Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Will more than just a handful of condemned murderers be impacted by latest SCOTUS review of capital punishment disability limits?

Washington_terry1The question in the title of this post is my indirect effort to get a quantitative notion of the import and impact of the Texas case, Moore v. Texas, being heard by the US Supreme Court this morning.  The folks at SCOTUSblog have this helpful round-up of some recent previews and commentaries on this case:

Today, the court will hear oral argument in Moore v. Texas, which asks whether Texas can rely on an outdated standard in determining whether a defendant’s intellectual disability precludes him from being executed. Amy Howe previewed the case for this blog. Another preview comes from Karen Ojeda and Nicholas Halliburton for Cornell University Law School’s Legal Information Institute.

Additional coverage of Moore comes from Nina Totenberg at NPR, who notes that “the state’s test is based on what the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals called ‘a consensus of Texas citizens,’ that not all those who meet the ‘social services definition’ of ‘retardation’ should be exempt from the death penalty,” and from Steven Mazie in The Economist. In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Carol and Jordan Steiker argue that rather than “relying on the same approach to intellectual disability that Texas uses in every other context (such as placement in special education or eligibility for disability benefits),” the state appeals “court sought to redefine the condition in the capital context so that only offenders who meet crude stereotypes about intellectual disability are shielded from execution.”

Efforts by Texas to execute intellectually disabled murderers strike very close to home for me because I was actively involved in representing and trying to prevent the execution of Terry Washington back in 1996-97 when there was not yet a constitutional restriction on application of the death penalty for those with certain intellectual disabilities.  I got involved in the Washington case pro bono during my last few months as an associate at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in NYC.  I had the opportunity to help author a cert petition to SCOTUS and a clemency petition to then-Texas-Gov. George W. Bush in which we asserted on Terry's behalf that the ineffectiveness of trial counsel and his intellectually disabilities (which were then called mental retardation) justified sparing him from the ultimate punishment of death.

Terry Washington was sentenced to death for the stabbing murder of a co-worker at a restaurant in College Station, Texas.  As the case was litigated through the federal habeas courts in Texas, there was no real dispute over Terry's mental disabilities because considerable evidence from his childhood indicated diminished mental capacities and in two IQ tests after his initial sentencing to death Terry scored 58 and 69.  But Terry's case was tried in the 1980s when it was not considered ineffective for counsel to fail to investigate and present mitigating mental health and family background evidence.  In the words of the Fifth Circuit rejecting a final habeas appeal in 1996, counsel made "a reasonable strategic decision not to investigate Washington's mental health by retaining a mental health expert or to present evidence of Washington's mental health and family background at the punishment stage of trial." Washington v. Johnson, 90 F.3d 945 (5th Cir. July 25, 1996) (available here).

I cannot help but think of Terry Washington today because I recall drafting sections of the cert petition and clemency petition making the case for a categorical ban on the execution of persons with (as called then) mental retardation.  Unfortunately for Terry, the Supreme Court would not embrace the constitutional position we pushed on his behalf until 2002 when it ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment bars the execution of individuals who are intellectually disabled.  (According to this DPIC accounting, 44 persons with intellectual disabilities were executed between 1976 and the SCOTUS Atkins ruling in 2002.)  Based on the medical records and supporting evidence, I now believe that Terry would have indisputably been shielded from execution by Atkins even though Texas has been trying its best since Atkins to limit the number of condemned murderers who get shielded from execution by its holding.

Returning to the Moore case now before SCOTUS (with the Terry Washington case still on my mind), I sincerely wonder how many persons on death row in Texas or in other states are currently in the doctrinal/proof gray area that the Moore case occupies.  My sense is that most defendants with obvious disabilities have had their sentences reduced based on Atkins, and this DPIC accounting hints that maybe as many as 100 condemned murderers have gotten off of death rows in many states thanks to Atkins.  But in Moore it seems like evidence of disability is sufficiently equivocal and the legal standards sufficiently opaque that SCOTUS has to clean up some post-Atkins doctrinal mess.  For Bobby James Moore, this is obviously now a matter of life and death.  But can we know how many other of the roughly 2500 persons now under serious sentences of death nationwide will be potentially impacted by the Moore decision?

November 29, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Monday, November 28, 2016

Guest posting from Prof Carissa Hessick on SCOTUS argument: "Beckles and the Continued Complexity of Post-Booker Federal Sentencing"

Image (1)I am pleased to be able to reprint this original commentary concerning today's SCOTUS oral argument from LawProf Carissa Hessick:

Earlier today the Supreme Court heard argument in Beckles v. United States.  Beckles raises two questions: (1) whether the now-advisory Federal Sentencing Guidelines are subject to vagueness challenges under the Due Process Clause, and (2) whether, assuming the Guidelines are subject to vagueness challenge, a ruling that a Guideline is unconstitutionally vague is retroactive under the Teague framework.  The Beckles case and today’s argument illustrate how complicated federal sentencing has become since the Supreme Court decided to treat the Federal Sentencing Guidelines as advisory in Booker v. United States.

In the decade since Booker was decided, the Supreme Court has clarified that, although the Federal Sentencing Guidelines are no longer mandatory, they are also not entirely voluntary.  Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben did a fantastic job in his argument explaining the middle path that the Court has carved for the Guidelines since Booker.  He not only described the anchoring effect of the Guidelines, but he also noted that the Court has adopted procedural mechanisms “designed to reinforce the primacy of the Guidelines.”  The current advisory system, according to Dreeben, “injects law into the sentencing process.”

As the Beckles argument illustrates, the middle path that the Court has carved is complicated.  The Court continues to struggle with how to regulate an advisory system in light of the fact that the purely discretionary system that the Federal Sentencing Guidelines replaced was essentially unregulated.  Indeed, counsel for Beckles spent much of her argument fending off questions by various Justices about how a Guideline could be unconstitutionally vague if a purely discretionary system is permissible under the Constitution. Justices Alito, Breyer, Kennedy, and Chief Justice Roberts all asked questions to this effect.  Notably, later questions by Justice Breyer and the Chief Justice appeared to accept that a purely discretionary system might be subject to different rules than an advisory system.

The complexity of the middle path was on full display in today’s argument in part because the United States relied on the complexity of that path to take what Justice Kennedy and a court-appointed amicus characterized as inconsistent positions.  The United States argued that the advisory Guidelines are subject to vagueness challenges because of the important role that they continue to play in the post-Booker world.  But the government argued that the advisory status of the Guidelines should prevent the Court from making any vagueness ruling retroactive.  The government distinguished this case from a recent juvenile life-without-parole case, saying that juvenile LWOP cases require a particular finding in order for a defendant to be eligible for a life-without-parole sentence.  In contrast, according to the government, the Guidelines affect only the likelihood that a defendant will receive a particular sentence.  The government relied on the distinction between likelihood of a sentence and eligibility for a sentence as the reason it took different positions on the vagueness question and the retroactivity question. And while Justice Sotomayor pressed the government on this distinction, none of the attorneys or the Justices mentioned an important fact about this case: When Beckles was sentenced in a Florida district court, the prevailing law in the Eleventh Circuit actually required such a finding. (Because of the amount of time taken up by questions about vagueness, petitioner’s counsel addressed the likelihood/eligibility argument only in the single minute she had remaining for rebuttal. The argument was made in an amicus that Doug and I co-authored with Leah Litman, which is available here.)

Other odd aspects of the Court’s post-Booker jurisprudence were also on display during the Beckles argument.  Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito both raised the question whether the Court’s recent decisions about the quasi-legal status of the advisory Guidelines should endure in the face of changing sentencing patterns in the district courts.  And Justice Breyer, who has often served as a champion for the U.S. Sentencing Commission, raised the possibility that the courts should be more indulgent of vague sentencing guidelines than vague statutes because the Commission is in a better position than Congress to refine the law.

Perhaps because this area of the law is so complex, both Justice Ginsburg and Justice Kennedy appeared to cast about for an easy way to dispose of this case.  At one point Justice Ginsburg said as much: “I thought . . . that if we decide the first issue, . . . the case is over.  But -- so I was thinking, well, we could decide that issue and not reach either vagueness or retroactivity.”  Much to his credit, Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben discouraged the Court from taking that path, even though it would have meant a victory for the Government.  Dreeben noted that there are many cases that raise the vagueness and the retroactivity questions that are currently pending in the lower courts.  And he made an institutional appeal to the Justices to resolve the retroactivity issue even if they could decide this case based on some commentary in the Guidelines.  I admire Dreeben for making this appeal to the Justices.  But I don’t think that his appeal went far enough. There are a number of defendants in the Eleventh Circuit who have viable vagueness claims that are not claiming retroactivity.  Because the Eleventh Circuit refused to recognize any vagueness challenges to the Guidelines, the Court should also rule on the vagueness issue even if it determines that its ruling will not be retroactive.

Although I was not at the argument this morning, it is hard to read the transcript of the Beckles argument and think that the defendant is likely to prevail. Only Justice Sotomayor seemed to be asking friendly questions of petitioner’s counsel, and only she seemed to resist the Government’s likelihood/eligibility argument.

But even if Beckles does not prevail, we may see another vagueness challenge to the Guidelines in the not-so-distant future.  For one thing, Dreeben made clear in today’s argument that the Government has not taken a position on retroactivity for pre-Booker mandatory sentences.  So if Beckles loses on the retroactivity question, then the courts of appeals will have to decide retroactivity in those pre-Booker cases, and if the courts split on that question, the Supreme Court may need to take another case.  For another, the Court has granted cert in another statutory vagueness case, Lynch v. Dimaya.  The statute at issue in Dimaya, 18 U.S.C. § 16(b), has been incorporated into a Guideline, U.S.S.G. § 2L1.2(b)(1)(C).  So if the Court decides that § 16(b) is unconstitutionally vague in Dimaya, and if the Court does not answer the vagueness question in Beckles, then the Court may need to take another Guidelines vagueness case.

November 28, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Many SCOTUS Justices seems disinclined to find vagueness problems with sentencing guidelines given backdrop of unguided sentencing discretion

I have only just gotten started reading the transcript of the oral argument in Beckles v. United States (which is available here), and the first set of big questions suggests some Justices are not drawn to a basic sentencing vagueness claim.  Consider these passages from early in the transcript, which I have tweaked stylistically for improved exposition:

JUSTICE ALITO: Let me ask you a more fundamental question. And I don't want to unduly shock the attorneys who are here from the Sentencing Commission, but imagine there were no sentencing guidelines.  So you have a criminal provision that says that a person who's convicted of this offense may be imprisoned for not more than 20 years.  That's all it says.  Now, is that unconstitutionally vague?

MS. BERGMANN: No, Your Honor.

JUSTICE ALITO: Well, that seems to be a lot vaguer than what we have here. So how do you -- how do you reconcile those two propositions?

MS. BERGMANN: Well, Your Honor, we submit that arbitrary determinant sentencing such as with a vague guideline is not the same as an indeterminate sentencing scheme such as the Court described.  Our position is that the use of a vague guideline, in fact, is worse than indeterminate sentencing because it systematically injects arbitrariness into the entire sentencing process.

JUSTICE BREYER: And there is more arbitrariness because of this guideline than there was before the Guidelines were passed? Is there any evidence of that? I have a lot of evidence it wasn't.

MS. BERGMANN: Well, I think, Your Honor, it's especially so here because --

JUSTICE BREYER:  Especially so.  Is it so at all? There was a system before the Guidelines exactly as Justice Alito said.  Moreover, that system is existing today side by side with the Guidelines in any case in which the judge decides not to use the Guidelines.  So I don't get it. I really don't. And you can be brief here, because it's really the government that has to answer this question for me.  I don't understand where they're coming from on this, and you don't have to answer more than briefly, but I do have exactly the same question that Justice Alito had....

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Well, if the indeterminate sentencing is all right, it would seem to me that even the vaguest guideline would be an improvement and so difficult to argue that it's too vague to be applied....

JUSTICE KENNEDY: Well, but your argument applies to State systems as well, and you're telling us that the more specific a legislature or an agency tries to make guidance for the judge, the more chance there is for vagueness....  Your argument is sweeping.  And you're saying the more specific guidance you give, the more dangers there is of unconstitutionality.  That's very difficult to accept.

These statements notwithstanding, the extraordinary presentation by Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben (who has long been my all-time favorite SCOTUS advocate) may have helped move at least some of the Justices to better appreciate how the career offender guidelines could be deemed unconstitutionally vague in the wake of the Johnson ACCA ruling back in summer 2015.

November 28, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15)

Will Prez Obama break out of his "clemency rut" and really go bold his last few weeks in the Oval Office?

Now that Prez Obama has granted commutations to more than 1000 federal prisoners (basics here), I suppose I should stop complaining that he has only "talked the talk" about significant sentencing reform.  Having granted now a record number of commutations to federal defendants sentenced to decades of imprisonment for mostly nonviolent drug offenses, Prez Obama can and should retire to the golf course with some justified satisfaction that he has created a new clemency legacy over his final few years as Prez.

That said, a few basic numbers about the reality of federal drug prosecutions in the Obama era should temper any profound praise for Prez Obama here.  Specifically, Prez Obama was in charge from Jan 2009 to Aug 2010 when the old 100-1 crack/powder ratio was still in place.  During that period, using this US Sentencing Commission data as a guide, well over 5000 federal defendants were sentenced under the old crack laws while Prez Obama and his appointees were leading the Justice Department.  So, during just Prez Obama's first 1.5 years in office, federal prosecutors sent five times as many drug offenders to federal prison under the old crack laws than Prez Obama has now commuted.  Moreover, given that the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 only reduced the crack/powder unfairness, it is worth also noting that over another 20,000 federal defendants have been prosecuted and sentence under still-disparate/unfair crack sentencing laws from Aug 2010 to Nov 2016 (though crack prosecutions, as this USSC data shows, have declined considerably from 2010 to 2015). 

I bring all this up because I will not consider Prez Obama to be a bold and courageous executive leader in the clemency arena unless and until he grants relief to more folks than just over-sentenced nonviolent drug offenders.  Helpfully, this new Wall Street Journal commentary authored by Charles Renfrew and James Reynolds provides some distinct clemency fodder for Prez Obama to consider.  The piece is headlined "Obama Should Pardon This Iowa Kosher-Food Executive: Prosecutors overstepped, interfered with the process of bankruptcy and then solicited false testimony."  Because I have been an advocate for a reduced sentence for Sholom Rubashkin, whose 27-year federal prison sentence has long seemed grossly unfair and unjustified to me, I will not here make the clemency case for him in particular.  But this WSJ commentary serves as a useful reminder that there are certainly hundreds — and likely thousands and perhaps tens of thousands — of federal prisoners currently serving excessive federal prison sentences who were involved in criminal activity other than nonviolent drug offenses.

Candidly, I am not optimistic that Prez Obama will use his last seven weeks to get out of the notable "clemency rut" of his Administration's own creation.  I say this because I surmise that (1) (1) everyone involved in the Obama Administration's clemency push has been focused almost exclusively on low-level drug prisoners sentenced to a decade or longer, and (2) even the limited group of low-level drug offenders being actively considered still presents tens of thousands of clemency petitions to review.  Meanwhile, I suspect and fear, reasonable clemency requests from thousands of other potentially worthy applications are seemingly being rejected out-of-hand or being left for the next Prez to deal with.

I hope Prez Obama proves me wrong in the next seven weeks by granting clemency to some other types of folks seeing executive relief (both in the form of commutations and pardons).  But on most criminal justice reform issues, Prez Obama has left me deeply disappointed a lot more than he has pleasantly surprised me.

November 28, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Interesting and exciting sentencing week as SCOTUS gets back to work

For sentencing fans who pay special attention to the Supreme Court, November has been not all that interesting so far. But after a series of arguments on civil cases earlier in the month, the last few days of SCOTUS argument this November has all sort of intriguing issues for sentencing fans. Here are the basics and links to previews from SCOTUSblog of the exciting week to come:

Monday Nov 28: Beckles v. United States:

Issue: (1) Whether Johnson v. United States applies retroactively to collateral cases challenging federal sentences enhanced under the residual clause in United States Sentencing Guidelines (U.S.S.G.) § 4B1.2(a)(2) (defining “crime of violence”); (2) whether Johnson's constitutional holding applies to the residual clause in U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(2), thereby rendering challenges to sentences enhanced under it cognizable on collateral review; and (3) whether mere possession of a sawed-off shotgun, an offense listed as a “crime of violence” only in commentary to U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2, remains a “crime of violence” after Johnson.

Argument preview: Court to tackle constitutionality of residual clause in sentencing guidelines 

 

Tuesday Nov 29: Moore v. Texas:

Issue: Whether it violates the Eighth Amendment and this Court’s decisions in Hall v. Florida and Atkins v. Virginia to prohibit the use of current medical standards on intellectual disability, and require the use of outdated medical standards, in determining whether an individual may be executed.

Argument preview: Court returns, again, to the death penalty and the intellectually disabled

 

Wednesday Nov 30: Jennings v. Rodriguez:

Issue: (1) Whether aliens seeking admission to the United States who are subject to mandatory detention under 8 U.S.C. § 1225(b) must be afforded bond hearings, with the possibility of release into the United States, if detention lasts six months; (2) whether criminal or terrorist aliens who are subject to mandatory detention under Section 1226(c) must be afforded bond hearings, with the possibility of release, if detention lasts six months; and (3) whether, in bond hearings for aliens detained for six months under Sections 1225(b), 1226(c), or 1226(a), the alien is entitled to release unless the government demonstrates by clear and convincing evidence that the alien is a flight risk or a danger to the community, whether the length of the alien’s detention must be weighed in favor of release, and whether new bond hearings must be afforded automatically every six months.

Argument preview: The constitutionality of immigrant detention

November 27, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Terrific content and context for Prez Obama's clemency work at Pardon Power

DebLong-time readers know that the blog Pardon Power is a must-read for anyone who cares about clemency policies and practices.  Of particular importance and value, P.S. Ruckman's work at  Pardon Power consistently provides needed theoretical and historical context for better understanding recent clemency activities rather than falling prey to the the modern media tendency to follow and obsess over the latest "shiny object" of clemency.  Great examples of why Pardon Power is a must-read these days as we move into the twilight of the Obama era are these recent posts of note over the holiday weekend:

Obama's 1,000th Commutation: Hold the Fireworks.

Obama Could (Should) Go EPIC.

Obama's Legacy: Institutional Change v. An "Example"

Turkey "Pardons." Why?

Obama: Breaking Records in a Broken System

Though I recommend highly all these posts, the last of the bunch has the most far-reaching and trenchant analysis. Here is how that piece starts and ends:

It seems more than likely that, before he leaves office, President Obama will break Woodrow Wilson's record for commutations of sentence.  It is, however, more than a little amazing (if not highly informative) to compare the use of federal executive clemency in the two administrations.

By the time he left the White House, Wilson had granted 1,087 presidential pardons (as well as 226 respites and 148 remissions). Obama, however, has granted a mere 70 pardons, the lowest number granted by any president serving at least one full term since John Adams.  It doesn't seem likely that Obama will pass out 1,000 plus pardons between now and the end of the term.  But there appears to be little concern about it on any front. So, it is what it is.

Consequently, clemency, for Obama, has meant — for the most part — commutations of sentence, almost exclusively for those convicted of drug offenses.  And these grants have — for the most part — been granted late in his second term.  Indeed, the Obama administration already features the largest 4th-year clemency surge of any administration in history....

The federal prison population has boomed since Wilson's day.  The Obama administration has been receiving record numbers of clemency applications, for years. On top of that, thousands remain in prison who were sentenced under drug laws which have been undone.  The merciless neglect of the current clemency system needs to tanked.  The process needs to be removed from career prosecutors in the DOJ who are unable / unwilling to process clemency applications in a timely fashion, with an eye toward mercy.  The broken system has famously lacked transparency (since 1932) and, today, it even exempts itself FOIA law.

It is time to create a permanent clemency board / commission (a device often used in the states) in the Executive Office of the President of the United States.  It is time for mercy to emerge once again as a regular feature of criminal justice.  It's not just about numbers.  It is about balance, fairness.  It is about rehabilitation and restoration.  It's about presidents using a power that was given to them ... to use ... not to abuse, or neglect.

November 26, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

So many marijuana reform developments and questions, with so many more on 2017 horizon

Though I blogged a bit in this space about marijuana reform right around the election (see here and here), over the last few weeks I have been content to cover this issues just over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform.  But this new post about this new article about the thousands of Californians getting sentencing relief thanks to the state's passage of a major marijuana legalization proposition, Prop 64, reminded me that I should be reminding readers about the close links between marijuana reform in particular and sentencing reform in general.  

The first post linked below tells the sentencing reform story, and some other postings from my other blog tell a whole lot of other interesting and dynamic stories about the current state and possible future of marijuana reform in the United States:

November 26, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Prez Obama grants 79 move commutations, taking his total over 1000 for his administration

Download (22)As reported in this new Washington Post article, headlined "Obama grants 79 more commutations to federal inmates, pushing the total past 1,000," the outgoing President has decided to make some clemency news before turning torward Turkey Day festivities. Here are the basics from the start of this article:

President Obama granted commutations to another 79 federal drug offenders Tuesday, pushing the number of inmates he has granted clemency past 1,000.

Obama’s historic number of commutations was announced as administration officials are moving quickly to rule on all the pending clemency applications from inmates before the end of the year. The Trump administration is not expected to keep in place Obama’s initiative to provide relief to nonviolent drug offenders.

“The President’s gracious act of mercy today with his latest round of commutations is encouraging,” said Brittany Byrd, a Texas attorney who has represented several inmates who have received clemency since Obama’s initiative began in 2014. “He is taking historic steps under his groundbreaking clemency initiative to show the power of mercy and belief in redemption. Three hundred and forty two men and women were set to die in prison. The President literally saved their lives.”

The White House and the Justice Department were criticized by sentencing reform advocates earlier this year for moving too slowly in granting commutations to inmates serving harsh sentences who met the criteria for clemency. The administration has greatly picked up the pace, but advocates still want them to move faster before time runs out.

“At the risk of sounding ungrateful, we say, “thanks, but please hurry,” said Kevin Ring, vice president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “We know there are thousands more who received outdated and excessive mandatory sentences and we think they all deserve to have their petitions considered before the president leaves office. Petitioners are starting to get anxious because they know the president is, in prison parlance, a short-timer.”

On a press call this afternoon (which is available here), Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates delivered remarks that included these sentiments:

As of this morning, President Obama has granted clemency to over 1,000 men and women who were incarcerated under outdated sentencing laws.

The number 1,000 is significant, but it’s important to remember that this is more than a statistic. There are 1,000 lives behind that number, 1,000 people who had been sentenced under unnecessarily harsh and outdated sentencing laws that sent them to prison for 20, 30, 40 years, even life, for nonviolent drug offenses. It's part of my job to review the petitions for each of these individuals, and I've been struck by the common threads woven through many of them — lack of access to education or real economic opportunity, absence of parents, drug addiction, hopelessness.  But in these petitions I've also seen something else — remarkable introspection, a real sense of responsibility for their conduct, and a dogged determination not to repeat the mistakes of the past and to ensure that they, and especially their children, chart another path.

The President has given these 1,000 individuals that opportunity. And while we are a nation of laws, and those who violate those laws must be held accountable, we are also a nation of second chances.  The mission of the Justice Department not only supports but demands that we do everything in our power to ensure that our criminal justice system operates fairly. In this case, that means reducing disproportionate sentences imposed under out-of-date laws. And we are privileged to serve a President who has not only taken on this responsibility himself, but who has given us the chance to fulfill our core charge to seek justice....

And a lot of work has gone into the clemency initiative to get us to this historic announcement today. Since the initiative was announced in 2014, thousands of petitions have been submitted and reviewed by the hard working attorneys in the Office of the Pardon Attorney, my office, the Office of the Deputy Attorney General, and the White House to identify nonviolent drug offenders whose sentences would be significantly lower if they were sentenced today.  While we are proud of the progress we’ve made so far, as I have said before, our work is still not done.  We will continue to make recommendations on clemency applications until the end of the Administration, fulfilling the goals we set more than two and a half years ago when we launched the clemency initiative.

November 22, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

"Advocates Look To Obama For 'Unprecedented' Action On Federal Prison Sentences"

The title of this post is the headline of this astute new BuzzFeed News article that flags some issues and raises various questions that I have been thinking a lot about ever since last Wednesday around 2am. Here are highlights:

In recent months, President Obama has stepped up the pace of federal clemency — issuing three large batches of commutations in the month before the presidential election. The White House has regularly pushed those numbers as evidence that Obama has done more than his predecessors to address unfairness he has criticized in criminal sentencing.

But now that he is due to be replaced by Donald Trump, who ran in part by saying he would be a “law and order” president, leading advocates of the clemency process say it is the time for Obama to step up and do more. “[I]f President Obama believes these sentences are unjust, it is his constitutional responsibility to fix them,” Rachel Barkow, a member of the United States Sentencing Commission and NYU law professor, told BuzzFeed News this week....

To that end, the group, co-founded by Van Jones, will be in Washington this week, holding a series of events — including a vigil in front of the White House on Monday evening — urging Obama to take “unprecedented” action on clemency in the coming months.

Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, acknowledged that time is short. “I think there will be — and should be — a sense of urgency,” he said on Friday. “I think the clearest thing is to find efficiencies — find ways to look at more people over these last weeks in a way that’s consistent and effective, in terms of evaluation. And that means, probably, looking at categories of people and identifying them specifically.”

Specifically, he pointed to “people who did not get the benefit of the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010” — which addressed cocaine-to-crack sentencing disparities in federal law, but was not retroactive. As such, Osler explained, many people “were stuck with a life sentence or the 10-year mandatory [minimum]” who could not receive that sentence today....

There has, though, been an election — one that likely will reflect at least somewhat different values on criminal justice issues, Osler acknowledged. “It’s fair to say that those people within this administration are very aware that the amount of care that they give to criminal law — and the excesses of criminal law — probably won’t be reflected in the next administration,” he said. Nonetheless, Osler said that Obama’s two elections more than suffice as a rationale for why Obama should continue pressing forward with the Clemency Project in his final months in office. “He’s the elected president until January 20, 2017,” he said. “I don’t think you sit back and don’t make full use of every day that you have.”

Barkow put it in similarly broad terms — but with a historical context. “Clemency is critical to an effective federal criminal justice system,” Barkow noted, pointing out that Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federal Papers about the important role clemency plays in the American system. “The President has only a couple months to reach everyone. The fate of these people and their loved ones rests in his hands, and one of his lasting legacies can be to reaffirm Hamilton’s view that both ‘humanity and good policy’ require the broad use of the pardon power.”

In addition to my adoration for Rachel Barkow's always-timely Hamilton reference (and how it made me think of one of my favorite songs), I especially like Mark Osler's discussion of both the challenges and justifications for Prez Obama going bold on clemency over the next two months. For reasons I have explained in this Veterans Day post, I would especially love to see Prez Obama go bold in granting clemency for any and all veterans serving distinctly long federal sentences or still burdened by a federal conviction long after any public safety rationales for continued punishment have been extinguished.

Sing along with me Prez Obama and fellow clemency fans (with apologies to Lin-Manuel Miranda):

Prez Washington:

I wanna talk about [clemency righting]
I want to warn against partisan fighting
Pick up a pen, start writing
I wanna talk about what I have learned
The hard-won wisdom I have earned...
The people will hear from me
One last time
And if we get this right
We’re gonna teach ‘em how to say Goodbye
You and I—

Sec. Hamilton:

Mr. President, they will say you’re weak

Prez Washington:

No, they will see we’re strong

Sec. Hamilton:

Your position is so unique

Prez Washington:

So I’ll use it to move them along

Sec. Hamilton:

Why do you have to say goodbye?

Prez Washington:

If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on
It outlives me when I’m gone
Like the scripture says:
“Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
And no one shall make them afraid.”
They’ll be safe in the nation we’ve made
I wanna sit under my own vine and fig tree
A moment alone in the shade
At home in this nation we’ve made
One last time

November 15, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, November 11, 2016

How many veterans are among Prez Obama's 944 federal prison commutations? How many more veterans are clemency worthy?

Veterans-day-20131The question in the title of this post are inspired by today's national holiday, Veterans Day.  Here are some general data thoughts/realities as part of an effort to try to answer these questions:

1.  According to these latest BJS statistics, we can reasonably estimate that at least 5% of the current federal prison population are veterans.  The BJS report starts by noting that "In 2011–12, an estimated 181,500 veterans (8% of all inmates in state and federal prison and local jail excluding military-operated facilities) were serving time in correctional facilities."  But a variety of demographic realities would suggest that veterans are probably underrepresented among the types of prisoners serving time in federal prison. 

2. So, to answer my first question based on this working estimate of at least 5%, we should expect that nearly 50 of the 944 federal prisoner commutations by Prez Obama have been to veterans.  But this is really a statistical guess because there could be direct or indirect reasons why veteran status made a candidate more likely to garner Prez Obama's attention or why the pool of long-sentenced drug offenders now only getting clemency these days are less likely to include veterans. 

3. And, to answer my second question based on this working estimate of at least 5%, we should expect that nearly 10,000 veterans make up of current federal Bureau of Prisons population which totals over 191,000.  If we were to entertain the supposition that only 1 out of every 100 current veteran federal prisoners are likely to be good candidates for clemency, that would still mean 100 current federal prisoners would now be commutation-worthy.  (And, if we want to think about all veterans with a federal conviction who might seek or merit a pardon, there could well be thousands of good veteran clemency candidate worth thinking about on this Veterans Day.)  

Though the day is still young, I am not expecting that Prez Obama will celebrate his last Veterans Day in the Oval Office by making a special effort to grant commutations or pardons to a special list of veterans.  But Prez-Elect Trump, who made taking care of the vets a consistent campaign theme, perhaps might be encouraged by sentencing reform advocates to plan to celebrate his future Veterans Days in the Oval Office by looking to use his clemency powers in this kind of special and distinctive way.  After all, a key slogan for this day is to "honor ALL who served," not just those who stayed out of trouble after serving.

Some very old prior related posts: 

November 11, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, November 10, 2016

"Revitalizing the Clemency Process"

The title of this post is the title of this recent lengthy article authored by Paul Larkin which is available via SSRN (and which I hope someone can now put on the required reading list for the Trump transition team).  Here is the abstract:

St. Anselm once asked how a perfectly just God could also be merciful, since perfect justice and almighty grace could not seemingly coexist.  Fortunately, the criminal justice system does not need to answer that question, one that has proven inscrutable for theologians and philosophers, because its assumptions do not apply to our system.  An earthly judicial system will never be able to administer justice perfectly and cannot disburse mercy even approaching the quality of the divine.  But the clemency power can try to achieve as much of an accommodation between those two goals as any human institution can.  Unfortunately, however, our recent span of presidents, attuned more to political than humanitarian considerations and fearing the electoral wrath of the voters for mistaken judgments, have largely abandoned their ability to grant clemency in order to husband their political capital for pedestrian undertakings.  Far worse, others have succumbed to the dark side of “the Force,” have used their power shamefully, and have left a stain on clemency that we have yet to remove.

We now have reached a point where that taint can be eliminated.  There is a consensus that the clemency process can and should be reformed.  The problem lies not in the power itself, but in the process by which cases are brought to the President for his review and maybe in the people we have elected to make those decisions.  The Office of the Pardon Attorney should be transferred from the Department of Justice to the Executive Office of the President, and the President should select someone to fill that position.  That revision to the clemency process should help us see a return of the necessary role that clemency can play in a system that strives to be both just and merciful.

November 10, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Sentencing reform's (uncertain?) future after huge election wins for Republicans, the death penalty, marijuana reform and state sentencing reforms

It is now official that Republican have retained control of both houses of Congress, and it seems now a near certainty that Donald Trump will soon officially be our nation's President Elect.  What that might mean for the future of federal sentencing reform will be the subject of a lot of future posts.  For now, I just want to wrap up the story of dynamic state ballot initiatives in the states by spotlighting that they showcase a pretty consistent national criminal justice reform message for all local, state and national officials.

1.  The death penalty still has deep and broad support in traditionally conservative states like Nebraska and Oklahoma, and clearly still has majority support even in a deep blue state like California.

2.  Non-capital sentencing reform has deep and broad support in a deep blue states like California and can find majority in a traditionally conservative state like Oklahoma.

3.  Medical marijuana reform has deep and broad support seemingly everywhere after winning this year in Arkansas and Florida and Montana and North Dakota.

4.  Recreational marijuana reform has seemingly significant support in blue states after winning this year in California and Massachusetts and Nevada and probably Maine, but in the red state in Arizona it could not garner a majority this year.

November 9, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Should and will SCOTUS take up Rommell Broom's constitutional claim that Ohio cannot try again to execute him after botched first attempt?

SCOTUSblog recently posted here its list of "Petitions to Watch" from the Supreme Court's scheduled conference of November 10, 2016, and all five cases on the list involve criminal justice issues. But the last of the listed petitions concerns a remarkable Ohio capital case that has been previously discussed on this blog, and is described this way:

Broom v. Ohio, No. 16-5580

Issues: (1) Whether the first attempt to execute the petitioner was cruel and unusual under the Eighth and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution and if so, whether the appropriate remedy is to bar any further execution attempt on the petitioner; (2) whether a second attempt to execute the petitioner will be a cruel and unusual punishment and a denial of due process in violation of the Eighth and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution; and (3) whether a second attempt to execute the petitioner will violate double jeopardy protections under the Fifth and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution.

I could discuss at great length not only why this case is so jurisprudentially interesting, but also why either a grant or a denial of cert at this stage of the litigation could prove quite interesting and controversial.  Rather than go off on such matters, however, I will be content for now to link to some of my prior posts on this this case:

November 8, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, November 07, 2016

Split Fourth Circuit panel concludes Virginia’s geriatric release program insufficient to save juve LWOP sentences from violating Graham

A Fourth Circuit panel today handed down a lengthy split decision today in LeBlanc v. Mathena, No. 15-7151 (4th Cir. Nov. 7, 2016) (available here), concerning the application of the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment Graham ruling in Virginia.  Here is how the majority opinion by Judge Wynn gets started:

Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 74 (2010), held that “the Eighth Amendment forbids the sentence of life without parole” for juvenile offenders convicted of nonhomicide offenses. Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that States must provide juvenile nonhomicide offenders sentenced to life imprisonment with “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Id. at 75.

Nearly a decade before the Supreme Court decided Graham, Respondent, the Commonwealth of Virginia, sentenced Petitioner Dennis LeBlanc to life imprisonment without parole for a nonhomicide offense he committed at the age of sixteen. In light of Graham, Petitioner sought postconviction relief from his sentence in Virginia state courts. The state courts denied Petitioner relief, holding that Virginia’s geriatric release program — which was adopted more than fifteen years before the Supreme Court decided Graham and will allow Petitioner to seek release beginning at the age of sixty — provides the “meaningful opportunity” for release that Graham requires.

Mindful of the deference we must accord to state court decisions denying state prisoners postconviction relief, we nonetheless conclude that Petitioner’s state court adjudication constituted an unreasonable application of Graham.  Most significantly, Virginia courts unreasonably ignored the plain language of the procedures governing review of petitions for geriatric release, which authorize the State Parole Board to deny geriatric release for any reason, without considering a juvenile offender’s maturity and rehabilitation.  In light of the lack of governing standards, it was objectively unreasonable for the state courts to conclude that geriatric release affords Petitioner with the “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation” Graham demands. Id.  Accordingly, Petitioner is entitled to relief from his unconstitutional sentence.

Judge Niemeyer issued a lengthy dissent that gets started this way:

In affirming the grant of Dennis LeBlanc’s habeas petition brought under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, the majority holds that the Virginia Supreme Court concluded unreasonably that Virginia’s geriatric release program provided a meaningful opportunity for release to juveniles and therefore satisfied the requirements of Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010).  Graham forbids sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole for nonhomicide crimes.  In reaching its conclusion, the majority relies simply on its expressed disagreement with the Virginia Supreme Court’s decision in Angel v. Commonwealth, 704 S.E.2d 386 (Va. 2011), and effectively overrules it.  The Virginia court’s opinion, however, is demonstrably every bit as reasonable as the majority’s opinion in this case and should be given deference under § 2254(d)(1).

Especially because the "swing" vote on this panel came from a district judge sitting by designation, I think there is a decent chance this case might get further consideration by the Fourth Circuit sitting en banc. I also would expect Virginia to seek Supreme Court review if it does not seek or secure en banc review.

November 7, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Do we need to worry seriously about voter confusion in the states in which the future of the death penalty is on ballot?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent article from Governing headlined "As Voters Decide Death Penalty's Fate, Ballots Confuse Some: This year's proposals aren't as simple as marking whether you're for or against capital punishment."  Here are excerpts:

The death penalty is legal in 30 states, but a growing number have repealed it in the last decade.  Depending on the election, California and Nebraska could be next.  While voters in those two states decide whether to do away with capital punishment, voters in Oklahoma — where botched executions have led to a temporary moratorium — could strengthen their state's ability to carry it out....

[But] like the issue of capital punishment, this year's ballot measures on the topic are complicated.

In Nebraska, the state legislature overrode their governor to repeal the death penalty in 2015, but the law never went into effect because opponents gathered enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot.  If voters ultimately uphold the law, it would be the first state under GOP control to ban capital punishment since 1973.

But first, voters will have to figure out which side they stand on — something that could be difficult for many.  The ballot measure gives voters two options: "repeal" or "retain." People who choose "repeal," as confusing as it may be, won't be voting to repeal the death penalty — they'll be voting to repeal the legislature's repeal of the death penalty and thus keep the option of executions available.

Nebraska GOP Gov. Pete Ricketts is campaigning in favor of capital punishment and has contributed about $400,000 to the effort.  In his veto letter to state lawmakers last year, he said their vote on a death penalty ban “tests the true meaning of representative government.”  Though a bipartisan majority of legislators overrode his veto, Ricketts may be correct that the public is with him: An August poll found that about 58 percent of likely voters in Nebraska are in favor of the death penalty.

In California, the ballot features two conflicting propositions — one that would repeal the death penalty and another that would keep it.  If both measures earn a majority of votes, whichever gets more will go into effect.  Most polls suggest the pro-death penalty measure will pass.

And in Oklahoma, the legality of capital punishment isn't up for a vote. Instead, voters will decide whether to add a section to the constitution that affirms the state’s authority to carry out executions, regardless of which method is used.  After several botched executions, the state halted any future ones until further notice. Oklahoma's ballot measure would also exempt the death penalty — but not specific methods of execution — from being invalidated by courts as cruel and unusual punishment.  "It takes away the debate on whether or not we should have capital punishment," said state Rep. John Paul Jordan in an interview with The Oklahoman.  "It allows us to direct our attention as a Legislature towards how we implement it and how we do it in the most humane way possible.”

Critics of the Oklahoma ballot question say the constitutional amendment is unnecessary, undermines the authority of the courts and could invite expensive lawsuits.  Several civil rights experts have raised concerns that the measure would strip citizens of their constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.  Nevertheless, a July poll found that more than 70 percent of likely voters supported the constitutional amendment.

Although polling in all three states suggest that a majority of voters support the death penalty, there's evidence that the framing of the question makes a major difference in how people respond. I n Oklahoma, when likely voters were asked if they supported the death penalty, three-quarters said yes.  But when given the option of eliminating the death penalty and replacing it with a life sentence without parole, along with other financial penalties, a slight majority favored a ban on the death penalty.

November 6, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, November 04, 2016

Another week and another big batch of clemencies from Prez Obama

As this new USA Today article highlights, "President Obama's decision to grant 72 more commutations Friday — just before getting on Air Force One for a two-city campaign tour of North Carolina — shows how far he's gone in his efforts to "reinvigorate" the pardon process." Here is more:

Just a year ago, it might have been unthinkable for a president to use his constitutional power to shorten sentences so close to an election, regardless of who's on the ballot. "Commutations a week before an election? That's a wow factor of 10!" said P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political scientist who has studied, among other things, the timing of presidential clemency.

Obama has now granted 170 commutations in just the past eight days, bringing the total for his presidency to 944. It's the largest number of commutations in any single year in history, and represents an exceptional "surge" in the president's clemency power in his last year.

"What President Obama has done for commutations is unprecedented in the modern era." White House Counsel Neil Eggleston said in a statement. "The president is committed to reinvigorating the clemency authority, demonstrating that our nation is a nation of second chances, where mistakes from the past will not deprive deserving individuals of the opportunity to rejoin society and contribute to their families and communities."

Most of Obama's pardons have been through his clemency initiative, which seeks to reduce the long mandatory-minimum sentences meted out under sentencing guidelines from the late 1980s through the 2000s....

The frequency with which Obama is now granting commutations has encouraged some advocates who had been urging the president to "vastly increase the pace" of the effort. "The Obama administration has said it was committed to ever more grants, and it seems quite clear that the president’s actions are matching his words," said Cynthia Roseberry, the manager for Clemency Project 2014, a coalition of lawyers working on commutation cases to present to the president....

Of the 72 commutations granted Friday, 17 were for inmates serving life sentences.

November 4, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

"If guilt is proven, should juries always convict?"

The title of this post is the headline of this very interesting new article appearing in my own local Columbus Dispatch.  Here is the context and commentary that follows the headline:

No one denied that Edwin Sobony II savagely beat his wife’s heroin supplier with a baseball bat when the man visited the couple’s Hamilton Township home in December. Sobony admitted to investigators that he did it after repeatedly begging the man to stay away.  At his trial in September on charges of felonious assault, his defense attorney told jurors that Sobony’s actions were “felonious as hell.”

Yet the attorney, Sam Shamansky, encouraged the jury to acquit his client anyway. “He assaulted him with this bat,” Shamansky said, holding the weapon aloft during his closing argument.  “And you say to yourself, ‘You know what, that’s OK. That’s what I would have done.’ Because no one can challenge that opinion. You can go back in that jury room and believe that and vote for it and nobody can touch you. That’s the beauty of the system. It prevents these kinds of prosecutions from ruining lives.”

Shamansky also told jurors that they could acquit by finding that Sobony acted in defense of himself and his family. But he acknowledged last week that, in case they rejected the self-defense claim, he was trying to persuade them that they could employ what is known as jury nullification to find his client not guilty.

Jury nullification occurs when jurors acquit a defendant, despite the prosecution proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt, because they believe the law is unjust or has been unjustly imposed.  It appeared to happen last week in Oregon, where a jury acquitted seven defendants who had armed themselves and occupied a national wildlife refuge during a 41-day standoff with federal authorities.

Shamansky’s arguments on behalf of Sobony didn’t work. The jury deliberated for less than three hours before finding the mail carrier guilty of one count of felonious assault. Sobony, 38, is scheduled to be sentenced Wednesday by Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Charles Schneider.

Not everyone agrees that nullifying a law is an appropriate option for juries. Ric Simmons, a professor of law at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, said jurors take an oath to follow the law and return a conviction if the prosecution meets its burden of proof. “In my view, jurors are under a legal obligation to follow the law,” he said.

However, jurors can’t be punished for their decisions, regardless of their reasoning, and their verdicts can’t be appealed. “So jury nullification exists, and we can’t do anything about it,” said Simmons, a former prosecutor.

Others say jury nullification is a time-honored tradition in the United States and was seen by the Founding Fathers as a check on abuse or overreach by the government. It was used by pre-Civil War juries to acquit those charged with violating the Fugitive Slave Act. More recently, it’s been used to acquit those charged with what juries consider antiquated drug-possession laws.

“Jury nullification has played a huge role in the development of our laws,” said Clay S. Conrad, author of “Jury Nullification: The Evolution of a Doctrine.” “For instance, it’s why we have a range of charges for murder, from manslaughter to capital murder. Juries didn’t want everyone to get the death penalty.”

Conrad, a lawyer based in Houston, said police, prosecutors and judges shouldn’t be the only ones allowed to use discretion in how they apply the law. “If a jury believes the prosecution’s idea of justice is wrong, they should have every right to reflect that with their verdict,” he said. “I think the problem we have with getting more juries to nullify in cases where it is appropriate is because so many people are unwilling to challenge authority.”

The leading advocacy group for jury nullification is the Fully Informed Jury Association, a nonprofit organization founded in 1989 in Montana. The group works to educate the public about jury nullification and says that juries should be informed about it as part of jury instructions. “We’re trying to overcome a lack of information, but it’s more than that,” said Kirsten Tynan, the group’s executive director. “Jurors are almost always going to be misinformed. They’re told by the court that they must follow the law as it’s given to them. “We have to educate people that what they’re being told isn’t necessarily true.”

I got into a bit of a verbal fight with my friend and colleague Professor Ric Simmons about this issue just earlier this week (and thus I love seeing him quoted on this front).  Readers may not be too surprised to hear that I am generally a fan and supporter of jury nullification.  Indeed, I generally believe that juries should be instructed about their power and right to nullify, though I also believe that prosecutors should be able to explain to jurors why they think broad use of nullification powers could have an array of potentially harmful societal consequences.

In this setting and in many others dealing with jury trial rights and procedures, I suspect views are often influenced by one's broader perspectives on the operation of present (and future?) criminal justice systems (both personally and professionally).  I have long viewed US criminal justice systems as bloated and inefficient, and thus I have always been inclined to embrace the jury's role as a critical "democratic" check on the criminal justice work of legislative and executive branches. (The late Justice Scalia's writings in cases like Blakely and other jury-respecting rulings have reinforced and enhanced these perspectives in recent years.) My colleague Professor Simmons obviously takes a different view, and I suspect he will not be surprised to know that I believe his views are at least somewhat influenced by his own professional history before he became an academic.

November 4, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Supreme Court (surprisingly?) grants last-minute stay of Alabama execution

As reported in this Washington Post article, the "Supreme Court stayed the execution Thursday night of an Alabama inmate who had been scheduled to die by lethal injection." Here is more about this interesting development and its context:

This marked the seventh time that Thomas D. Arthur — who was convicted of murder and is the second-oldest inmate on Alabama’s death row — had faced an execution date that was called off, according to the office of Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange. Arthur’s execution was scheduled for Thursday evening, but the uncertainty stretched into the night as officials in Alabama waited for the Supreme Court to consider his appeals.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — the Supreme Court justice assigned to the 11th Circuit, which includes Alabama — said in an order shortly before 10:30 p.m. that he was halting the execution until he or the other justices issued another order. Thomas referred the case to the full court, and shortly before midnight, the justices issued an order granting Arthur’s stay request. The order included a statement from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. explaining that while he did not believe this case merited a review from the Supreme Court, he had decided to vote for a stay anyway as a courtesy to his colleagues.

Roberts wrote that four of the other justices had voted in favor of staying the execution. “To afford them the opportunity to more fully consider the suitability of this case for review, including these circumstances, I vote to grant the stay as a courtesy,” he wrote. Roberts said Thomas and Justice Samuel Alito would have rejected the request; he did not explain why an eighth justice was not involved in the vote.

According to the court’s order, Arthur’s stay request would remain granted until the justices decide whether to consider the case. If they decide against it, the stay will be terminated. “We are greatly relieved by the Supreme Court’s decision granting a stay and now hope for the opportunity to present the merits of Mr. Arthur’s claims to the Court,” Suhana S. Han, an attorney for Arthur, said in a statement.

Arthur, 74, was sentenced to death for the 1982 killing of Troy Wicker, described in court records as the husband of a woman with whom Arthur had an affair. According to a summary of the case from the Alabama Supreme Court, Arthur was serving a life sentence for fatally shooting a relative of his common-law wife and, while on work release, had an affair with Wicker’s wife before killing Wicker. After three trials, Arthur was sentenced to death. One of his executions was called off after another inmate confessed to the killing, though a judge ultimately dismissed that inmate’s claim.

In appeals filed Thursday, Arthur’s attorneys argued that Alabama’s “deficient lethal injection protocol” would have had “torturous effects,” pointing to the state’s planned use of the sedative midazolam, which has been used in at least three executions that went awry. Last year, the Supreme Court upheld Oklahoma’s execution protocol in a case that hinged in part on that sedative.

Arthur’s court filings also argued that the state should execute him by firing squad, arguing that “execution by firing squad, if implemented properly, would result in a substantially lesser risk of harm” than the proposed lethal injection method. Strange’s office, in its response, noted that under Alabama state law, the Department of Corrections is only allowed to carry out executions by injection and electrocution.

Strange criticized the justices for their action late Thursday. “With all due respect to the Supreme Court, tonight’s order undermines the rule of law,” Strange said in a statement. “While I agree with Chief Justice Roberts that ‘This case does not merit the Court’s review,’ in my view, there is no ‘courtesy’ in voting to deny justice to the victims of a notorious and cold-blooded killer.”...

There have been 17 executions in the United States so far this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, and the country is on pace to have its fewest executions in a quarter-century. Arthur’s was one of four executions scheduled through the end of 2016, according to the center.

November 4, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Death row defendants come up just short in big circuit panel rulings about lethal injection protocols

Though I am saddened that the lovable baseball club from Cleveland came up just short against a lovable baseball club from Chicago very early this morning, there are some death row defendants and lawyers who I suspect are much more troubled by a much more serious legal matter in which their arguments to federal circuit panels came up just short yesterday.   Specifically, two court panels, one in the Sixth Circuit and one in the Eleventh Circuit, yesterday handed down two split 2-1 rulings against death row defendants in Ohio and Alabama.  Here are links to the rulingsand the start of the majority opinions:

Phillips v. DeWine, No. 15-3238 (6th Cir. Nov. 2, 2016) (available here):

In this appeal, a group of inmates sentenced to death in Ohio challenge the constitutionality of the State’s newly enacted statutory scheme concerning the confidentiality of information related to lethal injection. The district court dismissed some of their claims for a lack of standing and the remainder for failure to state a claim. For the reasons stated below, we AFFIRM.

Arthur v. Alabama DOC, No. 16-15549 (11th Cir. Nov. 2, 2016) (available here):

It has been 34 years since Thomas Arthur brutally murdered Troy Wicker. During 1982 to 1992, Thomas Arthur was thrice tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for Wicker’s murder.  After his third death sentence in 1992, Arthur for the next 24 years has pursued, unsuccessfully, dozens of direct and post-conviction appeals in both state and federal courts.

In addition, starting nine years ago in 2007 and on three separate occasions, Arthur has filed civil lawsuits under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 challenging the drug protocol to be used in his execution.  This is Arthur’s third such § 1983 case, and this current § 1983 case was filed in 2011.  For the last five years Arthur has pursued this § 1983 case with the benefit of lengthy discovery. The district court held a two-day trial and entered two comprehensive orders denying Arthur § 1983 relief.  Those orders are the focus of the instant appeal.

After thorough review, we conclude substantial evidence supported the district court’s fact findings and, thus, Arthur has shown no clear error in them.  Further, Arthur has shown no error in the district court’s conclusions of law, inter alia, that: (1) Arthur failed to carry his burden to show compounded pentobarbital is a feasible, readily implemented, and available drug to the Alabama Department of Corrections (“ADOC”) for use in executions; (2) Alabama’s consciousness assessment protocol does not violate the Eighth Amendment or the Equal Protection Clause; and (3) Arthur’s belated firing-squad claim lacks merit.

November 3, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

"Judicial Sentencing Error and the Constitution"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Reid Weisbord and George Thomas now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Much recent scholarship has sharply criticized the pervasive phenomenon of wrongful convictions, but the literature has overlooked an important related injustice: inaccuracy in criminal sentencing. This Article provides the first comprehensive scholarly treatment of judicial sentencing error, which has become widespread in the modern era of both ad hoc revision to criminal codes and increasingly complex criminal sentencing systems that often lack internal coherence or sensible statutory organization.

Although nearly always the product of human error, the problem of judicial sentencing error is more aptly characterized as systemic because sentencing judges often face ever-changing, overlapping statutory requirements contained in separate parts of the criminal code. We identify both the source and harmful consequences of judicial sentencing error, and then examine constitutional principles implicated by the untimely correction of an erroneous sentence.

Focusing particularly on a defendant’s interest in finality, we argue that the constitutional guarantees of substantive due process and protection against double jeopardy under the Fifth Amendment should be construed to limit the time to correct an erroneously lenient sentence, with the Double Jeopardy Clause supplying the more potent limiting principle and objective legal standard. We conclude that — by according respect for principles of finality in criminal sentencing — the law could create an effective institutional incentive for the State to ascertain the correctness of sentencing orders at or near the time of punishment, thereby preventing the harm and injustice that occur when the defendant’s reasonable expectation of finality has been frustrated for the legitimate but not indomitable sake of accuracy.

November 2, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Is California's parole reform initiative, Prop 57, among the most important and consequential sentencing ballot issues?

The question in the title of this post is prompted in large part by this recent Los Angeles Times article headlined "Why Gov. Jerry Brown is staking so much on overhauling prison parole." Here are excerpts (with my emphasis added for later commentary):

Few California voters likely know much, if anything, about the state Board of Parole Hearings — from the qualifications of the 12 commissioners to their success in opening the prison gates for only those who can safely return to the streets.  And yet Gov. Jerry Brown’s sweeping overhaul of prison parole, Proposition 57, is squarely a question of whether those parole officials should be given additional latitude to offer early release to potentially thousands of prisoners over the next few years. “I feel very strongly that this is the correct move,” Brown told The Times in a recent interview. “I’m just saying, let’s have a rational process.”

Prosecutors, though, contend the governor’s proposal goes too far after several years of trimming down California’s prison population to only the most hardened criminals. They believe the parole board, whose members are gubernatorial appointees, already is swinging too far away from being tough on crime. “They are recommending release of people we never would have expected would have occurred so soon,” said Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey. “I’m concerned about people who really haven’t served a significant amount of time.”

In some ways, Proposition 57 is a proxy for a larger battle over prison sentences.  There are sharp disagreements between Brown and many district attorneys over the legacy of California’s decades-long push for new and longer mandatory sentences, a system in which flexibility is often limited to which crimes a prosecutor seeks to pursue in court.  The warring sides have painted the Nov. 8 ballot measure in the starkest of terms, a choice for voters between redemption and real danger.  “We’re dealing with deep belief systems,” Brown said.

Proposition 57 would make three significant changes to the state’s criminal justice framework. It would require a judge’s approval before most juvenile defendants could be tried in an adult court — reversing a law approved by California voters in 2000.  Critics believe prosecutors have wrongly moved too many juveniles into the adult legal system, missing chances for rehabilitation.

What’s most in dispute are two other Proposition 57 provisions, either of which could result in adult prisoners serving less time than their maximum sentences. Brown tacked those two provisions onto the juvenile justice measure in January.  One would allow an expansion of good-behavior credits awarded by prison officials; the other gives new power to the state parole board to allow early release of prisoners whose primary sentences were not for “violent” crimes.

In an interview last week, the governor argued that his ballot measure would add a dose of deliberative thought to a process too often driven by elected district attorneys playing to the white-hot politics of sensational crimes. “Do you want the hurly burly of candidates, running for office, being the decision makers in the face of horrible headlines?” Brown asked. “Or would you rather have a quiet parole board, not now but 10 years later, deciding what's right?”

The governor’s plan, which amends the state constitution, would only allow parole after a prisoner’s primary sentence had been served — applying only to the months or years tacked on for additional crimes or enhancements.  And like the current system, a governor could override any parole board decision to release a prisoner.

Critics, though, think the parole board is already too eager to approve releases. Greg Totten, district attorney of Ventura County, said he believes parole board members are judged by how many prisoners they release.  “We don't have confidence that the parole board will consider our concerns about public safety or the crime victims' concerns,” Totten said.  “Those hearings have become much more adversarial than they originally were.”  Totten and other prosecutors warn that an influx of new requests for early release would overload parole board commissioners and send too many cases to their deputy commissioners, state civil servants whose decisions are made outside of public hearings.

Prosecutors and Brown have sparred mightily over the assertion that Proposition 57 would only expand parole opportunities for “nonviolent” felons, a term used prominently in the ballot measure’s official title and summary. In truth, the description only means that new parole opportunities wouldn’t apply to prisoners sentenced for one of 23 defined violent crimes in California’s penal code. That list includes crimes most voters would expect to see there, such as murder, sexual abuse of a child and kidnapping.  But in many ways, the list is porous.  Not all rape crimes, for example, are designated as “violent.” Prosecutors insist prisoners serving time for as many as 125 serious and dangerous crimes would be eligible for parole under Brown’s ballot measure.  Not surprisingly, the campaign opposing Proposition 57 is replete with images of felons who prosecutors allege could be released if the measure becomes law....

Brown, whose effort is supported by probation officers and leads in most every recent statewide public poll, suggests two overarching motivations. One is the specter of potential federal court-ordered prison releases, less likely now that massive prison overcrowding has abated after efforts to reduce penalties for less serious crimes and divert low-level offenders to county jails.  Still, the governor insists that Proposition 57 is a more thoughtful way to reduce the prison population than what could some day be chosen by federal judges.

The other, to hear him tell it, is an effort to undo some of what he did in the 1970s in pushing California toward more fixed, inflexible sentences for a variety of crimes. Brown said he now believes that many convicted felons are best judged not at the time of sentencing, but once they have had a chance to change their lives. “It allows flexibility,” the governor said. “I think this case is irrefutable to anyone with an open mind.”

The sentences I have highlighted above provide some account for why I think the Prop 57 vote is potentially so important, and not just in California. If California voters strongly support this parole reform initiative (and do so, perhaps, will also supporting the preservation of the death penalty in the state), elected official in California and perhaps other states may start to feel ever more comfortable that significant non-capital sentencing reforms have significant public support even during a period in which a number of prominent folks are talking a lot about an uptick in crime.  It also strikes me as quite significant that Gov Brown is still talking about the impact of the Supreme Court's Plata ruling about California prison overcrowding and justifying his reform efforts on these terms.

I have previously highlighted in this post why I think an Oklahoma ballot initiative on sentencing reform is similarly worth watching very closely. (That post from September was titled "Why Oklahoma is having arguably the most important vote in Campaign 2016 for those concerned about criminal justice reforms.") I expect that next week's post-election coverage of criminal justice issues will focus particularly on the results of big death penalty and marijuana reform votes. But I believe folks distinctly concerned about modern mass incarceration should be sure to examine and reflect upon the outcomes of these two non-capital, non-marijuana reform ballot initiatives in California and Oklahoma.

November 1, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Monday, October 31, 2016

Terrifically timed Northwestern JCLC symposium to ask "The Death Penalty's Numbered Days?"

Sent_yearI am so very fortunate and pleased and excited that at the end of next week — and less than 100 hours after the most significant and consequential elections for the future of the American death penalty — I am going to have a chance to participate in this amazing symposium being put on by Notherwestern Law's Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.  The title given to the event is "The Death Penalty's Numbered Days?", and this symposium page provides the schedule of panels and speakers.  Here is how the web coverage introduced the event while also providing this quote from a notable recent SCOTUS dissent:

The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, with the significant support of the Irving Gordon Symposia Fund, is proud to announce the upcoming symposium, entitled "The Death Penalty's Numbered Days?"  Since the 1970's, the existence and implementation of the death penalty has changed and evolved, as has the way the legal system and its various actors view and talk about the issue.  This symposium, which includes a diverse group of some of the foremost scholars on the death penalty, will explore recent developments and attempt to provide a prognosis on the future application of the death penalty in the United States.  Attendees will be eligible for up to 5 CLE credits, and no registration is necessary.  Please direct any questions to our Symposium Director, Erica Stern, who can be reached at ebstern@nlaw.northwestern.edu.

Friday, November 11, 2016, 9:00 a.m. - 5: 00 p.m.

Thorne Auditorium, Northwestern University School of Law, 375 E. Chicago Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611

“Nearly 40 years ago, this Court upheld the death penalty under statutes that, in the Court's view, contained safeguards sufficient to ensure that the penalty would be applied reliably and not arbitrarily. . . . The circumstances and the evidence of the death penalty's application have changed radically since then. Given those changes, I believe that it is now time to reopen the question.” ~ Justice Stephen Breyer, Dissenting Glossip v. Gross, 135 S. Ct. 2726, 2755 (2015).

Though I am not yet sure about exactly what I will have say at this event, one theme I will be eager to stress in my comments is my strong belief that modern "evidence" concerning "the death penalty's application" actually suggests that this punishment is being imposed much more reliably and much less arbitrarily since President William J. Clinton left office.

As this DPIC chart and data reveal, during the William J. Clinton years (from 1993 to 2001), the United States averaged over 280 death sentences annually nationwide.  Over the course of the next eight years (the George W. Bush years), the annual number of death sentences imposed throughout the United States declined by about 50% down to around 140 death sentences per year.  And, over the last eight years (the Barack H. Obama years), we have seen yet another 50% reduction in annual death sentences imposed as we approach a BHO-term average of around 70 death sentences per year.  The year 2015 hit a remarkable historic low of only 49 total death sentences imposed nationwide, and I believe 2016 is going to see a similar or even smaller number of total death sentence once the year's accounting gets completed.

For a bunch of reasons I hope to explain at this symposium, Justice Breyer's sincere concerns about death sentences being often imposed arbitrarily and unreliably seem to me to have been especially trenchant when he was first appointed to SCOTUS.  At that time, states throughout our nation were imposing, on average, five or six death sentences every week.  Fast forward more than two decades, and the evidence of death sentencing reveals that, circa 2016, states throughout the nation are now imposing less than a single death sentence every week.  I strongly believe our death sentencing systems have become much, much more reliable and much less arbitrary as we have gotten much, much more careful about how gets subject to capital prosecution and about who ultimately gets sent to death row.

October 31, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Miller/Montgomery GVR produces some separate opinion SCOTUS sparring

At the end of this morning's (otherwise uneventful) SCOTUS order list are a pair of separate opinions in Tatum v. Arizona, No. 15-8850, discussing the decision by the full Court to issue this order: "The motion of petitioner for leave to proceed in forma pauperis and the petition for a writ of certiorari are granted. The judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded to the Court of Appeals of Arizona, Division Two for further consideration in light of Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U. S. ___ (2016)."

Justice Sotomayor authored this lengthy concurrence which makes this point at the outset:

The petitioners in these cases were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed before they turned 18. A grant, vacate, and remand of these cases in light of Montgomerypermits the lower courts to consider whether these petitioners’ sentences comply with the substantive rule governing the imposition of a sentence of life without parole on a juvenile offender.

JUSTICE ALITO questions this course, noting that the judges in these cases considered petitioners’ youth during sentencing. As Montgomery made clear, however, “[e]ven if a court considers a child’s age before sentencing him or her to a lifetime in prison, that sentence still violates theEighth Amendment for a child whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity.” Id., at ___–___ (slip op.,at 16–17) (internal quotation marks omitted).

On the record before us, none of the sentencing judges addressed the question Miller and Montgomery require a sentencer to ask: whether the petitioner was among the very “rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.” 577 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 17).

Justice Alito's shorter dissent, to which Justice Sotomayor is responding, was joined by Justice Thomas. It starts this way:

The Court grants review and vacates and remands in this and four other cases in which defendants convicted of committing murders while under the age of 18 were sentenced to life without parole.  The Court grants this relief so that the Arizona courts can reconsider their decisions in light of Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U. S. ___ (2016), which we decided last Term.  I expect that the Arizona courts will be as puzzled by this directive as I am.

In Montgomery, the Court held that Miller v. Alabama, 567 U. S. ___ (2012), is retroactive. 577 U. S., at ___ (slip. op., at 20).  That holding has no bearing whatsoever on the decisions that the Court now vacates.  The Arizona cases at issue here were decided after Miller, and in each case the court expressly assumed that Miller was applicable to the sentence that had been imposed.  Therefore, if the Court is taken at its word — that is, it simply wants the Arizona courts to take Montgomery into account — there is nothing for those courts to do.

It is possible that what the majority wants is for the lower courts to reconsider the application of Miller to the cases at issue, but if that is the Court’s aim, it is misusing the GVR vehicle.  We do not GVR so that a lower court can reconsider the application of a precedent that it has already considered.

UPDATE: After having a chance to review these opinion, I think it now fair to assert that the GVRs here are really based on the substantive expansion of Miller's Eighth Amendment rule in Montgomery.  That reality, in turn, allows me to point to my recent  commentary, titled "Montgomery's Messy Trifecta," and say simply "I told ya"!

October 31, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Saturday, October 29, 2016

"Constitutional Liberty and the Progression of Punishment"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Robert Smith and Zoe Robinson now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment has long been interpreted by scholars and judges to provide very limited protections for criminal defendants.  This understanding of the Eighth Amendment claims that the prohibition is operationalized mostly to prevent torturous methods of punishment or halt the isolated use of a punishment practice that has fallen into long-term disuse.

This Article challenges these assumptions.  It argues that while this limited view of the Eighth Amendment may be accurate as a historical matter, over the past two decades, the Supreme Court has incrementally broadened the scope of the cruel and unusual punishment clause.  The Court’s contemporary Eighth Amendment jurisprudence — with its focus on categorical exemptions and increasingly nuanced measures of determining constitutionally excessive punishments — reflects an overt recognition that the fundamental purpose of the Eighth Amendment is to protect vulnerable citizens uniquely subject to majoritarian retributive excess.

Animating these developments is a conception of constitutional liberty that transcends the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.  Indeed, 2015’s same-sex marriage decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, reflects a similar trajectory in the Court’s substantive due process jurisprudence. Taken together, these doctrinal developments illustrate a concerted move to insert the Court as the independent arbiter of legislative excesses that undermine the basic right to human dignity by virtue of unnecessarily impinging upon individual liberty.  Ultimately, these liberty-driven developments signal new possibilities for the protection of defendant rights in a variety of contemporary contexts, including juvenile life without parole for homicide offenses, life without parole for non-violent drug offenses, the death penalty, certain mandatory minimum sentences and the prolonged use of solitary confinement.

October 29, 2016 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

SCOTUS takes up Booker/mandatory sentencing issue and two sex-offender collateral-consequences cases

I had a spectacular afternoon mostly off-line yesterday: I heard Sandy Levinson talk about his book on the Federalist Papers; I talked with my 1L students about a famous criminal case after an infamous disaster; I spoke at lengthy to a reporter about the prospects for federal criminal justice reform in 2017; I had great happy hours conversations with students, friend and family, followed by a spectacular burger at my favorite local gastropub; and I managed to stay awake for (most of) one of the all-time great modern World Series games.

What I did not manage to do until this morning, however, was remember that SCOTUS yesterday had a conference to consider new cases for its docket.  Helpfully, this SCOTUblog post reports on the five SCOTUS cert grants on the last Friday in October 2016, and three of the cases are sure to be worth sentencing fans' attention.  Here are the three grants as described by Amy Howe from SCOTUSblog, organized by me in order of "importance" for those most obsessed with modern sentencing systems: 

The facts of Dean v. United States read like a “true crime” novel, involving robberies of drug dealers in the Midwest. Levon Dean, the defendant in the case, was convicted under the Hobbs Act, a federal law that makes it a crime to “obstruct, delay, or affect commerce” through a robbery.  The justices today declined to review Dean’s challenge to his Hobbs Act convictions, but they agreed to weigh in on a separate question: the scope of a federal trial court’s discretion to consider the mandatory consecutive sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), which makes it a crime to use or carry a firearm during a crime of violence, in determining a sentence for the felony that serves as the basis for the Section 924(c) conviction.  Dean argued that the district court had the authority to impose a very short sentence — as little as one day — for his Hobbs Act convictions, to take into account the much longer sentence required by Section 924(c), but the lower courts disagreed.

Among the court’s other grants today, Packingham v. North Carolina is the case of Lester Packingham, a North Carolina man who became a registered sex offender after he was convicted, at the age of 21, of taking indecent liberties with a minor.  Six years after Packingham’s conviction, North Carolina enacted a law that made it a felony for registered sex offenders to access a variety of websites, from Facebook to The New York Times and YouTube. Packingham was convicted of violating this law after a police officer saw a Facebook post in which Packingham celebrated, and gave thanks to God for, the dismissal of a traffic ticket.  The justices today agreed to review Packingham’s contention that the law violates the First Amendment.

In Esquivel-Quintana v. Lynch, the justices will make another foray into an area of law known as “crimmigration” — the intersection of immigration and criminal law.  The petitioner in the case, Juan Esquivel-Quintana, was a lawful permanent resident of the United States in 2009, when he was charged with violating a California law that makes it a crime to have sexual relations with someone under the age of 18 when the age difference between the two people involved is more than three years; he had had consensual sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend when he was 20 and 21 years old.  The federal government then sought to remove Esquivel-Quintana from the United States on the ground that his conviction constituted the “aggravated felony” of “sexual abuse of a minor.”  The lower courts agreed with the federal government, but now the Supreme Court will decide.

October 29, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Prez Obama grants sentence commutations to 98 more federal offenders

Chart_102616_commutationsAs reported in this new USA Today article, "President Obama granted 98 more commutations to federal inmates Thursday, bringing the total for this year to 688 — the most commutations ever granted by a president in a single year." Here is more:

In all, he's now shortened the sentences of 872 inmates during his presidency, more than any president since Woodrow Wilson. The actions were part of Obama's extraordinary effort to use his constitutional power to rectify what he sees as unduly harsh sentences imposed during the "War on Drugs." Through a clemency initiative announced in 2014, he's effectively re-sentenced hundreds of non-violent drug dealers to the sentences they would have received under today's more lenient sentencing guidelines....

But while Obama's commutation grants get most of the attention, he's also been quietly denying a record number of commutations at the same time — a function of the unprecedented number of applications submitted through the clemency initiative. On Oct. 6, for example, the White House announced that Obama granted 102 commutations. It wasn't until a week later that the Justice Department updated its clemency statistics to reveal that he had denied 2,917 commutation petitions on Sept. 30.

Some advocates for inmates say there's not enough transparency about why some get clemency while others wait. "We want answers for the families who are still waiting for their clemency," said Jessica Jackson Sloan, national director of the pro-clemency group Cut 50. "There needs to be more communication about why people are being denied."

As of Oct. 7, Obama has granted just 5.5% of commutation applications — still more than many of his predecessors. President George W. Bush granted just 0.1% of commutation applications that reached his desk, but was more generous with full pardons at this point in his presidency.

"While there has been much attention paid to the number of commutations issued by the president, at the core, we must remember that there are personal stories behind these numbers," White House Counsel Neil Eggleston wrote on the White House web site. "These are individuals -- many of whom made mistakes at a young age — who have diligently worked to rehabilitate themselves while incarcerated." Eggleston said 42 of the inmates who had received commutations were serving life sentences.

Sixty-three of the inmates granted presidential mercy on Thursday will still have two years or more to serve on their sentences, part of a recent White House strategy of issuing deferred "term" commutations instead of the more common time-served commutations. The longest of those: David Neighbors, a 34-year-old man from Evansville, Ind., whose 2008 life sentence for cocaine trafficking Obama commuted to 30 years. That means he has up to 22 more years left to serve.

And 42 of the commutations granted Thursday have strings attached. As part of an increasing practice of attaching conditions to his commutations, Obama required inmates with a documented history of drug use to enroll in a residential drug treatment program before being released.

The full statement from White House Counsel Neil Eggleston is available at this link, which is also the source for the graphic reprinted above.

October 27, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Opportunity Agenda produces huge report on "Transforming the System: Criminal Justice Policy Solutions"

Full_pdf_cover_sideThe Opportunity Agenda, which is a project of Tides Center and calls itself a "social justice communication lab," has just released this huge new on-line report (which is also available as a pdf here) under the title "Transforming the System: Criminal Justice Policy Solutions." Here is the main introduction and the headings for links to different sections of this report:

Our criminal justice system must keep all communities safe, foster prevention and rehabilitation, and ensure fair and equal justice. But in too many places, and in too many ways, our system is falling short of that mandate and with devastating consequences. The United States is saddled with an outdated, unfair, and bloated criminal justice system that drains resources and disrupts communities.

People of color, particularly Native American, black, and Latino people, have felt the impact of discrimination within the criminal justice system. Many immigrants experience mandatory detention, racial profiling, and due process violations because of laws and policies that violate their human rights—and the principles of equal justice, fair treatment, and proportionality under our criminal justice system. The good news is that we as a nation are at a unique moment in which there is strong public, bipartisan support for criminal justice reform; we see positive policy developments in many parts of the country; and mass action and social movements for change are growing, including the Movement for Black Lives. More is needed, however, to move from positive trends to transformative, lasting change.

Criminal Justice Policy Solutions
  • Promote Community Safety through Alternatives to Incarceration: Our criminal justice system should ensure that all individuals feel safe and secure in their communities.
  • Create Fair and Effective Policing Practices: To work for all of us, policing practices should ensure equal justice and be supported by evidence.
  • Promote Justice in Pre-Trial Services & Practices: The right to due process is a cornerstone of our commitment to freedom and fairness.
  • Enhance Prosecutorial Integrity: Prosecutors represent the government, and therefore must reflect the highest levels of integrity and ethics in their work.
  • Ensure Fair Trials and Quality Indigent Defense: Every accused person is entitled to a fair trial. Indigent defendants have a constitutional right to competent representation at trial.
  • Encourage Equitable Sentencing: People convicted of crimes should receive fair sentences. These sentences should reflect the severity of the crime and be administered in a fair manner.
  • Ensure Decent Detention Conditions: Decent, rehabilitative prisons are a basic human right and crucial to the successful reintegration of formally incarcerated people.
  • Require Equitable Parole and Probation: Parole and probation practices should be fair and consistent. They should be used as a tool to allow accused persons to safely remain in their communities.
  • Foster Successful Reintegration: Most Americans agree that after completing a criminal sentence, released people should be given an opportunity to successfully reintegrate into their communities.
  • Foster an Environment for Respecting Children's Rights: We must adopt policies that ensure children reach their full potential and are not placed off track for childhood mistakes.
  • Eradicate the Criminalization of Sex, Gender, & Sexuality: We all should have freedom to live without fear of criminalization because of our expressed sex, gender or sexuality.
  • Eliminate the Criminalization of Poverty: Instead of increasing opportunities to succeed, our law too often funnels low-income people into the criminal justice system.
  • Eliminate the Criminalization of Public Health Issues: The criminal justice system is too often used as a cure-all for social problems that are better suited to social services and public health responses.
  • Promote Fairness at the Intersection of Immigration and Criminal Justice: Everyone is entitled to have their human rights respected regardless of immigration status.
  • Public Opinion Report: A New Sensibility: This report is based on a review of about fifty public opinion surveys and polls, most of them conducted between 2014 and June 2016.

I suspect most, if not all, of this report's various sections will be of interest to readers. And I hope it is useful for all to see what is listed as 10 action items under the "Encourage Equitable Sentencing" section. That section starts this way and they has these 10 "Solutions and Actions to Encourage Fair Sentences":

We all want a criminal justice system that treats people fairly, takes a pragmatic and responsible approach, and ultimately, keeps us safe. When we’ve reached the point of deciding to deprive someone of their liberty, we have to be particularly fair and responsible and consider all options. Sentences should consider a range of factors and reflect the severity of the crime. We owe it to ourselves, our justice system, and to those being imprisoned to ensure that our sentencing practices are thoughtful and fair. Nonetheless, the explosion of the American prison population is largely due to sentences that are disproportionate to the severity of crimes. Prisons and jails are filled by many people who pose no threat to their communities. Laws that impose mandatory minimums contribute to mass imprisonment. Sentencing laws should be reformed to require transparency and mandate equitable practices that ensure that sentences are appropriate to the particular circumstances of an offense.

1) Repeal “Truth-in-Sentencing” and “Three-Strikes” Law...

2) Repeal Mandatory Minimums...

3) Use Alternatives to Incarceration...

4) Prohibit Incarceration for Failure to Appear...

5) Revise Sentencing Guidelines...

6) Commit to Cutting Incarceration in Half...

7) Collect Data...

8) Train Judges on Implicit Bias...

9) Appoint Judges from Diverse Backgrounds...

10) Evaluate Ability to Pay

October 26, 2016 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Two interesting reviews of the (in)application of Graham and MIller in two states

In my upper-level sentencing course, we are now discussing the past, present and future of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence placing limits on the imposition of prison terms.  Of course, this discussion now culminates in a review of the Supreme Court's recent work in Graham v. Florida and Miller v. Alabama and their continuing fallout.  Conveniently, just this past weekend, two different newspapers in two different states published these two articles on how that fallout is playing out: 

This passage from the first of these articles highlights some reasons why, even years after Graham and Miller were decided and required resentencing of certain juvenile offenders, most of these offenders are still going to be spending many decades in prison before even having a chance at release:

In striking down these harsh sentences, the Supreme Court “obviously was concerned, No. 1, about locking kids up and throwing away the key,” said Marsha Levick, Philadelphia attorney and co-founder of the Juvenile Law Center. “The court was very clear that it believes kids are truly different.”  Indeed Justice Elena Kagan has written that, “given all that we have said … about children’s diminished culpability, and heightened capacity for change, we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.”

But in Courtroom 12, Circuit Judge John H. Skinner was unmoved.  Despite hundreds of hours of legal work, stacks of documents and a morning of arguments, the judge told Thomas, “I haven’t really changed my mind at all as far as what you should get in this case.”

So Thomas, the youngest child in a tight-knit military family, was sentenced again to 40 years.  This time, there will be a review in front of a judge and chance for release after 15 years, a provision that brings the penalty into compliance with state law.

Scenes like this one in a Jacksonville suburb are playing out around the state and across the country as judges resentencing juvenile offenders continue to issue lengthy sentences that advocates say defy the intent of the Supreme Court.

It will take years for the courts to work through the 58 Duval County homicide cases in which the juveniles’ original sentences have been deemed unconstitutional. Preparing for a resentencing hearing is intensive, and an area where the case law is constantly evolving.

But if the results from some of the earliest resolved Jacksonville cases are any indication, judges will continue to hand down long punishments. In the nine cases in which teens were first sentenced to life for childhood crimes that weren’t murder, seven of the defendants will be 60 or older when they are released.

October 26, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

"Assessing the Impact of Johnson v. United States on the Void-for-Vagueness Doctrine"

The title of this post is the title of this effective and extensive new Casetext essay authored by Carissa Hessick. It starts and ends this way:

Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), held that the so-called “residual clause” of the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) was unconstitutionally vague.  Johnson generated a large amount of litigation in the federal courts.  Less than a year after it was decided, the Supreme Court decided another Johnson case, Welch v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 1257 (2016), which held that the rule in Johnson should be applied retroactively to those defendants whose convictions and sentences have already become final.  The Supreme Court has also agreed to hear two new Johnson cases in the 2016 Term.

Johnson raised important constitutional doubts about federal statutes that employ the so-called “categorical approach” to classifying criminal conduct, as well as doubts about certain Federal Sentencing Guidelines.  This short essay describes Johnson and explores the Johnson-related issues that the Court will hear this Term....

Johnson v. United States is of the most cited U.S. Supreme Court cases from recent Terms.  Johnson obviously affected the large number of defendants who were sentenced under the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act.  It may, however, have a lasting impact on the vagueness doctrine itself.  By questioning the viability of the categorical approach and by clarifying that the doctrine applies also to laws that fix sentences, Johnson has called into doubt the constitutionality of other federal criminal laws and various Federal Sentencing Guidelines.  We will have to await the decisions in Lynch v. Dimaya and Beckles v. United States in order to fully assess the legacy of Johnson.  If the government loses those cases, then we are likely to see a further challenges to laws that fall within the long shadow of Johnson.

October 25, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (0)

Latest USSC data suggest prison savings now exceeding $2 billion from "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactivity

The US Sentencing Commission's website has this new data document titled simply "2014 Drug Guidelines Amendment Retroactivity Data Report." This report, dated October 2016, provides updated "information concerning motions for a reduced sentence pursuant to the retroactive application of Amendment 782. The data in this report reflects all motions decided through September 30, 2016, and for which court documentation was received, coded, and edited at the Commission by October 20, 2016."

The official data in the report indicate that, thanks to the USSC's decision to make Amendment 782, the so-called "drugs -2" guideline amendment, retroactive, now 29,391 federal prisoners have had their federal drug prison sentences reduced by an average of over two years. So, using my typical (conservative) estimate of each extra year of imprisonment for federal drug offenders costing on average $35,000, the USSC's decision to make its "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactive so far appears to be on track to save federal taxpayers around $2.1 billion dollars.

As I have said before and will say again in this context, kudos to the US Sentencing Commission for providing evidence that at least some government bureaucrats inside the Beltway will sometimes vote to reduce the size and taxpayer costs of the federal government. Perhaps more importantly, especially as federal statutory sentencing reforms remained stalled in Congress and as Prez Obama continues to be relatively cautious in his use of his clemency power, this data provide still more evidence that the work of the US Sentencing Commission in particular, and of the federal judiciary in general, remains the most continuously important and consequential force influencing federal prison populations and sentencing outcomes.

October 25, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (27)

"Skewed Justice: Citizens United, Television Advertising, and State Supreme Court Justices’ Decisions in Criminal Cases"

The title of this post is the title of this notable report authored by Joanna Shepherd and Michael S. Kang which I learned about via an email from The American Constitution Society for Law and Policy. Here is the text of that email, which provides a summary of the report's contents:

The explosion in spending on television attack advertisements in state supreme court elections accelerated by the Citizens United decision has made courts less likely to rule in favor of defendants in criminal appeals. That’s according to independent research sponsored by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy (ACS).  State supreme court justices, already the targets of sensationalist ads labeling them “soft on crime,” are under increasing pressure to allow electoral politics to influence their decisions, even when fundamental rights are at stake.

The report, Skewed Justice: Citizens United, Television Advertising, and State Supreme Court Justices’ Decisions in Criminal Cases, is a compilation of data from over 3,000 criminal appeals decided in state supreme courts in 32 states from 2008 to 2013.  Researchers found that the more TV ads aired during state supreme court judicial elections in a state, the less likely justices are to rule in favor of criminal defendants; and justices in states whose bans on corporate and union spending on elections were struck down by Citizens United were less likely to vote in favor of criminal defendants than they were before the Citizens United decision.

“The amount of money spent in state judicial elections has skyrocketed and the results of that spending are clear.  The flood of interest group money set free by Citizens United are endangering what should be impartial judicial decision-making and putting the fundamental constitutional rights of every American at risk,” said ACS President Caroline Fredrickson. “The data show that the television campaign ads this money buys put a thumb on the scale in criminal cases, and undermine the promise of equal justice that is a cornerstone of our democracy.”

Skewed Justice, by Dr. Joanna Shepherd and Dr. Michael S. Kang, both law professors at Emory University, follows the report Justice at Risk: An Empirical Analysis of Campaign Contributions and Judicial Decisions, published by ACS in 2013.  That report, authored by Professor Shepherd, revealed the growing influence of contributions on state supreme court judges. While the majority of media attention is focused on the United States Supreme Court, elected judges at the state level handle more than 90 percent of the United States’ judicial business.  This gives money and advertising huge influence in American democracy.  Beginning in the 1990s, and accelerating in almost every election cycle since, judicial elections have become more competitive and contentious, and campaign spending on these elections has skyrocketed, the research finds. Incumbent judges almost never lost their reelection bids during the 1980s, but by 2000 their loss rates had risen higher than those of congressional and state legislative incumbents. 

UPDATE: A helpful reader realized that this ACS-sponsored study is actually not so new, as it was first released a couple tears ago. I now assume ACS was promoting it anew (and led me to think it was new) because the report is extra-timely during a big elections season.

October 25, 2016 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, October 24, 2016

Is the death penalty in the United States really "nearing Its end"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new New York Times editorial headlined "The Death Penalty, Nearing Its End."  Here is the full text of the editorial:

Although the death penalty is still considered constitutional by the Supreme Court, Americans’ appetite for this barbaric practice diminishes with each passing year.  The signs of capital punishment’s impending demise are all around.

For the first time in nearly half a century, less than half of Americans said they support the death penalty, according to a Pew Research poll released last month.  While that proportion has been going down for years, the loss of majority support is an important marker against state-sanctioned killing.

At the same time, executions and new death sentences are at historic lows, and each year they go lower. In 2015 only 49 new death sentences were handed down, the lowest one-year total since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.

Since there were about 14,000 murders around the country last year, it’s easy to imagine that the small number of newly condemned people shows that the justice system is focusing on the “worst of the worst.”  But that’s wrong. In fact the crimes of the people sentenced to death are no worse than those of many others who escape that fate. Rather, nearly all of last year’s death sentences came from a tiny fraction of counties with three common features: overzealous prosecutors; inadequate public defenders; and a pattern of racial bias and exclusion. This was the key finding of a two-part report recently issued by the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard Law School.

Even in the most death-friendly counties, public support appears to be fading. In two of the worst — Duval County in Florida and Caddo Parish in Louisiana — local prosecutors lost elections at least partly due to voters’ concerns about their stance on the death penalty. In other counties around the country, prosecutors are finding that aggressive advocacy for death sentences isn’t the selling point with the public that it once was.

In some of the biggest states, death-penalty systems are defunct or collapsing. Earlier this month, the Florida Supreme Court struck down a terrible state law that allowed nonunanimous juries to impose death sentences — increasing the likelihood that innocent people and those with intellectual or mental disabilities would be condemned.  A large number of Florida’s 386 death-row inmates could now receive new sentencing trials, or have their sentences thrown out altogether.

In California, which hasn’t executed anyone since 2006 even though more than 740 inmates sit on death row, voters will decide in November whether to eliminate capital punishment for good. A similar ballot initiative in 2012 was narrowly defeated. In 2014, a federal judge ruled that the state’s decades-long delays in capital cases violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. (The decision was overturned by an appeals court on technical grounds the following year.)

While capital punishment is used rarely and only in some places, only a definitive ruling from the Supreme Court will ensure its total elimination. How close is the court to such a ruling? In recent dissenting opinions, three of the justices — Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor — have expressed deep misgivings about the death penalty’s repeated failure to meet the requirements of due process and equal protection. Justice Breyer has said it is “highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment,” and has called for the court to consider whether it is constitutional at all.

The death penalty has escaped abolition before, but there are no longer any excuses: The nation has evolved past it, and it is long past time for the court to send this morally abhorrent practice to its oblivion.

I wonder if anyone who is a strong supporter of capital punishment will write (and get published) a response to this editorial which might be headlined something like "The Death Penalty, Poised for a Big Comeback."  That response might highlight that, according to polls in deep blue California, voters there are seemingly going to provide "majority support" for making more efficient in California "state-sanctioned killing."  That response might highlight that, in swing state Ohio, executive officials have been working extra hard to get the state's machinery of death operative again and have execution dates scheduled for nearly two dozen condemned murderers in 2017 and 2018.  That response might highlight that, in swing state Florida, the state legislature has been quick and eager to retain and revise its death penalty statutes every time a court has found constitutional problems with its application.  That response might highlight that, in deep blue Massachusetts, a federal jury in 2015 wasted little time in deciding that “worst of the worst” capital defendant Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be condemned to die for his crime.  And that response might highlight that, in the most liberal national criminal justice administration of my lifetime, federal prosecutors of the Obama Administration were seemingly eager to pursue capital charges against the Charleston Church shooter Dylann Roof.

I could go on and on (mentioning, inter alia, developments in Alabama, Oklahoma, Nebraska and elsewhere), but my main point here is highlight the critical reality that the description of "death-penalty systems [as] defunct or collapsing" is largely a product of effective litigation by abolitionists and the work of courts, not really a reflection of a sea-change in public opinion or radical changes in the work of most legislatures and prosecutors in key regions of the United States.  The NYTimes editorial board my be right that we may soon see litigation by abolitionists achieve the ultimate success in the courts by having the Justices of the Supreme Court declare the death penalty per se unconstitutional.  But, absent some surprising political and social developments over the next few years, would-be abolitionists ought to be careful about counting chickens too soon.

October 24, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Supreme Court of Louisiana declares 99-year term without parole for juve armed robber violates Graham

The Supreme Court of Louisiana issued an interesting and significant unanimous ruling last week in Morgan v. Louisiana, No. 2015-KH-0100 (La. Oct. 19, 2016) (available here).  Here is how the opinion gets started:

A jury found the defendant, Alden Morgan, committed the offense of armed robbery at age 17.  Following return of the guilty verdict, the district court sentenced him to 99 years imprisonment at hard labor without benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence.  After being denied relief on direct review, the defendant filed a motion to correct an illegal sentence in light of recent developments in Eighth Amendment jurisprudence pertaining to the sentencing of juveniles.  Specifically, the defendant relied on Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), wherein the United States Supreme Court concluded that a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a nonhomicide offense committed when the defendant was a juvenile constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.  We granted the defendant’s writ application to determine whether the defendant’s 99-year sentence is an effective life sentence and is, therefore, illegal under the Supreme Court’s decision in Graham.  For the reasons that follow, we hold that a 99-year sentence without parole is illegal because it does not provide the defendant “with a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Id., 560 U.S. at 75.  Accordingly, we amend the defendant’s sentence to delete the restriction on parole eligibility and direct the Department of Corrections to revise the defendant’s prison masters according to the criteria in La. R.S. 15:574.4(D) to reflect an eligibility date for consideration by the Board of Parole.

What makes the Morgan opinion especially blogworthy is the short concurring opinion authored by Justice Crichton, which reads as follows:

“I do solemnly swear that I will support the constitution and laws of the United States and the constitution and laws of this state. . .” La. Const. art. X, § 30.

These words, which each justice of this Court affirmed upon taking office, which all Louisiana lawyers affirm, and which the District Attorney also affirms, reflect our solemn duty as members of the judiciary and the broader judicial system to uphold the constitutions of the United States and Louisiana.  Despite the clear mandate of the United States Supreme Court in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), the Orleans Parish District Attorney has taken the stunning position that this defendant does not face the functional equivalent of life imprisonment and that he would have — in the year 2082 and at age 101 — a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Id., 560 U.S. at 75.  Even worse, the District Attorney has invited this state’s high court to join him in this constitutionally untenable position that directly conflicts with a line of United States Supreme Court cases rolling back excessive punishment of juvenile offenders.  See Graham, supra, Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. -- (2012).  This position would, in my view, violate our oath of office insofar as it would contravene the Supreme Court’s pronouncements and, therefore, also violate the Supremacy Clause.  U.S. Const. art. VI, cl.2.  See State ex rel. Barrabino v. Henderson, 283 So. 2d 764, 766 (La. 1973) (Tate, J., concurring) (“The United States Constitution as interpreted by that court is binding upon every court in this land, including the Supreme Court of Louisiana. . . .”).  See also generally La. Rules of Prof. Conduct R. 3.1, 3.3.

Relatedly, I emphasize that the district attorney has an awesome amount of power in our justice system, which encompasses the “entire charge and control of every criminal prosecution instituted or pending in his district,” including the determination of “whom, when, and how he shall prosecute.”  La. C.Cr.P. art. 61.  As such, a prosecutor’s responsibility is as “a minister of justice and not simply that of an advocate.”  Model Rules of Prof’l Conduct R. 3.8 cmt[1] (Am. Bar. Ass’n 1983).  See also State v. Tate, 171 So. 108, 112 (La. 1936) (noting that the district attorney “represents the State, and the State demands no victims.  It seeks justice only, equal and impartial justice. . . .”).  Given both this power and responsibility, the District Attorney should seek to uphold the integrity of his office by declining to take positions that, as reflected by the 7-0 decision in this case, contravene federal constitutional law.

October 23, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Anyone eager to predict the exact results of Nebraska Referendum 426, the state's "Death Penalty Repeal Veto Referendum"?

Images (15)Practically and politically, the most important vote this fall concerning the present and future of the death penalty will be taking place in California where voters will weigh in on competing initiatives offering to end or to mend capital punishment in the state.  But as highlighted effectively by this recent Marshall Project article, there are notable death penalty ballot questions before voters in two other states.  This article, headlined "Three States to Watch if You Care About the Death Penalty: Nebraska, Oklahoma, and California will test the prospects of abolition," provides an astute review of all the measures and it ends this way:

Pew’s national poll numbers aside, the death penalty for years now has been a regional punishment, not a national one, largely confined to the South and West, where skirmishes over its application will continue to play out the way we see it this election.  A mixed verdict on the four measures won’t change the national narrative reflected in the latest polls. But if the death penalty is restored in Nebraska, protected in Oklahoma, and expedited in California, we’ll know there are clear popular limits to the abolitionist movement.  And if voters choose to keep the death penalty dead in Nebraska, kill it in California and leave it be in Oklahoma, the latest poll numbers will look more like a trend. Either way, these local battles, and not some grand pronouncement from the Supreme Court in Washington, are how the future of capital punishment will be decided.

There has been a good bit of (not-so-clear) recent polling on the death penalty issues in California, and Kent Scheidegger at Crime & Consequence unpacks the latest polling in this new post speculating that the "mend-the-death-penalty" initiative might win in a landslide.  Meanwhile, I cannot find any recent polling from Nebraska on its Referendum 426, the state's "Death Penalty Repeal Veto Referendum."  That reality has prompted the question in the title of this post, along with this notable new local article from the Cornhusker state headlined "Catholic Church intensifies effort to abolish Nebraska’s death penalty."

I am inclined to predict that Nebraska voters will end up reversing the repeal of the death penalty in the state.  This prediction is based not only on Nebraska's status as a solid "red state," but also on the reality that pro-capital-punishment forces in the state have significant resources and a high-profile leader thanks to Gov. Pete Ricketts. (This recent article discusses some recent campaign funding realities under the headlined "Gov. Ricketts gives another $100,000 — for a total of $300,000 — to pro-death penalty group.")  

For a variety of symbolic and practical reasons, I think the exact voting percentages on Referendum 426 could be nearly as important as which side prevails.  If the vote end up reasonably  close either way (e.g., if the winning side gets less than 60% of the vote), I suspect the losing side can and will suggest that it could have prevailed with more resources and more time to educate voters.  But if one side wins big after this issue has been garnering attention in the state, I think the vote will be (perhaps rightly) viewed by national advocates as a very  clear indication of what folks in the heartland think about the present and future of capital punishment.

Helpfully, some media in Nebraska are do their part seeking to educate voters as revealed by these links to special coverage:

October 23, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Is Florida really going to conduct full post-Hurst resentencings for hundreds of condemned murderers?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local article headlined "Death penalty ruling could mean new sentencing for 386 murderers in Florida."  Here are excerpts:

The Florida Supreme Court’s decision last week to require unanimous jury votes for executions has thrown the state’s death penalty into disarray. In a Friday ruling in Hurst vs. Florida, the justices eliminated part of Florida’s death sentencing laws, but lawyers and legislators disagree about what comes next.

Some say that it could lead to sentences being thrown out for nearly 400 convicted murderers awaiting execution at Florida State Prison, and that it may cripple the state’s death penalty long term. Others say the only thing that has changed is that a jury must now vote unanimously in favor of the death penalty. What’s clear is this: Even with the case decided, Florida’s legal fights over capital punishment are far from over.

Death-row defense lawyers say the Hurst decision leaves Florida without a functioning death penalty until the state Legislature can convene and rewrite the law. “This is so big,” said Martin McClain, a Broward County lawyer who represents death-row inmates appealing their sentences. “I don’t know of a way to overstate the significance.”

But legislative leaders say that such action won’t be necessary. “With Friday’s ruling, imposing the death sentence will require a unanimous verdict with or without legislative action,” said Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for Senate President-designate Joe Negron, R-Stuart. “In the past, the Senate has been supportive of the unanimous verdict requirement.”

Buddy Jacobs, general counsel for the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, which represents the 20 state attorneys, agrees that no legislative action is necessary. “The death penalty is certainly still legal in Florida,” he said. “The procedure is what the Supreme Court reacted to.”

The court’s ruling has raised other questions about how the state should handle the 386 inmates on death row under old sentencing rules that have since been thrown out. The Supreme Court has not indicated which inmates could be eligible to have their sentences changed. Even the most experienced death-row defense lawyers don’t know what to expect. McClain said he thinks the court will issue a ruling about which cases are going to be treated like that. “Until we have that sort of broad picture,” McClain said, “we’re kind of stuck waiting.”

Some death-row inmates — including Timothy Lee Hurst, convicted of killing a co-worker in Pensacola in 1998 — will have new sentencing hearings. The court will bring in a new jury to hear evidence and decide whether Hurst should be executed or sentenced to life in prison. But not all death penalty cases are the same. So it’s possible the court could decide that certain kinds of cases are eligible for a re-sentencing and others are not.

For example, the court could throw out sentences from time periods when the death penalty laws were overturned as unconstitutional, or they could only allow a new jury for death-row inmates who raised certain complaints in their appeals. But Maria DeLiberato, a defense lawyer with the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel in Tampa, warns that could be seen as an “arbitrary and capricious” enforcement of the law and raise new allegations that Florida’s death sentences flout the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

She’s hopeful that the court would allow all inmates a new sentencing hearing, not just some of them. The state attorneys worry about the high costs of a small wave of re-sentencing hearings, let alone 386 cases. “We do not have the manpower to do that,” said Jacobs. “We’d have to get assistance to do that from the Legislature.”

October 19, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Oregon Gov pledges to continue moratoriaum on executions if elected to a new term

As reported in this local article from Oregon, headlined "Brown to maintain death penalty moratorium," the chief executive in the Beaver State is promising not to execute those laws calling for excutions of condemned murderers. Here are the details:

The governor plans to continue a state moratorium on capital punishment that would extend through her upcoming term if elected, a spokesman said Monday morning. "Gov. Kate Brown has made clear her personal opposition to the death penalty and her support of the current moratorium on Oregon executions," spokesman Bryan Hockaday told The Oregonian/OregonLive.

Former Gov. John Kitzaber announced the moratorium two weeks before the scheduled 2011 execution of Gary Haugen, who then sought to speed his execution after waiving all appeals.  After Brown took over the state's top office in February 2015, she said she would continue the stoppage of public executions until further study.

"Gov. Brown directed her General Counsel to conduct a review of the policy and practical implications of Oregon's capital punishment law," Hockaday said. "Though no executions are imminent, Gov. Brown will continue the death penalty moratorium, because after thoroughly researching the issues, serious concerns remain about the constitutionality and workability of Oregon's capital punishment law." Hockaday declined to immediately release, pending a records request, any study or records related to how the governor made her decision.

Reasons for her decision include the "uncertainty of Oregon's ability to acquire the necessary execution drugs required by statute," Hockaday said by email. "Looking nationally, America is on the verge of a sea change both by legislation and, more profoundly, through court decisions. The past few years have already seen a major shift in the landscape on capital punishment law, and Gov. Brown expects more changes are on the horizon."

Oregon voters approved the death penalty in 1984, and the state and U.S. Supreme Courts have repeatedly upheld its legality. Oregon's death row has 34 prisoners, all of whom stay in their cells 23 hours a day. In the past five decades, the state executed two men -- both in the 1990s. Those men had essentially volunteered for the death penalty after waiving their rights to appeal before their deaths.

Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis, an outspoken supporter of the death penalty in Oregon, a month ago met with Brown counsel Ben Souede about the issue. After hearing the news Monday, Marquis said he was seething. "If she really believes the death penalty is so wrong, then she should have the guts to commute all those sentences," Marquis said.

If she were to take that extraordinary step, Marquis said about six or seven prisoners on death row could be released to the public within a year because they would qualify for an immediate parole hearing. He said those prisoners were sentenced after voters approved the death penalty and before the state adopted life sentences without parole in the early 1990s.

No executions may be imminent, Marquis argued, but at least three cases are pending in Oregon where defendants face aggravated murder charges, which bring a death penalty sentencing option if convicted. Brown's announcement could make it easier for defense attorneys to persuade jurors not to impose the death penalty, he said.

October 18, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Highlighting how death is different when it comes to SCOTUS dissents from denial of certiorari

Adam Feldman has this notable new post at the Empirical SCOTUS blog titled "Dissents from Denial of Cert (2010-2015)." The whole post is an interesting read for SCOTUS aficionados, but these concluding passages struck me as especially noteworthy (though not all that unsurprising) for sentencing fans:

Justices Thomas and Sotomayor are also the only Justices that have at least one dissent from denial for each Term in this set. Additionally, Justices Thomas, Alito, and Breyer all have clear upswings in their charts.  Is this due to frustration with the rest of the Justices’ choice of case selection? Is it to put certain cert denials in the spotlight?

Some additional clarity is shed by examining the issues at the heart of the denied petitions. Five of Justice Breyer’s six authored dissents from denial for this period and all four from 2015 came in death penalty cases.  A majority of Justice Sotomayor’s dissents come from death penalty cases as well and all stemmed from criminal matters.  As the Court dealt with several capital cases in 2015 and has several more on the 2016, perhaps these Justices that routinely vote against the death penalty seek greater reform on this issue, are attempting to spotlight specific cases they feel were unjustly decided by the lower courts, or are conveying alternative ways for lawyers to frame these such issues in their arguments.

Justices Alito and Thomas’ dissents are from cases composed of a more varied set of issues ranging from First Amendment and discrimination concerns to criminal matters in the form of habeas corpus relief.  Absent from their dissents are any capital cases. While it is difficult to read too much into this lack of a clear pattern, these Justices’ general trends towards more such dissents is notable.  The next Justice confirmed to the Court and the effect that this Justice has on the Court’s choice of cases will inevitably have a deep and prolonged impact on this form of behavior from all Justices, as the new ninth Justice will have a large say in what cases the Court hears as well as in the Court’s merits decisions.

October 18, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, October 17, 2016

"How the Sentencing Commission Does and Does Not Matter in Beckles v. United States"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new paper available via SSRN authored by Leah Litman and Luke Beasley. Here is the abstract:

This Essay considers how significant the differences between the Armed Career Criminal Act and the Sentencing Guidelines are to one question the Supreme Court is poised to address in Beckles v. United States -- namely, whether a rule invalidating the so-called "residual clause" in the Sentencing Guidelines applies retroactively to cases on collateral review.  This Essay collects evidence from resentencings that have occurred after courts have found the Guidelines' residual clause invalid.  These resentencings have resulted in defendants receiving significantly less prison time. 

The extent to which a rule invalidating the Guidelines' residual clause affects defendants' sentences -- often significantly -- justifies revisiting defendants' sentences because whatever finality interests exist in the defendants' sentences are outweighed by the effects that a rule invalidating the Guidelines' residual clause has on the amount of prison time defendants serve.  The Supreme Court should also not hesitate to make a rule invalidating the Guideline retroactive because the Sentencing Commission decided not to make retroactive an amendment deleting the Guideline's residual clause.  The Commission never investigated how difficult it would be to make that amendment retroactive.

A few of many related prior posts and related materials:

October 17, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Interesting lengthy dissent from SCOTUS cert denial from Justice Sotomayor joined (only) by Justice Ginsburg

There is a bit of interesting news with today's otherwise dull SCOTUS order list in the form of a lengthy dissent from the denial of certiorari penned by Justice Sotomayor and joined by Justice Ginsburg.  The dissent in Elmore v. Holbrook is available here, and it gets started and ends this way:

Petitioner Clark Elmore was convicted of murder in 1995 and was sentenced to death.  His court-appointed lawyer, who had never tried a capital case before, knew that Elmore had been exposed to toxins as a young adult and that he had a history of impulsive behavior.  A more experienced attorney encouraged Elmore’s lawyer to investigate whether Elmore had suffered brain damage as a young man. Instead of doing so — indeed, instead of conducting any meaningful investigation into Elmore’s life — Elmore’s lawyer chose to present a one-hour penalty-phase argument to the jury about the remorse that Elmore felt for his crime.  As a result, the jury did not hear that Elmore had spent his childhood playing in pesticide-contaminated fields and had spent his service in the Vietnam War repairing Agent Orange pumps.  The jury did not hear the testimony of experts who concluded that Elmore was cognitively impaired and unable to control his impulses. The jury heard only from an assortment of local judges that Elmore had looked “dejected” as he pleaded guilty to murder, not from the many independent witnesses who had observed Elmore’s searing remorse.

The Constitution demands more.  The penalty phase of a capital trial is “a constitutionally indispensable part of the process of inflicting the penalty of death.” Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U. S. 280, 304 (1976).  It ensures that a capital sentencing is “humane and sensible to the uniqueness of the individual.”  Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104, 110 (1982). Elmore’s penalty phase fell well below the bare minimum guaranteed by the Constitution.  His lawyer acted deficiently in choosing a mitigation strategy without fully exploring the alternatives and in failing to investigate the mitigation strategy that he did choose to present. And had the jury known that Elmore — who had never before been convicted of a crime of violence and felt searing remorse for the heinous act he committed — might be brain damaged, it might have sentenced him to life rather than death.

This Court has not hesitated to summarily reverse incapital cases tainted by egregious constitutional error, particularly where an attorney has rendered constitutionally deficient performance. See, e.g., Hinton v. Alabama, 571 U.S. ___ (2014) (per curiam); Sears v. Upton, 561 U.S. 945 (2010) (per curiam); Porter v. McCollum, 558 U.S. 30 (2009) (per curiam). This case plainly meets that standard. For that reason, I respectfully dissent from the denial of certiorari....

All crimes for which defendants are sentenced to death are horrific. See Glossip, 576 U. S., at ___ (BREYER, J., dissenting) (slip op., at 14); id., at ___ (THOMAS, J., concurring) (slip op., at 6–10).  But not all defendants who commit horrific crimes are sentenced to death.  Some are spared by juries.  The Constitution guarantees that possibility: It requires that a sentencing jury be able to fully and fairly evaluate “the characteristics of the person who committed the crime.” Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 197 (1976) (joint opinion of Stewart, Powell, and Stevens, JJ.).  That guarantee is a bedrock premise on which our system of capital punishment depends, and it is a guarantee that must be honored — especially for defendants like Elmore, whose lives are marked by extensive mitigating circumstances that might convince a jury to choose life over death.  Only upon hearing such facts can a jury fairly make the weighty — and final — decision whether such a person is entitled to mercy.  I respectfully dissent from the denial of certiorari.

UPDATE: In the comments, Cal. Prosecutor highlights this notable new post by Kent Scheidegger at Crime & Consequences to provide more context for understanding this lengthy dissent from a SCOTUS cert denial.  Here is how that post gets started and ends:

The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to review the case of Washington State murderer Clark Elmore.  Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ginsburg, dissented in an opinion castigating the defense lawyer at trial.  If the lawyer was so bad, one might ask, why did the Washington Supreme Court deny relief?  That court has certainly had no difficulty ruling in favor of murderers in past capital cases.  It is one of the country's more criminal-friendly forums.  If the lawyer was so bad, why did six of the eight Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court decline to join Justice Sotomayor's vigorous dissent?

There is, of course, more to the story.  After the break, I have copied an extensive portion of the Brief in Opposition written by Senior Counsel John Samson for the Washington AG's office....

Defending people who have committed horrible crimes is not easy.  Frequently tough choices must be made.  If the defendant is sentenced to death, as people who commit horrible crimes frequently are and should be, the capital appeal defense cult stands ready to say that the trial lawyer was incompetent for taking the path that he did at each fork in the road, regardless of which one he took.

October 17, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Federal inmate refuses Prez Obama's commutation

This USA Today article, headlined "Obama grants clemency to inmate — but inmate refuses," reports on a notable response by one federal inmate to receiving clemency. Here are the interesting details and some historical context:

When President Obama announced a program to grant executive clemency to drug offenders given long mandatory sentences, Arnold Ray Jones did what more than 29,000 federal inmates have done: He asked Obama for a presidential commutation. And then, after it arrived on Aug. 3, he refused to accept it.

Jones’ turnabout highlights the strings that come attached to an increasing number of Obama’s commutations: In this case, enrollment in a residential drug treatment program — which has been a condition of 92 of Obama commutation grants. Jones is the first to refuse that condition.

If Jones had agreed to complete the the program, he would be out in two years. He still has six years left on his original 2002 sentence for drug trafficking, but Jones may be counting on getting time off for good behavior, which would have him released in April 2019 — eight months longer than if he had accepted the commutation. ​Jones, 50, is in a low-security federal prison in Beaumont, Texas.

The unusual rejection came to light last week, when Obama commuted the sentences of 102 more federal inmates. With the 673 previous commutations granted, the total should have been 775 — but the White House accounting had only 774. At about the same time, the Department of Justice updated its online record of Obama's commutations and updated Jones' entry with the notation: "condition declined, commutation not effectuated."

The White House and the Justice Department declined to talk about the specifics of the case. But inmate records that Jones submitted as part of his court case show that he used crack cocaine weekly in the year before his arrest, and that drug treatment programs he's completed in the past have been unsuccessful. The Bureau of Prisons describes its Residential Drug Abuse Program as its most intensive treatment program, where offenders are separated from the general population for nine months while participating in four hours of community-based therapy programs each day.

Jones' mother said Thursday that she was excited about the news of Obama's commutation and wasn't aware that it was rejected. "I don’t know about him declining or anything. I'm looking for my son to come home," said Ruth Jones, of Lubbock, Texas.

Unlike pardons, which represent a full legal forgiveness for a crime, commutations can shorten a prison sentence while leaving other consequences intact. And as Obama has increased his use of commutations in his last year in office, he's also gotten more creative in adapting the power to fit the circumstances of each case. Unlike the more common "time served" commutations, which release a prisoner more or less immediately, many of his commutations since August have been "term" commutations, which have left prisoners with years left to serve on their sentences.

At the same time, Obama has also begun to attach drug treatment as a condition of many of those commutations, beginning with Jones' class of 214 inmates on Aug. 3 — the single largest grant of clemency in a single day in the history of the presidency.

That day, White House Counsel Neil Eggleston — who advises the president on commutation applications — explained the new drug treatment condition in a blog post on the White House web site. "For some, the president believes that the applicant’s successful re-entry will be aided with additional drug treatment, and the president has conditioned those commutations on an applicant’s seeking that treatment," Eggleston wrote. "Underlying all the president’s commutation decisions is the belief that these deserving individuals should be given the tools to succeed in their second chance."

Since Aug. 3, 22% of the commutations Obama has issued have required drug treatment.

Conditional pardons and commutations have been part of presidential clemency almost since the beginning. Presidents have used that power to induce prisoners to join the military, leave the United States or even — in the case of President Warren Harding's pardon of socialist Eugene Debs — that the clemency recipient travel to Washington to meet him. President Bill Clinton imposed conditions in 34 cases, usually insisting on drug testing....

But even with conditions, it's extremely rare for a recipient to reject clemency outright once it's granted. P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political scientist who has cataloged 30,642 presidential clemency actions dating back to President George Washington, has found just 16 clemency warrants returned to the president unaccepted.

Take President Herbert Hoover's 1930 commutation of Romeo Forlini, an Italian man serving a seven-year sentence after being caught by the Secret Service selling fraudulent Italian bonds. That commutation was granted "on condition that he be deported and never return to the United States." Forlini rejected that condition, and two weeks later Hoover granted him a full, unconditional pardon. "There's a guy who played his cards right," Ruckman said. (Alas, Forlini was arrested in New York in 1931 trying to pull off a similar scam on an undercover detective.)

October 15, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Cost-Benefit Analysis and Retroactivity: The brief for respondent in Beckles v. U.S."

The title of this is the title of this timely and astute New Jersey Law Journal commentary authored by (former federal prosecutor) Steven Sanders. I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts from its beginning and ending:

In late June, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Beckles v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 2510 (2016).  Beckles actually raises three questions, but only two of them are pertinent here: (1) is the "residual clause" of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines' career offender provision void for vagueness under Johnson v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 2551 (2014); and (2) can a defendant whose Guidelines sentence became final before Johnson issued nonetheless invoke Johnson's new rule in a motion filed under 28 U.S.C. §2255.  In its recently filed merits brief, the government argues that the answer to question (1) is "yes," but that Beckles and thousands like him have no legal remedy because the answer to question (2) is "no."

The government's non-retroactivity argument in Beckles represents a total reversal of the position it took before the en banc Eleventh Circuit only one month before Johnson issued. And that reversal seems to stem from the government's concern about the costs the justice system would incur from conducting resentencings for prisoners who very likely would receive lower sentences were they afforded a remedy.  The government's belief that the costs of dispensing justice outweigh the benefits (i.e., less prison time for thousands of people the government acknowledges have been over-sentenced) is eye-opening, to say the least.  That it has broadcast that belief in a Supreme Court brief is downright disturbing....

In sum, the government's retroactivity position in Beckles seems more like a belated attempt at damage control than a principled effort to apply the law consistently across a set of similarly situated defendants.  The government would do well to heed Solicitor General Frederick Lehmann's powerful observation — now inscribed on the walls of the Department of Justice — that "[t]he United States wins its point whenever justice is done its citizens in the courts." See Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 87 & n.2 (1963).

A few of many related prior posts and related materials:

October 15, 2016 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recommended reading, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 14, 2016

In twin post-Hurst rulings, the Florida Supreme Court concludes capital sentencing requires jury unanimity

I was not planning to blog anymore today as I continued participating in this terrific symposium. But big death penalty rulings by the Florida Supreme Court changed my plans. This local report, headlined "Florida Supreme Court rules death penalty juries must be unanimous," provides the basics:

"We conclude that the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury mandates that under Florida's capital sentencing scheme, the jury — not the judge — must be the finder of every fact, and thus every element, necessary for the imposition of the death penalty," the court wrote in a 5-2 ruling, with Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston dissenting.

Their ruling comes just months after the U.S. Supreme Court found Florida's death penalty law unconstitutional because juries played only an advisory role in recommending life or death. The court said in that case, known as Hurst vs. Florida, Florida's system was a violation of a defendant's right to a jury trial.

Florida lawmakers responded by rewriting the state law, requiring a 10-2 vote of a jury to send someone to death. The new law also requires juries to unanimously determine "the existence of at least one aggravating factor" before defendants can be eligible for death sentences.

In a separate ruling in the case of Perry vs. Florida, also issued Friday, the Florida Supreme Court found the new statute cannot apply to cases still pending in which prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. That leaves the state legislature with the task of having to again rewrite the statute to comply with the court's ruling. It is unclear how soon that might happen or whether prosecutors could then continue to seek the death penalty in pending cases....

The court's opinions did not address the issue of whether their findings would apply retroactively. Florida has 385 inmates on death row. It was not clear how many prisoners will be entitled to new sentencing hearings. The retroactivity issue will likely be decided by two other cases — Lambrix vs. Florida and Asay vs. Florida — still pending before the state Supreme Court.

Attorney General Pam Bondi's office has said that as many as 43 death row inmates could get life sentences without parole or new sentencing hearings as a result of the Hurst decision. Those 43 inmates are those who are entitled to automatic post-Hurst reviews of their cases under the state Constitution. Of those cases currently before the court, Bondi's office argued, death sentences should be carried out.

Howard Simon of the ACLU of Florida, which intervened in the case, said he was not surprised by the court's decision: "This is what we have been warning the Legislature about for years. The Legislature can complain all they want about the court's running the government, but when the Legislature ignores the warnings from the court, they should not be surprised by this ruling."

He said that it is not clear if every inmate on death row will be entitled to a new sentencing trial. "Now I think it's a moral issue,'' he said. "If someone was sentenced to death by less than an unanimous it is unconscionable to put them to death now without a unanimous verdict."

I fear I will not get a chance to read these opinions in full until well into the weekend, but here are links to the full opinions. I would be grateful to hear from readers about what they consider especially important aspects of these rulings:

Hurst vs. Florida, No. SC12-1974 (Fla. Oct. 14, 2016) (available here)

Perry vs. Florida, No. SC16-547 (Fla. Oct. 14, 2016) (available here)

October 14, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Fascinating SCOTUS per curiam summary opinion stresses that Eighth Amendment still limits victim testimony in capital cases

The Supreme Court's order list this morning includes a little and very interesting summary opinionin Bosse v. Oklahoma, No. 15-9173 (S. Ct. Oct. 11, 2016) (available here). The order rules in favor of Shaun Michael Bosse, who was convicted and sentence to death by a jury "of three counts of first-degree murder for the 2010 killing of Katrina Griffin and her two children." Here is the per curiam Bosse ruling account of the problem below and its consequences:

Over Bosse’s objection, the State asked three of the victims’ relatives torecommend a sentence to the jury. All three recommended death, and the jury agreed. Bosse appealed, arguing that this testimony about the appropriate sentence violated the Eighth Amendment under Booth. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed his sentence, concluding that there was “no error.” 2015 OK CR 14, ¶¶ 57–58, 360 P. 3d 1203, 1226–1227. We grant certiorari and the motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis, and now vacate the judgment of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals.

“[I]t is this Court’s prerogative alone to overrule one of its precedents.” United States v. Hatter, 532 U. S. 557, 567 (2001) (quoting State Oil Co. v. Khan, 522 U.S. 3, 20 (1997); internal quotation marks omitted); see Rodriguez de Quijas v. Shearson/American Express, Inc., 490 U. S. 477, 484 (1989). The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals has recognized that Payne “specifically acknowledged its holding did not affect” Booth’s prohibition on opinions about the crime, the defendant, and the appropriate punishment. Ledbetter, 933 P.2d at 890–891. That should have ended its inquiry into whether the Eighth Amendment bars such testimony; the court was wrong to go further and conclude that Payne implicitly overruled Booth in its entirety. “Our decisions remain binding precedent until we see fit to reconsider them, regardless of whether subsequent cases have raised doubts about their continuing vitality.” Hohn v. United States, 524 U. S. 236, 252–253 (1998).

The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals remains bound by Booth’s prohibition on characterizations and opinions from a victim’s family members about the crime, the defendant, and the appropriate sentence unless this Court reconsiders that ban.  The state court erred in concluding otherwise. 

The State argued in opposing certiorari that, even if the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals was wrong in its victim impact ruling, that error did not affect the jury’s sentencing determination, and the defendant’s rights were in any event protected by the mandatory sentencing review in capital cases required under Oklahoma law. See Brief in Opposition 14–15. Those contentions may be addressed on remand to the extent the court below deems appropriate.

Justice Thomas (joined by Justice Alito) added this one paragraph concurring opinion:

We held in Booth v. Maryland, 482 U. S. 496 (1987), that the Eighth Amendment prohibits a court from admitting the opinions of the victim’s family members about the appropriate sentence in a capital case. The Court today correctly observes that our decision in Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808 (1991), did not expressly overrule this aspect of Booth.  Because “it is this Court’s prerogative alone to overrule one of its precedents,” State Oil Co. v. Khan, 522 U.S. 3, 20 (1997), the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals erred in holding that Payne invalidated Booth in its entirety.  In vacating the decision below, this Court says nothing about whether Booth was correctly decided or whether Payne swept away its analytical foundations. I join the Court’s opinion with this understanding.

October 11, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Monday, October 10, 2016

Detailing how litigation over lethal injection methods has shut down Mississippi's machinery of death for now a half-decade

I had the great fortune of having the Assistant Chief Counsel for Ohio Governor John Kasich come speak to my OSU Moritz College of Law Sentencing Class about the decade-long litigation in Ohio over the state's various lethal injection protocols (which, as this post explains, is now poised to kick into yet another new phase).  With that class freshly in mind, I was intrigued to see this notable new local AP story headlined "Death penalty stalls in Mississippi."  Here are excerpts:

With sprawling litigation over Mississippi’s use of execution drugs now scheduled to stretch into 2017, the state could go five years without executing a death row inmate. That would be the longest gap between executions in Mississippi in 15 years.

Mississippi has executed 21 people, all men, since the death penalty resumed. That includes a 13-year gap between the 1989 execution of Leo Edwards and the 2002 execution of Tracy Edwards.  During that time, executions stalled out over concerns about adequate legal representation for the condemned.  That’s also when Mississippi switched it execution method from the gas chamber to lethal injection.  Multiyear gaps remained even after 2002, but the state picked up the pace, executing 11 people in a 25-month span ending in 2002.  Then, just as it became routine, the death penalty sputtered out.

That halt is in some ways a tribute to lawyer Jim Craig.  He’s tying state government in knots fighting Mississippi’s plan to use a new drug to render prisoners unconscious before injecting additional drugs to paralyze them and stop their hearts.   Craig, of the MacArthur Justice Center, says the litigation isn’t aimed at overturning the death penalty in Mississippi, only at seeking a better way of executing people.  But he’s doing a good job of keeping his clients alive.

On behalf of Richard Jordan, Ricky Chase and Charles Ray Crawford, Craig argues Mississippi can’t use midazolam as a sedative because it doesn’t meet state law’s specification for an “ultra-short-acting barbiturate” Until 2012, the state used pentobarbital. But drug makers have choked off supplies of the drug for executions.

Midazolam doesn’t render someone unconscious as quickly as a barbiturate. Craig argues midazolam leaves an inmate at risk of severe pain during execution, violating the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 upheld as constitutional Oklahoma’s use of midazolam, but Craig’s lawsuit is based in part on his claims about Mississippi state law. He’s also trying to reopen other issues surrounding midazolam.

One part of Craig’s legal offensive is a federal challenge to the drug’s use. U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate had issued a preliminary injunction freezing executions, but executions didn’t resume when appeals judges lifted the freeze in July. Last month, Craig and lawyers for Attorney General Jim Hood extended that lawsuit into next year, setting a trial for May. Craig rates it unlikely that the state Supreme Court will green-light executions with that case unresolved. “They aren’t stayed automatically,” Craig said. “But I think the Mississippi Supreme Court will respect the federal process and thus will not set execution dates while the federal case is active.”

To aid that case, Craig is also fighting Missouri, Georgia and Texas in court, arguing they must say who’s still supplying them with pentobarbital, so he can argue Mississippi has alternatives to midazolam and could return to its old drug. Mississippi said it destroyed all its pentobarbital and can’t get more.

There are also three cases before the Mississippi Supreme Court. Crawford is challenging the state’s ability to execute him with a drug compounded from raw ingredients, how other states are likely getting pentobarbital. Meanwhile, Jordan and Gerald Loden are fighting use of midazolam based on the barbiturate requirement.

Hood says he’s working to resume executions, but acknowledges Craig’s efforts are gumming the works. “The Mississippi Supreme Court’s resolution of those pending petitions will determine when any executions will be re-set,” Hood said in a statement. “Any delay in the federal lawsuit has been the result of the Jordan plaintiffs’ strategic decisions.”

October 10, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Coming SCOTUS argument "week" (lasting one day) should still be of interest to criminal justice fans

At Crime & Consequences here, Kent Scheidegger briefly explains why this week the "US Supreme Court has a one-day argument week": "Monday is a legal holiday, Columbus Day. No arguments are scheduled for Wednesday, which is Yom Kippur. So it's all about Tuesday." Kent also has this brief and interesting accounting of the two criminal cases to be heard by SCOTUS tomorrow:

The main action, for our purposes, is Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado, asking whether the Constitution requires an exception to the time-honored rule that you can't impeach a jury verdict by calling the jurors to testify as to what was said during deliberations.  CJLF's brief, written by Kym Stapleton, is here.  Our press release is here.

Manrique v. United States is a technical question about restitution.  The Question Presented, as drafted by counsel for defendant, occupies an entire page and is a fine example of how not to write a Question Presented.   However, the fact that the Court took it anyway is an example of why that may not matter as much as some of us think.

For those eager for a more details review of what these cases are about, factually and legally, here are case links and more fulsome previews via SCOTUSblog:

Manrique v. United States, No. 15-7250: Argument preview: Can an appellate court consider a challenge to the amount of a restitution award as part of an appeal of the underlying sentence? 

Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, No. 15-606: Argument preview: Justices to consider racial bias in jury deliberations

October 10, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 09, 2016

"Betterman v. Montana and the Underenforcement of Constitutional Rights at Sentencing"

The title of this post is the title of this new essay authored by Carissa Byrne Hessick now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This past Term, in Betterman v. Montana, the U.S. Supreme Court took up the question whether the Sixth Amendment’s speedy trial guarantee applies to sentencing proceedings. In a unanimous opinion by Justice Ginsburg, the Court held that it does not.  Perhaps in order to achieve unanimity, Betterman left open important questions, which may ultimately allow defendants, at least in some situations, to demand a speedy sentencing.  But, as this short commentary explains, Betterman represents an unfortunate example of the courts’ tendency to underenforce constitutional rights at sentencing.

October 9, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Prez Obama commutes 102 more federal prison sentences

I just saw via various news sources that President Obama issued 102 more commutations this afternoon.  This blog post by the White House counsel reports the basics, and here is how it gets started:

Today, President Obama granted commutations to another 102 individuals who have demonstrated that they are deserving of a second chance at freedom.  The vast majority of today’s grants were for individuals serving unduly harsh sentences for drug-related crimes under outdated sentencing laws. With today’s grants, the President has commuted 774 sentences, more than the previous 11 presidents combined.  With a total of 590 commutations this year, President Obama has now commuted the sentences of more individuals in one year than in any other single year in our nation’s history.

While he will continue to review cases on an individualized basis throughout the remainder of his term, these statistics make clear that the President and his administration have succeeded in efforts to reinvigorate the clemency process. Beyond the statistics, though, are stories of individuals who have overcome the longest of odds to earn this second chance.  The individuals receiving commutation today are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, and in some cases grandparents.  Today, they and their loved ones share the joy of knowing that they will soon be reunited.

October 6, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Noting the tide starting to turn in litigation challenging sex offender residency restrictions

The Marshall Project has this notable new article on a notable new development concerning sex offender residency restrictions.  The article is headlined "Making the Case Against Banishing Sex Offenders: Legislators won’t touch the subject, but courts are proving more sympathetic."  Here is how it gets started:

Mary Sue Molnar estimates that she gets at least five calls a week from Texans on the sex offender registry who can’t find a place to live. Numerous towns around the state have passed ordinances prohibiting those on the list from residing within a certain distance — anywhere from 500 to 3,500 feet — of a school, park, daycare facility or playground. In some towns, that’s almost everywhere.  “We’ve got people living in extended-stay motels,” says Molnar, who runs the sex-offender-rights group Texas Voices for Reason and Justice. “We’re in a crisis mode.”

Molnar and her allies have considered lobbying the Legislature to ban these ordinances, but they’ve found lawmakers unreceptive in the past to any bill perceived to benefit sex offenders. So she decided to go to court.  Molnar enlisted a small army of parents and siblings of sex offenders to compile a list of towns with such ordinances, and assembled research showing that the rules can actually make the public less safe.  She enlisted Denton lawyer Richard Gladden.  He was already representing Taylor Rice, who as a 20 year-old had sex with a 14 year-old he met online and now, after his conviction for sexual assault, was legally barred from living with his parents because their house was too close to a high school’s baseball field.

Gladden had found a 2007 opinion by then-attorney general (now governor) Greg Abbott saying that towns with fewer than 5,000 residents — which fall into a particular legal category in Texas — are not authorized by the state to enact such restrictions on their own.  Gladden sent letters threatening lawsuits to 46 city councils.  Within two months, half of them had repealed their ordinances.  Gladden and Molnar are currently suing 11 of the remaining towns.  Restrictions on where registered sex offenders can work, live, and visit vary widely from state to state and city to city.

Over the last few years, Molnar and her counterparts in other states have come to the same conclusion: Politicians aren’t going to help them. “Who wants to risk being called a pedophile-lover?” says Robin van der Wall, a North Carolina registrant on the board of the national group Reform Sex Offender Laws.  So the activists have taken the route favored by other politically unpopular groups and turned to the legal system, where they are more likely to encounter judges insulated from electoral concerns.

Their legal claims vary, but in numerous cases, reformers have argued that these restrictions associated with registration add up to a sort of second sentence, and that they are defined in a vague way that makes them difficult to abide by. In some cases, the plaintiffs have argued that individual towns have enacted restrictions above and beyond what states allow them to impose.

Their legal strategies are proving effective. This past August, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated a Michigan law that retroactively applied various restrictions to people convicted before the laws were passed. Judge Alice Batchelder wrote that the law “has much in common with banishment and public shaming.” Since 2014, state and federal judges have struck down laws restricting where sex offenders can live in California, New York and Massachusetts.  In addition to the Texas lawsuits, there are ongoing legal battles over registries and restrictions associated with them in Illinois, Wisconsin, Louisiana, Alabama, Colorado, Nevada and, Idaho, among other states.

October 6, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Racial issues in death sentencing (and insider trading and malicious prosecution) next up for SCOTUS oral argument

As I noted in this recent post, the Supreme Court is back in action with a new fall season chock full of cases involving criminal justice issues.  Today's first official day of oral argument, as noted here, involved case on how to interpret the federal bank-fraud statute and on how to apply the Double Jeopardy Clause.  And the SCOTUS action gets extra exciting for sentencing fans with the first big capital case of the season, Buck v. Davis, to be heard on Wednesday.  Here are excerpts from Amy Howe's lengthy overview of the case at SCOTUSblog, "Argument preview: Justices to consider role of racial bias in death penalty case":

Even Duane Buck’s attorneys describe the facts of his crime as “horrific.” Buck believed that his former girlfriend, Debra Gardner, was in a romantic relationship with another man, Kenneth Butler. On July 30, 1995, he went to Gardner’s Houston home, where he shot and killed both Gardner and Butler. Buck also shot his step-sister, Phyllis Taylor, in the chest at point-blank range; the bullet missed her heart by only an inch, but she survived.

A Texas trial court appointed two lawyers to represent Buck at his trial.  One of those lawyers, Jerry Guerinot, has been described as the worst capital defense lawyer in the country: Twenty of his clients have been sentenced to death. When the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in Buck’s case next week, the decision by those attorneys to present racially inflammatory testimony by a defense expert will be at the heart of the debate.

A key issue at Buck’s trial was whether he would be dangerous in the future: Unless the jury unanimously concluded that he would be, it could not sentence him to death under Texas law. One of Buck’s former girlfriends, Vivian Jackson, testified that he had repeatedly abused her, but that fear had kept her from going to the police. However, Buck did not have any convictions for violent crimes, and a psychologist testified that he was unlikely to be dangerous in the future.

Buck’s lawyers also retained another psychologist, Dr. Walter Quijano. Quijano provided the defense team with a report in which he indicated that, as a statistical matter, Buck was more likely to commit violent crimes in the future because he is black. That report was admitted into evidence, at the request of Buck’s lawyers. After two days of deliberations, the jury concluded that Buck was indeed likely to be dangerous in the future and sentenced him to death....

There are several points of contention in the Supreme Court. The first is the merits of Buck’s argument that his trial counsel violated his constitutional right to an effective attorney when he introduced Quijano’s opinion.

Buck emphasizes that Quijano’s “testimony was so directly contrary to Mr. Buck’s interests, no competent defense attorney would have introduced it.” And the introduction of that evidence, he contends, likely “tipped the balance in the prosecution’s favor”: Although the key question before the jury was whether Buck was likely to be dangerous in the future, prosecutors failed to provide any evidence that Buck “had been violent outside the context of romantic relationships with two women, and the jurors learned that he had adjusted well to prison.” Moreover, he notes, the jury apparently “struggled to determine the appropriate sentence” for Buck, which suggests that, if Quijano’s testimony had not been admitted, at least one juror — all that would be necessary — might have voted against a death sentence.

The state concedes both that “race is an arbitrary, emotionally charged factor that has nothing to do with individual moral culpability” and that the introduction of Quijano’s opinion “was at least debatably deficient performance” by Buck’s trial lawyers.  But, the state contends, Buck had failed to show that the jury might have reached a different decision if the opinion had not been introduced, because there was plenty of evidence that Buck was likely to be dangerous in the future.  The state further downplays the significance of Quijano’s opinion that Buck was statistically more likely to be dangerous in the future because he is black, asserting that it “played only a limited role at trial,” particularly when the psychologist’s “ultimate conclusion” was that Buck “would likely not be a future danger.”

The other issues before the Court are more technical, but no less important: whether Buck’s case presents the kind of extraordinary circumstances that would justify relief under Rule 60(b)(6) and whether the lower courts made a mistake when they rejected his application for a certificate of appealability....

In many of the court’s recent death penalty cases, the justices have been deeply divided. Two justices — Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg — have even suggested that the court should consider whether the death penalty is constitutional at all. That question is not before the court in Buck’s case, but ... oral arguments could nonetheless elicit strong opinions on the administration of death penalty from the eight-member court.

Though the Buck case is likely to garner the most media attention, there are other big legal and practical issues before Justices in two other criminal cases tomorrow.  Again, SCOTUSblog provides helpful resources for these cases:

Salman v. United States

Argument preview: Justices to consider what constitutes a “personal benefit” in insider trading

Manuel v. City of Joliet

Argument preview: Does the Fourth Amendment govern a “malicious prosecution” claim, and if so, how?

October 4, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (29)

"The Original Meaning of 'Cruel'"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by John Stinneford now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

This Article demonstrates that the word “cruel” in the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause means “unjustly harsh,” not “motivated by cruel intent.”  The word refers to the effect of the punishment, not the intent of the punisher.  In prior articles, I have shown that the word “unusual” means “contrary to long usage,” and thus a punishment is cruel and unusual if its effects are unjustly harsh in light of longstanding prior practice.

This Article solves several important problems plaguing the Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.  First, it clarifies the Eighth Amendment’s intent requirement.  To violate the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, some government official must possess intent to punish but not necessarily intent to punish cruelly. Second, it demonstrates how to determine whether a given punishment is so harsh that it violates the Eighth Amendment.  The question is not whether a punishment is unjustly harsh in the abstract but whether it is unjustly harsh in comparison to the traditional punishment practices it has replaced.  Third, it shows how to sort between those unintended effects of punishment that may properly be considered part of the punishment and those that may not.  If a given punishment heightens the risk of severe, unjustified harm significantly beyond the baseline risk established by longstanding prior practice, it is cruel and unusual.  

Finally, this Article establishes that the core purpose of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause is to prevent unjust suffering, not the coarsening of public sensibilities.  Historically, governmental efforts to protect public sensibilities by making punishment less transparent have increased the risk that the offender will experience undetected cruel suffering.  When the government undertakes such efforts, it should bear the burden to show that they do not significantly increase this risk.

The original meaning of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause calls into question the constitutionality of several current punishment practices, including lengthy prison sentences for certain offenses, long-term solitary confinement, the three-drug lethal injection protocol, and certain prison conditions, to name a few.

October 4, 2016 in Recommended reading, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)