Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Should the Supreme Court reflect the country's "disenchantment with capital punishment"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new New York Times commentary by Linda Greenhouse headlined "The Supreme Court's Death Trap."  Here are excerpts:

You wouldn’t know it from the death penalty proceeding about to take place in the Boston Marathon case, or from Utah’s reauthorization of the firing squad, or the spate of botched lethal injections, but capital punishment in the United States is becoming vestigial.

The number of death sentences imposed last year, 72, was the lowest in 40 years. The number of executions, 35, was the lowest since 1994, less than half the modern peak of 98, reached in 1999.  Seven states, the fewest in 25 years, carried out executions.

California has the country’s biggest death row, with more than 700 inmates.  Many more of them die of natural causes — two since mid-­March — than by execution.  Last July, a federal district judge, Cormac J. Carney, concluding that California’s death penalty had become “dysfunctional,” “random” and devoid of “penological purpose,” declared it unconstitutional; the state is appealing.

But if there’s one place that seems to stand apart from the tide of disenchantment with capital punishment, it’s the Supreme Court....

Adam Liptak, the Supreme Court correspondent for The Times, has highlighted the disturbing way the court handled a challenge to Missouri’s lethal­-injection protocol back in January: first, over four dissenting votes, permitting the state to execute Charles F. Warner, one of four inmates who had filed appeals, only to agree a week later to hear the appeals of three identically situated inmates.  The court then granted stays of execution to the three and will hear their case, Glossip v. Gross, on April 29....

A Texas death­-row inmate, Lester Leroy Bower Jr., managed to win a stay of execution in February to enable the justices to decide whether to hear his challenge to the state courts’ handling of his mitigating evidence.  Last week, the Supreme Court turned down his appeal, thus dissolving the stay, over the dissenting votes of Justices Breyer, Ginsburg and Sotomayor; Justice Breyer, not given to overstatement, wrote that “the error here is glaring.” Since at least two others must have voted for the stay, where were they? Perhaps after carefully considering the merits of Mr. Bower’s appeal, they found itinsufficient. Fair enough. But shouldn’t they have felt moved to tell us something — anything?

An argument on Monday was simply dispiriting. A Louisiana inmate, Kevan Brumfield, with an I.Q. of 75, was sentenced to death before the Atkins decision barred the execution of mentally disabled people.  At trial, his lawyer had presented some evidence of his disability, but not in the detail a court would expect in the post-­Atkins world.  The question for the justices in Brumfield v. Cain was whether he should have received a new hearing. The obvious answer would seem to be: Of course, why on earth not?  But the justices seemed more concerned about whether Mr. Brumfield and his lawyer were trying to game the system.

In 2008, two years before he retired, Justice John Paul Stevens renounced the death penalty.  His nuanced opinion in Baze v. Rees rewards rereading.  No current justice has taken up the call. I’m not so naïve as to predict that a majority of the Supreme Court will declare the death penalty unconstitutional anytime soon.  But the voice of even one member of the court could set a clarifying marker to which others would have to respond. And it just might over time point the way to freeing the court — and the rest of us — from the machinery of death.

April 1, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Prez Obama starts to "walk the walk" on clemency by granting 22 new drug offense commutations

Long-time readers know I have long complained about Prez Obama's failure to make regular use of his clemency power, and I have been especially critical over the last year when we have heard the President and his agents "talk the talk" a lot about a new clemency initiative, but not actually "walk the walk" by granting relief in a significant number of cases.  But today, as reported in this USA Today article, may finally mark the start of a truly new clemency era:

President Obama commuted the sentences of 22 convicted federal prisoners Tuesday, shortening their sentences for drug-related crimes. Eight of the prisoners who will have their sentences reduced were serving life sentences. All but one of the 22 will be released on July 28.

The White House said Obama made the move in order to grant to older prisoners the same leniency that would be given to people convicted of the same crimes today. "Had they been sentenced under current laws and policies, many of these individuals would have already served their time and paid their debt to society," White House Counsel Neil Eggleston said in a statement. "Because many were convicted under an outdated sentencing regime, they served years—in some cases more than a decade—longer than individuals convicted today of the same crime."

In issuing the commutations Tuesday, Obama has more than doubled the number he's granted in his presidency. Before Tuesday, he had issued just 21 and denied 782 commutations in his more than six years. It was the most commutations issued by a president in a single day since President Clinton issued 150 pardons and 40 commutations on his last day in office.

And it could represent the crest of a new wave of commutations that could come in Obama's last two years in office. Last year, the Justice Department announced a new clemency initiative to try to encourage more low-level drug offenders to apply to have their sentences reduced. That resulted in a record 6,561 applications in the last fiscal year, at least two of which were granted commutations Tuesday, according to the Justice Department....

Obama wrote each of the 22 Tuesday, saying they had demonstrated the potential to turn their lives around. "Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy, and you will encounter many who doubt people with criminal records can change," Obama wrote. "I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong."

Of the 22 commutations granted Tuesday, 17 were for possession or trafficking in cocaine. The others were for methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana. One was also convicted of a gun charge in addition to cocaine possession. Their convictions cover a 14-year span from 1992 to 2006.

A list of the 22 individuals receiving commutations today is available via this official White House press release, and the White House blog has this new entry by Neil Eggleston titled "Upholding the Principle of Fairness in Our Criminal Justice System Through Clemency." Here is an excerpt from that entry:

Building on his commitment to address instances of unfairness in sentencing, President Obama granted 22 commutations today to individuals serving time in federal prison. Had they been sentenced under current laws and policies, many of these individuals would have already served their time and paid their debt to society. Because many were convicted under an outdated sentencing regime, they served years — in some cases more than a decade — longer than individuals convicted today of the same crime.

In total, the 22 commutations granted today underscore the President’s commitment to using all the tools at his disposal to bring greater fairness and equity to our justice system. Further, they demonstrate how exercising this important authority can remedy imbalances and rectify errors in sentencing. Added to his prior 21 commutations, the President has now granted 43 commutations total. To put President Obama’s actions in context, President George W. Bush commuted 11 sentences in his eight years in office....

While today’s announcement represents important progress, there’s more work ahead. The Administration will continue to work to review thoroughly all petitions for clemency. And, while commutation is an important tool for those seeking justice and fairness in our penal system, it is nearly always an option of last resort, coming after a lengthy court process and many years behind bars. That is why President Obama is committed to working with Democrats and Republicans on sensible reforms to our criminal justice system that aim to give judges more discretion over mandatory minimum sentencing. As the Department of Justice has noted, mandatory minimum sentences have at times resulted in harsher penalties for non-violent drug offenders than many violent offenders and are not necessary for prosecutions at this level.

Already, one significant reform has become law. In 2010, the President signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the disparity in the amounts of powder cocaine and crack cocaine required for the imposition of mandatory minimum penalties. The President is encouraged by the bipartisan support for improving our criminal justice system, including promising legislation that would implement front-end changes in sentencing. In addition, he supports bipartisan efforts to provide back-end support through better education and job training for those currently incarcerated and to reform of our juvenile justice system to build on the significant reductions in the number of youth being held in secure facilities.

March 31, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Monday, March 30, 2015

Two SCOTUS summary reversals: a notable sex-offender monitoring issue and another AEDPA enforcement

In addition to granting cert on a bunch of Kansas capital cases, the US Supreme Court this morning issued two short per curiam summary reversals today in Grady v. North Carolina, No. 14-593 (S. Ct. March 30, 2015) (available here), and Woods v. Donald, No. 14-618 (S. Ct. March 30, 2015) (available here).  The second of these rulings is just another example of the Justices helping a circuit (this time the Sixth) better understand that AEDPA precludes a habeas grant unless and until an "underlying state-court decision [is] 'contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by' [the Supreme Court]."  

But the first of these rulings are notable because it clarifies and confirms that the Fourth Amendment is applicable to sex offender monitoring.  Here are key passages from the ruling in Grady:

Petitioner Torrey Dale Grady was convicted in North Carolina trial courts of a second degree sexual offense in 1997 and of taking indecent liberties with a child in 2006. After serving his sentence for the latter crime, Grady was ordered to appear in New Hanover County Superior Court for a hearing to determine whether he should be subjected to satellite-based monitoring (SBM) as a recidivist sex offender.  See N. C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §§14–208.40(a)(1), 14– 208.40B (2013).  Grady did not dispute that his prior convictions rendered him a recidivist under the relevant North Carolina statutes.  He argued, however, that the monitoring program — under which he would be forced to wear tracking devices at all times — would violate his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.  Unpersuaded, the trial court ordered Grady to enroll in the program and be monitored for the rest of his life....

The only explanation provided below for the rejection of Grady’s challenge is [a] passage from [a prior state ruling].  And the only theory we discern in that passage is that the State’s system of nonconsensual satellite-based monitoring does not entail a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.  That theory is inconsistent with this Court’s precedents....

[T]he State argues that we cannot be sure its program for satellite-based monitoring of sex offenders collects any information.  If the very name of the program does not suffice to rebut this contention, the text of the statute surely does....  The State’s program is plainly designed to obtain information.  And since it does so by physically intruding on a subject’s body, it effects a Fourth Amendment search.

That conclusion, however, does not decide the ultimate question of the program’s constitutionality.  The Fourth Amendment prohibits only unreasonable searches.  The reasonableness of a search depends on the totality of the circumstances, including the nature and purpose of the search and the extent to which the search intrudes upon reasonable privacy expectations.  See, e.g., Samson v. California, 547 U. S. 843 (2006) (suspicionless search of parolee was reasonable); Vernonia School Dist. 47J v. Acton, 515 U. S. 646 (1995) (random drug testing of student athletes was reasonable).  The North Carolina courts did not examine whether the State’s monitoring program is reasonable — when properly viewed as a search — and we will not do so in the first instance.

March 30, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

SCOTUS grants cert on collection of capital cases from Kansas

The state of Kansas has not carried out a death sentence since 1965.  But even though the Sunflower state has not truly utilized its system of capital punishment for a full half-century, the Supreme Court apparently believes it is important to review three capital cases from the state as evidenced by its cert grants this morning in Kansas v. Jonathan Carr, Kansas v. Reginald Carr and Kansas v. Sidney Gleason.

This AP article provides this summary of the underlying crimes and defendants whose cases are now before the Justices:

The Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear Kansas' appeal to reinstate death sentences for two brothers in the fatal shootings of four people and for another man convicted of killing a couple.

The justices said they will review rulings by the Kansas Supreme Court that threw out the sentences of Jonathan and Reginald Carr and Sidney Gleason. The Kansas court hasn't upheld a death sentence since the state enacted a new capital punishment law in 1994. The state's last executions, by hanging, took place in 1965.

The Carr brothers were sentenced to death for the four killings, which occurred in Wichita in December 2000 and followed dozens of other crimes, including robbery and rape. Gleason was sentenced to die over the couple's deaths, in the central Kansas town of Great Bend in February 2004.

March 30, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Oregon Supreme Court to consider constitutionality of LWOP sentence for public pubic promotion

This local article from the Beaver State, headlined "Oregon Supreme Court to consider: Is it 'cruel and unusual' to imprison public masturbator for life?," reports that the top court in Oregon is taking up a notable sentencing issue in a notable setting. Here are the details:

William Althouse is serving a life prison sentence -- but not because, like many in that situation, he killed someone.  Althouse, 69, has repeatedly exposed his genitals in public with sexual intent. In 2012, after a Marion County jury found him guilty of that conduct again, a judge sentenced him to life without any hope of being released.

The Oregon Supreme Court, however, announced Thursday that it will consider if that amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.  The sentence is disproportionate to the offense, said Daniel Carroll, the defense attorney who represented Althouse at trial, told The Oregonian/OregonLive on Friday. "No one died," he said.

The high court's consideration of the case seems particularly timely given another lengthy sentence -- 18 years -- handed down to a 49-year-old Sherwood man last week who was found guilty of masturbating or exposing himself eight times at the drive-through windows of fast-food restaurants and coffee shops.

In Althouse's case, the state likely will point out that he isn't only a serial flasher -- his life sentence was meant to reflect a long and concerning history of sex offenses. His sex crime convictions include sexual abuse in 1982 and kidnapping, sodomy and sexual abuse in 1993.

Typically, first-time public indecency offenders receive probation and counseling. It's unclear from court records how many times Althouse has been convicted of public indecency, but when he was convicted in 2002 of the crime, court records indicate that he had at least one earlier conviction.

Althouse, who was living in Salem, was arrested in his last case after a female jogger reported seeing him exposing his genitals -- the prosecution contended masturbating -- along a walking path next to the Salem Parkway in October 2011.  After a jury found him guilty in 2012, Marion County Circuit Judge Lindsay Partridge sentenced Althouse to the life term under an Oregon law meant to get tough on sex offenders after their third felony sex conviction.

One of many interesting aspects of this case is the import and possible impact of the age of the offender. In recent SCOTUS rulings, some Justices seemed sensibly influenced by the reality that an LWOP sentence for a juvenile offender can be functionally worse than even a no-parole 50-year sentence. But for an offender in his late 60s, an LWOP sentence is arguably functionally no worse than a no-parole 50-year sentence. Whether and how that should matter for constitutionally purposes is an issue still not yet resolved in debates over LWOP sentences that have been described as "living death sentences."

March 29, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Justices Kennedy and Breyer urge Congress to reform "broken" federal criminal justice system

BreyerKennedyHearing-638x362This new ThinkProgress piece, headlined "Supreme Court Justices Implore Congress To Reform The Criminal Justice System — ‘It’s Not Humane’," effectively reports on the notable comments made about criminal justice reform by two Justices who were testifying before Congress on budget issues yesterday. Here are some of the details:

The prisons are one of the most misunderstood institutions of government. Solitary confinement drives individuals insane. And mandatory minimum sentences are a bad idea. These were the assertions of U.S. Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer in testimony before a House Appropriations subcommittee Monday afternoon.

Asked by Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR) about United States “capacity to deal with people with our current prison and jail overcrowding,” each justice gave an impassioned response in turn, calling on Congress to make things better. “In many respects, I think it’s broken,” Kennedy said of the corrections system. He lamented lawyer ignorance on this phase of the justice system:

I think, Mr. Chairman, that the corrections system is one of the most overlooked, misunderstood institutions we have in our entire government. In law school, I never heard about corrections. Lawyers are fascinated with the guilt/innocence adjudication process. Once the adjudication process is over, we have no interest in corrections. doctors know more about the corrections system and psychiatrists than we do. Nobody looks at it. California, my home state, had 187,000 people in jail at a cost of over $30,000 a prisoner. compare the amount they gave to school children, it was about $3,500 a year. Now, this is 24-hour care and so this is apples and oranges in a way. And this idea of total incarceration just isn’t working. and it’s not humane.

Kennedy, traditionally considered the swing vote among the current set of justices, recalled a recent case before the U.S. Supreme Court in which the defendant had been in solitary confinement for 25 years, and “lost his mind.”

“Solitary confinement literally drives men mad,” he said. He pointed out that European countries group difficult prisoners in cells of three or four where they have human contact, which “seems to work much better.” He added that “we haven’t given nearly the study, nearly enough thought, nearly enough investigative resources to looking at our correction system.”

Kennedy’s comments come just weeks after a federal review of U.S. solitary confinement policy also found that the United States holds more inmates in solitary confinement than any other developed nation. Confinement typically involves isolation in an often windowless cell with a steel door for 23 hours a day, with almost no human contact. The treatment has been found to have a psychological impact in as many as a few days, though, as Justice Kennedy pointed out, many are held for decades. In the wake of the new report, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) called upon the Federal Bureau of Prisons to alter its practices.

In his response, Breyer honed in on Womack’s use of the word “priorities” to suggest that prioritizing long prison sentences was not the best use of resources. “Do you want to have mandatory minimums? I’ve said publicly many times that i think that’s a terrible idea,” Breyer said. “And I’ve given reasons, which I’ll spare you.”

“Is it worth your time on earth, or mine, to try to work out ways of prioritizing? I think it is,” Breyer said. “I think it is a big problem for the country. and so I can’t do anything more in the next minute or 30 seconds other than say I like the word prioritize. I hope you follow it up. And I hope do you examine the variety of ways that there of trying to prioritize and then work out one that’s pretty good.”

As far back as 1998, Breyer has called for the abolition of mandatory minimum sentences, which mandate minimum prison terms by law according to the crime, amount of drugs, or other factors, and give judges no discretion to lower those sentences. He has said they “set back the cause of justice” because they don’t allow for exceptions depending on the circumstances of a given case. Particularly for drug crimes, they have sent low-level drug offenders to prison for sentences that start at 5 or 10 years and quickly ratchet up from there.

This Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Two Supreme Court Justices Say Criminal-Justice System Isn’t Working: Justice Breyer says mandatory minimum sentences are 'a terrible idea'," provides some more notable quotes from the Justices.

March 24, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Monday, March 23, 2015

The extra state habeas question (and its answer?) in Montgomery, the new SCOTUS Miller retroactivity case

Notably, the Supreme Court's cert grant in in another Miller retroactivity case from Louisiana (basics here) included some extra homework for the parties:

14-280 MONTGOMERY, HENRY V. LOUISIANA

The petition for a writ of certiorari is granted.  In addition to the question presented by the petition, the parties are directed to brief and argue the following question: “Do we have jurisdiction to decide whether the Supreme Court of Louisiana correctly refused to give retroactive effect in this case to our decision in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U. S. __ (2012)?"

This added question in Montgomery echoes an issue that the Justices had sought to consider in the prior Toca case, and I think it reflects the thought of some Justices that state courts on state habeas review may not be constitutionally required to apply the modern Teague jurisprudence that federal courts now use in federal habeas review of final state convictions.  If state courts are not required to follow at least the Teague standard, arguably there is not a federal question presented by whether and how a state court applies Teague in a state habeas case.

Notably, in a case from 2008, Danforth v. Minnesota, 552 U.S. 264, 266 (2008), the Supreme Court held that states were permitted to give greater retroactive effect to new federal constitutional procedural rules that did not satisfy a Teague exception.  Thus is it already clear that state courts can give state prisoners in state habeas cases more retroactive benefits than Teague requires.  The added Montgomery question essentially asks whether a federal issue is presented if state courts decide to give state prisoners in state habeas cases less retroactive benefits than Teague requires.  

In some sense from the prisoner's perspective, this second question is kind of an academic exercise: even if the Supreme Court were to decide that it lacks jurisdiction to review whether and how a state court applies Teague in a state habeas case, it is clear that lower federal courts (and the US Supreme Court) have jurisdiction and will apply Teague if and when the state prisoner brings a federal habeas case.  But, then again, this is not an entirely academic exercise because there could be cases in which the state prisoner is not able to bring a federal habeas case (perhaps because of statutory or other problems with bringing such a case).

If this discussion already makes your head hurt and leads you to think you need to take a law school Federal Courts class again, join the club.  Fortunately for all of us, a very insightful Assistant U.S. Attorney, Steven G. Sanders, published last month a great New Jersey Law Journal article about all this titled "Can US Supreme Court Require States to Apply New Fed Rules Retroactively on State Collateral Attack?".  Thanks to Steven and the NJLJ, I can provide this article in full linked below with this disclaimer: “Reprinted with permission from the February 9, 2015 issue of the New Jersey Law Journal. © 2015 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.”

Download NJLJ State retroactivity article

March 23, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Why passage of Prop 47 ensures California remains a hot topic in sentencing and corrections reform

This terrific new bit of reporting at The Crime Report, headlined "Prop 47: The Stormy Aftermath," details why California remains a kind perfect storm for those interesting in studying hot topics in the debates over modern sentencing reforms and the relationship between incarceration and crime. Here are excerpts from the piece:

California’s Proposition 47, passed in a referendum last November, set in motion a dramatic reversal of the state’s approach to mass incarceration. The law changed six of California’s low-level offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, and made eligible for resentencing hundreds of thousands of individuals convicted of those crimes.

Not surprisingly, it has drawn the attention of policymakers and law enforcement authorities from across the country — some of it controversial.

“This was such a big fix — being able to go from felony to misdemeanor,” said Lenore Anderson, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice — an advocacy group that spearheaded the referendum campaign. “We’re engaging in a lot of dialogue about how to change practices, how to put a priority on public safety without relying on over-incarceration.”

But how will success or failure be measured? Four months later, the answer is still not clear — but criminal justice practitioners and advocates contacted by The Crime Report suggest that the passionate debate it fueled is only just beginning.

At a session last month at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, Anderson told criminal justice practitioners and advocates that thousands of prisoners have been resentenced and released since Proposition 47 passed with nearly 60 percent of California voters approving the measure. The move should ultimately free up police, court and prison resources to focus on more serious violent crimes, she said....

Critics of the measure, however, warned that letting people out of jail, and removing the threat of felony charges, would lead to an increase in crime and compromise public safety. Their argument appeared to receive some support when the Los Angeles Times reported on February 21 that narcotic arrests in the city declined significantly after voters approved the bill — while property crimes increased. The story also noted: “some criminal justice experts caution against drawing conclusions.”...

One criminologist who isn’t a fan of the early assessments of Proposition 47’s impact on crime is Barry Krisberg, a Senior Fellow of the Earl Warren Institute at the University of California Berkeley Law School — and an occasional contributor to The Crime Report. “This alleged increase in property crimes, I’m not believing it,” he said in an interview. “That information isn’t even officially produced yet; it’s based on police counts, which are often inaccurate.”...

Former San Diego Police Chief Bill Landsowne, who retired in March 2014, says law enforcement organizations — in particular the state’s Police Chiefs, Sheriffs' and District Attorneys associations — are responsible for orchestrating a media push to discredit Proposition 47. “As a sitting chief it would have been very difficult for me to advocate for Prop 47,” Landsowne, a proponent of the referendum, told The Crime Report. “You don’t want to be an outlier in the process, you want to be tough. But police know we need more treatment options in the system."...

To criminologist Eugene O’Donnell a former New York City police officer, the mixed early statistical returns — and the debate surrounding them — is not surprising. “It’s absolutely premature, you can’t just snap your fingers and fix a complicated problem,” O’Donnell, a professor at John Jay College, said. “This is going to be something that has a long-term impact; trying to make a 60-day assessment is impossible.”

March 23, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Three Justices lament SCOTUS failure to do death-penalty error correction in Texas case

Though the big Supreme Court sentencing news today is the cert grant in another Miller retroactivity case from Louisiana (basics here), also notable for sentencing fans is this dissent from the denial of certiorari in a Texas capital case authored by Justice Breyer (joined by Justices Ginsburg and Justice Sotomayor). Here are snippets from the start and end of the opinion:

On April 28, 1984, petitioner Lester Leroy Bower was convicted in a Texas court of murdering four men. Each of the four men had been shot multiple times. Their bodies were left in an airplane hangar, and an ultralight aircraft was missing.

The State sought the death penalty. Bower introduced evidence that was, in his view, mitigating. He noted that he was 36 years old, married, employed full-time, and a father of two. He had no prior criminal record. Through the testimony of Bower’s family members and friends, the jury also heard about Bower’s religious devotion, his commitment to his family, his community service, his concern for others, his even temperament, and his lack of any previous violent (or criminal) behavior.

At the time of Bower’s sentencing, Texas law permitted the jury to consider this mitigating evidence only insofar as it was relevant to three “special issues”...

[The] Texas Court of Criminal Appeals believed that the use of the special issues proceeding in Bower’s sentencing proceeding did not constitutionally entitle him to resentencing.

Bower now asks us to grant certiorari and to reverse the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. In my view, we should do so. Penry’s holding rested on the fact that Texas’ former special issues did not tell the jury “what ‘to do if it decided that [the defendant] . . . should not be executed’” because of his mitigating evidence. Abdul-Kabir v. Quarterman, 550 U.S. 233, 256 (2007) (quoting Penry, supra, at 324). Bower’s sentencing procedure suffered from this defect just as Penry’s did. The distinction that the Texas court drew between Penry’s and Bower’s evidence is irrelevant. Indeed, we have expressly made “clear that Penry . . . applies in cases involving evidence that is neither double edged nor purely aggravating, because in some cases a defendant’s evidence may have mitigating effect beyond its ability to negate the special issues.” 550 U.S., at 255, n. 16. The trial court and the Fifth Circuit both recognized that Bower’s Penry claim was improperly rejected on that basis.

The Constitution accordingly entitles Bower to a new sentencing proceeding.  I recognize that we do not often intervene only to correct a case-specific legal error.  But the error here is glaring, and its consequence may well be death.  After all, because Bower already filed an application for federal habeas relief raising his Penry claim, the law may bar him from filing another application raising this same issue.  See 28 U.S.C. §2254(b)(1). In these circumstances, I believe we should act and act now.  I would grant the petition and summarily reverse the judgment below.  I dissent from the Court’s decision not to do so.

March 23, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Supreme Court takes up a replacement juve LWOP retroactivity case from Louisiana

As reported in this AP piece, the US Supreme Court this morning found a replacement for the prior resolved case (Toca) dealing with the retroactivity of its 2012 Miller decision.  Here are the basics:

The Supreme Court is adding a new case to decide whether its 3-year-old ruling throwing out mandatory life in prison without parole for juveniles should apply to older cases. The court was scheduled to hear arguments in a case from Louisiana in late March, but the state released inmate George Toca after 30 years in prison.

The justices on Monday said they would consider a new Louisiana case involving a man who has been held since 1963 for killing a sheriff's deputy in Baton Rouge.  Henry Montgomery was a 17-year-old 10th grader who was playing hooky from school when he shot Deputy Charles Hurt at a park near the city's airport. The officer and his partner were looking to round up truants.

The case will be argued in the fall.... The case is Montgomery v. Louisiana, 14-280.

Some SCOTUS-related posts on the prior Toca case and Miller retroactivity:

March 23, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Florida Supreme Court decides unanimously that Miller applies retroactively to all mandatory juve LWOP sentences

As reported in this local piece, the "Florida Supreme Court unanimously ruled Thursday that all of the state’s juvenile killers who received automatic sentences of life in prison must be resentenced under a law passed in 2014." Here is more: 

The long-awaited ruling answers the question of whether the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, which effectively banned automatic life sentences for juvenile killers, applies retroactively. An estimated 250 state prisoners, 17 of them from Lee and Collier counties, are serving life sentences for murders committed before they turned 18.

Under Florida’s 2014 law, passed to conform with the U.S. Supreme Court decision, only juveniles who committed homicides after July 2014 were subject to a revised sentencing structure, which required a judge to consider several factors before determining a prison term. For about 20 years before the law’s passage, Florida mandated a life sentence for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder.

Since the state’s law was passed, Florida trial and appeal courts have grappled with whether juveniles who killed before July 2014 and received automatic life sentences should also receive the same consideration. After the state’s five appeals courts gave conflicting opinions, the Florida Supreme Court weighed in Thursday.

The seven justices found that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ban “constitutes a development of fundamental significance,” the standard used to determine whether changes to Florida law apply retroactively. “The patent unfairness of depriving indistinguishable juvenile offenders of their liberty for the rest of their lives, based solely on when their cases were decided, weighs heavily in favor of applying the (U.S.) Supreme Court’s decision in Miller retroactively,” Justice Barbara J. Pariente wrote in the opinion....

Under Florida’s new law, juveniles can still receive life behind bars. That sentence, however, must be made after a judge considers several factors, including the juvenile’s personal background, maturity and criminal history. At a minimum, a juvenile convicted of first-degree murder who committed the homicide must receive 40 years in prison.

The full ruling in Falcon v. Florida, No. SC13-865 (Fla. March 19, 2015), is available at this link.

March 19, 2015 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Notable empirical review of what happens to most death sentences

This new Washington Post piece by two researchers provides an interesting review of the state and fate of most modern death sentences. The piece is headlined "Most death penalty sentences are overturned. Here’s why that matters," and here are excerpts:

If a person is given a death sentence, what is his or her chance of actually being executed? Based on a review of every death sentence in the United States since 1973, the beginning of the modern era of the death penalty, we have found that the most likely outcome isn’t being executed or even remaining on death row as an appeal makes its way through the courts.  In fact, the most common circumstance is that the death sentence will be overturned....

From 1973 to 2013, 8,466 sentences of death were handed down by U.S. courts, and 1,359 individuals were executed — only 16 percent.  Even excluding those who remained on death row as of 2013, only about 24 percent of condemned inmates have been executed. Those sentenced to death are almost three times as likely to see their death sentence overturned on appeal and to be resentenced to a lesser penalty than they are to be executed.  Here is a summary of the outcomes:

  • 8,466 death sentences were imposed across the United States from 1973 through 2013.
  • 3,194 were overturned on appeal, composed as follows. For 523, the underlying statute was declared unconstitutional. For 890, the conviction was overturned. For 1,781, the death penalty was overturned, but guilt was sustained.
  • 2,979 remain on death row as of Dec. 31, 2013.
  • 1,359 were executed.
  • 509 died on death row from suicide or natural causes.
  • 392 had their sentence commuted by the governor to life in prison.
  • 33 had some other outcome or a miscellaneous reason for being removed from death row.

Execution is in fact the third most likely outcome following a death sentence. Much more likely is the inmate to have their sentence reversed, or to remain for decades on death row....

In the early years of the modern death penalty, many were removed from death row because the underlying statute under which they were condemned was ruled unconstitutional. In fact, of 721 individuals sentenced between 1973 and 1976, just 33 were eventually executed.  Other reversals have come because inmates’ individual convictions were overturned, and some were exonerated entirely.

But by far the most likely outcome of a U.S. death sentence is that it will eventually be reversed and the inmate will remain in prison with a different form of death sentence: life without the possibility of parole.

Why would reversal of the sentence be the single most common outcome of a death sentence? Capital trials have many unusual characteristics, but a key one is that there is an automatic (or “direct”) appeal through the state appellate courts and, if the death sentence is not overturned by the state appellate or supreme court, a review by a federal judge....

States differ greatly in the degree to which they carry out their legal promise of death, but most operate systems consistent with the trends above: They sentence far more inmates to death than they actually execute....

The average state has a 13 percent likelihood of carrying out a death sentence. Some states — such as Texas, South Dakota, Missouri, and Oklahoma — significantly higher rates, though none of these states reaches a level of 50 percent. In fact, only one state, Virginia, has executed more than half of the inmates it has condemned....

Texas, Florida, and California have all condemned more than 1,000 individuals to death in the modern period. However, the numbers of executions in these states are 508, 81, and 13, respectively. Virginia has sentenced 152 individuals to die, and 110 have been put to death.

I find these numbers notable and interesting, but I find not at all compelling the reasons stated in this commentary (and left out of the excerpt above) for why we should find these numbers troubling. If lawmakers and voters want to have a death penalty system that works very hard to ensure only the worst of the worst get executed after providing the accused with a form of super due process, it makes sense that the system will, through checking and double checking of every death verdict, screen out any and all suspect cases. This is a costly and time-consuming process for all involved, but so is every aspect of American government if and when we devote extraordinary resources to making sure everything has been done just right.

In addition, it bears noting that there were roughly 800,000 murders in the United States from 1973 to 2013.  Thus, arguably far more remarkable than the relatively few executed from among those given a death sentence is the amazingly few murderers given a death sentence during this period.  Because only a little over 1% of all murderers were given death sentences, I am not sure why I should be especially troubled that only a portion of these condemned actual were executed.

March 17, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Sparring over sentencing reform lingo involving the media and Senator Grassley

LogoVia this recent Washington Post piece, I see that Senator Charles Grassley last week delivered this notable floor speech assailing the Smarter Sentencing Act.  Notably, the Post piece, headlined "The Orwellian deception of Chuck Grassley’s 'leniency industrial complex'," attacks some language in Senator Grassley's speech, a speech which itself attacks some language used by advocates of sentencing reform. Here are excerpts from the Post piece:

In a strongly-worded floor speech on Tuesday, Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Ia.) blasted the Smarter Sentencing Act, which is currently before his committee. Grassley accused the bill's bipartisan supporters, including fellow Republicans Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Rand Paul, of being part of a so-called "leniency industrial complex," a rather colorful turn of phrase.  In the past, he's defined this as "some people in Congress, the public, academia, and the media, who think that sentences that are being imposed on serious criminal offenders are too stringent."  Notice, though, the complete lack of "industry" in Grassley's "industrial complex."

The Smarter Sentencing Act is a fairly modest bill that does not in any way repeal mandatory minimum sentences.  But it does reduce some of them, and it gives federal judges more discretion in how to apply them, particularly ones that apply to nonviolent drug offenders.

That small step toward reform is evidently a bridge too far for Grassley.  He opened his speech with a litany of the dangers and harmful effects of the narcotics trade -- that heroin use is on the rise, that some terrorist groups profit from the drug trade, etc. These facts are hardly in dispute.

The problem is that Grassley believes, contrary to a mountain of evidence, that mandatory minimum sentences are effective tools for combating these problems.... Perhaps the most damning case against mandatory minimum drug sentences is that since they were instituted in the 80s and 90s, the use of illicit drugs has risen and their price has fallen dramatically....

Grassley accuses supporters of the bill of being "Orwellian" in their rhetoric.  In his essay Politics and the English Language, Orwell wrote that "political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness."  There may be no finer example of this than Grassley's use of the term "leniency industrial complex," which would seem to imply the existence of a powerful corporate network that would profit, somehow, from keeping people out of jail....

The only thing Orwellian about the debate over the Smarter Sentencing Act is Grassley's continued insistence that it would cost money, promote crime and benefit an unnamed "industrial complex" -- when in fact it would do the exact opposite.

I share the view that it is silly to speak of a "leniency industrial complex," and there are lots of other linguistic flourishes in Senator Grassley's floor speech that could be extensively picked apart for rhetorical excess and inaccuracy.  But, but the same measure, I understand Senator Grassley's expressed concern with terms like "low-level" and "non-violent" (echoing points previously made here by Bill Otis) because use of these terms in sentencing reform debates are "question-begging" and do involve "sheer cloudy vagueness."  Though I may myself be sometimes guilty of using or repeating these terms, I think a term like "less serious" is a better term that "low-level" (though still vague).  And what can and should qualify as violent or non-violent crime has been such a problem in federal law that the US Sentencing Commission has given up trying to fix this matter and the US Supreme Court might soon blow up a statute for its vagueness in this arena.

Semantic debates aside, the Senator Grassley speech appears most significant for its apparent indication that the mandatory minimum drug sentencing reforms in the Smarter Sentencing Act will not be going anywhere while he is in charge of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  I hope this does not mean all federal sentencing reform is dead, but it does suggest any significant reforms are going to be a long, hard slog.  On a more positive note for would-be reformers, Senator Grassley's latest floor speech indicates that he recognizes "[p]roblems do exist in the criminal justice system," including that "for too many times in America, equality under the law is not a reality [because] the poor do not receive the same justice in many instances."  Perhaps if sentencing reformers can start to emphasize economic inequalities regarding who gets slammed with the toughest sentences, maybe this key Senator will be more open to hearing ideas for reform 

March 17, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, March 16, 2015

Interesting review of Ohio Gov John Kasich's clemency record

In part because seemingly so few modern executives make regular use of their clemency powers, and in part because Ohio Gov John Kasich has granted clemency in a number of high-profile capital cases, I had come to think my own governor's clemency record was pretty good.   But this new Columbus Dispatch story, headlined "Kasich rarely uses clemency to pardon, commute sentences," details that Kasich's clemency record compares poorly to prior Ohio governors:

In his first four years in office, Gov. John Kasich used his executive clemency power more sparingly than any other Ohio governor in the past three decades.

He granted 66 of 1,521 requests, about 4.4 percent of 1,521 non-death-penalty cases he received and acted upon from 2011 to 2014, according to information obtained by The Dispatch under a public-records request. That makes him the most conservative with clemency of any Ohio governor going back to the 1980s, when the state began tracking gubernatorial clemency.

Last year, Kasich, a Republican who began his second term in January, approved 17 of 433 clemency requests he reviewed, about 4 percent. All of the cases approved were pardons, some going back to crimes committed more than 25 years ago. A pardon wipes out a past criminal record.

Kasich commuted the death sentences of five killers during his first term, but allowed 12 to be executed. He recently used his executive authority to push back the entire execution schedule for a year, to January 2016, to allow time for the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to obtain sufficient quantities of new execution drugs as permitted by a change in state law....

In the past 30 years, Ohio governors have used clemency in different ways, sometimes reflecting personal ideological persuasions. Former Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, approved 20 percent of 1,615 clemency requests he handled between 2007 and 2011. Most involved low-level, nonviolent offenses, but he did commute five death-penalty sentences to life without parole.

No Ohio governor in modern history has commuted a death sentence and set a prisoner free. Republican governors George V. Voinovich (1991-98) and Bob Taft (1999-2007) each approved less than 10 percent of the clemency requests they received. Gov. James A. Rhodes, a Republican, approved 17.5 percent of clemencies in 1982, his last year in office.

Democrat Richard F. Celeste, governor from 1983 to 1991, used his clemency power most liberally, commuting the death sentences of eight killers on Death Row in his next to last day in office. He also granted clemency to 25 female prisoners, reasoning they were victims of “battered-woman syndrome” and deserved mercy.

Celeste’s actions caused an uproar, and the clemency process was legally challenged. The General Assembly changed the law to require governors to have a recommendation from the Ohio Parole Board before making any clemency decision. The governor doesn’t have to agree with the parole board, but merely have a board recommendation in hand. In fact, Kasich differed with the board in 23 cases last year, each time rejecting clemency for inmates who had been favorably recommended.

March 16, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Senator Paul continues to emphasize criminal justice reform with minority audience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some recent and older related posts:

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

Friday, March 13, 2015

"Jones, Lackey, and Teague"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by J. Richard Broughton now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In a recent, high-profile ruling, a federal court finally recognized that a substantial delay in executing a death row inmate violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments. Courts have repeatedly rejected these so-called “Lackey claims,” making the federal court’s decision in Jones v. Chappell all the more important. And yet it was deeply flawed. This paper focuses on one of the major flaws in the Jones decision that largely escaped attention: the application of the non-retroactivity rule from Teague v. Lane.

By comprehensively addressing the merits of the Teague bar as applied to Lackey claims, and making the case for applying the bar, this paper adds to, and challenges, the existing literature on capital punishment, Lackey claims, and Teague doctrine. This paper dissects the Jones ruling on the application of Teague, examining the Supreme Court’s “new rule” case law and concluding that Lackey claims, when viewed at the appropriate level of generality, propose a new rule. It then addresses the more complicated aspect of applying Teague in this context, recognizing that the first Teague exception poses the most likely basis for avoiding the Teague bar on a Lackey claim. At a minimum, Lackey claims (like Miller v. Alabama claims, now the subject of substantial Eighth Amendment litigation on collateral review) sit at the intersection of procedural and substantive rules. Nonetheless, this paper makes the case for viewing the claim as procedural and therefore Teague-barred. Ultimately, then, this paper emphasizes a point that could substantially influence existing litigation: litigators and federal judges should take the Teague bar more seriously when considering Lackey claims on federal habeas review, particularly when viewed in light of modern habeas rules and doctrine that limit relief and protect the interests of the states. But the paper also emphasizes an important point about death penalty policy and politics: if the state is to have a death penalty at all, it should be prepared, and willing, to ensure that death sentences are actually carried out.

March 13, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, March 09, 2015

Right on Crime poll reports most Texans want to "spend more money on effective treatment programs [rather than] on our prison system"

Last week, Bill Otis over at Crime & Consequences in this post wondered what the general public thinks about Attorney General Eric Holder's advocacy for "smart on crime" reforms. Bill there asks:

What is the electorate's view of the current state of crime and punishment in America? Does the public agree with the Attorney General that we have too many people in prison for too long, or does it think we aren't doing enough to keep people who commit crime off the street?  To my knowledge, this question has never been polled by any respected organization.

I am unsure if Bill would consider the Texas Public Policy Foundation or Right on Crime to be a "respected organization," but today brings the release of a new poll from these sources that suggests that Texans strongly support the state's own "smart on crime" reforms that have served as something of a model for AG Holder's own advocacy for sentencing reform. This press release, titled "New Poll Shows Voters Strongly Support New Justice Reforms in Texas," provides the details, and here are excerpts from it:

A new poll released today by Right on Crime, the nation’s leading conservative public policy campaign for criminal justice reform, shows voters strongly support criminal justice reforms in Texas.  The poll conducted by Wilson Perkins Allen Opinion Research for the Texas Public Policy Foundation found that the vast majority of likely Texas voters want to hold more nonviolent offenders accountable in communities, make penalties proportionate to the crime, and ensure those leaving prison spend part of their sentence-under community supervision....

The poll was conducted by Wilson Perkins Allen Opinion Research from February 24-26, 2015. The study has a sample size of 1000 likely voters, with a margin of error of ±3.1%. Some significant findings from the survey, include:

• 73% of voters in Texas strongly support reforms that would allow non-violent drug offenders found guilty of possession to be sent to a drug treatment program instead of jail.

• Voters agree that we should spend more money on effective treatment programs (61%) rather than spending more money on our prison system (26%)....

“Texans are clearly demanding a different solution to the state’s criminal justice problems, especially when it comes to nonviolent offenders,” said Right on Crime Policy Director Marc Levin.  “The primary reason to adopt these policies is that they are the most cost-effective way to fight crime, but it is reassuring to see that average Texans recognize this as well.”

March 9, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

SCOTUS finally takes up whether Florida's capital system is constitutional in light of Apprendi and Ring

One big question that arose way back in 2000 when the Supreme Court issued its landmark Apprendi decision was whether capital sentencing schemes that incorporated judicial death penalty determinations were still constitutional.  In 2002, in Ring, the Supreme Court somewhat clarified matter when it found Arizona's capital sentencing scheme problematic in light of Apprendi.  Now, finally and remarkably, the Supreme Court has decided to decide whether Florida's capital sentencing scheme is constitutional in light of Apprendi and Ring.

This new SCOTUS order list has just one new cert grant, and here it is:

HURST, TIMOTHY L. V. FLORIDA: The motion of petitioner for leave to proceed in forma pauperis is granted. The petition for a writ of certiorari is granted limited to the following question: Whether Florida's death sentencing scheme violates the Sixth Amendment or the Eighth Amendment in light of this Court's decision in Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002).

Notably, according to the Death Penalty Information Center's data, Florida has carried out 39 executions since the Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Ring in 2002, and I suspect a good number of those Florida condemned (and now dead) murderers asserted that their death sentencing violated the Sixth Amendment and/or the Eighth Amendment in light of Ring.  If there is some kind of afterlife for executed murderers, I expect there will now be some interesting SCOTUS talk in the Florida section of that netherworld.

March 9, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

"Hey, Grandpa: End Mandatory Minimums!"

The title of this post is the headline of this Daily Beast piece highlighting the generational divide which now impacts the fate and future of some proposed federal sentencing reforms. Here are excerpts:

[A] wave of young conservative leaders has been pushing for a variety of reforms to address problems that, in many cases, disproportionately affect the African-American community. The bad news it that these conservatives have a formidable adversary: Their elders.

When word leaked last month the Smarter Sentencing Act would be reintroduced, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, 81, wasted little time in going nuclear. “It is a fact that the so-called Smarter Sentencing Act would cut in half the mandatory minimum sentences that Congress put in place for distributing drugs to benefit terrorists or terrorist organizations,” he said. ... Terrorists?!?

The bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act included Republicans Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Jeff Flake as co-sponsors — hardly the sort to want to help fund terrorists. But this isn’t a new line for Grassley, who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and it isn’t clear whether the terrorist line is a sincere (albeit wrongheaded and crank-ish) concern, or merely a way to kill reform....

According to Vikrant Reddy, a senior policy analyst for the conservative Right on Crime, the generational divide — not the partisan divide — is the issue. “It is true that Senator Grassley has expressed skepticism about the Cruz-Lee proposals, but it is also true that Dianne Feinstein voted against last year’s Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act," Reddy said. “Senators Grassley and Feinstein have very little in common, but they do share a generation: They are both exactly 81 years old.”

Meanwhile, the loudest voices for criminal justice reform in Congress are members of Generation X: Mike Lee is 43, Ted Cruz is 44, and Cory Booker is 45. But Reddy doesn’t want to bash his elders just for the sport of it. There is, he insists, a perfectly good explanation for the generational divide: Grassley and Feinstein came of age in an era of high crime....

But the violent crime rate has consistently dropped in recent decades, and many reformers believe the pendulum has swung too far. “We may be at the point where high levels of incarceration are themselves ‘criminogenic,’ meaning that they actually cause more crime than they prevent, because extremely lengthy prison stays produce high recidivism rates,” says Reddy.

It would be a mistake to return to the bad old days of being soft on crime, but it would also be foolish to fail to adapt to changing times.  Rather than resting on our laurels, we should continue to tweak and fix problems.  Bipartisan agreement is rare in Washington, and it would be a shame to scuttle one of the few areas where conservative reformers have a real opportunity to do well by doing good.

... And they might have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those meddling codgers.

March 9, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Profile of one (of thousands) of the juve LWOP stories full of post-Miller uncertainty

Thanks to How Appealing, I saw this interesting article from North Carolina about the history of an offender long serving an LWOP sentence for a juvenile murder who still awaits resolution of whether he can benefit from the Supreme Court's work three years ago in Miller v. Alabama.  The piece is headlined "Convicted of murder at 16, Anthony Willis is hoping a Supreme Court decision will overturn his sentence," and merits a full read for those following post-Miller developments closely. Here is an excerpt from the lengthy piece:

[I]f nothing else, prison gives a man time to reflect. Willis slowly came to realize — even though he was expected to die behind bars — that he needed his life to matter. The best way to do that, he decided, was to lean on God and to educate himself. After earning his GED, Willis began taking anger- and stress-management classes and attending prison fellowship seminars.

He earned back-to-back-to-back associate degrees from Western Piedmont Community College and a bachelor's degree from California Coast University. His mother attended his graduation ceremony for his first associate degree.  "That's my baby," Brenda Willis yelled as Willis walked down the aisle.  She was so proud of her son.

That's a big part of Willis' motivation today.  He wants his mother to know that his actions as a teenager were never her fault....  Now 35, his appearance and demeanor are nothing like one might expect from a man who has spent slightly more than half his life in prison. Most of the other prisoners call him Smiley, a nickname that has transferred with him from prison to prison.

Thin, polite, boyish and articulate, Willis seems to have been transformed by prison into a man who has gained respect by learning to stop following the herd.  Willis said he has found comfort in the Lord and teaches those virtues to other prisoners.  He said he regularly leads prison fellowship seminars and takes pride in his role as a mentor and recreational leader.  Willis said he often counsels new prisoners almost as soon as they get off the bus.  Most mistake his optimism for someone who is about to get released — anyone but a lifer....

Willis acknowledges that serving a life sentence isn't easy. "It's hard to hold onto hope in here," he said. "It's like holding onto a ledge by your fingertips." But he endures the best he can, buoyed by his faith, his new-found purpose in life and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling called Miller vs. Alabama.

On June 25, 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life in prison without parole for people who committed murder as juveniles constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling effectively struck down laws in 28 states, including North Carolina....

The court did not bar mandatory life sentences without parole in all juvenile homicide cases. It said lower courts could impose such a sentence only after examining mitigating factors, including family environment, the circumstances of the offense and the possibility of rehabilitation.  But the court didn't make its order retroactive, so it does not apply to Willis and 87 other murderers convicted as juveniles and now serving life sentences in North Carolina.

In December, the Supreme Court agreed to consider whether the Miller ruling should be made retroactive in a Louisiana murder. But the case was resolved at the state level, leaving no issue for the federal court to hear. So making Miller retroactive remains in limbo, at least in North Carolina.

Less than two weeks after the Miller ruling, North Carolina's General Assembly responded by approving a law that requires a parole review after a juvenile murderer has spent a minimum of 25 years in prison.  But again, the law applies only to sentences handed down after the Miller ruling.  Courts in at least nine states — including South Carolina — have ruled that the ruling will be applied retroactively. Five other states have ruled that the decision is not retroactive.  North Carolina's appellate courts continue to consider the issue.

March 9, 2015 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack