Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Shouldn't AG Holder's speech impact federal judges at sentencing ... such as Jesse Jackson Jr.'s?

In this post late yesterday, I provided a lot of lengthy excerpts from Attorney General Eric Holder's remarks to the ABA calling for significant sentencing reforms.  Today I have been thinking about an abridged summary of the AG's speech which, were I advocating for a federal defendant in court at sentencing, I might commit to memory:

Attorney General Eric Holder, the nation's top prosecutor and leader of the federal criminal justice system, has expressly complained that “our system is in too many respects broken.”  AG Holder has called some federal mandatory minimum prison terms “excessive” and “draconian” and asserted “they oftentimes generate unfairly long sentences”; he has asserted that “people of color often face harsher punishments than their peers” and called this “reality” both “shameful” and “unworthy of our great country.” 

Most fundamentally, AG Holder has now repeatedly lamented that “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason,” and he has cajoled “every member of our profession” to recognize that “it’s well past time” to consider a “fundamentally new approach” in order to “break free of a tired status quo” and “take bold steps to reform and strengthen America’s criminal justice system.”

Indeed, AG Holder has said that “together we must declare that we will no longer settle for such an unjust and unsustainable status quo” and that “this is our solemn obligation, as stewards of the law, and servants of those whom it protects and empowers.” For these reasons, your honor, I respectfully contend that imposing a guideline sentence (or whatever prison sentence sought by the prosecution) would risk reinforcing an unjust and unsustainable status quo.
I would think this advocacy could and should be especially effective when defendants are people of color whom, according to the US Attorney General, "often face harsher punishments than their peers.” People like, for example, Jesse Jackson Jr. and Sandi Jackson who, as detailed in recent press reports here and here, are scheduled to be sentencing tomorrow in federal district court in DC.

August 13, 2013 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (24) | TrackBack

Friday, August 02, 2013

"Sentencing Reform Starts to Pay Off"

The title of this post is the headline of this (too short) new New York Times editorial. Here is the text:

In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the vast disparity in the way the federal courts punish crack versus powder cocaine offenses. Instead of treating 100 grams of cocaine the same as 1 gram of crack for sentencing purposes, the law cut the ratio to 18 to 1. Initially, the law applied only to future offenders, but, a year later, the United States Sentencing Commission voted to apply it retroactively. Republicans raged, charging that crime would go up and that prisoners would overwhelm the courts with frivolous demands for sentence reductions. Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa said the commission was pursuing “a liberal agenda at all costs.”

This week, we began to learn that there are no costs, only benefits. According to a preliminary report released by the commission, more than 7,300 federal prisoners have had their sentences shortened under the law. The average reduction is 29 months, meaning that over all, offenders are serving roughly 16,000 years fewer than they otherwise would have. And since the federal government spends about $30,000 per year to house an inmate, this reduction alone is worth nearly half-a-billion dollars — big money for a Bureau of Prisons with a $7 billion budget. In addition, the commission found no significant difference in recidivism rates between those prisoners who were released early and those who served their full sentences.

Federal judges nationwide have long expressed vigorous disagreement with both the sentencing disparity and the mandatory minimum sentences they are forced to impose, both of which have been drivers of our bloated federal prison system. But two bipartisan bills in Congress now propose a cheaper and more humane approach. It would include reducing mandatory minimums, giving judges more flexibility to sentence below those minimums, and making more inmates eligible for reductions to their sentences under the new ratio.

But 18 to 1 is still out of whack. The ratio was always based on faulty science and misguided assumptions, and it still disproportionately punishes blacks, who make up more than 80 percent of those prosecuted for federal crack offenses. The commission and the Obama administration have called for a 1-to-1 ratio. The question is not whether we can afford to do it, but whether we can afford not to.

As my many blog posts highlight, there is a lot more which can and needs to be said concerning all the topics that this editorial touches upon. But I am very pleased to see that the Times is noticing the impact of recent federal sentencing reforms and call for more.

August 2, 2013 in New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

New USSC data on implimentation and impact of retroactive crack guidelines after FSA

I just noticed on the US Sentencing Commission's website this new data report carrying the title "Preliminary Crack Retroactivity Data Report; Fair Sentencing Act."  This report, dated July 2013, appears to be the latest accounting of who has (and has not) received the benefit of retroactive application of the 2011 amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines for crack offenses which implemented the new 18-1 crack/powder ratio that Congress created via the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.

Based on the information reflected in Tables 1 amd 8 of this data report, it appears that just over 7300 defendants received, on average, a 29-month reduction in their crack sentences thanks to the new FSA-inspired crack guidelines being made retroactive.  Significantly, this average reduction merely lowered the average crack sentence from roughly 12.5 years to just over 10 years for the group receiving sentence reductions; this means that even the new-average-lowered sentence for crack offenses were still significantly higher that the average sentences imposed for any other federal drug crimes.

For those eager to gauge the potential economic impact of FSA retroactivity, it appears that the retroactive guidelines as implemented has now saved almost 16,000 cumulative years of federal imprisonment, with a consequent savings to federal taxpayers of approximately a half-billion dollars (based on a conservative estimate of a taxpayer cost of roughly $30,000 per prisoner for each year of federal incarceration).  And for those concerned about racial sentencing dynamics, Table 5 of this data reports that more than 85% of those benefiting from reduced crack sentences have been black prisoners, demonstrating once again the historically racialized reality of federal crack prosecutions.

As I have said in prior posts, if those defendants who received reduced sentences find ways to become productive (and tax-paying) citizens, the benefits to society will profoundly transcend the saved incarceration costs. And it those defendants do not learn the error of their law-breaking ways, I both expect and hope they will really get the sentencing book thrown at them if ever up for sentencing again.

July 30, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, July 29, 2013

New Slate pitch for Prez to use clemency powers to address crack sentencing disparities

Thanks to the suggestions, and insights and energy of Harlan Protass, a criminal-defense lawyer in New York and an adjunct professor at the Cardozo School of Law, some ideas expressed in this recent post concerning the President Obama's words and (lack of) actions now find expression in this new Slate commentary.  Here is how the piece, co-written by me and Harlan, starts and finishes:

President Barack Obama, commenting last week on George Zimmerman’s acquittal in Trayvon Martin’s death, remarked on “a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.”  A few months earlier, Attorney General Eric Holder similarly lamented new government data suggesting that even today “black male offenders” are sentenced to federal prison terms “nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes.”  These statements reveal that our nation’s first African-American president and first African-American attorney general are aware of serious racial discrimination in the administration of our nation’s criminal laws.  The question is what they plan to do about it?

Neither the president, nor his attorney general, has followed-up or suggested a fix for the problem.  Yet with one signature, Obama could make a remarkable difference: He could use his constitutional powers to commute the sentences of thousands of disproportionately black inmates serving excessive prison terms for crack cocaine offenses.  Put bluntly, rather than dropping occasional comments about high-profile criminal-justice incidents with racial overtones, both the president and the attorney general should make a focused and sustained effort to redress longstanding criminal justice disparities....

Back in 2009, Holder famously described us as a “nation of cowards” in dealing with race issues.  And while both Holder and the president seem to have the courage to speak about high-profile cases, they have yet to show the fortitude and focus needed to turn high-profile controversies into constructive opportunities.  If President Obama is genuinely committed to addressing racial disparities in the enforcement of our criminal laws, he can grant clemency today, and then make a sustained commitment to addressing these issues throughout his second term.  If he fails to do so, he can, justifiably, be called our nation’s “Coward-in-Chief” where race is concerned.

July 29, 2013 in Clemency and Pardons, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (33) | TrackBack

Friday, July 26, 2013

If you have any concerns about female federal prisoners...

Danburythen you should be especially troubled by this new blog post by Todd Bussert titled "New Hardships For Female Prisoners." That post spotlights this new Slate piece by LawProf Judith Resnik, which highlights the main concern via its headline and subheading: "Harder Time: Why are the federal prison beds for women in the Northeast going to men — while the women get shipped to Alabama?". Here is an excerpt from the Slate piece:

This August, the Federal Bureau of Prisons plans to start shipping women out of its only prison for women in the Northeast, located in Danbury, Conn. — 70 miles from New York City, and in easy reach of visitors for the many prisoners who come from there.

Danbury (where Piper Kerman, who wrote Orange is the New Black, did her time) will soon have only 200 spots for women (in a separate low-security camp).  The prison’s other 1,100 beds will go to men.  Most of the women are slated to be sent to a new 1,800-bed facility in Aliceville, Ala. — 1,070 miles from New York City, a drive that takes nearly 16 hours.

Becoming the site of a new federal prison is good news for Aliceville, population 2,500.  As a New York Times editorial explained last year, Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby promoted the facility as an economic boost to the area.  It cost the federal government $250 million.  But as the newspaper also commented, the government bought a “white elephant.” Aliceville is hard for anyone without a car to get to. There is no train station or airport nearby.  Aliceville has no medical center or university, nor many lawyers, religious leaders, or other service providers.

The federal Bureau of Prisons houses about 220,000 people.  Fewer than 7 percent (about 14,500) are women, most of them sentenced for nonviolent crimes, such as drug offenses. Of the 116 facilities the bureau runs, 27 have some beds for women, and seven — counting Danbury — have been exclusively for women.  Danbury is the only prison placement in the Northeast for women.  The federal jails in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Philadelphia are for pretrial detainees.  Other federal facilities for women comparable to Danbury are many miles away, in West Virginia, Florida, and Minnesota....

Being moved far from home limits the opportunities of women being moved out of Danbury; it hurts them in prison and once they get out.  Recent research from Michigan and Ohio documents that inmates who receive regular visits are less likely to have disciplinary problems while in prison and have better chances of staying out of prison once released.

The Bureau of Prisons knows this, as it recognizes the importance of “family and community ties” in its classification system.  The bureau gives inmates points for family ties when assessing the degree of security in which to place individuals.  Getting visits also counts toward qualifying for a transfer to a less secure facility.

Most women come to prison from households with children.  According to the National Women’s Law Center, more than one-half of female federal prisoners have a child under the age of 18.  Last month, the director of the federal prison system sent a memo to all inmates to announce that his staff was “committed to giving you opportunities to enhance your relationship with your children and your role as a parent.”  In addition to letters and calls, he hoped that inmates’ families would bring their children to visit. “There is no substitute for seeing your children, looking them in the eye, and letting them know you care about them,” he wrote.

But for prisoners from New England and the mid-Atlantic states, the move to Aliceville closes off those possibilities.  Placement in Aliceville also makes it harder for lawyers to see their clients and provide help on problems ranging from losing custody of children to challenging convictions.  

What’s the justification for moving Danbury’s women to Aliceville? To make the argument for the large new complex, the Bureau of Prison claimed that Aliceville would benefit women, because the existing facilities for them were about 55 percent over capacity. What the BOP did not mention was that it planned to turn over women’s beds in Danbury to make room for lower security male inmates, also housed in overcrowded facilities.

The skyrocketing numbers of people in prison is a well-known tragedy.  Adding to it is the isolation to which women at Aliceville are being condemned.  The Bureau of Prisons itself describes women as mostly nonviolent and lower escape risks than men.  Why not, therefore, keep Danbury open, as well as send women to community-based facilities near their families, and provide educational options, job training, and treatment programs? Instead of taking a route consistent with its own policies, and newly announced commitments to parenting by prisoners, the government is sending hundreds of women on a long hard trip to Aliceville.

July 26, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Sunday, July 21, 2013

"Clemency Reform: We're Still Waiting"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent commentary by Julie Stewart, the President of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), appearing at The Huffington Post.  Here are excerpts:

A year ago, The Washington Post and ProPublica reported that the Obama administration was set to reverse its poor record on clemency. At the time, President Obama was coming under growing pressure from sentencing law experts, sentencing reform groups, and civil rights organizations for granting fewer commutations and pardons than any president in modern history. Frustration was high because, in 2008, then-candidate Obama had railed against lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders, a growing population within the federal prison system.

In an apparent attempt to address this frustration as Election Day 2012 approached, an unnamed administration official told the Post-ProPublica, "There will be 76 days between the election and inauguration for the president to exercise his [clemency] power." Advisers said he planned to act whether he won or lost the election.

It didn't happen. Since winning reelection, President Obama has not commuted a single sentence. Instead, during the first nine months of fiscal year 2013, the president has denied 2,232 requests for commutation, more than any other president in history denied in a single year.

Last week, the Justice Department sent a letter to the U.S. Sentencing Commission warning that the growing federal prison population was causing severe budgetary problems. The Department said policymakers were confronted with a stark choice: either "reduce the prison population and prison spending" or be prepared for "fewer prosecutors to bring charges, fewer agents to investigate federal crimes, less support to state and local criminal justice partners, less support for treatment, prevention and intervention programs, and cuts along a range of other criminal justice priorities."

Rather than jeopardize public safety by cutting investigators and prosecutors, the Department recommended that the Sentencing Commission (and Congress) reduce drug penalties for low-level offenders and "focus severe penalties on serious and repeat drug traffickers." The question our country faces, the Department wrote, is "how will those involved in crime policy ensure that every dollar invested in public safety is spent in the most productive way possible?"

If the administration wants to make certain every dollar of our nation's public safety budget is spent productively, as it should, President Obama should begin to exercise his executive clemency authority. For starters, he might look at the 2,000 individuals serving sentences of life without parole for drug crimes. He also should look at the 8,800 individuals serving lengthy crack cocaine sentences that were based on a formula that was repudiated by Congress when it passed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010....

The pardon power can't fix 30 years of flawed policy, but it can provide meaningful -- and best of all, immediate -- relief to thousands who have already served long sentences and who pose no threat to public safety. It has been a year since the White House said it would get moving on clemency. We're still waiting.

I believe Julie wrote this commentary before the President made his remarks about the Martin/Zimmerman case on Friday.  But Prez Obama said just days ago that the "African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws -- everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws." Rather than simply talk about what he views as "history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws," perhaps Prez Obama might think about actually doing something about them by, for example, granting at least a few commutations to at least a few federal prisoners still serving extreme crack sentences under the pre-FSA 100-1 drug quantity sentencing ratio.

Sadly, it seems yet again that our nation's first African-American President (as well as its first African-American Attorney General) are far more eager to talk the talk than to walk the walk when it comes to criminal justice reform.

UPDATE:  I have just seen that Mark Osler has forcefully argued that the Obama Administration should be getting to work on crack clemencies rather than fly-speck the Zimmerman case in this commentary at MSNBC headlined "The speck in Florida’s eye, and the log in DOJ’s."  Here is one key paragraph from Mark's commentary:

For this administration to re-open the Zimmerman case, with all the resources that will take, would be the equivalent of pointing at the speck in Florida’s eye while ignoring the log in its own. While the Trayvon Martin case involved one tragedy, more than 5,000 African-Americans remain in prison under lengthy federal sentences under a sentencing regime which has now been rejected by all three branches of government. That scheme — which sentenced defendants to the same mandatory minimum term for either 500 grams of powder cocaine or just 5 grams of crack — was rejected by the administration, by the courts, and finally in 2010 by Congress, which reduced the ratio from 100-1 to 18-1.

July 21, 2013 in Clemency and Pardons, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Friday, July 19, 2013

Are folks eager to comment on the President's comments on Martin/Zimmerman case?

I have a feeling the answer to the question in the title of this post is yes, and that is why I provide this post and also this link to Politico's list of "Obama's 10 most important lines" in his comments this afternoon. Here are the top three of the top 10 that struck me as most blog-worthy for the SL&P readership:

"The fact that a lot of African-American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African-American boys are more violent — using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain."

"I just ask people to consider if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened?"

"At least you ask yourself your own questions about, ‘Am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people, as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character?’ That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy."

And, as I too often fear I need to say on this topic and others, let's try to keep it civil (and relatively novel) in the comments, folks.

July 19, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (40) | TrackBack

Local judge gives poll worker five-year prison term for voter fraud

A colleague alerted me to this notable sentencing story from the Cincinnati area about a woman who received what seems to be a quite severe sentence for voter fraud.  The piece is headlined "Illegal voter gets 5-year prison term," and here are the details:

Calling her a common criminal who abused her authority as a poll worker by violating the principle of “one person, one vote,” a judge sent Melowese Richardson to prison Wednesday for five years following her illegal voting conviction.

“This is not a little thing. It’s not a minor thing. This is what our country’s based on – free elections,” Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Ruehlman told Richardson.

In a case watched around the country, Richardson was a Hamilton County poll worker from 1998 until her arrest earlier this year when she was charged with eight counts of illegal voting. In May, she accepted a plea deal and was convicted of four counts in exchange for the other four being dismissed.

She was convicted of voting twice in the 2012 election and voting three times – in 2008, 2011 and 2012 – for her sister, Montez Richardson, who has been in a coma since 2003.... Richardson told the judge she was bothered that Amy Searcy, the Board of Elections director, had criticized her moments before the sentencing....

The conservative, outspoken judge responded with scathing comments, blasting Richardson for suggesting she was being prosecuted because she was a black Democrat helping a black Democratic presidential candidate. “It has nothing to do with race. It has nothing to do with politics. It has nothing to do with disrespecting you. You did this to yourself,” Ruehlman told her.

“You’re very selfish, self-centered. I really believe President Obama, if he were asked about this today, he would be appalled. He would not want anybody to cheat to get elected.”

Ruehlman noted that two others convicted of illegal voting before Richardson got much lighter sentences but stressed their cases were different. The judge noted Richardson deserved a prison sentence, which was one year less than the maximum possible, because she has a lengthy criminal record, schemed repeatedly over five years to cast several illegal votes and used her training and expertise as a poll worker to try to evade detection.

“‘I’m Melowese Richardson. I can take the law into my own hands,’” the judge said, mocking what he believes is Richardson’s attitude.

Richardson previously was convicted of threatening to kill a witness in a criminal case against her brother, of stealing, of drunken driving and of beating someone in a bar fight.

Anything short of a prison sentence, Assistant Prosecutor Bill Anderson told the judge, would be an attack on the voting system. As a poll worker, “her job is actually to protect the integrity and sanctity of the voting system,” Anderson said. “(She) is an ideologue who was hell bent on stuffing the ballot box with as many Obama votes as possible.”

Bill Gallagher, Richardson’s lawyer, suspected she would be sent to prison but was surprised by the sentence. “I thought prison was a real possibility because of her record of 25 years ago,” Gallagher said. “I don’t think that the length of it was any where near what we expected.”

July 19, 2013 in Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

New report suggests ways to eliminate criminal justice racial and ethnic disparities

Racial_disparity_report_featureThe National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has this new press release reporting on a notable new report about American criminal justice systems.   Here is how the press release starts (with a link to the report):

Issued today, a groundbreaking report on a matter of immense public importance — Criminal Justice in the 21st Century: Eliminating Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Criminal Justice System — is a critically important and inclusive examination of the profound racial and ethnic disparities in America’s criminal justice system, and concrete ways to overcome them.

This conference report prepared by Consultant Tanya E. Coke is based upon a multi-day, open and frank discussion among a distinguished group of criminal justice experts — prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, scholars, community leaders, and formerly incarcerated advocates.  This three-day convening was held October 17-19, 2012, at the New York County Lawyers’ Association’s historic Home of Law and was co-sponsored by the following organizations: the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, the Foundation for Criminal Justice, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions, and the New York County Lawyers’ Association.

The conference was designed not only to acknowledge that racial and ethnic disparities exist in the system, but to examine best practices around the country that address and seek to remedy those disparities.  This report summarizes the candid, sometimes painful panel discussions, and identifies the panoply of remedies that may advance the goal of eliminating the disparate racial and ethnic impact from America’s criminal justice system. More than 2.2 million people are behind bars in America — an absolute and per capita figure that exceeds any other nation on earth. According to the latest available data, nearly 60% of those incarcerated people are Blacks and Latinos, more than double the percentage of these groups in the general population.  And a staggering 65 million adults in the United States — approximately one in four — now have a criminal record, and all of the debilitating consequences of such a record.

As set forth in detail in the report, what lies behind these shocking figures is a system in which racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented as defendants and incarcerated persons.  The report explains the factors that have led to this outcome and, while the conference focused on the criminal justice system in New York City, the recommendations put forward by the participants have broad implications for reform nationally.

July 17, 2013 in Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Notable comments on self-defense laws by Attorney General Eric Holder

Attorney General Eric Holder spoke at great length today about the Zimmerman case in this speech to the NAACP National Convention.  Here is the heart of an interesting legal discussion about self-defense laws that most caught my attention as a criminal law professor who will be teaching a group of brand new new law students about these topics only a few months from now:

Separate and apart from the case that has drawn the nation’s attention, it’s time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods. These laws try to fix something that was never broken. There has always been a legal defense for using deadly force if — and the “if” is important — no safe retreat is available.

But we must examine laws that take this further by eliminating the common sense and age-old requirement that people who feel threatened have a duty to retreat, outside their home, if they can do so safely.  By allowing and perhaps encouraging violent situations to escalate in public, such laws undermine public safety.  The list of resulting tragedies is long and — unfortunately — has victimized too many who are innocent. It is our collective obligation — we must stand our ground — to ensure that our laws reduce violence, and take a hard look at laws that contribute to more violence than they prevent.

We must also seek a dialogue on attitudes about violence and disparities that are too commonly swept under the rug — by honoring the finest traditions established by generations of NAACP leaders and other nonviolent advocates throughout history; and by paying tribute to the young man who lost his life here last year — and so many others whose futures have been cut short in other incidents of gun violence that pass, too often unnoticed, in our streets: by engaging with one another in a way that is at once peaceful, inclusive, respectful — and strong.

As we move forward together, I want to assure you that the Department will continue to act in a manner that is consistent with the facts and the law.  We are committed to doing everything possible to ensure that — in every case, in every circumstance, and in every community — justice must be done.

July 16, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (29) | TrackBack

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Full Sixth Circuit grants en banc review in Blewett

A mere days after the Sixth Circuit panel in the Blewett case (which concerns possible retroactive relief for some crack defendants) decided not to alter its original opinion (details here), the full Sixth Circuit today entered this order:

ORDER filed granting petition for en banc rehearing filed by [AUSA] Ms. Candace G. Hill, to reinstate appeals. The previous decision and judgment of this court is vacated, the mandate is stayed. The Clerk has directed the parties to file supplemental briefs. Final briefing will be concluded on August 29, 2013. These cases will be argued before the en banc court on October 9, 2013, 1:30 P.M., EST.

This is not a big surprise, and I think it likely means that the full Sixth Circuit is not too keen on the equal protection arguments used by the Blewett panel.  I fear that the full Sixth Circuti might not also be too keen on the Eighth Amendment arguments I put forward in this case late last month (details here), but that is not likely to deter me from filing additional papers concerning my Eighth Amendment ideas come August. I also may ask the Sixth Circuit for argument time (through I am not especially confident that anything which transpires at oral argument in this kind of case is going to move the opinions of many of the judges).

 Related posts on Blewett:

July 11, 2013 in New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

After supplemental Blewett briefing, Sixth Circuit panel stands pat

As regular readers likely recall, almost two month ago a split Sixth Circuit panel in US v. Blewett, No. 12-5226 (6th Cir. May 17, 2013) (available here), used equal protection principles to justify giving the new crack statutory sentencings levels of the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive effect.  And last month, as reported in this post, the Sixth Circuit responded to the Government's en banc petition with a letter to the parties express seeking additional briefing "addressing whether the Blewetts’ punishment in this case based on a 100-to-1 ratio of crack to powder cocaine is constitutionally disproportionate in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause. "  I reported on the amicus brief covering Eighth Amendment issues that I wrote and filed on behalf of NACDL via this post, and I have been overdue in uploading these supplemental filings sent in by the parties:

Thanks to the fact that I am now in the case via my amicus efforts, I received via the automatic notification system this report on activity in the case this week:

Activity has occurred in the following cases: 12-5226 [USA v. Cornelius Blewett], judge order filed

ORDER filed. The judges of the panel adhere to their respective original opinions. The panel directs that the responses of the parties and the amicus brief of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers be made part of the record in this case. Gilbert S. Merritt, Boyce F. Martin , Jr., and Ronald Lee Gilman, Circuit Judges.

This order is not especially surprising, but it is still noteworthy. And it now puts the onus on other judges of the Sixth Circuit to take up this case en banc within the next month, as the Sixth Circuit rules provides that "[a]ny active judge or any member of the panel whose decision is the subject of the rehearing may request a poll within 14 days from the date of circulation of the petition and the panel's comments. If a poll is requested, 14 days are allowed for voting." In other words, within the next 28 days, we should know for sure if the full Sixth Circuit will rehear the Blewett case or if instead the feds will have to ask SCOTUS to review the consequential work of the Blewett panel. Related posts on Blewett:

July 9, 2013 in New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Accounting for the high costs of a lingering death row in Connecticut

This local article from the Nutmeg State, headlined "Taxpayers' Costs Top $3.5 Million For Death Row Inmates' Lawsuit," details that the statutory repeal of the death penalty in Connecticut has not repelled all the costs of capital litigation.  Here are the pricey basics:

The cost to taxpayers of a long-running racial-bias lawsuit by death-row inmates has topped $3.5 million, with more possible before an expected judge's ruling within a few months — and then a possible appeal by whoever loses.  News coverage of the habeas corpus lawsuit in state Superior Court has centered on the trial late last year of claims by five convicted killers that Connecticut's death penalty is biased racially, ethnically and geographically....

[The] totals [now of] slightly more than $3.5 million .... doesn't include the time devoted to the case by the salaried staff members of [Chief State's Attorney Kevin] Kane's office, who have opposed the inmates' claims of bias in the administration of the death penalty. Kane was asked for an estimate more than a week ago, but said it would be difficult to compile and didn't come up with one by Friday.

The tally also doesn't include possible additional payments to the expert witness for the inmates, Stanford Law School professor John J. Donohue III. Records show that Donohue was paid $100,000 from 2006 to 2008. But he's done a lot of work since then, including testifying at the trial last year, said the lead lawyer for the inmates, David Golub of Stamford.  For all the time Donohue has put in, he might be owed "millions," Golub said, although he didn't know how much of that the state would actually end up paying him.

The inmates pursuing the bias suit want their sentences converted to life imprisonment without parole.  The trial of the case ended in December and Judge Samuel J. Sferrazza is expected to render a decision within several months....

The trial was conducted for more than 10 days from September to December in a makeshift courtroom inside Northern Correctional Institution in Somers, which houses the state's 11 death-row inmates. The 11 men on death row still face execution despite the state legislature's abolition of the death penalty in 2012. The abolition doesn't apply to people already on death row whose crimes predated the legislation....

The inmates' claims grew out of a study of Connecticut death penalty prosecutions first authorized by the state Supreme Court in 1995 after it was presented with information indicating that the administration of the death penalty had been disproportionally applied to black defendants, or to defendants whose victims were white. The Supreme Court directed that the information be analyzed to explain any racial disparities. That led to a study by Donohue of all homicides prosecuted in Connecticut between 1973 and 2006. Donohue concluded, and testified in court, that there has been bias. Michelson, the state's expert, has disputed that.

July 6, 2013 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

"Texas carries out 500th execution with Kimberly McCarthy"

The title of this post is the headline of this new AP article, which gets started this way:

Texas marked a solemn moment in criminal justice Wednesday evening, executing its 500th inmate since it resumed carrying out capital punishment in 1982.  Kimberly McCarthy, who was put to death for the murder of her 71-year-old neighbor, was also the first woman executed in the U.S. in nearly three years.

McCarthy, 52, was executed for the 1997 robbery, beating and fatal stabbing of retired college psychology professor Dorothy Booth.  Booth had agreed to give McCarthy a cup of sugar before she was attacked with a butcher knife and candelabra at her home in Lancaster, about 15 miles south of Dallas.  Authorities say McCarthy cut off Booth's finger to remove her wedding ring.  It was among three slayings linked to McCarthy, a former nursing home therapist who became addicted to crack cocaine.

She was pronounced dead at 6:37 p.m. CDT, 20 minutes after Texas prison officials began administering a single lethal dose of pentobarbital.

Texas has carried out nearly 40 percent of the more than 1,300 executions in the U.S. since the Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume in 1976. The state's standing stems from its size as the nation's second-most populous state as well as its tradition of tough justice for killers.

June 26, 2013 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

"Equal justice: An appeals court wisely rules on drug sentencing"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new editorial appearing in today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette discussing and praising last month's Sixth Circuit ruling in Blewett (basics here).   Here are excerpts:

In the nation's long, costly and practically futile war on drugs, severe sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine stand out as an egregious and misguided policy that was stoked by near-hysteria.

Convinced that crack cocaine was 100 times more dangerous than powder cocaine, lawmakers in 1986 enacted a notorious 100-to-1 sentencing scheme that levied the same prison sentence for possessing 5 grams of crack as it did for 500 grams of powder.

A 2010 law, the Fair Sentencing Act, restored some sanity to federal sentencing laws by narrowing considerably the disparities in sentencing between crack and powder. Unfortunately, the law did not spell out whether the new standards applied retroactively to people who were sentenced before it was enacted.

This month, however, a federal appeals court in Cincinnati ruled correctly that those sentenced for crack cocaine violations before the 2010 law was enacted can be resentenced under the new law. The cleanest and best solution would be for Congress to amend the Fair Sentencing Act to make it fully retroactive.

Until then, the ruling by the appeals court opens the door for thousands of inmates to ask federal judges to shorten their prison sentences. It expands a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that applied the Fair Sentencing Act to people who committed crack cocaine crimes shortly before more lenient penalties took effect in 2010.

It's time to undo fully these unjust and irrational sentences, which treated powder cocaine users -- who were typically white and often affluent -- far more leniently than the mostly black and poor users of crack cocaine.

Related posts on Blewett:

June 25, 2013 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack

Friday, June 14, 2013

Sixth Circuit calls for briefing on Eighth Amendment in Blewett crack sentencing retroactivity case

In this post a month ago, I first reported that a majorty of a Sixth Circuit panel in US v. Blewett, No. 12-5226 (6th Cir. May 17, 2013) (available here), used equal protection principles to justify giving the new crack statutory sentencings levels of the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive effect.  In that post, I noted that was unsure that a "Fifth Amendment equal protection theory provides a strong constitutional foundation" for Blewett, but I also suggested, "in the wake of the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act and the USSC's implementation of its new 18-1 crack guidelines retroactively, that a proper application of the Eighth Amendment could and should provided a reasoned and reasonable basis to give full retroactive effect to all the provisions of the FSA."  In turn, I was not at all surprised when the government, as reported here, assailed the majority opinion in Blewett when seeking en banc review with the full Sixth Circuit a couple of weeks ago.

I am not quite pleased and excited to learn that the Sixth Circuit now seems interested in the Eighth Amendment as I am in Blewett, as evidenced by the text of a letter sent yesterday to counsel in Blewett

RE: Case Nos. 12-5226/5582

USA v. Cornelius D. Blewett and Jarreous J. Blewitt

Dear Counsel:

In connection with the prosecution’s Petition for Rehearing En Banc, the United States should submit a brief of not more than fifteen (15) pages by June 28, 2013, addressing whether the Blewetts’ punishment in this case based on a 100-to-1 ratio of crack to powder cocaine is constitutionally disproportionate in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause.  See Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277, 290 (1983) (striking down imposition of sentence of life without parole for passing a worthless check because “a criminal sentence must be proportionate to the crime for which the defendant has been convicted”).  The Blewetts should also submit a brief of not more than thirty (30) pages in response to the Petition for Rehearing En Banc filed by the United States by June 28, 2013, that includes both their response to the Petition for Rehearing and their argument concerning the Eighth Amendment issue stated above.

Download Blewett Letter

I had been assuming the Sixth Circuit was going to grant en banc review in Blewett, and I had been gearing up to author an amicus brief on Eighth Amendment issues once that proceeding was set up and a briefing schedule set. And while I am now so very pleased to discover that the Sixth Circuit has ordered the parties to brief Eighth Amendment issues as it considers the government's en banc petition, I am now uncertain as to whether I can and should try to file my friendly thoughts on this topic with the Sixth Circuit later this month. Thoughts, dear readers?

Related posts on Blewett:

June 14, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Celebrity injustice?: NFL player Chad Johnson gets 30-days in county jail for lawyer butt pat

0610-chad-johnson-video-launch-1As reported in this CNN piece, "Butt pat lands former NFL star Chad Johnson in jail," a low-level sentencing proceeding involving a high-profile defendant in Florida state court has become interesting fodder for debating courtroom decorum and celebrity justice. Here are the intriguing details:

As an NFL player, Chad Johnson patted a lot of men on the butt when he liked their work, but on Monday, defendant Chad Johnson found out that one Florida courtroom was not the place to play that game.

After Johnson patted his lawyer on the rear, Judge Kathleen McHugh rejected Johnson's plea to a probation violation in the domestic violence case involving Johnson and his then-wife, Evelyn Lozada. Johnson was arrested in May for not meeting with his probation officer and was in court Monday to enter a plea.

After he was asked if he was pleased with his attorney, the former wide receiver once known as "Chad Ochocinco" gave his lawyer, Adam Swickle, a gentle pat on the rear.

McHugh was furious when people in the audience laughed. "There's nothing funny about what's going on here today," she told Johnson.

Johnson, 35, replied that he wasn't laughing. Then McHugh said, "I don't think anything's funny about it, Mr. Johnson. This isn't a joke."

Johnson said he didn't do it as a joke. Swickle agreed, saying: "I don't think it was done as any disrespect to the court. I don't think he meant to get a reaction from the court room, judge."

The judge told Johnson she wouldn't accept a plea deal that involved only community service and more anger management counseling. Instead, she sentenced him to 30 days in jail and tacked three months onto his one-year probation, which would have ended in September.

Johnson seemed resigned to his fate. "Love me through the good and the bad because I'm gone love you regardless... See you in 30... " he tweeted later.

As I write this post, I am hearing Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith on First Take yelling at each other about sentencing practices, race, gender, incarceration and courtroom activities.  Given that there is this video of what went down (with the key event just before the one-minute mark, and the judge's (over?)reaction just before the two-minute mark), I hope readers will provide their own takes on this notable example of celebrity sentencing.  

June 11, 2013 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (29) | TrackBack

Friday, June 07, 2013

"A Tale of Sound & Fury (But No Transcript): In Defense of Judge Edith Jones"

Edith-Jones-Judge-Edith-H-Jones-Edith-Hollan-JonesThe title of this post is the title of this notable lengthy commentary authored by Tamara Tabo at Above the Law concerning the new complaint of judicial misconduct filed against Fifth Circuit Judge Edith Jones earlier this week. The piece merits a full read for anyone following this brouhaha, and here are some excerpts:

I interned with and clerked for Judge Jones. I didn’t attend the event in Philadelphia [which served as the basis for the complain], and I haven’t spoken with her about this situation, but I don’t claim to be a fully impartial observer. I could be the first among many to attest to her dignity, intellect, and impeccable ethical standards. I could even tell you how generous with her time and supportive she’s been of my law school, a historically (and still predominantly) black institution.

But I don’t need to do that. I don’t need to offer a character reference in order to rebut the accusations made in this complaint. I don’t even need to contest many of the facts that the complaint alleges. While there’s not enough space here to evaluate each of the charges the complaint makes, let’s have a closer look at a few of them, starting with her alleged comments on race.

According to the complaint, Judge Jones asserted that “certain racial groups commit more of these crimes than others.” She said that “[s]adly some groups seem to commit more heinous crimes than others.” When asked to explain her remarks, she stated that there was “no arguing” that “Blacks and Hispanics” outnumber “Anglos” on death row and “sadly” it was a “statistical fact” that people “from these racial groups get involved in more violent crime.”

Note that she did not say that race causes criminality, only that we see a disproportionately high number of violent offenders of certain races. These are facts. Even without knowing her, you could easily conclude that Judge Jones thinks these are unpleasant facts. That would certainly explain her alleged repeated use of the word “sadly” in reference to these statistics about race and crime.

If Judge Jones had followed these facts with a different policy claim, would we consider factual statements to be proof of impartiality or impropriety? Or is it less that what she stated was false and more that it was simply not to some liberal audience members’ liking? One could cite these same facts, then proceed to argue for all manner of social reforms — ones that address the causes of the racial disparity in criminality. Doing so would be entirely compatible with what Judge Jones allegedly said during her speech.

What if Judge Jones had said that males were more likely to commit violent crimes than females? Would that be a problem? More violent offenders in our justice system are, in fact, male than female, after all. Would any reasonable person accuse Judge Jones — herself a non-male! — of undermining “public confidence in the judiciary” or being so gender-biased that she would be unfit to handle criminal cases? I hope not.

Correlation is not causation. Nothing in the complaint shows that Judge Jones suggested or thinks that race causes criminality.

The complaint further alleges that Judge Jones engaged in misconduct when she discussed capital defendants who raise claims of mental retardation. The complaint’s footnote 10 states, “This term is outdated — now generally replaced by “Intellectually Disabled” — and thus Judge Jones’s use of the term “mental retardation” is kept in quotations.”

I work with clients (in a clinical setting, not a legal one) who suffer from severe cognitive impairments. In that setting, I wouldn’t describe a client as “mentally retarded,” because we’re after more precise diagnoses and because, yes, that catch-all term has fallen out of favor. But do you know who does routinely use the term “mentally retarded” in a professional setting? The United States Supreme Court — as quoted in the complaint’s footnote 11, for example. Using that term suggests a willingness to use a legal term of art, not necessarily some outmoded insensitivity to people, say, with Down’s Syndrome.

It is not disrespectful of individuals with disabilities to be angered by false claims of mental retardation, as Judge Jones allegedly was. It does not malign their dignity to suggest that many are capable of choosing between good and evil. Just because one thinks that a particular legal claim is frequently abused does not mean that every instance of such a claim is abusive or legally frivolous. We’re accusing one of the most respected judges of the federal judiciary of misconduct over something that even the Onion satirizes.

The complaint alleges that Judge Jones “indicated that any Mexican National would rather be on death row in the United States than in a Mexican prison” and “stated that Mexico ‘wasn’t about to provide any of their own citizens with the kind of legal protections the person would get in the United States.” The complaint does not even bother to contest this joke, since it’s (a) a joke, and (b) uncontestable. Even the U.S. consulate helpfully reminds U.S. tourists to Mexico that they won’t benefit from little perks of the American justice system such as the presumption of innocence....

What is it we expect judges to talk about when we invite them to speak, if not some “view from the bench”? We expect them to draw on their actual experiences with actual cases. That is, frankly, why most judges are more interesting to listen to than most law professors.

We rightly expect that judges will not publicly comment on cases currently pending before them. To be clear: no affiant claimed that Judge Jones did so. Once again, even if we take their account of what she said as true, it just doesn’t add up to anything worthy of censure.

If there’s one woman on the planet who doesn’t need a pipsqueak like me defending her, that woman is likely Edith H. Jones. She likely will not dignify these charges with any response. I, however, am not so constrained by that sort of dignity. Obviously.

Recent related post:

June 7, 2013 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Some more thoughtful thoughts on DNA collection and Maryland v. King

UCP text imageAlan Michaels is not only my Dean at the OSU Moritz College of Law, he is also the co-author of Understanding Criminal Procedure (with our colleague Joshua Dressler). Consequently, when he sent an e-mail with some thoughts on the SCOTUS ruling in King concerning DNA collection from arrestees, I was quick to ask his permission to reprint these thoughts in this space.  With his permission, here they are:

1) It is surely true that more crimes will be solved by running the DNA of arrestees through a database of unsolved crimes. But the thing that probably troubles me most about the case (as a normative matter, not thinking about correct doctrinal answer), is that the content of the group “arrestees” is framed in a lot of ways by racial bias, so that the impact of this in the long run will very likely be disproportionate apprehension of guilty individuals of color for these unsolved crimes. I like apprehension of the guilty (a lot!), but the potential disproportionate part is very, very, troubling. Although King was limited to arrestees for “serious” crimes, the writing is on the wall; in other contexts “serious” can mean punishable by six months or more, pretextual arrests are not unheard of even without this DNA incentive, and the Court has made clear that custodial arrest is constitutional even for traffic offenses. Indeed, I was deeply moved by the irony of the decision coming down the same day as this report came out [noted in this prior post] showing that all else equal African-Americans are four times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana.

If we are going to use new “super methods” for crime solving, that at least make us hinky about privacy, I think we need to do so in a way that does not have a disproportionate impact on subordinated groups.  As Scalia points out in dissent (making a different point), we would also solve crimes by swabbing all airline passengers....

2) A different thought though, while still focusing on the real world impact: Justice Scalia is in dissent on this one, while Thomas (his originalist compatriot) and Akhil Amar and Neal Katyal [noted in this prior post] think he is wrong about what the framer’s would have said about DNA swabs.  As probably all of you know, I’m not a fan of originalism anyway. I can’t help but notice that this is, once again, a case where Justice Scalia surprisingly is on the side of the criminal defendant as a result of his view of what the framers would have done, but it just happens that the practical impact is most felt around a crime where men are being prosecuted for crimes against women and girls.

First Maryland v. Craig, (Justice Scalia loses war he won first battle of in Coy v. Iowa; child victims of sexual abuse are allowed to testify in separate room from criminal defendant); Second, Crawford (out of court statements where witness unavailable newly excluded as constitutional matter — big impact in domestic violence prosecutions, where victim’s statements previously admitted under hearsay exception when victim would not testify at trial), and now King (DNA that he would forbid being collected used most frequently to solve rapes and other sexual assaults).   As one colleague pointed out to me, there are an at least equal number of Justice Scalia pro-defendant cases that do not have this feature (against searches of cars incident to arrest, against warrantless thermal imaging of a home, his anti-Terry view, to name a few), but it may still be a notable feature of relying exclusively on centuries-old perspectives to resolve contemporary problems — something to be considered in weighing the merits of interpretive methods.

Recent related posts:

June 6, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

"NC House vote moves Racial Justice Act closer to repeal"

The title of this post is the headline of this new local article concerning the latest efforts in North Carolina to undo a law that has placed a significant hurdle in the state's efforts to administer the death penalty.  Here are the basics:

The legislature took another step Tuesday toward wiping out a signature law that allows convicted killers to be spared the death penalty if they can show court decisions tainted by racial bias.

The 77-40 vote in the state House was largely along party lines, with one Democrat joining all Republicans to repeal the law called the Racial Justice Act. The preliminary vote — the House will likely take another vote Wednesday — came after more than an hour of debate....

The law’s supporters read names of men wrongly convicted of murder, while it’s detractors recited names of murder victims.  “Keep in your minds the victims of the heinous, heartless, cold-hearted killers,” said Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Cary Republican.

The 2009 law allowed people sentenced to death to use statistical evidence to show that race played a significant part in their trial or in the prosecutor’s decision to seek the death penalty.  Successful challengers have their death sentences commuted to life in prison.

Last year, the legislature weakened the law by narrowing the use of statistics.  The bill moving through the legislature this year would erase the law.  The bill would also prevent regulatory boards from penalizing doctors, nurses and other health care professionals from assisting in executions.  In 2007, the N.C. Medical Board said it would punish doctors that participated in executions.  State law requires that a doctor be present. The N.C. Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that the board had exceeded its authority....

Racial Justice Act supporters said it has exposed racial bias, and so far, has led to findings that prosecutors improperly prevented African-Americans from serving on juries.  “None of us should want to execute any person whose sentence is based on racial discrimination,” said Alma Adams, a Greensboro Democrat.

A Cumberland County judge found last year that jury selection in four death row inmates’ cases was tainted by conclusive evidence of racism. More than 150 death row inmates filed challenges under the 2009 version of the law. The bill debated Tuesday would invalidate more than 140 of the claims that have not been heard in court.

The law’s detractors said it was flawed from the beginning. One of the reasons they gave was that white defendants convicted of murdering white people by all white or nearly all white juries can claim racial bias. Decisions about the death penalty should be made on the facts of each case, critics said, not on a statistics. They contend that the real intent of the law was to put a moratorium on the death penalty.

“No one wants actual racial discrimination,” said House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam, an Apex Republican. “We don’t want race to be used as a pretext to stop the death penalty.”

A few older and more recent posts on NC Racial Justice Act:

June 5, 2013 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Complaint filed against notable (notorious?) Fifth Circuit judge based on comments about death penalty

As reported in this Texas Tribune article, headlined "Complaint: Judge's Death Penalty Remarks Show Racial Bias," Fifth Circuit Judge edith Jones is the subject of a judicial misconduct complaint based on her comments earlier this year in a speech about race and the death penalty. Here are the basics:

According to a complaint filed Tuesday by civil rights groups, ethicists and a legal aid organization, 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Edith Jones allegedly said during a February event at the University of Pennsylvania Law School that “racial groups like African-Americans and Hispanics are predisposed to crime,” and that they get involved in more violent and “heinous” crimes than people of other ethnicities....

At the February event, she also reportedly said that Mexican nationals would rather be in a Texas prison than in a prison in their home country. The complaint also takes issue with comments the judge reportedly made criticizing the U.S. Supreme Court’s prohibition on executing the mentally retarded.

“Judge Jones’ biased remarks demonstrated both an utter disregard for the fundamental judicial standard of impartiality and a lack of judicial temperament,” the complaint argues.

Among those who filed the complaint are the NAACP, the Texas Civil Rights Project and the Mexican Capital Legal Assistance Program, which is funded by and represents Mexico in cases where its foreign nationals face capital murder charges in the U.S. It was filed with the 5th Circuit Court’s chief judge, who would decide whether to refer the case to a judicial council made up of 5th Circuit and district court judges. Because Jones is a former chief judge of the 5th Circuit, the group asked that its complaint be transferred to another circuit court for review.

In affidavits filed with the court, people who attended the event where Jones spoke said she denied the existence of systemic racism in the application of the death penalty. They said she contended that more Hispanics and African-Americans are on death row because people “from these racial groups get involved in more violent crime.”

The complaint indicates that Jones also told the audience that exempting the mentally retarded from the death penalty was a disservice. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court — amid what Jones reportedly described as a “judicial law-making binge” — decided that the mentally retarded are not eligible for execution because their lack of intellectual ability renders them less culpable for the behavior.

“I am not able to capture the complete outrage she expressed over the crimes or the disgust she evinced over the defenses raised,” Marc Bookman, a capital defense lawyer from Pennsylvania who attended the discussion, wrote in an affidavit.

June 5, 2013 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (25) | TrackBack

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Would legalizing marijuana be a huge step toward a less racialized criminal justice system?

Web-Jus-MJ-1-Header-V02The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable New York Times article headlined "Blacks Are Singled Out for Marijuana Arrests, Federal Data Suggests." Here are excerpts:

Black Americans were nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested on charges of marijuana possession in 2010, even though the two groups used the drug at similar rates, according to new federal data.  This disparity had grown steadily from a decade before, and in some states, including Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois, blacks were around eight times as likely to be arrested.

During the same period, public attitudes toward marijuana softened and a number of states decriminalized its use.  But about half of all drug arrests in 2011 were on marijuana-related charges, roughly the same portion as in 2010.

Advocates for the legalization of marijuana have criticized the Obama administration for having vocally opposed state legalization efforts and for taking a more aggressive approach than the Bush administration in closing medical marijuana dispensaries and prosecuting their owners in some states, especially Montana and California.

The new data, however, offers a more nuanced picture of marijuana enforcement on the state level.  Drawn from police records from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, the report is the most comprehensive review of marijuana arrests by race and by county and is part of a report being released this week by the American Civil Liberties Union....  “We found that in virtually every county in the country, police have wasted taxpayer money enforcing marijuana laws in a racially biased manner,” said Ezekiel Edwards, the director of the A.C.L.U.’s Criminal Law Reform Project and the lead author of the report.

During President Obama’s first three years in office, the arrest rate for marijuana possession was about 5 percent higher than the average rate under President George W. Bush.  And in 2011, marijuana use grew to about 7 percent, up from 6 percent in 2002 among Americans who said that they had used the drug in the past 30 days.  Also, a majority of Americans in a Pew Research Center poll conducted in March supported legalizing marijuana.

Though there has been a shift in state laws and in popular attitudes about the drug, black and white Americans have experienced the change very differently. “It’s pretty clear that law enforcement practices are not keeping pace with public opinion and state policies,” said Mona Lynch, a professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California, Santa Cruz....

The cost of drug enforcement has grown steadily over the past decade. In 2010, states spent an estimated $3.6 billion enforcing marijuana possession laws, a 30 percent increase from 10 years earlier.  The increase came as many states, faced with budget shortfalls, were saving money by using alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders.  During the same period, arrests for most other types of crime steadily dropped.

Researchers said the growing racial disparities in marijuana arrests were especially striking because they were so consistent even across counties with large or small minority populations.  The A.C.L.U. report said that one possible reason that the racial disparity in arrests remained despite shifting state policies toward the drug is that police practices are slow to change.  Federal programs like the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program continue to provide incentives for racial profiling, the report said, by including arrest numbers in its performance measures when distributing hundreds of millions of dollars to local law enforcement each year.

Phillip Atiba Goff, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that police departments, partly driven by a desire to increase their drug arrest statistics, can concentrate on minority or poorer neighborhoods to meet numerical goals, focusing on low-level offenses that are easier, quicker and cheaper than investigating serious felony crimes. “Whenever federal funding agencies encourage law enforcement to meet numerical arrest goals instead of public safety goals, it will likely promote stereotype-based policing and we can expect these sorts of racial gaps,” Professor Goff said.

The ACLU report and materials on which this story is based can be found through this webpage, which provides links to reports, graphics, videos and other related coverage of this significant story.  The full 187-page ACLU report is titled "The War on Marijuana in Black and White," and can be accessed at this link.

In addition to believing this potent new ACLU data should provide civil rights groups with a strong reason to become even more vocal in support of marijuana legalization, I hope it will force opponents of marijuana legalization to recognize and reflect on who really bears the brunt of marijuana prohibition.  Though the rich and powerful like Michael Phelps and Justin Bieber might get a little negative press when seen smoking pot, it is people concentrated in poorer and minority neighborhoods who endure real burdens from the persistence of modern pot prohibition. 

Unless and until supporters of marijuana prohibition face up to this disturbing data and aggressive advocate ways to reduce this racial skew in enforcement patterns, I think they can and should be accused of being complicit in perpetuating racial dispaprities in the operation of modern American criminal justice systems.  That's right, President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, I am talking about you two first and foremost.  Unless and until you express at least some support for state marijuana legalization efforts, I will continue to accuse the first black president and the first black attorney general of being complicit in perpetuating racialized American criminal justice system. 

June 4, 2013 in Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (43) | TrackBack

Monday, June 03, 2013

As expected, feds ask full Sixth Circuit to review and reverse Blewett crack retroactivity ruling

As covered via a number posts on this blog, a split Sixth Circuit panel decided in Blewett, based on Equal Protection principles, that the new lower statutory mandatory-minimum thresholds for crack offenses established in the Fair Sentencing Act are applicable in motions to reduce otherwise-final sentences for incarcerated offenders.  (The Blewett panel ruling was first discussed in this post, and further here and here.) 

As predicted in these posts, the federal government is not happy with this ruling, and late Friday it finally filed a petition for rehearing en banc.  Here is the opening paragraph of the argument section from that filing, which can be downloaded below:

The majority’s holding is legally incorrect, in conflict with prior Sixth Circuit decisions, in conflict with the law of every other circuit, and inconsistent with Dorsey.  Moreover, the effect of the decision will be widespread if it is allowed to stand.  The panel majority’s core reasoning is seriously flawed in multiple respects, but two central errors highlight the need for en banc consideration.  Download Blewett_petition for rehearing

I would be truly shocked if the full Sixth Circuit did not grant this petition for rehearing.  Indeed, in my view the only real procedural questions now are (1) how long will it take the full Sixth Circuit to grant the petition, and (2) what kind of briefing and argument schedule will be set for this important case.  (I would urge the Sixth Circuit to give plenty of time for briefing because I know that a number of public policy groups are likely to be eager to file amicus briefs in this matter.)

As I briefly explained in my first post on Blewett, I think a Fifth Amendment equal protection theory used by the majority in the Blewett panel decision provides a very shaky constitutional foundation for giving the new crack statutory sentences of the FSA retroactive effect.  But I also think, in the wake of the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act and the USSC's implementation of its new 18-1 crack guidelines retroactively, that a proper application of the Eighth Amendment could provide a more reasoned and reasonable basis to give full retroactive effect to all the provisions of the FSA.

Related posts on Blewett:

June 3, 2013 in New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Sunday, June 02, 2013

"Monitoring the Plea Process"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Susan Klein now avaiable via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Gideon versus Wainwright heralded a new age in American criminal prosecutions.  Indigent blacks in the South would have the same opportunity to fight felony criminal charges and receive the same sentencing discounts of favorable guilty pleas as rich white northerners, and the innocent would be accurately separated by adversarial testing from the guilty. Yet fifty years later, indigent defendants (who comprise 80% of total defendants), often get substandard counsel, and innocent individuals are rarely, but sometimes convicted or plead guilty.  Some of the blame falls squarely on the Court for settling on the contours of our current two-pronged test in Strickland versus Washington, that determines when counsel is ineffective and the defendant is accordingly prejudiced.  Some blame falls on legislators for failing to adequately fund defense counsel.  Our criminal justice evolved from an adversarial system to what Judge Lynch calls, "a defacto administrative regime". The criminal justice system is the plea bargaining system.

In this essay, the author posits that last term's Lafler versus Cooper and Missouri versus Frye gave us another chance to both police equality of sentences for the guilty, and to mandate better investigation of the underlying offense to ferret out the innocent. Information and resource disparity skews the system.  The defense bar cannot buck a system stacked so heavily against them.  Large-scale structural reform such as legislation or proper funding for defense is equally unlikely.  Plea bargaining has failed.

Professor Klein suggests that our most politically feasible hope for reform is for federal and state judges to amend the rules of criminal procedure in order to monitor and record the discovery and plea negotiation process via nonwaivable conferences.  A second proposal is for the Department of Justice and local District Attorneys' Offices to implement internal guidelines to regulate the timing and content of plea negotiations and discovery procedures.  Though the Court imposed its new Sixth Amendment duties on the defense bar, it is prosecutors who have the incentive to ensure the finality of guilty pleas and to stave off potentially harsher legislative or judicial action in this area.

June 2, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, May 24, 2013

Would a death sentence given by a second sentencing jury to Jodi Arias survive constitutional challenges?

As reported in this Reuters article, an "Arizona jury failed on Thursday to reach a unanimous verdict on whether Jodi Arias should be put to death for the brutal murder of her ex-boyfriend, prompting the judge to set a date for a new sentencing phase of the trial."  Here is more on the latest development in this high-profile capital case:

Arias, a former waitress from California, was found guilty this month of murdering Travis Alexander, whose body was found slumped in the shower of his Phoenix-area home in June 2008. He had been stabbed 27 times, had his throat slashed and been shot in the face.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Sherry Stephens, who had told the jury on Wednesday to resume deliberations after the panel indicated it was struggling to reach consensus, set July 18 as the date for a retrial of the penalty phase and ordered a status hearing for June with attorneys in the case.

Arias, a petite figure who had earlier pleaded with the eight men and four women on the jury to spare her life for the sake of her family, appeared to breathe a sigh of relief. Alexander's relatives wept and hugged in court....

Following the penalty phase deadlock, the state has the option to retry the sentencing portion of the trial and have a new death penalty jury impaneled. Should such a jury also deadlock, capital punishment would be taken off the table. Should prosecutors opt against a full penalty-phase jury retrial, the judge would be left to hand down a verdict of life in prison.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said in a statement that his office appreciated the jury's work and would now assess its next steps, but was proceeding "with the intent to retry the penalty phase."...

Among the issues that came up during the sentencing deliberations was whether a life term meant Arias would spend the remainder of her life in prison or would have the possibility of parole after 25 years.

Defense attorney Jennifer Willmott had advised jurors that if they sentenced Arias to life in prison, they were "sentencing her to die in prison," and there was no procedure in place to grant parole. Prosecutor Juan Martinez countered that while there was no mechanism now to grant Arias parole, one could be put in place later.

Some legal analysts questioned whether prosecutors should go forward with a new penalty-phase jury proceeding. "The jury that looked at all the evidence and heard five months of testimony could not agree that a death sentence was appropriate. Even though the state can take a second bite, this case should end now," said Dale Baich, an assistant federal public defender who represents death-row prisoners' appeals.

"The trial phase and the aggravation are going to have to be presented to this new jury, and Maricopa County has spent a lot of money on this case already. The question is, do they want to spend more?" Baich said....

Legal analysts also questioned how an impartial jury could be seated for a new penalty phase considering the wide attention the case had attracted. "This case has taken on the character of a circus rather than a trial," said Michael Kimerer, a criminal defense attorney in Phoenix. "I don't see how you are going to do it."

As the question in the title of this post suggests, even if Arias were to be sentenced to death by a new sentencing jury, there will be a wide of array of constitutional challenges that Arias could raise on appeal of a death sentence imposed by that new jury. Critically, there is established precedent from both the Ninth Circuit and the US Supreme Court that suggest the Double Jeopardy Clause permits giving prosecutors another shot at a death sentence through a second sentencing proceeding. But Arias could still reasonably raise a double jeopardy claim by urging these courts to reconsider these precedents and/or by claiming that some unique aspects of her case (e.g., that she presented a self-defense claim at her guilt trial or that Arizona has a unique three-stage capital sentencing process) should call for a different outcome on her behalf.

Beyond Double Jeopardy claims, Arias might also reasonable pursue Fifth Amendment due process claims and/or Eighth Amendment claims on appeal of a death sentence if imposed after a new sentencing phase trial before a new jury. As the article above suggests, all the publicity surrounding the first trial will make it hard to be confident that any new jury — especially after jurors are subject to the necessary "death-qualification process" — will be able to come without having prejudged some critical issues. In addition, the "evolving" nature of the Eighth Amendment means that any and every person sent to death row reasonable can, and usually will, challenge almost any and every novel aspect of the death sentencing process.

In part because of all these challenges facing prosecutors now and in the future, I would not be surprised if prosecutors might consider a deal that would allow Arias to secure an LWOP sentence in exchange for giving up some of her appeal rights. But whether Arias herself or the victim's family have an interest in such a deal, and how they might express their interests to Arizona's prosecutors, will surely impact whether and how a deal of any kind is struck.

Recent related posts on the Arias case:

May 24, 2013 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack

"Implicit Racial Bias in Public Defender Triage"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new piece co-authored by law professor L. Song Richardson and psychology professor Phillip Atiba Goff. The piece is available now via SSRN, and here is the abstract:

Despite the promise of Gideon, providing “the guiding hand of counsel” to indigent defendants remains unmanageable, largely because the nation’s public defender offices are overworked and underfunded.  Faced with overwhelming caseloads and inadequate resources, public defenders must engage in triage, deciding which cases deserve attention and which do not.  Although scholars have recognized the need to develop standards for making these difficult judgments, they have paid little attention to how implicit, i.e., unconscious, biases may affect those decisions.  There is reason to suspect that unconscious biases will influence public defender decisionmaking due to generations of racial stereotypes specific to stigmatized groups and crime.  This Essay urges legal scholars and practitioners to consider how implicit biases may influence the rationing of defense entitlements and suggests ways to safeguard against the effects of these unconscious forces.

A few recent related posts:

May 24, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Monday, May 20, 2013

Notable developments in penalty phase of Jodi Arias' capital trial

As reported in this new USA Today article, the "sentencing hearing for convicted killer Jodi Arias ground to a halt Monday when her lawyers refused to call any witnesses and a judge refused their requests for a mistrial and to withdraw from the case." Here is more:

Judge Sherry Stephens stopped proceedings and released the jury for the day, telling them to return Tuesday morning. Defense attorney Kirk Nurmi later said he will allow Arias to speak to the jury Tuesday.

Nurmi clashed with Stephens over a motion he filed seeking a mistrial in the sentencing hearing. Nurmi said a witness who was supposed to testify regarding Arias' character had been threatened and was refusing to testify. Patricia Womack has been receiving "threats on her life if she were to testify on Ms. Arias' behalf," Nurmi wrote in the mistrial motion.

But Stephens refused his motion, saying she could not determine why Womack would not testify because she was not present in the courtroom. Nurmi and co-counsel Jennifer Willmott then asked to drop out of the case. Stephens again refused.

Nurmi then refused to present any witnesses, and Stephens called for the recess. Nurmi later said Arias will speak Tuesday. Also previously scheduled to testify on Arias' behalf was a former boyfriend of Arias'.

Arias, 32, was found guilty May 8 of first-degree murder for the 2008 slaying of Travis Alexander, 30, who was found dead in his suburban Mesa, Ariz., home. He had been shot in the head and stabbed nearly 30 times, and his throat was slit. Arias said she killed Alexander, her secret lover, in self-defense; the jury thought otherwise.

Last week, the jury determined that the murder was committed in an "especially cruel manner," making Arias eligible for the death penalty. They heard tearful comments from Travis Alexander's brother and sister as they described how his killing has torn their lives apart.

Now the jury is to consider mitigating factors — evidence about Arias' character and background that may sway them not to impose a death sentence. Stephens instructed jurors that they could consider a handful of factors when deciding what sentence to impose, including Arias' lack of a prior criminal record and assertions that she was a good friend, had an abusive childhood and is a talented artist....

Under Arizona law, if the jury cannot reach a unanimous decision on sentencing, the panel would be dismissed and a new jury would hear arguments and determine a sentence. If the second panel cannot reach a unanimous agreement, the judge then would sentence Arias....

Earlier this week, her lawyers asked to be allowed to step down from the case, but a judge denied the request. Legal experts say the decision was not a surprising one because the lawyers have a conflict of interest with their efforts to save her life after Arias said she would rather die.

Recent related posts:

May 20, 2013 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Sunday, May 19, 2013

How quickly can and will (hundreds of) imprisoned crack defendants file "Blewett claims"?

As first discussed in this post and further here, a split panel of the Sixth Circuit on Friday handed down a significant (and questionable) ruling in US v. Blewett declaring that the reduced mandatory minimum crack sentences set out in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 must be applied even to those offenders sentenced before the Act’s effective date.  This ruling could means still-imprisoned crack defendants sentenced in the two decades before the FSA could now seek a reduction in their mandatory minimum sentences under the FSA's new terms, at least if they were originally sentenced in the Sixth Circuit.

Though this ruling seems very likely to be appealed by the Justice Department, right now it is the law of the (Sixth Circuit) land. Notable, the folks at FAMM have already created this webpage with a basic explanation about what Blewett means and does not mean.  Here is part of what it says:

Blewett can only help federal (not state) prisoners who (1) were convicted in a federal court in Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio, or Tennessee, AND (2) received a mandatory minimum sentence for a crack cocaine offense, AND (3) were sentenced before August 3, 2010.  The case cannot help people convicted in state courts or federal prisoners whose cases did not involve crack cocaine....

We expect that the government will ask the entire Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to review this opinion.  If it does, and the full appeals court agrees to the review, we expect the Blewett decision to be stayed until the full court hears it.  This means that courts will not be allowed to resentence anyone using the Blewett opinion unless and until it is affirmed. We do not know how long the appeal will take, how soon it will happen, or what the outcome will be.  This opinion could be reversed, in which case it would not help anyone....

If you or a loved one are a federal prisoner serving a pre-FSA crack cocaine mandatory minimum sentence, and you were sentenced in federal court before August 3, 2010, in Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio, or Tennessee, call your attorney and ask them if Blewett could help you.  FAMM cannot tell you if you might benefit if the Blewett decision stands, and we cannot give you legal help or advice. You and your loved ones should talk to your attorneys.

A little bit of very rough data analysis from a variety of US Sentencing Commission publications indicates that there may still be as many as 20,000 federal prisoners currently in BOP custody serving pre-FSA mandatory minimum crack sentences, and that the Sixth Circuit has historically been responsible for about 10% of nationwide crack sentences.  That means that perhaps two thousand or more imprisoned federal defendants might reasonably file what I will can a "Blewett claim" in the district courts of the Sixth Circuit. 

Even if my data estimates are off somewhat, there are certainly many hundreds now imprisoned federal defendants, persons who were sentenced to mandatory minimum crack terms in the Sixth Circuit before August 2010, who could (and I think should) file claims ASAP that they are now entitled to resentencing under the terms of the FSA due to the Blewett ruling. I suspect that not all that many defendants or lawyers were busy drafting Blewett claims this weekend, but I also suspect that time may be of the essence for defendants eager to take advantage of this ruling while it is still good law.

Related posts on Blewett:

May 19, 2013 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack

Friday, May 17, 2013

On (wrong?) constitutional grounds, split Sixth Circuit panel gives full retroactive effect to new FSA crack sentences

With thanks to all the folks who alerted me while I was dealing with other matters, I am finally back on-line and able to report on a remarkable new split panel ruling by the Sixth Circuit today in US v. Blewett, No. 12-5226 (6th Cir. May 17, 2013) (available here). The start of the majority opinion (per Judge Merritt) will highlight for all federal sentencing fans why this ruling is a very big deal:

This is a crack cocaine case brought by two currently incarcerated defendants seeking retroactive relief from racially discriminatory mandatory minimum sentences imposed on them in 2005.  The Fair Sentencing Act was passed in August 2010 to “restore fairness to Federal cocaine sentencing” laws that had unfairly impacted blacks for almost 25 years.  The Fair Sentencing Act repealed portions of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 that instituted a 100-to-1 ratio between crack and powder cocaine, treating one gram of crack as equivalent to 100 grams of powder cocaine for sentencing purposes.  The 100-to-1 ratio had long been acknowledged by many in the legal system to be unjustified and adopted without empirical support.  The Fair Sentencing Act lowered the ratio to a more lenient 18-to-1 ratio.  However, thousands of inmates, most black, languish in prison under the old, discredited ratio because the Fair Sentencing Act was not made explicitly retroactive by Congress.

In this case, we hold, inter alia, that the federal judicial perpetuation of the racially discriminatory mandatory minimum crack sentences for those defendants sentenced under the old crack sentencing law, as the government advocates, would violate the Equal Protection Clause, as incorporated into the Fifth Amendment by the doctrine of Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497 (1954) (Fifth Amendment forbids federal racial discrimination in the same way as the Fourteenth Amendment forbids state racial discrimination).  As Professor William J. Stuntz, the late Harvard criminal law professor, has observed, “persistent bias occurred with respect to the contemporary enforcement of drug laws where, in the 1990s and early 2000s, blacks constituted a minority of regular users of crack cocaine but more than 80 percent of crack defendants.”  The Collapse of American Criminal Justice 184 (2011).  He recommended that we “redress that discrimination” with “the underused concept of ‘equal protection of the laws.’” Id. at 297.

In this opinion, we will set out both the constitutional and statutory reasons the old, racially discriminatory crack sentencing law must now be set aside in favor of the new sentencing law enacted by Congress as the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.  The Act should apply to all defendants, including those sentenced prior to its passage.  We therefore reverse the judgment of the district court and remand for resentencing.

The start of the dissent (per Judge Gilman) will highlight for all federal sentencing fans why this ruling seems sure to get en banc and/or Supreme Court review:

I fear that my panel colleagues have sua sponte set sail into the constitutional sea of equal protection without any legal ballast to keep their analysis afloat.  To start with, they “readily acknowledge that no party challenges the constitutionality of denying retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act to people who were sentenced under the old regime.” Maj. Op. 6. Opining on this unbriefed and unargued issue is thus fraught with the likelihood of running aground on the shoals of uncharted territory.

As the title of my post hints, though I really like the effort, I am not sure a Fifth Amendment equal protection theory provides a strong constitutional foundation for giving the new crack sentences retroactive effect.  But I have long thought, in the wake of the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act and the USSC's implementation of its new 18-1 crack guidelines retroactively, that a proper application of the Eighth Amendment could and should provided a reasoned and reasonable basis to give full retroactive effect to all the provisions of the FSA.

If (dare I say, when) this notable Blewett ruling gets subject to further review, I hope to have a chance to fully explicate (perhaps via an amicus brief) my Eighth Amendment approach to reaching the conclusions reached by the majority here on distinct constitutional grounds. In the meantime, we have an interesting Friday ruling to debate through the weekend.

May 17, 2013 in New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Friday, May 10, 2013

Are there (and/or should there be) special death penalty rules for female murderers?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new article in the Christian Science Monitor, which is headlined "Jodi Arias case: What's trend line on women getting the death penalty?."  Here are excerpts:

Whether Jodi Arias gets her wish — to be executed rather than spend her life in prison — is now up to the Arizona jury that on Wednesday found her guilty of brutally murdering her one-time boyfriend, Travis Alexander, in a jealous rage on June 4, 2008, in a Phoenix suburb.

The jury must consider whether the cruelty, brutality, and depravity of her attack on Mr. Alexander deserves a sentence of death, a finding that would make Ms. Arias the fourth woman to be awaiting execution on Arizona’s death row.  (The state has not executed a woman since Eva Dugan, a cabaret dancer, was hanged in 1930.)  Against that possibility, jurors will weigh potential mitigating circumstances, such as Arias's allegations of abuse, which she outlined at length during the trial....

The Maricopa County jury will deliberate against a backdrop of evolving societal views about female murderers.  On one hand is a somewhat chivalrous sense that women are not capable of brutality at the same level as men and resort to it under extenuating circumstances — such as sexual abuse that Arias claimed at the hand of her victim.  On the other is a sense that women can indeed be cold-blooded killers who are every bit as deserving of execution as male murderers.

James Acker, a criminal justice professor at the State University of New York at Albany, describes the “competing theories" this way.  One is that "this is about chivalry, where we’re all bending over backward to make sure no women, or members of the fairer sex, are treated this way, versus the less-sexist notion that women ... who do [commit capital murder] somehow tend to lose their identity as female and become a demonic killer that overwhelms the definition of a woman — that to dispatch someone to execution you almost have to relegate them [to being] outside the human family."  Still, he adds, "it’s more difficult to do that with a woman than a man.”

The Arias case alone probably won’t provide much of a guidepost to the direction of sentiment in the US regarding executing women.  But the sentencing phase comes at a peculiar time in the annals of death row — chiefly that the share of women murderers entering death row has stayed constant even as the percentage of men sentenced to die has noticeably dropped.

Recent related post:

May 10, 2013 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

"D.C.’s Race Disparity in Marijuana Charges Is Getting Worse"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable recent commentary by Rend Smith appearing in Washington's City Paper.  Here are excerpts (with links from the original):

[D]ozens of marijuana activists converged on the National Mall to celebrate 4/20 and push for the drug's legalization.  If photos and videos are any indication, most of the attendees were white.  As a black man, I find their efforts laudable and hearteningly altruistic. D.C.'s campaign against marijuana is racist. If it wasn't, District marijuana enforcement would look a lot less abominable.

In 2010, I wrote about how Jon Gettman, a public policy professor at Shenandoah University, pored through the city's 2007 marijuana arrest records to discover the District had arrested more pot offenders per capita than any other jurisdiction in the country. Gettman also found that the overwhelming majority of pot miscreants the city went after that year — 91 percent — was black.

... In 2007, a black person was eight times more likely to be arrested for a District marijuana offense than a white person, even though researchers have exposed what any college pot dealer can tell you from the comfort of his Barcalounger: Members of both racial groups consume cannabis at nearly equal rates.

D.C.'s dope divide is just as striking when you zoom out.  According to arrest numbers obtained from the Metropolitan Police Department and crunched by a statistician, between 2005 and 2011, D.C. cops filed 30,126 marijuana offense charges.  A staggering number of those — 27,560, or 91 percent — were filed against African-Americans. Only 2,097 were filed against whites.

Blame-the-victim folklore contends that pot-arrest asymmetries, which show up in various cities around the country, are about blacks smoking outside and getting their pot on street corners.  Recent studies contradict that.  And if D.C.'s shameful pot disparity was about anything but racial bias, we'd see it narrowing.

Instead, though the number of black and white pot charges filed fluctuated from year to year, reefer charges filed against blacks rose 6 percent and declined 10 percent for whites between 2005 and 2011.

Over the last decade, the federal city's black population has wavered as its white population shot up.  If municipal pot arrests were impartial, that should have equaled more white potheads learning what the inside of a squad car looked like as arrests of black potheads became scarcer.  Latinos, moving into the city in steady if not overwhelming numbers, for instance, saw their pot arrests rise 40 percent between 2005 and 2011, from 93 pot charges to 153.

Also, at a time when weed has become another chic amenity, there's a good chance that the city's affluent whites have most of D.C.'s stash. Last year, Washingtonian ran a gleeful article about the massive amount of weed rambling through D.C.'s elite neighborhoods courtesy of drug-dealing stroller moms and tony pot-delivery services....

The only politician explicitly working to address the dope divide is longshot at-large D.C. Council candidate Paul Zukerberg, who's made marijuana decriminalization part of his platform.  He attributes the disparity to cops using stop-and-frisk powers on young black males. "In D.C., we’re giving young people twice as many marijuana arrests as high school diplomas," he writes on his website.

Other D.C. politicians I contacted, like Mayor Vince Gray, wouldn't comment on the matter or didn't return messages.  But when I mentioned the dope divide to Police Chief Cathy Lanier (who told the Washington Post she’d tried weed as teen) during an email exchange last year, the top cop seemed concerned.  “Broad statement,” she wrote. “Mixed feelings on enforcement here...”  When I tried to get Lanier to say more, she referred me to her spokesperson, who told me that MPD doesn't insert itself into politics.

April 30, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Unsurprising (and justifiable?) gender sentencing disparities in NJ teacher-student sex cases

12651187-largeAs detailed in this local story, an award-winning, 31-year-old female teacher in New Jersey avoided any prison time at her sentencing yesterday following a plea to sex charges after an illegal relationship a 15-year-old student.  Here are the basics:

Erica DePalo was in the prime of her teaching career.  Just 31-years-old, with nearly a decade of teaching behind her, letters show the Essex County Teacher of the Year was loved by students and respected by colleagues.  But hidden behind her cheerful facade was a woman suffering from extreme depression and anxiety, DePalo’s lawyer told the court — leading to an illicit sexual relationship with a 15-year-old student....

The former West Orange high school teacher, who admitted to the relationship with her student, was sentenced in state Superior Court today to a three-year suspended sentence, which means she will not serve any prison time if she cooperates with the conditions of her parole.  DePalo also must register as a sex offender under Megan’s Law and cannot seek public or government office nor have any contact with the victim.

The non-custodial plea was largely influenced by DePalo’s psychiatric condition at the time of the sexual relationship, attorneys said.  Months before DePalo began the relationship with the boy, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, [defense attorney Anthony] Alfano said.  A doctor incorrectly prescribed anti-depressants which affected her sense of entitlement and judgment....

In court, DePalo took responsibility for the affair, apologizing to the victim in a quivering voice, tears running down her cheeks. "I feel nothing but remorse for my actions and deep, deep sadness for all I’ve lost because of them," she said.

Police charged DePalo in August with first-degree aggravated sexual assault, second-degree sexual assault and endangering the welfare of a child. The first two charges were dropped as part of the plea deal.  If DePalo had gone to trial and been convicted, she could have faced up to ten years in prison.

The non-custodial sentence was previously criticized by West Orange superintendent James O’Neil as too lenient. Both Alfano and Assistant Prosecutor Tony Gutierrez said the victim’s family consented to the plea. Gutierrez said the 15-year-old boy, who was a student in DePalo’s honor’s English class, was the only victim and that the relationship lasted a few weeks.

Alfano said gender was never brought up in plea negotiations, referencing a Star-Ledger analysis of 97 cases which revealed men serve about 40 percent longer jail terms and go to prison more often than women in these cases.

The referenced analysis on the study of NJ teacher-student sex cases appears in this companion article, which provides this accoutning:

Critics have called the punishment for the former Essex County teacher of the year too lenient and reflective of a double standard that disproportionately penalizes men for similar relationships with students.

A Star-Ledger analysis of 97 cases in New Jersey over the past decade reveals significant disparities: Men are on average sent to jail in more cases and receive longer sentences. The data about 72 men and 25 women also shows:

• Male defendants went to prison in 54 percent of cases compared with 44 percent of cases for female defendants;

• Men averaged 2.4 years in prison compared with 1.6 years in prison for women, or 50 percent more time;

• Ninety-three of the 97 cases ended in plea deals;

• €…Forty-seven cases ended in noncustodial sentences, which typically involved pre-trial intervention programs or probation.

There are various reasons for the disparities in these cases, experts say, including the perception that girls and women need to be protected and are more vulnerable than their male counterparts, the availability of evidence, and the willingness of the student to participate in the prosecution.

"There’s a general societal disposition that does continue to treat women as the gentler sex, so typically the threshold for sending women to prison is higher," said Martin Horn, director of the New York State Sentencing Commission and a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

All cases studied involve teachers, substitute teachers, coaches or school personnel who admitted to, or were convicted of, engaging in sexual relationships with students connected to their school.  "Juries and judges sort of make a consideration about how exploitative the crime is and how predatory the perpetrator is," Horn said.  "The system is supposed to make discriminations or make distinctions between individuals based on their perceived levels of culpability."

Most of the 97 cases analyzed were described in reports as consensual in nature (though not in the eyes of the law).  In New Jersey, the age of consent is 16, but a person in a supervisory role, such as a teacher, can be guilty of sexual offenses even if a student is 16 or 17. 

Because New Jersey’s Administrative Office of the Courts does not keep separate records on sex crimes committed by educators, The Star-Ledger used reports filed by the state Board of Examiners detailing teacher license suspensions. The suspension reports that described inappropriate student relationships were cross-checked with court records to obtain necessary information. This is not inclusive of every teacher-student case in the past 10 years.

April 30, 2013 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (27) | TrackBack

Monday, April 29, 2013

"Is 100 Years a Life Sentence? Opinions Are Divided"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Sidebar column in the New York Times by Adam Liptak.  Hard-core sentencing fans should realize from the title that this is a story about one of the many doctrinal questions gurgling in lower courts three years after a landmark Eighth Amendment SCOTUS ruling.  Here are excerpts from the column:

If people who are too young to vote commit crimes short of murder, the Supreme Court said in 2010, they should not be sentenced to die in prison.  That sounds straightforward enough. But there are two ways to understand the decision, Graham v. Florida.

One is formal. The court may have meant only to bar sentences labeled “life without parole.”  On that understanding, judges remained free to impose very long sentences — 100 years, say — as long as they were for a fixed term rather than for life....

The other way to understand the decision is practical.  If the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment requires that young offenders be left with a glimmer of hope that they may someday be released, it should not matter whether they were sentenced to life in so many words or as a matter of rudimentary actuarial math.

The lower courts are split on how to interpret the Graham decision, and the Supreme Court seems to be in no hurry to answer the question.  Last week, the justices turned away an appeal from Chaz Bunch of Ohio, who was convicted of kidnapping and raping a woman in a carjacking when he was 16.  He was sentenced to 89 years.  Even assuming he becomes eligible for early release, he will be 95 years old before he can leave prison.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Cincinnati, upheld the sentence, even as it acknowledged that there were two ways to approach the matter.... Until the Supreme Court speaks, Judge Rogers wrote, there is no “clearly established federal law” to assist Mr. Bunch, who was challenging his state conviction in federal court.

Applying the reasoning of the Graham decision to long fixed sentences, Judge Rogers added, “would lead to a lot of questions.”  An appeals court in Florida last year listed some of them in upholding a 76-year sentence meted out to Leighdon Henry, who was 16 when he committed rape.

“At what number of years would the Eighth Amendment become implicated in the sentencing of a juvenile: 20, 30, 40, 50, some lesser or greater number?” Judge Jacqueline R. Griffin wrote for the court.

Mr. Henry is black and was born in 1989.  The life expectancy of black males born that year was 64, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Life expectancy in prison is shorter than it is outside. Wherever the line is, then, a 76-year sentence would seem to be past it.  “Could the number vary from offender to offender based on race, gender, socioeconomic class or other criteria?” Judge Griffin asked.

That is a reasonable question.  But Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., said it was the wrong one.  “The idea isn’t to get the person as close to death as possible before you deal with the possibility of their release,” he said.  It is, rather, to give juvenile offenders a sporting chance, perhaps after decades in prison, to make the case that they deserve to get out, he said....

The number of juvenile offenders serving de facto life terms because of very long sentences is probably in the hundreds.  Some of the appeals court judges who have upheld such sentences did not sound enthusiastic about the task.  “Without any tools to work with, however, we can only apply Graham as it is written,” Judge Griffin wrote.  “If the Supreme Court has more in mind, it will have to say what that is.”

April 29, 2013 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Graham and Sullivan Eighth Amendment cases, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 18, 2013

"Race and the Disappointing Right to Counsel"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Gabriel (Jack) Chin now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Critics of the criminal justice system observe that the promise of Gideon v. Wainwright has been unfulfilled.  They decry both the inadequate quality of representation available to indigent defendants, and the racially disproportionate outcome of the process.  Some hope that better representation can help remedy the gross overrepresentation of minorities in the criminal justice system.  This essay is doubtful that better lawyers will significantly address that problem.

When the Supreme Court decided Gideon, it had two main purposes.  First, it intended to protect the innocent from conviction.  This goal, while imperfectly achieved at best, was explicit.  Since Gideon, the Court has continued to recognize the importance of claims of innocence at trial, with important, pro-defense decisions in the areas of confrontation, jury fact-finding, the right to present a defense and in other areas.

The Court's second goal was to protect African Americans subject to the Jim Crow system of criminal justice.  But, as it had in Powell v. Alabama, the Court pursued this end covertly and indirectly; the Court attempted to deal with racial discrimination without explicitly addressing it.  This timidity was portentous.  Gideon did not mark the beginning of a judicial project to eliminate race from the criminal justice system root and branch; three years after Gideon, the Court allowed prosecutors to exercise peremptory challenges of jurors based on race.  Since Gideon, the Court has made it practically impossible to invoke racial bias as a defense; so long as those charged are in fact guilty, discrimination in legislative criminalization, in enforcement and in sentencing practices are essentially unchallengeable.

Since Gideon, racial disproportionality in the prison population has increased.  Not only might Gideon not have solved the problem, it may have exacerbated it.  To the extent that Gideon improved the quality of counsel available to the poor, defense lawyers may be able to obtain favorable exercises of discretion in investigation, prosecution and sentencing for indigent white defendants that they cannot for clients of color.  For these reasons, racial disparity likely cannot be remedied indirectly, with more or better lawyers. Instead, the remedy lies in directly prohibiting discrimination, and having fewer crimes on the books, fewer arrests, and fewer prosecutions.

I am very pleased to see Jack Chin's willingness to note not only that Gideon may not have solved the problem of a racialized criminal justice system, but even that Gideon "may have exacerbated it."  In many ways, Jack's piece here is another articulation of this recent provocative New York Times op-ed by Paul Butler last month, headlined "Gideon’s Muted Trumpet," which highlighted various ways in which the modern criminal justice evolved for the worse during half century after Gideon became the law of the land.  And I echoed another variation on these ideas when I asked in this post, "Did Gideon enable the war on drugs, the sentencing severity revolution and modern mass incarceration?."

I do not surmised that Jack or Paul are saying, and I know that I am not saying, that Gideon was wrongly decided or that our current criminal justice system would be better without Gideon.  But I do think we are all eager to encourage reflection on the reality that there may be a lot more wrong with our modern criminal justice systems than poor funding and poor functioning of some defense lawyers. 

Recent related posts:

April 18, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, April 15, 2013

Interesting coverage of media coverage of crime and prison punishments

Marchapril2013cover_300x400Thanks to this post at How Appealing, I discovered that the the March / April 2013 issue of Columbia Journalism Review has a set of articles concerning the ways in which the media covers (and has trouble covering) some modern crime and punishment stories.  I am very pleased to see the Columbia Journalism Review provide this significant coverage of aspects and limits of modern media coverage, not only because I sorta/kinda play the role of a new media journalist on-line through this blog, but also because these articles are part of a broader issue devoted to the modern media's less-than-inspiring "coverage of race, class, and social mobility." 

As regular readers will not be surprised to hear from me, I think issues of crime and punishment are among the most central and least examined aspects of our enduring struggles with the array of dynamic issues relating to race, class, and social mobility in the United States.  Thus, I am not only generally happy to see coverage of media coverage of crime and prison punishments, but I am particularly pleased that this issue of the Columbia Journalism Review links its article to the broader concerns of "coverage of race, class, and social mobility."

With that wordy preview, here are links to the set of pieces appearing in the the March / April 2013 issue of Columbia Journalism Review that all look like must-reads:

April 15, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Latest proof that every issue, including gay marriage, has a sentencing angle

One of many reasons I love to obsess over sentencing is because I see sentencing issues in everything other issue of public or private concern.  Indeed, as my students (and reader of this blog) often hear from me, I see any and every issue of public policy concern to really be a crime and punishment issue in some way.  The latest proof of this sentencing-is-everything perspective comes today with a gay marriage spin thanks to this new article from the New York Daily News.  The piece is headlined "Openly gay daughter of Colombo gangster pleads for mercy in sentencing," and here are excerpts:

The openly gay daughter of Colombo gangster Dennis Delucia has outed her father as a supporter of same-sex marriage. In a moving letter seeking mercy from the judge who will sentence him, Donna Delucia says her father is a family man in the truest sense.

“My dad was the one who told me he would love me no matter what I would do or tell him,” Donna Delucia wrote to Judge Kiyo Matsumoto. “I finally came out at 22 years old. My mother did not handle it well and pushed me away .... I was scared, frightened and afraid of my dad’s reaction,” she continued in the letter filed in Brooklyn Federal Court.

“My dad accepted me, embraced me and has supported me. His love and acceptance helped me through the rough times and growing pains.”

Dennis Delucia, 71, a reputed capo in the crime family, pleaded guilty last year to extortion and faces 46 months in prison. He admitted using a couple of extra-large goons who made him look like a “midget” to intimidate the operator of a rival gambling club in the Bronx.

She conceded her father is a “chauvinist” and recalled his “king of the castle” views that included prohibiting her brothers from cleaning off the dinner table because they were boys. But after Donna fell in love with her partner and informed him they were planning to have a baby, the mobster cried. “He made me so proud,” Donna wrote.

Delucia helped pay for Donna and her spouse to move from Philadelphia to New York where same-sex parents pass parental rights to their partner. Today, they live in Kentucky, “far from the hype of Italian-Americans,” where they are raising their 9-year-old son. “Please let him come home,” Donna begged the judge. “I want my son to spend long days with his grandfather. I want him to know my dad.”

As federal sentencing gurus know, there is a long-running (and never quite resolved) debate over whether and how "family ties and responsibilities" can and should impact a federal sentencing decision. This story provides a timely reminder that whether and where same-sex marriage is allowed can and will, in turn, impact whether and how defendants with gay relatives can and will be able to tell a more modernized story of the importance of "family ties and responsibilities."

April 11, 2013 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Monday, April 08, 2013

Notable perspective on notable class disparities in federal sentencing

I received via this e-mail from a helpful ready the following blog-friendly comment (with links) that I believe merits sharing in this space:

I was reading your blog post about the return of debtors' prisons for those who fail to pay court fines in Ohio, and appreciate your concern about a two-tiered sentencing system: those who can afford to pay, and those who can't.

You may be interested in a similar phenomena in the Brooklyn federal courts where a defendant who has a business which employs others often gets probation because the judges don't want his employees to lose their jobs.  Isn't this favored treatment for the capitalist class, and a penalty for the poor who don't employ others?

Reputed Gambino associate Anthony Scibelli got off with just probation last Friday because the sentencing judge also was reluctant to imprison Scibelli over "concern that incarceration would jeopardize the jobs of 200 employees at his firm" as reported by John Marzulli for the Daily News.

In 2008 another Brooklyn federal judge spared alleged Gambino soldier and Brooklyn restaurateur Joseph Chirico from prison on a money laundering conviction as then reported by Kati Cornell for the New York Post:  "Judge Jack Weinstein said he was hesitant to cut Chirico a break, but wanted to ensure Chirico's workers stay employed."

April 8, 2013 in Race, Class, and Gender, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Friday, April 05, 2013

Potent new quote from AG Eric Holder: "Too many people go to too many prisons for far too long for no good law enforcement reason"

I am very pleased to have seen from this new Politico article that Attorney General Eric Holder last night stressed the need for national criminal justice reform at the end of a major speech delivered at the 15th Annual National Action Network Convention. The full text of the lengthy speech is available at this link, and here is some of the context for the potent quotable stressed above:

[W]e must also move to improve our nation’s criminal justice system — and to promote public safety, deterrence, efficiency, and fairness at every level. We’re providing increased support for programs offering quality legal representation to those who cannot afford it, in accordance with the Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon v. Wainwright — a landmark ruling, handed down 50 years ago last month, which held that every defendant charged with a serious crime has the right to an attorney.

We’re also asking larger questions about the mechanisms of our criminal justice system as a whole – and, where appropriate, exploring ways to recalibrate this system and ensure that it’s as fair and effective as possible.

Already, this urgent need has driven the Administration to advocate — successfully — for the elimination of the unjust 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.  As we speak, it is propelling us to become both smarter and tougher on crime by facilitating more effective policing at the state and local levels; broadening the impact of innovative prevention, intervention, enforcement, and reentry programs; using intelligence-based strategies to target federal law enforcement resources and assistance to the areas where they’re most needed; and seeking new ways to help crime victims — especially victims of sexual assault — to make their lives whole again.

Our reform efforts are also driving us to engage allies like the Department of Education — and others — to confront the “school-to-prison pipeline” that transforms too many educational institutions from doorways of opportunity into gateways to the criminal justice system.  They are informing essential programs like the Department’s Defending Childhood Initiative and the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention — which are helping to rally federal leaders, state officials, private organizations, and community groups to examine how we can better understand, address, and prevent youth exposure to violence — as victims or as witnesses.  And these efforts are inspiring us to forge new partnerships like the Federal Interagency Reentry Council — a group I first convened in 2011, which brings together leaders from 20 federal agencies to address barriers that formerly incarcerated individuals face in rejoining their communities, to promote best practices, and to confront these and related issues as more than just criminal justice problems.

The sheer number of Americans contending with these challenges is staggering. Well over two million people are currently behind bars in this country.  As a nation we are coldly efficient in our incarceration efforts. One in 28 children has a parent in prison.  For African American children, this ratio is roughly 1 in 9.  In total, approximately 700,000 people are released from state and federal prisons every year.  Nine to 10 million more cycle through local jails.  And 40 percent of former federal prisoners — along with more than 60 percent of former state prisoners — are rearrested or have their supervision revoked within three years after their release.

Now, there’s no question that incarceration has a role to play in our criminal justice system.  But there’s also no denying that widespread incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels imposes a significant economic burden — totaling nearly $83 billion in 2009 alone — along with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.  As a nation — and as a people — we pay a high price whenever our criminal justice policies fall short of fairly delivering outcomes that deter and punish crime, keep the American people safe, and ensure that those who pay their debts to society have the chance to become productive, law-abiding citizens.

This is why — as we look toward the future — we must promote public safety and deterrence while at the same time ensuring efficiency and fairness. I am concerned by a troubling report released by the United States Sentencing Commission in February, which indicates that — in recent years — black male offenders have received sentences that are nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes. The Department of Justice is determined to continue working alongside Congressional leaders, judges, law enforcement officials, and independent groups — like the American Bar Association — to study the unintended collateral consequences of certain convictions; to address unwarranted sentencing disparities; and — where appropriate — to explore ways to give judges more flexibility in determining certain sentences.  Too many people go to too many prisons for far too long for no good law enforcement reason.  It is time to ask ourselves some fundamental questions about our criminal justice system.  Statutes passed by legislatures that mandate sentences, irrespective of the unique facts of an individual case, too often bear no relation to the conduct at issue, breed disrespect for the system, and are ultimately counterproductive. It is time to examine our systems and determine what truly works.  We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, to rehabilitate, and to deter — and not simply to warehouse and forget.

I am so excited to now see that our nation's top law enforcement officer is now expressly saying, without reservation and in no uncertaint terms, what I have long believed about the big government waste in our massive modern criminal justice systems: "Too many people go to too many prisons for far too long for no good law enforcement reason."  I hope that, in addition encouraging that "ask ourselves some fundamental questions about our criminal justice system," that he will actively take the many possible steps within his power to get some of the people in prison for too long to ensure those who are now being just warehoused are no longer forgotten.

April 5, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (42) | TrackBack

New ACLU of Ohio report documents "contemporary debtors’ prisons"

DebtorsPrisonAs reported in this local article, headlined "Poor unfairly jailed for failing to pay fines, report says," a new report by the ACLU of Ohio makes a set of provocative assertions about crime, punishment and modern economic realities. Here are the basics:

Courts in at least seven counties routinely jail Ohioans for owing court fines and fees, in violation of the state constitution and laws and against a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, according to a new study released by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor says the report raises issues that “can and must receive further attention.”

While many defendants can pay their fines and walk away, for Ohio’s poor a fine “is just the beginning of a process that may involve contempt charges, mounting fees, arrest warrants, and even jail time,” the report says.

The ACLU documented debtors prison practices in Springboro mayor’s court and municipal courts in Hamilton County, Sandusky, Norwalk, Parma, Mansfield and Bryan....

Other courts, including Moraine mayor’s court, employ policies such as arresting defendants for not showing up for hearings where they’re supposed to explain why they haven’t paid their fines, said Mike Brickner, ACLU of Ohio communications director. The hearings are sometimes scheduled weekly, increasing the chances that the defendant will eventually miss one and face a bench warrant, he said....

The ACLU calls on the Ohio Supreme Court to issue administrative rules to require courts to hold hearings to determine whether a defendant is unable to pay fines owed or if they’re just unwilling.  Even if a defendant is just refusing to pay, he or she is supposed to be credited $50 per day spent in jail against the debt.

Jailing people costs between $58 and $65 per night, plus the time spent by officers and clerks to track the person down, arrest them, book them into the jail and file paperwork. Often the costs exceed the debts owed.  “It is not a good deal for the taxpayers.  (The defendants) aren’t not paying because they don’t feel like it.  They’re not paying because the literally have no money,” Brickner said.   Brickner said it creates a two-tier justice system for those who are able to pay fines and those who can’t.

The ACLU of Ohio's report is titled "The Outskirts of Hope" and is available at this link.  Here are a few paragraphs from the report's introduction:

The resurgence of contemporary debtors’ prisons sits squarely at this intersection of poverty and criminal justice. While this term conjures up images of Victorian England, the research and personal stories in this report illustrate that debtors’ prisons remain all too common in 21st century Ohio. In towns across the state, thousands of people face the looming specter of incarceration every day, simply because they are poor.

Taking care of a fine is straightforward for some Ohioans — having been convicted of a criminal or traffic offense and sentenced to pay a fine, an affluent defendant may simply pay it and go on with his or her life.  For Ohio’s poor and working poor, by contrast, an unaffordable fine is just the beginning of a protracted process that may involve contempt charges, mounting fees, arrest warrants, and even jail time.  The stark reality is that, in 2013, Ohioans are being repeatedly jailed simply for being too poor to pay fines. The U.S. Constitution, the Ohio Constitution, and Ohio Revised Code all prohibit debtors’ prisons. The law requires that, before jailing anyone for unpaid fines, courts must determine whether an individual is too poor to pay.  Jailing a person who is unable to pay violates the law, and yet municipal courts and mayors’ courts across the state continue this draconian practice. Moreover, debtors’ prisons actually waste taxpayer dollars by arresting and incarcerating people who will simply never be able to pay their fines, which are in any event usually smaller than the amount it costs to arrest and jail them.

The Outskirts of Hope documents how contemporary debtors’ prisons work in Ohio and profiles some of the real people who have been impacted by this system.  The constant threat of incarceration has left an imprint on each of these individuals’ lives, interfering with their families, health, employment, and housing.  By shining a light on this dark practice in Ohio, this report hopes to move our state towards the promise of greater justice and fairness for those with the fewest resources.

April 5, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

"Judge to retire after sending racist Obama email"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new AP article following up on a federal judiciary story that generated some blog-worthy discussions around a year ago.  Here are the basics (followed by  back-story links to prior posts):

Montana's chief federal judge will retire following an investigation into an email he forwarded that included a racist joke involving President Barack Obama.

U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull had previously announced he would step down as chief circuit judge and take a reduced caseload, but he informed the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that he now intends to fully retire May 3. The appellate court posted a statement by Chief Judge Alex Kozinski on its website Tuesday announcing Cebull had submitted the retirement letter.

The March 29 letter comes after the appellate court's Judicial Council issued a March 15 order on the investigation into the February 2012 email, but appellate court spokesman David Madden could not say whether Cebull resigned because of the order. "The misconduct process is confidential. I am not privy to what the order said nor do I know what Judge Cebull's motivations were," Madden said in Wednesday email.

The council's order will remain confidential during an appeal period, which concludes May 17, Madden said. The council will make an announcement after Cebull's retirement takes effect, he said, but added that he was unable to answer when the order or the letter will be released to the public.

A Cebull aide directed calls for comment to Clerk of Court Tyler Gilman, who said Wednesday that Cebull would not have any comment other than the court's statement. He declined to release the resignation letter or describe what it said.

Cebull wrote a letter of apology to Obama and filed a complaint against himself after The Great Falls Tribune published the contents of the email, which included a joke about bestiality and the president's mother.

The Billings judge forwarded the email from his chambers to six other people on Feb. 20, 2012, the newspaper reported.  Two other groups also demanded an investigation, with one, the Montana Human Rights Network, starting an online petition calling for Cebull's resignation.

Kim Abbott, the network's co-director, said Wednesday she was pleased with the announcement but hopes to see the results of the investigation.  "The email really called into question his ability to treat women and people of color fairly, so we're happy Montanans will get to appear before a different judge," Abbott said.

The complaints were referred to a special committee appointed by the appellate court to investigate whether Cebull's email constituted misconduct.  Kozinski's statement said the committee submitted a report to the Judicial Council in December after "a thorough and extensive investigation" that included interviews with witnesses and Cebull and going over related documents. The council issued its order based on that report....

Cebull previously said he would take senior status March 18, which would have allowed another judge to be appointed while he continued working with a reduced caseload. U.S. Sen. Max Baucus then formed a committee to replace Cebull and another judge taking senior status, with Baucus recently recommending that Obama appoint state District Judge Susan Watters of Billings to take Cebull's spot on the bench.

The new chief federal judge, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen, plans to meet with other judges to discuss how to handle the Cebull's cases, Gilman said. Cebull was a Billings attorney for nearly 30 years before becoming a U.S. magistrate in Great Falls in 1998. He became a district judge in 2001 and has served as chief judge of the District of Montana since 2008.

Related prior posts (all from March 2012):

April 3, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Did Gideon enable the war on drugs, the sentencing severity revolution and modern mass incarceration?

Gideon trumptetThe provocative question in the title of this post is the result of my latest personal ruminations over how to "celebrate" the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright this month.   Much of the discussion I have seen looks back at the Gideon case, reviews the ruling's import, and then laments that funding for lawyers for poor defendants remains inadequate. 

But this provocative New York Times op-ed by Paul Butler, headlined "Gideon’s Muted Trumpet," provides some broader context for how modern criminal justice has evolved over the last half century after Gideon becomes the law of the land. Here are excerpts, with a few lines emphasized by me to help explain the provocative question in the title of this post:

Fify years after the Supreme Court, in Gideon v. Wainwright, guaranteed legal representation to poor people charged with serious crimes, low-income criminal defendants, particularly black ones, are significantly worse off.

Don’t blame public defenders, who are usually overwhelmed. The problem lies with power-drunk prosecutors — I know, because I used to be one — and “tough on crime” lawmakers, who have enacted some of the world’s harshest sentencing laws.  They mean well, but have created a system that makes a mockery of “equal justice under the law.”  A black man without a high school diploma is more likely to be in prison than to have a job.

A poor person has a much greater chance of being incarcerated now than when Gideon was decided, 50 years ago today.  This is not because of increased criminality — violent crime has plunged from its peak in the early 1990s — but because of prosecutorial policies that essentially target the poor and relegate their lawyers to negotiating guilty pleas, rather than mounting a defense.

After Gideon, things got better for poor defendants in the short term.  Thousands who had not had lawyers at trial were released from jail.  Many states and localities created public defenders’ offices.  But political and legal developments soon eroded those achievements.

The so-called war on crime greatly expanded criminal liability.  A prosecutor can almost always find some charge: there are over 4,000 crimes on the federal books alone. Recreational drug use is one of the more popular activities in America, but racial minorities suffer the brunt of drug-related convictions.

In part because of federal grants to states to incarcerate drug offenders, the United States experienced the largest increase in incarceration in the history of the free world.  Our population is less than 5 percent of the world’s but we have nearly 25 percent of its prisoners.  When Gideon was decided, about 43 percent of defendants were indigent. Now, over 80 percent are....

Today over 90 percent of accused people plead guilty.  It’s rational, because the costs of being wrong are just too high.  As a young prosecutor, I enjoyed having all this power. I worked on a case against a property clerk who was stealing supplies from a government office.  We set up a sting, in which an undercover agent acted as a buyer of stolen merchandise.  Each time the clerk committed to selling more stolen goods, his potential sentence increased by five years.  We got the guilty plea we wanted.

The Supreme Court has famously stated that the prosecutor’s interest “is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done.”  In our adversarial system, however, those are just words on paper.  Gideon, meanwhile, is an underfunded mandate.  Some public defenders are forced to juggle over 2,000 cases per year, as the journalist Karen Houppert found in a new book, “Chasing Gideon.”...

The Supreme Court recently extended Gideon’s reach to the plea bargaining process, a potentially encouraging development.  But, as the federal judge Jed S. Rakoff has written, the main problem is not defense lawyers’ “ineffectiveness” but prosecutors’ “overconfidence.”

Poor people lose, most of the time, in our criminal justice system not just because indigent defense is inadequately financed, although it is, and not because public defenders are ineffective, although some are.  They lose because prosecutors and lawmakers treat them like losers.  That is the real crisis of American indigent defense.

The points I have highlighted above provide the foundation for my rumination that without the Gideon ruling in 1963, many of the "political and legal developments" stressed by Butler might not have happened or even have been possible.  The decade after Gideon is when the modern "drug war" got started, and it is still going pretty strong four decades later; around the same time, as the commitment to rehabilitation in sentencing was assailed, lawmakers and prosecutors embraced more rigid and severe sentencing structures; and these forces were critical components in the multi-decade march toward modern mass incarceration.  I must wonder if these policial and legal development would have taken place the same way, or at all, if lawmakers and prosecutors did not feel confident that poor defendants' rights would always be safeguarded because they now had a constitutional right to a lawyer.

Readers familiar with the late great Bill Stuntz's ground-breaking scholarship will rightly think I am channelling some of his insights about the ways in which landmark Warren Court criminal procedure rulings provided a critical precursor to modern criminal justice problems.  Critically, I absolutely do not mean to assert or suggest — nor do I read Stuntz's work to assert or suggest — that Gideon and other landmark Warren Court rulings directly caused a host of modern criminal justice problems.  But I do not think it is mere coincidence that the American criminal justice landscape started to change dramatically, and often for the worse, not too long after the Supreme Court responded to Clarence Gideon's trumpet call for the constitutional right of all criminal defendants to get a lawyer's assistance.

That all said, I absolutely do not think Gideon was wrongly decided, nor am I suggesting that modern complaints about indigent defense being inadequately financed are overstated.  Rather, I am just eager in this forum to encourage everyone to "celebrate" Gideon by considering broadly what modern American criminal justice might look like if Gideon never became a name in our constitutional lexicon.

Recent related posts:

March 19, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Noting the intersection of mental illness and gender in incarceration nation

This recent article in the Denver Post, headlined "Two of three women in Colorado prisons diagnosed with psychological disorders," provides a notable window into the impact and import of issues of mental illness and gender with regard to who commits crimes and gets sent to prison for their crimes.  Here is how the piece starts:

The number of Colorado female prisoners diagnosed with psychological disorders has risen sharply to more than twice the level of male prisoners.

The women are almost without exception victims of severe sexual and physical abuse, experts say. They cycle through jail and prison, often because they don't get adequate treatment or community support.

"The trauma histories are extreme," said Theresa Stone, chief of mental health at Denver Women's Correctional Facility. "It's hard to hear what these women have been through."

While most women are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, a certain percentage of them are committing increasingly violent acts, Stone said.

"Women are in many cases extremely violent," she said. "I think we're seeing the impact of abuse and mental illness."

The state prison system has in recent years taken great strides in diagnosing and addressing the needs of mentally ill women, Stone said. There is drug counseling, psychological treatment and group therapy. Some women live in highly structured therapeutic communities in special pods. The first step was identifying the true scope of the problem, Stone said.

In 2001, a Colorado Department of Corrections review determined that 39 percent of women incarcerated in Colorado were diagnosed with some type of mental illness. A Dec. 31 report says that 67 percent of those women are mentally ill.

That is slightly lower than the national rate of women incarcerated in prison. According to a December 2006 Department of Justice study, 73 percent of women in state prisons nationally have some type of mental disorder. Within the general population, 12 percent of women have a diagnosed mental disorder, the same report says.

The percentage of men in Colorado prisons with a diagnosed mental illness also increased dramatically in the same time frame — from 18 percent to 30 percent — but the ratio is less than half the level of female inmates.

The percentage of female prisoners suffering mental conditions, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression, has always been high but many women hadn't been diagnosed, experts say. Many of the women also had declined to seek treatment until they were behind bars.

March 7, 2013 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 28, 2013

You be the prosecutor: what state sentence should be sought for Joan Orie Melvin and her sister?

OriesRegular readers know that, often on the eve of a high-profile or unique sentencing proceeding, I urge folks to imagine being the judge and to propose a just and effective sentence for the defendant.  (See, e.g., prior "you be the judge" posts involving a rouge federal judge, a Ponzi schemer, the "Spam King", and an NBA star.)   Earlier this month, however, I generated a notable sentencing debate by changing the script via this post in which I encouraged folks to imagine being a federal prosecutor tasked with recommending a federal sentence for Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife after it was clear that they intend to plead guilty to political corruption charges stemming from their misuse of campaign finance monies.  (See "You be the prosecutor: what federal sentence should be sought for Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife?".)

As the title of this post reveals, I think it valuable to encourage readers again to think as a prosecutor about sentencing recommendations for political corruption.  But, as explained via this local story, "Judge sets May 7 sentencing for Joan Orie Melvin," the high-profile upcoming sentencing I have in mind is in state court and concerns a prominent state jurist and her sister after a trial conviction on multiple charges:

Allegheny County Judge Lester Nauhaus has scheduled suspended Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin's sentencing for May 7, the judge's staff said Wednesday.

A jury on Feb. 21 found Melvin, 56, of Marshall guilty on six criminal charges dealing with her misuse of state-paid employees to campaign for a seat on the high court in 2003 and 2009. The jury deadlocked on a seventh charge of official oppression.

The jury also convicted her sister and former staffer, Janine Orie, 58, of McCandless on six related charges.  Information on her sentencing date wasn't available.  A third sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, 51, of McCandless is serving 2 1⁄2 years to 10 years in state prison on similar charges.

Obviously, the exact specifics of the crimes and the political positions of Jesse Jackson Jr. and Joan Orie Melvin are quite different.  Nevertheless, the underlying criminal behavior is arguably similar, as is the basic background of the offenders in relevant respects (e.g., both convicted defendants came from prominent political families, had a record of electorial success, and have considerable parental responsibilities).  Of course, Jackson Jr. and his wife are due to be sentenced in the federal no-parole system in which judges must impose exact sentences subject only to a 15% reduction for good prison behavior, whereas Melvin and her sister are to be sentenced in the Pennsylvania with-parole system in which judges general impose sentences in term of broad ranges.  Further, the Jacksons pleaded guilty and have expressed remorse, whereas Melvin and his sister both execised their trial rights and were found guilty on nearly all charges by a jury.

Differencea aside, I am eager to hear what readers think state prosecutors ought to be recommending as a sentence for Joan Orie Melvin and her sister.  Do you think they merit a longer or shorter sentence that what the Jacksons are facing?  Do you think the fact that state sentencing in Pennsylvania involves possibility of parole should lead to state prosecutor to urge for a much longer sentence in the Melvin case than federal prosecutors are urging in the Jackson case?  Do you disagree with my general notion that these crimes are in some ways comparable given that they were prosecuted in different jurisdictions (even though, I think, the feds could have prosecuted both cases)?

I raise these points not only because I see high-profile, white-collar sentences as provide a great setting for debating sentencing issues, but also because I think efforts to compare the sentencing treatment of seemingly similar defendants can often distract from the task of seeking to impose the most just and effective sentence for a singular defendant.  Ergo my interest in reader views on both the upcoming sentencing in this high-profile state political corruption case and how it should be compared to the upcoming sentencing of the Jacksons in federal court.

Recent related posts:

February 28, 2013 in Celebrity sentencings, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, State Sentencing Guidelines, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

New Sentencing Project report notes recent changing racial make-up of prison populations

As summarized in this New York Times article, "[i]ncarceration rates for black Americans dropped sharply from 2000 to 2009, especially for women, while the rate of imprisonment for whites and Hispanics rose over the same decade, according to a report released Wednesday" by The Sentencing Project. Here is more:

The declining rates for blacks represented a significant shift in the racial makeup of the United States’ prisons and suggested that the disparities that have long characterized the prison population may be starting to diminish.

“It certainly marks a shift from what we’ve seen for several decades now,” said Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, whose report was based on data from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, part of the Justice Department. “Normally, these things don’t change very dramatically over a one-decade period.”

The decline in incarceration rates was most striking for black women, dropping 30.7 percent over the ten-year period. In 2000, black women were imprisoned at six times the rate of white women; by 2009, they were 2.8 times more likely to be in prison. For black men, the rate of imprisonment decreased by 9.8 percent; in 2000 they were incarcerated at 7.7 times the rate of white men, a rate that fell to 6.4 times that of white men by 2009.

For white men and women, however, incarceration rates increased over the same period, rising 47.1 percent for white women and 8.5 percent for white men. By the end of the decade, Hispanic men were slightly less likely to be in prison, a drop of 2.2 percent, but Hispanic women were imprisoned more frequently, an increase of 23.3 percent.

Over all, blacks currently make up about 38 percent of inmates in state and federal prisons; whites account for about 34 percent. More than 100,000 women are currently incarcerated in state or federal prisons. The overall rate of incarceration varies widely from state to state, as does the ratio of blacks to whites and Hispanics.

But the trend is clear, Mr. Mauer said, adding that no single factor could explain the shifting figures but that changes in drug laws and sentencing for drug offenses probably played a large role. Other possible contributors included decreasing arrest rates for blacks, the rising number of whites and Hispanics serving mandatory sentences for methamphetamine abuse, and socioeconomic shifts that have disproportionately affected white women.

Alfred Blumstein, an expert on the criminal justice system at Carnegie Mellon University, said his own findings from research he conducted with Allen J. Beck of the Bureau of Justice Statistics also indicated that the rate of incarceration for blacks was declining compared with that for whites. “A major contributor has been the intensity of incarceration for drug offending,” Dr. Blumstein said, “and that reached a peak with the very long sentences we gave out for crack offenders, stimulated in large part by the violence that was going on in the crack markets.”

But crack cocaine has become far less of an issue in recent years, he noted, a fact reflected in revisions of federal sentencing laws. And inmates serving time for crack offenses are now emerging from prison, “so there would be a disproportionate black exodus from prison that as a result would be reflected in a lowering of the incarceration-rate ratio,” he said.

Mr. Mauer said that especially for black women, the drop in incarceration compared with whites was “all about drug offenses.” In New York State, for example, where the overall prison population has dropped substantially, for women “virtually the entire decline was a decline in drug offenses,” he said. Increasingly severe drug laws and stiff sentences for drug offenses resulted in disproportionate numbers of black women going to prison, he said, “and now they are disproportionately benefiting from reductions in that area.”

The full 26-page report from The Sentencing Project is titled "The Changing Racial Dynamics of Women’s Incarceration," and it is available at this link.

February 28, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

New poll indicates most Maryland citizens do not support death penalty repeal efforts

This new article, headlined "Washington Post poll finds most Marylanders in favor of death penalty," reveals that the on-going effort by many elected Maryland representatives to repeal the state's death penalty runs contrary to current public opinion in the state. Here are the basic (which includes a link to the poll data):

A majority of Marylanders want to keep the death penalty on the books despite widespread skepticism across the state about whether capital punishment is a deterrent to murder or is applied fairly, a new Washington Post poll has found.

Sixty percent of adults in the poll say that Maryland law should allow for the death penalty, while 36 percent support replacing it with life in prison without the possibility of parole....

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has made repeal of the death penalty a top priority in the 90-day legislative session. Debate could begin in earnest on the issue later this week in the Senate, where a narrow majority of members are on record supporting O’Malley’s repeal bill. Prospects in the House of Delegates are also considered strong.
Some of the arguments O’Malley is making appear to resonate among Marylanders. By nearly 2 to 1, those polled say that the death penalty is not a deterrent to murder and does not lower the murder rate.  And most who respond that way say they feel strongly about their view.  Moreover, nearly one-third of Marylanders — including nearly a half of African Americans — say capital punishment has been applied unfairly in the state. That’s another argument O’Malley has advanced in a state where five men sit on death row but no executions have taken place since 2005.
Yet even when those arguments are stated explicitly, as well as questions that critics have raised about the morality of capital punishment, support for repeal is tepid among the public — which could ultimately decide the issue.  If a repeal bill passes the General Assembly, opponents are expected to take advantage of a provision in the state Constitution that allows citizens to petition new laws to the statewide vote.  If enough signatures are collected, the issue would appear on the ballot in November 2014....
There are deep divisions over the death penalty based on party affiliation, race, gender and other demographics.  More than half of Democrats oppose capital punishment, while three-quarters of Republicans support it.  About six in 10 men support the death penalty, while women are nearly evenly divided. Whites support capital punishment by a margin of about 2-to-1, while a majority of African Americans are opposed....
The Post poll was conducted Feb. 21-24, among a random sample of 1,156 adult residents of Maryland. The results from the full survey have a margin of error or plus or minus 3.5 percent.

February 26, 2013 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Grey Lady has lots of sentencing stories fit to print today

Seemingly just conincidentally, the New York Times has these three notable sentencing-related pieces in its print edition today.  Here are the headlines and the start of the stories in the order they appear in the paper:

February 19, 2013 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Lengthy discussion of Miller in Michigan through lens of one female murderer

This lengthy new AP article, headlined "Sentenced to life at 16, woman hopes for freedom," provides a details account of the implications and application of the Supreme Court's Miller ruling in Michigan (and elsewhere). As the headline suggests, the bulk of the piece is focused on one female offender, but these excerpts highlight some broader part of the story:

There are more than 2,000 Barbara Hernandezes in this country -- men and women sentenced to live and die in prison for murders committed when they were teens.  Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a long-awaited ruling, wrestling with questions that have confounded the justice system for years: Should teens convicted of the most brutal crimes be punished just like adults? Or should their youth matter?

The ruling was dense with legal references and focuses on faraway cases. But in its 64 pages, the court offered new hope to inmates in 28 states.  "Imposition of a State's most severe penalties on juvenile offenders cannot proceed as though they were not children," Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court's majority.

Despite the justices' strong words, they declined to settle the many complex questions inherent in resolving these cases. Instead, they left it to people in statehouses and courthouses, in living rooms and law offices and prison cells.  In Michigan and many other states, the challenge now is to decide whether, and how, this new standard of fairness is supposed to confront the stern justice of the past.

That won't be easy. In the closing hours of Hernandez's trial, the prosecutor urged jurors to focus solely on her role in killing James Cotaling, a 28-year-old auto mechanic who, on a Saturday night in May 1990, told his fiancee he was going out to buy a Mother's Day card at Kmart, but never came home. "This would be the type of case where it would be easy to feel sorry for Barbara Hernandez, but you all promised me at jury selection that sympathy would play no role in your deliberations," said the prosecutor, Donna Pendergast. "You can't look at who this defendant is. You have to look at what she did."

Now, more than two decades later, the Supreme Court says that is not enough. But to comply with the court's words will take more than just a change in legal process.  It could well force the system to revisit the distant past and appraise its meaning, to again confront the details of terrible crimes and to take measure of childhoods left behind long, long ago....

More than two decades later, the Supreme Court says juvenile defendants' lives must be weighed when they are sentenced. Critics and supporters of the ruling agree it will change sentencing of juveniles in the future. But what should judges do with those already serving life? If the new ruling applies to them, too, what should happen next?

Lawyers for prisoners want resentencing hearings to consider factors set out by the court, including lack of maturity at the time of the crime, family background, vulnerability to negative influences and the role the teen played in the killing.  But officials in state after state have taken widely varying paths to resolution.

California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill allowing judges to reduce sentences to 25 years to life if an inmate shows remorse and is working toward rehabilitation.  In Iowa, Gov. Terry Branstad commuted all juvenile life sentences to 60 years, a decision widely seen as flouting the Supreme Court's directive.  Pennsylvania lawmakers set minimum sentences of 25 years for defendants 14 or younger convicted of first-degree murder, while those 15 to 17 would have to serve at least 35 years.

In Michigan, the issue is being hashed out on three fronts. In the legislature, state Rep. Joe Haveman introduced bills late last year allowing for possible parole of juvenile lifers after 15 or 20 years, depending on their age at the time of the crime.  But Michigan's parole board has a reputation for releasing very few lifers and Haveman said he's not sure how to address that. He chose not to pursue passage and is meeting with a group, including prosecutors and defenders, to propose new bills for this year.   "I think the public is ready to look at alternative thinking and alternative sentences, than to just say let's throw people in prison and not think about them again," Haveman said.

A federal judge ruled in January that Michigan laws mandating life sentences for teens convicted of first-degree murder are unconstitutional.  But state Attorney General Bill Schuette contends the ruling applies only to five inmates who brought the case. Without a new law, the issue has also landed in state courts.

When a bailiff calls the Michigan Court of Appeals to order on a Tuesday morning in mid-October, so many people rise from the often empty gallery, Presiding Judge Michael J. Talbot's eyebrows dart up in surprise.  Technically, today's only case is that of Raymond Curtis Carp, 22, convicted with his older half-brother of a 2006 armed robbery that led to the killing of a St. Clair County woman. Carp was 15; his lawyer is contesting Carp's life sentence, citing the Supreme Court's Miller ruling.

But the courtroom is full because all acknowledge Carp is a proxy for more than 360 other Michigan inmates sentenced to life as teens.  After nearly four hours of arguments, the judges sound stumped. "I can't ignore the fact that there's a crisis pending that requires action," Talbot, the judge, says.  "What are we going to tell them (inmates), that we'll see you in a year or two and maybe something will happen?"

When he adjourns, the room buzzes with talk about what the court will do.  A month later, Talbot's panel ruled that the Supreme Court decision does not apply retroactively and rejected Carp's request; the state Supreme Court is expected to weigh an appeal later this year.

"Whether it be the state court or the federal court or the legislature ... the clear injustice of someone being held under a cruel and unusual sentence won't continue in the state," said Deborah LaBelle, an Ann Arbor attorney leading challenges to Michigan's juvenile sentencing laws. "I think it's too bad we're not there. But I'm still hopeful."

February 17, 2013 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, February 15, 2013

Wall Street Journal covers USSC's new Booker report (and its unusual coverage)

The Wall Street Journal has a pair of new pieces based on the US Sentencing Commission's recently released Booker report.  This main one has this provocative headline "Racial Gap in Men's Sentencing," and here are excerpts:

Prison sentences of black men were nearly 20% longer than those of white men for similar crimes in recent years, an analysis by the U.S. Sentencing Commission found.   That racial gap has widened since the Supreme Court restored judicial discretion in sentencing in 2005, according to the Sentencing Commission's findings, which were submitted to Congress last month and released publicly this week.

In its report, the commission recommended that federal judges give sentencing guidelines more weight, and that appeals courts more closely scrutinize sentences that fall beyond them.

The commission, which is part of the judicial branch, was careful to avoid the implication of racism among federal judges, acknowledging that they "make sentencing decisions based on many legitimate considerations that are not or cannot be measured."

Still, the findings drew criticism from advocacy groups and researchers, who said the commission's focus on the very end of the criminal-justice process ignored possible bias at earlier stages, such as when a person is arrested and charged, or enters into a plea deal with prosecutors.

"They've only got data on this final slice of the process, but they are still missing crucial parts of the criminal-justice process," said Sonja Starr, a law professor at the University of Michigan, who has analyzed sentencing and arrest data and found no marked increase in racial disparity since 2005....

In the two years after the Booker ruling, sentences of blacks were on average 15.2% longer than the sentences of similarly situated whites, according to the Sentencing Commission report.  Between December 2007 and September 2011, the most recent period covered in the report, sentences of black males were 19.5% longer than those for whites. The analysis also found that black males were 25% less likely than whites in the same period to receive a sentence below the guidelines' range.

The Sentencing Commission released a similar report in 2010. Researchers criticized its analysis for including sentences of probation, which they argued amplified the demographic differences.

In the new study, the Sentencing Commission conducted a separate analysis that excluded sentences of probation.  It yielded the same pattern, but the racial disparity was less pronounced. Sentences of black males were 14.5% longer than whites, rather than nearly 20%.

Jeff Ulmer, a sociology professor at Pennsylvania State University, described the commission's latest report as an improvement but said it was "a long way from proving that [judicial discretion] has caused greater black-white federal sentencing disparity."

For reasons that will be obvious if you click through to the story, I especially enjoyed this companion piece appearing at the WSJ Law Blog under the headline "After 'Anonymous' Attack, Sentencing Body Seeks Blogger's Help."

Recent related post:

February 15, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Are "pink-collar" crimes distinctive calling for distinct sentencing policies and practices?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this intriguing new commentary by Kelly Richmond Pope at The Daily Beast, which previews a high-profile white-collar federal sentencing scheduled for today in Illinois. The piece is headlined, "Most Notorious ‘Pink-Collar’ Criminal to Be Sentenced for $53 Million Theft: Crundwell may be the most brazen of recent female embezzlers, but she’s not alone, as more and more women achieve positions of power, as well as access to funds."  Here are excerpts (with a few links preserved):

On Valentine’s Day, Rita Crundwell will be sentenced for her role in the largest municipal fraud in U.S. history.   Once known as one of the leading American quarter horse breeders, Crundwell embezzled more than $53 million from the town of Dixon, Illinois, which has a population of 16,000 and an annual budget between $6 and $8 million.  Crundwell, who was Dixon’s comptroller, carried on her scheme for 20 years, but it was discovered only when a Dixon city clerk opened a letter revealing that Crundwell had set up a secret bank account and was embezzling city monies to finance her lavish lifestyle.

While Dixon was cutting jobs, battling a budget deficit, and struggling to complete capital improvement projects, Crundwell was throwing epic birthday parties, building ranches and traveling the world.  According to court records, she stole an average of more than $37,000 for every day she worked for Dixon.

Some people are shocked to hear that a woman was at the center of such a vast scheme, but women in fact tend to be pretty savvy embezzlers. In fact, with more women taking on leadership positions in corporate America, an unexpected phenomenon has begun to emerge: pink-collar crime.

It’s never been a popular topic. In 1975 Rutgers criminologist Freda Adler wrote a groundbreaking yet controversial book, Sisters in Crime: The Rise of the New Female Criminal, that shed light on research analyzing the criminality of women. But in the era of the Equal Rights Amendment, Adler took a ton of heat, as critics believed her book undermined the feminist movement and distorted the facts about the female crime rate. But was Adler wrong?  I would argue she wasn’t.

Pink-collar crime is unquestionably on the ascent.  The term generally refers to the rise of women involved in white-collar crime, but it’s also a theory introduced by criminology professor Kathleen Daly during the 1980s to describe the types of embezzlement crimes typically committed by females.  Based on my research as a forensic accountant and fraud investigator, I’ve watched this trend swell over the years.

While perhaps no pink-col lar crime has been as scandalous as Crundwell’s, she is far from alone. In fact, according to the 2011 Marquet Report on Embezzlement, women are more likely to embezzle than men.  Based on a review of 473 major embezzlement cases in the United States in 2011 alone, nearly two thirds of the cases involved female perpetrators. Among the top 10 cases, five involved “pink-collar criminals” who pocketed anywhere from $4.8 to $16 million.

Before Crundwell, the largest municipal fraud was also an embezzlement case committed by a woman named Harriette Walters.  Walters was convicted of embezzling $48 million over 20 years in her role as a tax-assessment manager for the District of Columbia.  She is currently serving a 16 1/2-year sentence in a West Virginia federal prison.

So why is women’s stealing on the rise?  To help answer this question, I spoke with Kelly Paxton, a licensed private investigator and president of Denver-based Financial Caseworks LLC.  Paxton told me that the increase is due to both greater “perceived needs,” such as material goods, as well as more women being in positions where they have access to funds.

That observation is supported by my conversation with Diann Cattani, whom I interviewed for my documentary “Crossing the Line: Ordinary People Committing Extraordinary Crimes.”  Cattani, who served 18 months in prison for stealing $500,000, felt the need to provide more material possessions for her family in hopes that it would mend some personal issues within her marriage.  But the stigma of being a convicted felon ended up destroying her marriage, and continues to challenge both her personal and professional lives.

Maintaining a lavish lifestyle is a commonly cited rationale for committing white- or pink-collar crimes.  For Crundwell, it appeared to be her top priority. According to court documents, Crundwell first embezzled $181,000 in 1991, which she used to purchase a Suncruiser Pontoon boat and $3,000 worth of diamonds. The theft continued in 1992, when she pocketed $121,000, more than two thirds of which she used to pay off her credit card. In 1999 Crundwell pocketed more than $1 million, using $125,000 to purchase a horse. Even as the recession set in, Crundwell continued to use Dixon as her personal piggy bank, embezzling millions of dollars more....

In 1990 Freda Adler told the Wall Street Journal, "as more women are out in the mainstream, the more mainstream activities they are going to be involved in." We can only imagine what she would have to say about Rita Crundwell.

Recent related post on Crundwell case:

UPDATE:  The headline of this Chicago Tribune piece reports on the sentencing outcome today for Rita Crundwell: "Ex-Dixon comptroller gets 19.5 years for $54 million fraud".

February 14, 2013 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Guest post on Amish sentencing: "A Travesty in Cleveland"

Experienced lawyer and federal sentencing guru Mark Allenbaugh (firm website here) attended this past Friday's high-profile federal sentencing of the Amish defendants involved in the high-profile beard-cutting attacks in northern Ohio.  I am pleased to be able to now reprint his lengthy guest-post on the sentencing proceedings:

Living in northeast Ohio, I have encountered Amish on several occasions, usually on the road behind their horse-drawn buggies, but never in a courtroom.  Yesterday I had the opportunity to sit through perhaps the most surreal sentencing I will ever encounter. Reminiscent of the movie “Witness,” the followers of Samuel Mullet, Jr. sat on the right side, with the women wearing kerchiefs, while victims and their supporters sat on the left with the women wearing bonnets — the only apparent distinction between the two groups. The men, all in similar attire, had large, solid hands, built up from years of farming, some with flecks of mud on their clothing.  They sat quiet, subdued, and unlike the “English” present, did not speak among themselves.

These obviously were simple, passive people, involved in a serious and unfortunate dispute.  A dispute that resulted in shameful and abusive conduct by Mullet and some of his followers against other Amish: beard and hair cutting, which held religious symbolism. This conduct, while criminal, was not tantamount to the seriousness reflected in the severity of the sentences handed down.   That Mullet received a 15-year sentence for ordering the assaults, and that his remaining followers received from a year-and-a-day to 7 years, which will result in effectively orphaning a few dozen children, was the most surreal part of yesterday’s sentencing.

Given the severity of the sentences the government (incredulously sought) — in Mullet’s case, life — it was surprising that statistics were not raised during the hearing.

First, 18 U.S.C. s. 249 offenses are rarely prosecuted, and despite their high-profile nature, hate crimes generally are rarely sentenced.  While the FBI reports that in 2011 there were 6,222 hate crime incidents, per the most recent U.S. Sentencing Commission datafile, there were exactly two cases involving a 249 charge in 2011, and the hate crime enhancement at 3A1.1 was applied a mere 35 times.  Likewise, section 2H1.1 of the guidelines under which Mullet and his co-defendants were sentenced was applied only 47 times last year.  Section 2A4.1, which governs kidnapping and was the ultimate guideline the court utilized for sentencing, was applied in slightly more cases: 108 out of over 86,000 cases.  In light of recent and widespread criticism regarding the guidelines lacking empirical support, it would seem that offenses rarely prosecuted and guidelines rarely utilized in such unique circumstances as these would render any sentencing range not only questionable, but plainly inapplicable.

Second, while at a considerable variance from the advisory guideline sentence of life, Mullet’s sentence still is nearly equivalent to the median sentence for murder (189 months), and far, far greater than those for manslaughter (37 months), sexual abuse (87 months), assault (27 months) and arson (50 months).  While it is close to the median sentence for kidnapping (184 months), given that this was a kidnapping in a very technical sense (much as this was only a technical hate crime), that should have given the Court considerable pause before imposing such a draconian sentence.  Is Mullet’s offense really the equivalent of a murder and more serious than manslaughter?

Finally, Mullet is 67.  A 15-year sentence still effectively is a life sentence for him.  With an already over-crowded federal prison system and growing, Mullet’s time will be even more onerous than most in light of his age and most glaringly, his cultural and religious background, will make him highly susceptible to abuse.  Further, his age will impose additional financial burdens on the BOP, with some estimates as high as $90,000 per year. Is this an appropriate use of the public fisc?

This was an awful case from every perspective.  Why the federal government thought it was appropriate to bring criminal charges under truly unique circumstances defies explanation.  Clearly, the courts of Ohio could have (and should have) addressed this matter.  The sentences handed down merely have compounded the travesty of this prosecution.  While Judge Polster did an admirable job in detailing his reasoning — especially noting the irony of the Amish defendants trampling the very Constitution that makes their lifestyle possible — but for the absurdity of a federal sentencing system that has for years encouraged the judiciary to hand out multi-year sentences as if they are candy, one wonders how Judge Polster would have sentenced unencumbered by a sentencing regime that clearly did not contemplate the facts of this case and has otherwise run amok.

The federal government not only chose to prosecute these assaults as if they were kidnappings but hate crimes.  While technically hate crimes given the religious motivation for the assaults, the assaults, which left no permanent physical injuries, certainly were nowhere of the kind the statute was intended to address, while the punishment, ironically, was.  Indeed, the hate crime statute upon which the defendants’ convictions rested — 18 U.S.C. s. 249 — was enacted as part of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009.  Both Shepard and Byrd were the victims of the most atrocious and violent hate crimes in recent memory — Shepard tortured and left to die tied to a fence in Wyoming because of his sexual orientation, and Byrd gruesomely dragged to his death and decapitated behind a pick-up because of his race.  Sentencing these Amish assaults as if they were equivalent to the offenses suffered by Shepard and Byrd is an affront to their memories.  Hopefully the Sixth Circuit will rectify this manifest injustice.

Related posts:

February 10, 2013 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (39) | TrackBack