Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Announcing his Prez campaign, Senator Rand Paul talks up liberty and (arguably) repeal of drug laws

Senator Rand Paul, the most vocal and consistent GOP voice pushing for federal criminal justice reforms, announced today that he is running from President.  Here are a few excerpts from this transcript of his speech today that ought to interest sentencing fans: 

This message of liberty is for all Americans, Americans from all walks of life. The message of liberty, opportunity and justice is for all Americans, whether you wear a suit, a uniform or overalls, whether you’re white or black, rich or poor....

We need to boldly proclaim our vision for America. We need to go boldly forth under the banner of liberty that clutches the Constitution in one hand and the Bill of Rights in the other....

Love of liberty pulses in my veins not because we have beautiful mountains or white sand beaches, although we do, and not because of our abundance of resources. It’s more visceral than that. Our great nation was founded upon the extraordinary notion that government should be restrained and freedom should be maximized....

I see an America where criminal justice is applied equally and any law that disproportionately incarcerates people of color is repealed.

It is telling, and should be a bit disappointing to criminal-justice reformers, that Senator Paul did not make express mention in his launch speech of sentencing and criminal justice reform beyond the final sentence quoted above. Nevertheless, building off this line and also Senator Paul's past work on criminal justice reform, Vox has these two notable new pieces about what kind of reforms we might (and might not) hear about during the coming Paul campaign:

April 7, 2015 in Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Local Tennessee prosecutors pushed for female sterilization in plea discussions

A helpful reader alerted me to this stunning AP article about a stunning aspect of what some local prosecutors sometimes incorporated into plea discussion with female defendants in Tennessee.  The piece is headlined "Attorneys: Sterilizations were part of plea deal talks," and here are some of the details:

Nashville prosecutors have made sterilization of women part of plea negotiations at least four times in the past five years, and the district attorney has banned his staff from using the invasive surgery as a bargaining chip after the latest case.

In the most recent case, first reported by The Tennessean, a woman with a 20-year history of mental illness had been charged with neglect after her 5-day-old baby mysteriously died. Her defense attorney says the prosecutor assigned to the case wouldn't go forward with a plea deal to keep the woman out of prison unless she had the surgery.

Defense attorneys say there have been at least three similar cases in the past five years, suggesting the practice may not be as rare as people think and may happen more often outside the public view and without the blessing of a court .

Sterilization coerced by the legal system evokes a dark time in America, when minorities, the poor and those deemed mentally unfit or "deficient" were forced to undergo medical procedures that prevented them from having children.

"The history of sterilization in this country is that it is applied to the most despised people — criminals and the people we're most afraid of, the mentally ill — and the one thing that that these two groups usually share is that they are the most poor. That is what we've done in the past, and that's a good reason not to do it now," said Paul Lombardo, a law professor and historian who teaches at Georgia State University.

Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk agrees. A former defense attorney who took over the office in September, he recently ordered lawyers in his office not to seek sterilization by defendants. He said he hadn't heard of it happening before but didn't ask. Funk said people could be ordered to stay away from children, and the state wouldn't have to resort to such invasive measures. "The bottom line is the government can't be ordering a forced sterilization," Funk said.

However, such deals do happen.

In West Virginia, a 21-year-old unmarried mother of three agreed to have her tubes tied in 2009 as part of her probation after she pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute marijuana. And last year, a Virginia man who fathered children with several women agreed to undergo a vasectomy in exchange for less prison time in a child endangerment case.

Forced sterilization came up in a different way in California last year, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that banned state prisons from forcing female inmates to be sterilized. The law was pushed through after the Center for Investigative Reporting found that nearly 150 female prisoners had been sterilized between 2006 and 2010. An audit found that the state failed to make sure the inmate's consent was lawfully obtained in every case ....

The assistant district attorney who worked the [most recent] case, Brian Holmgren, is a child prosecutor who speaks around the country, was once a senior attorney with the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse and serves on the international advisory board of the National Center for Shaken Baby Syndrome. He has been both praised and fiercely criticized for his aggressive courtroom tactics on behalf of children.... Holmgren did not respond to several messages seeking comment.

Nashville defense attorney Carrie Searcy said Holmgren asked that two of her clients who gave birth to children who tested positive for drugs undergo sterilization. Neither did, Searcy said, because both women had already undergone the procedure.

Assistant public defender Joan Lawson, who also supervises other attorneys, said she also had been involved in cases in which a prosecutor had put sterilization on the table. Lawson said it was typically not an explicit demand, was not an everyday occurrence and was made off the record. Lawson said she refused the idea and resolved her cases without sterilization. "It's always been more of 'If your client is willing to do this, then I might be inclined to talk about probation,'" Lawson said.

March 29, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Should states try harder to condemn and execute women to overcome death penalty's sexism?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new commentary about the Jodi Arias case headlined "Why the death penalty in America is sexist." Here are excerpts:

It took only one juror to spare Jodi Arias the death penalty for the brutal murder of her ex-boyfriend Travis Alexander in 2008. Considering the United States has executed only 13 women in the last 40 years, a death sentence would have been highly unusual.

Women committed less than 10% of all murders in America between 2000 and 2010, a Wall Street Journal analysis of crime data found. Women defendants, however, only make up 2% of death row, according to a recent report by the NAACP.

Even fewer women actually get executed, Death Penalty Information Center executive director Richard Dieter told Business Insider. "There's just less enforcement of the death penalty at almost every stage for females," he said.

Two major factors contribute to the low number of women who get capital punishment: the nature of the crime and how juries view women in general. The death penalty is often used for killers who also commit other felonies like robbery or rape, law professor Victor Streib has previously told the LA Times. Many of the murders women commit, on the other hand, involve people they're related to.

While women commit about 10% of murders, they were responsible for 35% of murders of intimate partners between 1980 and 2008. Most juries consider these crimes of passion arising from disputes — one-time offenses, Dieter said. Because of the high rate of domestic violence against women, though, juries don't give men the same benefit of the doubt.

On the other hand, most states consider killing a child an aggravating factor, or a reason for prosecutors to seek the death penalty. Hiring someone to do the work could also land a woman on death row. "If a woman hires someone, there's a coldness, a calculation. It's different than something that arises out of an argument," Dieter said. Teresa Lewis, for example, plotted to kill her husband and stepson for the insurance money. "Instead of pulling a trigger on a gun, she pulled a couple of young men in to pull the trigger for her," prosecutor David Grimes told a judge at the time, The Washington Post reported. She was the first woman Virginia sentenced to die in more than 100 years.

But the second factor — the jury's perception of the "fragile" female psyche — can overpower aggravating factors. "It's just easier to convince a jury that women suffer emotional distress or other emotional problems more than men," Streib told the LA Times....

"These 12 people [the jury] are asked to see if this person has any redeeming qualities. And they often see their own mother or wife or grandmother, not someone who will continue to be a threat to society," Dieter said. "Jurors just see women differently than men."

Of course, most women aren't going to argue for gender parity in the death penalty, Dahlia Lithwick has written in Slate. Only 59% of women favor the death penalty compared to 67% of men, according to a 2013 Gallup poll. "For equality's sake, you think that women would want the death penalty pursued more often," Dieter said. "But of course, they don't."

March 28, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Highlights from AG Holder remarks at Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform

Thanks largely to the GOP Senators in charge of Senate procedure, we still do not yet know whether Loretta Lynch will be confirmed as the next Attorney General and thus we still have Eric Holder serving in this important role a full six months after he announced his resignation.  Today, in that role, AG Holder gave this address to the "Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform." Here are excerpts:

[T]his country faces serious challenges—an excessive prison population that is draining our resources and devastating our communities; systemic institutional biases that disproportionately affect people of color; and an overreliance on incarceration at the expense of alternatives proven to prevent recidivism and strengthen our society. These are momentous and complex issues calling for urgent and concrete solutions and it is abundantly clear that we cannot allow the status quo to persist.

But it is equally evident that we have an unprecedented opportunity – even at this time of deep division and stubborn gridlock – to bring about a fundamental shift in our criminal justice system, and to act together to drive historic change. That opportunity is presented not only by the wide range of distinguished individuals who have come to this conference to speak out against injustice and speak up for progress, but also by the rare consensus emerging across the country. Recently, we have seen conservative stakeholders like Koch Industries and Americans for Tax Reform join with progressive voices like the Center for American Progress to form a new coalition dedicated to this cause....

In the last year, federal prosecutors 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, representing the lowest rate ever recorded by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Last year we also saw the first overall reduction in the federal prison population in 32 years. Most impressive of all, we achieved this drop in incarceration while also cutting the overall crime rate, marking the first simultaneous national reduction in both crime and incarceration rates in more than four decades.

Of course, we also recognize that challenges to re-entry, and the likelihood of recidivism, can be exacerbated by an array of collateral consequences that make it more difficult for formerly incarcerated individuals to get a job, to further their education, to find housing and to participate fully in this country’s democratic institutions. For example, across this country today, an estimated 5.8 million Americans – more than the individual populations of 31 U.S. states – are prohibited from voting because of current or previous felony convictions. Nearly 150 years after Reconstruction, when felony disenfranchisement laws were first widely implemented throughout the South to intentionally reduce the electoral strength of former slaves, 40 percent of these individuals are African-American – meaning that nearly one in 13 African-American adults is currently ineligible to cast a ballot. In three states – Florida, Kentucky and Virginia – that ratio is one in five.

These statistics describe a nation at odds with the promise of its founding, and in tension with its most vital ideals. They demand that we examine our institutions and reorient our practices to create the more perfect Union that our earliest citizens imagined and the more just society that all Americans deserve....

In 2011, while only 30 percent of Americans were black or Hispanic, the U.S. prison population was 60 percent black and Hispanic, a disparity that is simply too stark. But justice reinvestment policies can help. The Council of State Governments Justice Center recently examined data from three states – Georgia, Connecticut, and North Carolina – that have employed a Justice Reinvestment approach. And I am pleased to announce that today our Bureau of Justice Assistance is releasing a report showing that these common-sense reforms produced a marked reduction in incarceration rates – particularly among men and women of color.

In Georgia, since sweeping criminal justice reforms were enacted three years ago, prison admissions have fallen by 8 percent and admissions among African Americans have fallen by 11 percent. In Connecticut, the total number of people in state prisons has declined by 17 percent since 2008, while the number of incarcerated African Americans and Hispanics has dropped by 21 percent and 23 percent, respectively. In North Carolina, expanded access to substance abuse treatment and new supervision practices, among other crucial reforms, have led to a 21 percent drop in total prison admissions between 2011 and 2014, while African-American and Hispanic admissions dropped by 26 percent and 37 percent, respectively. And in each of these cases, policies that reduced racial disparities had no adverse effect on public safety. In fact, all three states experienced a reduction in their overall crime rates....

We must reject the notion that old practices are unchangeable, that the policies that have governed our institutions for decades cannot be altered and that the way things have always been done is the way they must always be done. When the entire U.S. population has increased by a third since 1980, but the federal prison population has grown by almost 800 percent, it is time – long past time – to look critically at the way we employ incarceration. When the United States is home to just five percent of the world’s population but incarcerates almost a quarter of its prisoners, it is time – long past time – to reexamine our approach to criminal justice. And when estimates show that a staggering 1 in 28 American children has a parent behind bars and that the ratio for African-American children is 1 in 9, it is time – long past time – to take decisive action in order to end a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration that traps too many individuals, degrades too many families and devastates too many communities.

That means more state legislatures must end felon disenfranchisement – and so many other barriers to reentry – for individuals who have served their sentences and rejoined their communities, and invest in alternatives to incarceration like drug courts – something I’d like to see in the next five years in every federal district in America. It means Congress must act to restrict and refine those crimes to which mandatory minimums apply and extend the Fair Sentencing Act so that no one is serving a sentence based on a disparity in punishment between crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses that Congress, the President and the Attorney General have all declared unjust. And it means gatherings like this one must continue to bring together leaders and advocates, academics and public servants, from all backgrounds and circumstances, to renew our commitment to this vital cause.

The report referenced in this speech is available at this link and a summary is on this webpage.

March 26, 2015 in Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

New report documents huge drop in Colorado marijuana arrests since legalization

Download (7)While the impact, both good or bad, of marijuana law reform is now widely discussed and debated, there is still relatively little hard reliable data about the public health and economic consequences of these reforms.  But this new report  from the Drug Policy Alliance, headlined "Marijuana Arrests in Colorado After the Passage of Amendment 64," highlights that legalization in one state has had a profound impact on arrest data.  This DPA press release provides an overview and summary of the report, and here are excerpts:  

The report compiles and analyzes data from the county judicial districts, as well as various law enforcement agencies via the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS). The report’s key findings include:

  • Since 2010, marijuana possession charges are down by more than 90%, marijuana cultivation charges are down by 96%, and marijuana distribution charges are down by 99%.
  • The number of marijuana possession charges in Colorado courts has decreased by more than 25,000 since 2010 – from 30,428 in 2010 to just 1,922 in 2014.
  • According to raw data from the NIBRS, drug-related incidents are down 23% since 2010, based on a 53% drop in marijuana-related incidents....
  • Marijuana distribution charges for young men of color did not increase, to the relief of racial justice advocates wary of a ‘net-widening’ effect following legalization. The black rate for distribution incidents dropped from 87 per 100,000 in 2012 to 25 per 100,000 in 2014.
  • Racial disparities for still-illegal and mostly petty charges persist for black people when compared to white people, primarily due to the specific increase of charges for public use combined with the disproportionate rates of police contact in communities of color. The marijuana arrest rate for black people in 2014 was 2.4 times higher than the arrest rates for white people, just as it was in 2010.
  • The report also reveals a decline in synthetic marijuana arrests, presumably because people are less likely to use synthetic marijuana when marijuana itself is no longer criminalized.

“It’s heartening to see that tens of thousands of otherwise law-abiding Coloradans have been spared the travesty of getting handcuffed or being charged for small amounts of marijuana,” said Art Way, Colorado State Director for the Drug Policy Alliance. “By focusing on public health rather than criminalization, Colorado is better positioned to address the potential harms of marijuana use, while diminishing many of the worst aspects of the war on drugs.”

“The overall decrease in arrests, charges and cases is enormously beneficial to communities of color who bore the brunt of marijuana prohibition prior to the passage of Amendment 64,” said Rosemary Harris Lytle, Regional Chair of the NAACP. “However, we are concerned with the rise in disparity for the charge of public consumption and challenge law enforcement to ensure this reality is not discriminatory in any manner.”

“What is often overlooked concerning marijuana legalization is that it is first and foremost a criminal justice reform,” said Denise Maes, Public Policy Director for the ACLU of Colorado. “This report reminds us of how law enforcement and our judiciary are now able to better allocate time and energy for more pressing concerns.”

Some prior related posts:

March 26, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Senator Paul continues to emphasize criminal justice reform with minority audience

I_stand_with_rand_225quot_buttonThis new New York Times article, headlined "Rand Paul Focuses on Criminal Justice in Talk to Black Students," details the continued efforts by one prominent Senator to preach the need for criminal justice reform to groups historically distrustful of messages delivered by the GOP. Here are the details:

Senator Rand Paul laid out his vision on Friday for a legal system that makes it easier for people with criminal records to get jobs and to vote, telling students at a historically black college here that he believes there are still “two Americas” as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said almost a half century ago.

Mindful of his audience and, no doubt, his appearance two years ago at Howard University when the mostly black audience was often skeptical of what he had to say, Mr. Paul, a Republican and a likely candidate for president, chose his words more carefully this time during his visit to Bowie State University....

Mr. Paul tried to avoid appearing presumptuous and at one point corrected himself when answering a question about the progress that black Americans have made. “I think sometimes we think we haven’t gone very far when I think we’ve come a long way,” he said, pausing to tweak his wording. “And I say ‘we’ collectively; obviously it’s not me.”...

There were a few awkward moments at the Howard event, like when he told the students that people had told him he was “either brave or crazy” to be there.

But on Friday he kept his remarks focused on correcting inequities in the criminal justice system and expanding economic opportunity. He repeatedly condemned the harsh drug sentencing laws that put so many minority defendants behind bars. “If you smoked some pot or grew some marijuana plants in college, you ought to get a chance,” he said.

Mr. Paul also made a case for expunging criminal records of people who have been convicted of nonviolent felonies so they can find employment more easily, a stance that puts him at odds with many in his party. “As Republicans we’re big on saying, ‘Well, we don’t want people permanently on welfare; we want them to transition from welfare to a job,’” he said. “People say, ‘Well, how am I supposed to get a job? I was a convicted felon.’”...

Mr. Paul, of Kentucky, has made an effort to reach out to African­American constituencies in the past few years, drawing crowds that have traditionally voted for Democratic candidates but are curious about his libertarian brand of conservatism. He spoke at the Urban League’s summer conference in Cincinnati last summer and visited Ferguson, Mo., when protests broke out after a police officer shot an unarmed black man. He has also met with black pastors in Southern cities like Memphis and Louisville, Ky.

Some recent and older related posts:

March 15, 2015 in Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Stirring (sentencing) civil rights sentiments in Selma speech

The events in Selma, Alabama a half century ago has led to a modern weekend of discussion and reflection on the achievements and work still to be done in the never-ending struggle for civil rights for all.  President Obama, whom even his toughest critics will admit can give a good speech, spoke to these matters in a speech at an historic location in Selma.  The full text of the speech is worth a read, and these sentiments from the text of President Obama's remarks which have obvious sentencing significance:

This is work for all Americans, and not just some.  Not just whites.  Not just blacks.  If we want to honor the courage of those who marched that day, then all of us are called to possess their moral imagination.  All of us will need to feel, as they did, the fierce urgency of now.  All of us need to recognize, as they did, that change depends on our actions, our attitudes, the things we teach our children.  And if we make such effort, no matter how hard it may seem, laws can be passed, and consciences can be stirred, and consensus can be built.

With such effort, we can make sure our criminal justice system serves all and not just some.  Together, we can raise the level of mutual trust that policing is built on — the idea that police officers are members of the communities they risk their lives to protect, and citizens in Ferguson and New York and Cleveland just want the same thing young people here marched for — the protection of the law.  Together, we can address unfair sentencing, and overcrowded prisons, and the stunted circumstances that rob too many boys of the chance to become men, and rob the nation of too many men who could be good dads, and workers, and neighbors.

Some related posts (from both SL&P and MLP&R):

March 8, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Despite spending many millions, Arizona prosecutors again fail to convince a sentencing jury to send Jodi Arias to death row

I have been interested in the Jodi Arias case from Arizona since she was found guilty of murder two years ago, not principally because of all the media attention her case generated, but because of the extraordinary efforts Arizona prosecutors were prepared to make AT TAXPAYER EXPENSE to try to get Arias on to the state's death row.  Last year in this post, I guessed that Arizona prosecutors were spending more than $5,000,000 in taxpayer funds in their effort to have Jodi Arias sent and kept on death row rather than in another part of Arizona's prison system.  

As this new AP report from Arizona highlights, all those taxpayer costs created by the prosecutors in this one state capital case have now officially achieved nothing:

Convicted murderer Jodi Arias was spared the death penalty Thursday after jurors deadlocked on whether she should be executed or sent to prison for life for killing her lover in 2008.

It marked the second time a jury was unable to reach a decision on her punishment — a disappointment for prosecutors who argued for the death penalty during a nearly seven-year legal battle.  It means the judge will sentence Arias on April 13 to either life in prison or a life term with the possibility of release after 25 years.

Family members of victim Travis Alexander wept when the judge announced that jurors couldn't reach a decision after deliberating for about 26 hours over five days.  The family sobbed as they left the courtroom, with one covering her eyes as she walked out. Arias' mother, Sandra, received a hug from a friend moments after the verdict was read....

Arias' 2013 trial became a sensation with its tawdry revelations about her relationship with Alexander and that she shot him in the head and slit his throat so deeply that he was nearly decapitated.  It was broadcast live and TV audiences heard how Arias had stabbed and slashed Alexander nearly 30 times then left his body in his shower at his suburban Phoenix home, where friends found him about five days later.

The jury convicted her of first-degree murder but deadlocked on punishment, prompting the sentencing retrial that began in October.  Prosecutors say they don't regret trying again to send Arias to death row.  Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who decided to seek the death penalty a second time, told reporters that "regret is a place in the past I can't afford to live in."

Arias initially courted the spotlight after her arrest, granting interviews to "48 Hours" and "Inside Edition."  She testified for 18 days at her first trial, describing her abusive childhood, cheating boyfriends, relationship with Alexander and her contention that he was physically abusive.  She did more media interviews after the jury convicted her of murder.

Spectators lined up in the middle of the night to get a coveted seat in the courtroom for the first trial. However, attention was dampened during the penalty retrial after the judge ruled cameras could record the proceedings but nothing could be broadcast until after the verdict.

The proceedings revealed few new details about the crime and dragged on months longer than expected amid a series of expert witnesses and a surprising late October decision by Judge Sherry Stephens to remove reporters and spectators from the courtroom so Arias could testify in private. A higher court halted the testimony on its second day after complaints from news organizations. At the end of the retrial, Arias passed up a chance to address the jury. She said she wanted to make such comments but refused to do so unless the courtroom was cleared. She cited potential personal safety threats in declining to speak in the open courtroom.

I am not at all surprised to hear the Arizona prosecutors now "say they don't regret trying again to send Arias to death row."  After all, these prosecutors got the opportunity to work for two more years on a high-profile and exciting case and they likely will not suffer any professional consequences for wasting an extraordinary amount of taxpayer resources now twice failing to convince a jury that Jodi Arias ought to die for her crimes.

Especially because, as I said before in prior posts, it was extremely unlikely Arias would ever be executed even if she had been sentenced to death, this case is now for me exhibit #1 in the extraordinary misallocation of resources that the death penalty can often engender because prosecutors generally get all the political benefits and suffer none of the true economic costs of capital punishment systems.  The folks who should really regret how this case has been handed are crime victims and others in need of social services and programming in Arizona.  As I noted in a prior post, the Arizona Crime Victims Programs — which is under the authority of the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission and "provides support to all agencies that assist and compensate the victims of crime" — has an annual budget of around $5,000,000.  I feel pretty confident a lot more good throughout Arizona could have been done if state tax resources were allocated to doubling the funds for crime victim programming rather than enabling prosecutors to keep seeking a death verdict for Jodi Arias (which itself was never likely to get carried out).

Some prior posts on the Arias case:

March 5, 2015 in Celebrity sentencings, Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Monday, March 02, 2015

"A Slow Motion Lynching? The War on Drugs, Mass Incarceration, Doing Kimbrough Justice, and a Response to Two Third Circuit Judges"

The provocative title of this post is the provocative title of this new article authored by US District Judge Mark Bennett now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

A federal district court judge who has sentenced more than 4000 defendants reflects on federal sentencing and its role in mass incarceration.  The focus of the article is on federal sentencing in crack cocaine cases and policy disagreements with the United States Sentencing Guidelines (Guidelines) in drug trafficking cases.  The article explores the U.S. Supreme Court cases in Kimbrough v. United States, United States v. Spears, and Pepper v. United States, the only U.S. Supreme Court cases that address sentencing judges’ policy disagreements with the guidelines.  Ironically, or perhaps serendipitously, the author was the sentencing judge in both Spears and Pepper, where he was reversed a whopping 5 times by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit (twice by an en banc court) before both defendants’ sentencing positions were vindicated by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The article takes exception to two Third Circuit judges who have argued in law review articles that federal sentencing judges should be concerned about "legislative backlash" if they sentence outside the now advisory guidelines.  In the arc of the history of federal sentencing and its impact on mass incarceration, we are perched at a cresting point where the gravity of reason and our Nation’s experience with mass incarceration hopefully will pull towards greater justice in sentencing.

March 2, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Georgia scheduled to execute only female murderer on its death row

As reported in this AP piece, headlined "After weather delay, Georgia ready to perform rare execution of a woman," the Peach State appears poised this evening to end the life of a bad apple notable for her gender. Here are the details:

After getting a temporary reprieve when her execution was postponed because of winter weather conditions forecast to hit the state, the only woman on Georgia's death row is again set for execution Monday. Kelly Renee Gissendaner, 46, was scheduled to be executed Wednesday at the state prison in Jackson, but the Department of Corrections postponed it to Monday at 7 p.m., citing the weather and associated scheduling issues.

Gissendaner was convicted of murder in the February 1997 stabbing death of her husband, Douglas Gissendaner. Prosecutors said she plotted his death with her boyfriend, Gregory Owen.... Kelly Gissendaner repeatedly pushed Owen in late 1996 to kill her husband rather than just divorcing him as Owen suggested, prosecutors said. Acting on Kelly Gissendaner's instructions, Owen ambushed Douglas Gissendaner at the Gissendaners' home, forced him to drive to a remote area and stabbed him multiple times, prosecutors said

Owen pleaded guilty and received a life prison sentence with eligibility for parole after 25 years. He testified at Gissendaner's trial, and a jury convicted her and sentenced her to death in 1998.

The State Board of Pardons and Paroles, the only entity in Georgia authorized to commute a death sentence, on Wednesday denied Gissendaner clemency. A federal judge in Atlanta rejected a request to halt her execution, and her lawyers have appealed that decision to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

If Gissendaner's execution happens, she will be the first woman executed in Georgia in 70 years. Lena Baker, a black maid, was executed in 1945 after being convicted in a one-day trial for killing her white employer. Georgia officials issued her a pardon in 2005 after six decades of lobbying and arguments by her family that she likely killed the man because he was holding her against her will. Baker was the only woman to die in the state's electric chair. P>Execution of female inmates is rare with only 15 women put to death nationwide since the Supreme Court in 1976 allowed the death penalty to resume. During that same time, about 1,400 men have been executed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Prosecutors offered Gissendaner the same plea deal that was offered to Owen, but she turned it down. Post-conviction testimony from her trial lawyer, Edwin Wilson, gives some insight into why, Gissendaner's lawyers argued in a clemency petition. They quote Wilson as saying he didn't think a jury would sentence Gissendaner to death. "I guess I thought this because she was a woman and because she did not actually kill Doug," Wilson is quoted as saying, adding that he should have urged her to take the plea.

Victor Streib, a retired Ohio Northern University law professor and an expert on the death penalty for women, said it's clear that women are condemned to die far less frequently than men, but that there are so few cases that it's tough to draw any general conclusions. "Statistically, yes, if you've got two cases and everything about them is exactly the same and one case is a woman and the other case is a man, the man is more likely to be sentenced to death," Streib said, but added that he wouldn't count on that as a legal strategy.

One reason women aren't sentenced to death as often is that they don't commit as many murders and when they do they generally aren't the "worst of the worst" murders that lead to the death penalty, Streib said. Juries may also be more likely to believe a woman was emotionally distressed or not in her right mind at the time of a killing, which can spare them a death sentence, he said.

March 2, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Must one study lynchings past to understand US punishments present?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this article discussing a recent speech by a prominent civil rights activist.  The piece is headlined "Angela Davis equates lynchings with prisons, death penalty," and here are excerpts:

Iconic civil rights leader Angela Davis opened her lecture Wednesday evening at Purdue University by evoking Black History Month — setting the stage for a moving presentation that connected past stories of oppression to today's movements for freedom....

During her talk at Purdue, Davis tied the historical tradition of the black struggle against oppression to multiple contemporary movements against racist violence, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia and able-ism.  "The black radical tradition can be claimed by anyone who believes that freedom is a worthy cause and that the struggle for freedom links our contemporary aspirations with many struggles of the past," she said.

She connected the history of black lynchings to today's issues of mass incarceration and capital punishment. "The death penalty's roots are sunk deep into the legacy of lynching," she said. "… If we fail to take into account the central role of lynching, then we will never truly understand the way racism worked its way into the criminal justice system."

March 1, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Friday, February 27, 2015

"A Second Chance: Education's Role in Reversing Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Atlantic commentary by Irwin Weathersby.  Here is how it starts: 

The American Journal of Men’s Health published a study this month titled "I Want a Second Chance" that explores the challenges faced by formerly incarcerated men as they seek to redeem themselves in the eyes of their children and society.  The research questions of the study sought to illustrate the unique circumstances of African American men: "What are the daily experiences of reentry for African American men?  What identities are African American men in reentry negotiating? What are the experiences of fatherhood for African American men in reentry? What are the experiences of their participation in a reentry program?  The findings of the focus group featured in the study reveal a collective desire to provide for themselves and to be looked upon with dignity so that their lives can regain value.  At the core of what they want most is simply to be regarded differently. As an educator who has worked closely with this population, I am convinced that their desires can be achieved through education: Formerly incarcerated men must learn to embrace methods of self-improvement, and Americans must learn to empathize and restore their citizenship.

Imagine the impact of this not-so-radical idea — if our American gaze of formerly incarcerated black men was altered — at a time when this country is fractured among race and class lines that are as bright and conspicuous as new scars.  Just this month another politician has become embroiled in controversy after an off-color portrait of the president; another unarmed black man was killed at the hands of a police officer; another wrongfully convicted black man was awarded millions of dollars in retribution after his sentence was vacated; another black man’s family was awarded millions of dollars in a settlement for his wrongful death while incarcerated; another formerly incarcerated black man was likely denied a job due to the 50-percent decrease in callback rate for applicants with criminal records.  Another day of Black History month has borne witness to our persistent troubles.

According to an article written by Amy L. Solomon and published by the National Institute of Justice, an estimated 13 million people in the U.S. are admitted to and released from local jails.  And more than 700,000 people are admitted to and released from state and local prisons each year, with men accounting for more than three-fourths of those arrested.  The numbers are even more staggering for African Americans, who comprise almost 40 percent of the entire prison population.  But even more troubling is the fact that, on any given day, one in 15 black men are in prison.  And among young African American men — those ages 20 through 34 — the ratio lowers further to one in nine.  "In fact, young, male African American high-school dropouts have higher odds of being in jail than being employed," Solomon reports.  These shameful statistics suggest that creating channels of reentry are imperative.

February 27, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, February 23, 2015

Oscar speech by John Legend spotlights the New Jim Crow stat about hyperincarceration of blacks in US

I watched most of last night's Oscar festivities while trying to get some work done and with most of it with a finger on the fast-forward button on the remote control.  I did so, in part, because we can always count on the media (both old and new) to give extra attention to anything especially interesting or noteworthy that happens during the telecast.  

I am now pleased to learn that one of the interesting and noteworthy Oscar moments getting attention today is a portion of John Legend's acceptance speech.  This Washington Post WonkBlog piece, headlined "There’s a disturbing truth to John Legend’s Oscar statement about prisons and slavery," provides the story and its context:

The artists John Legend and Common received an Academy Award Sunday night for "Glory," their song in the film "Selma."  In his acceptance speech, Legend called for reform of the U.S. criminal justice system. "There are more black men under correctional control today than there were under slavery in 1850," he noted.

It's true.  There are some, as Politifact has written, 1.7 million black men under some form of correctional control, including probation and parole, excluding those held in local jails on any given day. That is about twice the 870,000 or so black men at least 15 years old who were enslaved in 1850, according to the Census.

In some ways, of course, the comparison is misleading. Although there are more blacks under correctional control now than there were slaves before the Civil War, the population has a whole has grown tremendously in that time. The Census that year found that roughly nine in 10 of the nation's 3.6 million blacks were enslaved. By contrast, one in 11 blacks is under correctional supervision today, according to the Pew Center on the States. And it would be wrong to obscure the horrors of slavery by comparing that peculiar institution to today's systems of probation and parole (although in modern prisons, practices such as solitary confinement are indeed profoundly damaging to inmates).

In other ways, though, these numbers conceal the size of our criminal justice system and its consequences, especially for blacks -- in a society that, unlike that of the 1850s, is supposed to be free and equitable.

February 23, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Urging more media coverage of the "truly guilty and violent"

Via consistently helpful Marshall Project, I came to see this interesting recent piece by Steve Bogira titled "Guilty As Charged" at the Social Justice News Nexus site. Here are extended excerpts:

The mainstream media and “social justice” journalists treat criminal justice subjects compassionately at times, but the beneficiaries of their compassion diverge. The mainstream media focus on the victims of crime, while social justice journalists focus on victims of the criminal justice system.

The former task is easier, because readers are quick to sympathize with crime victims. The latter task is commendable, because it involves telling the stories of outcasts.  Yet, even those of us who take on the latter task still tend to stick to the easier parts of the topic. Our favorite subjects are innocent people who are wrongly convicted.

When we do write about the guilty, we prefer they be nonviolent offenders.  We’re particularly partial to petty drug offenders. Among violent offenders, we prefer juveniles.

We fear our readers can’t possibly develop compassion for anyone who robs, beats, rapes, or kills.  We ourselves have trouble feeling compassion for such offenders; to do so violates a taboo.  Only if the violent offender has the mitigating factor of youth, or sometimes mental illness, are we likely to take on his or her story.

But this means we neglect much that is immensely significant.  There are too many drug offenders in prison, but prisons are not mainly holding drug offenders or the nonviolent. Seventeen percent of the 49,000 inmates in Illinois prisons were serving terms for controlled substance crimes, and another 1.6 percent had violated the cannabis control act, as of June 2013 (the most recent figures), according to the Illinois Department of Corrections.  That’s less than 19 percent in all who were doing time for drug offenses–compared with 54 percent who’d been convicted of violent offenses. Nationally, the proportion of prisoners serving sentences for violent crimes in 2012 was also 54 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Stories about the wrongly convicted, and about the drug war, and about juvenile and mentally ill offenders, can lead to much-needed reforms of the criminal justice system. But stories about the truly guilty and violent can have a larger target: our nation’s structural inequality, and the wounds it inflicts every hour, every day, on African-Americans more than any other group, in segregated cities throughout the nation.

Concentrated poverty – resulting from the virulent mix of poverty and racial segregation – yields many poisoned fruits, not the least of which is violence. Children growing up amid concentrated poverty are more likely to witness violence in their neighborhoods, and to experience it in their homes, than children in more advantaged areas. And children growing up amid violence are far more likely to become violent themselves.

There’s a crying need for stories that make the crucial connections between concentrated poverty and violence, and that shift the focus from individual responsibility to our collective culpability. In the context of criminal justice stories, it’s not a connection journalists can make when their subjects are innocent or nonviolent.

February 23, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | 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

Friday, February 20, 2015

More from ACSBlog's "symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system"

Last week in this post I noted that the ACSBlog  kicked off a "two-week symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system" via this post titled "Pervasive Inequalities in the Criminal Justice System."   This week brought these additional published posts in this series, al of which should be of special interest to sentencing law and policy fans:

February 20, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

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

Friday, February 13, 2015

ACSBlog conducting "symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system"

I just noticed that the ACSBlog early this week kicked off a "two-week symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system" via this post titled "Pervasive Inequalities in the Criminal Justice System." Here are excerpts from this introductory post:

[R]acial inequality in this country remains tightly intertwined with economic inequality, and aspects of the criminal justice system that disadvantage poor people disproportionately disadvantage people of color. There also exists implicit racial bias, if not outright prejudice, in the hearts of some police, prosecutors, judges and jurors which can manifest itself during any phase of a criminal case.

The result is that Americans of color face disadvantages at every stage of the criminal justice system. From arrest to sentencing, obtaining bail to obtaining a lawyer, plea bargaining to jury selection, and even in being put to death, criminal defendants consistently fare better when they are white....

Whether due to racial hatred, implicit bias or economic inequality, there is overwhelming evidence that criminal defendants of color are subjected to a different criminal justice system than white defendants. For the next two weeks, ACSblog and a succession of experts will examine flaws at each stage of the criminal justice system and propose solutions so that the Constitution’s guarantee of equal justice under the law may be realized for every American.

Here are links to the posts in this series that have been published so far:

February 13, 2015 in Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

"Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequity in the Criminal Justice System"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new report from The Sentencing Project.  Here is a partial summary of its contents from an e-mail I received earlier today:

The report identifies four key features of the criminal justice system that produce racially unequal outcomes, beyond the conditions of socioeconomic inequality that contribute to higher rates of some crimes in marginalized communities, and showcases initiatives to abate these sources of inequity in adult and juvenile justice systems around the country. In many cases, these reforms have produced demonstrable results, including:
  • Indiana amended its drug-free zone sentencing laws, which imposed harsh penalties on a defendant population that was over 75% African American in Indianapolis.
  • Multnomah County (Portland), OR, revised and removed bias in its risk assessment instrument for determining juvenile detention, reducing African American and Latino youth detention levels by half.
  • Berks County, PA, reduced the number of youth in secure detention – who were primarily youth of color – by 67% between 2007 and 2012 in part by increasing reliance on alternatives including non-secure shelters and expanding use of evidence-based treatment programs.
  • The Milwaukee County prosecutor’s office eliminated racial disparity in charges of possession of drug paraphernalia by instituting case oversight and emphasizing diversion to treatment programs and dismissals.

February 3, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, January 30, 2015

Aggressive litigation prompts federal prosecutor in Chicago to drop stash house sting

As reported in this lengthy front-page Chicago Tribune article, aggressive litigation by the federal defense bar concerning aggressive federal drug-war tactics have now resulted in federal prosecutors backing off the most aggressive federal criminal charges these tactics have generated.  The article is headlined "Chicago prosecutors quietly drop charges tied to drug stash house stings," and here is how it begins:

Federal prosecutors in Chicago have quietly dropped narcotics conspiracy charges against more than two dozen defendants accused of ripping off drug stash houses as part of controversial undercover stings that have sparked allegations across the country of entrapment and racial profiling.

The decade-old strategy is also under fire because federal authorities, as part of a ruse, led targets to think large quantities of cocaine were often stashed in the hideouts, ensuring long prison terms upon conviction because of how federal sentencing guidelines work. Experts said the move by Chicago prosecutors marked the first step back by a U.S. attorney's office anywhere in the country in connection with the controversial law enforcement tactic.

In the court filings seeking the dismissals, prosecutors gave no clue for the unusual reversal, and a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon declined to comment. But the move comes two months after the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stinging rebuke to the policy, ordering a new trial for a Naperville man who alleged he was goaded into conspiring to rob a phony drug stash house by overzealous federal agents.

The stings, led by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, have been highly criticized for targeting mostly minority suspects, many of whom were drawn into the bogus rip-offs by informants who promised easy money at vulnerable points in their lives.

The cases are built on an elaborate ruse concocted by the ATF. Everything about the stash house is fictitious and follows a familiar script, from supposedly armed guards that need to be dealt with to the quantity of drugs purportedly stashed there. By pretending the house contains a large amount of narcotics, authorities can vastly escalate the potential prison time defendants face, including up to life sentences. Earlier this month, federal prosecutors in Chicago sought to drop drug conspiracy charges in seven of the nine pending stash-house cases, leading some of the judges to quickly approve the move without a hearing.

In each case, the defendants — 27 in all — still face weapons and other charges for the alleged scheme and potentially long prison sentences upon conviction. But without the drug conspiracy charges, the mandatory minimum sentences for most of the defendants would drop to just five years in prison from as much as 25 years, according to Alison Siegler, director of the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School.

The ATF investigations have also faced legal backlash around the country, including in California, where last year two federal judges ruled the stings amounted to entrapment.

Katharine Tinto, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, said hundreds of people nationally have been charged as part of the drug house ruse. The ATF has been using this sting for at least a decade, she said. Tinto said she believes the decision to drop the cases in Chicago is an acknowledgment of the fact that federal agents involved in the sting set the quantity of the phony drugs, a critical factor in driving the sentencing.

The dismissal of the seven cases likely "signals that the government is starting to take a critical look both at these tactics and the immense sentencing these tactics can bring," Tinto said.  "In this tactic the drugs are imaginary, and the amount of the drugs is set by the government."

I have been preaching in recent years that I have come to believe that aggressive litigation taking on some of the worst extremes of the federal drug war and excesses of mass incarceration was more likely to "move the sentencing reform needle" as much, if not more, than legislative advocacy directed and a gridlocked Congress. This story reinforces my sense that more and more federal judges are growing more and more willing to criticize and seek to rein in what they more and more are seeing as federal prosecutorial overreach in the drug war and elsewhere.

January 30, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Friday, January 23, 2015

"Where Do We Go from Here? Mass Incarceration and the Struggle for Civil Rights"

The title of this post is the title of this recent essay by Robynn J.A. Cox  from the Economic Policy Institute.  Here is the essay's executive summary:

On the surface, crime and punishment appear to be unsophisticated matters.  After all, if someone takes part in a crime, then shouldn’t he or she have to suffer the consequences? But dig deeper and it is clear that crime and punishment are multidimensional problems that stem from racial prejudice justified by age-old perceptions and beliefs about African Americans.  The United States has a dual criminal justice system that has helped to maintain the economic and social hierarchy in America, based on the subjugation of blacks, within the United States.  Public policy, criminal justice actors, society and the media, and criminal behavior have all played roles in creating what sociologist Loic Wacquant calls the hyperincarceration of black men.  But there are solutions to rectify this problem.

To summarize the major arguments in this essay, the root cause of the hyperincarceration of blacks (and in particular black men) is society’s collective choice to become more punitive. These tough-on-crime laws, which applied to all Americans, could be maintained only because of the dual legal system developed from the legacy of racism in the United States. That is, race allowed for society to avoid the trade-off between societies “demand” to get tough on crime and its “demand” to retain civil liberties, through unequal enforcement of the law. In essence, tying crime to observable characteristics (such as race or religious affiliation) allowed the majority in society to pass tough-on-crime policies without having to bear the full burden of these policies, permitting these laws to be sustained over time.

What’s more, the history of racism, which is also linked to the history of perceptions of race and crime, has led society to choose to fight racial economic equality using the criminal justice system (i.e., incarceration) instead of choosing to reduce racial disparities through consistent investments in social programs (such as education, job training, and employment, which have greater public benefits), as King (1968) lobbied for before his assassination. In other words, society chose to use incarceration as a welfare program to deal with the poor, especially since the underprivileged are disproportionately people of color.

At the same time, many communities attempted to benefit economically from mass incarceration by using prisons as a strategy for economic growth, making the incarceration system eerily similar to the system of slavery. Given all of the documented social and economic costs of mass incarceration (e.g., inferior labor market opportunities, increases in the racial disparity in HIV/AIDS, destruction of the family unit), it can be concluded that it has helped to maintain the economic hierarchy, predicated on race, in the United States. In order to undo the damage that has been done, and in order to move beyond our racial past, we must as a nation reeducate ourselves about race; and then, as a society, commit to investing in social programs targeted toward at-risk youth. We must also ensure diversity in criminal justice professionals in order to achieve the economic equality that King fought for prior to his death. Although mass incarceration policies have recently received a great deal of attention (due to incarceration becoming prohibitively costly), failure to address the legacy of racism passed down by our forefathers and its ties to economic oppression will only result in the continued reinvention of Jim Crow.

January 23, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 22, 2015

"Heroin addiction sent me to prison. White privilege got me out and to the Ivy League."

The provocative title of this post is the headline of this provocative Washington Post piece authored by Keri Blakinger. Here is how it gets started (with links from the original): 

I was a senior at Cornell University when I was arrested for heroin possession.  As an addict — a condition that began during a deep depression — I was muddling my way through classes and doing many things I would come to regret, including selling drugs to pay for my own habit.  I even began dating a man with big-time drug connections that put me around large amounts of heroin.  When police arrested me in 2010, I was carrying six ounces, an amount they valued at $50,000 — enough to put me in prison for up to 10 years.  Cornell suspended me indefinitely and banned me from campus. I had descended from a Dean’s List student to a felon.

But instead of a decade behind bars and a life grasping for the puny opportunities America affords some ex-convicts, I got a second chance.  In a plea deal, I received a sentence of 2½ years. After leaving prison, I soon got a job as a reporter at a local newspaper. Then Cornell allowed me to start taking classes again, and I graduated last month. What made my quick rebound possible?

I am white.

Second chances don’t come easily to people of color in the United States.  But when you are white, society offers routes to rebuild your life.  When found guilty of a drug crime, white people receive shorter sentences than black people. And even after prison, white men fare better in the job market than black men with identical criminal records.

It was prison that clued me in to just how much I benefit from systemic racism in our society. Until then, I hadn’t thought much about white privilege, which is exactly how privilege works — as a white person, I could ignore it.  But sitting behind bars, I saw how privilege touches almost everything, especially the penal system.

January 22, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Political scientist highlights how Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden helped produce modern mass incarcertation

Murakawa2014I first spotlighted in this prior post the fascinating new book by Princeton Professor Naomi Murakawa titled The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison in America.  I now see that The Marshall Project has published this great piece by Dana Goldstein with a brief overview of the book and a potent Q&A with its author.  Here is how the piece starts and some of my favorite excerpts:

Are liberals as responsible for the prison boom as conservatives?

That’s the thesis of a new book, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America.  It has begun to attract reviews and debate from across the political spectrum.  Princeton political scientist Naomi Murakawa seeks to upend assumptions about the politics of crime and punishment.  She argues that conservatives, playing the politics of racial animus, helped quadruple the incarceration rate, but they were not alone.  Rather, she points to “liberal law and order” ideas first expressed by Harry Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, and even the NAACP.  These liberals believed that federalizing crime policy would “professionalize” the justice system and prevent racial bias.  But in fact, federal funding and federal oversight of courts, sentencing, and policing helped build what Murakawa calls a “carceral state” that disproportionately punishes people of color.

Murakawa and I talked about her book and its implications for criminal justice reform today, especially the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the Obama administration’s policing reforms....

Q: Your book aims to expose the liberal roots of the prison boom.  But Democrats did not create the Willie Horton ad.  It was Richard Nixon who expanded the drug war by claiming that drug use was “the common denominator” that explained lawlessness among hippies, inner-city blacks, and antiwar protestors.  Is it important to distinguish between the different motives of conservatives and liberals?

A: I think it’s important to stay focused on outcomes in terms of how they affect people’s day-to-day lives. I do discount stated intentions quite a lot.  I do this in part because I have a feeling that for those being sentenced under punitive sentencing guidelines it doesn’t make a difference to them that Sen. Ted Kennedy was liberal and overall had a good voting record.  It doesn’t make the brutality of living in a cage any less violent.

Kennedy promulgated this idea of sentencing guidelines.  It was his baby.  He ushered it through the Senate at first as guidelines that were rigid but would have been somewhat anti-carceral.  They became guidelines that were rigid and more carceral.  And Reagan signed this legislation, in 1984. Kennedy had the rest of his life to say, “The sentencing guidelines have had a terrible impact. This is not what I meant.”  Not once did he introduce legislation to reform the guidelines.  Not once did he apologize or try to change it.  When I look at that kind of history, that’s where I feel like it’s fair to hold liberals responsible.

Q: Joe Biden played an interesting role in what you call Democrats “upping the ante” to outbid conservatives on being tough on crime.  Can you talk about Biden’s history?

A:  He was really pivotal in leading the Senate in worsening all of the provisions of Clinton's 1994 Omnibus Crime Act, which expanded the death penalty and created new mandatory minimum sentences.  Biden was truly a leader and worked very closely and very happily with conservative senators just to bid up and up and up.  There’s a tendency now to talk about Joe Biden as the sort of affable if inappropriate uncle, as loudmouth and silly.  But he’s actually done really deeply disturbing, dangerous reforms that have made the criminal justice system more lethal and just bigger.

That 1994 act is overwhelmingly, incredibly punitive.  One of the ways Biden brokered it was by making it such a huge bill that it had something for everyone.  It provided political coverage for everyone who wanted to vote for it.  There were certain liberal members who might have been opposed to mandatory minimums, but they were also getting the Violence Against Women Act.  The Congressional Black Caucus opposed the death penalty expansions, but the bill also did include some modest money for rehabilitation programs. Everyone got goodies through the criminal justice system.

Prior related post:

January 15, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Friday, January 09, 2015

"How White Liberals Used Civil Rights to Create More Prisons"

9780199892808The potent title of this post is the potent title of this new piece at The Nation by Willie Osterweil, which serves as a review of sorts of a book by historian Naomi Murakawa titled The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison in America. Both the full Nation article and the book it discusses are worth attention, and here are excerpts from the article:

In her first book, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison in America, historian Naomi Murakawa demonstrates how the American prison state emerged not out of race-baiting states’-rights advocates nor tough-on-crime drug warriors but rather from federal legislation written by liberals working to guarantee racial equality under the law.  The prison industry, and its associated police forces, spy agencies and kangaroo courts, is perhaps the most horrific piece of a fundamentally racist and unequal American civil society.  More people are under correctional supervision in the United States than were in the Gulag archipelago at the height of the Great Terror; there are more black men in prison, jail or parole than were enslaved in 1850. How did this happen?

The common-sense answer is that launching the war on drugs during the backlash against civil-rights struggles encouraged agents of the criminal-justice system to lock up black people for minor infractions.  This isn’t wrong, or not exactly. Ronald Reagan’s infamous Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which established federal minimums (a k a sentencing “guidelines”) and abolished parole in the federal prison systems, did lead to an explosion in the number of federal prisoners, particularly drug offenders.  It was one of the pivotal moments in the production of the prison-industrial complex (PIC) — the overlapping sphere of government and industrial activity that employs hundreds of thousands of guards, cops, judges, lawyers, bail-bondsmen, administrators and service employees and which sees millions of prisoners performing barely paid production labor to generate profit.  But, as Murakawa painstakingly demonstrates, the Sentencing Reform Act has a “liberal core,” and is built on the technical and administrative logic of racial fairness that structures all federal civil-rights legislation.

This is the fundamental thesis of Murakawa’s book: legal civil rights and the American carceral state are built on the same conceptions of race, the state and their relationship. As liberals believe that racism is first and foremost a question of individual bias, they imagine racism can be overcome by removing the discretion of (potentially racist) individuals within government through a set of well-crafted laws and rules.  If obviously discriminatory laws can be struck down, and judges, statesmen or administrators aren’t allowed to give reign to their racism, then the system should achieve racially just outcomes.  But even putting aside the fact that a removal of individual discretion is impossible, such a conception of “fairness” applies just as easily to producing sentencing minimums as school desegregation....

Murakawa does not simply collapse liberal and conservative into each other. She makes an important distinction between postwar racial-liberalism and postwar racial-conservatism. Race conservatives are those who don’t believe that racism is real, but that race is: they believe that black people are innately inferior to whites, and attribute their place in society to a failure of black culture. This race-conservatism is what is broadly considered “real racism.”

Race-liberalism, on the other hand, remains the dominant — and usually unspoken — American framework for understanding race.  Built on the premise that racism is real but manifests as the prejudice of white people, race-liberals argue that individuals’ racism can corrupt institutions and bias them against black people.  That bias damages black psyches as well as black people’s economic and social prospects.  Race-liberals believe that training, laws, stricter rules and oversight can eliminate prejudice and render institutions “colorblind.” Since it is biased treatment that damages black prospects, then this fix — civil rights — applied to all of society’s institutions, would eventually end racial disparity.

Both race-liberals and race-conservatives base their theories on one disastrous assumption: black people naturally produce crime.  For race-conservatives, black people are innately, genetically criminal, full stop.  For race-liberals, the psychological, economic and social damage of prejudice makes black people “lash out” violently and criminally–either in the form of individual criminal acts or, as the black freedom movement begins in earnest, as protests and rioting. Under both schema, however, the reason society must achieve racial equality is because equality will eliminate black crime.

January 9, 2015 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

"How to reduce poverty and improve race relations by rethinking our justice system"

The title of this post is the subheadline of this notable Politico commentary authored by Charles Koch and Mark Holden.  Here are excerpts:

As Americans, we like to believe the rule of law in our country is respected and fairly applied, and that only those who commit crimes of fraud or violence are punished and imprisoned.  But the reality is often different.  It is surprisingly easy for otherwise law-abiding citizens to run afoul of the overwhelming number of federal and state criminal laws.  This proliferation is sometimes referred to as “overcriminalization,” which affects us all, but most profoundly harms our disadvantaged citizens.

Overcriminalization has led to the mass incarceration of those ensnared by our criminal justice system, even though such imprisonment does not always enhance public safety. Indeed, more than half of federal inmates are nonviolent drug offenders.  Enforcing so many victimless crimes inevitably leads to conflict between our citizens and law enforcement.  As we have seen all too often, it can place our police officers in harm’s way, leading to tragic consequences for all involved.

How did we get in this situation?  It began with well-intentioned lawmakers who went overboard trying to solve perceived or actual problems.  Congress creates, on average, more than 50 new criminal laws each year.  Over time, this has translated into more than 4,500 federal criminal laws spread across 27,000 pages of the United States federal code. (This number does not include the thousands of criminal penalties in federal regulations.) As a result, the United States is the world’s largest jailer — first in the world for total number imprisoned and first among industrialized nations in the rate of incarceration....

We have paid a heavy price for mass incarceration and could benefit by reversing this trend.  It has been estimated that at least 53 percent of those entering prison were living at or below the U.S. poverty line when their sentence began.  Incarceration leads to a 40 percent decrease in annual earnings, reduced job tenure and higher unemployment.  A Pew Charitable Trust study revealed that two-thirds of former inmates with earnings in the bottom fifth upon release in 1986, remained at or below that level 20 years later.  A Villanova University study concluded that “had mass incarceration not occurred, poverty would have decreased by more than 20 percent, or about 2.8 percentage points” and “several million fewer people would have been in poverty in recent years.” African-Americans, who make up around 13 percent of the U.S. population but account for almost 40 percent of the inmates, are significantly affected by these issues.

According to Harvard sociologist Bruce Western: “Prison has become the new poverty trap. It has become a routine event for poor African-American men and their families, creating an enduring disadvantage at the very bottom of American society.”...

Fixing our criminal system could reduce the overall poverty rate as much as 30 percent, dramatically improving the quality of life throughout society — especially for the disadvantaged.

Some prior related posts on Koch family efforts in support of criminal justice reform:

January 7, 2015 in Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Congressional Black Caucus saying it will focus on criminal justice reform

I expect the next few years to be dynamic with respect to federal criminal justice reform, and this inside-the-Beltway story provides another reason why:

The Congressional Black Caucus will focus on criminal justice reform, U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina said in a speech on Tuesday at a ceremony where he was sworn in as the group’s new chairman. “There is a well-founded mistrust between the African American community and law enforcement officers,” Butterfield said in a speech. “The statistics are clear. Video clips are clear.

“We recognize that the overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers put their lives on the line every day to protect our communities. Unfortunately, there are some officers who abuse the sacred responsibility to protect and serve by using excessive, and sometimes deadly force when a less severe response is warranted,” the North Carolina Democrat said. “The CBC will seek legislative action to reverse this terrible trend.”

The Congressional Black Caucus also would work to try to change sentencing laws, hold prosecutors to ethical standards, and ensure that defendants have competent lawyers, Butterfield added....

The Congressional Black Caucus welcomed five new members at the ceremony where Butterfield spoke, including one Republican, conservative Mia Love of Utah, and Democratic Reps. Alma Adams of North Carolina, Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey, Brenda Lawrence of Michigan and Stacey Plaskett of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

As I noted in this prior post, Mia Love, the first black Republican woman ever elected to Congress, could be an especially important voice on these issues if she embraces the CBC's commitment to making these matters a priority for reforms.

A few prior related posts:

January 7, 2015 in Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

GOP apparently eager to have Eric Holder as AG for at least one more month

The (slightly) tongue-in-cheek title of this post is my reaction to the news reported in "this notable NPR report, titled "Senate Slow To Schedule Hearings For Attorney General Nominee."  In the piece, Carrie Johnson reports that Democrats have been pushing for confirmation hearings ASAP for Attorney General nominee Lorreta Lynch, but new GOP Judiciary Chair Charles Grassley has indicated that these hearings will not take place before the last week in January  at the earliest.

I am very eager for the Lynch hearings because they should provide an important window into what both the GOP-controlled Congress and the Obama Administration are thinking about on federal criminal justice issues for the next two years.  But I suspect the GOP is feeling a bit forced to take a go slow approach on how to best approach (and attack) nominee Lynch and Prez Obama on these fronts, in part because the GOP has real internal divisions on these issues and in part because racial issues and divides are especially salient in criminal justice reform discussions these days.  

So, because AG Eric Holder remains in his position until his successor is confirmed, the GOP Senate is right now functionally extending his term as the nation's top prosecutor and lawyer. 

January 6, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Monday, January 05, 2015

"Is Obama Finally Ready To Dial Back The War On Drugs?"

Meme1The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy Forbes piece by Jacob Sullum, which provides preview of sorts of of some of the biggest federal criminal justice issues to keep an eye on in the year to come. The piece merits a full read, and here are excerpts:

Some critics of the war on drugs — a crusade that Obama had declared “an utter failure” in 2004 — predicted that he would improve in his second term.  Safely re­elected, he would not have to worry that looking soft on drugs would cost him votes, and he would finally act on his avowed belief that the war on drugs is unjust and ineffective.  As Obama embarks on the third year of his second term, it looks like the optimists were partially right, although much hinges on what he does during the next two years.  Here are some of the ways in which Obama has begun to deliver on his promises of a more rational, less punitive approach to psychoactive substances:

Marijuana Legalization. Although the federal government cannot stop states from legalizing marijuana, it can make trouble for the ones that do by targeting state­licensed growers and retailers.  Under a policy announced in August 2013, the Justice Department has declined to do so, reserving its resources for cannabis operations that violate state law or implicate “federal law enforcement priorities.”...

Federal Marijuana Ban.... Contrary to the impression left by the president, the executive branch has the authority to reschedule marijuana without new legislation from Congress. In September, a few days before announcing that he planned to step down soon, Holder said whether marijuana belongs in the same category as heroin is “certainly a question that we need to ask ourselves.” Since the Controlled Substances Act empowers Holder to reclassify marijuana, it would have been nice if he had asked that question a little sooner. Still, Holder was willing to publicly question marijuana’s Schedule I status, something no sitting attorney general had done before.

Sentencing Reform.  Obama supports the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would make the 2010 crack penalty changes retroactive, cut the mandatory minimums for certain drug offenses in half, and loosen the criteria for the “safety valve” that allows some defendants to escape mandatory minimums.  Beginning last year, Holder has repeatedly criticized our criminal justice system as excessively harsh. Under a new charging policy he established last year, hundreds of drug offenders could avoid mandatory minimums each year....

Clemency.  After a pitiful performance in his first term, Obama has signaled a new openness to clemency petitions.  Last April an unnamed “senior administration official” told Yahoo News the administration’s new clemency guidelines could result in “hundreds, perhaps thousands,” of commutations.  Obama’s total so far, counting eight commutations announced a few weeks ago, is just 18, but he still has two years to go....

A few months ago, Obama chose former ACLU attorney Vanita Gupta, a passionate critic of the war on drugs who emphasizes its disproportionate racial impact (a theme Obama and Holder also have taken up), to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.  A year before her appointment, Gupta had criticized Holder’s moves on drug sentencing as an inadequate response to mass incarceration.  The previous month, she had endorsed marijuana legalization. The next two years will show whether Gupta’s appointment is a sop to disappointed Obama supporters or a signal of bolder steps to come.

If Obama actually uses his clemency power to free thousands, or even hundreds, of drug war prisoners, that would be historically unprecedented, and it would go a long way toward making up for his initial reticence.  He could help even more people by backing sentencing reform, which has attracted bipartisan support in Congress.  And having announced that states should be free to experiment with marijuana legalization, he could declare the experiment a success....

If none of those things happens, Obama’s most significant drug policy accomplishment may be letting states go their own way on marijuana legalization.  Even if our next president is a Republican drug warrior, he will have a hard time reversing that decision, especially given the GOP’s lip service to federalism.

This piece reviews some important basics, though hard-core sentencing fans know that there is a lot more the Obama Administration could be doing to radically reshape the battlefield in the modern federal drug war.

On the marijuana front, for example, DOJ could (and I think should) play an significant role defending Colorado as it gears up a response to the recent Supreme Court suit brought Nebraska and Oklahoma attacking its marijuana reform efforts. In addition, DOJ could (and I think should) be willing to interpret broadly the recent provisions enacted by Congress precluding it from using funds to interfere with state medical marijuana reform efforts.

On the broad drug war front, Prez Obama and DOJ could not only support the Smarter Sentencing Act but even try to give renewed life to the Justice Safety Valve Act. The JSVA, which Senator Rand Paul introduced and robustly promoted, would effectively reform the operation of all mandatory minimum sentencing provisions. Also Prez Obama and DOJ, especially in light of renewed concerns about racial biases in criminal justice systems, could (and I think should) return to the issue of crack sentencing reform. Specifically, given the apparent success of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which only reduced the crack-powder disparity from the ridiculous 100-1 ratio to a ghastly 18-1, the Prez ought to get behind what I would call the Fully Fair Sentencing Act to eliminate any and all crack-powder sentencing disparity completely.

January 5, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Pot Prohibition Issues, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

"Emotion, Authority, and Death: (Raced) Negotiations in Mock Capital Jury Deliberations"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article discussing notable new capital jury deliberation research authored by Mona Lynch and Craig Haney and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This article explores the role of emotion in the capital penalty-phase jury deliberations process. It is based on the qualitative analysis of data from ninety video-recorded four to seven person simulated jury deliberations that examined the influence of race on death sentencing outcomes.  The analysis explores when and how emotions are expressed, integrated into the jury’s sentencing process, and deployed in penalty-phase decision making.

The findings offer critical new insights into the role that emotion plays in influencing these legal judgments by revealing how jurors strategically and explicitly employ emotion in the course of deliberation, both to support their own positions and neutralize or rebut the opposing positions of others.  The findings also shed light on the various ways that white male capital jurors utilize a panoply of powerful emotion-based tactics to sway others to their position in a manner that often contributes to racially biased outcomes.

December 31, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, December 29, 2014

Big talk from Charles Koch about big (money) criminal justice reform efforts

This lengthy article from the Wichita Eagle is garnering attention because of its report on who is now paying a lot of attention to criminal justice reform.  The piece is headlined "Charles Koch’s views on criminal justice system just may surprise you," and here are excerpts:

Of all the contentious history between Koch Industries and the U.S. government, the Corpus Christi, Texas, case from 1995 is the one that Charles Koch remembers most vividly. A federal grand jury indicted his company on 97 felonies involving alleged environmental crimes at an oil refinery.

Prosecutors dropped all but one of the charges six years later, after the company spent tens of millions of dollars defending itself. Ultimately, Koch Petroleum Group agreed to pay a $10 million settlement.

“It was a really, really torturous experience,” said Mark Holden, Koch’s chief counsel. “We learned first-hand what happens when anyone gets into the criminal justice system.” Holden said Charles Koch wondered afterward “how the little guy who doesn’t have Koch’s resources deals with prosecutions like that.”

No one at Koch wants to re-litigate the Corpus Christi case, Holden said. But it prompted Charles Koch to study the justice system — both federal and state — wondering whether it has been over-criminalized with too many laws and too many prosecutions of nonviolent offenders, not only for him but for everybody. His conclusion: Yes, it has.

Ten years ago, he began giving money to support efforts by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to help train defense lawyers and reverse what some see as a national trend to get tough on crime, which has resulted in the tripling of the incarceration rate since the 1980s and has stripped the poor of their rights to a legal defense. He’s going to give more to that effort, he said.

“Over the next year, we are going to be pushing the issues key to this, which need a lot of work in this country,” Koch said. “And that would be freedom of speech, cronyism and how that relates to opportunities for the disadvantaged.” The nation’s criminal justice system needs reform, “especially for the disadvantaged,” Koch said, “making it fair and making (criminal) sentences more appropriate to the crime that has been committed.”...

The Corpus Christi case led Charles Koch and his company to give money, starting about 10 years ago, to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The company and the association would not say how much Koch has given, but the amount totals in the seven figures, Holden said.

Campaigning against overcriminalization has prompted Koch to form unofficial alliances with people and organizations that usually champion liberal causes, including political activist George Soros and the American Civil Liberties Union, who are also campaigning for a reduction in prison populations....

Holden, Koch’s counsel ... said laws allow many crimes to be expunged from someone’s record. But that’s a tricky legal process, and many poor people don’t have the money to hire lawyers, he said. It makes no sense to give a life sentence like that to nonviolent offenders after they’ve served time, Holden said. “If you have a nonviolent felony and you get out of prison, we as a country can’t forgive and forget?” he asked.

Some prior related posts on Koch family efforts in support of criminal justice reform:

December 29, 2014 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Two astute commentaries about California's emerging Prop 47 issues

0Two local California paper have two distinct commentaries about Proposition 47 and its aftermath. Both are worth reading, and here are links and excerpts from the start and end of each piece:

Opinion by Alexandra Natapoff, headlined "Prop 47 empties prisons but opens a can of worms":

California is doubling down on decriminalization. Three weeks ago, the passage of Prop. 47 converted a half-dozen felonies to misdemeanors. In 2011, marijuana possession was reclassified from a misdemeanor to an infraction without jail time. If Rip Van Winkle fell asleep a decade ago at the height of California’s prison boom and woke up this morning, he’d quickly recognize this as a scramble to undo decades of harsh and expensive policy.

The state is not alone — we are seeing a seismic shift in how the United States handles punishment, especially with respect to misdemeanor decriminalization. Marijuana is the most famous example, but many states are eliminating jail time for other minor offenses, such as driving violations and public order crimes, and replacing them with so-called “nonjailable misdemeanors,” “nonarrestable” or “fine-only” offenses, and “civil infractions.”

There are a lot of great things about decriminalization. But it has a surprisingly punitive and racially charged dark side, and it doesn’t always work the way people think it does. The “non-jailable misdemeanor” — popular in many states — is still a crime that triggers arrest, probation and fines, criminal records and other collateral consequences. Even the gold standard of decriminalization — the “non-arrestable” civil infraction — can derail a defendant’s employment, education and immigration status, while the failure to pay noncriminal fines can lead to contempt citations and incarceration. And while decriminalization sounds egalitarian — after all, it’s a promise not to lock up people who would usually get locked up — sometimes it might actually make things worse for the poor and people of color....

It’s often hard to tell whether criminal justice reform is real progress or a shell game. Is California actually reducing incarceration, or is it quietly shifting prisoners around or repackaging punishment so as to avoid appointing lawyers for poor people? Decriminalization offers great promise, but it needs to be carefully monitored to make sure it lives up to its tantalizing name.

Editorial by Los Angeles Daily News, headlined "Prop. 47 sentencing changes are working out just as feared":

The saga of Proposition 47 and its troublesome implications is a crime story in which everybody left fingerprints except the real villains. The villains are California legislators, who kept their hands off the crucial challenge of criminal sentencing reform despite the need to address the state’s big problems with prison overcrowding and overly harsh policies that favor punishment over rehabilitation.

With lawmakers unwilling or unable to touch the issue, advocates picked it up and handed over the complex topic of sentencing reform to the public in the form of last month’s ballot initiative. Voters were asked to say yes or no to reducing felony sentences to misdemeanor penalties for many drug-possession and other criminal convictions.

The well-intended but dangerously flawed Prop. 47 passed easily with 59 percent of the vote. Now state and local legal authorities, including those in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, are having to confront the consequences....

In Humboldt County, the release of 35 percent of the county jail population has been accompanied by a reported rise in burglaries, thefts and vandalism. If that becomes a state trend, so much for Prop. 47 supporters’ title for the measure: The Safe Neighborhood and Schools Act.

It’s possible Prop. 47’s troubles can be worked out and it will achieve its goals. When FiveThirtyEight.com’s data journalists analyzed outcomes in states that have undertaken similar sentencing reforms, they found more positive than negative results at reducing prison populations and incarceration costs.

But the results in California will bear watching. Gov. Jerry Brown, who had planned to issue prison-reform proposals in January, other state officials and legislators must be ready and willing to act to make this work. Of course, if lawmakers had been willing to tackle the issue earlier, we wouldn’t be in this situation now.

December 7, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

"Actually, Blacks Do Care About Black Crime"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Slate commentary by Jamelle Bouie. Here are excerpts: 

In cities across the country, crowds are protesting police violence against unarmed black men. Demonstrators want justice, not just for Michael Brown, but for Eric Garner, John Crawford, and Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy killed by Cleveland police last month.  To that end, they’ve stopped parades and blocked highways in an effort to show the value of a black life.

But to some critics, this outrage is misplaced.  “Somebody has to tell me, something somebody needs to tell me why Michael Brown has been chosen as the face of black oppression,” said MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough on Monday morning, during his daily show.  His co-panelist, Donny Deutsch, agreed. “It’s not a black-white situation. It’s a thug-police officer situation,” he said. “Where are the angry crowds demanding justice for blacks such as these, who were wiped out in St. Louis by other blacks in recent memory?” wonders Deroy Murdock in a column for National Review. “One can hear birds chirp while listening for public outcry over the deaths of black citizens killed by black perpetrators. Somehow, these black lives don’t seem to matter,” writes Murdock, who doesn’t note that — in those cases — perpetrators are usually caught and convicted.  And then there’s former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who—after President Obama spoke on Ferguson — told CNN that “[Obama] also should have spent 15 minutes on training the [black] community to stop killing each other.”

This basic question — “Where is all the outrage over black-on-black crime?” — is raised whenever black Americans protest a police shooting, or any other violence against unarmed black men.  “Nationally, nearly half of all murder victims are black,” wrote conservative commentator Juan Williams after Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012, “And the overwhelming majority of those black people are killed by other black people. Where is the march for them?”...

[L]et’s look directly at the question raised by Murdock, Giuliani, and Williams — “Do black people care about crime in their neighborhoods?” They treat it as a rhetorical concern — a prelude to broad statements about black American concerns. But we should treat it as an empirical question — an issue we can resolve with some time and research.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds. While blacks are more likely to face criminal victimization than other groups, that doesn’t tell us how black Americans feel about crime and where it ranks as a problem for their communities.  For that, we have to look to public opinion surveys and other research. And while it’s hard to draw a conclusive answer, all the available evidence points to one answer: Yes, black people are concerned with crime in their neighborhoods....

[W]hile black neighborhoods are far less dangerous than they were a generational ago, black people are still concerned with victimization.  Take this 2014 report from the Sentencing Project on perceptions of crime and support for punitive policies.  Using data from the University of Albany’s Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, the Sentencing Project found that — as a group — racial minorities are more likely than whites to report an “area within a mile of their home where they would be afraid to walk alone at night” (41 percent to 30 percent) and more likely to say there are certain neighborhoods they avoid, which they otherwise might want to go to (54 percent to 46 percent). And among black Americans in particular — circa 2003 — “43 percent said they were ‘very satisfied’ about their physical safety in contrast to 59 percent of Hispanics, and 63 percent of whites.”

More recent data shows a similar picture. In 2012, Gallup found that, compared to the general public, blacks were more worried about “being attacked” while driving their car, more worried about being the victim of a hate crime, and — most salient for our discussion — more worried about “being murdered.” Likewise, according to a 2013 survey for NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health, 26 percent of black Americans rank crime as the most important issue facing the area they live. That’s higher than the ranking for the economy (16 percent), housing (4 percent), the environment (7 percent), social issues (4 percent), and infrastructure (7 percent). And in a recently published survey for Ebony magazine and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, 13 percent rank violent crime as a top issue — which sits in the middle of the rankings — and 48 percent say that the black community is losing ground on the issue.

Finally, Atlantic Media’s “State of the City” poll — published this past summer—shows an “urban minority” class that’s worried about crime, and skeptical toward law enforcement, but eager for a greater police presence if it means less crime.  Just 22 percent of respondents say they feel “very safe” walking in their neighborhoods after dark, and only 35 percent say they have “a lot” of confidence in their local police.  That said, 60 percent say hiring more police would have a “major impact” on improving safety in their neighborhoods.  And while “urban minority” includes a range of different groups, there’s a good chance this is representative of black opinion in some areas of high crime and victimization, given the large black presence in many American cities.

It’s important to note that this concern with crime doesn’t translate to support for punitive policies. Despite high victimization rates, black Americans are consistently opposed to harsh punishments and greater incarceration.  Instead, they support more education and job training.

Beyond the data, there’s the anecdotal evidence. And in short, it’s easy to find examples of marches and demonstrations against crime. In the last four years, blacks have held community protests against violence in Chicago; New York; Newark, New Jersey; Pittsburgh; Saginaw, Michigan; and Gary, Indiana. Indeed, there’s a whole catalog of movies, albums, and sermons from a generation of directors, musicians, and religious leaders, each urging peace and order. You may not have noticed black protests against crime and violence, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t happened. Black Americans — like everyone else — are concerned with what happens in their communities, and at a certain point, pundits who insist otherwise are either lying or willfully ignorant....

To that point, it’s worth noting the extent to which “what about black-on-black crime” is an evasion, an attempt to avoid the fundamental difference between being killed by a citizen and being killed by an agent of law.

December 2, 2014 in National and State Crime Data, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

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.

November 26, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

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.

November 25, 2014 in Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

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):

November 25, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

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.

November 20, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Notable past remarks by AG-nominee Lynch on criminal justice reform to the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

DownloadI 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:

November 11, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

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.

November 9, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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.

November 8, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

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.

October 22, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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:

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."

October 19, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

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....

Best Regards,

Stephen Engelberg/Editor in Chief, ProPublica

October 17, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

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.

October 2, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Intriguing new research on criminal justice impact of distinct marijuana reforms

Marijuana_comparison_Max.286.0The 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

October 2, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Noting the dynamics and debate over risk-assessments at sentencing

NA-CC851_SENTEN_D_20140923153009This 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:

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

MacThe 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.

September 17, 2014 in Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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.

September 16, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack