Wednesday, September 19, 2018

An impressive overview of the SCOTUS criminal docket on the eve of a new Term

Rory Little has this terrific lengthy post over at SCOTUSblog under the heading "Criminal cases in the October 2018 term: A law professor’s dream." The post provides a detailed review of a handful of the criminal cases on tap for the start for the coming Supreme Court Term as well as a brief review of all the other. Here is how the post begins:

Applying a broad definition, 13 of the 38 cases in which the Supreme Court has granted review for the upcoming October 2018 term raise criminal law and related issues.  (A few more will be granted in the “long conference” order list to be released September 27.)  This is about average: Between a quarter to a third of cases decided by the court every year are criminal-law-related. But this term the docket feels a bit special: As I explained to the American Bar Association in my “Annual Review of the Supreme Court’s Term, Criminal Cases” last month, October Term 2018 might be described as a criminal law professor’s dream.

September 19, 2018 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"A Way Out: Abolishing Death By Incarceration in Pennsylvania"

AlcThe title of this post is the title of this lengthy new report released this week by the Abolitionist Law Center.  Here are excerpts from its executive summary:

Over the last 25 years, the number of people serving life-without-parole, or death-by-incarceration (DBI), sentences in the United States has exploded from 12,453 people in 1992 to over 53,000 people today — 10% of whom are incarcerated in Pennsylvania.

With over 5,300 people sentenced to DBI and one of the highest per capita DBI sentencing rates in the country, Pennsylvania stakes a strong claim as the U.S. and world leader in this distinctively harsh form of punishment and permanent exclusion of its citizens. Philadelphia, with nearly 2,700 people serving DBI sentences, is the world’s leading jurisdiction in sentencing people to die in prison —more than any county or parish in the United States and far more than any individual country in the world.

In 1974, fewer than 500 people were serving DBI sentences in Pennsylvania.  As of September 2017, 5,346 people are serving death-by-incarceration sentences in Pennsylvania. Despite a 21% decline in violent crime between 2003 and 2015, Pennsylvania’s population of people sentenced to DBI has risen by 40% between 2003 and 2016.6 Pennsylvania ranks near the top of every measure of DBI sentences across the country....

Like most measures of the criminal legal system, death-by-incarceration sentences disproportionately impact communities of color.  Black Pennsylvanians are serving death-by-incarceration sentences at a rate more than 18-times higher than that of White Pennsylvanians.

Latinx Pennsylvanians are serving DBI sentences at a rate 5-times higher than White Pennsylvanians. Racial disparities in DBI sentences are even more pronounced than among the overall Pennsylvania prison population, in which 47% of those incarcerated are Black, compared to 11% of the state’s population. Of those serving DBI sentences, however, 65% are Black while 25% are White.

Among other interesting aspects of this big report is this introductory note about terminology:

Throughout this report we use the term Death By Incarceration (DBI) when referring to life-withoutparole (LWOP) sentences.  We do this for several reasons.  First, it is the preferential term selected by incarcerated people that we work with who are serving these sentences, and we are a movement-lawyering organization that is accountable to the movements we work with.  Second, it focuses on the ultimate fact of the sentence, which is that the only way it ends, barring extraordinary relief from a court or the Board of Pardons, is with death.  Third, DBI invokes the social death experienced by the incarcerated, as they are subject to degraded legal status, diminished rights, excluded from social and political life, tracked with an “inmate number” like a piece of inventory, and warehoused for decades in this subjugated status.  Finally, although DBI in this report is used to refer to LWOP sentences, the DBI label indicates that our concern is not merely with LWOP sentences, but inclusive of other term-of-years sentences that condemn a person to die in prison.

September 19, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Previewing the two capital punishment administration cases before SCOTUS this fall

Garrett Epps has this lengthy new commentary at The Atlantic under the headline "The Machinery of Death Is Back on the Docket: Two Supreme Court cases this fall pose hard questions about the death penalty." Here are some excerpts:

Madison v. Alabamato be argued on October 2, asks whether states can execute demented murderers who no longer remember their crimes; Bucklew v. Precythe asks when, if ever, a prisoner’s individual physical condition makes execution by lethal injection “cruel and unusual.”...

[Vernon] Madison’s legal team — led by Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative—argues that “No penological justification or retributive value can be found in executing a severely impaired and incompetent prisoner.” 

Alabama’s response is that the goals of capital punishment — retribution for the wrong and sending a warning to possible future offenders—are served as long as Madison knows why he is being executed, even if he doesn’t remember committing the acts. Madison’s particular condition may have been verified by doctors, the state argues, but dementia has many causes. Future claims of dementia and memory loss will be too easy to fake.

The high court has already held that states may not execute the mentally ill or the intellectually disabled; the leap to the demented would seem inevitable. But Justice Anthony Kennedy, the force behind these limits, has left the court, and death jurisprudence, as of the first Monday of next month, will likely be more volatile than usual.

In November, the court will take up the case of Russell Bucklew, whom the state of Missouri seeks to execute for the 1996 murder of Michael Sanders.... Bucklew doesn’t contest his guilt, nor does he claim that Missouri’s lethal-injection protocol is in itself “cruel and unusual.” His is what lawyers call an “as applied” challenge. What that means is this: Though lethal injection may pass muster for most executions, he argues, in his individual case, because of his unusual physical condition, the injection will cause him intense and intolerable pain.

He suffers from a rare medical condition call cavernous hemangioma. The condition has given rise to multiple blood-filled tumors in his head and mouth. These make it difficult to breathe and are prone to bloody rupture. He must sleep sitting up to avoid choking on his own blood. Being strapped flat to a gurney will subject him to suffocation, he argues. In addition, since his blood vessels are affected, he says, those administering the drugs will probably have to use a lengthy and painful procedure called a “cutdown” before the drugs can be administered, prolonging the agony....

Bucklew did offer an alternative already provided in Missouri law — a gas chamber filled with nitrogen gas, which would render him unconscious and then dead without the agony of suffocation.  The Eighth Circuit said that he did not prove the gas chamber would be better.  The court below had heard from two expert witnesses — one who described the agony of lethal injection and another who stated that gas would kill him more quickly.  A trial court could compare the two descriptions and reach its own conclusion about relative agony.  Not good enough, said the appeals court; Bucklew was required to provide one expert who would offer “comparative testimony” — in effect, a single witness to say that one method is less cruel than another....

The Bucklew case, however it is resolved, shows how fully the court has become enmeshed in the sordid details of official killing. As the population of death row ages, issues of age-related disease and dementia will become more important in assessing individual death warrants, and the court will be the last stop for those challenged.

The court seems likely to be hostile to prisoners’ claims, however.  In recent years, when the high court stepped in to halt executions, Justice Anthony Kennedy was usually the deciding vote. Kennedy will almost certainly be replaced by Brett Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh is formally an unknown on the issue. His conservatism in general, however, is orthodox, and conservative orthodoxy is hostile to new claims that executions are “cruel and unusual.”

September 18, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, September 17, 2018

SCOTUS preview guest post: "Strange Bedfellows at the Supreme Court"

Guest-postsI am very grateful that Wayne Logan, the Gary & Sallyn Pajcic Professor of Law at Florida State University and the author of Knowledge as Power: Criminal Registration and Community Notification Laws in America (Stanford Univ. Press, 2009), reached out to offer me an original commentary on a case to be heard by the Supreme Court next month.  Here it is:

Herman Gundy, convicted of providing cocaine to a young girl and raping her, is a decidedly unlikely emissary in conservatives’ campaign to dismantle the administrative state.  In Gundy v. United States, to be argued the first week of the Supreme Court’s coming term, the Justices will address whether Congress violated the “non-delegation doctrine” when it directed the U.S. Attorney General to decide whether the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) should apply to individuals convicted before its 2006 enactment.  Gundy, whose rape conviction was in 2005, has a dog in the fight because the attorney general made SORNA retroactive, and Gundy was convicted of a felony under SORNA after he traveled interstate in 2012 without informing authorities.

The Court’s decision to hear Gundy’s case came as a major surprise.  The Justices have not invalidated a congressional delegation in over eighty years and all eleven federal appellate courts addressing the issue have concluded that the delegation was proper.  At least four Justices, the number needed to grant certiorari, however, thought the issue worth considering, clearing the way for a potential major assault on the modern administrative state, which is shaped by countless congressional delegations of authority to agencies.

If this occurs, it would be ironic.  Conservatives usually tout people like Gundy as poster boys for tough-on-crime policies, such as SORNA, which was enacted by a Republication Congress, signed into law by Republican President George W. Bush, and made retroactive by his attorney general (Alberto Gonzales).  Meanwhile, liberals, often fans of the administrative state, in areas such as environmental protection and workplace safety, tend to voice concern over such heavy-handed criminal justice initiatives.

On the merits, Gundy appears to have a strong claim.  For a delegation to be proper, Congress must provide an “intelligible principle” to guide the delegated decision, which as Chief Justice John Marshall stated in 1825 should merely “fill up the details” of a law’s application.  With SORNA, Congress simply directed the attorney general to decide the retroactivity question — hardly a detail, as it affected half a million people and has required significant federal prosecutorial resources.

Whether SORNA should apply retroactively is the kind of basic policy question that democratically accountable members of Congress should decide.  But they punted, for obvious political reasons.  The House and Senate could not agree on retroactivity and, when states later provided the attorney general input on SORNA’s possible retroactivity to their own registries, many vigorously objected to retroactivity.

Regardless of whether registration and notification actually promote public safety, which research has cast doubt upon, federal policy on the issue has long been marked by overreach.  Since 1994, when Congress first began threatening states with loss of federal funds unless they followed its directives, federal involvement has rightly been viewed as both foisting unfunded mandates upon states and a ham-fisted effort to policy-make in an area of undisputed state prerogative: criminal justice policy.

When Gundy is argued and decided Justice Neil Gorsuch will likely play a key role.  As a member of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, then-Judge Gorsuch wrote a lengthy dissent from his colleagues’ refusal to reconsider en banc their decision that the SORNA delegation was proper.  Gorsuch advocated a requirement of heightened guidance in criminal justice delegations, justified by the unique “intrusions on personal liberty” and stigma of convictions.  There is considerable appeal to Justice Gorsuch’s view, which the Court itself suggested in 1991.  Moreover, unlike other policy areas, such as environmental quality and drug safety, criminal justice typically does not require scientific or technical expertise, lessening the practical need for delegations in the first instance.

Ultimately, the Court might conclude, with justification, that the SORNA delegation was invalid because it lacked any “intelligible principle.”  On the other extreme, as Justice Thomas might well urge, the Court could outlaw delegations altogether.  Chief Justice Roberts, in a dissent joined by Justice Alito, recently condemned the “vast power” of the administrative state, and Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh has signaled similar antipathy.  Meanwhile, it is hard to say how the Court’s liberals will vote, given the conflicting interests at work.  Time will tell how the dynamic in Gundy plays out but the uncertainty itself provides yet more evidence of the high stakes involved in filling the Court’s current vacancy.  

September 17, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, September 15, 2018

"A Reparative Approach to Parole-Release Decisions"

The title of this post is the title of this paper authored by Kristen Bell recently posted to SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Scholars have argued for enhanced procedural protections at parole hearings, but for the most part without a focus on what substantive criteria ought to guide parole-release decisions.  I undertake this normative project, first describing the approach to parole-release decision criteria from the perspective of four standard theories of punishment: retributive theory, deterrence theory, rehabilitation theory, and communicative theory.  I argue that each of the respective criteria flowing from these theories of punishment is morally objectionable on two grounds: failure to respect the agency of prisoners, and failure to take seriously the limits of our knowledge.  After setting forth these theories and the objections to which they are subject, I turn to draw lessons from how California’s parole-release system functions in practice.

Drawing on both the theoretical and practical perspectives on parole-release criteria, I argue in favor of a fundamental change.  I propose a “reparative approach” that builds on aspects of restorative justice and takes seriously respect for the moral agency of prisoners, victims, and the broader political community.  On this approach, people directly affected by the crime join with others at the outset of a prisoner’s sentence to deliberate and decide upon reasonably achievable criteria that the prisoner would need to meet in order to be released.  At the end of the prisoner’s judicially prescribed period of incarceration, the release decision would then be a ministerial determination of whether the prisoner has in fact met the criteria that were decided upon at the outset.  I leave for future work the question of whether and how such a policy could be implemented in the context of the contemporary American criminal justice system.

September 15, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Florida felony disenfranchisement ugliness getting a lot more scrutiny thanks to John Oliver

John-oliver-discusses-felony-disThis local article, headlined "This HBO comedian ridiculed Florida’s clemency process. Rick Scott takes it seriously," reports on notable developments in Florida thanks in part to a low-profile issue getting some high-profile attention.  Here are excerpts:

For only the third time this year — but this time under a withering national media glare — Florida’s highest elected officials sat in judgment Tuesday of people whose mistakes cost them the right to vote.

During a five-hour hearing, 90 felons made their case to Florida Gov. Rick Scott and three members of the Cabinet, asking to have their rights restored. It was a packed house in the Cabinet room of the state Capitol, as Tuesday’s hearing drew reporters and cameras from, among other outlets, NPR, The Huffington Post and The Guardian. The hearings typically attract one or two members of the Tallahassee press corps.

Only two days before, Florida’s restoration of rights process was skewered on national TV by John Oliver of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight.” He devoted a 13-minute segment to the Florida clemency system, calling it “absolutely insane” and mocking Scott for creating “the disenfranchisement capital of America.”

Under a policy struck down by a federal judge that remains in effect while Scott and the state appeal, anyone with a felony conviction in Florida must wait five years before petitioning the state to regain the right to vote, serve on a jury or possess a firearm.

Florida has an estimated 1.5 million felons who have been permanently stripped of the right to vote, far more than any other state. To get their rights restored, they must formally apply to make an appeal before Scott and the Cabinet, which is now composed of Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis....

Voters will have a chance to overhaul the restoration system before Scott and the three Cabinet members are scheduled to hold their next clemency hearing on Dec. 5. A month before then, on Nov. 6, voters will decide on Amendment 4 that would restore the right to vote to most felons after they complete their sentences, if 60 percent of voters approve....

The five-year waiting period was implemented by Scott, Bondi, Putnam and another Cabinet member after their election in 2010. A statewide petition drive collected nearly 1 million signatures to get Amendment 4 before voters this fall.

Scott, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate against Democrat Bill Nelson, supports the existing system. With his approval, the state is now appealing U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker’s decision to strike down the rights restoration system as arbitrary and unconstitutional.

Amendment 4 does not distinguish between violent and non-violent felons, but people convicted of murder and sex crimes would not be eligible to regain their rights if it passes. A political committee that supports the amendment, Floridians for a Fair Democracy based in Clearwater, spent $3.579 million in the week ending Aug. 31, with nearly all of the money spent on a “media buy,” which likely means TV advertising. The group has raised $14.4 million so far with large contributions from a number of wealthy out-of-state individuals and from the American Civil Liberties Union.

The permanent elimination of civil rights to felons has been in effect in the state for more than a century, under Republican and Democratic governors, and was lifted only during the four-year term of Charlie Crist, from 2007 to 2011, when 155,315 offenders who were released had their rights restored. Under Scott, only about 4,350 offenders have had their rights restored.

The full John Oliver segment, which is gets especially interested toward the end, is available at this link.

Some (of many) prior related posts:

September 12, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

A terrific partial unpacking of "Johnson v. United States: Three years out"

I noted in posts here and here last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Senators Orrin Hatch and Tom Cotton are talking up the need for reform to the Armed Career Criminal Act in response to the Supreme Court's 2015 ruling in Johnson v. US.   I just now noticed that Andrew Hamm has this lengthy follow-up post at SCOTUSblog under the title "Johnson v. United States: Three years out."  I recommend that post in full, and here is a flavor:

After the decision in Johnson, individuals sentenced under ACCA’s now-defunct residual clause filed petitions for collateral review, a procedure that allows prisoners, within certain constraints, to ask a court to amend their sentences.  Additional follow-on litigation to Johnson has involved questions about other aspects of ACCA’s “violent felony” definition, as in next term’s United States v. Stitt, as well as vagueness challenges to definitions of “violent felony” in other statutes, as in last term’s Sessions v. Dimaya.

But even as these and other challenges play out in the courts, Johnson’s real-world consequences in the three years since the case was decided raise other questions about recidivism, re-entry and policy.  For example, have people sentenced as career offenders and released early after Johnson gone on to commit more crimes?  If some have, are certain, less vague sentence enhancements — as Sessions has recommended and as new legislation introduced by two Republican senators would impose — the proper “fix” to Johnson?  This post looks at some of the different factors at play....

Earlier this month, two Republican senators, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, introduced the Restoring the Armed Career Criminal Act to, as they wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, “fix the law that was struck down.” In their press releases announcing the proposed legislation, Hatch and Cotton mentioned victims in their states whom Sessions also discussed.  According to a one-pager about the legislation, the act “would do away with the concepts of ‘violent felony’ and ‘serious drug offense’ and replace them with a single category of ‘serious felony.’ A serious felony would be any crime punishable by 10 years or more.”

Brian Colas, Cotton’s general counsel, and Baron-Evans agree that this new legislation would avoid the vagueness problems of the original ACCA residual clause.  They disagree on how broadly the law would sweep.  Whereas Colas points to the fact the crimes must be punishable by 10 years or more, which he takes as a proxy for the high seriousness of an offense, Baron-Evans worries about the many people regularly sentenced to less than 10 years but for whom 10 years or more would represent a statutory maximum.

Raghavan suggests that subjecting drug offenders to the same sentencing enhancement as violent offenders may not be warranted based on recidivism rates. In its 2016 report on people sentenced as career offenders, the Sentencing Commission split individuals into three categories: career offenders with only drug-trafficking offenses, those with only violent offenses, and those with mixed offenses.  People sentenced as career offenders with only drug-trafficking offenses had a lower recidivism rate than those in the other categories. Among those who did recidivate, those with only drug-trafficking offenses “tended to take longer to do so” than those in the other categories. Additionally, “offenders in the other two pathways who were rearrested were more likely to have been rearrested for another violent offense” than offenders with only drug-trafficking offenses.

The next step for the legislation is the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Colas estimates that it will take six to eight months for this legislation to get through the committee. He notes that the act will be absorbed into a “broader fight” for criminal justice reform in Congress. 

This post provides a clear and balanced review of data and the state of the debate over one proposed ACCA fix in the wake of Johnson.  But I call the post only a "partial unpacking" of the post-Johnson landscape because it does not address whether and how federal ACCA charging practices have changed after Johnson and/or whether it might be especially sound to just give judges more sentencing discretion in response to an array of ACCA problems.

The reason Johnson in particular, and ACCA in general, is so consequential and the subject of so much litigation is because ACCA's intricate and vague rules about predicate offenses turn a regulatory crime (possessing a firearm as a felon) with normally only a 10-year maximum sentence into a mega-crime with a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence.  Rather than dicker excessively over the particulars of the rules for qualifying predicates in future ACCA debates, it might make a lot more sentence to just raise the normal maximum to, say, 15 years and also lower the ACCA minimum to, say, 5 years.  By so doing, persons with priors that might or might not qualify for ACCA treatment still could be sentenced under (advisory) guidelines in the 5-to-15-year range without a need to litigate all the particulars of all the priors.  Just a thought for would-be staffers looking forward to "six to eight months" of ACCA debates.

Prior related posts:

September 11, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 10, 2018

Events and resources covering Ohio sentencing and prison reform ballot initiative known now as Issue 1

Depc_testA few months ago, I flagged here the interesting and intricate drug sentencing and prison reform initiative headed for the November 2018 ballot here in Ohio.  Originally called the "Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Amendment," the initiative now is just known within Ohio as Issue 1.   With early voting in Ohio now just a month away and Election Day 2018 not much more than 50 days away, the new Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law has a lot of Issue 1 programming about to begin and has a lot of resources already assembled on its website.

This Thursday, September 13 at 12noon, starts a series five public panels under the title Ballot Insights.  Registration for these panels is available at this link, where you can also find more details on scheduled speakers and on which aspects of the Issue 1 will be the focus for particular panels (e.g., a first panel in October is focused on the Issue 1 provisions expanding "earned time credit" for Ohio prisoners to reduce their sentences through rehabilitative programming; a second panel in October looks at how to ensure any increased funding for drug treatment is utilized effectively). 

I have the pleasure of moderating the first Issue 1 panel this coming Thursday, which is titled simply "Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Amendment: Step in the Right Direction."  This panel will include a leading proponent of Issue 1 (Steven JohnsonGrove of the Ohio Justice & Policy Center), a leading opponent of Issue 1 (Louis Tobin of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association), and a leading Ohio criminal justice reform expert (Daniel Dew of The Buckeye Institute).  The bios of the presenters are detailed at this link.

In addition to all the panels, DEPC has also created a Resources Page for Issue 1, which includes links to the ballot language, position statements from various groups and select media coverage.  DEPC is also building out a Commentary Page on Issue 1 for publishing original commentary that the Center has solicited. (A pair of public health scholars submitted this first commentary for publication on the DEPC site.)

 Prior related posts:

September 10, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Another effective examination of ups and down of federal clemency (and the persistence of hope) in modern times

Against the backdrop of almost complete disuse of the federal clemency power (especially the power to commute prison sentences) which had become a modern norm, the clemency activity over the last few years of the Obama Administration and at the start of the Trump Administration have been encouraging.  But this effective extended review of recent developments, with a focus on the case of "Life for Pot" defendant John Knock, highlights that for many downs rather than ups define the reality of all the buzz around clemency.  The article's full headline highlights its themes: "The Prisoners Left Behind: How Barack Obama’s clemency operation failed thousands of drug offenders, some serving long sentences for cannabis crimes, and left them at the mercy of Donald Trump’s whims."  Here is an excerpt:

Knock is one of more than 1,500 drug offenders set to die in federal prison under 1980s-era drug sentencing laws, despite a critical shift in drug punishments since then. Dozens of those lifers are marijuana offenders like him. With no other recourse, Knock had turned to clemency as his best chance at freedom.  Obama’s program was well intentioned but hobbled by poor planning.  Trump has commuted the sentence of just one drug offender so far, but that’s enough to give some inmates a shred of hope.

But those hopes were misplaced. Although President Obama’s program did grant more than 1,700 commutations — more than any other president — clemency experts say bureaucracy and poor planning stifled the program’s ability to free many more. Out of the 13,000 people denied between 2014 and 2017, thousands appeared to be worthy candidates—at least on paper, according to a 2017 analysis by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.... 

But in fact, the commission found that only 3 percent of drug offenders who appeared to meet all of the DOJ’s criteria actually received clemency. Conversely, only 5 percent of the people who did receive clemency appeared to meet all of the criteria. Without much transparency in the review process, several critics now compare it to a “lottery system.” 

“It felt like a lottery, in the sense that if you say you need six criteria to be considered, people are going to take you at your face value,” said Courtney Oliva, executive director of NYU’s Center on the Administration of Criminal Law.  Thousands of other petitions got no response at all. On Obama’s final day in office, 11,000 pending petitions rolled over into President Donald Trump’s administration, leaving thousands of cases still languishing in limbo as inmates looked to another president for mercy....

[I]n early June the president did commute the life sentence of Alice Johnson, who had served twenty years in prison for her role in a large cocaine distribution ring. Before Trump, President Obama had denied Johnson’s requests for clemency three times. 

Trump’s move came at the request of a celebrity, Kim Kardashian West, who visited the White House again this week to discuss criminal justice reform.  Kardashian also said this week she has a second candidate for clemency in mind, a man named Chris Young who is serving a life sentence for cannabis and cocaine convictions.  He was thirty years old when he was sent to prison almost a decade ago. Two days after granting Johnson’s clemency, Trump said he was considering other pardons from a list of 3,000 names. But despite his decision for Alice Johnson, some still doubt the possibility of a wholesale initiative like Obama’s. 

“I think there’s a lot of uncertainty as to what it means because I don’t trust this administration,” said Courtney Oliva. “Assuming we have a normal president again someday, you’re going to want a system that’s not path-dependent on Kim Kardashian.”  But to John Knock and his family, the latest clemency approval has ushered in a surge of optimism.  “How do I feel? Hopeful,” Knock wrote in a letter, days after Johnson’s release. “Obama had seven layers of bureaucracy one had to pass through.  Trump has one.” 

“It’s disruptive to the way the system has always worked,” Knock’s sister Beth Curtis said. “If it is done directly through the White House, and the White House considers petitions that had been carefully vetted by people in the criminal justice community, that’s a very positive thing.”... 

“I still have hope,” Knock said.  Knock’s name is among the several that have been sent directly to senior advisor Jared Kushner, according to Curtis, and Knock’s was sent by “a man who knew John in high school who is a friend of Mike Pence.”

September 10, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Notable review of Japan's modern administration of its death penalty

This new press piece under the headline "Cruel yet popular punishment: Japan's death penalty" provides an accounting of capital punishment's operation and reception in the only major modern democracy other than the US using it. Here are excerpts:

Years waiting on death row, inmates told their fate just hours before their execution, and guards paid extra to do an "unbearable" job –- Japan's capital punishment system is criticized as cruel and secretive yet remains popular. Unusually for an major industrialised power, capital punishment in Japan enjoys broad public support with few calls for its abolishment.

Inmates are executed not by professionals but by ordinary prison staff who may have been guarding the condemned for months or even years, and who receive extra pay of 20,000 yen each. "It's awful, the body bounces like a 70-kilogram object on a nylon rope," said Toshio Sakamoto, who witnessed noosed inmates plunge to their deaths, and described the process as "unbearable."

Blindfolded convicts, usually those who have killed more than one person, are led to a spot with their feet bound and hands cuffed. Then, a trapdoor opens below. The mechanism is triggered by a button in an adjacent room, pressed simultaneously by several officers, although none is told which button is the "live one" that will cause the prisoner's fall....

Japan is the only major industrialised democracy other than the United States to carry out capital punishment. The system was thrust into the international spotlight in July when the country hanged 13 doomsday cultists but the secretive methods have come under fire for being cruel for criminals, families and guards.

Under law, the death sentence should be carried out six months after confirmed by the top court. In reality however, prisoners languish on death row for many years -- Japan has a total of 110 awaiting execution. "Prisoners are typically only given a few hours' notice before execution, but some may be given no warning at all," said Amnesty International in a recent statement.

"Inmates are kept in isolation suffering the anguish of never knowing when they are going to be put to death -– sometimes for decades," added the pressure group. Families are only informed after the execution, noted Amnesty.

The government cites broad public support as a reason to maintain capital punishment but there is little public debate as the whole process is veiled in secrecy. The authorities have just once allowed a 30-minute media visit inside the glass-walled execution room in the Tokyo Detention House, arguably the best-kept among Japan's seven facilities with gallows.

A 2014 government survey of around 1,800 people showed 80 percent thought capital punishment was "unavoidable", with only one in 10 in favor of abolishing it. But 38 percent thought it should be abolished if Japan introduces life imprisonment without parole -- something the penal code does not currently allow.

One 62-year-old businessman in Tokyo said it would be "insane" to think of scrapping capital punishment. And Mika Koike, a 29-year-old IT engineer, said: "Taking the victims and their families into consideration, I think there is no other clear, absolute way to punish the offenders." Kotaro Yamakami, a 25-year-old politics student, said murderers should pay in kind....

For now, there is no sign that Japan's leaders are pondering any changes. On July 5, the eve of executions of seven Aum cultists, a smiling Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was photographed in a drinking party with fellow politicians, giving the thumbs-up for a collective snapshot with his justice minister who had signed off on the hanging orders.

September 10, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, September 09, 2018

"Sex Offenders, Custody and Habeas"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper by Wendy Calaway now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Habeas Corpus is lauded as the ultimate bastion of protection for individual liberty.  It is often the last opportunity criminal defendants have at their disposal to unshackle themselves from a criminal conviction or sentence.  Despite the rhetoric surrounding habeas corpus, legislative efforts to limit access to habeas review are well known and have become pervasive.  However, at least one aspect of these limitations has traditionally been given very liberal interpretation by the courts.  The requirement that the habeas petitioner be in custody in order to be eligible for habeas review has been given broad definition.  The courts have not required that an individual be physically held in order to satisfy the custody requirement.  In a series of cases, the courts have determined that everything from parole, to probation, to an OR bond pending trial satisfy the statutory requirement of custody.  However, the courts have uniformly refused to extend this liberal interpretation of custody to individuals subject to statutory sex offender requirements.

This Article argues that the requirements imposed on sex offenders are at least as onerous and burdensome as those imposed on parolees, probationers and those on bond awaiting trial. In many cases, the sex offender requirements are considerably more arduous.  The Article discusses the history and evolution of the custody requirement and its application to sex offender cases.  Using specific examples of cases where individuals subject to the sex offender requirements have suffered tangible and intangible restrictions on liberty and have failed to obtain relief in the courts, the Article argues that the courts have failed to consider the actual implications of these restrictions. Social science research on the collateral consequences of sex offender requirements is reviewed.  The Article concludes that courts should re-examine the application of the custody doctrine to sex offenders, acknowledging the actual effects these restrictions have on the liberty interests of the individuals.

September 9, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Can Kimme bring "REAL systemic change" to the clemency process? She is with all the right folks at the White House.

After Kim Kardashian West talked Prez Donald Trump to commute the life sentence of a drug offenders (basics here), I am inclined to call her a leading force in modern criminal justice reform. And now, as detailed in this CNN piece, headlined "Kim Kardashian at White House for clemency review session," she is back at the White House preaching the need for systemic reform:

Kim Kardashian West arrived at the White House on Wednesday to discuss sentencing reform and clemency issues with White House officials, two White House officials told CNN. The reality TV star and entrepreneur was not expected to meet with President Donald Trump, one White House official said, though the plans could change.

Kardashian West, who successfully lobbied Trump earlier this summer to commute the sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, a nonviolent drug offender serving a life sentence, returned to the White House on Wednesday for a listening session on clemency issues with White House officials, including the President's son-in-law Jared Kushner.

"Today at the White House, members of the administration are hosting a listening session about the clemency process. The discussion is mainly focused on ways to improve that process to ensure deserving cases receive a fair review," deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley said in a statement.

Kardashian West was just one of several prison reform advocates and legal activists at the White House for the listening session on Wednesday, including Van Jones, a CNN political commentator and former adviser to President Barack Obama; Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society; Mark Holden, the general counsel of Koch Industries and Jessica Jackson Sloan, a human rights attorney and prison reform advocate.

Other attendees include Rachel Barkow, Brittany Barnett, Alex Gudich, Shon Hopwood, Paul Larkin, Mark Osler and Kevin Sharp, a former federal judge....

Trump's exercise of that clemency power has so far been on a case-by-case basis and frequently animated by personal loyalty or personal advocacy efforts. The White House is now seeking to create a regular review process for clemency review.

Kardashian West has signaled in recent days that she is taking up another case, appearing on the podcast "Wrongful Conviction" to say that she is now working on the case of Chris Young, who is serving a life sentence related to a drug case due to a mandatory minimum prison sentence.

This report is very encouraging, as is this tweet from Ms. West:

A few of many recent related posts about recent Trumpian clemency activity:

September 5, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Federal district court finds Louisiana LWOP sentence for low-level recidivist unconstitutionally excessive under Eighth Amendment (and local DA will not appeal to Fifth Circuit)

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss this local press report, headlined "Judge orders release or resentencing of St. Tammany man serving life for burglary," discussing a notable ruling from the federal district court in New Orleans.  Here are the basics:

When he went before a judge in 2010, Patrick Matthews was a 22-year-old father of two who had a criminal record but had never spent a day in prison. But to the office of former north shore District Attorney Walter Reed, he was a hardened criminal who deserved a life sentence as a habitual offender for the crime of simple burglary. Matthews received that sentence with no chance at parole in a state where “life means life.”

Eight years later, Reed is a convicted federal felon, though his case is on appeal. The Legislature has changed the law so that no one could receive a sentence like Matthews’ today, but Matthews himself, now 31, remains behind bars at a prison in St. Gabriel.

On Wednesday, however, U.S. District Judge Nannette Jolivette Brown said Matthews’ life sentence violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment. She ordered him to be resentenced to a lesser term or released within 120 days.

Current 22nd Judicial District Attorney Warren Montgomery’s office is not appealing Brown’s decision, although prosecutors could still seek to keep him in prison for several years more. Attorney Justin Harrell said his client’s family is ecstatic. “At least there’ll be an end to it, as opposed to that indefinite life sentence,” Harrell said.

Although the federal court ruling hinged on the specific facts of Matthews’ case, it is in line with a larger shift in the past decade away from Louisiana’s strict mandatory minimum sentences. In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union estimated that 429 people in Louisiana were serving sentences of life without possibility of parole for nonviolent offenses — more than in any other state. Criminal justice reform advocates like the ACLU singled out Matthews as an egregious example of the state’s penchant for sending people away for life for nonviolent offenses.

The Legislature changed the habitual offender law in 2017 to make it less strict. However, those changes did not affect sentences already in place. With his appeals in state court exhausted, Matthews had only the federal courts to ask for mercy.

Brown agreed to adopt the recommendation of Magistrate Judge Janis van Meerveld, who acknowledged that it was rare for the federal courts to weigh in on a state sentence. However, Meerveld said, Matthews presented an unusual case.... Meerveld said she had “no hesitation in finding that a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a youthful, drug-addicted offender guilty of nothing more than two clusters of minor, nonviolent property crimes crosses the line from merely harsh to grossly disproportionate.”

Prosecutors under both Reed's and Montgomery’s administrations consistently opposed Matthews’ appeals, but lately their stance has changed. In a short brief filed in July, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Caplan replied to a question from the judge as to whether the sentence was grossly disproportionate. “It appears that way,” he said.

As this press account reveals, US District Judge Nannette Jolivette Brown granted relief on "Matthews' excessive sentence claim" on the basis of the recommendation of US Magistrate Judge Janis van Meerveld.  Judge van Meerveld wrote an extended opinion explaining her recommendation in Matthews v. Cain, No. 2:15-cv-00430-NJB (E.D. La. Aug. 13, 2018), and that opinion can be downloaded below (and merits a full read).  Here are some key passages therein (emphasis in original):

Of course, the mere fact that a sentence is harsh does not mean that it is disproportionate.  Nevertheless, the undersigned has no hesitation in finding that a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a youthful, drug-addicted offender guilty of nothing more than two clusters of minor, nonviolent property crimes crosses the line from merely harsh to grossly disproportionate.  As one scholar has noted: “[T]here is no uglier disproportionality than a man, guilty of a minor crime, banished to a cage for the remainder of his life.”  Craig S. Lerner, Who’s Really Sentenced to Life Without Parole?: Searching for the “Ugly Disproportionalities” in the American Criminal Justice System, 2015 Wis. L. Rev. 789, 793 (2015) (footnote omitted)....

[A]at the time Matthews was sentenced, Louisiana law punished a wide swath of fourth offenders identically, regardless of the nature of their criminal histories.  Accordingly, a fourth offender with a history of nonviolent property crimes, such as Matthews, was treated no differently than a fourth offender with a history of violent crimes and/or serious sex offenses. However, the impropriety of equating such disparate offenders was so apparent that the state has now abandoned that practice.  In fact, as Matthews noted and the respondent did not dispute, an individual with Matthews’ criminal history would not even be eligible for a life sentence as a habitual offender under current Louisiana law.

The undersigned therefore finds that an interjurisdictional comparative analysis likewise supports a conclusion that Matthews’ sentence is unconstitutionally excessive.  It must be noted that this conclusion neither calls into question the general constitutionality of Louisiana’s habitual offender law nor impugns the state’s decision to employ a harsher recidivist sentencing structure than those employed by the vast majority of its sister states.  Rather, it is simply a recognition that even among the minority of states that vigorously punish recidivism, a sentence of life imprisonment without parole for a young, drug-addicted, nonviolent, sporadic burglar who had never been sentenced to a single day in prison for his prior offenses is such an anomaly as to be unconstitutional.

Download Matthews v. Cain excessiveness opinion

September 4, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, September 02, 2018

After 40+ years as a senator, Orrin Hatch now expresses concerns about acquitted conduct to promote Judge Kavanaugh's elevation

I am always pleased when politicians show a willingness to "evolve" on various issues, especially when they evolve toward a position that I embrace.  So I am quite pleased to see this lengthy new SCOTUSblog commentary by Senator Orrin Hatch under the headline "Judge Kavanaugh’s fight for stronger jury rights," which assails "basing prison sentences on conduct for which a defendant has been acquitted by a jury." I recommend the piece in full, and these particular passages justify both praise and follow-up questions:

Kavanaugh’s decisions have spanned the full spectrum of cases and controversies, including those that impinge on the liberty of some of the most overlooked individuals in America — criminal defendants.  One example, especially important to me, is his objection to basing prison sentences on conduct for which a defendant has been acquitted by a jury.  It’s a practice as outrageous as it sounds....

Every single circuit court has found it “reasonable” for a judge to enhance a sentence based on acquitted conduct. This follows the Supreme Court’s 1997 decision in United States v. Watts, which upheld the use of acquitted conduct against a double jeopardy challenge because “a jury’s verdict of acquittal does not prevent the sentencing court from considering conduct underlying the acquitted charge, so long as that conduct has been proved by a preponderance of the evidence.”  The court thought that statutory sentencing ranges would keep sentences proportional to the convicted offenses. But the broad ranges embraced by our criminal code make it easy to separate crime from its punishment....

In the current system, a judge can inflate a defendant’s sentence for a convicted crime to make up for the jury’s decision to acquit him of a separate charge.  Judges should not wield that kind of veto.

​I’m troubled by the consequences this has on the venerated role of juries in criminal justice.  Beyond these policy problems, which are in my purview as a legislator, are constitutional concerns, which have rankled Kavanaugh’s judicial sensibilities. His understanding of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments has caused him to question why “many key facts used to calculate the sentence are still being determined by a judge under a preponderance of the evidence standard, not by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.”...

I find it remarkable that Kavanaugh, despite his open campaign against the use of acquitted conduct at sentencing, has rebuffed the easy temptation of judicial activism. In the 2015 case United States v. Bell, he agreed that current precedent prevented the D.C. Circuit from reviewing the issue. The only appropriate action, he said, was for sentencing judges to think twice before choosing to consider acquitted conduct.  Only a few months ago, he again wrote separately in an acquitted-conduct case to reaffirm that precedent tied his hands, dissenting in part in United States v. Brown. But he didn’t abandon his drumbeat for change through the proper channels. He concluded, “If th[e] system seems unsound — and there are good reasons to be concerned about the use of acquitted conduct at sentencing, both as a matter of appearance and as a matter of fairness — Congress and the Supreme Court may fix it, as may individual district judges in individual cases.”...

​The Supreme Court’s evolving jurisprudence on the appropriate roles of judge and jury as factfinders for the purpose of sentencing has dovetailed with my own reconsideration of the use of acquitted conduct at sentencing. In the past, I have been supportive of considering all relevant conduct at sentencing, including acquitted conduct.  But Kavanaugh and others have convinced me that this practice must end — as a matter of fundamental fairness if not of constitutional law.  I plan to soon introduce the Acquitted Conduct Sentencing Reform Act, which will stop judges from punishing defendants for crimes for which a jury found them “not guilty.”  The contours of civilization require fairness in our criminal justice system, and the Constitution demands that American men and women hold prosecutors and judges accountable. The role of the jury is central to the Constitution’s protection of individual rights, and it is time for Congress to restore power to the people.

​Sure, it would be much easier to let circuit judges reverse sentences that were based on acquitted conduct. Introducing a bill, as I plan to do, can be tedious and hard work. I’m happy to take on the task for an important issue like this, but meanwhile, defendants are serving time for crimes they didn’t do.  It’s frustrating to me, and it’s frustrating to Kavanaugh. But he has prudently declined to step outside of his constitutional role. Time and time again, he has respected precedent and affirmed the repugnant power of sentencing judges to consider acquitted conduct.  However, Kavanaugh has wisely used his judicial platform to shed light on troubling law that shackles the rights of criminal defendants. His legal acumen, compassion, and respect for the judicial role assure me, and should assure you, that he will be an excellent, fair, and faithful justice.

I could not be more thrilled to hear a prominent experienced Senator calling acquitted conduct sentencing "outrageous" and asserting that "this practice must end."  I am also over the moon to hear that Senator Hatch is soon to introduce the "Acquitted Conduct Sentencing Reform Act," and I sincerely hope some folks have the sense to try to role it into the on-going federal prison and sentencing reform bills working their way through Congress. 

But I have to ask, as follow-up question number one for Senator Hatch, what took you so long?  The ugliness of acquitted conduct sentencing has been on full display since the 1997 Watts decision and your commentary here also references the 2014 dissent from certorari by Justice Antonin Scalia in an acquitted conduct case.  And Judge Kavanaugh has been calling for the barring of acquitted conduct guideline enhancements for nearly a decade.  Moreover, Senator Hatch, you served a chair of the Judiciary Committee at the time Watts was decided and also when Blakely was decided and Booker was before SCOTUS.  For those of use who have long railed against acquitted conduct sentencing, it sure would have been nice to have an ally like you, Senator Hatch, much sooner than a few months before your retirement after more than four decades in charge of helping to make the rules for the federal sentencing system.

That all said, my biggest follow-up question is for every other member of Congress: Are you willing to sign on ASAP to the "Acquitted Conduct Sentencing Reform Act" and commit to making its passage a fitting going-away present for Senator Hatch.  Because I agree with Senator Hatch that acquitted conduct sentencing is "outrageous" and is a practice that "must end," I hope all members of Congress join in on the Senator Hatch acquitted conduct (r)evolution.

A few prior posts with thoughts on sentencing jurisprudence in a post-Justice Kennedy Court:

Previous related posts on the acquitted conduct stressed by Senator Hatch:

September 2, 2018 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

Saturday, September 01, 2018

Could Gov Jerry Brown really be tempted to commute all of California's death row on his way out of office?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent Fox News article headlined with a similar question, "Will Jerry Brown commute sentences of every death row inmate in one of his last acts as California governor?". Here are excerpts:

[A]s Jerry Brown’s tenure as governor of California draws to a close in January, capital punishment supporters have raised the specter that he could commute many, if not all, of the sentences.

On March 28, California’s Supreme Court issued an administrative order making it possible for Brown to commute the sentences or grant clemency.

Michele Hanisee, president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys in Los Angeles County, told the Orange County Register earlier this week that this removes any impediment Brown may have faced. Before that, a governor had to get the approval of the majority of the state Supreme Court in the case of an inmate with two or more felony convictions. “They basically have green-lighted the governor to grant clemency to anyone…and said they won’t interfere,” she said.

California has the largest death row population in the country, but only 13 have been executed since capital punishment was reintroduced to the state in 1978, with the last one occurring in 2006. Appeals that drag out for many years are common. Last year, there were 400 death penalty appeals pending.

Despite its liberal reputation, more than half of California’s residents have expressed support for the death penalty, striking down referenda calling for it to end.

Brown, a former Jesuit seminarian who as a young man demonstrated against capital punishment, made his opposition to it clear during his political campaigns, but also said he’d respect the law regarding it while serving as attorney general and governor.

Asked if the governor was considering commuting death sentences, a spokesperson for Brown told Fox News: “A request for commutation is a serious matter, and every applicant is carefully and diligently vetted. The Governor issued commutations earlier this month… California inmates can petition to have their sentence reduced or eliminated by applying for a commutation of sentence. To be clear, no individuals on death row have received commutations.”...

Kent Scheidegger, an attorney who argued for Proposition 66 – a measure to speed up executions – said that anything is possible as far as Brown and California politics, but he believed the governor would not commute death sentences. “Despite his personal opinion, he said he’d enforce the death penalty,” said Scheidegger, who is legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in California. Scheidegger expressed concern about the state high court’s order appearing to give Brown more sway over commuting death sentences, telling Fox News: “That’s worrisome.”

Since executions rarely have been carried out in California and elsewhere, some have called the death penalty symbolic, and pointless. Scheidegger said he disagrees. “It’s important because there are some crimes for which anything less is simply not justice.”

September 1, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

"State Legislatures and Solving the Eighth Amendment Ratchet Puzzle"

The title of this post is the title of this paper recently posts to SSRN and authored by Jeffrey Omar Usman. Here is its abstract:

The United States Supreme Court’s evolving standards of decency jurisprudence has come to be understood as having forged an irreversible one-way ratchet moving only toward greater leniency.  The seemingly irreversible ratchet emerges both from practical challenges for state legislatures in pursuing stricter sanctions under the evolving standards of decency framework of analysis and an underlying assumption that moral evolution in criminal justice only moves towards lesser not greater sanctions.

This Article offers a challenge to the latter assumption, the view that moral evolution can only be towards lesser not greater sanctions being imposed. This Article also attempts to provide a solution to the practical problem of the Eight Amendment ratchet puzzle, rendering reversible the seemingly irreversible ratchet.  In doing so, the Article sets forth two critical mechanisms — contingent legislation and the active use of resolutions — which if utilized by state legislatures will enable them to more effectively engage in a constitutional dialogue with the United States Supreme Court in defining societal evolving standards of decency.

September 1, 2018 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Maryland top court issues lengthy split opinions on application of Eighth Amendment limits on juve life sentences

The Maryland Court of Appeals handed down today a very lengthy opinion addressing the application of Eighth Amendment limits on lengthy juvenile sentences.  The opinion in Carter v. Maryland, Nos. 54 (Md. Aug. 29, 2018) (available here), gets started this way:

It has been said that “mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution; justice without mercy is cruelty.” A sentence of life in prison without parole may be just for certain adult offenders, but the Eighth Amendment’s proscription against cruel and unusual punishments precludes that sentence for a juvenile offender unless the defendant is an incorrigible murderer. Although there need not be a guarantee of release on parole, a sentence imposed on a juvenile offender must provide “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”  In this opinion, we consider three cases involving crimes that were committed when each Petitioner was a juvenile.

None of the sentences imposed in these cases was explicitly “life without parole.” In two cases, the Petitioners were sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. In the third case, the Petitioner was sentenced to 100 years incarceration and will not be eligible for parole until he has served approximately 50 years in custody. Each Petitioner asserts that he is effectively serving a sentence of life without parole, because the laws governing parole in Maryland do not provide him with a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”  They have each filed a motion to correct an illegal sentence.

With respect to the two Petitioners serving life sentences, we hold that their sentences are legal as the laws governing parole of inmates serving life sentences in Maryland, including the parole statute, regulations, and a recent executive order adopted by the Governor, on their face allow a juvenile offender serving a life sentence a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”  We express no opinion as to whether those laws have been, or will be, carried out legally, as that issue is not before us and may be litigated in the future.  With respect to the Petitioner who is serving a 100-year sentence, we hold that the sentence is effectively a sentence of life without parole violative of the Eighth Amendment and that the Petitioner is entitled to be re-sentenced to a legal sentence.

August 29, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, August 24, 2018

Will Prez Trump deliver on all the clemency "tidal wave" of hopefulness he has engendered?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable recent article in the Washington Examiner headlined "MLK niece urges clemency 'tidal wave' after giving White House list of names." Here are excerpts: 

Evangelical leader Alveda King says she’s optimistic that President Trump will unleash a “good tidal wave” of clemency after she delivered to the White House a list of nearly 100 prisoners who she wants Trump to release.

The niece of Martin Luther King Jr. participated in an Aug. 1 discussion between Trump and African-American pastors and left behind her list of names with the office of the presidential adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

King, a supporter of Trump and leader of the anti-abortion group Civil Rights for the Unborn, declined to provide a copy of her list, citing the potential sensitivity of clemency decisions, and would not discuss specific details about her interactions at the White House. “I did not, on purpose, count or remember the names, I just submitted the list,” King told the Washington Examiner. “I’m trying to get a good tidal wave, a positive tidal wave, a tidal wave to maybe change things and make things better.”

King wants to see a "jubilee" or mass awarding of clemency and said there are misperceptions about what’s happening behind the scenes. She said it’s her understanding that the White House, through Kushner’s office, is processing recommendations in an orderly manner.

Trump has used his constitutional clemency powers nine times — releasing four inmates, two with pardons, and issuing post-release pardons to five others — almost always at the urging of celebrities or political allies, giving the impression of haphazard grants based on influencer requests.

But King said she believes the White House has in place a process for reviewing a deluge of recommendations following the June release of Alice Johnson, a drug conspiracy convict who Trump released at the urging of reality TV star Kim Kardashian. Trump unleashed tremendous enthusiasm behind bars by releasing Johnson, and then declaring: "There will be more pardons. ... I want to do people that are unfairly treated like an Alice."

There were signs of increasing internal work on clemency applications at about the time Johnson was released. Days earlier, White House counsel Don McGahn called a right-leaning policy advocate and asked him to assemble lists of worthy clemency aspirants. The outside contact gathered names from the CAN-DO Foundation and Families Against Mandatory Minimums and hand-delivered the lists to McGahn and Kushner.

Some policy advocates have urged Trump to create an in-house clemency commission that would supplement the work of the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, which clemency advocates view as ineffectual and biased in favor of prosecutors. But so far, no official in-house review process has been announced....

“It’s not disorder, it’s a very orderly process. … I'm a person who believes in order, and I believe they have a good system in place," King said. "I didn’t try to go in and put a list in the president’s hands. ... You can get it to Jared Kushner’s office, and they will look at it."

Angela Stanton, a former prison inmate, author, and King’s goddaughter, took the lead in assembling King's list. She said that inmates who already served more than 10 years in prison were given priority. “Everybody deserves to get out and everybody deserves a second chance,” Stanton said. “The majority of these people decided to go to trial, and if they had not gone to trial, they would have been home.”

A couple names on the list already were submitted to the White House, such as Michelle West, 25 years into a life sentence for drug-related crimes, and paralyzed inmate Michael Pelletier, 12 years into a life sentence for smuggling Canadian marijuana into Maine.  Others were profiled in a New York University report featuring inmates left behind by an Obama administration push to shorten drug sentences, including Lavonne Roach, a mother of three who is 20 years into a 30-year methamphetamine sentence; Chad Marks, who is more than a decade into a 40-year sentence for drug dealing; David Barren, 10 years into a 30-year cocaine sentence; and Craig Cesal, who since 2003 has been serving a life sentence for marijuana crimes.

The report referenced above is this 36-page document produced by the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law at NYU Law School under the title "The Mercy Lottery: A Review of the Obama Administration’s Clemency Initiative."  I am very pleased to see that report being used to generate a list of good clemency candidate, though I sense that the Trump White House has heard from lots of different folks in lots of different ways about lots of different clemency possibilities.  That reality leads me back to the question in the title of this post: because there is no shortage of good clemency candidates in the federal system, the only thing really holding back a clemency "tidal wave" is the person sitting in the Oval Office.  

August 24, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Saturday, August 18, 2018

"Divided We Fall: Parole Supervision Conditions Prohibiting Inter-Offender Associations"

The title of this post is the title of this new article recently posted on SSRN and authored by James Binnall. Here is the abstract:

In the United States, almost all criminal offenders who serve a term of imprisonment are subject to a period of post-incarceration supervision.  Commonly known as parole, this form of supervision requires former inmates to comply with a variety of conditions.  A nationwide survey of standard parole conditions reveals that a vast majority of jurisdictions categorically restrict parolees’ associations with other parolees, convicted criminals, and/or convicted felons.  These blanket offender no-association conditions ostensibly presume that former offenders are irreparably flawed, homogenous, and that inter-offender relationships are uniformly criminogenic.

This article questions those presumptions, suggesting that offender no-association conditions endorse an untenable conceptualization of former offenders, a rejection of evidence-based parole practices, an uninformed view of inter-offender associations, and a superficial application of criminological theory.  This article further argues that by categorically prohibiting all inter-offender associations, offender no-association conditions foreclose strengths-based approaches to reentry and inhibit mechanisms that can foster criminal desistance. In this way, such conditions unnecessarily subvert the rehabilitative goal of parole, likely making them impermissibly overbroad in their current form.

August 18, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 17, 2018

In dissent, Arizona jurist explains why he "would hold, as a matter of state law, that the death penalty is unconstitutional"

Images (14)A helpful reader made sure I saw the remarkable opinions handed down yesterday by the Arizona Supreme Court in Arizona v. Bush, No. CR-11-0107-AP (Az. Oct. 16, 2018) (available here).  This case looks like it was shaping up to be a fairly standard capital appeal, until one judge (sitting by designation to replace a recused Justice) decided to start a constitutional brush fire.  Specifically, Judge Lawrence Winthrop of Arizona Court of Appeals authored a lengthy dissenting opinion that expands on these introductory assertions:

The historical implementation of the death penalty bears little resemblance to its current administration. In distant times when the death penalty was quickly imposed, the execution was open for public viewing, and there was minimal evidence to contradict the accuracy of a defendant’s conviction, the death penalty may have served as an efficient method of not only enforcing criminal law but also advancing legitimate policy goals. Society, however, has evolved and no longer administers the death penalty in this manner.

Instead of taking weeks, prisoners on death row, and the victim’s families, often wait for decades for the sentence to be administered. Further, over the years, numerous studies have criticized the death penalty as disproportionally affecting defendants of color and, with increasing frequency, in part due to advancements in technology, we have become aware of defendants who have been wrongly convicted and whose death sentences have ultimately been commuted―either due to their own actual innocence or because of incurable procedural flaws from their trial. Some of these wrongful convictions were obtained because of overzealous prosecutors who pursued conviction and imposition of the death penalty at the expense of candor; some convictions were obtained because of the failures of defendants’ resource-deprived appointed counsel; some convictions were obtained because of jurors’ biases; and some may have been fortuitously imposed simply because of the county in which the defendant committed the crime. Each conviction obtained through these means highlights the flaws in administering the death penalty, and our historic inability to devise a method to implement the death penalty free from human bias and error.

Additionally, the death penalty has not been conclusively shown to deter criminal behavior, a primary rationale of criminal law and sentencing. Moreover, taxpayers are spending millions of dollars to prosecute, convict, and sentence defendants to death. As further explained below, the death penalty has been shown to be cruel and unusual, to not have any notable deterrent effect, to impose unintended trauma on the victim’s family and friends, and to be cost prohibitive.

Although current United States Supreme Court jurisprudence rejecting Eighth Amendment attacks on the death penalty preclude a state court from interpreting the United States Constitution to provide greater protection than the Court’s own federal constitutional precedents provide, Arkansas v. Sullivan, 532 U.S. 769, 772 (2001), state courts “are absolutely free to interpret state constitutional provisions to accord greater protection to individual rights than do similar provisions of the United States Constitution.” Arizona v. Evans, 514 U.S. 1, 8 (1995).  Because we may interpret Arizona’s Constitution to provide greater protections to Arizona citizens, I would hold, as a matter of state law, that the death penalty is unconstitutional.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of the court in Bush was disinclined to leave the dissent's assertions unaddressed, and here a concluding part of the majority's response:

In sum, the dissent’s resort to article 2, section 15 to support its view that Arizona’s death penalty is unconstitutionally “cruel and unusual” is difficult to reconcile with the relevant text, history, and caselaw. Cf. Glossip, 135 S. Ct. at 2747 (Scalia, J., concurring) (noting that “not once in the history of the American Republic has this Court ever suggested the death penalty is categorically impermissible,” largely because “[i]t is impossible to hold unconstitutional that which the Constitution explicitly contemplates” under the Fifth Amendment).  And even if relevant facts might exist to support the dissent’s critique in some respects, they certainly are not in this record as no such evidence was presented here....

Absent a constitutional violation, the propriety of Arizona’s capital scheme is strictly a matter of policy, which is outside our purview under our constitution’s separation of powers.  See Ariz. Const. art. 3 (“[T]he legislative, the executive, and the judicial . . . departments shall be separate and distinct, and no one of such departments shall exercise the powers properly belonging to either of the others.”).  The dissent incorrectly suggests that we would defer to the legislature on matters of constitutional interpretation and application, abdicating our constitutional authority and responsibility.  But that mischaracterizes our position and conflates constitutional issues, appropriate for judicial resolution, with purely policy choices, appropriate for the law-making role of the legislature and governor, or the people themselves.

The dissent’s various criticisms of the death penalty and its alleged flaws — the time and cost involved in pursuing and administering capital punishment; its arbitrary application and disproportionate or discriminatory impact on minorities; implicit and explicit biases, including racial and geographic disparities; and lack of any measurable deterrent effect — are arguments that have been raised over the years for total abolition of capital punishment.  See, e.g., Maloney, 105 Ariz. at 358–59.  But these are largely policy-laden factors that are proper subjects for legislative consideration, debate, and decision, not appropriate topics for judicial resolution in the absence of any evidence or argument.  See, e.g., Endreson, 108 Ariz. at 370 (stating that “the question of the abolishment of the death penalty under the Arizona Constitution is a question properly left to the legislature or the people of this State through constitutional amendment”); State v. Alford, 98 Ariz. 124, 132 (1965) (declining to “pass upon whether capital punishment, as a public policy, is effective” because under Arizona’s separation of powers, “[w]e are limited to the judicial function of faithfully and impartially interpreting the law as enacted by the legislature”).

August 17, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Senator Cotton delivers faulty arguments to prop up faulty federal sentencing system

With Jeff Sessions now in the role of Attorney General, Senator Tom Cotton is one of the last members of Congress eager to push a tough-and-tougher agenda.  Despite the US position as world leader in incarceration, Senator Cotton asserted a few years ago, as noted here, that "we have an under-incarceration problem."  His thinking today finds expression in this new Wall Street Journal article headlined "Reform the Prisons Without Going Soft on Crime: Proposals to give judges more discretion and cut mandatory minimums endanger public safety."  Regular readers will be familiar with many of the moves in this piece (even though we've not heard much from Bill Otis lately).  Here is a sample:

The U.S. faces a drug epidemic today, exactly the wrong time to go soft on crime.  According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in 2017 more than 72,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, a 37% increase from 2015 and a nearly 100% increase since 2008.  Violent crime has declined since the 1980s because mandatory minimums adopted then locked up violent criminals.  But in 2015-16, the most recent years for which full data are available, violent crime increased at its fastest rate in a quarter-century, though preliminary data suggest it might have leveled off in 2017....

This naive policy ignores the reality of recidivism.  Five out of six prisoners end up rearrested within nine years, according to a recent Justice Department study. In fact, on average reoffenders are rearrested five times — and not for minor crimes.  Only a handful of ex-convicts return to prison exclusively for parole violations, whereas 77% of drug offenders are rearrested for serious nondrug crimes, such as murder and rape.  Most criminals will commit more crimes after being released from prison, even with improved rehabilitation programs.  The last thing Congress should do is shorten their sentences or allow them to “serve time” in home confinement....

What is the logic of such leniency?  Activists say they want to reverse “mass incarceration.”  That is a curious characterization when less than half of crimes are even reported to police and more than 80% of property crimes and 50% of violent crimes that are reported go unsolved, according to Pew Research Center.  Tell those victims denied justice that the U.S. locks up too many criminals.

Virtually no one goes to federal prison for “low-level, nonviolent” drug offenses, especially mere drug use or possession. In 2015, there were 247 inmates in federal prison for drug possession. In these rare cases, the inmates usually pleaded down from a more serious offense.  In the extreme case of a manifestly unjust sentence, the pardon power is a better instrument of justice than broad sentencing reductions. President Trump has shown himself more than willing to intervene to redress such cases.

Some fiscal conservatives believe that America spends too much on the prison system.  Yet the Bureau of Prisons costs taxpayers less than $8 billion a year, or about 0.2% of the entire federal budget.  After national security, the government’s most basic responsibility is to protect its citizens from crime. The costs of crime and disorder — personal and economic — far outweigh the downsides of putting serious criminals behind bars.

Mandatory minimums and truth-in-sentencing laws work. Rather than eliminate them, Congress should improve access to faith-based and other antirecidivism programs in federal prisons.  American families deserve safe communities and protection from drugs and crime.  Criminals, especially first-time offenders who grew up in rough environments, deserve second chances — once they have done their time.

I suspect most readers can readily see logical flaws in Senator Cotton's advocacy here (e.g., how do poor clearance rates for violent crimes justify excessive drug sentences?).  Most fundamentally, the bills with a chance for passage in Congress do not get anywhere close to "eliminating"  mandatory minimums or truth-in-sentencing laws, and they in fact sadly do not really do all that much more than enhance antirecidivism programs in federal prisons.  But even the modest bills with a shot at passage (which have the support of Prez Trump) are too much for Senator Cotton.

John Pfaff has this twitter thread in which he describes the effort as "horrifically dishonest." John attacks various numbers in the op-ed, and I will just stress a telling flip-flop on the clemency front. Senator Cotton says "the pardon power is a better instrument of justice than broad sentencing reductions," but many folks on the right criticized Prez Obama's use of clemency at the end of the term by saying it should be Congress in charge of granting any serious sentencing relief.  Senator Cotton here also says here "President Trump has shown himself more than willing to intervene to redress such cases," but he has so far only commuted two extreme federal sentences (roughly .001% of the federal prison population).  Prez Trump has promised to do more, but he can not be expected to nor depended upon to do the kind of reform via clemency that Congress should be doing in the first instance.

UPDATE: Mark Holden has this new commentary, headlined "Correcting the Record About Sentencing Reform and Mandatory Minimums," which goes point-by-point through key claims made by Senator Cotton and provides different perspective on his assertion.

ANOTHER UPDATE:  Derek Cohen over at Right on Crime also has this notable response to Senator Cotton's piece under the headline "Setting the Record Straight"

August 16, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Interesting commutation developments in wake of initiative reform in Oklahoma

This local story, headlined "49 Oklahoma inmates imprisoned for drug crimes asking for commutations; 49 asking state to consider commutations in light of State Question 780," reports on an interesting clemency echo in the wake of a notable ballot initiative passed in Oklahoma in 2016. Here are the details:

Some state inmates serving 10 years to life in prison for what has been described as “low-level” drug crimes have applied for commutations thanks to the help of advocates and law students.

The 49 inmates and those backing their commutation applications are citing recent changes in state law — and Oklahoma’s highest incarceration rate in the nation — as the reason why. “A lot of these are 20-, sometimes 30-year sentences on a crime that if charged now would be a misdemeanor,” said Corbin Brewster, Tulsa County’s chief public defender.

Brewster’s office assisted Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform with creating the list of inmates. The coalition of business and community leaders, law enforcement experts and advocates across the state is led by former state House Speaker Kris Steele.

The state Pardon and Parole Board will take the up the first batch of 23 commutation requests — all female inmates — on Monday in Oklahoma City. The rest are scheduled to be considered next month.

The requests for commuted sentences, if recommended by the parole board and approved by the governor, would only reduce the length of the prison terms. Some sentences could be modified to “time served,” but the convictions would remain on the inmate’s record.

Push for commutations is spurred by the passage of State Question 780, which starting July 1, 2017, made nonviolent drug possession offenses and low-level property offenses misdemeanors instead of felonies. Steele led the call for the state question, which was approved in November 2016 by 58 percent of Oklahoma voters.

Eight law school students, working as summer interns for Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, helped choose applicants and interviewed them, said Stephen Galoob, associate professor at the University of Tulsa Law School. Galoob said the effort is aimed at “just making the system work.”

“These are all cases and these are all stories that are really powerful,” he said. “And a lot of what the students are doing is just telling the stories of the people who are in prison for crimes that the people of Oklahoma don’t really think we should be locking people up for.”...

The parole board uses a two-stage process to consider commutations. During the first stage, the board reviews the application before considering whether to pass the request to a second, more thorough review stage. At least a majority vote of the board is needed to forward the commutation request to the governor for final consideration.

The parole board considered 477 commutation requests in fiscal 2018, which ended June 30, said DeLynn Fudge, the agency’s executive director.  The board passed 19 of the requests to the second stage of its review process, of which 10 were forwarded to the governor with a recommendation that they be approved, Fudge said. 

Especially in light of the historical numbers reported in this article, it is especially interesting and exciting to see this follow-up article headlined "Nearly two dozen cases involved in 'commutation campaign' advance to second stage of consideration":

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted Monday to advance a group of nearly two dozen people who are being assisted by a commutation campaign to a second stage of review.

August 15, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 13, 2018

Big new Third Circuit opinion sorts through various post-Johnson habeas ACCA headaches

A helpful readers alerted me to a lengthy opinion handed down this morning by a Third Circuit panel in US v. Peppers, No. 17-1029 (3d Cir. Aug. 13, 2018) (available here).  I suspect only hard-core Johnson-habeas-ACCA fans will read all 48 pages of this notable ruling, and its introduction helpfully summarizes what is to be found within:

Ronnie Peppers was sentenced in 2003 to fifteen years of imprisonment for being a felon in possession of a firearm.  That was the mandatory minimum under the Armed Career Criminal Act (“the ACCA” or “the Act”), and the District Court imposed it because of Peppers’s previous convictions.  Peppers now challenges that sentence as unconstitutional in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), which invalidated a clause of the ACCA – the “residual clause” – as unconstitutionally vague.  He argued in District Court in a motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 that he was impermissibly sentenced under that invalid clause.  But that § 2255 motion was not his first, and § 2255 itself, through subsection (h), places limits on any effort to file a second or successive collateral attack on a criminal judgment.  The District Court denied Peppers’s second § 2255 motion after determining that his prior convictions remained predicate offenses for ACCA purposes because they are covered by portions of the Act that survived Johnson.  Because we disagree with the District Court’s conclusions, we will vacate its decision and remand the case for further proceedings.

Five holdings lead to our remand.  First, the jurisdictional gatekeeping inquiry for second or successive § 2255 motions based on Johnson requires only that a defendant prove he might have been sentenced under the now-unconstitutional residual clause of the ACCA, not that he was in fact sentenced under that clause.  Second, a guilty plea pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C) does not preclude a defendant from collaterally attacking his sentence in a § 2255 motion, if his sentence would be unlawful once he proved that the ACCA no longer applies to him in light of Johnson.  Third, a defendant seeking a sentence correction in a second or successive § 2255 motion based on Johnson, and who has used Johnson to satisfy the gatekeeping requirements of § 2255(h), may rely on postsentencing cases (i.e., the current state of the law) to support his Johnson claim.  Fourth, Peppers’s robbery convictions, both under Pennsylvania’s robbery statute, are not categorically violent felonies under the ACCA, and, consequently, it was error to treat them as such.  Fifth and finally, Peppers failed to meet his burden of proving his Johnson claim with respect to his Pennsylvania burglary conviction.  We will therefore vacate the District Court’s order and remand for an analysis of whether the error that affected Peppers’s sentence, i.e., the error of treating the robbery convictions as predicate offenses under the ACCA, was harmless in light of his other prior convictions.

August 13, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 12, 2018

While I was on road, did others notice that we "stopped being a civilized nation and accepted barbarism"?

The question in this title of this post is my somewhat tongue-in-check reaction after getting a chance to finally read Justice Sotomayor's remarkable dissent from the denial of the application for stay in Irick v. Tennessee handed down last week.  This dissent, which assailed the Court's refusal to stay an execution that Tennessee carried out this past Thursday, concluded this way:

In refusing to grant Irick a stay, the Court today turns a blind eye to a proven likelihood that the State of Tennessee is on the verge of inflicting several minutes of torturous pain on an inmate in its custody, while shrouding his suffering behind a veneer of paralysis.  I cannot in good conscience join in this “rush to execute” without first seeking every assurance that our precedent permits such a result. No. M1987–00131–SC–DPE–DD (Lee, J., dissenting), at 1.  If the law permits this execution to go forward in spite of the horrific final minutes that Irick may well experience, then we have stopped being a civilized nation and accepted barbarism. I dissent.

Because no other justice joined this dissent and Irick's execution did in fact go forward around at 7:30 p.m. CDT on Thursday, August 9, 2018, it seems that last Thursday night according to Justice Sotomayor we "stopped being a civilized nation and accepted barbarism." And, notably, this local report on Irick's execution (and the crime that prompted it) reports that the execution was not completed smoothly:

The execution began later than scheduled. The blinds to the execution room lifted at 7:26 p.m., 16 minutes later than expected. Irick, with nearly shoulder-length hair, a scraggly beard and dressed in a white prison jumpsuit and black socks, was coughing, choking and gasping for air. His face turned dark purple as the lethal drugs took over.

August 12, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

FAMM provides detailed review of SRCA sentencing provisions most likely to be added to FIRST STEP Act

As noted in this recent post, the latest buzz from inside the Beltway is that four sentencing reform provisions from the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act might get added to the FIRST STEP Act in the Senate to produce a final federal criminal justice reform bill that will finally get voted on in both houses of Congress. Helpfully, the folks at FAMM have produced this extended document reviewing which SRCA sentencing provisions are seemingly in play.  The document is styled as a memo to Congress members and staff under the heading "Facts sheets explaining potential sentencing additions to FIRST STEP Act."  Here is part of its introduction:

In May, the U.S. House passed the FIRST STEP Act (H.R. 5682) by a vote of 360 to 59. Some Senate leaders have argued that any criminal justice reform bill considered by the Senate must include sentencing reform. Earlier this month, President Trump expressed a willingness to consider adding four sentencing reform provisions to the FIRST STEP Act.

As Members of Congress consider adding some commonsense sentencing provisions from the Senate Judiciary Committee-approved Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA, S. 1917), we thought it would be useful to provide some background on the four sentencing provisions under consideration. In the four factsheets that follow, we explain the problem that current sentencing law is creating, provide an example of how it is harming real people, share the proposed reform found in SRCA, and relay the potential financial impact based on studies conducted by the Congressional Budget Office and the U.S. Sentencing Commission. We recognize that the reforms included in SRCA might change during negotiations and that the impact of these reforms will change accordingly.

For those interested in a detailed (pro-reform) accounting of what sentencing reform provisions now seem to have a real chance of passage, this FAMM document is very much worth checking out. Also, here is a list of just some of the (too) many prior posts I have done about the policy and political debates over federal reforms just this year:

August 12, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

The War on Kids Post #4

In my last post, I discussed the Miller trilogy and states’ attempts to implement those Supreme Court decisions. Today I want to focus on one especially challenging implementation issue: parole.

When the Supreme Court held Miller retroactive in Montgomery v. Louisiana, it suggested that states could comply with the Miller mandate by employing parole procedures, evidently in an attempt to head off potential state concerns of finality and efficiency. As the Court explained: “Giving Miller retroactive effect. . . does not require States to relitigate sentences, let alone convictions, in every case where a juvenile offender received mandatory life without parole. A State may remedy a Miller violation by permitting juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole, rather than by resentencing them.” However, parole post-Miller has proven to be problematic in several respects.

First, typically parole applicants enjoy very few procedural rights because the Supreme Court has treated parole as a privilege – a proceeding in which the prisoner has no liberty interest. Even when the Supreme Court has construed a state’s parole statute to create some liberty interest for prisoners, it has not gone so far as to hold that prisoners are entitled to the aid of counsel. As a result, in 35 states a prisoner has no right to counsel at a parole hearing. In contrast, when a state employs parole as a method for remedying a now-unconstitutional sentence, the prisoner does have a liberty interest at stake, as some lower courts have recognized. At the same time, because juvenile lifers are entitled to a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release,” parole boards across the country are now tasked with examining factors deemed relevant in Miller, including childhood environment and efforts at rehabilitation. Thus, youth offenders seeking parole may be entitled to procedural safeguards, including the right to counsel, never before seen in the parole context.

Second, while parole largely disappeared from the criminal justice landscape in the late 20th century, it has been making a comeback as part of the smart on crime movement – only modern parole is new and different. While discretion and instinct are still relevant, modern parole is largely dependent upon actuarial assessments of prisoners’ risks if released. These risk assessment tools rely upon statistical relationships between both static (e.g. age at date of conviction) and dynamic (e.g. level of education obtained during incarceration) factors. Almost all states employ these risk assessment tools in the parole process.

Here’s the concern post-Miller: the risk assessment tools may rely on factors that defy the Supreme Court’s holding that children are categorically less culpable and more amenable to rehabilitation. For example, in many jurisdictions, the tools consider the inmate’s age at first commitment; the younger the age at first commitment, the higher the risk factor and the less likely the inmate is to be released. Similarly, many tools consider factors such as employment history and marital status before incarceration; being single and unemployed increases one’s risk assessment score. Juvenile offenders as a group, precisely because of their youth at the time of conviction, were unlikely to have been married or to have had an employment history. In other words, the risk assessment tools treat youth as an aggravating variable, while the entire logic of the Miller trilogy hangs on youth as a mitigating variable.

Finally, there are several other thorny questions implicated in jurisdictions that employ parole as a Miller remedy. Should states be expected to release a certain percentage of youth offenders seeking parole in order to satisfy the “meaningful opportunity” standard? When a parole board denies release, must it issue a decision and rationale in writing beyond the generic statement that an applicant is not a suitable candidate? What is an appropriate wait period for a board to impose before reconsidering a case? Henry Montgomery himself was denied parole earlier this year and given a two-year setoff period; he’s already 71 and surely at some age a two-year setoff violates the meaningful opportunity standard.

By my count, 11 states today are employing some kind of new, youth-informed parole procedure in order to address prisoners with claims under Miller. Other jurisdictions are employing their previously existing parole mechanisms to do so. Litigation challenging the adequacy of these procedures is already underway, and time will tell how helpful it was for the Court to suggest that states rely upon parole as a Miller remedy.

August 8, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Guest blogging by Professor Cara Drinan, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (12)

Monday, August 06, 2018

The War on Kids Post #3

As Doug’s readers know, in recent years the Supreme Court has limited the extent to which states can expose kids to the most serious sanctions on the books. In a series of cases known as the Miller trilogy (Roper v. Simmons, Graham v. Florida, and Miller v. Alabama) the Court has held that states cannot execute people for juvenile crimes (Roper); that the Eighth Amendment bars life without parole for juvenile, non-homicide offenders (Graham); and that it similarly precludes mandatory life without parole even for juveniles who commit homicide (Miller). With these decisions, the Court has underscored the idea that “kids are different” for constitutional purposes and state sentencing practices must reflect that fact.

While I address these decisions in some detail in The War on Kids, I know that most of Doug’s readers are familiar with the basics of these decisions and the social science on which they relied. So I want to focus this post on the implementation of the Miller trilogy.

Implementing the Miller trilogy has been messy. First, there was the question of who benefitted from these cases. Roper and Graham were clearly retroactive decisions – they took off the table a form of punishment as it applied to a category of individuals – and each case affected a relatively small pool of prisoners. At the time of Roper, there were 72 death row inmates who had been convicted as juveniles, and according to the Supreme Court, there were 129 juvenile non-homicide offenders serving LWOP at the time of Graham.

Miller, on the other hand, called into question the validity of approximately 2,500 cases nationwide. After some initial confusion among lower courts, the Supreme Court clarified in Montgomery v. Louisiana that the Miller decision applied retroactively. As a result, those 2,500 prisoners whose cases were squarely within the purview of Miller became eligible for some modification of their sentence. (I’ll return in my next post to the Montgomery Court’s suggested and yet problematic method for compliance, parole). In addition, youth offenders across the nation who had been sentenced to de facto life sentences or to sentences of life with parole began to seek judicial relief, arguing that the reasoning of Miller applied to their cases too. In sum, there are now thousands of individuals across the country with legitimate claims to relief under the Miller trilogy.

Second, states have grappled with how to implement a Miller remedy: what should it be? and who should provide it? In recent years, many state legislatures have banned JLWOP. In 2011, the year before Miller, only five states banned JLWOP; today 20 states and D.C. ban the sentence. At the same time, states like West Virginia and Nevada have enacted legislation that not only bans JLWOP, but also permits ongoing, periodic review for youth serving lengthy terms and requires sentencing judges to consider the mitigating aspects of youth. Courts have also focused on the rehabilitative ideals of the Miller trilogy and have struck down lengthy term-of-year sentences as the de facto equivalent of JLWOP. The Massachusetts high court has banned JLWOP and held that youth offenders seeking parole have the right to counsel and expert assistance. The Iowa Supreme Court found that the Miller rationale precludes any mandatory sentence for youth. In sum, many courts and legislative bodies are grappling with when youth offenders should receive a second-look, what term of year sentence is appropriate in lieu of LWOP, and what procedural safeguards apply post-Miller to inmates seeking relief.

As I discuss in the book, this implementation process has been slow and the results have been mixed. Not all states have embraced the science and reasoning behind the Miller trilogy. For example, Michigan incarcerates 363 of the roughly 2,500 inmates nationwide serving JLWOP. Under Miller, those 363 individuals should receive a new sentence that takes into account their youth and other relevant mitigating factors. Moreover, the Miller Court expressly said that, given what we know about adolescent brain development, “appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.” Yet prosecutors in Michigan are seeking to resentence more than half of these individuals to LWOP over great protest from the defense community. Some prosecutors in counties of Pennsylvania and Louisiana have taken equally harsh positions on resentencing JLWOP inmates. At the same time, courts have been split on the question whether Graham and Miller apply to aggregate juvenile sentences that result in a death-in-custody term.

And prisoners feel the geographic disparity post-Miller. Consider Florida, where Terrence Graham originally received JLWOP for the attempted armed robbery of a barbeque restaurant. After the Supreme Court found his JLWOP sentence unconstitutional in 2010, he received a resentencing hearing and a 25-year sentence for his non-homicide crime. In contrast, juvenile homicide offenders in Massachusetts are now parole eligible after serving 15 years and they enjoy a number of procedural rights in the parole process. Post-Miller it is clear that justice can be slow and uneven as a function of federalism.

In my next post, I’ll focus specifically on state attempts to use parole in order to comply with Miller.

August 6, 2018 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Guest blogging by Professor Cara Drinan, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, August 03, 2018

VA Asks Supreme Court for Delay in Resentencing Malvo

As reported in this Washington Post piece, Virginia is asking the Supreme Court to delay the resentencing of convicted Beltway sniper, Lee Boyd Malvo. Here is more:

Virginia on Thursday asked the Supreme Court to put on hold a lower court’s decision that requires new sentences for Beltway sniper Lee Boyd Malvo, who was confined to life imprisonment for his deadly teenage rampage.

The commonwealth said it wants the high court to overturn a decision by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond. But in the meantime, it asked the court to simply delay any resentencing process.

“This case involves one of the most notorious serial murderers in recent history,” Virginia Solicitor General Toby J. Heytens wrote in a petition to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who hears emergency applications resulting from 4th Circuit decisions.

“The issue presented by this stay application is whether Virginia will be required to commence (and potentially conclude) the process of resentencing Malvo — risking additional trauma to his numerous victims and their families and exposing the Commonwealth to significant cost — before” the Supreme Court can decide whether the 4th Circuit got it right.

August 3, 2018 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Guest blogging by Professor Cara Drinan, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Office of Inspector General issues "Review of the Department’s Clemency Initiative"

A couple of helpful readers made sure I did not miss today's release of this big new report from the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General titled simply "Review of the Department’s Clemency Initiative." Here is just the very start of its "Results in Brief":

We found that the Department did not effectively plan, implement, or manage the Initiative at the outset. However, subsequent actions by Department leadership enabled the Department to not only meet its goal of making recommendations to the White House on all drug petitions received by the deadline of August 31, 2016, but also to make recommendations on over 1,300 petitions received by OPA after the deadline. In total, as a result of the Initiative, the Department made recommendations to the White House on over 13,000 petitions, resulting in 1,696 inmates receiving clemency.

Our review identified several shortcomings in the Department’s planning and implementation of the Initiative. Because of philosophical differences between how the Office of the Deputy Attorney General (ODAG) and OPA viewed clemency, Department leadership did not sufficiently involve OPA in the Initiative’s preannouncement planning. Moreover, despite the Department’s stated commitment to provide OPA with the necessary resources, the Department did not sufficiently do so once the Initiative began.

The Department also did not effectively implement the Initiative’s inmate survey, which was intended to help the Department identify potentially meritorious clemency petitioners. For example, rather than survey only those inmates who likely met the Initiative’s six criteria, the survey was sent to every Federal Bureau of Prisons inmate. As a result, CP 14 and OPA received numerous survey responses and petitions from inmates who clearly did not meet the Initiative’s criteria, thereby delaying consideration of potentially meritorious petitions. We found other problems with the survey, resulting in OIG’s issuance of a Management Advisory Memorandum to the Department, which is attached as an appendix to this report.

Further, the Department experienced challenges in working with external stakeholders to implement the Initiative. For example, the Department did not anticipate that CP 14 attorneys would have challenges in obtaining inmate Pre-sentence Investigation Reports and, as a result, it took almost a year before the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts allowed CP 14 attorneys to access them, which hampered CP 14’s ability to make timely eligibility determinations. We also found that the Department and CP 14 had very different perspectives regarding CP 14’s role in the Initiative. In particular, while the Department expected CP 14 to focus on identifying and submitting petitions on behalf of inmates who were strong candidates for clemency, CP 14 instead viewed its role as assisting and advocating for any inmate who wished to file a petition. As a result, the Department believes CP 14 took longer to complete its work.

Because I am on the road, I fear I will not have a chance to review and comment on this important and valuable new report. But what I have already read reinforces all my long-standing concerns about the Department of Justice having a central role in the clemency process and my long-voiced contention that all Prez should take clemency powers and possibilities seriously from the very moment they are elected to serve in the Oval Office.

August 1, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Judge Kavanaugh in 2009: "I think acquitted conduct should be barred from the guidelines calculation."

I blogged here about how Justice Kennedy's replacement would likely be a greater supporter of jury trial rights, and I blogged here and here and here about folks noticing Judge Brett Kavanuagh's notable statement in the 2015 Bell case (available here) that "[a]llowing judges to rely on acquitted or uncharged conduct to impose higher sentences than they otherwise would impose seems a dubious infringement of the rights to due process and a jury trial."  But there is still more to this story as we await Judge Kavanaugh's confirmation hearing, and I realized as much thanks to this recent piece at the Brennan Center's website.

The Brennan Center piece noted that Judge Kavanaugh in 2009 testified to the US Sentencing Commission when the USSC was having regional public hearings to hear from stakeholders about federal sentencing.  The Brennan piece expressed concern that Judge Kavanuagh made the case for a return to a mandatory sentencing system in his testimony.  The Brennan analysis did not mention that Judge Kavanaugh in his testimony speaks out against the use of acquitted conduct (at least as a policy matter).  Here are portions of what he had to say in this testimony to the USSC and in follow-up questions:

Whether they are mandatory or advisory, I think acquitted conduct should be barred from the guidelines calculation. I don't consider myself a particular softy on sentencing issues, but it really bothers me that acquitted conduct is counted in the Guidelines calculation. I have written about this, and I think I am not alone.... It is just very problematic symbolically.

Put aside the substance, because I realize it still can come in on the back end, particularly in an advisory system, but telling a defendant, "Yes, you are acquitted but yes, we are going to calculate that sentence to include that acquitted conduct" just sends the wrong message. It seems to me in too many cases it seems inconsistent with the nature of our system. I would urge careful consideration of that issue.... (transcript pp. 41-42)

[O]ne of the things the guidelines did was to bring into the open, into the sunlight, things that had happened for years that no one knew or didn't think about in the same way, and all of a sudden you are having a precise increase based on acquitted conduct, and people say, "Well, it always happened that way."

Well, okay, but now you are actually seeing it, the actual impact.

As you say, quite rightly, no one understands that in the real world. It fails the common sense test, and it brings disrespect to the process, and it weakens confidence in the judicial process, and maybe you can reason your way from point A to point B to point C logically for why it should be part of the process, but when you take a step back, it just doesn't work, and I think even if it is purely symbolic, the effort to bar the consideration of acquitted conduct; even, in other words, if there is a logical reason to do it and the only reason not to do it is symbolic, symbolism has value in the criminal justice system at times, and I think this is one of those areas where it would be warranted.... (transcript pp. 80-81)

Of course, advocating against the use of acquitted conduct in guidelines calculations to the US Sentencing Commission is not the same as declaring the use of acquitted conduct in guidelines calculations unconstitutional. But this testimony leave little doubt as to Judge Kavanaugh's concerns about this issue, and it provides a reasonable basis for hoping he could bring some useful new perspectives to the Court on some sentencing issues.

Some prior related posts:

July 31, 2018 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, July 30, 2018

Notable review of capital clemencies by Ohio governors

The AP has this interesting new piece, headlined "Gov. Kasich spares record number of death row inmates," that reviews the current and past Ohio gubernatorial records on the death penalty and capital clemencies. Here are excerpts:

Ohio Gov. John Kasich has finished dealing with executions for the remainder of his time in office following a modern-era record of death penalty commutations.  The Republican governor spared seven men from execution during his two terms in office, including commutations on March 26 and July 20. Kasich allowed 15 executions to proceed, including the July 18 execution of Robert Van Hook for strangling, stabbing and dismembering a man he met in a Cincinnati bar more than 30 years ago.

Not since Democrat Mike DiSalle spared six death row inmates in the early 1960s has an Ohio governor spared so many killers during periods when the state had an active death chamber. DiSalle allowed six executions to proceed. Democratic Gov. Richard Celeste commuted eight death sentences just days before leaving office in 1991, but none of those inmates' executions was imminent....

Kasich's immediate predecessor, Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, commuted five death sentences and allowed 17 executions during his four-year term. Ohio resumed executions in 1999 under Gov. Bob Taft after a 36-year gap. Taft, a Republican, allowed 20 executions to proceed and spared just one inmate based on concerns raised by DNA evidence not available at the time of trial.

Nationwide, governors have spared 288 death row inmates since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of capital punishment in 1976, with a handful spared each year over the past decade. That doesn't include mass clemencies in states — such as New Jersey in 2007 — where the death penalty was abolished and entire death rows were emptied.

Sparing inmates is not the political death knell it might have been in decades past, thanks to concerns about innocence raised by DNA testing and the role of severe mental illness on some offenders' behavior. "Kasich's decisions to commute reflect a societal shift away from an unquestioning belief in the value of the death penalty or at least the value in every case," said Lori Shaw, a University of Dayton law professor....

Taft said he's now opposed to capital punishment except in the most severe cases, such as acts of terrorism, multiple victims or the killing of a police officer. He also backs findings of a state Supreme Court commission that recommended against the death penalty for inmates suffering severe mental illness at the time of the crime, and in cases where a homicide was committed during other crimes such as burglaries or robberies. "The climate is a little different in regard to the death sentence today," Taft said. "Governors have more latitude or leeway to consider a number of factors that may not have been considered in prior times."

I noted in this prior post that Gov Kasich's capital record was notable, and I find the comments of former Ohio Gov Taft especially interesting here. (N.B.: the AP needs to fact-check Taft's executions record, as I am pretty sure he presided over 24 executions.)  When Taft says "Governors have more latitude or leeway to consider a number of factors that may not have been considered in prior times," he is not talking about any change in the legal standards or procedures for clemency in Ohio.  Rather, Taft is referencing a purely political evolution that now make it much less politically risky for a Governor to grant lots of capital clemency.

July 30, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

A deep dive into various big and little juvenile life without parole stories

The Dublin Review has published this very lengthy discussion of juvenile life without parole sentences under the simple headline "A different season." The lengthy piece is authored by Andrew Purcell, and it cannot be readily summarized. Here is one snippet:

Many of Pennsylvania’s district attorneys have responded to the Supreme Court’s Montgomery decision by striking plea deals with the longest-serving prisoners. Others, in conservative counties, have not. By late September 2017, 173 of the state’s 517 juvenile lifers had been re-sentenced, and 77 paroled for time served. Most of the released prisoners are from Philadelphia, creating a small community of men with the shared experience of being locked up their entire adult lives, adapting to a world that has moved on without them. Courtney ‘Juan’ Boyd, recently released after serving thirty-six years, was calling John to ask about a re-sentencing hearing the previous night for a prisoner called Andre Martin.  At fifteen, Martin shot a police officer in the head from a window at the Wilson Park projects.  He had forty-one years in already, and the prosecution was seeking sixty to life, supported at the hearing by the dead cop’s family and a roomful of police officers.  Judge Barbara McDermott gave him forty-four to life. In three years, the opposing sides will meet again at an equally charged parole hearing, to argue about whether or not Martin should be released.

Each of the fifty states has responded differently to the Montgomery v Louisiana ruling, and there are also variations within states, as district attorneys interpret the concept of ‘permanent incorrigibility’. In Michigan, for instance, prosecutors initially sought new life-without-parole sentences for 236 of the 363 men and women serving mandatory life terms for crimes committed as minors, a clear deviation from the Supreme Court’s intent to reserve the punishment for ‘the rarest of juvenile offenders’. The Oakland County DA has asked for life without parole in forty-four of forty-nine cases; ‘These are young Hannibal Lecters,’ county sheriff Michael Bouchard told the press. In Missouri, teenage lifers are now eligible for parole once they have spent twenty-five years in prison, but of twenty-three who have applied, twenty have been denied. In Maryland, all 271 juvenile lifers are parole-eligible, but no such prisoner has been released in two decades.

All over the country, lawsuits are establishing whether and how Montgomery should affect discretionary sentences. ‘We think the Montgomery standard is impossible [for prosecutors] to beat, in that everyone is capable of rehabilitation given the proper support,’ said Brooke McCarthy of the Juvenile Law Centre. ‘To say that you can never fix someone in the future, no matter what, is such an incredibly difficult standard to reach. Some district attorneys have gotten clever … so rather than asking for life without parole they’re asking for fifty-, sixty-, seventy-five-year minimums.’

July 30, 2018 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Fascinating split Sixth Circuit discussion of how Johnson-invalidated ACCA sentences are to be corrected and reviewed

For those who like to think a lot about federal collateral review procedures and the aftermath of Johnson and sentencing retroactivity (and who doesn't), the Sixth Circuit today handed down a fascinating split panel decision in US v. Nichols, No. 17-5580 (6th Cir. July 30, 2018) (available here).  In Nichols, the defendant succeeded in challenging in the district court his 24-year sentence for a firearm offense under the Armed Career Criminal Act based on the Supreme Court's Johnson ruling that one ACCA provision was unconstitutionally vague.  So far so good.  But here is where it gets interesting:

By the time the district court entered Defendant’s corrected sentence, Defendant had already served twelve years in prison — two years in excess of the ten-year statutory maximum for his firearm offense.  The Guidelines range for Defendant’s conduct, absent the ACCA enhancement, was 51 to 63 months’ imprisonment, which is well below the statutory maximum of ten years.  Based on his belief that a period of over-incarceration can be calculated and credited toward the completion of a consecutive sentence, Defendant asked the district court to impose a Guidelines-range sentence and, in any event, to impose a sentence of a specific term of months.  The district court denied Defendant’s request and instead imposed a corrected sentence of “time served,” which was equivalent to a term of about twelve years’ imprisonment. (R. 52 at PageID #347.) Defendant requested reconsideration, which the district court denied.  Defendant then filed this timely appeal.

Why does the defendant care?  Here is why: "While in prison, Defendant was convicted and sentenced for conspiracy to distribute heroin, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846, 841(b)(1)(C); possession of heroin by an inmate ... and conspiracy. The district court sentenced Defendant to an additional 151 months’ imprisonment, to be served consecutively to Defendant’s existing 24-year term of imprisonment for the firearm offense."  The defendant here is eager to be fully resentenced on his gun crime to as low a term as possible so that extra time already served will be credited against his drug crime sentence. 

Because the statutory maximum sentence for the defendant's gun crime is only 10 years after the ACCA correction, the majority in Nichols reasonably asserts that "time served" is functionally a 12-year illegal sentence that must be corrected.  Interestingly, the panel also concludes that reasonableness review applies in this corrected sentencing setting, and they also find the time-served sentence procedurally unreasonable for lack of adequate explanation.

Judge Batchelder pens a lengthy dissent in which she laments the way the majority frames and remedies the situation here.  The tail end of her dissent summarizes her concerns with the panel ruling and her suggested solution:

Finally, I question the merit of the majority’s proffered legal doctrine that holds, in three parts: (1) that a time-served sentence equates to a term-of-months sentence in the number of months actually served; (2) that the sentence is illegal when that post hoc term of months exceeds the newly applicable statutory maximum (or, broadly stated, actions that were taken pursuant to a statute are ex post facto unlawful when the statute is retroactively unconstitutional); and (3) the resulting illegal sentence is per se reversible plain error.  So, again, as applied here: any corrected sentence of time served for an inmate who has already served more than the newly applicable 10-year maximum is per se reversible plain error.  Moreover, the inmate must receive a full resentencing sufficient for reasonableness review.

Given the breadth of this holding and the vast number of sentences to which it might henceforth apply, this opinion will doubtless have consequences, foreseeable and unforeseen.  How many corrected sentences will now be per se reversible plain error?  How many inmates, like Nichols, will discover that they have long been unlawfully incarcerated, and what will be the effect of that discovery?  Will they, like Nichols, pursue a time bank or offset?  Or will they seek compensation for that newly discovered unlawful incarceration?  What of an inmate who suffered an injury, committed a crime, or unsuccessfully demanded special accommodations while so incarcerated — how does the calculus change when it is later declared via post hoc stipulation that the inmate was only in prison because he was being held unlawfully?

Rather than holding that the corrected sentence of time served necessarily equates to a term of years equal to the amount of time already served and invoking the legal fictions and consequences that follow, we might be better served by viewing a “time-served sentence” as different in kind from a “term of years sentence,” either of which could satisfy the district court’s discretionary choice of relief under § 2255. That is, of course, an entirely different analysis from the one the majority has undertaken here, though compatible with the approach taken by the district courts that have been resolving § 2255 motions based on Johnson/Welch.

July 30, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, July 29, 2018

A (partisan) look at some of Judge Brett Kavanaugh's record on criminal justice issues

Over here at the Brennan Center's website, Priya Raghavan has a review of some of the criminal justice decision of new SCOTUS-nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh under the heading "Open Questions: Brett Kavanaugh and Criminal Justice: Kavanaugh’s record is sparse, but that makes understanding his stance on the issues all the more important."  Here is an excerpt (with links from the original and a little emphasis added):

The rare instances when Kavanaugh sides with defendants are equally telling.  In U.S. v. Burwell, Kavanaugh dissented from a decision that upheld a 20-year sentence enhancement for a defendant who used a machine gun during a robbery. Kavanaugh argued that there was no proof that the defendant knew the gun he used was a machine gun and that the law should require such proof.  But this doesn’t necessarily mean that Kavanaugh was looking out for the little guy. Insisting on such intent requirements — mens rea, in legal terminology — could make it harder for the government to prosecute white-collar criminals, largely benefitting a small segment of affluent defendants. 

Kavanaugh’s views on sentencing are more difficult to parse.  He testified in 2009 that, from a policy perspective, he believed federal sentencing guidelines should be mandatory, rather than advisory, to  limit judicial discretion in sentencing.  He was concerned that advisory guidelines would allow judges to impose their personal views at sentencing, leading to disparate outcomes. But Kavanaugh has on several occasions disagreed with his colleagues and supported lower court judges who gave harsh, above-guidelines sentences with little to no explanation of their reasons for doing so.  In both In re Sealed Case and the recent U.S. v. Brown, where the D.C. Circuit vacated sentences after judges issued harsh, above-guidelines sentences without sufficient explanation, Kavanaugh dissented, calling the majority’s holding in the latter case “confounding.”  Kavanaugh’s statements on sentencing leave us wondering: how much discretion does he think judges should have? 

Kavanaugh has had little chance to opine on those subjects that comprise the hallmarks of Kennedy’s criminal justice legacy, such as the death penalty, juvenile justice, and prison overcrowding. But it seems unlikely that Kavanaugh will follow his old boss’ lead, especially given his alignment with his “first judicial hero” William Rehnquist, whose far-right views on many issues, including criminal justice, fell well outside the mainstream. 

To be sure, conservatives do not always side with law enforcement.  Kavanaugh’s high school classmate and Kennedy clerk colleague, Justice Neil Gorsuch, recently sided with the defendant in Session v. Dimaya, a major ruling that found parts of the immigration law unconstitutionally vague. Kavanaugh could surprise us, too. 

Criminal cases comprise a sizeable portion of the Supreme Court’s docket, and the opinions from them can reverberate down to every encounter with police, as happened with the Miranda warning.  As just one example, this fall the Court will hear Timbs v. Indiana and decide whether the Eighth Amendment prohibition against excessive fines applies to the states, effectively determining how much criminal defendants can be fined. 

Before he is confirmed, the Senate — and the American people — must have a better sense of Kavanaugh’s thinking about criminal justice.  During his confirmation hearings, Senators should ask — and Kavanaugh should answer with specifics — the following questions: 

  • Given the stark racial disparities in the criminal justice system, how would he ensure equality under the law?
  • Does he believe that the meaning of the Constitution, specifically the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, can change over time? 
  • What is his stance on solitary confinement?
  • What are the limits of police power?
  • What are his beliefs about mandatory minimums and judicial discretion in sentencing?
  • Does he believe that fines and fees levied on criminal defendants should be limited?

I am always deeply troubled by the deeply misguided notion that preserving a serious commitment to mens rea in the criminal law does not help the "little guy," and I find almost comical the assertion that the views of Chief Justice William Rehnquist "fell well outside the mainstream."  Nevertheless, depsite this review being more than a bit too partisan, I am still glad to see it spotlight criminal justice concerns and its suggestion that Senators ask SCOTUS-nominee Kavanaugh a bunch of question about these issues.   And I think the questions I bolded above are on topics that seem to me especially timely.

That said, I think good questions to a SCOTUS nominee should not be about "his stance" or "his beliefs" as if he were seeking an elected office where he would be expected to put policy preferences into action.  Rather, sound and effective questions should focus on the text of the Constitution and existing SCOTUS precedents in order to explore how the nominee's judicial philosophy is likely to find expression as these issues come before the court in the years ahead.  In this post on a Sunday morning about 14 months ago, I gave some examples of how I might structure key questions in the run up to Justice Neil Gorsuch's confirmation hearing:

Some prior related posts:

July 29, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, July 27, 2018

An (overly) optimistic account of how new Justices could disrupt federal sentencing based on uncharged and acquitted conduct

In this post earlier this month, I suggested that Justice Kennedy might be replaced by a new Justice more inclined to afford criminal defendants stronger Sixth Amendment rights under Apprendi and Blakely.  And this subsequent post highlighted that new SCOTUS-nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh authored an interesting opinion a few years ago that expressed concern about the use acquitted conduct to increase sentences.  Against that backdrop, I was interested to see this new Law360 commentary authored by Alan Ellis and Mark Allenbaugh headlined "Sentencing May Change With 2 Kennedy Clerks On High Court." Here are excerpts from the start and end of the commentary:

Shortly before his confirmation just over a year ago, we wrote about what a now-Justice Neil Gorsuch could mean for federal sentencing.  In particular, we reviewed his Tenth Circuit opinion in United States v. Sabillon-Umana, wherein then-Judge Gorsuch, a former clerk for now-retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy, questioned the constitutionality of judicial fact-finding at federal sentencing, as opposed to fact-finding by a jury.  Known as “relevant conduct,” judge-found facts — which often include uncharged and even acquitted conduct — drive federal sentencings, often increasing terms of imprisonment by years and even decades.  As it turns out, another former Kennedy clerk, Judge Brett Kavanaugh of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit — who recently was nominated by President Donald Trump to take the retiring justice’s seat on the court — also shares Justice Gorsuch’s concern.  Accordingly, for the reasons discussed below, should Judge Kavanaugh be confirmed, we believe the “Kennedy clerks” will likely lead the court to finally rein in relevant conduct by holding unconstitutional the use of uncharged and acquitted conduct to enhance federal sentences....

Should Judge Kavanaugh be confirmed, we believe it quite likely that, based on his prior jurisprudence, the current manner in which relevant conduct or at least acquitted conduct is used to enhance sentences will soon be determined to be unconstitutional.

Though I certainly hope that new Justices could usher in a big changes to the modern federal sentencing system, I do not share these authors' view that such changes are "quite likely." In particular, finding unconstitutional any use of "uncharged" conduct at sentencing would be a real sea-change for lots of sentencing systems and practice, and I think a number of Justices would be hesitant to take Sixth Amendment doctrines this far.  But I still like this constitutional optimism even if I do not fully share it.

A few prior related posts:

July 27, 2018 in Blakely Commentary and News, Blakely in the Supreme Court, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Michigan Supreme Court declares plea agreement provision barring pursuit of public office unenforceable as against public policy

A helpful reader alerted me to an interesting decision today by the Michigan Supreme Court in Michigan v. Smith, No. 156353 (Mich. July 26, 2018) (available here). Here is how the court's majority opinion gets started:

As part of defendant’s plea deal, he agreed to resign his position as a state senator and not seek public office during his five-year probationary term.  After reviewing the agreement, the trial court determined that these terms violated the separation-of-powers doctrine and public policy.  It struck down the terms but, over the prosecutor’s objection, enforced the rest of the plea deal.  The Court of Appeals affirmed.

We took this case to decide whether the resignation and bar-to-office provisions of the plea deal were enforceable, and if not, whether the trial court erred by refusing to allow the prosecutor to withdraw from the deal.  We hold that: (1) the question regarding the resignation provision is now moot and we therefore decline to reach it and instead vacate the Court of Appeals’ discussion of that issue, (2) the bar-to-office provision is unenforceable as against public policy, and (3) the trial court erred by not permitting the prosecutor to withdraw from the plea agreement under People v Siebert.  We would have further held that the validity of the bar-to-office provision must be assessed under the balancing test in Town of Newton v Rumery. [FN: Town of Newton v Rumery, 480 US 386; 107 S Ct 1187; 94 L Ed 2d 405 (1987). Because the partial concurrence did not join this portion of the opinion, adoption of the Rumery test failed to garner majority support.]

And here is a key passage in the court's discussion:

However egregious defendant’s alleged offenses may be, they do not directly relate to the duties and responsibilities of public office — he was not charged with misconduct that was in any manner related to public office. Consequently, the prosecutor can point to no legitimate reason for the bar-to-office provision.  Its inclusion in the plea agreement reflects, instead, the prosecutor’s own conclusion that defendant should not serve in public office.  Our laws do not give prosecutors the unilateral authority to make this determination.

July 26, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Interesting reflections on modern clemency realities

I flagged in this prior post an interesting star-studded event in DC yesterday discussing federal clemency's past, present and possible future.  This Washington Examiner piece reports on some of the interesting things said at the event under the headline "Alice Johnson recalls 'feeling of betrayal' from Obama, urges working with Trump."  Here are excerpts:

Former prison inmate Alice Johnson said Wednesday she had a "feeling of betrayal" when former President Barack Obama left office with her still behind bars, urging other clemency aspirants to put aside their qualms and work with President Trump to win their release.

Johnson, who Trump freed last month from a drug-related life sentence, spoke at a gathering of clemency advocates at George Washington University, saying her case should give hope to others. "From what everyone was saying, the Obama administration would be the one that would set you free, but I was still not set free. So to put your faith in a man was not a good thing to do," Johnson said.

"And not only was I left behind, but many others were left behind also," Johnson said. "There was a feeling of betrayal because I had so much hope that I was going to come out." Johnson, who addressed the gathering before a series of panels, and then again as a panelist, said she thinks there was a divine purpose in her wait. "It didn't happen for a reason. It happened for this time in history so that you will know that hearts can change, so that you will know that you should never stop fighting either, that you are not to look at what administration is in power, who is in office," she said....

Panelists at the clemency-themed event at points debated the merits of former President Barack Obama's late-second-term spree of prison commutations, which went overwhelmingly to drug convicts, a large share of whom were convicted for crack cocaine.  "The initiative missed a ton of people," said Rachel Barkow, a law professor and member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Barkow argued that a major flaw was relying on the Justice Department, saying that prosecutors are disinclined to recognize mistakes. "The deputy attorney general was saying 'no' in a lot of these cases," she said.

Roy Austin, a White House official in the Obama administration, defended Obama's late-term commutation push, saying "I'm biased, [but] we got it pretty dang right." Austin said he "loves" Trump's openness to recommendations from influential people, but that "the problem is that that's helping too few," and lacks a standardized process to ensure fairness.

Van Jones, an early-term Obama adviser who helps lead the clemency campaign #Cut50, offered positive views on the Trump administration, saying that at first "I was hopeless on election night" about clemency. "He took one step and got positive feedback," Jones said about Johnson's release, Trump's second prison commutation and his first for a drug convict.

Trump's subsequent invitation for professional athletes to submit the names of people worthy of clemency — an offer with few respondents — was "a remarkable development," Jones said. "He literally ran out of the White House saying, 'I want to do more.'"...

Several panelists discussed ideas for moving the vetting work of the Office of the Pardon Attorney out of the Justice Department, to streamline clemency applications and remove a possible conflict of interest.

Amy Povah, a Clinton clemency recipient who leads the CAN-DO Foundation, said that she's optimist about the Trump administration. "I think we have a huge opportunity because of [Johnson's] case, and I hope the Trump administration does something historic," Povah said.

Mark Holden, general counsel of Koch Industries, said clemency transcends the typical conservative-liberal divide in politics. "These are fundamental liberty issues," he said, arguing that Johnson's case "shocks the conscience" regardless of political affiliation.

I sincerely want to be as optimistic and hopeful as Amy Povah about Prez Trump doing something historic in this arena.  But all of his clemency chatter needs to become clemency action before too long if he wants to avoid creating a "feeling of betrayal" among a whole lot of federal prisoners now surely eager to benefit from all his encouraging talk.

A few of many recent related posts about recent Trumpian clemency activity:

July 26, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Three+ years after death sentencing, lawyers for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev have "flagged roughly 30 issues" for his appeal

It seems like it has been a long time since I blogged by the Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. And indeed it has been: a jury handed down Tsarnaev death sentence back in May 2015, a full month before Donald Trump had even announced he was running for President.  But now more than three years after his death sentencing, Tsarnaev is in the news via this Boston Globe story headlined "Lawyer for Boston Marathon bomber maps out appeal of death penalty sentence." Here are excerpts:

Lawyers for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev have flagged roughly 30 issues they plan to raise when he appeals his death sentence, according to a recent legal filing. A motion filed last week with the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston said the attorneys have “identified approximately 30 appellate claims to consider raising in Mr. Tsarnaev’s [appellate] brief.”

Tsarnaev’s lawyers requested that the Aug. 20 deadline for filing their highly anticipated brief be pushed back to Nov. 18, citing their ongoing analysis of some 10,000 pages of transcripts in the case.  “Even relative to other federal capital appeals and terrorism appeals across the country, the record here is voluminous,” David Patton, a member of Tsarnaev’s appellate team, wrote in the motion.

Tsarnaev, 25, was convicted in 2015 for his role in the April 2013 Marathon bombings, which killed three people including an 8-year-old boy and wounded more than 260 others. He was sentenced to death and is currently incarcerated at a federal supermax prison in Colorado. Tsarnaev and his older brother and accomplice, Tamerlan, also killed an MIT police officer while they were on the run. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed in a confrontation with police in Watertown days after the bombings....

Patton listed additional issues that Tsarnaev’s team expects to raise on appeal. “Counsel have completed drafts of a substantial portion of the remaining claims, including issues concerning venue, multiple errors in the selection of the death-qualified jury, the admission of evidence obtained through the use of Mr. Tsarnaev’s involuntary confession, the lawfulness of certain counts of conviction . . . the exclusion of relevant mitigation material, improper prosecutorial arguments, and the admission of victim impact evidence from survivors,” Patton wrote. “But, despite continuous effort, a number of issues identified and determined to be sufficiently weighty for inclusion remain to be drafted.”

I would expect the First Circuit to give Tsarnaev's lawyers into the fall to complete their brief, and I would also guess the feds will need at least a few extra months to complete a response. Consequently, the First Circuit argument in the case will surely be heard no sooner than 2019, and I would not expect an opinion from the First Circuit until probably early 2020. Then surely comes en banc petition, a cert petition and likely at least one 2255 motion.

July 24, 2018 in Celebrity sentencings, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (12)

Could Judge Brett Kavanaugh, as a SCOTUS Justice, encourage his colleagues to take up acquitted conduct sentencing?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Marshall Project piece by Joseph Neff headlined "Punished for Crimes Not Proven: Brett Kavanaugh and the case of Gregory 'Boy Boy' Bell."  Here is how the piece starts and ends:

After a nine-month trial, a jury convicted Gregory "Boy Boy" Bell of selling crack cocaine, three sales totaling five grams and carrying a sentence in the five-year range. More importantly for Bell, the jury acquitted him of 10 serious charges, including a trafficking conspiracy and a racketeering conspiracy that would have meant decades in prison.

At sentencing, the judge ruled that Bell had engaged in the exact same crack cocaine conspiracies that the jury had rejected. The five grams of crack became 1,500 grams, and the judge sentenced Bell to 16 years, not the expected five.

Critics object that the use of “acquitted conduct” to justify longer sentences empowers prosecutors and judges to ignore the judgment of the jury, to base sentences on facts rebuffed by the citizens in the jury box.

Those critics include one of Bell’s jurors and Court of Appeals Judge Brett Kavanaugh, the current nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court. “Allowing judges to rely on acquitted or uncharged conduct to impose higher sentences than they otherwise would impose seems a dubious infringement of the rights to due process and a jury trial,” Kavanaugh wrote about Bell’s case in 2015 [available here].

Kavanaugh noted that he and his colleagues on the appeals court were powerless to overturn the sentence.  They are required to follow the rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court, which has allowed acquitted conduct to be a factor in sentencing.  In the meantime, Kavanaugh reminded trial judges that, when asked to use acquitted conduct to increase sentences, they can just say no....

Acquitted conduct and its legal siblings — dismissed conduct and uncharged conduct — are contentious subjects in the arcane world of federal sentencing law.  The tension arises from different standards of proof used at trial.  Juries convict after finding proof beyond a reasonable doubt.  At sentencing, judges use the preponderance of the evidence, a standard requiring more than 50 percent of the evidence to prove something, like the tip of a scale.

The standard makes sense in discretionary sentences, used in varying degrees in all state and federal courts.  Legislatures set ranges for criminal sentences: probation to 20 years in prison, for example, or, five years to life.  In fashioning a precise sentence within a wide range, a judge weighs aggravating and mitigating factors such as criminal record, education, victim testimony, family life, military service, abuse or neglect as a child and work history.

Dating back at least to 1949, the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed judges to use uncharged conduct to increase sentences. In later rulings, the Supreme Court explicitly allowed federal judges to make findings of fact that include acquitted conduct at sentencing. But the law is muddled. The Supreme Court began to limit the effect of uncharged and acquitted conduct in 2000, but more recent decisions have undercut those cases.  In Kavanaugh’s words, the Supreme Court lurched toward sentencing reform only to back away.

The court has since avoided the issue. In 2014, the Supreme Court declined to hear the cases of three Congress Park co-defendants: Joseph “JoJo” Jones, Desmond “Dazz” Thurston, and Antwuan “Big Ant” Ball.  Each had his sentence tripled or more based on allegations the jury found unpersuasive.  Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg wanted to hear those cases.  In a dissent, they said the time had come to confront acquitted conduct: “This has gone on long enough.”  It takes four justices to accept a case.

If Kavanaugh tips the balance,it will be too late for Gregory “Boy Boy” Bell, who has been locked up since his arrest in 2005.  He is scheduled to be released on Sept. 4.

In this post earlier this month, I asked "Might Justice Kennedy's retirement lead to defendants having stronger Sixth Amendment rights under Apprendi and Blakely?".  In that post, I highlighted Justice Kennedy's historic hostility to Apprendi and its Sixth Amendment progeny.  The Bell case is properly considered exhibit A to support the possibility that a possible Justice Kavanaugh will have a more rights-protective approach to these issues.  (Then again, Judge Kavanaugh has been heard to compliment the late Chief Justice Rehnquist, who authored the Watts opinion blessing acquitted conduct guideline enhancement in the pre-Apprendi world.)

That all said, it is worth remembering that Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kagan and Sotomayor also refused to vote to grant cert in the Ball case in 2014 (details here), even though all three had voted for extensions of Apprendi rights in prior cases like Southern Union.  Especially with Justice Kennedy gone and thus only Justices Breyer and Alito being on record as being eager to allow judges to enhance sentences without significant constitutional restraint, it is certainly possible to imagine the newer Justices (Gorsuch and Kavanaugh if conformed) convincing the likes of Roberts and Kagan and Sotomayor to be willing to take up this matter.  I sure hope so, but I will not be holding my breath.

A few prior posts with thoughts on a post-Justice Kennedy Court:

Previous related posts on the DC cases discussed above:

July 24, 2018 in Blakely Commentary and News, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, July 23, 2018

Notable discussion of clemency's past, present and possible future in DC on July 25

As detailed in this press release, an impressive and diverse collection of experts will be speaking about clemency this week at the George Washington University Law School. Here are a few details about the event from the release:

Criminal Justice Reform Advocates to Hold Forum on July 25 to Discuss Clemency in the Trump Era, Featuring Commutation Recipient Alice Johnson & Bipartisan Clemency Advocates

What: Justice Roundtable will host a forum on July 25, 2018 from 11:30 am to 2:00 pm to explore clemency for drug offenses, focusing on its use in the Bush, Clinton and Obama presidencies, how it is being handled during the Trump presidency and concrete ways it can be enhanced today and beyond.

Where: George Washington University Law School, Moot Court Room 2000 H Street NW, Washington, DC

When: 11:30 am to 2:00 pm; Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Here is how the clemency panel discussion is structured and scheduled speakers:

What it Was

  • Roy Austin, former White House Domestic Policy Council
  • Rachel Barkow, Commissioner U.S. Sentencing Commission
  • Jason Hernandez, sentence commutation by President Obama
  • Amy Povah, Director CAN-DO Foundation & Clinton commutee

What it Is

  • Mark Holden, General Counsel, Koch Industries
  • Van Jones, political commentator, host of The Van Jones Show
  • Brittany Barnett, founder Buried Alive Project, Attorney for Alice Johnson
  • Alice Marie Johnson, sentenced commutation by President Trump

What it Can Be

  • Mark Osler, Professor & Distinguished Chair, Univ. of St. Thomas Law School
  • Paul Larkin, Senior Fellow, Meese Center, Heritage Foundation
  • Ebony Underwood, founder, We Got Us Now
  • Andrea James, Natl Council Incarcerated & Formerly Incarcerated Women & Girls

July 23, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

A father's perspective on clemency and its potential (and limits)

A helpful reader alerted me to this interesting new commentary authored by John Owen, headlined "A father's plea for mercy for his imprisoned daughter."  Here are excerpts:

President Donald Trump’s recent pardons and commutations have spotlighted, once again, the importance of executive clemency to soften the harshness of our criminal justice system.  President Abraham Lincoln was famous for preferring mercy over “strict justice.”  In fact, he used his clemency power so liberally, his attorney general had to assign someone to shadow him to record the names of all those he pardoned or commuted, according to author Margaret Love....

That’s how executive clemency is supposed to work.  It operates outside our rule of law, but it also respects it. It is the personal prerogative of the leader and so, inevitably, can be arbitrary.  It is also a message to our branches of government and to our society to mitigate our desire for vengeance with compassion....

I have spent the past nine years grieving the almost 20-year sentence imposed on my daughter, Mary Anne Locke, for her low-level, non-violent role in a meth distribution conspiracy.  She was ordered to report to federal prison in 2009, six weeks after she had a Cesarean section.  Along with her baby, she left behind a loving husband and two other children.

Mary Anne did not have an easy life, and I accept the role I played in that.... In her early teens, Mary Anne found drugs and men who were themselves substance abusers and also physically violent....  She relapsed at age 28, triggered by personal tumult, as well as health problems for which she was prescribed amphetamines. It was around this time that she became involved with the head of the meth conspiracy charged in her federal case. He gave her an unlimited supply of meth and, in return, embroiled her in a supportive capacity in his drug distribution activities.

Pregnant with her second child in 2007, Mary Anne again disavowed the drug lifestyle.  The indictment in her federal case was handed down in 2008, when she was pregnant with her third child, after two years of sobriety and a wonderful marriage with her then husband, who had no connection with her drug activities. She cooperated fully upon arrest, at considerable risk to herself.

Imagine our family’s devastation when she was sentenced to 234 months, or 19.5 years.  Murderers get less time. Although nationally, statistics indicate that defendants with her characteristics would receive an almost 50 percent reduction of their applicable guideline, the judge gave her just a 20 percent reduction.  Mary Anne was not the kingpin or organizer. She never engaged in or threatened any violence.  She played a supportive role to fund her addiction.  She had never spent more than a night in custody.  She is precisely the kind of low-level player deserving of leniency.

Rather, her sentence was driven by the charging decisions of the prosecutors she faced and the particular sentencing philosophy of her judge.  This judge has been critiqued as one of the harshest in the country.  In fact, she is the only sitting judge to have been subject to a commutation by Trump (the 27-year sentence of Sholom Rubashkin).  Moreover, today, not only would another judge give Mary Anne an almost 50 percent reduction of her applicable guideline, Mary Anne’s sentencing guideline would be substantially lower....

Needless to say, Mary Anne has served the top end of that guideline.  And she has done so with distinction.  She has been an exemplary prisoner — discipline-free, who has worked and studied consistently throughout her sentence, completing her final year in a three-year college program in office administration.  Don’t get me wrong.  Mary Anne broke the law and deserved punishment.  But her lengthy sentence violates any basic notions of justice and proportionality.  She deserves mercy.

She applied for clemency before President Barack Obama, and has again applied before President Trump.  She was represented in both applications by the Clemency Project at the University of Minnesota Law School.  I am a lifelong Republican. I am, however, forever grateful to Obama for bringing executive clemency back to its roots — to address systemic unfairness, while also acknowledging the humanity of each person behind bars.  I am also buoyed by Trump’s recent clemency decisions, and his pronouncements that he plans to use it even more expansively.

But nothing beats a legislative solution that grants my daughter — and the thousands of prisoners like her — a “second look” at the severity and fairness of their sentence, in a public proceeding, with a judge and an advocate.

July 23, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (16)

"Beyond Strict Scrutiny: Forbidden Purpose and the 'Civil Commitment' Power"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper that I just noticed on SSRN that was authored by Eric Janus. Here is the abstract:

Sex offender civil commitment (SOCC) is a massive deprivation of liberty as severe as penal incarceration.  Because it eschews most of the "great safeguards" constraining the criminal power, SOCC demands careful constitutional scrutiny.  Although the Supreme Court has clearly applied heightened scrutiny in judging civil commitment schemes, it has never actually specified where on the scrutiny spectrum its analysis falls.

This article argues that standard three-tier scrutiny analysis is not the most coherent way to understand the Supreme Court’s civil commitment jurisprudence.  Rather than a harm-balancing judgment typical of three-tier scrutiny, the Court’s civil commitment cases are best understood as forbidden purpose cases, a construct that is familiar in many areas of the Court’s constitutional analysis.  But the Court’s civil commitment cases tie the search for punitive purpose to another genre of constitutional analysis, the application of the substantive boundaries on governmental power most commonly associated with the specific grants of federal power.  In contrast to the normal conception of state power as plenary, limited only by the specific constraints of the bill or rights and the amorphous limits of "substantive due process," the Court has posited a narrowly limited "civil commitment" power. The search for the forbidden purpose maps directly onto the inquiry into the limits of this discrete and special state power.  Finally, the article argues that the forbidden purpose/discrete power analysis provides clarity on another vexing issue, the facial/as-applied distinction.

July 23, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, July 22, 2018

"Setting the Record Straight: The Pardon Power is Part of the Rule of Law"

The title of this post is the headline of this commentary at Just Security authored by Sam Morison, who worked for many years as a staff attorney in the Office of the Pardon Attorney.  I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts: 

Writing from the perspective of a former federal prosecutor, Barbara McQuade decried President Donald Trump’s most recent exercise of the pardon power, which supposedly poses a grave threat to “anyone who is committed to our legal institutions, particularly federal law enforcement.”  The remedy for such alleged abuse of discretion, she suggests, is to rely on the good judgment of the Office of the Pardon Attorney (OPA), the agency within the Justice Department that for many years has supervised the provision of advice to the president in clemency matters.  The default standard for making such decisions, she further suggests, is contained in the U.S. Attorney’s Manual, according to which a “petitioner should be genuinely desirous of forgiveness rather than vindication.”

This has now become a familiar refrain among the president’s critics.  But while reasonable minds might differ about the substantive merits of the president’s clemency decisions to date, McQuade’s critique exhibits both a remarkably impoverished view of the pardon power and an exaggerated confidence in the legitimacy of the extant advisory process....

[T]he president has both a right and a duty to exercise the pardon power because of his own constitutional concerns about a law or because of policy objections to enforcement of the law in a particular context.  This principle was established as early as 1804, when upon taking office President Thomas Jefferson pardoned those who had been convicted under the Alien and Sedition Acts, which he believed to be unconstitutional.  Similarly, President Woodrow Wilson granted dozens of pardons to persons convicted of liquor-related offenses under the Volstead Act, because of his constitutional objections to the law.

More recently, President Ronald Reagan granted pardon to former FBI agents Mark Felt and Edward Miller while their cases were still pending on appeal, on the grounds that they had not acted with criminal intent, but rather in a “good-faith belief that their actions were necessary to preserve the security interests of our country.”  President George H.W. Bush pardoned the so-called Iran-Contra defendants, after indictment but prior to trial, based on his conclusion that the independent counsel’s prosecution had constituted the “criminalization of policy differences.”  Prior to leaving office, President Clinton pardoned or commuted the sentences of numerous persons convicted in independent counsel investigations that had dogged his administration for basically the same reason.  And President George W. Bush commuted the prison sentence of Lewis Libby, his vice president’s former chief of staff, after his conviction was affirmed but before he reported to prison.  Bush reasoned that even if Libby had committed perjury in the context of a highly politicized grand jury investigation, a prison sentence would be excessively harsh punishment.

Granted over a period of more than 200 years, the common thread that ties these disparate acts of executive clemency together is the intersection of law and politics.  In each case, the president made the judgment that partisan considerations had improperly influenced either the legislative or the judicial process, thereby undermining the moral legitimacy of strictly enforcing the letter of the law.

When the president exercises the pardon power for this reason, it is not an idiosyncratic exception to the normal operation of the federal criminal justice system.  To the contrary, it is an integral part of the system of checks and balances embedded in the Constitution.  As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for a unanimous Court, a pardon “is not a private act of grace from an individual happening to possess power. It is a part of the Constitutional scheme. When granted it is the determination of the ultimate [executive] authority that the public welfare will be better served by inflicting less than what the judgment fixed.”  In this context, then, a pardon is a public act of grace, taken by the president in his official capacity as the chief executive, to preserve the integrity of the federal criminal justice system.

The only remaining question is who should exercise effective control over this broad discretionary power, a democratically elected president or a small cadre of anonymous bureaucrats in the Office of the Pardon Attorney (OPA)?  Having served as a staff attorney in OPA for more than a decade, I can say with some confidence that the office does not view its role as a neutral arbiter.  Instead, OPA’s institutional function is to protect the Justice Department’s prosecutorial prerogatives by churning out a steady stream of almost uniformly negative advice, regardless of the merits of any particular case.  This is problematic because in the normal course, the only information the president receives about a case is whatever the Justice Department chooses to tell him.  And in my entire tenure at OPA, I am not aware of a single instance in which a federal prosecutor acknowledged that one of her cases might have been affected by “undue harshness or evident mistake.”

There is no reason to believe that this situation has fundamentally changed, given the Justice Department’s inherent conflict of interest in each of these cases. In effect, the Justice Department’s advisory record amounts to the assertion that the federal criminal justice system is essentially perfect — injustices never occur, sentences are never excessive, circumstances never change, and mercy is never appropriate.  No disinterested person really believes this. Accordingly, if Trump insists in going it alone, as McQuade complains, the Justice Department has no one but itself to blame.

A few of many recent related posts with commentary about recent Trumpian clemency activity:

July 22, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 20, 2018

New ACS Issue Brief on "Litigating Federal Habeas Corpus Cases"

Eve Brensike Primus has authored this lengthy new Issue Brief for the American Constitution Society under the title "Litigating Federal Habeas Corpus Cases: One Equitable Gateway at a Time." Here is how its introduction starts and closes:

The Supreme Court has described the writ of habeas corpus as “a bulwark against convictions that violate fundamental fairness” and as “the judicial method of lifting undue restraints upon personal liberty.” Unfortunately, obtaining federal habeas corpus relief has become close to impossible for many prisoners.  The vast majority of habeas petitions are post-conviction petitions filed by state prisoners.  Congress and the Supreme Court have erected a complicated maze of procedural obstacles that state prisoners must navigate, often without the assistance of counsel, to have their constitutional claims considered in federal court. One wrong procedural step means the prisoner’s claims are thrown out of federal court altogether.  In fact, federal judges now dismiss a majority of state prisoners’ habeas claims on procedural grounds....

In this Issue Brief, I argue that habeas petitioners should highlight problems they had obtaining a full and fair review of their claims in state court as well as innocence concerns in an effort to push federal courts to expand the equitable exceptions that already permeate habeas doctrine.  I begin by providing a brief overview of the substantive and procedural thicket of federal habeas review, including a description of the many roadblocks that state prisoners encounter when attempting to obtain relief.  I then explore the doctrine’s equitable exceptions and explain how concerns about a lack of access to adequate state process and actual innocence often motivate federal courts to look past obstacles to federal habeas review.  Finally, I explore how litigants could use the animating principles behind these equitable exceptions to broaden procedural bypasses and inform the standard of review for merits determinations in federal court.  I argue that state prisoners often fail to highlight process failures in ways that could broaden the scope and impact of federal habeas review.  Sweeping reform of federal habeas review might not be feasible, but it may be possible to effectuate some change, one equitable gateway at a time.

July 20, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, July 19, 2018

"Assessing the Real Risk of Sexually Violent Predators: Doctor Padilla’s Dangerous Data"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Tamara Rice Lave and Franklin Zimring now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

This Article uses internal memoranda and emails to describe the efforts of the California Department of Mental Health to suppress a serious and well-designed study that showed just 6.5% of untreated sexually violent predators were arrested for a new sex crime within 4.8 years of release from a locked mental facility. 

The Article begins by historically situating sexually violent predator laws and then explains the constitutionally critical role that prospective sexual dangerousness plays in justifying these laws.  The Article next explains how the U.S. Supreme Court and the highest state courts have allowed these laws to exist without requiring any proof of actual danger.  It then describes the California study and reconciles its findings with those of a well-known Washington study by explaining the preventive effects of increasing age.  Finally, the Article explains how these results undermine the justification for indeterminate lifetime commitment of sex offenders

July 19, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6)

Another look at how Justice Kennedy shaped capital jurisprudence and what his departure entails

I noted here a few weeks ago a short piece on how death penalty jurisprudence is likely to be impacted considerably by a coming SCOTUS transition, and another longer piece in the same vein now comes from Matt Ford at The New Republic.  The piece is headlined "America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (at Least) a Generation," and here are excerpts (with links from the original):

With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles.  In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row prisoners.

“In a very real sense, the Eighth Amendment meant whatever Justice Kennedy decided that it meant,” Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told me. “He was often the fifth vote in denying stays of execution and in favoring the state on questions of lethal injection, but he was also often a fifth vote for determining that a particular death-penalty practice was unconstitutional.”

The high court will likely continue to intervene in death-penalty cases that stray too far from the legal mainstream.  But without Kennedy, it will no longer be the venue for a systemic attack on capital punishment as it had been in recent years.  “It seems likely that there will be a firm, five-person majority on the court in Kennedy’s wake with absolutely no interest in revisiting the status quo on the constitutionality of capital punishment,” Carol Steiker, a Harvard University law professor who specializes in the death penalty, told me....

With Kennedy now gone, it’s virtually certain that the Supreme Court won’t abolish the death penalty for at least a generation. Earlier this month, President Donald Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh, a reliably conservative judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, to fill Kennedy’s seat. While Trump himself is an unusually enthusiastic proponent of the practice, Kavanaugh’s own views on the death penalty are unknown. The D.C. Circuit’s narrow geographic jurisdiction means that it almost never hears death-penalty cases compared to the other federal appellate circuits.

As a result, there is no clear record for how Kavanaugh approaches the practice as a judge. Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito are resistant to curtailing capital punishment, and Justice Neil Gorsuch has voted alongside them during his first term on the court. If Kavanaugh votes in a similar manner, the court’s posture toward the death penalty would shift decisively away from limiting its scope. “The immediate impact of Kennedy’s retirement in terms of Eighth Amendment law is that it’s now whatever Chief Justice Roberts decides that it is,” Dunham said.

Roberts generally sides with the rest of the court’s conservatives on death-penalty matters. He has also joined the court’s liberals on occasion to rule in favor of defendants in certain egregious cases. In the 2017 case Buck v. Davis, he sided with a death-row prisoner after an expert testified during the sentencing phase that he posed a greater threat of “future dangerousness” because he is black. Though the exchange was a brief part of the overall trial, Roberts said in his majority opinion that it was still too much. “Some toxins are deadly in small doses,” he wrote.

Death-row prisoners will still bring cases to the Supreme Court, but Steiker said that the future of abolition efforts will now turn to the state and local level. “States are really where the story is happening,” she told me. “There are state constitutional challenges that can be brought. Seven state legislatures have voted to abolish the death penalty in the past ten or twelve years.” She also noted that a growing number of district attorneys are declining to seek the death penalty in cases where they otherwise could.

A local focus makes sense given the current geography of capital punishment. Death sentences increasingly come from only a handful of counties scattered across the country. Though state legislatures allow or forbid the death penalty as a matter of law, local prosecutors often decide in practice whether a defendant will face it. Cities like Houston and Philadelphia that once handed down dozens of death sentences have recently seen the election of district attorneys who are more skeptical of it.

For now, the rulings written by Kennedy will continue to mark the outer limits for American executions on a national level—unless the justices of a future generation choose to push them even further. “The law that Justice Kennedy leaves behind offers something of a blueprint for a future Supreme Court if it wanted to continue this project of reassessing the death penalty and its concordance—or not—with evolving standards of decency,” Steiker said.

Prior related post:

A quick look at how Justice Kennedy's retirement might impact capital punishment jurisprudence 

July 19, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Texas completes eighth execution of 2018 despite complaints about clemency process

This Texas Tribune article, headlined "Texas executes Chris Young, who fought the state parole board in a final appeal," reports on the latest lethal injection and litigation in the Texas capital system.  The subheadline summarizes the heart of the story: "The death row inmate claimed that the parole board likely rejected his clemency petition because he was black. The argument highlighted a long-standing criticism of clemency in Texas." Here are excerpts from a lengthy piece:

In his final fight before his execution Tuesday evening, Chris Young targeted Texas’ secretive clemency process.

On Friday, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously rejected Young’s clemency petition — often the final check in the death penalty process before an inmate is sent to the death chamber.  Hours later, Young’s lawyers filed suit against the board members, claiming that they likely voted against a recommendation to reduce his sentence or halt his execution because he is black.

The appeal was a long shot, and one he ultimately lost in federal court Tuesday, hours before the state put him to death for the 2004 robbery and murder of Hasmukh Patel at Patel's San Antonio store.  At 6:13 p.m., Young, 34, was injected with a fatal dose of compounded pentobarbital and pronounced dead 25 minutes later....

Though unsuccessful, the late filing highlighted a long-established criticism of Texas clemency — the reasoning for the board’s decision is unknown to the public, and individual members usually cast their votes remotely without comment or a hearing.  Though members must certify that they do not cast their votes because of the inmate’s race, they also don’t have to give any reason for their decision....

Young was 21 when he entered Patel’s San Antonio store in 2004 and fatally shot Patel during an attempted robbery, according to court records. He was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in 2006.

In his recent petition to the parole board asking for a sentence of life instead of death, his lawyers cited his growth in prison — they claim he prevented both an inmate’s assault on a guard and a suicide and that he eased racial tensions on death row — and the fact that Patel’s son, Mitesh, also pleaded for the state to spare his father’s killer.

They tried to draw comparisons between Young and another young man whose life was recently spared by the board and Gov. Greg Abbott — Thomas Whitaker, who was convicted in the planned deaths of his family in 2003, killing his mother and brother and wounding his father in a plot to get inheritance money....

The state responded to Young’s allegations of racial discrimination in court Sunday, claiming Young’s case for clemency was “far weaker” than Whitaker’s.  Assistant Attorney General Stephen Hoffman highlighted factors left out of Young’s petition, including an alleged sexual assault just before Patel’s murder, previous misdemeanor convictions and disciplinary reports from death row.  The response also notes that, unlike Young, Whitaker wasn’t the triggerman in his relatives’ murders....

Since 1998, a Texas governor has spared the life of someone facing imminent execution only three times, according to data obtained from the parole board. In the same two decades, there have been more than 400 Texas executions....

Abbott’s predecessor, Republican Rick Perry, chose to reduce a death sentence to life in prison for only one inmate (U.S. Supreme Court decisions forced him to reduce other sentences) in his 14-year tenure.  He also rejected board recommendations in at least two other cases.  The Whitaker clemency was the first and only board recommendation under Abbott so far.

Because of the minuscule success rate of these cases and the secrecy that surrounds the process, attorney groups and several lawmakers have criticized Texas clemency procedures in capital cases for decades.  In 1998, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks called it “extremely poor and certainly minimal.” Sparks railed on how the public is kept from the board’s dealings and said no member fully reads the petitions, stating “a flip of the coin would be more merciful than these votes.”...

But for Young, the attempt to draw parallels between himself and Whitaker seemingly fell flat with the members of the parole board.  Instead of being moved off death row to another prison, he was sent to the death chamber, becoming the eighth person executed in Texas this year, and the 13th in the nation.

July 18, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 16, 2018

Spotlighting disparities in resentencing of juve LWOP cases in Pennsylvania ... and and broader post-Miller challenges

The Philadelphia Inquirer has this effective new article headlined “Why are juvenile lifers from Philly getting radically different sentences from those in the rest of Pennsylvania?”. Here are excerpts:

While Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court has attempted to create clear guidelines for that work, now that more than 300 juvenile lifers have been resentenced across 31 counties, the disparities are striking.

“It’s still very county-dependent, fact-dependent, and there are still a lot of politics involved,” said Brooke McCarthy, who has been tracking the results for the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Juvenile Law Center.  “If you look at the outcomes in Allegheny County, they are night and day from what we’re seeing in Philly.  That’s true in various counties: In Bucks County, one judge has been handling the sentencing, and she’s been particularly harsh. Different folks are handling the same facts differently.”

In Philadelphia, the average sentence for a juvenile lifer has been 31 years to life. In Bucks County, no one has received less than 40 years....

County by county, judges have disagreed about whether sentences on multiple homicides ought to run concurrently or be stacked consecutively.

A Lancaster County judge last year imposed consecutive 40-years-to-life sentences for Michael Lee Bourgeois, for killing his adoptive parents in 2001 with three accomplices.  And, in Allegheny County, a judge imposed three consecutive 25-to-life sentences on Donald Zoller, who killed three people when he was just 14; he won’t go before the parole board unless he lives to be 89.

But in Philadelphia, it’s been a different story. Jose Hernandez, convicted of killing four family members as a teen, received 45 years to life after the district attorney tried to offer him even less time.  And another juvenile lifer, Jorge Cintron Jr., was resentenced to 30 years to life for three murders; he could be released by age 47.

Judges have also differed when it comes to tacking on additional time for associated charges, such as robbery, conspiracy, or possession of a firearm....

According to a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision last year, a juvenile must be found to be “permanently incorrigible” before a life sentence can be imposed.

Now, state appellate courts will have to weigh in on a slew of follow-up questions being lobbed from all across the commonwealth.  What comprises a de facto life sentence: Is 50 years too long?  Is it constitutional to stack consecutive sentences such that a juvenile who is not incorrigible has no hope of release?  What is a juvenile anyway — do 18-year-olds count?   And, what factors must judges consider in the resentencings, which are supposed to take into account the reduced culpability of an immature, impulsive youth, as well as his or her capacity for change?...

In Michigan, home to 360 teen lifers, the state has sought to reimpose life without parole in more than half of its cases. In Virginia, Renwick said, “the commonwealth has fought at every step to prevent” resentencings.  And in Illinois, which is working through the resentencings of about 100 juvenile lifers, Shobha Lakshmi Mahadev, a professor at the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law, said the vast majority are being resentenced to 50 or 60 years in prison, many with no opportunity for early release.

Other states, such as Louisiana, have addressed the issue legislatively, by creating across-the-board parole eligibility — though in some jurisdictions that still means few, if any, lifers are actually being released.

“What these decisions have done is opened up this conversation and this question: How do you sentence a child or an adolescent? What our systems did before was just to treat kids as adults — and that is unconstitutional and, given what we know now, inappropriate,” Mahadev said.

July 16, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 12, 2018

"The Quest to Get a Pardon in the Trump Era: ‘It’s Who You Know’"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new New York Times piece documenting various realities that are well-known to those who have been paying attention to the clemency activities of recent Presidents.  Here are excerpts from a terrific piece worth reading in full:

Few constitutional powers lie so wholly at the whims of the president as the power to pardon. No details need to be worked out beforehand and no agency apparatus is needed to carry a pardon out.  The president declares a person officially forgiven, and it is so.

A layer of government lawyers has long worked behind the scenes, screening the hundreds of petitions each year, giving the process the appearance of objectivity and rigor. But technically — legally — this is unnecessary.  A celebrity game show approach to mercy, doling the favor out to those with political allegiance or access to fame, is fully within the law.

The show isn’t new.  Absolving political allies is a notorious if decades-old practice, and Bill Clinton was hardly sticking to procedure when he included friends, family and the well-connected in his last-minute clemency spree.  But Mr. Trump is not waiting for the last minute.

On Tuesday, he issued more pardons, this time for two Oregon ranchers who had been serving sentences for arson on federal land. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was apparently among the ranchers’ strongest supporters.  Mr. Trump has said he is considering pardons for Martha Stewart, the lifestyle guru, and Rod Blagojevich, the former governor of Illinois, and people whose cases are championed by professional football players.  He has rebuffed questions as to whether he was planning to pardon any of his own associates — or himself, for that matter.

Pardon seekers have been watching all this.  Having once put their hopes in an opaque bureaucratic process, they are now approaching their shot at absolution as if marketing a hot start-up: scanning their network of acquaintances for influence and gauging degrees of separation from celebrity.  What’s the best way to get a letter to Sean Hannity, the Fox News host and close Trump ally?  How hard would it be to pull aside Robert Jeffress, the prominent Trump-backing pastor, after a church service?

“It’s who you know now,” said Weldon Angelos, whose cause for clemency has been supported by politicians, judges and celebrities. At the consent of prosecutors, Mr. Angelos was released from prison in 2016, after serving a quarter of a 55-year sentence on a drug-related conviction. Now he is seeking a full pardon.  “Everyone’s now trying to get their names out there, to get some buzz,” he said. “That’s the strategy I’m seeing”

Self-promotion in pursuit of forgiveness comes naturally to some and strikes others as absurd.  But there is broad agreement on one point. The standard, procedural route to presidential clemency — a process that has become ever more impenetrable — has hardly been a portrait of justice itself...

Clemency petitions go through the Office of Pardon Attorney in the Justice Department, a system set up more than a hundred years ago to lessen the risks and hassles of leaving an entire nation’s pleas for compassion to one person.  For decades, the process worked smoothly, and hundreds of clemency grants were issued each year. President Dwight D. Eisenhower alone granted over 1,000 pardons.

But starting about 40 years ago, “the prosecutors really got a hold of the process,” said Margaret Love, who was the Pardon Attorney from 1990 to 1997, and now represents clemency applicants. “They became increasingly hostile to the pardon power.”  Even as laws have grown harsher, the number of pardons has dwindled significantly. “It is so secretive and the standards are so subjective,” Ms. Love said.  “They operate like a lottery. Except a lottery is fair.”

In 2014, the Obama administration set up a clemency initiative that led to 1,715 sentence commutations, by far the most of any president.  Still, this accounted for only about 5 percent of the commutation petitions submitted during his two terms. As for full pardons, the Obama administration was stingier than most of its predecessors. The traditional clemency process, as a pardon attorney described in her 2016 resignation letter, remained sidelined and backlogged.

“The process,” wrote Luke Scarmazzo of his attempt at clemency in the Obama years, “was a bureaucratic nightmare.”  In 2008 Mr. Scarmazzo was sentenced to more than two decades in prison for running a medical marijuana dispensary in California. He and his co-defendant, Ricardo Montes, spent months working on an application, but in the end Mr. Montes received a commutation, while Mr. Scarmazzo did not.  Now, “instead of support from career politicians and judges, we’re seeking support from celebrities and influential social icons,” Mr. Scarmazzo wrote in an email from prison.  “We’re less focused on pleasing the D.O.J. bureaucracy and more focused on grabbing the attention of the Oval Office.”

Much of the recent focus on clemency has either been on those, like Ms. Johnson, who are seeking release from prison, or on the famous pardon recipients like Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative provocateur, and I. Lewis Libby Jr., the former aide to Dick Cheney.  But there are countless people living quietly and whose time in the criminal justice system is years in the past, but who, because of the ever-expanding tally of consequences for felony convictions, feel permanently confined.

July 12, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Quick and helpful look at some of Judge Brett Kavanaugh's criminal justice work

Over at his SDFLA Blog, David Oscar Markus has this helpful new post titled "A look into some of Judge Kavanaugh's criminal justice opinions." I recommend the whole post, and here are two particular opinions flagged there that ought to be of particular interest to sentencing fans: 

1. Acquitted Conduct. Many people, lawyers and non-lawyers alike, are shocked that sentencing judges are permitted to use acquitted conduct in fashioning a federal sentence. Kavanaugh wrote about the practice here in a thoughtful concurrence (in denying en banc review) shortly after Blakely and Booker. He said that although the law currently permits it, district judges have the discretion NOT to use acquitted conduct and his advice is that they should NOT use it at sentencing.  Here's a portion:

Allowing judges to rely on acquitted or uncharged conduct to impose higher sentences than they otherwise would impose seems a dubious infringement of the rights to due process and to a jury trial. If you have a right to have a jury find beyond a reasonable doubt the facts that make you guilty, and if you otherwise would receive, for example, a five-year sentence, why don’t you have a right to have a jury find beyond a reasonable doubt the facts that increase that five-year sentence to, say, a 20-year sentence?....
3. Sentencing.  Here's a dissent in which Kavanaugh sides with the Government, calling the majoirty opinion "confounding." The majority opinion explains that the district judge did not adequately explain the upward variance. Kavanaugh disagrees: "Seizing on the Guidelines range as if it were talismanic (which it is not post-Booker), the majority opinion concludes that the District Court committed procedural error by failing to adequately explain Matthews’ above-Guidelines sentence. I disagree."

I am inclined to mostly agree with David's post's overall assessment of Judge Kavanaugh: "So after reading these opinions, my take is that Kavanaugh appears to be more in line with Roberts.  He won't be a Scalia and he won't be an Alito.  But he'll probably be more sympathetic to criminal justice issues than Kennedy was."  But I would add that I expect Judge Kavanaugh to be less sympathetic to capital defendants that Justice Kennedy has been, but possibly just a bit more sympathetic to some (but not all) others. 

A few related posts:

July 11, 2018 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)