Tuesday, April 28, 2015

"Going Retro: Abolition for All"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new and timely article authored by Kevin Barry now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The opening of the twenty-first century has seen a flurry of death penalty repeals. This development is encouraging, but only partly so.  Amidst the cheers for abolition, there is an unfairness of the highest order: the maintenance of the death penalty for some, but not others, for no other reason than the date of their crimes.  State legislatures are repealing the death penalty prospectively only, and these states’ executive branches are leaving their prisoners on death row.  In New Mexico and Connecticut, a total of thirteen prisoners remain on death row after those states abolished the death penalty.

Some states, however, are “going retro.”  In 2012, California’s Proposition 34 would have applied retroactively, reducing over 700 death row prisoners’ sentences to life without parole (“LWOP”).  More states should attempt to pass retroactive death penalty repeals, but they are not doing so, for two reasons.  The first is political: legislators are not pursuing retroactive legislation because they do not have the votes.  The second reason is legal: legislators are not pursuing retroactive legislation because they believe that the separation of powers and state constitutional prohibitions on retroactive laws forbid it. These arguments are reasonable ones, and they reach far beyond the death penalty sphere — to retroactive crack sentencing laws and retroactive juvenile LWOP sentencing laws, among others.

This Article argues that neither the separation of powers nor state constitutional prohibitions on retroactive laws prohibits states from retroactively repealing their death penalties. While politics may prevent legislatures from pursuing retroactive repeal of the death penalty, the law should not.  As California’s 2012 repeal bill makes clear, “fairness, equality, and uniformity” demand retroactivity.  They demand abolition for all.

April 28, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, April 27, 2015

Interesting analysis of "Watersheds" in state collateral retroactivity review

Especially with the Supreme Court finally taking up the retroactivity of its 2012 Eighth Amendment ruling in Miller, I have been giving extra thought to the Supreme Court's Teague doctrine and jurisprudence.  Consequently, I found this new article on SSRN titled simply "Watersheds" of particular interest. The piece is authored by Dov Fox and Alex Stein, and here is the abstract:

Watershed doctrine governs the conditions under which a prisoner who has exhausted his appeals is entitled to retrial or even release based on a change in the rules of constitutional criminal procedure. Newly announced due process rules unavailable to him at trial or on direct review can provide a constitutional basis to reopen his guilty verdict or punishment.  The Supreme Court, however, has imposed strikingly demanding requirements for backdating any such rule to a finalized conviction or sentence.  It has since Teague v. Lane held that no new due process rule applies retroactively unless it is a “watershed” protection that profoundly enhances not only the accuracy of convictions across the board but also “our very understanding of the bedrock procedural elements.”

In the twenty-five years since Teague, the Court has explicitly refused to confer this watershed status on even a single new rule of criminal procedure among the dozens of major protections that it has announced.  Unsurprisingly, scholarly consensus casts watershed doctrine as exceptional, obscure, and insignificant.

This Essay breaks new ground in the law of retroactivity.  We use the “dynamic concentration” model of game theory to identify the important and unrecognized role that watershed doctrine plays in counteracting the structural undersupply of constitutional due process rules.  The Supreme Court maintains too small a caseload to scrutinize every state court decision or specify each demand of criminal procedure.  The Court’s inability to review more than a fraction of due process violations or to detail more than a fraction of due process directives ill equips it to rein in the punitive tendencies of state judges who owe their jobs to constituencies that tend to value crime prevention more than defendants’ rights.

Watershed doctrine mitigates this enforcement problem by creating an extreme, if low-probability, threat of repealing scores of finalized convictions.  By issuing a single new watershed rule, the Court can mandate sweeping retrials or release of state prisoners into the public.  This existential threat motivates state courts to venture beyond existing precedents and align the due process practices in their states with the potentially farther-reaching protections the Supreme Court might make retroactive in the future.  The watershed doctrine accordingly incentivizes state courts to sustain a constitutional safe harbor for state criminal procedures.

Confirmation of this enforcement theory comes from our comprehensive study of all 338 watershed decisions that state courts have issued over that doctrine’s quarter of a century between 1989 and 2014.  We find that a conspicuous proportion of these decisions — more than one in ten — demonstrably inflates the retroactivity rights of criminal defendants and that not one of these cases fails to accord watershed status to a rule that might qualify.

April 27, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Florida Supreme Court reverses cop killer's death sentence on proportionality review

As reported in this local article, the "Florida Supreme Court has overturned the death sentence of Humberto Delgado, who was convicted of gunning down Tampa police Corporal Mike Roberts in 2009." Here are the details of why:

In an opinion issued Thursday, a unanimous court ruled that Delgado's extreme mental illness, coupled with the circumstances of the crime, made a death sentence disproportionate as compared with other murder cases. The court sent the case back to the circuit court, where Delgado will be resentenced to life in prison with no chance of release....

Delgado, 40, who once worked as a police officer in his native Virgin Islands, was sentenced to death in 2012. At his trial, doctors testified about Delgado's history of delusions and psychotic behavior. All diagnosed him with bipolar disorder with varying degrees of psychosis.

Their examinations revealed that in his early adulthood, Delgado was plagued by a belief that police were out to kill him and that people were following him and sitting in trees outside his home. He also told his family that he had to cut off his children's legs because they were "goat legs" and they were "evil." He was known to wander the streets at night, saying that demons, the Masons, and the rapper 50 Cent were trying to kill him.

Delgado had been hospitalized multiple times before he ended up living with relatives in Oldsmar. On Aug. 19, 2009, he walked 15 miles from there, pushing a shopping cart that held four guns, on his way to a veterans hospital in Tampa. That night, Roberts stopped Delgado near the corner of Nebraska Avenue and Arctic Street. Delgado gave Roberts his identification. When Roberts started to search his belongings, Delgado tried to run. Roberts then shocked Delgado with a Taser. Delgado hit Roberts several times before shooting him....

In its opinion, the Supreme Court noted that the death penalty is intended for cases in which the aggravating factors greatly outweigh any mitigating factors presented by the defense. "We do not downplay the fact that Corporal Roberts lost his life as a result of Delgado's actions," the justices wrote. "However ... we are compelled to reduce Delgado's sentence to life imprisonment because death is not a proportionate penalty when compared to other cases."...

Mentally ill inmates are rarely executed in Florida, due to the length of the appeals process and the moral, ethical and legal issues associated with executing the insane. Recently, courts have trended away from capital punishment for the mentally ill.

The full opinion is available at this link.

April 23, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

"Residual Impact: Resentencing Implications of Johnson v. United States’ Potential Ruling on ACCA’s Constitutionality"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new and timely paper concerning the potential impact of the Supreme Court case re-argued yesterday.  The piece is authored by Leah Litman, and here is the abstract:

This Essay examines the impact a favorable decision in Johnson v. United States could have at the various stages of post-conviction relief for three categories of prisoners -- prisoners whose convictions have not yet become final; prisoners whose convictions have become final but who have not yet filed a petition seeking post-conviction relief; and prisoners whose convictions have become final and who have already filed at least one petition seeking post-conviction relief.  In doing so, it offers a reading of the relevant cases and statutes that permits any defendant sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act to obtain relief based on a decision invalidating the residual clause.  It also highlights some under-explored statutes and doctrinal questions that courts will confront as they determine which prisoners should be resentenced in light of Johnson.

April 21, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

"What's the Matter with Cumulative Error?: Killing a Federal Claim in Order to Save It"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper concerning federal habeas review authored by Ryan Semerad now available via SSRN. (For the record, Ryan happens to be one of (many) wonderful students in my sentencing class this spring, but I am pretty sure he hd finished most of this article before I started polluting his mind.). Here is the abstract:

This Note investigates the inefficacy of cumulative error claims raised by state death row inmates in their federal habeas corpus petitions. It surveys modern federal habeas precedents giving rise to cumulative error claims, investigates the various circuit standards used in evaluating these claims, and concludes that these claims fail due to the confluence of vague historical precedent and increasingly restrictive federal habeas law. It recommends constructing a mandatory pre-federal habeas review procedure wherein claims of cumulative error are evaluated on the merits by all the stakeholders in the state criminal justice systems in order to ensure the integrity of that system and the reliability of criminal convictions and sentences. 

April 21, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

"Database Infamia: Exit from the Sex Offender Registries"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Wayne Logan available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Since originating in the early-mid 1990s, sex offender registration and community notification laws have swept the country, now affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals. The laws require that individuals provide, update and at least annually verify personal identifying information, which governments make publicly available via the Internet and other means.  Typically retrospective in their reach, and sweeping in their breadth, the laws can target individuals for their lifetimes, imposing multiple hardships.

This symposium contribution surveys the extent to which states now afford registrants an opportunity to secure relief from registration and community notification and examines the important legal and policy ramifications of the limited exit options made available.

April 15, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

New York State court concludes multiple mandatory minimum fines constitutionally excessive

Thanks to this post by Eugene Volokh, I discovered an interesting New York trial court Excessive Fine ruling in Pujols v. City of New York, No. 103637/12 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. April 2, 2015) (available here). Here is the heart of the ruling concerning an attack on a $11,175 fine for illegally posting 149 flyers advertising babysitting services:

It is undisputed that petitioner violated the relevant Administrative Code provision and substantial evidence supports ECB's determination that petitioner is liable for violating § 10-119 of the New York City Administrative Code, which generally prohibits the posting or other placement of handbills, posters, notices, signs and other written materials on certain public property.  Nonetheless, this Court finds that under the specific circumstances presented herein, the imposition of the mandatory minimum of $75.00 per violation for a total penalty of $11,175.00, amounts to an unconstitutionally excessive fine, and cannot be viewed as solely remedial.

Moreover, this Court, in considering the seriousness of the offense, the severity of the harm caused to petitioner, and the City's objective to deter posting of materials on public property, we find that the fine imposed is "grossly disproportional" to the gravity of petitioner's offense.

April 15, 2015 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Canadian Supreme Court declares gun mandatory minimums unconstitutional

A helpful reader alerted me to a notable sentencing ruling from our northern neighbor reported in this press account headlined "Supreme Court quashes mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes: Court upholds Ontario ruling that struck down mandatory minimum sentences of 3 and 5 years." Here are the basics:

The Supreme Court of Canada dealt the Harper government's tough-on-crime agenda a serious blow Tuesday by striking down a law requiring mandatory minimum sentences for crimes involving prohibited guns. The 6-3 ruling, penned by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, said the statute was unconstitutional as it upheld a 2013 Ontario Court of Appeal ruling that labelled the law cruel and unusual.

The ruling said the mandatory minimum sentence could ensnare people with "little or no moral fault" and who pose "little or no danger to the public." It cited as an example a person who inherits a firearm and does not immediately get a license for the weapon. "As the Court of Appeal concluded, there exists a 'cavernous disconnect' between the severity of the licensing-type offence and the mandatory minimum three-year term of imprisonment," McLachlin wrote for the majority.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay said in a statement that the government will review the decision to determine "next steps towards protecting Canadians from gun crime and ensuring that our laws remain responsive."...

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said there is a place for mandatory minimums in certain situations, noting that past Liberal governments have introduced them for "extreme crimes."

"But I think the over-use of them that the Supreme Court has highlighted, by this Conservative government, isn't necessarily doing a service to Canadians, both by not necessarily keeping us that much safer and also wasting large amount of taxpayers dollars on unnecessary court challenges," he told reporters in Oakville.

Keeping Canadians safe is cited by the government as the reason for its tough sentencing laws. McLachlin took aim at that justification in her ruling. "The government has not established that mandatory minimum terms of imprisonment act as a deterrent against gun-related crimes," she wrote. "Empirical evidence suggests that mandatory minimum sentences do not, in fact, deter crimes."

The court was deciding two appeals involving mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes brought by the Ontario and federal attorneys general. The top court upheld the appeal court's quashing of both the three-year mandatory minimum for a first offence of possessing a loaded prohibited gun, as well as the five-year minimum for a second offence.

The Ontario and federal governments argued that the minimums do not breach the charter protection against cruel and unusual punishment. The new sentencing rules were enacted in 2008 as part of a sweeping omnibus bill introduced by the federal Conservatives.

The full ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada is available at this link.

April 15, 2015 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

"Criminal Justice Reform: The Present Moment"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Lynn Adelman now available via SSRN. (Notably, Judge Adelman was among a small handful of judges who got a shout-out in Judge Rakoff's provocative recent speech at Harvard Law School about the need for the judiciary to speak out about modern mass incarceration.)   Here is the article's abstract:

As part of a symposium on the collateral consequences of criminal convictions sponsored by the Wisconsin Law Review, this paper, entitled “Criminal Justice Reform: The Present Moment,” discusses whether we have reached a point where we have a realistic opportunity to implement major reforms in our criminal justice system.

While recognizing both that the prospects for reform are greater than they have been, largely because of the increased awareness of the harm caused by mass incarceration, and that some progress has been made as, for example, the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Plata upholding a lower court decision requiring California to reduce its prison population by approximately 40,000, the paper points out that any reforms would come on the heels of an approximately 35 year period of unremitting punitive legislation. As a result, it will be very difficult to put a serious dent in the mountain of harsh consequences, both direct and collateral, that is part of our present criminal justice system.

April 14, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Senator Grassley again expresses interest in talking about federal criminal justice reform

Senator Charles Grassley is right now arguably the most significant and most important player in all on-going debates over federal sentencing and criminal justice reform.  As Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Grassley can (and seems eager to) block the advancement of any and every federal criminal justice reform bill that he does not personally favor.  

Consequently, even if the vast majority of Senators strongly support significant reforms to federal mandatory minimum sentencing provisions or to federal marijuana provisions, Senator Grassley can ensure— at least until 2017, and perhaps after that if the GOP retains control of the Senate — that federal reform bills do not even get a committee hearing, let alone a committee vote.   Indeed, even if the vast majority of 300 million Americans, and even if the vast majority of the 718,215 Iowans who voted for Senator Grassley in 2010, would strongly favor a reform bill, the bill is likely DOA if Senator Grassley himself is not keen on the bill's particulars.  Frustratingly, that is how our democracy now functions.

Bill Otis, whom I believe has Senator Grassley's ear and with whom he shares many sentencing views, predicted after the 2014 election that Senator Grassley's position as Judiciary Chair all but ensured that there would be almost no chance of significant federal sentencing reform until at least 2017.  But this new piece in Roll Call, headlined "Grassley Resistant to Criminal Justice Overhaul, but Says He’s Willing to Talk,"  provides at least of glimmer of hope that this old Senate dog might be open to some new sentencing tricks.  Here is an excerpt:

Grassley has made no bones about his passionate opposition to reducing mandatory minimum prison sentences, as proposed by Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois in the so-called Smarter Sentencing Act (S 1410). On the floor, Grassley has called rolling back such fixed sentences “dangerous,” “ill-conceived” and “indefensible.” Last year, he tried to gut a version of the bipartisan bill, which the Obama administration backs, with an amendment in committee.

Even so, Grassley told CQ Roll Call that he’s ready to start looking for common ground with the bill’s supporters. What’s been missing, he adds, is an invitation — from Obama, from the senators sponsoring the bill, from their staffs — from anyone willing to start a conversation. “First of all, nobody’s asked me even though for three months, including my speech last week, I said I would be glad to meet people about what we could possibly do because I’m open to some reform,” Grassley says.

Juvenile justice is among his top legislative priorities, and he has said he plans to co-sponsor a bill with Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse to reauthorize the 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. That law has not been reauthorized since 2002.

Grassley says he thinks there could be some reductions in mandatory minimums, but at the same time he wants to see increases in minimum sentences in other areas, such as child pornography and white-collar crime. He has also cited the need to prevent abuses in the forfeiture of civil assets, and to ensure that offenders receive fair representation. “It may just be time” to start criminal justice talks, Grassley says.

Long story short: anyone and everyone seriously interested in the passage of federal criminal justice reform anytime soon would be wise to invest considerable time and energy figuring out exactly what Senator Grassley is now willing to talk about.  Notably, as stressed in this prior post, Senator Grassley recently penned a strong commentary extolling the importance of transparency and accountability in the federal criminal justice system, and I urge advocates to highlight for Senator Grassley and others how statutory mandatory minimums and other laws that empower and enhance federal prosecutorial overreaches significantly undermine these important goals.

A few prior related recent posts:

April 14, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

"Lex Mitior: Converse of Ex Post Facto and Window into Criminal Desert"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting and timely new piece on SSRN authored by Peter Westen. Here is the abstract:

In 2009 New Mexico prospectively repealed the death penalty. Three years later in 2012, New Mexico prosecuted a defendant for a capital murder that was committed before repeal, and it sought to subject him to the death penalty. If state prosecutors had prevailed with the jury, they would have secured the very kind of sentence — death — that state officials had been lauded in Europe for outlawing three years earlier.

A prosecution like New Mexico’s could never occur in Europe, and not merely because Europe has long outlawed the death penalty.  It could never occur because, in contrast to the law of most American jurisdictions, European states embrace a doctrine known as “lex mitior” (“the milder law”).  The latter doctrine is a counterpart to the ex post facto prohibition.  Both doctrines both concern retroactivity in criminal law, but they are the converse of one another.

The ex post facto doctrine prohibits retroactivity by prohibiting the state from prosecuting persons under criminal statutes that either retroactively criminalize conduct that was hitherto lawful or retroactively increase penalties for conduct that, while unlawful all along, was hitherto punishable less severely.  In contrast, lex mitior mandates retroactivity by mandating that criminal defendants receive the retroactive benefits of repealing statutes that either decriminalize conduct altogether or reduce punishments for it. After surveying laws in the United States regarding the retroactive effect of ameliorative repeals, the author addresses whether punishing offenders under harsher laws that obtained at the time of their conduct can serve consequentialist and/or retributive purposes of punishment.  He concludes that, although doing can be morally justified under limited circumstances, typically it is not — a conclusion that bears upon lex mitior’s proper scope, whether it consists of a binding norm (as it is among European nations), a nonconstitutional norm (as it presently is within the United States), or, when legislative intent is uncertain, a function of the rule of lenity.

April 14, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, April 12, 2015

"Ending the Death Lottery"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new article by William Berry III now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

When the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, it did so under the assumption that certain safeguards would remedy the arbitrariness of capital sentencing. Comparative proportionality review, in which the state supreme court would review jury sentences to ensure a modicum of consistency, was a central part of many states’ attempts to comply with the Eighth Amendment.  In Ohio, however, this safeguard is illusory; the state supreme court has never reversed a capital case on proportionality grounds, despite reviewing almost three hundred cases.

This Article explores this unfortunate phenomenon.  Using a quantitative methodology, this Article assesses the degree to which Ohio capital cases sentenced after the adoption of life-without-parole (between 1996-2011) are comparatively proportionate.

After finding that over forty percent of Ohio’s capital cases during that period were comparatively excessive, the Article argues that Ohio’s current use of the death penalty contravenes the Eighth Amendment and is therefore unconstitutional.  The Article then proposes two alternative remedies to solve this problem: (1) institute meaningful proportionality review with the aid of social science or (2) abolish the death penalty. Finally, the Article considers the consequences of this study for the almost two-thirds of death penalty states that use comparative proportionality review.

Part II of the paper briefly traces the requirements of the Eighth Amendment and the origins of proportionality review.  Part III describes Ohio’s use of proportionality review and explains why it is largely a matter of form over substance. Part IV presents the empirical study of Ohio’s capital cases from 1996-2011 and highlights its central conclusions.  Part V argues that these results show that Ohio’s capital system violates the Eighth Amendment.  Next, Part VI proposes ways to remedy the constitutional shortcoming.  Finally, Part VII explores the applicability of the study to the large majority of death penalty jurisdictions that currently use proportionality review.

April 12, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Considering one defendant getting a second look due to Miller retroactivity

10juvenile-1-master675One big reason I believe the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment ruling in Miller v. Alabama ought to be fully retroactive is because doing so will not be any kind of windfall for juve murderers given a mandatory LWOP.  Rather, as this new New York Times article highlights, all that Miller retroactivity entails is that an offender get a new sentencing hearing in which a judge will consider whether an LWOP sentence was truly justified in light of the nature and circumstances of the offense and the full history and characteristics of the defendant.  The article, headlined "A Murderer at 14, Then a Lifer, Now a Man Pondering a Future," merits a full read, and here is a teaser from the start of the piece:

Adolfo Davis admits he was a swaggering thug by the age of 14 as he roamed and dealt drugs with a South Side gang.

He also describes a childhood of emotional and physical deprivation: a mother fixated on crack, an absent father, a grandmother’s overflowing and chaotic apartment.

From the age of 6 or 7, he often had to buy his own food or go hungry, so he collected cans, pumped gas for tips and shoplifted. At 10, he went to juvenile hall for wresting $3 worth of food stamps and 75 cents from a girl. At 12, he fell in with the Gangster Disciples. “I loved them, they protected me, they were my family,” Mr. Davis said in a recent interview.

At 14, in 1990, he was out with two gang members when they robbed a rival drug house and shot the occupants, leaving two dead.  Now 38, he has spent the last 24 years in prison on a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

But his future will be reconsidered in a new sentencing hearing here on Monday. It is one of the first such proceedings in Illinois to result from the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Miller v. Alabama that juvenile murderers should not be subject to mandatory life without parole....

The 2012 decision did not say whether the new rules should apply retroactively, to cases long closed. Since then, state and lower federal courts have disagreed, creating drastic differences for prisoners depending on where they live.

Ten states, including Illinois, are applying the standard to pre­2012 cases and have started the process of resentencing. Four states — Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, with about 1,130 prisoners who could be affected — have declined to make the ruling retroactive.  The Supreme Court is expected to clarify the issue next fall, when it hears the appeal of a convict in Louisiana....

Here and around the country, victim rights groups have strongly opposed the reopening of past sentences.  “The families of the victims will suffer the most,” said Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, a co­founder and board member of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers.

She became a champion of victim rights 25 years ago when her pregnant sister and her sister’s husband were murdered in Winnetka, Ill., by a 16­-year-old who received a mandatory life sentence. “When I started thinking of the possibility that we’d have to go back to court, I couldn’t sleep for four months,” she said.  “Our mother was devastated.”

A new sentencing hearing in that case is scheduled for this month. While Ms. Bishop­-Jenkins feels confident that the killer, because of the particulars of his acts, will have the life sentence renewed, she noted that the transcript of his original sentencing hearing was missing and that key witnesses were dead or gone. 

Re­creating a fair sentencing process is often impossible in old cases, she said, and there are ample existing ways to pursue what seem to be unwarranted life sentences, such as executive clemency or other petitions.

Mr. Davis’s supporters said they had not been able to find any relatives of the two murder victims in his case; none have come forward to comment on his resentencing....

Before the hearing on Monday, Mr. Davis’s lawyers — Patricia Soung of the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and Rachel Steinback, a lawyer with the civil rights law firm Loevy & Loevy in Chicago — prepared a sentencing memo calling for his release because of his remorse, his growth and his mentoring of others while in prison.

The Cook County prosecutors have not prepared a written statement, but they are expected to argue for a new life sentence.  Opposing the 2012 clemency bid, the prosecutors said young Adolfo had been “an active and willing participant in the murders” and “was not simply a naïve child being led astray by older friends.”...

The two sides will present their cases orally before Judge Angela Petrone of the Cook County Circuit Court.  During or after the hearing, the judge could order anything from a new life term to an immediate release for time served.

April 12, 2015 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, April 10, 2015

Controversy surrounding California judge who sentenced 19-year-old child rapist way below mandatory minimum 25-year-term

As reported in this lengthy CNN piece, headlined "California judge faces recall try over sentence in child rape case," a judge's decision to impose only a 10-year prison term on a child rapist is causing a big stir in Los Angeles. Here are some of the details:

Three county supervisors in California announced Thursday a campaign to recall a judge who sentenced a man to 10 years in prison -- instead of the state mandatory minimum of 25 years -- for sodomizing a 3-year-old girl who is a relative.

At the center of the controversy is Orange County Judge M. Marc Kelly who, according to transcripts of a February court proceeding, was moved by the plea for leniency by the mother of the defendant. The judge expressed "some real concerns" about the state's minimum sentence of 25 years to life in prison for a child sodomy conviction and about "whether or not the punishment is disproportionate to the defendant's individual culpability in this particular case," according to a transcript of the February proceeding.

"I have not done this before, but I have concerns regarding or not this punishment as prescribed would fall into the arena of cruel and unusual punishment and have constitutional ramifications under the Eighth Amendment," the judge said in February, according to the transcript. "I know this is a very rare situation. It doesn't come up very often."... [An] account of [the April 3] sentencing quoted the judge as saying the mandatory sentence would be appropriate in most circumstances, but "in looking at the facts of ... (the) case, the manner in which this offense was committed is not typical of a predatory, violent brutal sodomy of a child case," Kelly said. The judge noted that the defendant "almost immediately" stopped and "realized the wrongfulness of his act," according to the newspaper.

"Although serious and despicable, this does not compare to a situation where a pedophilic child predator preys on an innocent child," the judge said, according to the newspaper. "There was no violence or callous disregard for (the victim's) well-being."

Three Orange County supervisors held a press conference Thursday to announce the campaign to collect 90,829 signatures needed to hold a recall election of Kelly. They were Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman Todd Spitzer, County Supervisor and Vice Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett and Supervisor Shawn Nelson. ...

Spitzer said he was responding to "a huge community outcry" against the judge's sentence and his comments from the bench. "We as a community spoke on behalf of the victim today, the 3-year-old child," Spitzer said. "If it was a stranger, the mom would have thrown the book at the guy. The family cares about the perpetrator. It's a family member," Spitzer said. "The victim is related to the perpetrator, and that is what is so difficult here."

But Spitzer said the judge didn't follow state law. "We don't want a judge that legislates from the bench," Spitzer said. "It's just unfathomable that the judge would try to describe what is a brutal sodomy," Spitzer added. "Sodomy of a 3-year-old child is a brutal, violent act in itself."...

Orange County District Tony Rackauckas has called the sentence "illegal," and his office will appeal it, said his chief of staff, Susan Kang Schroeder. "We believe that his decision, his sentencing was illegal because there was a mandatory minimum set up by statute by the legislature," Schroeder said. "We're doing what the people of Orange County have asked us to do. We're going to fight through the courts."...

The June crime occurred in the garage of the family home in Santa Ana, where the defendant, then 19, was playing video games, prosecutors said. CNN is not identifying any family members so the victim can remain anonymous. The defendant also made the victim touch his penis, and he covered the girl's mouth while the mother called out to her, prosecutors said....

"As a 19-year-old, defendant appears to be mentally immature and sexually inexperienced. It is difficult to explain away defendant's actions, however, as sexual frustration," prosecutors said in court papers. "All things considered, defendant appeared to be a relatively normal 19-year-old, aside from the crime of which he is convicted." But the defendant "poses a great danger to society and probably will for the majority of his life," prosecutors added.

During the February court proceeding, a statement by the mother was read aloud to the court by her husband, according to the transcript. "While a mother's love is nothing less than unconditional, I am clearly aware of the gravity of my son's actions and the inevitable discipline that he must now confront," the mother's statement said. "It has been not only extremely difficult, but utterly devastating for me and my family to fully come to terms with the events that took place."

The mother said she hadn't had the strength or courage yet "to directly talk" to her son about the crime, but she said her son "has allowed God into his heart and has committed himself to God's guidance." Her son "is not a bad person," and she asked for forgiveness for his "transgressions and for the opportunity to have a second chance at liberty," the husband told the judge, summarizing his wife's statement.

The judge remarked about the rarity of the mother's plea. "I have never had a situation before like this where a mother is the mother of the victim of the crime and the mother of the defendant who was convicted of the crime," the judge said. "It's very rare in these situations. So I know it must be very difficult for you."

Defense attorney Erfan Puthawala said his client never denied his responsibility "for the heinous act he committed" and, in fact, cooperated with investigators. "He made a statement essentially incriminating himself, which he did not have to do," the attorney said.

"He expressed remorse for the actions he took and the mistake he made. He understands that a momentary lapse has had lifelong ramifications for his sister the victim, for his family, and for himself," Puthawala added. "It is important to note that (my client) is not a pedophile, he is not a sexual deviant, he is not a sexually violent predator, and he poses a low risk of recidivism." Those findings came from an independently appointed psychologist who wrote a report to assist the judge in sentencing, Puthawala said.

Intriguingly, the judge at the center of this controversial sentencing was a senior local prosecutors for more than a decade before he became a member of the state judiciary. Perhaps because of that history, this judge perhaps though the prosecutor who charged this case likely had some discretion not to charge an offense that carried a 25-year mandatory minimum and thus perhaps he thought he should have some discretion not to sentence based on the mandatory minimum. Based on this case description, too, I wonder if this judge found that some of the Eighth Amendment themes stressed by the Supreme Court in Graham and Miller had some applicability in this setting because the defendant was only 19.

April 10, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Based on "discovery violation," Florida appeals court reverses convictions for defendant given LWOP sentence for first child porn possession conviction

Long-time readers may recall the remarkable state sentencing story, covered here and here,  involving Daniel Enrique Guevara Vilca.  In 2011, a Florida circuit court judge sentenced Vilca, then aged 26 and without any criminal record, to LWOP based on a laptop containing hundreds of pornographic images of children.  On appeal, Vilca challenged his trial and his severe sentence, and he prevailed in an opinion released just today.  Here are part of the opinion in Guevara-Vilca v. Florida, No. 2D11-5805 (Fla. App. 2d Dist. Apr. 10, 2015) (available here), with a few cites omitted):

Daniel Guevara-Vilca appeals his convictions for possession of child pornography.  Owing to a discovery violation by the State, we reverse and remand for a new trial....

During the trial, the State introduced 206 photographs and 248 videos containing child pornography, each of which was charged in a separate count.  The file names generally contained descriptive terms.  All of the material had been downloaded to the laptop from January 2009 to January 2010 using LimeWire, a file-sharing program.  The files were found in thirteen different folders on the computer, including the recycle bin....

The jury returned guilty verdicts on all 454 counts.  Although Guevara-Vilca had no prior criminal record, under his sentencing scoresheet the minimum permissible sentence was 152.88 years in prison; the scoresheet contained enough points to permit a sentence as severe as life imprisonment.  The trial court sentenced Guevara-Vilca to 454 concurrent life terms....

Guevara-Vilca raises multiple issues on appeal.  We agree with his assertion that the trial court erred in its handling of the State's discovery violation.  The State was required to disclose Guevara-Vilca's pre-Miranda response to the detective's question, see Fla. R. Crim. P. 3.220(b)(1)(C), and it admittedly did not do so.... The record cannot be said to affirmatively reflect that the discovery violation caused no prejudice to the defense; to the contrary, the record strongly supports the opposite conclusion....

We reverse Guevara-Vilca's convictions and remand for a new trial.  This renders moot, for now, the sentencing issue raised on appeal.  Guevara-Vilca argued, below and on appeal, that a life sentence violated the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.  Our analysis of the sentence at this point would be dicta, and it is not our intention to prejudge an issue that may be raised in a subsequent appeal if Guevara-Vilca is convicted on remand.  But the issue, if raised, deserves serious consideration by the sentencing court.  Indeed, it is noteworthy that if Guevara-Vilca had been charged with possession of child pornography with intent to promote, he could have been convicted and sentenced for only one second-degree felony count rather than 454 third-degree felony counts.

Also, if Guevara-Vilca is again convicted and sentenced on remand, defense counsel will not be limited to the arguments previously raised and he may, if justified, advance grounds for a downward departure. Guevara-Vilca's mother testified at sentencing that her son was born prematurely and that, at ages five and around thirteen, he had surgeries to remove brain tumors.  Expert testimony may illuminate the ramifications of this medical history. Guevara-Vilca stated in his interview that while he graduated from high school, his grades were "D's and E's."  Cf., e.g., § 921.0026(c), (d), Fla. Stat. (2008) (providing for downward departures when defendant's capacity to appreciate criminal nature of conduct or conform to law was substantially impaired; or when defendant requires, and is amenable to, treatment for mental disorder unrelated to substance addiction).

Prior related posts:

April 10, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 09, 2015

US Sentencing Commission votes to amend fraud guidelines (but not really "fix" that much)

As reported in this official press release, "United States Sentencing Commission voted today to adopt changes to the fraud guideline to address longstanding concerns that the guidelines do not appropriately account for harm to victims, individual culpability, and the offender’s intent. The Commission also voted to change the drug quantity table to account for the rescheduling of hydrocodone." Here are some details from the press release concerning this important federal white-collar sentencing news:

The Commission altered the victim enhancement in the fraud guideline to ensure that where even one victim suffered a substantial financial harm, the offender would receive an increased sentence. It also made changes to refocus economic crime penalties toward the offender’s individual intent, while maintaining an underlying principle of the fraud guideline that the amount of loss involved in the offense should form a major basis of the sentence.

“We found through comprehensive examination that the fraud guideline provides an anchoring effect in the vast majority of cases, but there were some problem areas, particularly at the high-end of the loss table,” said Chief Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the Commission. “These amendments emphasize substantial financial harms to victims rather than simply the mere number of victims and recognize concerns regarding double-counting and over-emphasis on loss.”

The Commission also acted today to provide additional guidance as to which offenders are eligible to receive a reduced sentence as a minor or minimal participant in an offense. “This change is intended to encourage courts to ensure that the least culpable offenders, such as those who have no proprietary interest in a fraud, receive a sentence commensurate with their own culpability without reducing sentences for leaders and organizers,” Saris said....

The Commission also made an adjustment to monetary tables to account for inflation. This goodgovernment measure derives from a methodology provided by Congress and will have an effect on both penalty and fine tables.  The amendments will be transmitted to Congress by May 1, 2015. If Congress does not act to disapprove some or all of the amendments, they will go into effect November 1, 2015.  More information about this process and the amendments approved today will be available on the Commission’s web site at www.ussc.gov.

At the USSC's website, one can now find this "Preliminary 'Reader-Friendly' Version of Amendments. Though "reader-friendly," the amendments themselves do not really provide a complete picture of just how much these amendments, assuming they are not disapproved by Congress, could impact guideline-sentencing ranges in future high-loss white-collar cases.  In addition, and of perhaps particular interest to some currently incarcerated  defendants, the Commission has to my knowledge not yet indicated in any formal documents whether, when and how it might consider making these amendment retroactive in a manner that might impact past high-loss white-collar cases.

IMPORTANT FRAUD AMENDMENT RETROACTIVITY UPDATE: A helpful colleague who was able to watch the USSC meeting and votes provided this report on the topic of the potential retroactivity of these amendments:

At the end of the hearing, USSC staff brought up the question of retroactivity and said a motion would be appropriate at this time if the Sentencing Commission wanted the staff to conduct a retroactivity impact analysis. USSC Chair Saris asked whether anyone wanted to make such a motion and no one did. Saris then read a brief statement saying they have a statutory obligation to consider whether any amendments should be retroactive, and they had determined in this case that for these amendments that would not be appropriate.

Notably, if Congress was truly eager to help with prison-crowding problems by doing something for some notable non-violent offenders, I think Congress could provide by statutory direction either that the amendments be made retroactive in whole or in part (or it might at least direct that the Commission consider more fully whether these amendments be made retroactive in whole or in part). Also, back in 2007, when the crack guidelines were first adjusted downward slightly, the Commission did not take up the retroactivity issue until many months after it promulgated amendments lowering the guidelines. But, I suspect absent some significant advocacy by the white-collar defense bar, the die may be already permanently cast against any even partial retroactivity of these new fraud amendments.

April 9, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Federal judge finds unconstitutional "geographic exclusion zones" for sex offenders in Michigan

Thanks to a helpful reader, I did not miss this notable new story from the state up north headlined "Sex offenders can be within 1,000 feet of schools after federal judge strikes down parts of law." Here are the details:

A federal judge struck down some portions of Michigan's Sex Offender Registry Act in a court decision handed down last week.  U.S. District Court Judge Robert Cleland issued a ruling March 31, striking down four portions of Michigan's Sex Offender Registry Act, calling them unconstitutional.  The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of five John Does and one Jane Doe against Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Michigan State Police Director Col. Kriste Etue.

Cleland's ruling stated the "geographic exclusion zones" in the Sex Offender Registry Act, such as student safety areas that stretch for 1,000 feet around schools, are unconstitutional, according to court documents.  

The law is too vague on whether the 1,000 feet barrier should be as the crow flies or how people actually travel, and if it goes from building-to-building or property-line-to-property-line, Cleland said in his ruling.  "While a prescribed distance may appear concrete on its face, without adequate guidance about how to measure the distance, such provisions are susceptible to vagueness concerns," he wrote.

Cleland also stated law enforcement doesn't have strong enough guidelines to know how to measure the 1,000-foot exclusion zone around schools. Neither sex offenders or law enforcement have the tools or data to determine the zones, even if the guidelines on how to measure the zones were stronger, he said. "Accordingly, due to (the Sex Offender Registry Act's) vagueness, registrants are forced to choose between limiting where the reside, work and loiter to a greater extent than is required by law or risk violating SORA," he wrote.

Cleland struck down other portions of the law as well, but ruled in favor of the government on the rest of the lawsuit. Other portions of the law ruled unconstitutional were: a requirement to report in person to the "registering authority" when an offender begins to drive a vehicle regularly or begins to use a new e-mail or instant messaging address; a requirement for an offender to report all telephone numbers routinely used by an offender; a requirement to report all e-mail and instant messaging addresses; a requirement to report the license plate number, registration number and description of any motor vehicle, aircraft or vessel used by an offender....

The ruling drew an immediate reaction from State Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge. In a statement released Tuesday morning, Jones, a former sheriff, said he plans to help rewrite the law to make up for the judge's ruling. "I warn sex offenders to stay away from schools. This is one judge's ruling, and the law will soon be changed to clarify it," said Jones, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I'm working to make sure there is no vagueness in Michigan's Sex Offender Registry law. Child molesters must stay away from our schools. Law enforcement will be watching."

The full ruling, which runs 70+ pages, is available at this link.

April 8, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

"Miller V. Alabama and the Retroactivity of Proportionality Rules"

The title of this post is the title of this very timely new article by Perry Moriearty just now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

In its 2012 decision in the companion cases of Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, the Supreme Court declared that it was unconstitutional to sentence children to mandatory life without parole because such sentences preclude an individualized consideration of a defendant’s age and other mitigating factors.  What Miller did not address, however, and what has confounded lower courts over the last two years, is whether the ruling applies to the more than 2,100 inmates whose convictions were already final when Miller was decided.  In all but one case, the question has come down to an exercise in line drawing. If, under the Court’s elusive Teague retroactivity doctrine, Miller articulated a “substantive” rule of constitutional law, it is retroactive; if the rule is merely “procedural,” it is not.  The Supreme Court is all but certain to decide the issue in the near future.

I make two primary arguments in this Article.  The first adds to the growing body of commentary concluding that, while Miller has “procedural” attributes, they are components of a constitutional mandate that is fundamentally “substantive.”  The second argument applies broadly to all new constitutional rules which, like the Miller rule, are grounded in the Eighth Amendment’s proportionality guarantee.  As even those who favor of limitations on retroactivity have acknowledged, there is a normative point at which interests in “finality” simply must yield to competing notions of justice and equality.  I argue that finality interests may be at their weakest when the Court announces a new proportionality rule, because the practical burdens of review and theoretical concerns about undermining the consequentialist goals of punishment are simply not as pronounced with sentences of incarceration as they are with convictions. The risks of offending basic notions of “justice” may be at their most pronounced with new proportionality rules, however, because to deny relief to those whose sentences have been deemed “excessive” (or at a high risk of excessiveness) is to undermine the very principles of proportionality and fundamental fairness in which such rules are grounded.  Proportionality rules should therefore be afforded something close to a presumption of retroactivity.

Regular readers and SCOTUS fans know this article is timely because the Supreme Court has recently taken up a new case to finally resolve the lower court split over Miller's retroactivity. But I call this piece very timely because this very afternoon I am in Cambridge to talk about these exact issues with Judge Nancy Gertner's Harvard Law School sentencing class.  Coincidence?

April 7, 2015 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

More reflections on Prez Obama's recent commutations

Writing in Forbes, Jacob Sullum has this new commentary about last week's notable clemency news headlined "Obama Steps Up Commutations, Feeding Drug War Prisoners' Hopes."  Here are excerpts: 

Obama’s latest batch of commutations, which doubled his total in a single day, suggests that the president, whose clemency record during his first term was remarkably stingy, is beginning to make up for lost time. Last year the Justice Department signaled a new openness to clemency petitions, laying out criteria for the sort of applications the president wanted to see. An unnamed “senior administration official” told Yahoo News the new guidelines could result in commutations for “hundreds, perhaps thousands” of federal prisoners by the end of Obama’s second term. The president will have to pick up the pace to reach that goal. But his avowed interest in ameliorating the egregious injustices inflicted by federal drug laws seems to be more than rhetorical.

Most of the drug offenders whose sentences Obama has shortened so far, including 13 of the 22 prisoners whose petitions he granted on Tuesday, were convicted of crack cocaine offenses. There is a good reason for that: Crack sentences are especially harsh, and although Congress reduced them in 2010, it did not make the changes retroactive. That means thousands of crack offenders are still serving terms that almost everyone now agrees are too long.

The Smarter Sentencing Act, which was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last year but never got a floor vote, would address that problem by making the 2010 changes retroactive. The bill was reintroduced in February, but its prospects are uncertain. In the meantime, Obama has the power to bring crack sentences in line with what the law currently deems appropriate.

With an estimated 8,800 prisoners who could benefit from retroactive application of shorter crack sentences, there is plenty of room for more acts of mercy like these. But the conventional wisdom is that commutations cannot help more than a tiny percentage of those prisoners. “While Mr. Obama has pledged to make greater use of his clemency power,” The New York Times reported on Tuesday, “the White House is unlikely to make a sizable dent in the prison population. Thousands of prisoners are serving time for drug sentences under the old, stricter rules.”

It’s true that commuting thousands of sentences, as that anonymous administration official quoted by Yahoo News envisioned, would be historically unprecedented. Yet it is clearly within the president’s constitutional authority, and there is less need for a careful, case-by-case weighing of each applicant’s merits when there is already a consensus that the mandatory minimums imposed on crack offenders between 1986 and 2010 were inappropriately harsh.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Despite the concerns he expressed about our excessively punitive criminal justice system while running for president, Obama issued a grand total of one commutation during his first four years in office and finished his first term with a good shot at leaving behind one of the worst clemency records in U.S. history.

Prior related posts:

April 7, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, April 05, 2015

NY Times notes Justice Kennedy's criminal justice perspective

Today's New York Times has this extended editorial effectively contextualizing recent comments by SCOTUS Justice Anthony Kennedy headlined "Justice Kennedy’s Plea to Congress." Here are excerpts:

Members of the Supreme Court rarely speak publicly about their views on the sorts of issues that are likely to come before them. So it was notable when Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer sat before a House appropriations subcommittee recently and talked about the plight of the American criminal justice system.

Justice Kennedy did not mince his words. “In many respects, I think it’s broken,” he said. It was a good reminder of the urgency of the problem, and a stark challenge to a Congress that remains unable to pass any meaningful sentencing reform, despite the introduction of multiple bipartisan bills over the past two years....

“The corrections system is one of the most overlooked, misunderstood institutions we have in our entire government,” he said. He chastised the legal profession for being focused only on questions of guilt and innocence, and not what comes after. “We have no interest in corrections,” he said. “Nobody looks at it.”

That is not entirely fair; many lawyers and legal scholars have devoted their careers to studying the phenomenon of mass incarceration in America and to improving intolerable prison conditions. But Justice Kennedy was right that all too often decisions about sentencing and corrections are made without meaningful consideration of their long­-term costs and benefits, or of their effect on the millions of people who spend decades behind bars. “This idea of total incarceration just isn’t working,” he said. “And it’s not humane.”...

Justice Kennedy — whose regular role as the swing vote on a closely divided court gives him tremendous power — has a mixed record on [the Eighth] amendment.  Several times he has voted to uphold breathtakingly long sentences for nonviolent crimes.  For example, in two 2003 cases, he joined the five­-member majority that let stand sentences of 25 years to life and 50 years to life for men convicted in California of thefts totaling a few hundred dollars.

Justice Kennedy’s response to such manifestly unjust results is that fixing prison sentences is the job of lawmakers, not the courts. But that too easily absolves the justices of their constitutional responsibility.  The four justices dissenting in the California cases argued that those grossly disproportionate sentences violated the Eighth Amendment.

In more recent years, Justice Kennedy has increasingly invoked the amendment in sentencing cases, as he did in writing the 2008 decision prohibiting the death penalty as a punishment for child rape, and in 2010 and 2012 when he voted to bar sentences of life without parole for juveniles in most circumstances. He also relied on it in a 2011 decision ordering California to reduce overcrowding in its prisons, a condition that threatened inmates’ physical and mental health.

Justice Breyer, who before joining the court helped design the modern federal sentencing guidelines in the 1980s, told the committee of his own concerns about the justice system, and in particular was sharply critical of mandatory minimum sentences. Such sentences, he told the representatives, are “a terrible idea.”

The justices were right to lay these issues directly at Congress’s door. They can accomplish only so much on their own. Meanwhile, states from Texas to California to New York to Mississippi have been reforming their prisons and their sentencing laws for several years now, with overwhelmingly positive results. Now it is Congress’s turn to reform the unjustly harsh and ineffective sentencing laws it passed in the first place.

Prior related post:

April 5, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack