Wednesday, November 26, 2014
Senator Rand Paul links Ferguson tragedy to harms of the modern drug war
Regular readers know I am always interested in Senator Rand Paul's distinctive perspective on criminal justice issues. This new Time op-ed, headlined "The Politicians Are To Blame in Ferguson," has Senator Paul touching on broader themes as he connects recent events in Ferguson with his belief in the need for systemic reforms to the US criminal justice system. Here are excerpts:
We are witnessing a tragedy in Ferguson. This city in Missouri has become a focal point for so much. The President and the late Michael Brown’s family have called for peace. I join their calls for peaceful protest, but also reiterate their call to action — “channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change.”
In the search for culpability for the tragedy in Ferguson, I mostly blame politicians. Michael Brown’s death and the suffocation of Eric Garner in New York for selling untaxed cigarettes indicate something is wrong with criminal justice in America. The War on Drugs has created a culture of violence and put police in a nearly impossible situation.
In Ferguson, the precipitating crime was not drugs, but theft. But the War on Drugs has created a tension in some communities that too often results in tragedy. One need only witness the baby in Georgia, who had a concussive grenade explode in her face during a late-night, no-knock drug raid (in which no drugs were found) to understand the feelings of many minorities — the feeling that they are being unfairly targeted.
Three out of four people in jail for drugs are people of color. In the African American community, folks rightly ask why are our sons disproportionately incarcerated, killed, and maimed?
African Americans perceive as true that their kids are more likely to be killed. ProPublica examined 33 years of FBI data on police shootings, accounted for the racial make-up of the country, and determined that: “Young black males in recent years were at a far greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts — 21 times greater.”
Can some of the disparity be blamed on a higher rate of crime in the black community? Yes, but there is a gnawing feeling that simply being black in a high-crime area increases your risk for a deadly altercation with police.
Does bad behavior account for some of the interactions with law enforcement? Yes, but surely there must be ways that we can work to prevent the violence from escalating....
Reforming criminal justice to make it racially blind is imperative, but that won’t lift up these young men from poverty. In fact, I don’t believe any law will. For too long, we’ve attached some mythic notion to government solutions and yet, 40 years after we began the War on Poverty, poverty still abounds.,,,
This message is not a racial one. The link between poverty, lack of education, and children outside of marriage is staggering and cuts across all racial groups. Statistics uniformly show that waiting to have children in marriage and obtaining an education are an invaluable part of escaping poverty....
I will continue to fight to end the racial disparities in drug sentencing. I will continue to fight lengthy, mandatory sentences that prevent judges from using discretion. I will continue to fight to restore voting rights for non-violent felons who’ve served their sentences. But my hope is that out of tragedy, a preacher or teacher will arise — one who motivates and inspires all of us to discover traits, ambitions, and moral codes that have slowly eroded and left us empty with despair.
I will continue the fight to reform our nation’s criminal justice system, but in the meantime, the call should go out for a charismatic leader, not a politician, to preach a gospel of hope and prosperity. I have said often America is in need of a revival. Part of that is spiritual. Part of that is in civics, in our leaders, in our institutions. We must look at policies, ideas, and attitudes that have failed us and we must demand better.
Tuesday, November 25, 2014
"Did Marijuana Kill Michael Brown?"
The title of this post is the headline of this provocative and interesting new piece by Jacob Sullum now up at Reason. Here is how the piece starts and ends:
In a radio interview on August 18, a self-identified friend of Darren Wilson's reported that the police officer suspected Michael Brown was under the influence of drugs the day Wilson shot him to death in Ferguson, Missouri. "He really thinks he was on something," the friend said, "because he just kept coming." Wilson made no mention of that theory during his grand jury testimony on September 16, although he did liken Brown to a "demon" and Hulk Hogan, descriptions reminiscent of the evil and strength sometimes attributed to illegal drugs.
One challenge for anyone pushing a pharmacological explanation of Brown's alleged behavior: Despite speculation that he was on PCP, marijuana is the only drug that was detected in his blood. Kathi Alizadeh and Sheila Whirley, the assistant county prosecutors who presented evidence to the grand jury, did what they could with pot, raising the possibility that Brown had smoked enough to experience "paranoia," "hallucinations," and maybe even a "psychotic episode." They planted that idea in jurors' heads mainly by presenting a toxicologist's misleading testimony about the amount of THC in Brown's blood and the possible effects of large doses....
The prosecutors spent considerable time insinuating that Brown had consumed cannabis in the form of the concentrate known as "wax," even though there does not seem to be any evidence that he did and even though it would not matter if he had. If the issue is Brown's level of intoxication, the amount of material he burned to achieve it is irrelevant. The testimony about wax looks like an attempt to exoticize a familiar drug that people do not usually associate with demonic rage or Hulk-like strength.
Then again, marijuana my be exotic enough as far as the prosecutors are concerned. "You explained that the Delta-9-THC has a psychoanalytic effect?" Alizadeh said at one point. "Psychoactive," the toxicologist corrected her. Later Whirley asked, "Could this amount of THC that was found in the blood be — is it possible that someone [could be] ingesting that amount on a regular basis and not be dead?" The toxicologist explained that "marijuana really isn't lethal." Unless you smoke it before getting stopped by a cop, I guess.
Rounding up some blogsphere reactions to events in Ferguson
In part because it is not a sentencing story, I have not had much to say about all the high-profile events in Ferguson, Missouri in recent months. But, not surprisingly, a number of other notable criminal law bloggers have shared some thoughts on the no-indictment news and reactions thereto last night. Here are some of the posts I have seen from bloggers I check out regularly (listed in alphabetical order):
From Paul Cassell, "The Michael Brown grand jury process was fair
From Jeff Gamso, "Close Your Eyes and Pretend Really Hard"
From Scott Greenfield, "The Ferguson Lie"
From Richard Kopf, "Two questions for Jeff Gamso, Scott Greenfield and others with like experience
From Jeralyn Merritt, "Ferguson G. J. Decision : No Indictment, Violence Erupts"
From Bill Otis, "No Indictment in Ferguson, and the Reaction
From Kent Scheidegger, "Perceptions and Realities of Injustice
Thursday, November 20, 2014
"The Racist Origins of Felon Disenfranchisement"
The title of this post is the headline of this recent New York Times commentary by Brent Staples. Here are excerpts:
The state laws that barred nearly six million people with felony convictions from voting in the midterm elections this month date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Southern lawmakers were working feverishly to neutralize the black electorate. Poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses and cross burnings were effective weapons in this campaign. But statutes that allowed correctional systems to arbitrarily and permanently strip large numbers of people of the right to vote were a particularly potent tool in the campaign to undercut African-American political power.
This racially freighted system has normalized disenfranchisement in the United States — at a time when our peers in the democratic world rightly see it as an aberration. It has also stripped one in every 13 black persons of the right to vote — a rate four times that of nonblacks nationally. At the same time, it has allowed disenfranchisement to move beyond that black population — which makes up 38 percent of those denied the vote — into the body politic as a whole. One lesson here is that punishments designed for one pariah group can be easily expanded to include others as well....
Maine residents vigorously debated the issue last year, when the Legislature took up — and declined to pass — a bill that would have stripped the vote from some inmates, whose crimes included murder and other major felonies. Families of murder victims argued that the killers had denied their loved ones the right to vote and therefore should suffer the same fate.
Those who opposed the bill made several arguments: That the franchise is enshrined in the state Constitution and too important to withdraw on a whim; that voting rights keep inmates connected to civic life and make it easier for them to rejoin society; that the notion of restricting rights for people in prison was inconsistent with the values of the state.
A former United States marshal and police chief argued that revoking inmate voting rights would strip imprisoned people of dignity and make rehabilitation that much more difficult. The editorial page of The Bangor Daily News argued against revocation on the grounds that, “Removing the right of some inmates to exercise their legal responsibility as voters in a civilized society would undermine that civilized society.”
The fact that most states view people who have served time in prison as beyond the protection of the bedrock, democratic principle of the right to vote shows how terribly short this country has fallen from achieving its ideals.
Tuesday, November 11, 2014
Notable past remarks by AG-nominee Lynch on criminal justice reform to the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
I just came across these remarks delivered by Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch in August 2014 to the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in Switzerland as part of the US delegation. These remarks were intended to share with the Convention "some of the highlights of the Department of Justice’s efforts to eliminate racial discrimination and uphold human rights in the area of criminal justice."
The remarks are largely just a summary of many of the criminal justice reforms championed by Attorney General Eric Holder, but it will be interesting to see if the remarks garner special scrutiny as part of the Senate's confirmation process. Here are excerpts:
[T]he department has made great progress in reforming America’s criminal justice system. Our focus is not just on the prosecution of crime, but on eradicating its root causes as well as providing support for those re-entering society after having paid their debt to it.
There is, of course, much work still to be done. Currently our country imprisons approximately 2.2 million people, disproportionately people of color. This situation is a drain on both precious resources and human capital. The Attorney General is committed to reform of this aspect of our criminal justice system.
Last August the Attorney General announced the “Smart on Crime” initiative. Under this initiative, we’re ensuring that stringent mandatory minimum sentences for certain federal drug crimes will now be reserved for the most serious criminals. This is not an abandonment of prison as a means to reduce crime, but rather a recognition that, quite often, less prison can also work to reduce crime. We’re advancing alternative programs in place of incarceration in appropriate cases. And we’re committed to providing formerly incarcerated people with fair opportunities to rejoin their communities and become productive, law-abiding citizens.
As part of this effort, the Attorney General has directed every component of the Justice Department to review proposed rules, regulations or guidance with an eye to whether they may impose collateral consequences that may prevent reintegration into society. He has called upon state leaders to do the same, with a particular focus on enacting reforms to restore voting rights to those who have served their debt to society, thus ending the chain of permanent disenfranchisement that visits many of them.
To further ensure that the elimination of discrimination is an ongoing priority, the Attorney General has created a Racial Disparities Working Group, led by the U.S. Attorney community, to identify policies that result in unwarranted disparities within criminal justice and to eliminate those disparities as quickly as possible.
From the reduction of the use of solitary confinement, to the expansion of the federal clemency program, to our support for the retroactive reduction of penalties for non-violent drug offenders to the reduction in the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, we have worked to improve our criminal justice system in furtherance of our human rights treaty obligations. We look forward to the future and the opportunity to do even more.
Obviously, if Loretta Lynch become the next US Attorney General, she will be in a great position to seize "the opportunity to do even more" with respect to criminal justice reform. I wonder what she might have in mind.
A few recent related posts:
- Prez Obama selects Loretta Lynch to replace Eric Holder as US Attorney General
- Minnesota judges say we must admit "we have a problem with race" in the criminal justice system
Sunday, November 09, 2014
Minnesota judges say we must admit "we have a problem with race" in the criminal justice system
Kevin Burke, a Minnesota county district judge, has authored this provocative new commentary which was signed on to by a number of fellow judges. The piece is headlined "On race and justice system, we're still in denial," and here are excerpts:
Repeatedly, we have been confronted with compelling evidence that our community has a serious problem with racial disparity in its justice system. Repeatedly, we have either said, “We can stop,” or we get defensive and attack the messenger. The time has come for us to change our response.
The recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota (ACLU) on the racial disparities of arrests comes as no particular surprise (“ACLU: Blacks arrested more for minor crimes,” Oct. 29). Sure, you could write off the ACLU as some leftist organization — except that its report is based on hard data. The ACLU’s data and its analysis replicate numerous studies dating back decades about the problem of racial disparity in the justice system in our community....
[I]n 2007, the Minneapolis-based Council on Crime on Justice issued a report that found that “[t]he racial disparity in Minnesota’s justice system is exceptionally high compared to other states. From arrest to imprisonment, the disparity is over twice the national average.” Since 2000, the report said, the Council on Crime and Justice “has undertaken seventeen separate studies in a comprehensive effort to understand ‘why’ such a large disparity exists here, in Minnesota.”...
We need to accept we have a problem. All of us have a right to be safe, but protecting the public and being racially fair are not mutually exclusive. The ACLU report is interesting, in part, because it is not focused on “serious” or “violent” crime. There is no legitimate reason why there is a vastly disproportionate arrest rate for young black people for possession of small amounts of marijuana or for loitering.
The justice system desperately needs the trust of the public. Community policing is premised upon community support. But before you conclude that this is a problem with the Minneapolis police — stop. All of the police, prosecutors, defenders, corrections officials and the community at large own a piece of the mess. And yes, so do the elected officials — including judges. Every one of us in the justice system bears responsibility for this problem....
There is a connection between racial disparity in the justice system and what is happening in our community. Child protection failures, racial disparity in low-level offenses, achievement gaps in school, and yes, even violent crime and gang problems are all related. The beginning of an end to these issues starts with a collective admission that we have a problem with race.
The solutions to our problem of racial disparity in the justice system may be as intractable as our failure to acknowledge the existence of the problem, but we have no choice other than to act. At a minimum, we need to acknowledge the cumulative nature of racial disparities. Racial disparity often builds at each stage of the justice continuum, from arrest through release from prison. And even then it does not stop. Employment opportunities for ex-offenders are limited. Hennepin County has a history of very good dialogue among the justice system participants, but in order to combat racial disparity, everyone needs to commit to a systematic approach. Without a systemic approach to the problem, gains in one area may be offset by reversals in another....
Given the persistence of the problem of racial disparity in the justice system, however, a very good case can be made that reasoned experiments to find solutions are a better alternative than continually repeating what we are presently doing — and hoping for a different result.
Saturday, November 08, 2014
"We should stop putting women in jail. For anything."
The title of this post is the headline of this provocative commentary by Patricia O'Brien available via the Washington Post. Here are excerpts:
It sounds like a radical idea: Stop incarcerating women, and close down women’s prisons. But in Britain, there is a growing movement, sponsored by a peer in the House of Lords, to do just that.
The argument is actually quite straightforward: There are far fewer women in prison than men to start with — women make up just 7 percent of the prison population. This means that these women are disproportionately affected by a system designed for men.
But could women’s prisons actually be eliminated in the United States, where the rate of women’s incarceration has risen by 646 percent in the past 30 years? ... Essentially, the case for closing women’s prisons is the same as the case for imprisoning fewer men. It is the case against the prison industrial complex and for community-based treatment where it works better than incarceration. But there is evidence that prison harms women more than men, so why not start there?
Any examination of the women who are in U.S. prisons reveals that the majority are nonviolent offenders with poor education, little employment experience and multiple histories of abuse from childhood through adulthood. Women are also more likely than men to have children who rely on them for support — 147,000 American children have mothers in prison....
What purpose is served by subjecting the most disempowered, abused and nonviolent women to the perpetually negative environment of prisons? Efforts to make prison “work” for women have only perpetuated the growth of the prison industrial complex. These putative reforms have helped some individuals, and possibly brought the nature of mass warehousing of poor, black and brown bodies more into focus, but the number of incarcerated people still continues to rise.
So what is the alternative to jailing women at the rate we do? In Britain, advocates propose community sentences for nonviolent offenders and housing violent offenders in small custodial centers near their families. There is evidence that these approaches can work in the United States. Opportunities to test alternatives to prison are increasing across the states, and some have demonstrated beneficial results for the women who participated....
Oklahoma is currently ranked No. 1 for female incarceration per capita in the country. Nearly 80 percent of Oklahoma’s incarcerated women are nonviolent offenders, their presence in prison largely attributed to drug abuse, distribution of controlled substances, prostitution and property crimes.
A program that began five years ago, Women in Recovery, provides an alternative to prison for women who are sentenced for felony crimes linked to alcohol or drug addiction. The program includes comprehensive treatment and services such as employment services, housing assistance and family reunification. Women with small children are given the highest priority for admission to the program. Women who complete the program, averaging about 18 months, have a high degree of success after release. The program coordinator has told me that 68 percent of the women who completed the program had no further involvement with the criminal justice system....
The systemic production of mass incarceration cannot be solved simply by assisting troubled and troubling individual women. Another step to abolition requires taking the discussion beyond the individuals and communities most directly harmed, controlled and erased by the prison industrial complex to the public sphere that has passively accepted it. Put simply, we need to stop seeing prisons as an inevitable part of life....
The case for closing women’s prisons is built on the experiences of formerly incarcerated women and activists who recognize that women who are mothers and community builders can find their way forward when they respected and supported. It is possible to imagine a future without women’s prisons; whether it’s achievable will require a bigger shift in thinking.
Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Graphic representation of female prisoners around the world
I just tripped across this interesting piece and infographic published last month via Forbes. The piece is headlined "Nearly A Third Of All Female Prisoners Worldwide Are Incarcerated In The United States," and here is the text that goes along with the infographic:
According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, nearly a third of all female prisoners worldwide are incarcerated in the United States of America. There are 201,200 women in US prisons, representing 8.8 percent of the total American prison population.
China comes a very distant second to the United States with 84,600 female prisoners in total or 5.1% of the overall Chinese prison population. Russia is in third position -- 59,000 of its prisoners are women and this comes to 7.8 percent of the total.
Across the world, 625,000 women and children are being held in penal institutions with the female prison population growing on all five continents.
Does new DOJ appointee want to decriminalize all drug possession ... and would that be so bad?
The questions posed by the title of this post are prompted by this recent commentary authored by Cully Stimson and titled "The New Civil Rights Division Head Wants to Decriminalize Possession of All Drugs." Here are excerpts:
So who supports decriminalizing cocaine, heroin, LSD, methamphetamine, ecstasy and all dangerous drugs, including marijuana? No, it’s not your teenage nephew. It’s President Obama’s new acting head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Vanita Gupta. In 2012, Gupta wrote that “states should decriminalize simple possession of all drugs, particularly marijuana, and for small amounts of other drugs.” (Emphasis mine).
Last week, President Obama appointed Vanita Gupta to the position of acting head. According to the Washington Post, the administration plans to nominate her in the next few months to become the permanent assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division. Her views on sentencing reform – a bi-partisan effort in recent years – have earned her qualified kudos from some conservatives. But her radical views on drug policy – including her opinion that states should decriminalize possession of all drugs (cocaine, heroin, LSD, ecstasy, marijuana etc.) should damper that support of those conservatives, and raise serious concerns on Capitol Hill....
To begin, she believes that the misnamed war on drugs “is an atrocity and that it must be stopped.” She has written that the war on drugs has been a “war on communities of color” and that the “racial disparities are staggering.” As the reliably-liberal Huffington Post proclaimed, she would be one of the most liberal nominees in the Obama administration.
Throughout her career, 39-year old Gupta has focused mainly on two things related to the criminal justice system: first, what she terms draconian “mass incarceration,” which has resulted in a “bloated prison population, and second, the war on drugs and what she believes are its perceived failures.
She is particularly open about her support for marijuana legalization, arguing in a recent CNN.com op-ed that the “solution is clear: …states could follow Colorado and Washington by taxing and regulating marijuana and investing saved enforcement dollars in education, substance abuse treatment, and prevention and other health care.”...
But Gupta does not stop with marijuana. In calling for all drugs to be decriminalized – essentially legalizing all dangerous drugs – Gupta displays a gross lack of understanding of the intrinsic dangers of these drugs when consumed in any quantity.
Heroin, LSD, ecstasy, and methanqualone are Schedule I drugs, which are defined as “the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.” Cocaine, methamphetamine, Demerol and other drugs are Schedule II drugs, defined as “drugs with a high potential for abuse…with use potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence.”
Sound public policy must be based on facts, not radical unsafe, and dangerous theories.
I concur 100% with the statement at the end of this commentary that "sound public policy must be based on facts," and that it why I am more than a bit troubled that this commentary quite false asserts that Gupta's seemingly reasonable suggestion that persons should not be deemed criminals for possessing a small amount of a narcotic is tantamount to advocacy for "legalizing all dangerous drugs."
The term "decriminalize" in this context means to treat in a less-serious regulatory manner like we treat traffic offenses. Nobody would assert that we have "essentially legalized" all speeding and other traffic offenses because we only respond to the offense with fines and limited criminal sanctions. Likewise, advocacy for decriminalizing simple possession of small amounts of drugs is not the equivalent of endorsing a fully legalized marketplace for drugs comparable to what we are seeing in a few states now with marijuana.
That all said, I think Vanita Gupta's suggestion that states decriminalize simple possession of drugs as a way to de-escalate the drug war, as well as Cully Stimson's obvious concerns with such a suggestion, are very legitimate issues for engaged political and public policy debate. (For the record, I would generally support most state drug-decriminalization efforts, though I also would generally advocate that criminal sanctions kick in based on possession of larger dealer-size quantities of certain drugs.) I am pleased to see this commentary, even in a effort to assail a new DOJ nominee, start to bring overdue attention to these important modern drug-war issues. But I hope in the future Mr. Stimson and others will make and understand the important distinction between advocating for decriminalization and advocating for full legalization.
October 22, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack
Sunday, October 19, 2014
Judicial misconduct complained against Fifth Circuit Judge Jones based on provocative death penalty speech dismissed
Thanks to recent posts at Hercules and the Umpire and at Crime & Consequences, I see that the judicial misconduct complaint filed against US Circuit Judge Edith Jones of the Fifth Circuit based on a provocative speech she gave concerning the death penalty at a law school. The lengthy dismissal order is available here, and this AP article reviews the basics:
A council of federal judges has dismissed a misconduct complaint against a conservative appellate judge who was alleged to have made racially discriminatory remarks at a lecture on the death penalty.
Judge Edith Jones ... allegedly said at a speech in February 2013 at the University of Pennsylvania law school that certain racial groups like African-Americans and Hispanics are predisposed to crime, and are prone to commit acts of violence and to be involved in more violent and heinous crimes than people of other ethnicities.
Thirteen individuals and public interest groups filed a judicial misconduct complaint against Jones, and Chief Justice John Roberts assigned the case to the appeals court in Washington at the request of the chief appeals judge in New Orleans. The dismissal, which took place in August, was publicly disclosed Wednesday.
In a lengthy inquiry, a three-judge panel of the judicial council was unable to find any recording of Jones' remarks, forcing them to rely on varying recollections of audience members about precisely what Jones said. "It appears likely that Judge Jones did suggest that, statistically, African-Americans and/or Hispanics are `disproportionately' involved in certain crimes and `disproportionately' present in federal prisons," said the panel. "But we must consider Judge Jones' comments in the context of her express clarifications during the question-and-answer period that she did not mean that certain groups are `prone to commit' such crimes," the panel of judges said.
"In that context, whether or not her statistical statements are accurate, or accurate only with caveats, they do not by themselves indicate racial bias or an inability to be impartial," said the panel. "They resemble other albeit substantially more qualified, statements prominent in contemporary debate regarding the fairness of the justice system."
Attorney Maurie Levin, who represents the complainants, said the ruling "essentially credits Judge Jones' stale recollections over the testimony of a lawyer and five law students who set down their recollections not long after the lecture. There is simply no way to understand that as a fair weighing of the evidence." The complainants are appealing to the Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability of the judicial council.
I especially recommend Judge Richard Kopf's analysis and reactions in his post at Hercules and the Umpire, and I found noteworthy and important these particular reactive insights from Judge Kopf:
The work of the Special Committee and Professor Jeffrey Bellin makes me proud to be a federal judge. The clarity, tone, thoroughness and objectivity which is evident in the Report of the Special Committee is remarkable....
In my opinion, the essential allegations of the complaint lack a credible factual basis. With the aid of Professor Bellin’s searching investigation, the Report of the Special Committee, in restrained terms, explains why that is so.
I fear that complaints like this one will chill, and may even be intended to chill, judicial speech concerning the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice, particularly when the judge does not share the jurisprudential or ideological views of the listeners, and despite the fact that federal judges are expressly encouraged under the Code to speak about the law and how to improve it.
As distinguished from my fears expressed in the preceding paragraph, the Report of the Special Committee does a skillful job of explaining why controversial speech by a federal judge in the context of a talk on the law does not violate the Code.
Prior related posts:
- Complaint filed against notable (notorious?) Fifth Circuit judge based on comments about death penalty
- "A Tale of Sound & Fury (But No Transcript): In Defense of Judge Edith Jones"
UPDATE: Judge Kopf now has this additional interesting post on this matter titled "On being 'uncomfortable' and 'offended' — the ethics complaint against Judge Jones and the student affiants."
Friday, October 17, 2014
ProPublica urges next AG to "Fix Presidential Pardons"
The title of this post is drawn from the headline of this strong new piece from the Editor-in-Chief of ProPublica. The full headline and subheadline provides the basics: "For the Next Attorney General, a Modest Suggestion: Fix Presidential Pardons; More than two years ago, a ProPublica series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged." And here are a few excerpts from a piece that is styled as an open letter to the next Attorney General:
Dear Possible Attorney General Nominees (You Know Who You Are),...
More than two years ago, ProPublica reporters Dafna Linzer and Jennifer LaFleur revealed that white applicants were nearly four times as likely to receive a presidential pardon as were comparable African Americans. The story appeared on the front page of The Washington Post, our publishing partner. I know, I know, this seems improbable but LaFleur spent many months doing a statistical analysis that eliminated every other factor we could imagine that might explain this disparity. We sent our findings and methodology to several leading experts in the field. All agreed that race was the only factor driving the vast difference. We published our methodology and you can read it here. Linzer's reporting on the pardons process suggested that it was far more subjective than you might have thought. We wrote about how race creeps into decision-making even when no one is overtly biased. It's worth a look.
Given the starkness of these findings, we at ProPublica thought, naively, that your predecessor and his boss would move immediately to address this problem. As I'm sure you're aware, a president's authority to grant pardons is one of the only unchecked powers in our constitutional system of checks and balances. When it comes to pardons, President Obama can do whatever he wants.
We were told by several political insiders that the pardon stories did not prompt reform because of their timing. They appeared in late 2011, just as the president was gearing up for what was expected to be a bruising campaign for a second term. It was not considered the politically ideal moment for the nation's first African-American president to make the justice system fairer for people of color. And so the government did what it so often does in such circumstances: It commissioned a study to see if our findings were correct....
If history is any guide, you'll be getting a tsunami of pardon requests in the last months of the administration. It might be nice to have come up with some serious reforms by then to fix a process that is so demonstrably flawed. There are lots of ideas about what could done, from setting up an independent pardons commission to taking the pardons office out of the Justice Department.
Good luck with the confirmation hearings. And remember, two years can fly by a lot quicker than you'd ever imagine....
Stephen Engelberg/Editor in Chief, ProPublica
Thursday, October 16, 2014
"Risk and Needs Assessment: Constitutional and Ethical Challenges"
The title of this post is the title of this timely and notable new paper by Melissa Hamilton recently posted on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Across jurisdictions, the criminal justice system is enamored with the evidence-based practices movement. The idea is to utilize the best scientific data to identify and classify individuals based on their potential future risk of reoffending, and then to manage offender populations according to risk and criminogenic needs. Risk-needs tools now inform a variety of criminal justice decisions, ranging from pre-trial outcomes, to sentencing, to post-conviction supervision. While evidence-based methodologies are widely exalted as representing best practices, constitutional and moral objections have been raised.
Risk-needs tools incorporate a host of constitutionally and morally sensitive factors, such as demographic and other immutable characteristics. The constitutional analysis herein engages equal protection, prisoners’ rights, due process, and sentencing law. In addition, the text examines the philosophical polemic aimed uniquely at sentencing as to whether risk should play any role at all in determining punishment.
The Article then appraises potential alternatives for risk-needs methodologies if the concerns so raised by critics prove legitimate. Any option comes with significant consequences. Retaining offensive variables incites political and ethical reproaches, while simply excising them weakens statistical validity of the underlying models and diminishes the promise of evidence-based practices. Promoting an emphasis on risk at sentencing dilutes the focus of punishment on blameworthiness, while neglecting risk and needs sabotages a core objective of the new penological model of harnessing the ability to identify and divert low risk offenders to appropriate community-based alternatives.
October 16, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack
Thursday, October 02, 2014
Notable new empirical research on citizenship's impact on federal sentencing
I just came across this notable new empirical article on federal sentencing patterns published in American Sociological Review and authored by Michael Light, Michael Massoglia, and Ryan King. The piece is titled "Citizenship and Punishment: The Salience of National Membership in U.S. Criminal Courts," and here is the abstract:
When compared to research on the association between immigration and crime, far less attention has been given to the relationship between immigration, citizenship, and criminal punishment. As such, several fundamental questions about how noncitizens are sanctioned and whether citizenship is a marker of stratification in U.S. courts remain unanswered. Are citizens treated differently than noncitizens — both legal and undocumented — in U.S. federal criminal courts? Is the well-documented Hispanic-white sentencing disparity confounded by citizenship status? Has the association between citizenship and sentencing remained stable over time? And are punishment disparities contingent on the demographic context of the court?
Analysis of several years of data from U.S. federal courts indicates that citizenship status is a salient predictor of sentencing outcomes — more powerful than race or ethnicity. Other notable findings include the following: accounting for citizenship substantially attenuates disparities between whites and Hispanics; the citizenship effect on sentencing has grown stronger over time; and the effect is most pronounced in districts with growing noncitizen populations. These findings suggest that as international migration increases, citizenship may be an emerging and powerful axis of sociolegal inequality.
Intriguing new research on criminal justice impact of distinct marijuana reforms
The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice has produced this interesting new research report titled "Reforming Marijuana Laws: Which Approach Best Reduces The Harms Of Criminalization? A Five-State Analysis." Here is what the report's Introduction:
The War on Marijuana is losing steam. Policymakers, researchers, and law enforcement are beginning to recognize that arresting and incarcerating people for marijuana possession wastes billions of dollars, does not reduce the abuse of marijuana or other drugs, and results in grossly disproportionate harms to communities of color. Marijuana reforms are now gaining traction across the nation, generating debates over which strategies best reduce the harms of prohibition.
Should marijuana be decriminalized or legalized? Should it be restricted to people 21 and older? Advocates of the latter strategy often argue their efforts are intended to protect youth. However, if the consequences of arrest for marijuana possession — including fines, jail time, community service, a criminal record, loss of student loans, and court costs — are more harmful than use of the drug (Marijuana Arrest Research Project, 2012), it is difficult to see how continued criminalization of marijuana use by persons under 21 protects the young. Currently, people under 21 make up less than one-third of marijuana users, yet half of all marijuana possession arrests (ACLU, 2013; Males, 2009).
This analysis compares five states that implemented major marijuana reforms over the last five years, evaluating their effectiveness in reducing marijuana arrests and their impact on various health and safety outcomes. Two types of reforms are evaluated: all-ages decriminalization (California, Connecticut, and Massachusetts), and 21-and-older legalization (Colorado and Washington). The chief conclusions are:
• All five states experienced substantial declines in marijuana possession arrests. The four states with available data also showed unexpected drops in marijuana felony arrests.
• All-ages decriminalization more effectively reduced marijuana arrests and associated harms for people of all ages, particularly for young people.
• Marijuana decriminalization in California has not resulted in harmful consequences for teenagers, such as increased crime, drug overdose, driving under the influence, or school dropout. In fact, California teenagers showed improvements in all risk areas after reform.
• Staggering racial disparities remain— and in some cases are exacerbated — following marijuana reforms. African Americans are still more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses after reform than all other races and ethnicities were before reform.
• Further reforms are needed in all five states to move toward full legalization and to address racial disparities
Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform
Tuesday, September 23, 2014
Noting the dynamics and debate over risk-assessments at sentencing
This new Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Judges Turn to Risk-Evaluation Tools in Sentencing Decisions: Many Are Adopting More Systematic Approach to Assessing Likelihood of Reoffense," discusses the always interesting issue of using risk-assessment measures at sentencing. Here are excerpts:
Judges have always considered the risk of reoffending in meting out sentences, and they generally follow guidelines that dictate a range of punishment for a given offense. [More recently], however, [there is] a broad effort to bring a more scientific approach to decisions made by judges, parole officers and corrections officials working in a system that often relies on gut instinct. Risk-evaluation tools have emerged as a centerpiece of efforts to reduce the U.S. inmate population, which jumped from around 200,000 in the early 1970s to over 2 million today.
Many parole boards now weigh risk scores when considering early release, and prison officials use them to determine the level of security offenders need during their stay. But the adoption of such tools has sparked a debate over which factors are acceptable. Attributes such as age or sex, which employers are generally forbidden from including in hiring decisions, are considered by criminal-justice experts to be strong predictors of whether an offender is likely to commit a crime in the future.
The measures vary widely but generally are based on an offender's criminal history and, in addition to age and sex, may include marital status, employment and education, according to Sonja Starr, a law professor at the University of Michigan.
Pennsylvania, one of the latest states to turn to actuarial tools in sentencing, is building a test that weighs the nature of offense, criminal history, age, sex and county of residence. The last factor is the most controversial as it could be considered a proxy for socioeconomic status. Missouri takes into account current offense and criminal history, age, whether the offender has a history of substance abuse, education level and employment.
Judges aren't bound by the evaluations, but there is evidence they are taking them into account. Virginia officials attribute a more than 25% drop in the number of nonviolent offenders sent to prison annually to the assessments, used to score felons convicted of fraud, larceny and drug crimes since 2003. In the past decade, the percentage of offenders serving prison terms for violent crime has risen to 74% from 61%, said Chief Judge Bradley B. Cavedo of Richmond Circuit Court. "It doesn't really control the outcome, but it is useful information," he said of the measures.
The efforts have drawn skepticism from Attorney General Eric Holder, who told a group of defense lawyers in Philadelphia last month that basing sentencing on factors such as a defendant's education level "may exacerbate unwarranted and unjust disparities."
There is no research yet on whether the use of risk evaluations in sentencing has aggravated, for example, the gap between sentences for black and white men for similar crimes. Ms. Starr said the disparities created by risk measures are evident. "When it comes down to it, these assessments stand for the proposition that judges should sentence people longer because they were in foster care as children or had too many bouts of unemployment," she said.
Christopher Slobogin, a Vanderbilt University law professor, said the alternative was potentially worse. "At least these risk-assessment instruments don't explicitly focus on race or poverty, unlike what might occur in a sentencing regime where judges are making risk assessments based on seat-of-the-pants evaluations," he said.
Recent related posts:
- "Attorney General Eric Holder to Oppose Data-Driven Sentencing":
- Three distinct takes on AG Eric Holder's recent reservations about risk-based sentencing
- Senator Whitehouse defends risk-assessment tools for some sentencing determinations
September 23, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
Two folks working on criminal justice issues get MacArthur "genius" Fellowships
The MacArthur Foundation announced its 2014 Fellowships (which are often called “genius grants”), and two recipients work on criminal justice issues. Here is an overview of their work via the MacArthur announcement (with a link for more information):
Jennifer Eberhardt is a social psychologist investigating the subtle, complex, largely unconscious yet deeply ingrained ways that individuals racially code and categorize people, with a particular focus on associations between race and crime. Through collaborations with experts in criminology, law, and anthropology, as well as novel studies that engage law enforcement and jurors, Eberhardt is revealing new insights about the extent to which race imagery and judgments suffuse our culture and society.
Jonathan Rapping is a lawyer and legal defense advocate addressing failures of the U.S. criminal justice system to provide client-centered representation for indigent Americans. A large and growing number of those accused of felonies (by some estimates as high as 80 percent) cannot afford to pay for legal counsel. Though provided lawyers at no charge by the court system, often the accused are represented by public defenders burdened with too many cases and too few resources, resulting in over-incarceration or wrongful convictions that irreparably disrupt the lives of not only the indicted individuals but of their families and communities as well.
Tuesday, September 16, 2014
Texas poised to execute a second female murderer in one year
As reported in this local AP piece, headlined "Court Declines To Stop North Texas Woman’s Execution," it appears as though Texas is not facing any impediments to completing a notable execution on Wednesday. Here are the basics:
When paramedics responding to a 911 call arrived at a North Texas apartment, they found on the bathroom floor a dead boy clad only in bandages and a disposable diaper. He appeared to be 3 to 5 years old. Further investigation determined Davontae Williams actually was 9.
His emaciated body weighed only 36 pounds, about half of what a boy his age should weigh. Evidence showed he had been restrained repeatedly at his wrists and ankles. A pediatrician later would testify that he had more than 250 distinct injuries, including burns from cigarettes or cigars and scars from ligatures, and that a lack of food made him stop growing.
On Wednesday, Lisa Ann Coleman, the live-in girlfriend of Davontae’s mother, is set to be executed for the child’s July 2004 death in Arlington. Coleman’s trial lawyers said his death was an accident, that the boy had mental health issues, was difficult to handle and she and Marcella Williams, his mother, didn’t know how to deal with him in a positive manner.
Coleman, 38, would be the ninth Texas inmate to receive a lethal injection this year. She would be the sixth woman put to death in the nation’s busiest capital punishment state since executions resumed in Texas in 1982 and the second this year.
Nationally, she would be only the 15th woman executed since the Supreme Court in 1976 allowed the death penalty to resume. During that same time, nearly 1,400 men have been executed.
After a Tarrant County jury in 2006 convicted Coleman and gave her a death sentence, Marcella Williams, facing similar charges, took a plea deal and accepted a life prison term. Now 33, she not eligible for parole until 2044.
Attorneys for Coleman argued in appeals that prosecutors improperly defined Davontae’s restraints and confinement in a closet as kidnapping to find an aggravating factor so Coleman could be eligible for the death penalty. They also argued that jurors who convicted her of capital murder did so because her trial lawyers were deficient. “It has never been Lisa Coleman’s position that she should not be punished for what she did,” attorney John Stickels said in an appeal the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which was rejected Tuesday....
Photos of Davontae shown to jurors were “horrendous” and illustrated his suffering, trial defense attorney Fred Cummings acknowledged, but he believed a life sentence also would have been appropriate for Coleman. “It just doesn’t seem that the system was fairly applied here,” Cummings said last week.
Evidence showed child welfare officials repeatedly investigated Marcella Williams but would lose track of her because she kept moving to evade them, fearing they would take away her son and two younger daughters.
The Death Penalty Information Center has this effective webpage that assembles information about the handful of women who have been executed in the modern death penalty era. That page reveals that it has been more than a decade since two female murderers were executed in the same calendar year. It also shows that Texas will still lag behind one other state for the most executions of women in a single year: in 2001, Oklahoma completed executions of three women.
Wednesday, September 10, 2014
The title of this post is the title of this notable and interesting new paper by Alexandra Natapoff now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
As the U.S. rethinks its stance on mass incarceration, misdemeanor decriminalization is an increasingly popular reform. Seen as a potential cure for crowded jails and an overburdened defense bar, many states are eliminating jail time for minor offenses such as marijuana possession and driving violations, and replacing those crimes with so-called “nonjailable” or “fine-only” offenses. This form of reclassification is widely perceived as a way of saving millions of state dollars — nonjailable offenses do not trigger the right to counsel — while easing the punitive impact on defendants, and it has strong support from progressives and conservatives alike.
But decriminalization has a little-known dark side. Unlike full legalization, decriminalization preserves many of the punitive features and collateral consequences of the criminal misdemeanor experience, even as it strips defendants of counsel and other procedural protections. It actually expands the reach of the criminal apparatus by making it easier — both logistically and normatively — to impose fines and supervision on an ever-widening population, a population who ironically often ends up incarcerated anyway when they cannot afford the fines or comply with the supervisory conditions.
The turn to fine-only offenses and supervision, moreover, has distributive implications. It captures poor, underemployed, drug-dependent, and other disadvantaged defendants for whom fines and supervision are especially burdensome, while permitting well-resourced offenders to exit the process quickly and relatively unscathed. Finally, as courts turn increasingly to fines and fees to fund their own operations, decriminalization threatens to become a kind of regressive tax, turning the poorest populations into funding fodder for the judiciary and other government budgets. In sum, while decriminalization appears to offer relief from the punitive legacy of overcriminalization and mass incarceration, upon closer inspection it turns out to be a highly conflicted regulatory strategy that preserves and even strengthens some of the most problematic aspects of the massive U.S. penal system.
September 10, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Sunday, September 07, 2014
"Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies"
This report examines how racial perceptions of crime are a key cause of the severity of punishment in the United States. Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies, authored by Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Ph.D., research analyst at The Sentencing Project, synthesizes two decades of research revealing that white Americans’ strong associations of crime with blacks and Latinos are related to their support for punitive policies that disproportionately impact people of color.
Coming on the heels of the tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri, the report demonstrates that the consequences of white Americans’ strong associations of crime with blacks and Latinos extend far beyond policing.
Key findings of the report include:
White Americans overestimate the proportion of crime committed by people of color, and associate people of color with criminality. For example, white respondents in a 2010 survey overestimated the actual share of burglaries, illegal drug sales, and juvenile crime committed by African Americans by 20-30%.
Studies have shown that whites who associate crime with blacks and Latinos are more likely to support punitive policies – including capital punishment and mandatory minimum sentencing – than whites with weaker racial associations of crime.
These patterns help to explain why whites are more punitive than blacks and Latinos even though they are less likely to be victims of crime. In 2013, a majority of whites supported the death penalty for someone convicted of murder, while half of Hispanics and a majority of blacks opposed this punishment.
Racial perceptions of crime not only influence public opinion about criminal justice policies, they also directly influence the work of criminal justice practitioners and policymakers who operate with their own often-unintentional biases.
The report recommends proven interventions for the media, policymakers, and criminal justice professionals to reduce racial perceptions of crime and mitigate their effects on the justice system. These include addressing disparities in crime reporting, reducing the severity and disparate impact of criminal sentencing, and tackling racial bias in the formal policies and discretionary decisions of criminal justice practitioners.
Monday, September 01, 2014
Gendered perspective on Ohio's challenges with opioids and prison growth
As reported in this recent Toledo Blade editorial, headlined "Women in prison: A big increase in female inmates should prompt changes in how Ohio’s courts deal with addiction," Ohio has struggled of late with an increase in its prison population. And this reality has prompted at least one prominent paper to urge reforms focused on a particular demographic:
A stunning rise in the number of women entering Ohio prisons should encourage elected officials to seek better ways of managing the state’s $1.5-billion-a-year prison system.
Driven largely by a growing number of drug-addicted offenders from rural counties, Ohio prisons now hold nearly 4,200 women. From 2012 to 2013, the number of women coming to state prisons increased by 11 percent, from 2,580 to 2,854, said JoEllen Smith, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
Ohio’s opioid and heroin epidemic is largely to blame for the increase, as more low-level female drug offenders are sent to prison. “That population is very much nonviolent and drug-addicted, often with male co-defendants leading the case,” state prisons Director Gary Mohr said recently.
At the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, which holds more than 2,600 prisoners, the top three offenses for women entering the prison are drug possession, theft, and trafficking, said public information officer Elizabeth Wright. Moreover, the statewide share of women prisoners coming from rural counties — those with fewer than 100,000 residents — has nearly doubled in the past decade. Altogether, Ohio’s 28 prisons hold more than 50,000 inmates....
Mr. Mohr has prudently called for diverting more low-level drug offenders from prison to community-based treatment programs. To do that, Ohio will need more adult drug courts. Most counties, including Lucas County, still don’t have a drug court. The state also needs more community programs to serve as effective alternatives to incarceration.
Ohio’s prosecutors and judges also must get better educated on addiction. Too many of them still don’t understand that chemical addiction is a compulsive disease, not a moral choice. “A big part of the problem is that a number of people, including judges and prosecutors, see addiction as a state in which people have more control than they actually have,” Orman Hall, the director of Gov. John Kasich’s Opiate Action Team, told The Blade’s editorial page. “Opioid and heroin addiction is a compulsive disorder. In the early stages, people have very little ability not to relapse.”
Finally, prisons must expand the amount of effective drug treatment they provide, even as Ohio courts continue to send them people who would be better served in community programs. The growing number of women entering prison in Ohio is more than a demographic shift. It’s a grim reminder that the state’s criminal justice system is failing to deal effectively, and humanely, with its heroin and opioid epidemic.
September 1, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack