Monday, October 16, 2017

SCOTUS grants cert on three criminal procedure issues

Before taking a break for the next two weeks, the US Supreme Court this morning issued this new order list with grants of certiorari in four new cases.  There of these cases involve criminal procedure matters, and here are brief accounts via SCOTUSblog (with links thereto):

Currier v. Virginia:  Whether a defendant who consents to severance of multiple charges into sequential trials loses his right under the double jeopardy clause to the issue-preclusive effect of an acquittal.

United States v. Microsoft Corp.:  Whether a United States provider of email services must comply with a probable-cause-based warrant issued under 18 U.S.C. § 2703 by making disclosure in the United States of electronic communications within that provider's control, even if the provider has decided to store that material abroad.

Dahda v. United States:  Whether Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2510–2520, requires suppression of evidence obtained pursuant to a wiretap order that is facially insufficient because the order exceeds the judge's territorial jurisdiction.

None of these cases get my sentencing blood racing, and the most interesting aspect of the order list for hard-core sentencing fans might be a short opinion by Justice Sotomayor (joined by Justices Ginsburg and Breyer) dissenting from the denial of certiorari in a couple of Florida capital cases in which defendants argued "that the jury instructions in their cases impermissibly diminished the jurors’ sense of responsibility as to the ultimate determination of death by repeatedly emphasizing that their verdict was merely advisory."  

October 16, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Colorado judge finds state's statutory response to Miller unconstitutionally favors certain juve defendants at resentencing

This local article reports on an interesting (and quirky?) ruling from a Colorado state judge last week finding constitutional problems with how the state responded to the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment ruling in Miller precluding any mandatory LWOP sentencing for juvenile murderers.  The full headline of the article provides the basics: "Colorado law giving a break to some serving life for crimes committed as juveniles is unconstitutional, judge rules: Judge Carlos Samour Jr. ruled state can’t set preferential sentence for offenders convicted of felony murder." Here are more particulars: 

Part of a 2016 Colorado law that offers special sentencing considerations for some of the 50 people serving life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles has been ruled unconstitutional by an Arapahoe County judge. Chief District Court Judge Carlos Samour Jr. this week entered his ruling in a case filed by Curtis Brooks, who was sentenced in 1997 to life in prison without parole after his conviction for felony murder.

The law, Samour ruled, gives preferential treatment to Brooks and 15 other offenders convicted of felony murder, offering them reduced sentences of 30 to 50 years in prison, while 34 other convicts serving life without parole could get new sentences of life in prison with the possibility of parole.  “Under the circumstances present, the court finds that the challenged provisions grant the 16 defendants a special or exclusive privilege,” his ruling says.

Brooks had applied to have his sentence reduced under the law, which the legislature passed last year. Felony murder holds defendants liable for first-degree murder if they commit or attempt certain felonies, such as burglary or robbery, and someone dies “in the course of or in furtherance of the crime.” In Brooks’ case, the owner of a car was killed by someone else as they tried to steal the vehicle. Brooks was 15.

Although Samour’s ruling is very well-reasoned, it is not binding precedent, said Ann Tomsic, chief deputy attorney for the 18th Judicial District.  Other judges probably will read Samour’s ruling and base their sentencing decisions on what he wrote, she said.... Brooks’ attorneys, including Dru Nielsen, said they could not comment on the facts of the case. Nor would they say whether they would appeal Samour’s decision....

Samour concluded that because the portion of the 2016 law applying only to those convicted of felony murder is unconstitutional, he must sentence Brooks to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

The Colorado legislature said juveniles convicted of felony murder cannot be sentenced to life without parole. Had lawmakers passed a bill that applied equally to all people convicted as an adult for crimes committed as a juvenile, it would have been constitutional, Samour said.  “What the legislature could not do, however, is what it, in fact, did: arbitrarily single out the 16 defendants and bestow preferential treatment upon them,” Samour ruled. Emphasizing his point, he wrote that the legislature cannot act as a sentencing court or a parole board.

I was unable to find on-line the formal opinion in this case, but in doing a bit of research I found this other local Colorado article from August reporting on a similar decision by another state judge which explains that Colorado prosecutors are apparently the ones objecting to the new Colorado statutory rule providing for a lower resentencing range for juveniles previously convicted of only felony murder. Here is how this other article explains the legal dynamics seemingly in play:

In his ruling, Epstein found that the state Legislature exceeded its authority when it provided the possibility of a 30- to 50-year sentence for felony murder convicts. He granted a motion by the El Paso County District Attorney's Office that attacked the law on procedural grounds, arguing that the sentencing range is unconstitutional because the reduced sentence wouldn't be available to anyone convicted of felony murder before or after the 16-year period. One of Medina's attorneys, Nicole Mooney, said prosecutors in at least three other jurisdictions have filed similar motions, and suggested that prosecutors' success in El Paso County could encourage more challenges — and embolden judges to grant them.

Prosecutor Jennifer Viehman, who mounted the successful challenge, said the 2016 law violated the state Constitution's provisions for special legislation by creating a "closed class" of beneficiaries. "You can't just single out a little special class of people, and make laws just for them," she said. "That's what the judge agreed with." Without the chance for parole after 30 years, then only one sentence is available — life in prison with the chance for parole after 40 years.

I surmise from this second article that judges are finding the distinct resentencing provisions for those convicted of felony murder to be a kind of problematic "special" legislation under Colorado constitutional law. Without expertise in state constitutional law, I cannot quite be sure if that is a sound or suspect conclusion.

UPDATE A helpful reader sent me a copy of the 48-page opinion in the Brooks case, which can be downloaded below and has the following section in its introductory paragraphs:

For the reasons articulated in this Order, the Court finds that the defendant must be resentenced, but concludes that the statutory provisions authorizing a determinate prison sentence of thirty to fifty years with ten years of mandatory parole are invalid because they constitute prohibited special legislation under the Colorado Constitution. The Court, therefore, grants the People’s motion to declare the relevant statutory provisions unconstitutional and denies the defendant’s request for a thirty-year prison sentence with ten years of mandatory parole.  In light of these rulings, and based on the legislature’s intent, the Court determines that the defendant must be resentenced to a term of life in prison with the possibility of parole after forty years.

Download Brooks - Post-Conviction Order

October 16, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, October 15, 2017

"Why kids don’t belong on sex offender registry"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent op-ed authored by Nicole Pittman. Here is how it starts:

California took an important step toward ending the abusive practice of putting kids on sex offender registries when Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 384, which allows juveniles to petition for their removal after five or 10 years.

When California became the first state to register children as sex offenders in 1986, there was little known about children who commit sexual offenses. At that time, treating them the same as adults seemed sensible. Today, we have research that tells us that putting them on registries does not prevent future child sexual abuse and can diminish public safety.

Roughly 200,000 people on sex offender registries — including more than 3,500 in California — went on as kids, some for serious crimes but many others for playing doctor, streaking or teenage romances.

Sex offender registration laws stigmatize and isolate the very children they were meant to protect, ensuring their youthful indiscretions follow them into adulthood. Names, photos, and addresses are often made public, leading to vigilante violence, stigmatization, and severe psychological harm. One in five attempt suicide; too many succeed. There’s also now a strong body of evidence demonstrating that very few youth commit more sexual crimes.

October 15, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, October 13, 2017

"The Federal Rules of Inmate Appeals"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper by Catherine Struve now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure turn fifty in 2018. During the Rules’ half-century of existence, the number of federal appeals by self-represented, incarcerated litigants has grown dramatically.  This article surveys ways in which the procedure for inmate appeals has evolved over the past 50 years, and examines the challenges of designing procedures with confined litigants in mind. 

In the initial decades under the Appellate Rules, the most visible developments concerning the procedure for inmate appeals arose from the interplay between court decisions and the federal rulemaking process. But, as court dockets swelled, the circuits also developed local case management practices that significantly affect inmate appeals.  And, in the 1990s, Congress enacted legislation that produced major changes in inmate litigation, including inmate appeals.

In the coming years, the most notable new driver of change in the procedure for inmate appeals may be the advent of opportunities for electronic court filing within prisons. That nascent development illustrates the ways in which the particulars of procedure in inmate appeals are shaped by systems in prisons, jails, and other facilities -- and underscores the salience of local court practices and institutional partnerships.

October 13, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Big new report provides state-by-state guide to expungement and rights restoration

Report-coverAs detailed in this new post over at the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, the folks at CCRC have just published this big new report on state expungement and rights restoration practices under the title "Forgiving and Forgetting in American Justice: A 50-State Guide to Expungement and Restoration of Rights." This CCRC post provides this account of the new report's coverage and goals:

This report catalogues and analyzes the various provisions for relief from the collateral consequences of conviction that are now operating in each state, including judicial record-sealing and certificates of relief, executive pardon, and administrative nondiscrimination statutes. Its goal is to facilitate a national conversation about how those who have a criminal record may best regain their legal rights and social status.

Given the millions of Americans who have a criminal record, and the proliferation of laws and policies excluding them from a wide range of opportunities and benefits, there is a critical need for reliable and accessible relief provisions to maximize the chances that these individuals can live productive and law-abiding lives after completion of their court-imposed sentences. Whatever their form, relief provisions must reckon with the easy availability of criminal records, and the pervasive discrimination that frustrates the rehabilitative goals of the justice system.

It is not the report’s purpose to recommend any specific approach to relief. Rather, our goal is simply to survey the present legal landscape for the benefit of the policy discussions now underway in legislatures across the country. We are mindful of the fact that very little empirical research has been done to measure outcomes of the various schemes described, many of which are still in their infancy. It is therefore hard to say with any degree of certainty which approach works best to reintegrate individuals with a record into their communities. At the same time, we hope that our description of state relief mechanisms will inform the work of lawyers and other advocates currently working to assist affected individuals in dealing with the lingering burdens imposed by an adverse encounter with the justice system.

The title of the report provides a framework for analyzing different types of relief provisions. For most of our history, executive pardon constituted the principal way that persons convicted of a felony could “pay their debt to society” and regain their rights as citizens. This traditional symbol of official forgiveness was considered ineffective by mid-20th century reformers, who sought to shift responsibility for restoration to the courts. The reforms they proposed took two quite different approaches: One authorized judges to limit public access to an individual’s record through expungement or sealing, and the other assigned judges something akin to the executive’s pardoning role, through deferred dispositions and certificates of relief. These two approaches to restoration have existed side by side for more than half a century and have never been fully reconciled.

Today, with a new focus on reentry and rehabilitation, policy-makers are again debating whether it is more effective to forgive a person’s past crimes (through pardon or judicial dispensation) or to forget them (through record-sealing or expungement). Despite technological advances and now-pervasive background-checking practices, many states have continued to endorse the forgetting approach, at least for less serious offenses and records not resulting in conviction. At the same time, national law reform organizations have proposed more transparent judicial forgiving or dispensing mechanisms. While the analytical model of “forgiving v. forgetting” is necessarily imperfect given the wide variety of relief provisions operating in the states, it seems to capture the basic distinction between an approach that would mitigate or avoid the adverse consequences of past crimes, and an approach that would limit access to information about those crimes.

The report organizes relief provisions into six categories: executive pardon, judicial record-closing, deferred adjudication, certificates of relief, fair employment and licensing laws, and restoration of voting rights. The judgments made about the availability of each form of relief, reflected in color-coded maps, are in many cases necessarily subjective, and we have done our best to explain our approach in each case.

More detailed information about different forms of relief is available from the state-by-state summaries that are the heart of the report. Citations to relevant laws and comparisons of the laws of each state are included in the 50-state charts in Appendices A & B. Up-to-date summaries and charts are available from the Restoration of Rights Project, which additionally includes in-depth discussions of the law and policy in its state-by-state “profiles.” This information is updated by the authors on a real-time basis, and we expect to republish this report from time to time when warranted by changes in the law.

October 12, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Judge Kozinski, in dissent, laments the "cruel and expensive hoax" of the death penalty in California

A divided Ninth Circuit panel issued an extended opinion yesterday in Kirkpatrick v. Chappell, No. 14-99001 (9th Cir. Oct. 10, 2017) (available here), that keeps alive a habeas claim that of a California murderer trying to stay alive decades after being sentenced to death for a double murder committed in 1983. The bulk of the ruling, with a majority ruling by Judge Reinhardt and a dissent by Judge Kozinski, concerns the intricacies of appellate and habeas procedure. But the last four pages of Judge Kozinski's dissent are what make the opinion blog-worthy, and here is a taste from its start and end (without the copious cites):

But none of this matters because California doesn’t have a death penalty.  Sure, there’s a death row in California — the biggest in the Western Hemisphere. But there have been only thirteen executions since 1976, the most recent over ten years ago.  Death row inmates in California are far more likely to die from natural causes or suicide than execution....

Meanwhile, the people of California labor under the delusion that they live in a death penalty state.  They may want capital punishment to save innocent lives by deterring murders.  But executions must actually be carried out if they’re to have any deterrent effect.  Maybe death penalty supporters believe in just retribution; that goal, too, is frustrated if there’s no active execution chamber.  Or perhaps the point is closure for victims’ families, but these are surely false hopes.  Kirkpatrick murdered Rose Falconio’s sixteen-year-old son more than thirty years ago, and her finality is nowhere near.  If the death penalty is to serve whatever purpose its proponents envision, it must actually be carried out. A phantom death penalty is a cruel and expensive hoax.

Which is why it doesn’t matter what we hold today.  One way or the other, Kirkpatrick will go on to live a long life “driv[ing] everybody else crazy,” while copious tax dollars are spent litigating his claims.  And my colleagues and I will continue to waste countless hours disputing obscure points of law that have no relevance to the heinous crimes for which Kirkpatrick and his 746 housemates continue to evade their lawful punishment.  It’s as if we’re all performers in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.  We make exaggerated gestures and generate much fanfare. But in the end it amounts to nothing.

October 11, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (25)

Could poor health help save the live of Ohio's "poster child for the death penalty”?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Columbus Dispatch article headlined "Ohio killer says he’s too ill to be put to death."  Here are excerpts:

Death-row inmate Alva Campbell, once dubbed “the poster child for the death penalty” for a deadly carjacking outside the Franklin County Courthouse 20 years ago, is now too sick to be put to death, his attorneys and advocates say.

The convicted killer is slated for execution Nov. 15, but Campbell has so much fluid in his lungs that he can’t lie flat on the execution table for a lethal injection, one of his attorneys, David Stebbins, said Tuesday. “He’ll start gasping and choking,” Stebbins said. Stebbins said that for Campbell to sleep in prison, “he has to prop himself up on his side. It’s not very good.”

Stebbins said he has communicated his concerns to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, which didn’t immediately respond to questions about how to deal with Campbell’s condition.

Campbell, 69, has twice been convicted of murder, most recently in the 1997 execution-style slaying of 18-year-old Charles Dials behind a K-Mart store on South High Street.

Long before that, Campbell had cardiopulmonary issues that in the past few years have become debilitating, his attorneys say. Most of his right lung has been removed, and he has emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and possibly cancer in much of his remaining lung tissue, Campbell’s application for executive clemency says. In addition, his prostate gland has been removed, as has a gangrenous colon. A broken hip last year has confined him to a walker. “The severity of these combined illnesses have left Alva debilitated and fragile,” Campbell’s clemency application says. “Alva’s deteriorating physical condition further militates in favor of clemency.”

The health claims are only one reason why Campbell and his attorneys are asking that his sentence be commuted to life in prison without parole. They also cite the “nightmare” childhood that Campbell suffered at the hands of an alcoholic father who was both physically and sexually abusive.

If Gov. John Kasich doesn’t want to commute Campbell’s sentence, delaying his sentence would have the same effect because the inmate will die soon, advocates said. “He’s probably in the poorest health of any living death-row inmate in the country,” said Kevin Werner of Ohioans to Stop Executions....

Campbell is scheduled for a clemency hearing Thursday. A spokesman for Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said that, in advance of the hearing, his office will file a response rebutting the claims made in Campbell’s application.

Campbell argues that poor health is one reason he shouldn’t be put to death, but he used an earlier, false health claim to commit the crime that put him on death row. Campbell feigned paralysis from a glancing bullet wound suffered during a robbery arrest. As Campbell was being taken to the Franklin County Courthouse for a hearing on April 2, 1997, he sprang from his wheelchair, overpowered a deputy sheriff, took her gun and fled. He then carjacked Dials, who was at the courthouse to pay a traffic ticket. After driving Dials around for hours, Campbell ordered him onto the floor of his truck and shot him twice.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien, who at the time of Campbell’s trial called him “the poster child for the death penalty,” couldn’t be reached Tuesday for comment.

October 11, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, October 08, 2017

New California law limits reach of registry for lower-level sex offenders

As reported in this local article, headlined "California will soon end lifetime registration of some sex offenders under bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown," some significant changes are now in the works for the sex offender registry in the Golden State.  Here are the details:

Thousands of Californians will be allowed to take their names off the state’s registry of sex offenders as a result of action Friday by Gov. Jerry Brown.  Brown signed legislation that, when it takes effect Jan. 1, will end lifetime listings for lower-level offenders judged to be at little risk of committing new crimes.

The measure was introduced at the request of Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey and other law enforcement officials who said the registry, which has grown to more than 105,000 names, is less useful to detectives investigating new sex crimes because it is so bulky.

“California's sex offender registry is broken, which undermines public safety,” said Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who introduced the bill.  “SB 384 refocuses the sex offender registry on high-risk offenders and treats low-level offenders more fairly.”

The registry currently requires law enforcement officials to spend hours on paperwork for annual evaluations of every offender, including those who are low risk and have not committed a crime for decades, Wiener said.

Brown declined to comment Friday, but his office referred to a statement put out last month. “SB 384 proposes thoughtful and balanced reforms that allow prosecutors and law enforcement to focus their resources on tracking sex offenders who pose a real risk to public safety, rather than burying officers in paperwork that has little public benefit,” said Ali Bay, a spokeswoman for the governor, last month.

The measure was opposed by many Republican lawmakers and Erin Runnion, who in 2002 founded the Joyful Child Foundation, an Orange County advocacy group for victims, after the abduction, molestation and murder of her 5-year-old daughter, Samantha.  Runnion said parents should be able to check a comprehensive registry to see if a potential teacher, youth league coach or babysitter for their children has ever been convicted of a sex crime.

California is one of only four states that require lifetime registration of sex offenders. The others are Alabama, South Carolina and Florida.

The new law signed by the governor creates a tiered registry, with high-risk offenders on the registry for life and others able to petition to be removed after either 10 or 20 years without re-offending, depending on the offense.  Offenses for which registrants can be removed from the list after 20 years include include rape by deception and lewd and lascivious behavior with a child under 14.

Offenders who petition for removal after 10 or 20 years will be assessed by a judge — with input from the local district attorney — who can grant or deny the petition.

October 8, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (9)

Friday, October 06, 2017

Nearly 35 years after his double murder, Florida executes Michael Lambrix despite non-unanimous jury death recommendations

As reported in this local article, "Florida executed an inmate Thursday who was convicted of killing two people after a night of drinking decades ago."  Here is part of the extended backstory:

Michael Lambrix, 57, died by lethal injection at 10:10 p.m. at Florida State Prison in Bradford County. For his final words, Lambrix said, “I wish to say the Lord's Prayer.” He recited the words, ending on the line “deliver us from evil,” his voice breaking slightly at times.

When he finished and the drug cocktail began flowing through his veins, Lambrix's chest heaved and his lips fluttered. This continued for about five minutes, until his lips and eyelids turned silver-blue and he lay motionless. A doctor checked his chest with a stethoscope and shined a light in both of his eyes before pronouncing him dead.

Lambrix was the second inmate put to death by the state since it restarted executions in August. Before then, the state had stopped all executions for months after a Supreme Court ruling that found Florida's method of sentencing people to death was unconstitutional. In response, the state Legislature passed a new law requiring death sentences to have a unanimous jury vote.

Lambrix's attorney, William Hennis, argued in an appeal to the nation's high court that because his client's jury recommendations for death were not unanimous — the juries in his two trials voted 8-4 and 10-2 for death — they should be thrown out.  The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that Lambrix's case is too old to qualify for relief from the new sentencing system. The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday night denied Lambrix's last-ditch appeal.

Lambrix was convicted of killing Clarence Moore and Aleisha Bryant in 1983 after a long night of partying in a small central Florida town, Labelle, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) northeast of Fort Meyers. Lambrix said he was innocent.

He and his roommate, Frances Smith, had met the victims at a bar, and returned to their trailer to eat spaghetti and continue the party, prosecutors said.  At some point after returning to the trailer, Lambrix asked Moore to go outside. He returned about 20 minutes later and asked Bryant to come out as well, according to Smith's testimony. Smith testified at trial that Lambrix returned to the trailer alone after the killings, his clothes covered in blood.  The two finished the spaghetti, buried the two bodies and then washed up, according to Smith's testimony cited in court documents.

Prosecutors said Lambrix choked Bryant, and used a tire iron to kill Moore. Investigators found the bodies, the tire iron and the bloody shirt.

Lambrix has claimed in previous appeals that it was Moore who killed Bryant, and that he killed Moore only in self-defense. “It won't be an execution,” he told reporters in an interview at the prison Tuesday, according to the Tampa Bay Times. “It's going to be an act of cold-blooded murder.”

Lambrix's first trial ended in a hung jury. The jury in the second trial found him guilty of both murders, and a majority of jurors recommended death.

He was originally scheduled to be executed in 2016, but that was postponed after the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in a case called Hurst v. Florida, which found Florida's system for sentencing people to death was unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges, instead of juries. Florida's Supreme Court has ruled that the new death sentencing system only applies to cases back to 2002.

October 6, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (9)

Thursday, October 05, 2017

"Gorsuch Joins Court’s Liberals Over Protections for Criminal Defendants"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Wall Street Journal article which is primarily focused on the Supreme Court oral argument yesterday in Class v. US.  Because Class is a quirky case dealing with appeal rights and because no formal opinions have been issued this Term for Justice Gorsuch to join (and because Justice Gorsuch also voted on Wednesday to vacate an injunction protecting from execution a death row defendant in Alabama), I think this WSJ headline is a bit overblown and perhaps even misleading.  But I still consider the headline revealing, as is its account of SCOTUS argument which prompted it.  Here are excerpts:

Justice Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s appointee to the Supreme Court, joined liberal colleagues Wednesday in sharply questioning government arguments that criminal defendants forfeit all rights to appeal after entering a plea bargain.

Since his April appointment, Justice Gorsuch’s remarks and votes nearly always have placed him on the court’s right. This week’s arguments suggested, however, that like his late predecessor, Justice Antonin Scalia, Justice Gorsuch’s legal philosophy sometimes may lead him to split with fellow conservatives and back procedural protections for criminal defendants.

Wednesday’s case involved Ronald Class, a High Shoals, N.C., retiree who in May 2013 illegally parked his Jeep Wrangler in a U.S. Capitol lot. Police found the vehicle contained several loaded weapons, including a 9mm Ruger pistol, a .44-caliber Taurus pistol and a .44- caliber Henry rifle. Although he had a North Carolina concealed weapons permit, Mr. Class was arrested under a federal law prohibiting guns on the Capitol grounds.

According to the government’s brief, Mr. Class told Federal Bureau of Investigation agents that “he was a ‘Constitutional Bounty Hunter ’ and a ‘Private Attorney General’ who traveled the nation with guns and other weapons to enforce federal criminal law against judges whom he believed had acted unlawfully.” Mr. Class later reached a plea bargain with prosecutors and was sentenced to 24 days’ imprisonment and a year of supervised release. Although plea bargains typically restrict appeals from defendants, Mr. Class then sought to have his conviction overturned on several grounds, including that he had a Second Amendment right to take his guns to the Capitol.

A federal appeals court dismissed the appeal in an unsigned order, noting that Mr. Class had told the trial judge he understood the plea bargain required him to forgo all but a few technical forms of appeal. But on Wednesday, an attorney for Mr. Class said that Supreme Court precedents established that defendants retained the right to raise constitutional claims even after pleading guilty.

A Justice Department attorney, Eric Feigin, argued that the government was entitled to assume Mr. Class had waived all appeals. “There’s a serious information imbalance here. Only the defendant knows what kinds of claims he might want to bring after a guilty plea and in what respects he doesn’t intend his guilty plea to be final,” he told the court.

Justice Gorsuch appeared incredulous. “Mr. Feigin, is this information asymmetry problem a suggestion that the government lacks sufficient bargaining power in the plea bargaining process?” he asked. “No, your honor,” Mr. Feigin said.

Federal and state prosecutors win more than 90% of criminal cases without persuading a jury; defendants nearly always agree to plead guilty under threat of harsher punishment should they be convicted after opting for a trial.

Picking up on a question by Justice Stephen Breyer, Justice Gorsuch suggested that a defendant who pleads guilty admits the factual allegations in an indictment — but not that those actions necessarily are illegal. “You’re admitting to what’s in the indictment. Isn’t that maybe the most natural and historically consistent understanding of what a guilty plea is?” Justice Gorsuch said.

Justice Gorsuch’s remarks Wednesday followed similar pro-defendant positions he took Monday. That case involved a Filipino with permanent U.S. residency who had been convicted of burglary and who argued that the criteria Congress adopted authorizing deportation of immigrants for committing violent crimes were unconstitutionally vague.

A few prior related posts:

October 5, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

SCOTUS vacates by 6-3 vote lower federal court injunction which would have blocked planned Alabama execution

As reported in this local article, the "U.S. Supreme Court today cleared the way for Alabama's planned execution Thursday of inmate Jeffery Lynn Borden for the Christmas Eve 1993 shooting deaths of his estranged wife and her father in Gardendale." Here is more:

The U.S. Supreme Court issued an order granting the request of the Alabama Attorney General's Office to vacate the injunction blocking the execution that had been issued by the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals last week.  The Attorney General's Office had appealed the 11th Circuit's order to the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday.  In today's order from the U.S. Supreme Court three justices — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonja Sotomayor — said they would have denied the Attorney General's request and kept the injunction blocking the execution in place.

The execution is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday at the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore.

Over at Crime & Consequences, Kent Scheidegger has this post noting that the issue that led to the injunction concerned efforts by the condemned to contest lethal injection methods based on Alabama use of midazolam in its execution protocol.   Over at SCOTUSblog, Amy Howe has this post with a few additional particulars.

October 4, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

After recent SCOTUS win, Duane Buck gets plea deal to avoid any possible return to death row

As reported in this local article, headlined "Condemned inmate Duane Buck escapes death penalty," a Texas murderer consolidated a recent Supreme Court victory assailing his death sentence with a plea deal that ensure he will not return to death row. Here are the details from the start of the article:

Duane Buck — wearing handcuffs, leg irons and the yellow jail uniform of a high-profile inmate — doubled over in his courtroom chair and sobbed. "I'm sorry," he said.

It was the last act of a decades-long battle to execute the 54-year-old convicted killer for a double murder, ending not with lethal injection but a plea deal in a Harris County court.

Buck's courthouse deal was the third Harris County death penalty case stemming from a successful appeal resolved with a plea bargain instead of a retrial under District Attorney Kim Ogg. Buck, whose case went to the U.S. Supreme Court and was sent back to Houston for a retrial because of concerns about racist testimony in his 1997 trial, escaped death row by admitting guilt in the shooting rampage that killed two and injured two others.

The family of Buck's victims, however, were having none of his contrition. "The boy is a cold-blooded murderer," Accie Smith told reporters after the brief hearing. "He is not a victim of racism. He's a cold-blood, calculating murderer."

Smith is one of the older sisters of Debra Gardner, Buck's girlfriend, whom he killed along with her friend Kenneth Butler. After a night of drugs, alcohol and arguing with Gardner in July 1995, Buck broke into her home and shot four people. The victims included his sister, Phyliss Taylor, and his friend Harold Ebenezer, who both survived.

After Tuesday's plea, the slain woman's daughter recounted how she hung from Buck's back as a 13-year-old and tried to keep him from attacking her mother. "You took my mom," said Shenell Gardner. "We both get to live with this. I know what I feel; you feel as well."

The battle to execute Buck began when he was sentenced to die for the slaying of his girlfriend and Butler. After 20 years on death row and several appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year granted Buck a new sentencing hearing because of testimony from an expert who told jurors that Buck was more likely to be dangerous in the future because he is black.

Gardner's family members, who are black, said they felt betrayed by the NAACP and black ministers who took up Buck's cause. "They threw us under the bus. What happened today is a travesty and it's a disgrace," Smith, the victim's sister, said. "I will never understand why his life is more important than her life."

On Tuesday, Ogg said she did not believe prosecutors could secure the death penalty again. The defense team would have shown that for 22 years, Buck has been a model prisoner, so he is unlikely to be a future danger. Also, his sister, whom he shot, has argued for leniency in his case.

Instead of going to trial, Ogg offered Buck the opportunity to admit guilt to two additional counts of attempted murder, hoping to stack the deck when the parole board reviews Buck's case in 2035. "A Harris County jury would likely not return a death penalty conviction today in a case that's forever been tainted by the specter of race," she said. The top prosecutor said she hopes the resolution of Buck's case will mark the end of race being used against defendants in capital cases. "Race is never evidence," Ogg said.

The dilemma with Buck getting a life sentence, by either a jury trial or a plea deal, is that he is sentenced according to the law at the time of the crime. Ogg said it was important to keep Buck behind bars for the rest of his life. A sentence of "life without parole" is not an option, even if both sides agreed to it, because that punishment did not exist in 1995.

Prior related posts on SCOTUS ruling:

October 4, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Interesting comments from the new Justice during reargument of vagueness issues in Sessions v. Dimaya

The first week of oral argument in front of the Supreme Court in the 2017 Term includes reargument in two immigration cases, Sessions v. Dimaya and Jennings v. Rodriguez, that raise constitutional question that could have a range of implications for a range of criminal justice issue.  Dimaya is a follow-up on the (new?) doctrines the Supreme Court started developing in Johnson v. US finding a portion of the Armed Career Criminal Act void for vagueness, and Rodriguez involves broad issues of detention length and due process.

Dimaya was argued yesterday, and I have not yet had a chance to read this full argument transcript closely.  But a quick scan of the transcript with a focus on what the new Justice, Neil Gorsuch, had to say revealed that he is already showing a commitment to textualism and seems quite engaged with interesting issues at the intersection of civil and criminal sanctions.  For example, consider this passage at the start of a question a series of questions for the government's lawyer:

First, getting back to the standard of review and the distinction between criminal and civil, this Court seems to have drawn that line based on the severity of the consequences that follow to the individual, but that seems to me a tough line here to draw because I can easily imagine a misdemeanant who may be convicted of a crime for which the sentence is six months in jail or a $100 fine, and he wouldn't trade places in the world for someone who is deported -- deported from this country pursuant to a civil order or perhaps the subject of a civil forfeiture requirement and loses his home.

So how sound is that line that we've drawn in the past, especially when the civil/criminal divide itself is now a seven-part balancing test, not exclusive, so there may be more than seven factors as I understand it.  And I look at the text of the Constitution, always a good place to start, and the Due Process Clause speaks of the loss of life, liberty, or property.  It doesn't draw a civil/criminal line, and yet, elsewhere, even in the Fifth Amendment, I do see that line drawn, the right to self-incrimination, for example. So help me out with that.

Time will tell how this line of inquiry might find expression in opinions of Justice Gorsuch or other justices in the months ahead. Notably, elsewhere in the transcript, it appears the advocates and other Justices follow-up on points made by Justice Gorsuch in ways that provide further proof that the addition of a single new Justice does serve in some ways to change the entire Court.

UPDATE:  Not very long after this post went up, Kevin Johnson posted at SCOTUSblog this analysis of the Dimaya oral argument under the title "Faithful to Scalia, Gorsuch may be deciding vote for immigrant." Here is his final paragraph:

In sum, the oral argument suggests that Dimaya has a fair chance of prevailing in the Supreme Court.  Gorsuch, the possible deciding vote in the case, seemed willing to apply Scalia’s opinion in Johnson to Dimaya’s case -- maybe even more faithfully than Scalia himself would have done.  And Gorsuch had ready responses to line-drawing and other problems that might arise if the vagueness doctrine were held to invalidate the immigration statute’s residual clause.

October 3, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, October 02, 2017

First big SCOTUS order list has lots of big "cert denied" decisions in big sentencing cases

In prior posts here and here and here, I flagged a couple of commentaries that had flagged Supreme Court cert petitions to watch with the start of a new SCOTUS Term.  A lot of folks have been paying particular attention to two sex offender cases, Karsjens v. Piper (concerning the constitutionality of Minnesota Sex Offender Program), and Snyder v. Does (concerning retroactive application of Michigan's sex offender registry). 

This morning, the Supreme Court released this 75-page order list in which it denied cert on both of these closely-watched cases.  The order list also reveals SCOTUS also denied cert in a number of other cases of likely interest to sentencing fans, such as various cases concerning the application of the Eighth Amendment limit on LWOP juve sentences set out in Graham and Miller.  As detailed in this post last week, the Supreme Court already added a few criminal cases to its docket as it got back to work for the Term.  But none of the new cases it has taken up are likely blockbusters or possibly as consequential as the cases it now has officially decided not to review. 

For a variety of reasons, I am not too surprised by these denials of cert.  Despite my own wishful thinking that the addition of Justice Gorsuch might juice the parts of the docket I find most exciting, I am largely expecting a relatively quiet Term on the sentencing front.  That all said, hope springs eternal, and hope for some exciting grants might be renewed when the fine folks at SCOTUSblog figure out which cases are missing from this new order list and become hot prospects as "relisted" petitions.

October 2, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Yale Law School clinic report looks at "Parole Revocation in Connecticut: Opportunities to Reduce Incarceration"

A helpful reader alerted me to this new report released by The Criminal Justice Clinic at Yale Law School.  This press release from the school's website provides some background and a kind of summary of the report, which carries the title "Parole Revocation in Connecticut: Opportunities to Reduce Incarceration":

A new report highlights opportunities for the State of Connecticut to reduce the high rate of incarceration attributable to its parole revocation process. The report was written by the Samuel Jacobs Criminal Justice Clinic (“CJC”) at Yale Law School.

The report details the findings of a research project that began in the fall of 2015 after Governor Dannel Malloy announced the Second Chance Society initiative.  To support that initiative, CJC agreed to undertake a study of parole revocation in Connecticut to explore ways to reduce incarceration and to facilitate the reintegration of parolees into society....

As part of the CJC study, students and faculty personally observed 49 parole revocation hearings in Connecticut in November 2015.  Shortly after these observations, they reported the following findings to state officials:

  • The Board of Pardons and Paroles (BOPP) revoked parole in 100% of the observed cases.
  • BOPP imposed a prison sanction in 100% of observed cases.
  • Nearly all parolees in the observed cases waived their due process rights in the parole revocation process.
  • No parolee appeared with appointed counsel, even though several parolees seemed clearly to qualify for state-provided counsel under the constitutional standard.
  • The typical procedures at parole revocation hearings made it difficult for parolees to contest disputed facts or to present mitigating evidence. Without counsel, incarcerated parolees did not have a meaningful opportunity to develop evidence in support of their claims.

In 2016, CJC administered a follow-up survey to parolees whose hearings it had observed.  The survey revealed that most parolees did not understand the rights that they had waived during the parole revocation process.  The survey also revealed that 79% of the parolees interviewed had lost jobs as a consequence of parole revocation....

Over the last two years, BOPP has begun to implement reforms to its parole revocation practices in response to the CJC study. In 2017, BOPP asked that CJC present additional recommendations in writing, which led to the release of this report.

September 28, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

SCOTUS grants cert on a bunch of criminal cases, including at least one possibly exciting sentencing case

Over the weekend in this post, I flagged a bunch of interesting criminal cases flagged in this lengthy In Justice Today accounting of cert petitions to watch as the Supreme Court got back in action with its end-of-the-summer "long conference."  Today, via this short order list, the Supreme Court reported out some of the results of its work at the long conference.  Specifically, the court granted certiorari in 11 cases (three of which about military courts are consolidated).  Interestingly, though I did not see any of the cases I have been watching on the "certiorari granted" order list, it seems at least five of the case that do appear on the latest order list involve criminal issues:

16-1027 COLLINS, RYAN A. V. VIRGINIA

16-1371 BYRD, TERRENCE V. UNITED STATES

16-1466 HAYS, KS V. VOGT, MATTHEW JACK D. (N.B.: "Justice Gorsuch took no part in the consideration or decision of this petition.")

16-8255 McCOY, ROBERT L. V. LOUISIANA (N.B.: the "a writ of certiorari [is] limited to Question 1 presented by the petition")

16-9493 ROSALES-MIRELES, FLORENCIO V. UNITED STATES

Based on a too-quick bit of Google searching, it appears that the first two cases above deal with Fourth Amendment car searches, the Vogt case deals with Fifth Amendment procedure, McCoy is a state capital case seemingly dealing with right to counsel issues, and Rosales-Mireles is a federal sentencing appeal!  I am hopeful that SCOTUSblog will soon have their usual terrific coverage of all of today's grants with links to the filings.  I suspect that hard-core sentencing fans will be most interested in the final two cases listed above, but I will need to see the filings before I will know just how excited to get about these new cases on the SCOTUS docket.

Meanwhile, for all the cases in the cert pool being watched by others, we will need to wait until at least Monday morning to know more about their fate.  For those rooting for cert grants, not being on today's order list is not a good sign.  But a lot of cases get relisted after the long conference, and thus there is still a decent chance at least a handful more criminal cases of note will be added to the docket in the coming weeks.

UPDATE Not minutes after I finished this post, I see Amy Howe has this long post reviewing all of today's cert grants, and here is part of her accounting of the criminal cases:

The Fifth Amendment’s “self-incrimination clause” provides that no one “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” In City of Hays, Kansas v. Vogt, the justices will consider the scope of that clause – specifically, whether the Fifth Amendment is violated when statements are used at a probable cause hearing but not at a criminal trial.... 

In Collins v. Virginia, the justices have agreed to clarify the scope of the “automobile exception” to the warrant requirement – specifically, whether it applies to a car parked on private property, close to a home....

Byrd v. United States: Expectations of privacy in rental car for someone who is not an authorized driver;

Rosales-Mireles v. United States: Standard for the court of appeals to correct a plain error;

McCoy v. Louisiana: Whether it is unconstitutional for defense counsel to concede a defendant’s guilt over the defendant’s objection.

Today’s grants are likely to be argued in either January or February.

September 28, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

"Will SCOTUS Let Fear of Sex Offenders Trump Justice?"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Reason commentary by Jacob Sullum spotlighting two cases I have tracked on this blog as they have made their way up to the Justices. Here is how the piece starts and ends:

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, locking up sex offenders after they have completed their sentences is not punishment, and neither is branding them as dangerous outcasts for the rest of their lives.  Two cases the Court could soon agree to hear give it an opportunity to reconsider, or at least qualify, those counterintuitive conclusions.

Karsjens v. Piper is a challenge to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP), which since 1994 has confined more than 700 people who were deemed too "sexually dangerous" to release after serving their prison terms.  Although these detainees are supposedly patients rather than inmates, in more than two decades only one of them has ever been judged well enough to regain his freedom....

Another case pending before the Supreme Court, Snyder v. Doe, is an appeal of a 2016 decision in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled that Michigan's Sex Offender Registration Act, ostensibly a form of civil regulation aimed at protecting public safety, is so punitive that its requirements cannot be applied retroactively without violating the constitutional ban on ex post facto laws.  The 6th Circuit noted that the law "has grown into a byzantine code governing in minute detail the lives of the state's sex offenders," including onerous restrictions on where they may live, work, and "loiter."....

The Supreme Court has let fear of sex offenders, a despised minority that includes many people who pose no real danger to their fellow citizens, trump traditional concerns about due process and just punishment.  By hearing these cases, it can begin to repair the damage it has done to those principles.

September 27, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (20)

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

US Supreme Court, voting 6-3, issues last-minute stay of execution in Georgia

As revealed in this new order and explained in this local article, the "U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay of execution tonight to condemned killer Keith Tharpe, three and a half hours after he was scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection." Here are the basics:

In a 6-3 decision, the court’s justices were apparently concerned about claims that one of Tharpe’s jurors was racist and sentenced Tharpe to death because he was African-American. Three justices — Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch — dissented.

The high court will now decide whether to hear Tharpe’s appeal, and, if it doesn’t, the court said the stay of execution shall terminate automatically. But that will not happen tonight.

Tharpe’s lawyers were overjoyed with the decision. “We’re gratified the court understands this case merits thoughtful consideration outside the press of an execution warrant,” said Brian Kammer, one of Tharpe’s attorneys. “We are extremely thankful that the court has seen fit to consider Mr. Tharpe's claim of juror racial bias in regular order."

Prior related post:

September 26, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

DOJ seeking DC Circuit en banc review of panel ruling finding 30-year mandatory minimums unconstitutionally excessive for Blackwater contractors who killed Iraqis

In this post last month, I noted the remarkable split DC Circuit panel opinion in US v. Slatten, No. 15-3078 (DC Cir. Aug. 4, 2017) (available here).  I am now not surprised to learn from this news report that the "Justice Department asked a full federal appeals court Monday to review a decision to throw out the first-degree murder conviction of one former Blackwater Worldwide security guard and the sentences of three others in shootings that killed 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007."  Here are the details:

Acting Solicitor General Jeffrey B. Wall approved the decision, which was expected and filed by appeals lawyers for the department’s criminal division, to seek a full court review by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, after a three-judge panel ruled Aug. 4.

The panel said a trial court “abused its discretion” in not allowing Nicholas A. Slatten, 33, of Sparta, Tenn., to be tried separately from his three co-defendants in 2014 even though one of them said he, not Slatten, fired the first shots in the massacre.  Slatten was convicted of murder.

By a separate, 2-to-1 vote, the panel also found that the 30-year terms of the others convicted of manslaughter and attempted manslaughter — Paul A. Slough, 37, of Keller, Tex.; Evan S. Liberty, 35, of Rochester, N.H.; and Dustin L. Heard, 36, of Maryville, Tenn. — violated the constitutional prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.”  They received the enhanced penalty because they were also convicted of using military firearms while committing a felony, a charge that primarily has been aimed at gang members and never before been used against security contractors given military weapons by the U.S. government.

The Justice Department filing called the panel’s sentencing finding “as wrong as it is unprecedented,” saying the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld longer sentences for lesser crimes. “By its plain terms, the statute applies to defendants, who used their most fearsome weapons to open fire on defenseless men, women, and children,” the department said. “Far from being unconstitutional, these sentences befit the ‘enormity’ of defendants’ crimes.”

The government also cited “legal and factual errors” in the ruling granting Slatten a retrial, noting the “great international consequence” of his prosecution for “a humanitarian and diplomatic disaster.” A retrial in “a prosecution of this magnitude (including reassembling the many Iraqi witnesses) poses considerable and uncommon challenges,” the department wrote, urging the full court to reconsider “in a case of such exceptional importance.”

In their own filing Monday, attorneys for the four men asked the full court to toss out the case on jurisdictional grounds and so reverse the panel’s finding that civilian contractors supporting the Pentagon could be prosecuted under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act....

A group representing family members and friends of the four tweeted a statement from Slatten last month that said, “Public outrage may be our only chance at true justice for all four of us. While it may be too early to seek pardons for my brothers from President Trump, he especially needs to hear from you.”

I have been meaning to write more about the extraordinary Eighth Amendment analysis in the Slatten decision, but I have been holding back in part due to my sense that en banc or even certiorari review may be forthcoming. The jurisprudential and political elements of this case are truly fascinating, and I really have no idea if the full DC Circuit and/or SCOTUS may want to take up this hot potato of a case. And in the wake of the Arpaio pardon, perhaps Prez Trump will be inclined to jump into the case at some point, too.

Prior related post:

September 26, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Terrific review of SCOTUS petitions to watch from folks at In Justice Today

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I have previously flagged In Justice Today, a publication of Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project, for its copious coverage of a range of criminal justice issues.  Today, I am flagging this extraordinary lengthy In Justice Today accounting of cert petitions to watch as the Supreme Court gets back in action with this "long conference" this week.  Here is the start and just a small part of this very helpful (and link-filled) review of criminal cases that could make their way to the SCOTUS merits docket:

Starting on Monday, the Court has dozens of criminal justice related certiorari petitions to consider. Here are the ten petitions we’re following closely, which cover issues including civil commitment, sex offender registries, non-unanimous jury verdicts, death in prison sentences for juveniles, the death penalty, prosecutorial misconduct, Double Jeopardy protections, and solitary confinement...

Karsjens v. Piper.  On September 25, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider a class challenge to Minnesota's controversial civil commitment regime, the Minnesota Sex Offender Program....

Snyder v. Doe. Over the past decade, Michigan has created one of the most punitive registry schemes in America....  The State of Michigan filed a petition seeking review of the Sixth Circuit’s legal determination that the retroactive application of the sex offender registration laws constituted ex post facto punishment.

Lambert v. Louisiana. In 48 states, juries in criminal cases must return unanimous verdicts. Louisiana and Oregon are the only exceptions; both states permit convictions when only 10 of 12 jurors find the defendant guilty....  Even though the non-unanimity approach only prevails in two jurisdictions, the case arrives at the Court with significant momentum....

Johnson v. Idaho. This term, the Court will have the opportunity to address the question left open in Miller: whether “the Eighth Amendment requires a categorical bar on life without parole for juveniles.” 567 U.S. at 469. In Johnson v. Idaho, the petitioner, Sarah Johnson, challenges the constitutionality of juvenile life-without-parole (JLWOP)....

Ohio v. Moore. In Ohio v. Moore, the State of Ohio is challenging the Ohio Supreme Court’s conclusion that Graham’s prohibition on life-without-parole sentences for juveniles who commit non-homicide offenses also forecloses a term-of-years prison sentence, imposed for multiple non-homicide crimes, that exceeds the juvenile’s life expectancy....

Three other pending petitions — Willbanks v. Missouri Department of Corrections, Garza v. Nebraska, and Castaneda v. Nebraska — present essentially the same question, albeit from the opposite posture. In each, the petitioner challenged the constitutionality of his lengthy aggregate term-of-years sentence, imposed consecutively for several different felony offenses....

Hidalgo v. Arizona. Abel Daniel Hidalgo has asked the Court to consider the constitutionality of Arizona’s death penalty scheme, both in light of its failure to meaningfully narrow the class of murders that are death-eligible and because evolving standards of decency show that, as a categorical matter, the death penalty is unconstitutional....

Farnan v. Walker asks the Court to resolve questions about qualified immunity in the context of prison officials making determinations that a prisoner should be placed in solitary confinement....

September 24, 2017 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Ohio intermediate appeals court, finding functional LWOP sentence excessive for multiple burglaries, cuts 50 years off term

A helpful former student alerted me to an interesting state appeals court ruling in my own backyard handed down last week. Even though the ruling in State v. Gwynne, 2017-Ohio-7570 (5th Dist. Sept. 11, 2017) (available here), is pretty brief, the issues raised by both the case facts and the state appeals ruling could occupy an entire modern sentencing course. Here are some snippets that should prompt sentencing fans to check out the full opinion:

Defendant-Appellant [stole] from at least 12 different nursing homes and assisted living facilities in both Delaware and Franklin counties over the course of eight years. Detectives were unable to connect all of the property to its rightful owners. During part of appellant’s spree, she was employed as a nurse’s aide.  After she was fired for suspicion of theft, however, she continued to dress as a nurse’s aide, in order to enter nursing homes and steal from residents while appearing to be a legitimate employee....

At the change of plea hearing, appellant admitted that she had been stealing from nursing home residents since 2004, four years earlier than the earliest charge in the indictment.  Some residents she knew and worked with, others she did not.  She claimed a cocaine habit was to blame, and that she took cash as well as other items to sell to support her habit.

At the sentencing hearing held on November 7, 2016, the trial court indicated it had reviewed the PSI, sentencing memoranda from the state and appellant, as well as the victim impact statements.  The state recommended 42 years incarceration.  Counsel for appellant advocated for intensive supervision community control, and a period of time in a community based correctional facility.

After considering all of the applicable sentencing statutes, and making all of the required findings, the trial court imposed a sentence of three years for each of the 15 second degree felony burglaries, 12 months for each of the third degree felony thefts, 12 months for each of the fourth degree felony thefts, and 180 days for each first degree misdemeanor receiving stolen property.  The court ordered appellant to serve the felony sentences consecutively, and the misdemeanor sentences concurrently for an aggregate of 65 years incarceration....

Appellant was 55 years old at the time of her sentencing....

We do not minimize the seriousness of appellant's conduct. On this record, however, we find the stated prison term of 65 years does not comply with the purposes and principals of felony sentencing....  A sentence of 65 is plainly excessive.  It can be affirmatively stated that a 65 year sentence is a life sentence for appellant.  Even a sentence of 20 years, considering the purposes and principles of sentencing and weighed against the factual circumstances of this case, would seem excessive.

The sentence is an emotional response to very serious and reprehensible conduct.  However, the understandably strong feelings must be tempered by a sanction clearly and convincingly based upon the record to effectuate the purposes of sentencing.  The sentence imposed here does not do so.  It is disproportionate to the conduct and the impact on any and all of the victims either individually or collectively.  It runs the risk of lessening public respect for the judicial system.  The imposition of a 65 year sentence for a series of non-violent theft offenses for a first-time felon shocks the consciousness.  We therefore find by clear and convincing evidence that the record does not support the sentence.....

We agree, however, with the trial court’s findings relating to the necessity of a prison sentence, and that consecutive sentences are warranted.  We therefore modify appellant’s sentence pursuant to R.C. 2953.08(G)(2) ... [to reach] an aggregate term of 15 years of incarceration.  Given the facts of this case, we find 15 years incarceration consistent with the principles and purposes of sentencing.

Though much can be said about this case, the scope of imprisonment considered at every level of this case startles me and yet I fear startles few others. Prosecutors, even after getting a plea, claimed that this woman at age 55 needed to be subject to 42 years incarceration, at the end of which she would be 97 years old.  The judge apparently decided that was not harsh enough, and thus imposed a sentence that would run until this woman was 130!  Thanks to an unusual appeals court ruling, this defendant now has to be grateful she will only be imprisoned until age 70.  Wowsa.

September 21, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Monday, September 18, 2017

"Why Did a Federal Judge Sentence a Terminally Ill Mother to 75 Years for Health Care Fraud?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this recent law.com article about a notable (and notably harsh) federal sentencing.  Here are some of the details, with some commentary to follow:

A federal judge in Texas sentenced a terminally ill woman to 75 years in prison last month for bilking Medicare — an apparent record sentence for the U.S. Department of Justice for health care fraud.

Marie Neba, 53, of Sugar Land, Texas, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon of the Southern District of Texas on eight counts stemming from her role in a $13 million Medicare fraud scheme.  Neba, the owner and director of nursing at a Houston home health agency, was convicted after a two-week jury trial last November.  At the sentencing on Aug. 11, the government recommended a 35-year imprisonment, said Michael Khouri, who started representing Neba as her private attorney shortly after the trial... 

The unusually lengthy sentence for what health care fraud legal experts call a relatively routine case has them scratching their heads, even in this recent era of the federal government’s crackdown on health care fraud.  Neba, the mother of 7-year-old twin sons, was diagnosed in May with stage IV metastatic breast cancer that has spread to her lungs and bones, according to Khouri, who has filed an appeal of the conviction and the sentence.  She currently is receiving chemotherapy treatments and is in custody in a federal detention center.  “Marie Neba is a mother, a wife and a human being who is dying. If there is any defendant that stands before the court that deserves a below-guideline sentence … it’s this woman that stands before you,” Khouri argued before Harmon at the sentencing hearing, according to a transcript recently obtained by ALM....

Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor who heads the government interaction and white-collar practice group at Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale in Chicago, said given the circumstances, he would have expected Neba to receive a sentence of several years in prison.  “Nothing is surprising in that she went to jail and not for six months,” he said. “But how you get anything close to 75 years is beyond me and makes no sense at all.  In 35 years, I have never heard of the government’s [prison term] recommendation being doubled by the judge, particularly when the government is asking for a tough sentence anyway.”

Gejaa Gobena, a litigation partner at Hogan Lovells and former chief of the DOJ Criminal Division’s Health Care Fraud Unit, concurred. “We prosecuted hundreds of cases and never had a sentence approaching anywhere near this,” Gobena said.

Legally, the answer to how the long sentence came about is not that difficult: Harmon, applying several enhancements under the federal sentencing guidelines, imposed the statutory maximum prison term on each charge, and then ran them consecutively.  “I am not a heartless person. I think I am not. I hope I am not,” Harmon told Neba before announcing the sentence. “It must be a terrible experience that you are going through, Ms. Neba, and I don’t want you to think that by sentencing you to what I am going to sentence you to that I’m trying to heap more difficulties on you because I am not. … It’s just the way the system works, the way the law works. You have been found guilty of a number of counts by a jury, and this is what happens.”

Even so, historically, the case is highly unusual, breaking the previous record by 25 years.  Since a pair of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in December 2007 that reaffirmed that the federal sentencing guidelines are merely advisory, federal trial judges have much greater latitude to impose what they think are appropriate sentences, even if the guidelines call for higher or lower sentences.  The longest health care fraud sentence prior to Neba’s came in 2011, when Lawrence Duran, the owner of a Miami-area mental health care company, was sentenced to 50 years for orchestrating a $205 million Medicare scheme that defrauded vulnerable patients with dementia and substance abuse. The next longest? Forty-five years in 2015 for a Detroit doctor who gave chemotherapy to healthy patients, whom federal prosecutors then called the “most egregious fraudster in the history of this country.”

According to court documents, Neba, from 2006 to 2015, conspired with others to defraud Medicare by submitting more than $10 million in false claims for home health services provided through Fiango Home Healthcare Inc., owned by Neba and her husband and co-defendant, Ebong Tilong. Using that money, Neba paid illegal kickbacks to patient recruiters for referrals and to Medicare beneficiaries who allowed Fiango to use their Medicare information to bill for home health services that were not medically necessary nor provided, and, all told, received $13 million in ill-gotten Medicare payments, the documents said.

Neba was convicted of one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud, three counts of health care fraud, one count of conspiracy to pay and receive health care kickbacks, one count of payment and receipt of health care kickbacks, one count of conspiracy to launder monetary instruments and one count of making health care false statements.

Four co-defendants, including Tilong, have pleaded guilty in the case. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 13....

Harmon, through her case manager, declined to comment on the case. The transcript, however, reveals several factors that influenced her decision to impose the lengthy prison term, including: “Most importantly,” Neba’s sentencing guideline range of life imprisonment (though Harmon was proscribed by statutory maximums from imposing a life sentence);..... Neba’s attempt to obstruct justice by telling a co-defendant, before arraignment in the federal courthouse, “to keep to her story,” specifically “not to tell anybody that she, [the co-defendant], was paying the patients.”

Neba’s decision to go to trial on the charges, rather than plead guilty and provide some sort of government assistance, also played a role in her sentence. Had she pleaded guilty to one or more of the charges “at the very beginning without obstruction of justice,” and received the highest credit for cooperation for doing so, Neba’s sentencing guideline range would have been 14.5 years, federal prosecutor William Chang told Harmon during the hearing. “Had the same thing happened and she received no [credit] whatsoever, it would be 21.8 years,” he added. “If she had gone to trial and been convicted, but no obstruction of justice, the sentence would have been 30 years on the calculation of the guidelines. So, we want the court to understand the United States’ principal position for what it seeks.”

Khouri, Neba’s attorney, said he plans to challenge on appeal the manner in which the sentencing guideline range was calculated and argue, among other matters, that the sentence is excessive.

I have quoted so much of this press report because the more details it provides, the more perverse the entire federal sentencing system seems along with the perversity of this particularly extreme sentence. For starters, though we supposedly have a federal sentencing system designed to sentence a defendant based principally on the seriousness of her offense, this defendant's guideline range ballooned from less than 15 years imprisonment to life imprisonment essentially because she put the government to its burden of proof at a trial and said the wrong thing to a co-defendant.

Trial penalty guideline calculations notwithstanding, now that the guidelines are advisory, a prosecutor and a judge would need to be able to justify such an extreme functional LWOP sentence based on all the 3553(a) statutory factors. No matter how seriously one regards health care fraud, I cannot fully understand how any of these factors (save the guideline range) can support this extreme sentence in this not-so-extreme case of fraud.  If reasonableness review has any substance whatsoever, and if the facts in this article are accurate, it seems to me that this sentence ought to be found substantive unreasonable.

September 18, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Might Justice Gorsuch juice up the SCOTUS sentencing docket ... perhaps starting with IAC case from Arkansas?

The SCOTUS sentencing docket has felt relatively muted to me in recent years, due in part to transition issues after Justice Scalia's unexpected death and due in part to Apprendi and Booker jurisprudence no longer garnering much of the Court's attention.  Of course, the application of Eighth Amendment doctrines after Miller and Graham and vagueness doctrines after Johnson can and will continue to provide grist for the SCOTUS sentencing mill, and it also still seems no SCOTUS Term would be complete without a few capital cases on the docket.  Nevertheless, with SCOTUS soon to have its “long conference” in which the Justices will consider all the cert petitions that stacked up over the summer, I find myself not really expecting exciting cert grants on many (or perhaps any) issues that will rev up sentencing fans.

That said, and as the title of this post suggests, perhaps new personnel at SCOTUS could mean some new juice for the SCOTUS sentencing docket.  As noted in this post from May, Justice Gorsuch has opted out of the cert pool, and I suspect that could lead him to be more engaged with criminal cases that may get short shrift through the cert pool screening process. In addition, as detailed in this prior post, Justice Gorsuch had a remarkable little concurrence in a federal mandatory-minimum sentencing case, Hicks v. US, No. 16-7806 (S. Ct. June 26, 2017) (available here), right before all the Justices left for summer vacation.  Though these tea leaves hardly ensure that the new guy is a vote for cert in all the sentencing cases I find interesting, it remains fun to speculate whether Justice Gorsuch's libertarian-leaning instincts might make him more inclined to vote to review petitions of criminal defendants than some of his colleagues.

If Justice Gorsuch is looking for cert worthy sentencing cases, Carissa Byrne Hessick tees one up in this new post over at PrawfsBlawg, titled "Thompson v. Arkansas and Ineffective Assistance of Counsel at Sentencing."  Here is how that posting gets started:

Earlier this summer, I helped write a cert petition for the US Supreme Court.  The case involves an ineffective assistance claim out of Arkansas.  The petitioner, Mario Thompson, was represented at trial by a lawyer who didn’t do very much on his behalf.  Among other things, the lawyer failed to investigate or prepare any sort of meaningful mitigation case for sentencing.  On collateral attack, a state judge held that the lawyer failed to provide effective assistance of counsel at sentencing. But the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed.

Arkansas has a rule that a defendant who is claiming a violation of her Sixth Amendment right to counsel cannot show prejudice if she did not receive the maximum available sentence.  This rule is inconsistent with the reasoning of Glover v. United States, 531 U.S. 198 (2001).  And although Arkansas is the only jurisdiction to have adopted this particular rule, there is a split over the appropriate prejudice standard for ineffective assistance of counsel at sentencing claims.  The Second, Third, Sixth, and Tenth Circuits have adopted what I think is the correct legal standard.  The courts of last resort in Louisiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin have adopted that same standard.  But Arkansas and the Fifth Circuit have adopted different prejudice standards.  And several federal district courts have started to question how they ought to assess these claims.

September 18, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

New op-ed and op-doc from New York Times takes on "A ‘Frightening’ Myth About Sex Offenders"

David Feige has a new op-ed and a short video documentary unpacking and attacking the notion that sex offender recidivism rates are extraordinarily high.  This op-ed is headlined "When Junk Science About Sex Offenders Infects the Supreme Court," and this op-doc is titled "A ‘Frightening’ Myth About Sex Offenders."  Here is how the op-ed starts and ends:

This month the Supreme Court will have a rare opportunity to correct a flawed doctrine that for the past two decades has relied on junk social science to justify punishing more than 800,000 Americans.  Two cases that the court could review concern people on the sex offender registry and the kinds of government control that can constitutionally be imposed upon them.

In Snyder v. Doe, the court could consider whether Michigan’s broad scheme of regulating sex offenders constitutes “punishment.”  The other case, Karsjens v. Piper, examines the constitutionality of Minnesota’s policy of detaining sex offenders forever — not for what they’ve done, but for what they might do.

And while the idea of indefinite preventive detention might sound un-American or something out of the film “Minority Report,” the larger problem is that “civil commitment,” like hundreds of other regulations imposed on those required to register, has been justified by assertions about the recidivism of sex offenders. But those assertions turn out to be entirely belied by science.

For the past 24 years, Minnesota has detained sex offenders released from prison in a “therapeutic program” conveniently located on the grounds of a maximum-security prison in Moose Lake.  The “patients” are kept in locked cells, transported outside the facility in handcuffs and leg irons, and subjected to a regimen that looks, sounds and smells just like that of the prison it is adjacent to.

But unlike prison, this “therapeutic” program, which aims to teach the patients to control their sexual impulses and was initially designed to last from two to four years, has no fixed end date. Rather, program administrators decide which patients are safe enough to release.  In the 24 years it has existed, not a single “patient” has ever been fully released.  There are now about 850 people in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, some with no adult criminal record, and others who, despite having completed every single program ever offered at the facility, have remained civilly committed for over 20 years.

While civil commitment is perhaps the most extreme example of punishments imposed on people convicted of sex crimes, it is by no means the only one. Driven by a pervasive fear of sexual predators, and facing no discernible opposition, politicians have become evermore inventive in dreaming up ways to corral and marginalize those forced to register — a category which itself has expanded radically and come to include those convicted of “sexting,” having consensual sex with non-minor teenagers or even urinating in public.

These sanctions include being forced to wear (and pay for) GPS monitoring and being banned from parks, and draconian residency restrictions that sometimes lead to homelessness.  In addition, punishments can include, on pain of re-incarceration, undergoing interrogations using a penile plethysmograph, a device used to measure sexual arousal.  They have also included requirements that those on the registry refrain from being alone with children (often including their own) and barred from holding certain jobs, like being a volunteer firefighter or driving an ice cream truck.

And when these restrictions have been challenged in court, judge after judge has justified them based on a Supreme Court doctrine that allows such restrictions, thanks to the “frightening and high” recidivism rate ascribed to sex offenders — a rate the court has pegged “as high as 80 percent.”  The problem is this: The 80 percent recidivism rate is an entirely invented number....

Now more than ever, Americans should be able to look to our highest court and expect decisions that are based on reason and grounded in science rather than fear.  The court must rule wisely and bravely, including being willing to acknowledge its mistake and finally correct the record.  More than 800,000 Americans have needlessly suffered humiliation, ostracism, banishment re-incarceration and civil commitment thanks to a judicial opinion grounded in an unsourced, unscientific study.  Simple decency and perhaps more important, intellectual honesty demands better.

A few prior recent related posts:

September 12, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wishing for comparable efforts to contest severity in light of legal attacks on leniency of Arpaio pardon

The title of this post is my reaction to this Politico article headlined "Legal groups move to challenge Trump's Arpaio pardon."  The article reports on just some of the copious efforts to contest Prez Donald Trump's first use of his clemency authority.  Here are the basics:

Two advocacy groups moved on Monday to challenge Donald Trump’s pardon of controversial former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, alleging that the president's move was unconstitutional because it undermined the power of the federal judiciary.

A public interest law firm, the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, sought to file an amicus brief in an Arizona district court, where Arpaio is seeking to vacate a conviction after Trump granted him a pardon last month. The brief was initially turned down by a judge on procedural grounds.  A second group, the Protect Democracy Project, also filed an amicus brief on Monday arguing that the pardon is unconstitutional....

The [MacArthur Justice Center] brief contends that Trump’s pardon of Arpaio violated the Constitution because “it has the purpose and effect of eviscerating the judicial power to enforce constitutional rights.”  The MacArthur Justice Center lawyers argue that, while broad, presidential pardon power can not be used to undermine the judiciary’s ability to enforce the Bill of Rights or the Fourteenth Amendment.  The Arpaio pardon, the lawyers argue, “eviscerates this Court’s enforcement power...by endorsing Arpaio’s refusal to comply with federal court orders.” The brief also takes issue with the breadth of Trump’s pardon, noting that the “text of the pardon is so broad that it purports to allow Arpaio to run for Sheriff again...and escape criminal liability for future contempt.”

Protect Democracy’s lawyers similarly contend that the pardon violates the separation of powers “because it unconstitutionally interferes with the inherent powers of the Judicial Branch.” They also argue that the pardon goes beyond the president’s power — “We are aware of no case in this Court, the Ninth Circuit or the Supreme Court that has upheld a pardon matching the extraordinary circumstances here, where the contempt is used to enforce court orders protecting the rights of private litigants,” the lawyers write — and violates due process.

This extended post by William Jacobson over at Legal insurrection, headlined "DOJ sides with Joe Arpaio, as groups ask Ct to declare Pardon unconstitutional," rightly notes the uphill battle these arguments face and concludes that "it seems highly unlikely that the court would declare that a pardon which on its face is constitutional is not because it involves contempt of court." It also details and links the four briefs sought to be filed against the Apraio pardon:

I full comprehend all the political and legal reasons why the Arpaio pardon bothers folks, and I will never tell thoughtful advocates that they are wasting their time by filing amicus brief even when the law seems against them.  But, as the title of this post indicated, I still rue the reality that partisan politics so readily energizes a bunch of folks spend lots of time and resources attacking one act of remarkable leniency while so many acts of remarkable severity in our criminal justice systems so rarely engenders even a peep from outside advocates.

September 12, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, September 11, 2017

Can a federal sentence really "be close to absurd" and yet also be affirmed as reasonable?

The peculiar and perhaps metaphysical question in the title of this post is prompted by a Second Circuit panel decision today in US v. Jones, No. 15‐1518 (2d Cir. Sept. 11, 2017) (available here). The Jones case get intricate thanks to the timing and uncertainties of criminal history litigation. The start of the panel opinion provides a flavor of the mess:

Defendant Corey Jones appeals from a sentence entered in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Garaufis, J.) following a jury trial conviction for assaulting a federal officer in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 111. He was sentenced as a career offender principally to 180 months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release.  The primary basis for Jones’ appeal is that, in light of the Supreme Court’s holding in Johnson v. United States, 559 U.S. 133 (2010) (Johnson I), New York first‐degree robbery is no longer categorically a crime of violence under the force clause of the Career Offender Guideline, U.S.S.G. §§ 4B1.1 and 4B1.2, and that the district court therefore erred in concluding that his prior conviction for first‐degree robbery would automatically serve as one of the predicate offenses for a career offender designation.

After oral argument in this matter, the Supreme Court decided Beckles v. United States, 137 S. Ct. 886 (2017), which held that the residual clause of the Career Offender Guideline — a second basis for finding a crime of violence — was not unconstitutional.  The Court reached this conclusion notwithstanding the government’s concession to the contrary in cases around the country that the residual clause, like the identically worded provision of the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”), was void for vagueness. In light of Beckles, we find that New York first‐degree robbery categorically qualifies as a crime of violence under the residual clause and therefore need not address Jones’ argument based on the force clause. We also find that his sentence is substantively reasonable and therefore AFFIRM the sentence imposed by the district court.

Judge Calabresi (my former boss) authors a separate concurring opinion in which he explains the various factors and fortuities which he thinks requires an affirmance of a sentence that seems technically sound by infused with problems of timing and equity. I cannot briefly recount he are the curious particulars, but this sentence captures Judge Calabresi's obvious frustration:

What is more — and this may be the true source of my sense of absurdity — there appears to be no way in which we can ask the district court to reconsider the sentence it ordered in view of the happenstances that have worked against Jones, and in view of its assessment of Jones’ crimes and of its downward departure.

For what it is worth, I think reasonableness review can and should be a very flexible and robust means for circuit courts to require resentencing whenever it has a basis for being concerned, procedurally or substantively, with any aspects of the proceedings below in light of the sentencing commands of 3553(a). Consequently, I think the Second Circuit could have said simply that "happenstances that have worked against Jones" since the time of his initial sentencing cast new light on the 3553(a) factors and thus his sentence is procedurally unreasonable and he should be resentenced.

September 11, 2017 in Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Just how should California implement Prop 57's call for prison releases?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local article headlined "Prop 57: Debate rages on about which inmates should be released early." Here are excerpts:

Ten months after California voters approved a proposition allowing thousands of prison inmates to apply for early release, a debate is still raging over who ought to be freed.

Proposition 57 left it to prison officials to clearly identify which crimes deemed nonviolent would qualify and how an inmate’s criminal history would affect eligibility. The public could weigh in during a 45-day comment period this summer — and boy, did they. More than 8,500 people threw in their two cents, in writing and at a public hearing in Sacramento last week. Now, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is sorting through bulging email boxes and stacks of letters from crime victims, inmates, prosecutors and reformers.

Meanwhile, under emergency regulations, prison officials have already notified prosecutors across California of more than 1,800 inmates who have applied for early parole. No figures are available until later this month on the number of inmates whose applications have been denied, approved or have actually been released. But a snapshot of the situation in two urban counties in Northern California shows relatively few people are being granted early parole, though it is impossible to tell if the trend will continue....

Ken Scheidegger, legal director of the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Foundation, ... opposed Proposition 57 and is concerned about the early releases. “People got the idea a few years ago that prisons were full of harmless people,” Scheidegger said. “That is a widespread popular misconception.”

But proponents note that Proposition 57 was the third time since 2012 that voters overwhelmingly opted to ease California’s tough-on-crime laws to enhance rehabilitation, stop the revolving door of crime and prevent federal courts from indiscriminately releasing inmates to reduce prison crowding. “Prop. 57 is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card,” said Benee Vejar, an organizer with the civil rights group Silicon Valley De-Bug. “It’s asking for an early parole hearing and another chance.”...

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has until Sept. 20th to develop the regulations, but it can ask for a 90-day extension. The debate over the Proposition 57 regulations is being fought along similar battle lines as the fight over the initiative itself.

Advocates, including Human Rights Watch, want prison officials to consider as many people as possible for early release. Law enforcement officials want to restrict who is eligible and change how the decisions are made. Both sides are calling for more rehabilitation programs. The state recently boosted the prison system’s rehab budget by $137 million. “We cannot repair the criminal justice system on the cheap,” said Rosen, the Santa Clara County district attorney. “If we want to improve the outcomes from prison, then we will need to change the experience of being in prison.”

The ... opponents’ chief complaint is that the initiative promised voters that only nonviolent inmates would be eligible for release. But under the existing regulations, certain violent offenders are eligible once they have completed their prison term for the violent felony, but are still serving time for a nonviolent felony they were also convicted of. The Legislative Analyst’s Office also raised questions about the provision. On the other hand, Proponents want to expand the pool of inmates. Currently, about 4,000 inmates with third strikes whose last offense was nonviolent are barred from applying for early parole. Yet according to the CDCR’s own public safety risk evaluations, nonviolent third-strikers are more than three times more likely to qualify as low risk than the currently eligible prisoners.

But opponents claim crime will rise under Proposition 57, a warning they have sounded since 2011 when Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature began scaling back the emphasis on incarceration in response to a federal court order about prison crowding and inhumane health care. Opponents point to the fact that violent crime in 2016 rose in the state — by 4.1 percent — unlike in the country as a whole. However, proponents note California’s violent crime rate remains comparable to levels seen in the late 1960s. And property crime was down 2.9 percent and remained lower than it was in 2010, before the reforms began....

Law enforcement officials also complain about the process. Among their concerns: Early parole applications are subject to a paper review, rather than a parole hearing; prosecutors only have 30 days to prepare a recommendation; only inmates may appeal the board’s decision; and police are cut out entirely. “My rank and file are on the front lines — they’re the ones who have to encounter these individuals once they’re on the streets,” San Jose police Chief Eddie Garcia said.

September 7, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

US Sentencing Commission releases big new analysis of Prez Obama's 2014 Clemency Initiative

I am excited to see that the US Sentencing Commission has this morning released this big new report titled simply "An Analysis of the Implementation of the 2014 Clemency Initiative." I hope to find the time in the coming days to dig into many of the report's particulars; for now, I can just reprint the text of this USSC overview page about the report and add a few comments:

Report Summary

This report analyzes the sentence commutations granted under the 2014 Clemency Initiative.  It provides data concerning the offenders who received a sentence commutation under the initiative and the offenses for which they were incarcerated.  It examines the extent of the sentence reductions resulting from the commutations and the conditions placed on commutations.  It also provides an analysis of the extent to which these offenders appear to have met the announced criteria for the initiative.  Finally, it provides an analysis of the number of offenders incarcerated at the time the initiative was announced who appear to have met the eligibility criteria for the initiative and the number of those offenders who received a sentence commutation.

Key Findings

The key findings of this report are:

  • President Obama made 1,928 grants of clemency during his presidency.  Of them, 1,716 were commutations of sentence, more commutations than any other President has granted.

  • Of the 1,928 grants of clemency that President Obama made, 1,696 were sentence commutations under the 2014 Clemency Initiative.

  • The commutations in sentence granted through the Clemency Initiative resulted in an average sentence reduction of 39.0 percent, or approximately 140 months.

  • Of the 1,696 offenders who received a commuted sentence under the Clemency Initiative, 86 (5.1%) met all the announced Clemency Initiative factors for consideration.

  • On April 24, 2014, there were 1,025 drug trafficking offenders incarcerated in the Federal Bureau of Prisons who appeared to meet all the announced Clemency Initiative factors.  Of them, 54 (5.3%) received clemency from President Obama.

  • By January 19, 2017, there were 2,687 drug trafficking offenders who had been incarcerated in the Federal Bureau of Prisons when the Clemency Initiative was announced and who appeared to meet all the announced Clemency Initiative factors. Of them, 92 (3.4%) received clemency from President Obama.

Back in 2014 when the clemency initiative was announced and certain criteria emphasized (basics here), I had an inkling that the criteria would end up both over-inclusive and under-inclusive. I figured Prez Obama would ultimately not want to grant clemency to everyone who met the criteria announced and also would want to grant clemency to some who did not meet all the criteria. That said, I am still surprised that only 5% of those prisoners who got clemency meet all the criteria and that only about 5% of those prisoners who met all the criteria get clemency. (Based on a quick scan of the USSC report, it seems the vast majority of those who got clemency had some criminal history, which put most of the recipients outside the stated DOJ criteria.)

These additional insights and data points from the USSC report highlight what really seemed to move a clemency applicant toward the front of the line:

A review of the offenders granted clemency under the Initiative shows that at some point the Clemency Initiative was limited to drug trafficking offenders, as all the offenders who received commutations under the Initiative had committed a drug trafficking offense.  This focus was not identified when the Initiative was announced and no formal public announcement was made later that the Initiative had been limited to drug trafficking offenders....

Almost all Clemency Initiative offenders (95.3%) had been convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty.  Most (89.7%) were charged in such a way that the mandatory minimum penalty that applied in the case was ten years or longer.  Indeed, most of the Clemency Initiative offenders (88.2%) received a sentence of 20 years or longer, or life imprisonment.

In the end, then, it appears the 2014 Clemency Initiative turned out to be almost exclusively about identifying and reducing some sentences of some federal drug offenders subject to long mandatory prison terms. Somewhat disappointingly, this USSC report does not appear to speak to whether and how offenders who received clemency were distinct from the general federal prison population in case processing terms. My own rough research suggests that a great disproportion of those who got clemency were subject to extreme mandatory minimums because they opted to put the government to its burden of proof at trial rather than accept a plea deal. Also, if the goal ultimately was to remedy the worst applications of mandatory minimum sentences, it is not surprising that a lot of clemency recipients had some criminal history that would serve to both enhance the applicable mandatory minimum AND make an otherwise lower-level offender not eligible for statutory safety-valve relief from the mandatory term.

September 5, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Split Tenth Circuit panel finds mandatory five-year prison term for violation of supervised release itself violates Fifth and Sixth Amendments

I just saw that an interesting and  important constitutional procedure opinion was handed down by the Tenth Circuit last week in US v. Haymond, No. 16-5156 (10th Cir. Aug 31, 2017) (available here).  Here is how the panel's majority opinion gets started and some of the opinion's substantive analysis:

The district court revoked Andre Ralph Haymond’s supervised release based in part on a finding that Haymond knowingly possessed thirteen images of child pornography. The district court imposed the mandatory minimum sentence required by 18 U.S.C. § 3583(k). Haymond appeals and argues that the evidence was insufficient to support a finding by a preponderance of the evidence that he possessed child pornography, and that 18 U.S.C. § 3583(k) is unconstitutional because it violates his right to due process.

We conclude that the evidence was sufficient to support the district court’s finding that Haymond violated the conditions of his supervised release, but we agree that 18 U.S.C. § 3583(k) is unconstitutional because it strips the sentencing judge of discretion to impose punishment within the statutorily prescribed range, and it imposes heightened punishment on sex offenders based, not on their original crimes of conviction, but on new conduct for which they have not been convicted by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, we affirm the district court’s revocation of Haymond’s supervised release, but we vacate Haymond’s sentence and remand for resentencing....

We conclude that 18 U.S.C. § 3583(k) violates the Fifth and Sixth Amendments because (1) it strips the sentencing judge of discretion to impose punishment within the statutorily prescribed range, and (2) it imposes heightened punishment on sex offenders expressly based, not on their original crimes of conviction, but on new conduct for which they have not been convicted by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt and for which they may be separately charged, convicted, and punished....

By requiring a mandatory term of reimprisonment, 18 U.S.C. § 3583(k) increases the minimum sentence to which a defendant may be subjected. For example, when Haymond was originally convicted by a jury, the sentencing judge was authorized to impose a term of imprisonment between zero and ten years.  See 18 U.S.C. § 2252(b)(2). After the judge found, by a preponderance of the evidence, however, that Haymond had violated a particular condition of his supervised release, the mandatory provision in § 3583(k) required that Haymond be sentenced to a term of reincarceration of at least five years, up to a maximum term of life. This unquestionably increased the mandatory minimum sentence of incarceration to which he was exposed from no years to five years, yet the jury did not make the factual finding required to change his statutorily prescribed sentencing range. Instead, that finding was made by a judge by only a preponderance of the evidence. This violates the Sixth Amendment....

In Johnson v. United States, 529 U.S. 694 (2000), the Supreme Court made clear that, in order to avoid serious constitutional concerns, revocation of supervised release must be viewed as punishment for the original crime of conviction, not as punishment for the violation of the conditions of supervised release....

Regardless of the nature or severity of the defendant’s original crime of conviction, § 3583(k) imposes a mandatory minimum five-year term of imprisonment for only those specific offenses enumerated, while all other violations are subject to the maximum terms set in § 3583(e)(3). By separating these crimes from other violations, § 3583(k) imposes a heightened penalty that must be viewed, at least in part, as punishment for the subsequent conduct — conduct for which the defendant has not been tried by a jury or found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  This, the Court has said, is not permitted. 

To be sure, the sentencing judge can and, according to the Sentencing Guidelines, should consider the severity of the conduct by which a defendant violated the conditions of his or her supervised release.  A more serious violation might well recommend a longer term of reimprisonment.  But, if we wish to maintain the premise that revocation of supervised release is a punishment for the original crime of conviction, Congress must set the authorized term of reimprisonment based on the severity of that original crime.

Notably, Judge Kelly dissents in part because he is (reasonably) concerned that the majority's reasoning might impact any and all judicial fact-finding supporting the revocation of supervised release:

Were the court correct [in its constitutional analysis], the problem it identifies seems like it would be true of all revocation proceedings: if a defendant is sentenced to any term of supervised release, the fact that the release can then be revoked and the defendant be sent back to prison for an additional term means that “the penalty to which a defendant may be subjected” has been increased based on facts not found by a jury. Id. (emphasis added).

In other words, unless either (a) all revocation proceedings must empanel juries for fact-finding (which the Supreme Court, with good reason, has told us is not the case) or (b) the revocation proceeding is treated as a new criminal prosecution (which the Supreme Court also has told us is not the case), it is hard to understand why under current precedent Booker would apply but Apprendi and Alleyne would not. While postrevocation penalties might be considered attributable to the original conviction, the revocation proceeding is neither part of that criminal prosecution nor is it a new criminal prosecution. See Johnson, 529 U.S. at 700....

[According to the majority], the distinction, apparently, is that the terms of revocation differ based on what kind of new crime the defendant committed. But I see no reason why Congress cannot make that distinction. As the Sentencing Guidelines explain, under the “breach of trust” theory applicable to the revocation of supervised release, “the nature of the conduct leading to the revocation [can] be considered in measuring the extent of the breach of trust.” U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual § 7A3(b) (2016). In my view, Congress can determine that the commission of certain crimes constitutes a more serious breach of trust warranting a longer term of revocation. Doing so does not thereby make the revocation proceeding a new criminal prosecution....

Ultimately, we should not jump ahead of the Supreme Court when it has already spoken on this issue. Any tension between the supervised release scheme approved in Johnson and the rationale of the Apprendi / Booker line of cases is for the Supreme Court itself to resolve.

Ever since the Supreme Court got serious about applying its Apprendi doctrine to various sentencing determinations in cases like Blakely and Booker, I have thought the judicial fact-finding that takes place in federal supervised release proceedings were on constitutionally shaky grounds.  Or, to parrot Judge Kelly's final statment, I have long believed that there is significant tension between the supervised release scheme approved in Johnson and the rationale of the Apprendi / Booker line of cases.  But, in various settings, various lower federal courts have found various ways to uphold the judicial fact-finding involved in supervised release revocations — revocations that result in a significant number of federal defendants getting sent back to prison.  (This 2010 USSC report found that roughly 1/3 of all released federal prisoners get revoked and sent back to prison, and that 6% of the federal prison population are serving revocation terms.)

It will be very interest to watch if the Justice Department seeks en banc or SCOTUS review of this Tenth Circuit ruling.  I hope they will, in part because this case seems like it might just get SCOTUS to finally take a look at what its modern Fifth and Sixth Amendment doctrines should mean for supervised release revocation proceedings.

September 5, 2017 in Blakely Commentary and News, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, September 01, 2017

Federal district judge finds Colorado's Sex Offense Registration Act, as applied, amounts to unconstitutional punishment

A couple of helpful readers made sure I did not miss a notable extended opinion concerning application of Colorado's sex offender registration laws. The opinion in Millard v. Rankin, No. 1:13-cv-02406 (D. Colo. Aug. 31, 2017), which can be downloaded below, starts and ends this way:

Plaintiffs are registered sex offenders under the Colorado Sex Offender Registration Act (“SORA”), C.R.S. §§ 16-22-101, et seq. In this civil action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 they seek declaratory and injunctive relief, claiming that continuing enforcement of the requirements of SORA against them violates their rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Defendant is the Director of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (“CBI”), the state agency responsible for maintaining the centralized registry of sex offenders and providing information on a state web site....

Based on the foregoing, it is ORDERED that judgment shall enter declaring that the Colorado Sex Offender Registration Act, C.R.S. §§ 16-22-101, et seq., as applied to Plaintiffs David Millard, Eugene Knight, and Arturo Vega, violates the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution; it is

FURTHER ORDERED that judgment shall enter declaring that the Colorado Sex Offender Registration Act, C.R.S. §§ 16-22-101, et seq., as applied to Plaintiff Arturo Vega, violates procedural due process requirements of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution; it is

FURTHER ORDERED that judgment shall enter declaring that the Colorado Sex Offender Registration Act, C.R.S. §§ 16-22-101, et seq., as applied to Plaintiffs David Millard, Eugene Knight, and Arturo Vega, violates substantive due process requirements of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution; and it is

FURTHER ORDERED that Plaintiffs as prevailing parties shall be entitled to an award reasonable attorney’s fees as part of the costs, to be determined by the Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b).

Download 20170831 Millard Ruling re Sex Offender Registry

September 1, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (11)

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Interesting accounting of effort by Michigan juve killer to get Miller resentencing relief even though he is parole eligible

I was intrigued to see this local Michigan story, headlined "Sides plea on re-sentencing of teen killer," discussing a courtroom debate over whether a juvenile killer long ago sentenced to life with parole should still be able to secure resentencing thanks to the Supreme Court's recent Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. I find the story intriguing not only because of an effort to expand the reach of Miller, but also because the murder victim's family is apparently supportive of the offender's effort to secure release nearly four decades after the crime:

Members of both families packed a courtroom Wednesday as lawyers argued for and against a re-sentencing for a man who killed a high school classmate in 1980. Relatives of Michael Johnson, serving a life sentence for murdering Sue Ellen Machemer, and relatives of Sue Ellen sat on the same side of the courtroom during his bid for re-sentencing. For years, the victim’s family, as well as Johnson’s, have supported his release from prison.

Johnson, 54, was 17 when he killed Sue Ellen, a 15-year-old classmate at Lakeshore High School, where they were both juniors. Johnson, who is in the Ionia Correctional Facility, did not appear at Wednesday’s hearing. His lawyer, Mary Chartier of Lansing, argued for a re-sentencing for Johnson, saying his life sentence, though parolable, is unconstitutional and invalid based on new information about the brain development and characteristics of juveniles. Also, because the Michigan Parole Board has not taken an interest in Johnson’s case, he has no meaningful opportunity for release, Chartier told Berrien County Trial Court Judge John Donahue.

Berrien Assistant Prosecutor Aaron Mead argued that the Parole Board’s action, or lack of, has nothing to do with the validity of the sentence, and that Johnson’s case would be better fought by suing the Parole Board. “Frankly, allowing somebody to back door the Parole Board by saying a sentence is invalid is a very bad precedent,” Mead told the judge at a hearing Wednesday on Johnson’s motion for a re-sentencing.

Donahue took the lawyers’ arguments under advisement and said he will rule in four to eight weeks whether Johnson should be re-sentenced.

Chartier said Johnson’s sentence is unconstitutional because it began when he was a juvenile. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole violates the Eighth Amendment when applied to juveniles. Because the ruling is retroactive, courts are working through a number of first-degree murder cases involving juvenile offenders, and in some cases re-sentencing them.

Mead argues that Johnson’s case does not apply because he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, and was sentenced by the late Judge Julian Hughes to life in prison with the possibility of parole. After serving 10 years, Johnson came into the parole board’s jurisdiction, but the board has never expressed interest in paroling him.

In 2010, Johnson lost on a motion to set aside his life prison sentence. Donahue, who hears Johnson’s motions because he is Hughes’ predecessor on the bench, rejected Johnson’s earlier argument that a change in Michigan Parole Board policies invalidated his sentence. Sue Ellen’s parents, Mel and Ellen Machemer, sat next to Johnson’s family in court, as they did during the hearing in 2010. The Machemers say they have gotten to know Johnson as an adult in prison, have forgiven him, and think it may be time for his release. His own family also supports him and says he has a place to live and a job waiting for him.

Chartier told the judge Wednesday that when Johnson’s file is looked at every five years, he gets a notice of “no interest” from the Parole Board and therefore has repeatedly been denied any meaningful opportunity for release. She said his sentence has been more harsh than that of juveniles convicted of first-degree murder because their cases now have to be reconsidered. “The Supreme Court says that juveniles must be offered some meaningful opportunity for release, and mere hope is not enough,” Chartier told the court. “The Supreme Court says juveniles are different, that wasn’t (considered) in Michael Johnson’s case. These rulings are retroactive, and he’s being denied the (high court’s) mandate for a meaningful opportunity for release.”

Chartier further argued that because Johnson’s sentence was life rather than a term of years, he is being treated in the same manner as someone sentenced to life without parole. She said someone sentenced to a term of years, when up for parole review, is told why if parole is not granted. “In his case, they don’t have to state a reason for not hearing it. He is a juvenile serving a life sentence. He’s gotten no guidance regarding what he needs to do to be released,” Chartier told Donahue....

Mead argued that a sentence can only be reviewed if it is determined to be invalid. Johnson was sentenced to parolable life for second-degree murder, a sentence that is valid, Mead told the court. He said the Supreme Court ruling regarding juveniles applied “only to non-parolable life, nothing else.” He said the Berrien County Trial Court cannot find the sentence invalid based on the Parole Board process. “Where do you draw the line regarding meaningful opportunity (for release)? You don’t draw it in this court,” Mead told Donahue. “Nobody has had the Parole Board answer for itself. The defendant is asking you to be a Super Parole Board. If prisoners say the Parole Board is the problem, then by all means hold them accountable.”

August 31, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

More context for contemplating Prez Trump's pardon of Joe Arpaio

Yesterday I noticed two interesting pieces providing some context for Prez Trump's decision last week to make his first use of the clemency power a pardon for Joe Arpaio (basics here).  Here are their headlines, links and leads:

From CNN here, "This chart shows why Trump's pardon of Arpaio was so unusual":

It was an atypical pardon from an atypical president.  When President Donald Trump granted his very first pardon to Arizonan former sheriff Joe Arpaio, he bucked process and precedent by circumventing the Department of Justice's unit dedicated to making recommendations on such requests.  But he also bucked decades of precedent for how recent pardons have nearly always been granted: a majority have come in the last year of a president's term, they usually come in groups of a dozen or more and they cancel convictions averaging more than two decades old.

Trump's pardon of Arpaio marks one of the earliest pardons in a president's term and one of the only pardons granted alone, according to a CNN analysis of Department of Justice data ranging back nearly three decades. And we turned that data into a chart that shows how, historically, this pardon sticks out in all three major areas: numbers of years into a president's term, number of pardons issued at once and time since the conviction or sentencing.

From FiveThirtyEight here, "The Arpaio Pardon Has Plenty Of Precedents … That Got Other Presidents In Trouble":

Was President Trump’s pardon of former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, issued on a Friday night as a deadly hurricane barreled toward the Gulf Coast, unprecedented?  Or just unpopular?

Several political allies and foes immediately condemned the move as inappropriate and an insult to the justice system. But most of the criticized characteristics of Arpaio’s pardon have at least some parallels to previous ones. The number of controversial characteristics of the Arpaio pardon, however, is unusual and raises questions about the political fallout that Trump will face. The Arpaio pardon, in other words, does have historical precedents (as Trump said on Monday) — just not good ones.

Recent prior related posts:

August 30, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (24)

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

In wake of Marcellus Williams stay and inquiry, broader reflections on innocence and racial dynamics in capital punishment's administration

As reported in this post last week, just before Marcellus Williams was to be put to death for the 1998 murder of a former newspaper reporter, Missouri Gov Eric Greitens issued a stay of execution and appointed a Board of Inquiry to explore his claims of innocence.  With that case obviously fresh in mind, this week has brought these two related commentaries:

Here, respectively, are the final paragraphs of each piece:

This will not be the first time that we have executed a man despite real doubts about the case. So long as we have the death penalty, it will not be the last.

Racist death penalty statutes must be the first to go. Exercising meaningful, impactful leadership, Gov. Greitens can and should, start with Missouri’s.

August 29, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Split en banc Eleventh Circuit concludes Florida felony battery is "crime of violence" under FSG

A remarkable amount of energy and (digital?) link has been spent assessing and reviewing what criminal history counts or does not count as a crime of violence under various provisions of federal sentencing law.  That amount grew that much more on Friday with the release of an 67-page en banc ruling by the Eleventh Circuit in US v. Vail-Bailon, No. 15-10351 (11th Cir. Aug. 25, 2017) (available here). This opening paragraph by the majority provides the basics:

This appeal requires us to decide whether Florida felony battery is a crime of violence under the Sentencing Guidelines. Defendant Eddy Wilmer Vail-Bailon was convicted in 2014 of illegally reentering the United States, in violation of 8 U.S.C. §§ 1326(a) and (b)(1), after having been deported following a conviction for felony battery under Florida Statute § 784.041.  Based on Vail-Bailon’s felony battery conviction, the district court imposed a sentencing enhancement that applies when a defendant has been deported after committing a crime of violence as defined by the applicable Guidelines provision. Vail-Bailon appealed his sentence, arguing that a Florida felony battery conviction does not qualify as a crime of violence. A divided panel of this Court agreed with Vail-Bailon, and vacated his sentence. See United States v. Vail-Bailon, 838 F.3d 1091 (11th Cir. 2016), reh’g en banc granted, opinion vacated (11th Cir. Nov. 21, 2016). Our full Court granted the Government’s petition to rehear the case en banc, and we now hold that Florida felony battery does categorically qualify as a crime of violence under § 2L1.2 of the Guidelines. Thus, we affirm and reinstate Vail-Bailon’s sentence.

The majority thereafter needs 30 pages to explain its "crime of violence" conclusions, and the dissenters need more than 30 to explain why they think the majority got this wrong. The lead dissent gets started this way:

If, while walking down the street, you tap a jogger on the shoulder and the tap startles him, causing him to trip, hit his head, and suffer a concussion, have you committed a violent act?  Most would say no.  But if you punch the jogger and the punch causes him to fall, hit his head, and suffer a concussion, you have undoubtedly committed a violent act. The difference between a non-violent and violent act, then, is the degree of force used. 

August 26, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (8)

Friday, August 25, 2017

Supreme Court of Wyoming continues to interpret Graham and Miller broadly

A helpful colleague made sure I did not miss an interesting opinion handed down yesterday by the Supreme Court of Wyoming in Sam v. Wyoming, No. S-16-0168 (Wy. Aug. 24, 2017) (available here), involving the Supreme Court's juve sentencing jurisprudence.  Here are concluding passages from the majority opinion ruling for the defendant in Sam:

Mr. Sam argues that his consecutive sentences of a minimum of 52 years, with release possible when he is 70 years old, is unconstitutional....

In Bear Cloud III, we analyzed the United States Supreme Court case law leading up to Miller and concluded that the prohibition of life without parole sentences required a “‘meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.’” 2014 WY 113, ¶ 21, 334 P.3d at 139 (quoting Graham, 560 U.S. at 75, 130 S.Ct. at 2030). And we held that “‘[t]he prospect of geriatric release . . . does not provide a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate the maturity and rehabilitation required to obtain release and reenter society as required by Graham . . . .’” Bear Cloud III, 2014 WY 113, ¶ 34, 334 P.3d at 142 (quoting State v. Null, 836 N.W.2d 41, 71 (Iowa 2013) (internal quotation marks omitted)).   Since then, the United States Supreme Court has confirmed that the release for juveniles contemplated by the Roper, Graham, and Miller courts should allow them “hope for some years of life outside prison walls . . . .” Montgomery, 136 S. Ct. at 736-37. We held in Mr. Bear Cloud’s case that his sentence of a minimum of 45 years, with possible release when he is 61, was the functional equivalent of life without parole. Bear Cloud III, 2014 WY 113, ¶¶ 11, 33, 334 P.3d at 136, 142. In this case, the sentencing court has made the determination that Mr. Sam is not one of the juvenile offenders whose crime reflects irreparable corruption. An aggregated minimum sentence exceeding the 45/61 standard is the functional equivalent of life without parole and violates Bear Cloud III and Miller and its progeny. The sentence imposed on Mr. Sam of a minimum 52 years with possible release at age 70 clearly exceeds that. We therefore reverse and remand with instructions to the sentencing court to sentence Mr. Sam within the confines set forth in Bear Cloud III.

A dissenting justice in Sam took a distinct view, and here are conclusing passages from the dissenting opinion:

Mr. Sam did not act from impulse, immaturity, or at the invitation or inducement of others.  He intentionally prepared for his crimes, baited the victims into an ambush, committed multiple aggravated assaults on numerous victims, and culminated the spree with an execution-style murder.  Proportionality requires that those factors be considered in his sentence, as well as the remote possibility of rehabilitation.

The U.S. Supreme Court has not defined a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release.”  Nothing in any Supreme Court decision suggests that a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release” must be the same for every defendant.  To the contrary, the proportionality required by the Eighth Amendment indicates that a more mature defendant who commits multiple crimes including murder should receive a lengthier sentence than someone who is less mature or commits only one crime.

In this case, the district court did all it was required to do in sentencing Mr. Sam.  It conducted a thorough individualized sentencing hearing and considered multiple times Mr. Sam’s youthful factors, family history, and participation in the crime as required by Miller and Bear Cloud III. It crafted a sentence it felt was appropriate based upon all of these factors, and it believed this sentence did not constitute a de facto life sentence.  It concluded that Mr. Sam deserved a longer sentence than if he had only committed the murder, or the murder and one additional aggravated assault.

The majority remands this case to the district court to impose an aggregate sentence of something less than the 45 years that was rejected in Bear Cloud III, concluding that Mr. Sam’s sentence denies him any meaningful opportunity for release before he is “geriatric.”  I disagree.  If Mr. Sam is motivated by the possibility of parole and comports himself well while in prison he will receive credit for “good time” under Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 7-13-420 (LexisNexis 2017) and Department of Corrections rules.  He will then be eligible for parole on the last of his sentences at about age 61.  I do not agree that release at that age deprives Mr. Sam of all meaningful portions of life.

August 25, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, August 24, 2017

"Procedures for Proportionate Sentences: The Next Wave of Eighth Amendment Noncapital Litigation"

The title of this post is the title of this notable paper recently posted to SSRN and authored by Sarah French Russell and Tracy Denholtz. Here I the abstract:

With its 2010 decision in Graham v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court for the first time placed categorical Eighth Amendment limits on noncapital sentences.  Graham prohibits life-without-parole sentences for juveniles in nonhomicide cases and requires states to provide these juveniles with a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”  In 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, the Court again set a categorical Eighth Amendment limit — prohibiting mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all juveniles and requiring sentencers to give mitigating effect to youth-related factors when juveniles face life-without-parole sentences.

Following Graham and Miller, 23 states have enacted statutes responding to the decisions and there has been extensive litigation nationwide.  The first wave of litigation has largely focused on the scope of the Court’s categorical holdings, with lower courts considering questions such as: How long is a “life” sentence?  Which crimes are “nonhomicides?”  Do the decisions apply retroactively?

A new wave of litigation is beginning to examine what procedures are required to ensure proportionate sentences under the Eighth Amendment.  Across the country, states are using a range of approaches.  In providing a “second look” for juveniles, some states are simply using existing parole systems, whereas other states have reformed their parole practices for juveniles or created special mechanisms for sentencing review through the courts. With respect to sentencing procedures, some states have adopted special procedures for serious juvenile cases.  Other states have provided little guidance to sentencing courts.

In the past several years, many individuals have been sentenced or resentenced under Miller, and parole boards have started holding hearings in some states. W ith these sentencing and second look proceedings underway, advocates have started to challenge the procedures that states are using.  Are state parole boards in fact providing a “meaningful opportunity” for release to juveniles based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation?  Are courts conducting sentencing hearings in compliance with Miller’s mandates?

Eighth Amendment capital litigation has often focused on the procedures governing capital cases, and much can be accomplished by pushing for better procedures in the noncapital sentencing context.  With hope, reforms to parole and sentencing processes for juveniles will not only improve outcomes for juveniles but will also lead to better procedures and outcomes for adults.  Yet at the same time, advocates should not abandon efforts to push for further substantive Eighth Amendment limits on sentences — not only for children but for adults.

August 24, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

California Supreme Court seems to clear way for resumption of executions after resolving Prop 66 challenges against capital defendant

As reported in this local article, the "California Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a ballot measure narrowly approved by voters to change the state's dysfunctional death penalty system and speed up executions."  Here is more on the ruling and its context from this press account:

The highly anticipated ruling concerned Proposition 66, a push to "mend not end" capital punishment in California. The measure aimed to expedite death sentences in part by setting a five-year deadline on court appeals by condemned inmates. With two of the seven justices dissenting, the state Supreme Court said the five-year deadline was advisory, not mandatory — a point that supporters of the measure had conceded during oral arguments....

Condemned inmates in California currently languish for decades and are more likely to die of natural causes than from lethal injection. There are nearly 750 inmates on death row and only 13 have been executed since 1978 — the last in 2006. It now takes up to five years for death row inmates to get an attorney, and it can take upward of 25 years to exhaust appeals.

Proposition 66 would expand the pool of appellate lawyers handling capital cases and allow lower level state courts — not just the California Supreme Court — to hear appeals.

Death penalty opponents agreed with Proposition 66 backers that the current system was broken, but they argued that the measure would lead to the appointment of incompetent attorneys and overwhelm courts. The result: Insufficient review that could send innocent people to their deaths. Arguments before a divided California Supreme Court in June focused on whether the measure's five-year deadline to hear appeals was realistic and enforceable. Supporters of the measure surprised observers when they conceded the time limit was not mandatory but more of a guideline....

The measure — approved by 51 percent of voters — was designed by prosecutors to revamp the appeals process so the "worst of the worst" murderers are actually executed. Under the measure, more lawyers would have to take death penalty appeals, and they would be assigned almost immediately after sentencing. It would shift one type of appeal focused on newly discovered evidence or alleging misconduct by jurors or prosecutors to trial court judges. With 380 death penalty appeals now pending, there was concern from some legal observers that the state's high court would be overwhelmed trying to meet the deadline imposed by the measure and would hardly hear other cases of merit.

The full ruling in Biggs v. Brown runs 121 pages and is available at this link. I hope to have time to read and perhaps comment further on the opinion in the days ahead, and in the meantime here is how the opinion for the court begins:

In the November 2016 election California voters approved Proposition 66, the Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act of 2016. (Gen. Elec. (Nov. 8, 2016) § 1.) The measure’s various provisions are intended to facilitate the enforcement of judgments and achieve cost savings in capital cases. Petitioner Ron Briggs seeks writ relief from this court, challenging the constitutionality of certain aspects of the proposition.  Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr., Attorney General Xavier Becerra, and the Judicial Council of California oppose the petition as respondents.  They are joined by intervener Californians to Mend, Not End, the Death Penalty, a campaign committee representing the proponents of the initiative. The issues raised are of sufficient public importance to justify the exercise of our original jurisdiction in the interest of a prompt resolution. (Legislature v. Eu (1991) 54 Cal.3d 492, 500.)

Petitioner asserts four grounds for relief.  He claims Proposition 66 (1) embraces more than one subject, as prohibited by the California Constitution; (2) interferes with the jurisdiction of California courts to hear original petitions for habeas corpus relief; (3) violates equal protection principles by treating capital prisoners differently from other prisoners with respect to successive habeas corpus petitions; and (4) runs afoul of the separation of powers doctrine by materially impairing the courts’ ability to resolve capital appeals and habeas corpus petitions, and to manage their dockets in general.

Petitioner’s constitutional challenges do not warrant relief.  However, we hold that in order to avoid serious separation of powers problems, provisions of Proposition 66 that appear to impose strict deadlines on the resolution of judicial proceedings must be deemed directive rather than mandatory.

August 24, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Missouri Gov halts scheduled execution and appoints Board of Inquiry to investigate innocence claim

As reported in this local article, today just "before Marcellus Williams was to be put to death for the 1998 murder of a former newspaper reporter, Gov. Eric Greitens issued a stay of execution and appointed a board to look into the case." Here is why:

“A sentence of death is the ultimate, permanent punishment,” Greitens said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. “To carry out the death penalty, the people of Missouri must have confidence in the judgment of guilt. In light of new information, I am appointing a Board of Inquiry in this case.”

Williams’ attorneys have been pleading for a stay, arguing that Missouri was on the verge of executing the wrong person. Williams, 48, was sentenced to death in 2001 for killing Felicia Gayle, who had been a reporter with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Gayle was stabbed 43 times with a butcher knife in her home. Williams was scheduled to be executed in 2015, but the Missouri Supreme Court stayed his lethal injection, allowing him time to obtain new DNA testing.

DNA testing of the murder weapon, conducted in 2016 and using technology that was not available at the time of the killing, shows Williams is not a match for the male DNA found on the murder weapon.

The Missouri Supreme Court last week turned down his attorneys’ attempt to have the execution stopped. The court did not provide a reason....

Greitens said he would appoint a five-member board that will include retired judges and have the power to subpoena evidence and compel witnesses to testify. The board will look into the case and make a recommendation to the governor as to whether Williams should be executed or have his death sentence commuted....

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Josh Hawley told The Washington Post this week that based on “non-DNA evidence in this case our office is confident in Marcellus Williams’ guilt and plans to move forward.” Among the other evidence cited by Hawley’s office is testimony by Williams’ former cellmate and an ex-girlfriend implicating him in the murder. Some of the victim’s belongings were found in a car Williams drove the day she was killed.

Opponents of the death penalty say Williams’ case should help fuel the push to end the practice in Missouri. “Marcellus Williams’ case is a classic example of the inherent injustice of the death penalty system,” said Zeke Johnson, senior director of programs at Amnesty International USA, “and why it should be altogether abolished.”

Williams was set to face lethal injection at 6 p.m. Tuesday if not for the governor’s order 

Gov. Greitens' full two-page statement is available at this link.

August 22, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

Monday, August 21, 2017

NACDL and FAMM launch "State Clemency Project"

Site_logosThis new NACDL press release reports on an exciting new project that provides another example of new and important state-level criminal justice and sentencing work afoot these days.  Here are the details:

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), with support from the Foundation for Criminal Justice (FCJ), announce today a major state-focused clemency initiative, the NACDL/FAMM State Clemency Project, a program designed to help to recruit, train, and provide resource support to pro bono attorneys who will assist state prisoners to submit petitions to have their sentences commuted.  Outreach has already begun to several governors' offices across the nation.  And Governor Cuomo of New York has just announced a partnership with the NACDL/FAMM State Clemency Project to develop the necessary processes and procedures to enable volunteer lawyers through the project to help prisoners seeking clemency pursuant to the Governor's initiative. The Project will provide logistical support for the governor's initiative, among other ways, by recruiting and training volunteer lawyers to help prisoners apply for clemency.

"We are committed to provide training and resource support to volunteer lawyers to facilitate a process through which applicants can have access to counsel who can expeditiously submit a petition that makes the case for a second chance," said NACDL Executive Director Norman L. Reimer.  "We want the executive authority to see clearly that many offenders have learned from past mistakes and are ready to safely and productively return home."

"Those individuals who have worked hard to rehabilitate themselves and take responsibility for their mistakes deserve a chance to get out of the penalty box.  Their families, communities, and state will be better off with their release," said FAMM President Kevin Ring.  "We're excited to work with NACDL and Governor Cuomo on this important initiative and we look forward to partnering in other states."

"NACDL is proud to build on its experience as a Clemency Project 2014 founding partner in order to make this state-level clemency project a success," said NACDL President Rick Jones. "As a New York City defense attorney, I am especially pleased that Governor Cuomo is taking the lead in this effort.  Our goal is to provide many hundreds of applicants with qualified counsel who will submit first-rate petitions.  And our hope is that other Governors will launch their own programs, and we pledge to support them. It is long past time to recognize that people can change and that redemption is possible. This program recognizes that fundamental truth."

This project brings NACDL's and FAMM's collective experience as partners of the federal-level Clemency Project 2014 (CP 2014), to state-level clemency efforts. CP 2014, a partnership that also included the American Bar Association, American Civil Liberties Union and the Federal Public and Community Defenders, provided pro bono legal assistance to prisoners seeking to have their sentences commuted under specific criteria set by the White House.

Similarly the NACDL/FAMM State Clemency Project will focus on training lawyers to identify eligible prisoners based on criteria provided participating state executives.  Project staff will work with state agencies to devise the most efficient way to connect applicants to volunteers, provide essential applicant information, and submit well-crafted petitions.  The Project will have a state-based focus that will respond to the criteria for articulated by each governor or state clemency authority, and will rely heavily upon local attorneys, law firms and law clinics.

This link provides the press release from Gov. Cuomo's offices stating "Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced a first-in-the-nation partnership between a state and a coalition of legal organizations to expand New York's pro bono clemency program."  And more information about the NACDL/FAMM State Clemency Project with instructions on how to sign up to volunteer can be found here at the project website.  

Kudos to NACDL and FAMM and others involved in this project for building on the wisdom and successes achieved through the federal Clemency Project 2014.  Despite facing an array of challenges, CP14 ended up playing a huge role in helping secure clemency relief for many hundreds of federal prisons.  It would be amazing if this new project can achieve similar successes in a number of states in the months and years ahead.  (For those interested in a review of some recent federal clemency developments, the most recent issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter has a group of articles curated by Professor Mark Osler looking broadly at Prez Obama's overall clemency initiative.) 

August 21, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Eleventh Circuit upholds a 57-year sentence for federal juve offender for non-homicide crimes based in part of possibility of good-time credits

I just came across the interesting opinion handed down late last week by an Eleventh Circuit panel in US v. Mathurin, No. 14-12239 (11th Cir. Aug. 18, 2017) (available here), which rejects an Eighth Amendment challenge (and other challenges) to a 685-month sentence imposed for multiple armed robbery and carjacking crimes committed by the defendant just before he reached age 18.  The underlying facts and the sentencing dynamics in Mathurin are interesting, in part because an older defendant would have gotten a 300-year(!) prison sentence based on many applicable consecutive mandatory-minimum terms that went with the convictions in this case.  The defendant argued that his long prison term was still a functional LWOP term that violated the Supreme Court's Graham Eighth Amendment ruling, and the Eleventh Circuit had a lot of interesting things to say in response.  Here are snippets:

For purposes of this appeal, we will assume that Graham does apply to a non-parolable term-of-years sentence that extends beyond a defendant’s expected life span.  Applying Graham to a term-of-years sentence, however, then gives rise to another question: how does one measure the life expectancy of an individual....  [I]n resolving this case, we do not need to decide whether Defendant’s granular approach to calculating life expectancy should carry the day for purposes of a Graham analysis because even assuming the accuracy of his proffered lower life expectancy for black males in their mid-twenties, as opposed to the life expectancy of all males in their mid-twenties, we conclude that Defendant’s Graham challenge fails....

[A]lthough there is no parole for federal sentences, Defendant has it within his power to shorten his sentence by earning good-time credit. Pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3624, Defendant can earn up to 54 days of credit towards his sentence for each year he serves in prison, “subject to determination by the Bureau of Prisons that, during that year, [he] has displayed exemplary compliance with institutional disciplinary regulations.” 18 U.S.C. § 3624(b)(1). The Government has calculated that if Defendant earns the maximum good-time credit available, Defendant can reduce his total sentence by over 7 years and be released when he is 67 years old.  Defendant has never disputed this calculation. Earning this credit means that Defendant would serve a remaining sentence of about 43.4 years, which is more than five years shorter than his own proffered life span for black males and almost ten years shorter than the projected life span for all males his age.  Thus, Defendant’s sentence provides him with a realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of his life, as required by Graham.

It is true that Defendant may not receive all of the above good-time credit if he misbehaves and thereby forfeits some of that credit.  But it is totally within Defendant’s own power to shorten the sentence imposed.  Graham does not require that a sentence “guarantee eventual freedom to a juvenile offender convicted of a nonhomicide crime.” Graham, 560 U.S. at 75.  It just requires that the offender have a chance to show that he has earned the right to be given a second chance at liberty.

August 20, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (25)

"Sound Principles, Undesirable Outcomes: Justice Scalia's Paradoxical Eighth Amendment Jurisprudence"

The title of this post is the title of this paper recently posted to SSRN authored by Mirko Bagaric and Sandeep Gopalan. Here is the abstract:

Justice Scalia is renowned for his conservative stance on the Eighth Amendment and prisoners’ rights Justice Scalia held that the Eighth Amendment incorporates no proportionality requirement of any nature regarding the type and duration of punishment, which the state can inflict on criminal offenders.  Justice Scalia has also been labelled as “one of the Justices least likely to support a prisoner’s legal claim,” and as adopting, because of his originalist orientation, “a restrictive view of the existence of prisoners’ rights.”  The criticism of Justice Scalia’s approach to the Eighth Amendment, so far as it relates to the harshness of criminal sanctions, is wide-ranging and sometimes verging on the disparaging. The overwhelming weight of prevailing sentiment is that Justice Scalia was a foe of Criminal Law and Procedure to the extent that this is associated with a moderate or lenient approach to the punishment of offenders.  A closer examination of the seminal judgments in these areas and the jurisprudential nature of the principle of proportionality and rights (including prisoners’ rights) arguably put this characterization in a different light.  While Justice Scalia may have resisted a move to less harsh sentencing and expansive rights to prisoners, there is an underlying coherence to some of his key decisions that is underpinned by the provisions he was applying and, even more so, the logical and normative contents or vagueness of the concepts under consideration.

August 20, 2017 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 18, 2017

Huge portion of Louisiana prison population could benefit from state's recent reform of nonviolent sentences

As reported in this local article, headlined "Louisiana to review 16,000 prison sentences as criminal justice reform takes effect," recent sentencing reform in the Pelican state could have a huge impact on current prisoners. Here are the details:

Louisiana's Public Safety and Corrections officials are reviewing the sentences of 16,000 inmates who could have their prison time shortened as criminal law changes take effect Nov. 1. That's around 45 percent of the 35,500 people the state has locked up now.

Gov. John Bel Edwards and the state Legislature overhauled the criminal justice system this past spring, aiming to reduce Louisiana's highest-in-the-world incarceration rate. Some law changes have already taken place, but changes that mostly retroactively affect low-level offenders in prison go into place in November -- driving the review.

The 16,000 prison terms being reconsidered are for nonviolent offenses only and many will likely remain unchanged, said Jimmy LeBlanc, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections. For example, some inmates who are serving sentences for multiple offenses won't be affected. Also, the majority of people whose sentences are affected won't necessarily be getting out anytime soon, LeBlanc said.

Still, there will be an initial surge in releases from prison right after Nov. 1. About 3,000 to 4,000 of the 16,000 sentences being reviewed could be changed to make inmates eligible for release before the end of the year. In the end, LeBlanc estimates about 1,500 to 2,000 of that cohort will actually get out in the weeks following Nov. 1. Others will probably have to wait. Some inmates may not have completed all the rehabilitation work required to get out at an earlier date.

Prior to the criminal justice changes passing, the number of inmates in the state's corrections system was expected to reach 36,300 by November, according to the prisons system's own projections. If 2,000 additional people were released in November, that would amount to a five percent decrease compared to those projections. In a normal month, the prison system releases about 1,500 people. The 1,500 to 2,000 people who get out shortly after Nov. 1 would be in addition to those normally discharged....

The bulk of Louisiana's states inmates are actually not housed in state prisons at all. About 55 percent of them -- 19,500 inmates -- are kept in local parish jails by sheriffs that get paid by the prison system to house them.

It's not clear how many inmates who will get earlier releases -- including those who will leave in November -- will come from local jails or state prisons at this point. However, local jails tend to house lower-level offenders that are less of a public safety risk. Those in state prisons are more likely to be serving longer prison sentences for violent offenses, most of which weren't changed recently.

August 18, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, August 17, 2017

"Do Criminal Defendants Have Web Rights?"

The title of this post is the headline of this new piece at The Crime Report authored by James Trusty.  The piece provides a review of the Supreme Court's First Amendment work in Packingham v. North Carolina and its possible impact.  Here are excerpts:

Court-imposed web restrictions applied to criminal defendants may be going the way of dial-up internet service. In June, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling in Packingham v. North Carolina that invalidated a state law banning registered sex offenders from accessing websites that could facilitate direct communications with minors.

While the majority opinion and concurrence seems grounded in — and specific to — sex offender restrictions, the evolving communications technology that operates in cyberspace today suggests that the ruling will have an impact on attempts to restrict web access for all criminal defendants in state or federal courts....

Lester Packingham ... [was] convicted of violating a North Carolina statute that prohibits convicted sex offenders from using social-networking websites, such as Facebook and Twitter. The unanimous Supreme Court opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, reversed the conviction on First Amendment free speech grounds. According to Kennedy, the North Carolina statute was too broad, in that it effectively prevented sex offenders from accessing the “vast democratic forums of the Internet” that serve as principal sources of information on employment opportunities, current events, and opinions or ideas that have no connection to criminal plans or the potential victimization of children.

Justice Samuel Alito agreed, pointing out that the statute’s definition of social networking sites would in effect encompass even Amazon, the Washington Post, and WebMD — all of whom provide opportunities for visitors to connect with other users. In his concurrence, he noted that states were entitled to draft narrower, and constitutionally valid, restrictions because of their legitimate interest in thwarting recidivist sex offenders.

But it’s not at all clear that a state legislature can follow Justice Alito’s guidance and sufficiently narrow its sights on offender/child communication to the point where the law has its intended effect, while still passing constitutional muster.  There may undoubtedly be pedophiliac versions of Tinder or Match.com which could fit the definitions of sites where access can be restricted without harm to First Amendment protections. But today’s internet does not lend itself easily to such narrow definitions.  Even mainstream sites like The Washington Post or Amazon could be considered portals that might be compromised by criminal behavior.  Such sites encourage the kind of user engagement that, while they may not be fairly called a “chat room,” is close enough to a “bulletin board” to bring us right back into the perils of North Carolina’s now-invalidated law.

And what of the defendants facing internet restrictions for reasons other than molestation or child pornography violations?  There are numerous defendants who are bounced off the internet as a condition of probation or supervised release because the internet was an instrumentality for their crimes.  For instance, internet-based fraud, identity theft, or using pro-terrorism websites to construct weapons or murderous plans, are all offenses that have led judges to impose some form of web restriction on defendants.

Web restrictions for these defendants are now also in play in a post-Packingham world. The intention of the judges seeking to restrict web access in these cases is understandable.  They want to remove potential tools of victimization from the hands of convicted criminals.  But the Supreme Court’s recognition of the vast, evolving and multi-purpose nature of today’s internet has brought legitimate First Amendment considerations into almost every web-limiting decision.

We may soon see that the only web restrictions that are lawful and practically enforceable are ones stemming from the defendant volunteering to withdraw from the net — likely because of the perceived trade-off between more time in jail and the judge’s comfort level as to assurances that re-victimization by internet will not occur when the defendant is returned to the community.

In the meantime, Packingham may shape the battlefield when web-restricted defendants are alleged to have violated parole or probation by visiting websites. Judges facing considerably more ominous violations than Lester’s on-line celebration of beating a traffic ticket may find that website-messaging technology and powerful First Amendment concerns leave them with little recourse but to ban outright all attempts to restrict access.  To some, this may be an uncomfortably high price to pay for web freedom.

On a practical level, technology has largely out-paced the now-antiquated view that the Internet can be surgically sliced into “safe” websites and “unsafe” ones, and the unanimity of Packingham suggests that the Court did not struggle much with its rationale.  While the absence of web-restrictions would lead to the release of offenders to the community with an unavoidable dose of discomfort with their access to computers, it may also result in judges finding themselves increasingly satisfied with lengthy prison terms because of the lack of a satisfactory, less-restrictive condition of supervised release....

Perhaps the safer bet here is on technology — that some program, some application, or some web-alternative pops up in the future and revitalizes the possibility of judges restricting web access without violating First Amendment rights. 

August 17, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (3)

Police groups supportive, but prosecutor objects, to new Oregon law shifting drug possession offenses down from felony to misdemeanor

This AP piece, headlined "Oregon makes drug possession a misdemeanor," reports on the notable criminal justice reform signed into law this week in the Beaver State. I found especially interesting the diverse views on the legal charge expressed by police groups and at least one prosecutor. Here are the particulars: 

A bill signed by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown on Tuesday makes personal-use possession of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs a misdemeanor, not a felony. Oregon joined just a handful of other U.S. states in defelonizing drugs under the new law, which was supported by law enforcement groups and takes effect immediately.

Jo Meza, owner of Amazing Treatment, a rehab center in Salem, applauded the move. She has seen the damage caused by drug addiction in her 30 years in the field. “There’s a huge crisis out there, and locking people up is not going to work,” Meza said....

Among the bill’s supporters were the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police and the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association, which said felony convictions include unintended consequences, including barriers to housing and employment.  But the two groups, in a letter to a state senator who backed the bill, said the new law “will only produce positive results if additional drug treatment resources accompany this change in policy.”

“Reducing penalties without aggressively addressing underlying addiction is unlikely to help those who need it most,” the groups warned.  Another measure appropriated $7 million that can be used to pay for drug treatment.

Linn County District Attorney Doug Marteeny had tried to convince lawmakers to dump the defelonization of dangerous drugs from the bill, which also targets police profiling.  “To change the classification of this behavior from a felony to a misdemeanor is tantamount to telling our schoolchildren that tomorrow it will be less dangerous to use methamphetamine than it is today,” he wrote.

Those who have a prior felony conviction won’t be afforded misdemeanor consideration, nor will people who have two or more prior drug convictions or possess more than user amounts.

August 17, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

DC sniper Lee Malvo loses one bid for Miller resentencing in Maryland state courts

As reported in this Washington Post piece, "Lee Boyd Malvo’s six life sentences, for the six Montgomery County, Md., slayings he committed as a 17-year-old in 2002, were allowed to stand Wednesday after a Montgomery judge found that Malvo was not given mandatory life terms." Here is more about this latest ruling in a high-profile case:

Malvo, now 32, could still have the sentences overturned by a federal court in Maryland, which is also considering his appeal. In Virginia, life sentences for his jury conviction in one murder case and his guilty pleas to two other murders were overturned in May by a federal judge because of the Supreme Court’s ruling. Virginia is appealing the order that Malvo must be resentenced in those three cases.

Malvo and John Allen Muhammad began a cross-country shooting rampage in Washington state in February 2002 and concluded with a series of 13 shootings, 10 of them fatal, in the D.C. area in October of that year. Malvo was tried first for a fatal shooting in Falls Church, Va., and a jury in Chesapeake, Va., convicted him but chose a life sentence without parole rather than a death sentence. Muhammad was tried for a slaying in Manassas, Va., and a jury in Virginia Beach convicted him and sentenced him to death. Malvo then pleaded guilty to two more slayings near Fredericksburg, Va., and received two more life sentences.

Having already been convicted of three slayings in Virginia, Malvo in 2006 testified against Muhammad in his trial in Montgomery County and then pleaded guilty to six counts of first-degree murder. Montgomery Circuit Court Judge James L. Ryan then imposed six more consecutive life sentences on Malvo....

Judge Ryan has since retired. But Judge Robert A. Greenberg issued a 20-page ruling Tuesday, released publicly on Wednesday, that concluded that “Judge Ryan is presumed to have known the law,” and that Malvo was not facing mandatory life-without-parole sentences when he was sentenced. “Clearly, Maryland employs a discretionary sentencing scheme,” Greenberg wrote, noting that Ryan had a range of options from a suspended sentence to life without parole. “Judge Ryan would have been well aware that a juvenile (albeit one four months from majority) ought to be beyond rehabilitation before life-without-parole could be imposed … the court expressly considered Defendant’s youth in sentencing him. ”

But even if Malvo’s sentences were mandatory, Greenberg ruled, “Judge Ryan affirmatively considered all the relevant factors at play,” to include extensive biographical and psychological reports on Malvo, “and the plain import of his words at the time of sentencing was that Defendant is ‘irreparably corrupted.’ ”

Ryan’s ruling does not affect Malvo’s appeal of his sentences in the federal court in Maryland or his Virginia cases.

August 16, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Spotlighting a prominent constitutional challenge to Arizona's and the nation's death penalty

Chris Geidner has this new Buzzfeed News report about a new cert petition under the headline "A Top Lawyer Asks Supreme Court To Hear A Major Death Penalty Case." Here are some of the details:

An Arizona death row inmate, Abel Daniel Hidalgo, has been arguing for the past three years that the state’s death penalty law is unconstitutional because it doesn’t do enough to narrow who is eligible for the death penalty, among those convicted of murder. Earlier this year, Neal Katyal, best known these days for serving as the lead lawyer for Hawaii’s challenge to President Trump’s travel ban, agreed to serve as Hidalgo’s lawyer at the Supreme Court.

Katyal, the former acting solicitor general in the Obama administration, asked the justices in Monday’s filing to hear Hidalgo’s case and to strike down Arizona’s death penalty law.

The filing comes more than two years after Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, called for a wholesale review of the constitutionality of the death penalty. Justice Sonia Sotomayor has also expressed great concerns about the courts’ handling of death penalty cases, as well as some states’ death penalty laws.

And Justice Anthony Kennedy has expressed concerns about the death penalty’s imposition, and has cast key votes excluding groups of people — like children or the intellectually disabled — from being eligible for the death penalty. He has not, however, given any specific indication that he is ready to join Breyer’s call to review the constitutionality of the death penalty overall — and has allowed several executions to proceed since Breyer's call.

Katyal, however, joined by other lawyers at his firm, Hogan Lovells, as well as the Office of the Legal Advocate in Arizona and Arizona attorney Garrett Simpson, thinks the time is now — a move that could be tied to concerns by many liberal lawyers about whether and when Kennedy, at 81, might retire from the court. “I have spent the last few years with my team looking for cases that highlight the gross problems with the death penalty in practice, and this case is a perfect example of them,” Katyal told BuzzFeed News on Monday evening. “We look forward to the Supreme Court's review of Mr. Hidalgo's petition.”...

The brief points out that the court in Gregg found the new state death penalty laws to be constitutional because they required the finding of “aggravating” circumstances — a move that the court’s controlling opinion concluded would “direct and limit” who was eligible for execution “so as to minimize the risk of wholly arbitrary and capricious action.”

Forty years later, Arizona’s death penalty law is such that there are so many aggravating circumstances that “every first degree murder case filed in Maricopa County in 2010 and 2011 had at least one aggravating factor” making the person eligible for the death penalty. Hidalgo pleaded guilty in 2015 to two January 2001 murders in a murder-for-hire scheme in Maricopa County, Arizona. He was then sentenced to death by a jury. “Arizona’s scheme utterly fails,” Katyal wrote, to “genuinely narrow the class of persons eligible for the death penalty” as the court has required over the time since Gregg.

For this reason alone, Hidalgo’s legal team argues, the court should take the case and strike down Arizona’s death penalty law. But, beyond that, the filing goes on, “A national consensus has emerged that the death penalty is an unacceptable punishment in any circumstance.” The brief argues that the court should take the case and rule that the death penalty, nationwide, is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment. This is so, the brief argues, because “the number of death sentences imposed and carried out has plummeted.”

The brief also points to three further key arguments in support of this larger aim: First, states can’t give guidance that ensures that only “the worst offenders” are sentenced to death. Second, states can’t enforce the death penalty without “ensnaring and putting to death the innocent.” And, finally, “the present reality of capital punishment” — decades spent on death row with “the remote but very real possibility of execution” — is its own possible constitutional violation.

The cert petition, available at this link, sets out these "Questions Presented":

I.  Whether Arizona’s capital sentencing scheme, which includes so many aggravating circumstances that virtually every defendant convicted of first-degree murder is eligible for death, violates the Eighth Amendment.

II.  Whether the death penalty in and of itself violates the Eighth Amendment, in light of contemporary standards of decency.

August 15, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Two notable new commentaries on how we define violent offenders and what to do with them

My twitter feed yesterday was filled with links to these two notable new commentaries about violent offenders that are both worth the time to read in full:

Here is how Balko's piece wraps up:

[P]aroling more people convicted of violent crimes will inevitably, at some point, somewhere down the line, produce a repeat offender.  The data overwhelmingly suggest that such incidents will be rare enough to be drastically overwhelmed by the benefits of a more generous and forgiving parole policy.  But those rare incidents will be easy to exploit. Advocates should be prepared for them.

In the end, this is a question of what sort of society we want to be. We can be a punitive society that believes in retribution, no matter the costs.  We can be a society that believes in redemption, regardless of cost.  Or we can be a society of people who strive for a rational, data-driven system that will never be perfect, but that will strive to protect us from truly dangerous people while also recognizing that, as the attorney and activist Bryan Stevenson puts it, “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

August 15, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (9)

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Interesting and consequential Florida Supreme Court decision on retroactivity of Hurst

As this Death Penalty Information Center posting details, the Florida Supreme Court this past week reiterated that it would not apply retroactively its rulings requiring unanimous jury verdicts for death sentences to cases made final by June 2002 when SCOTUS decided Ring v. Arizona. The Florida court's per curiam opinion in Hitchcock v. Florida, No. SC17-445 (Fla. Aug. 10, 2017) (available here), mostly just restates a prior retroactivity ruling, but concurring and dissenting opinions make for interesting reads on retroactivity doctrines and policies.

As the DPIC posting notes, "Hitchcock's case was closely watched because the Florida courts had frozen the briefing schedules for 77 similarly situated death-row prisoners who also were arguing that Hurst should be enforced in their cases." I suspect most, if not all, of these prisoners will not be seeking certiorari to the US Supreme Court, but I would be surprised if SCOTUS takes up any of their cases.

August 12, 2017 in Apprendi / Blakely Retroactivity , Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Should and will SCOTUS take up constitutional challenge to Minnesota's sex offender confinement program?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this effective Minnesota Lawyer article headlined "SCOTUS to mull accepting sex offender lawsuit."  The article reviews a cert petition that has garnered a lot of amici interest, which always increases the odds of SCOTUS interest. Here are excerpts from the start and end of the piece:

A case began in December 2011 as a pro se proceeding by patients in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program disputing the conditions including room searches, restrictive telephone and mail policies and bad food, among other things — that’s how the defendant state of Minnesota characterized it, anyway.  When the petitioners got an attorney, it got re-characterized as a matter of substantive due process.

It’s now pending at the United States Supreme Court, where the justices will consider the patients’ petition for certiorari.  The briefs are all in now — one from the state, two from petitioners and four from amicus curiae supporting the petitioners.

The constitutional issue presented to the Supreme Court is the standard of review that should apply to substantive due process claims brought by the patients. Strict scrutiny, the highest standard, as employed by Judge Donovan Frank?  Or simply a reasonable relation standard, as used by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals? And must one’s conscience be shocked by the actions of the respondents, and if so, at what stage of the review?

As the petitioners’ attorney, Dan Gustafson, sees it, the nub of the problem is that once a person is committed, he or she is labeled dangerous and loses the fundamental right to liberty effectively forever under the state system. The state has failed to enact a procedure to make sure that people are able to be released, Gustafson said. The state does have a statutory reduction in custody scheme in place, but it shifts the burden of proof to the patient and it has never resulted in a release until this lawsuit was filed. “We’ve demonstrated that it hasn’t worked for the last 25 years,” Gustafson said....

Four amicus curiae briefs from a spectrum of philosophical points of view have been submitted by friends of the court in Karsjens, et al. v. Emily Johnson Piper, et al. But they all want the Supreme Court to reverse the 8th Circuit, which didn’t have a problem with the program, which had been found unconstitutional by Judge Donovan Frank.

A group of 26 professors of law or related subjects has submitted a brief written by Mitchell Hamline Professor Eric Janus and Minneapolis attorney Richard D. Snyder. The fatal flaw in the MSOP program is that no one gets out, Janus said. “The core of the case is that the state set up what it said was going to be a civil commitment program. And the core definition of that is people get out, and that’s exactly what is missing in the Minnesota program.  It’s not just missing here or there, it’s systemically missing,” Janus wrote.

The Cato Institute, known as a libertarian think tank and an advocate for limited government, is another friend of the court.  Its brief argues, “Sex-offender laws have bored a hole in the nation’s constitutional fabric.  As state and federal governments expand that hole — threatening to swallow other rights and other’s rights — this Court should intervene.”

Also weighing in are criminology scholars and the Fair Punishment Project of Harvard Law School, as well as the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. The Fair Punishment Project writes that the commitment statute is a punitive scheme that has responded excessively to “moral panic.”  The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers promotes sex offender research and treatment.  It argues that granting review is necessary to take account of important advances in the empirical study of rates of recidivism among sexual offenders; effective assessment treatment, and management of sexual offenders; and factors that influence the effectiveness of treatment interventions.

A few prior related posts:

August 9, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

"The Practical Case for Parole for Violent Offenders"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new New York Times op-ed authored by Marc Morjé Howard.  Here are excerpts:

The American criminal justice system is exceptional, in the worst way possible: It combines exceptionally coercive plea bargaining, exceptionally long sentences, exceptionally brutal prison conditions and exceptionally difficult obstacles to societal re-entry. This punitiveness makes us stand out as uniquely inhumane in comparison with other industrialized countries.
To remedy this, along with other changes, we must consider opening the exit doors — and not just for the “easy” cases of nonviolent drug offenders.  Yes, I’m suggesting that we release some of the people who once committed serious, violent crimes....
[S]entencing reform — mainly consisting of reduced penalties for drug-related crimes — has received bipartisan support at both the federal and state levels. But this isn’t enough. We should also bring back discretionary parole — release before a sentence is completed — even for people convicted of violent crimes if they’ve demonstrated progress during their imprisonment.
Other democracies regularly allow such prisoners to be granted reduced sentences or conditional release. But in the United States the conversation about this common-sense policy became politicized decades ago. As a result, discretionary parole has largely disappeared in most states and was eliminated in the federal system. Prisoners whose sentences include a range of years — such as 15 to 25 years, or 25 years to life — can apply to their state’s parole board for discretionary parole, but they almost always face repeated denials and are sent back to wither away behind bars despite evidence of rehabilitation. (Inmates who have served their maximum sentence are released on what is called mandatory parole.)
Rejection is usually based on the “nature of the crime,” rather than an evaluation of a person’s transformation and accomplishments since they committed it. The deeper reason for the rejection of discretionary parole requests is simple: fear. Politicians and parole board members are terrified that a parolee will commit a new crime that attracts negative media attention.
But this fear-driven thinking is irrational, counterproductive and inhumane. It bears no connection to solid research on how criminals usually “age out” of crime, especially if they have had educational and vocational opportunities while incarcerated.  It permanently excludes people who would be eager to contribute to society as law-abiding citizens, while taxpayers spend over $30,000 a year to house each prisoner.  And it deprives hundreds of thousands of people of a meaningful chance to earn their freedom.
But are prisoners who have served long sentences for violent crimes genuinely capable of reforming and not reoffending?  The evidence says yes.  In fact, only about 1 percent of people convicted of homicide are arrested for homicide again after their release. Moreover, a recent “natural experiment” in Maryland is very telling.  In 2012, the state’s highest court decided that Maryland juries in the 1970s had been given faulty instructions. Some defendants were retried, but many others accepted plea bargains for time served and were released.  As a result, about 150 people who had been deemed the “worst of the worst” have been let out of prison — and none has committed a new crime or even violated parole....
Until recently the political situation was favorable to bipartisan criminal justice reform.  But the election of a self-described “law and order candidate,” the doubling of the stock prices of private-prison companies and the return of the discredited war on drugs gives an indication of the direction of the current administration.
But whenever a real discussion about reform does come, policy makers should look beyond the boundaries of the United States.  To be clear, I am not suggesting that all long-term prisoners should be released nor that the perspectives of crime victims should be ignored.  Serious crimes warrant long sentences.  But other democracies provide better models for running criminal justice and prison systems.  Perhaps we could learn from them and acquire a new mind-set — one that treats prisons as sites to temporarily separate people from society while creating opportunities for personal growth, renewal and eventual re-entry of those who are ready for it.

August 8, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4)