start and end of the piece:

Recently, bipartisan momentum has been building behind an issue that has historically languished in Congress: criminal-justice reform. Recent Capitol Hill briefings have drawn lawmakers and activists from across the political spectrum—from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to Koch Industries general counsel Mark Holden, whose boss, conservative megadonor Charles Koch, has made reform a key philanthropic priority.

The emergence of this unlikely coalition has been building for some time: Liberals have long been critical of the criminal-justice status quo, and many "tough on crime" conservatives — growing concerned by the staggering costs of mass incarceration and the system's impingement on liberty — are beginning to join their liberal and libertarian-minded colleagues. In the past, bills aimed at overhauling the criminal-justice system have stagnated on Capitol Hill, but the bipartisan players who are coming together to push for change means that there are some reforms that could realistically gain traction, even in this divided Congress....

Earned-time credits....

Easing up mandatory minimums....

Juvenile-justice reform....

Reducing recidivism....

Sealing and expunging records....

Despite the bipartisan efforts, many experts still believe that there are plenty of issues that could pose serious obstacles to compromise. Beyond the disagreement on mandatory minimums, there's potential conflict on the role of for-profit prisons, which conservatives praise and Democrats like Booker loathe. Additionally, support for loosening drug penalties — particularly for marijuana — is growing broadly popular, but powerful Republicans remain vocal opponents....

There is one especially powerful force pushing along reform: The federal government is expected to spend nearly $7 billion on prisons this year, and conservatives in charge of Congress will be under pressure to bring down costs. "With every Congress, I'm hopeful for reform," Hurst says. "But this Congress' argument is based on money, not humanity, which is why it's more realistic that it'd happen."

February 5, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

You be the judge: what federal sentence for Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht?

Ross-ulbricht-600x450This Wired article provides the basic story on a notable modern federal defendant who, thanks to a jury verdict yesterday, is now a high-profile convicted felon awaiting sentencing:

A jury has spoken, and the mask is off: Ross Ulbricht has been convicted of being the Dread Pirate Roberts, secret mastermind of the Silk Road online narcotics empire.

On Wednesday, less than a month after his trial began in a downtown Manhattan courtroom, 30-year-old Ulbricht was convicted of all seven crimes he was charged with, including narcotics and money laundering conspiracies and a “kingpin” charge usually reserved for mafia dons and drug cartel leaders.  It took the jury only 3.5 hours to return a verdict.  Ulbricht faces a minimum of 30 years in prison; the maximum is life.  But Ulbricht’s legal team has said it will appeal the decision, and cited its frequent calls for a mistrial and protests against the judge’s decisions throughout the case.

As the verdict was read, Ulbricht stared straight ahead. His mother Lyn Ulbricht slowly shook her head, and his father Kirk put a hand to his temple. After the verdict, Ulbricht turned around to give his family a stoic smile.  “This is not the end,” Ulbricht’s mother said loudly as he was led out of the courtroom. “Ross is a hero!” shouted a supporter.

From his first pre-trial hearings in New York, the government’s evidence that Ulbricht ran the Silk Road’s billion-dollar marketplace under the pseudonym the Dread Pirate Roberts was practically overwhelming.  When the FBI arrested Ulbricht in the science fiction section of a San Francisco public library in October of 2013, his fingers were literally on the keyboard of his laptop, logged into the Silk Road’s “mastermind” account.  On his seized laptop’s hard drive, investigators quickly found a journal, daily logbook, and thousands of pages of private chat logs that chronicled his years of planning, creating and day-to-day running of the Silk Road. That red-handed evidence was bolstered by a college friend of Ulbricht’s who testified at trial that the young Texan had confessed creating the Silk Road to him. On top of that, notes found crumpled in his bedroom’s trashcan connected to the Silk Road’s code.  Ulbricht’s guilty verdict was even further locked down by a former FBI agent’s analysis that traced $13.4 million worth of the black market’s bitcoins from the Silk Road’s servers in Iceland and Pennsylvania to the bitcoin wallet on Ulbricht laptop.

Ulbricht’s defense team quickly admitted at trial that Ulbricht had created the Silk Road. But his attorneys argued that it had been merely an “economic experiment,” one that he quickly gave up to other individuals who grew the site into the massive drug empire the Silk Road represented at its peak in late 2013.  Those purported operators of the site, including the “real” Dread Pirate Roberts, they argued, had framed Ulbricht as the “perfect fall guy.”...

But that dramatic alternative theory was never backed up with a credible explanation of the damning evidence found on Ulbricht’s personal computer.  The defense was left to argue that Ulbricht’s laptop had been hacked, and voluminous incriminating files injected into the computer — perhaps via a Bittorrent connection he was using to download an episode of the Colbert Report at the time of his arrest.  In their closing arguments, prosecutors called that story a “wild conspiracy theory” and a “desperate attempt to create a smokescreen.” It seems the jury agreed.

Despite the case’s grim outcome for Ulbricht, his defense team seemed throughout the trial to be laying the grounds for an appeal.  His lead attorney Joshua Dratel called for a mistrial no less than five times, and was rejected by the judge each time. Dratel’s protests began with pre-trial motions to preclude a large portion of the prosecution’s evidence based on what he described as an illegal, warrantless hack of the Silk Road’s Icelandic server by FBI investigators seeking to locate the computer despite its use of the Tor anonymity software. As the trial began, Dratel butted heads with the prosecution and judge again on the issue of cross-examining a Department of Homeland Security witness on the agency’s alternative suspects in the case, including bitcoin mogul and Mt. Gox CEO Mark Karpeles. And in the last days of the trial, Dratel strongly objected again to a decision by the judge to disallow two of the defense’s expert witnesses based on a lack of qualifications....

Ulbricht will nonetheless be remembered not just for his conviction, but also for ushering in a new age of online black markets.  Today’s leading dark web drug sites like Agora and Evolution offer more narcotics listings than the Silk Road ever did, and have outlived law enforcement’s crackdown on their competitors. Tracking down and prosecuting those new sites’ operators, like prosecuting Ulbricht, will likely require the same intense, multi-year investigations by three-letter agencies.

Though I am not familiar with all the likely sentencing particulars, I would expect a guidelines calculation in this case to be life and that prosecutors will urge a guideline-recommended LWOP sentence. The defense surely will seek the minimum sentence, which in this case is the not-so-minimum 30 years in the federal greybar hotel.

In addition to pursuing their appeal, Ulbricht's defense team might reach out to Brian Doherty at Reason, who has this provocative commentary headlined "Silk Road: Ross Ulbricht's Loss is a Loss for Justice, Liberty, Safety, and Peace: The operation Ulbricht was found guilty of managing was one guaranteed to save lives, reduce real crime, and preserve liberty." Here are excerpts:

[T]he government's multi-year, incredibly expensive attempt to take down the site and prosecute Ulbricht were bad for liberty, bad for markets, bad for the safety of those who choose to use substances the government has declared forbidden, and bad for America....

Ulbricht, if he's guilty of what they tried him for, is guilty of nothing but trying, and for a while succeeding, in doing a good thing for his fellow citizens, the world, and the future. His case will be remembered not as one of stalwart cops saving the world from dangerous crime, but of a visionary martyr punished for the good he did.

The combination of cryptography and Bitcoin are out of the bottle, and what it ultimately means is that the war on drugs is even more hopeless than it always was. But the government seems to never run out of candidates to be the last person to be a victim of that war, a victim of that mistake. May Ulbricht be among the last.

February 5, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Highlighting (already extraordinary) costs of seeking to put Aurora killer on death row

This lengthy new Yahoo News article, headlined "Cost of Colorado theater shooting case exceeds $5 million months before opening arguments," details how much Colorado taxpayers are paying for prosecutors' efforts to get James Holmes on death row. Here are some of the details:

The criminal court case against Colorado theater gunman James Holmes has already absorbed at least $5.5 million in public monies, according to records obtained by Yahoo News. That’s $2 million more than the estimated average cost of a completed Colorado death penalty trial — and the contentious Holmes proceeding is still months away from opening arguments....

Holmes first appeared in court on July 23, 2012, three days after police say he assailed a packed suburban Denver movie theater, killing 12 people and injuring 70, as they were watching a midnight showing of the Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises.” In the two and a half years since that initial court appearance, primary personnel involved with the case — prosecutors, defense attorneys, the judge, court reporter, trial investigators and victims’ advocates for the district attorney — have been paid approximately $4.5 million.

A spokeswoman for the Arapahoe County district attorney said only one prosecutor has been dedicated to the Holmes case full time. But legal observers say a proceeding already involving nearly 1,700 motions, orders and hearings — with possibly hundreds of witnesses expected to testify at trial — would require the undivided attention of a team of lawyers.

Other top expenses so far include $463,000 on additional security from July 2012 through the end of 2014. Experts hired by the prosecution have received more than $220,000 to date. More than $90,000 was used to install a closed-circuit television system in the courtroom. It cost $20,000 to print 9,000 juror notices and questionnaires....

Holmes has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity — his lawyers say he was in the throes of a psychotic episode at the time. Twice the judge has ordered him to be transferred to a state hospital for testing to determine if he was mentally capable of understanding the crime he committed. A court spokesman said invoices for the exams have not been received....

Holmes offered to forfeit the costly trial in March 2013 for life in prison without parole if he could avoid the death penalty. Prosecutors, however, strongly rejected any notion of a pending deal, saying the defense had refused to give them the information they wanted to evaluate the plea agreement.

“It is my determination and my intention that in this case, for James Eagan Holmes, justice is death,” Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler said in court.

Holmes is charged with 166 counts of first-degree murder, attempted murder and weapons charges. Opening arguments through sentencing could last four to six months — which itself will cost the court $137,000 to $205,000 in juror pay (the 24, including alternates, earn $50 a day)....

As for Holmes, his heavily redacted application for a public defender was approved the same day as the massacre. It was signed by Daniel King, one of his lead attorneys, who currently earns $165,756 and may be eligible for a raise just as the trial gets going. Under state law, Holmes could be ordered to pay a $25 processing fee after the verdict.

February 5, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack