Wednesday, December 04, 2013
"How Bureaucrats Stand in the Way of Releasing Elderly and Ill Prisoners"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable new ProPublica piece about (the paucity of) compassionate release in the federal criminal justice system. Here are excerpts:
The government has long been criticized for rarely granting compassionate release. This August, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Justice Department would try to change that by expanding criteria for who can apply.
Under the new guidelines, compassionate release can be granted not just to prisoners who have terminal illnesses, but also to those with debilitating conditions. Prisoners who need to serve as caregivers for family members may now also seek reductions in sentencing. And for the first time, elderly federal inmates who aren’t necessarily dying or incapacitated can apply to be let out early.
Holder touted the compassionate release initiative as one way to cut down on the “astonishing” federal prison population, which has grown by nearly 800 percent since 1980.
But even if the changes enable more inmates to apply for compassionate release, prison officials still have almost total discretion over who is approved. A federal prison’s warden, as well as the Bureau of Prisons’ regional director and central office must sign off on an inmate’s application before it is passed on to a judge. Any of those officials can reject applications for a number of reasons, from a perceived risk of recidivism to concern for what’s best for a prisoner’s child.... There is no process for inmates to appeal those decisions in court.
Many advocates say they expect eligible inmates will remain behind bars despite the changes. “I don’t believe it’s going to change at all,” said lawyer Marc Seitles, whose client was denied release despite terminal cancer. “It’s still the same people making decisions.”
In September, Bureau of Prisons Director Charles Samuels said he predicted expanding eligibility would result in the “release of some non-violent offenders, although we estimate the impact will be modest.” (The agency declined to make Samuels available for comment to ProPublica.)
As of October 29, The Bureau of Prisons had approved and passed along 50 compassionate release requests to judges this year. That’s up from 39 in 2012 and 29 in 2011. It’s impossible to know if the overall rate of approval has increased, as the federal Bureau of Prisons hasn’t released the number of inmates who have applied.
The Bureau says it recently started to track inmate requests, after an Inspector General report earlier this year excoriated the department for failing to do so. The report also found most inmates didn't even know the program existed.
The expansion of compassionate release was motivated in part by the rising number of sick and elderly inmates incarcerated in the U.S. As of 2011, there were over 26,000 inmates over 65 in state and federal custody. And as the elderly population in prison grows, so do their medical bills. Housing an inmate in a prison medical center costs taxpayers nearly $60,000 a year — more than twice the cost of housing an inmate in general population.
Many lawyers and prisoner advocates have said the “jailers are acting as judges” by rejecting most compassionate release cases without ever passing them onto the courts for a final decision. “The Bureau of Prisons should be letting judges have the opportunity to decide every time extraordinary and compelling reasons come to their attention, and [they are] not doing that,” said federal public defender Steve Sady, who has written extensively on the issue and represented clients requesting early release. “We believe that, under the statute, the sentence is for the judge to decide.”
Prisons spokesman Edmond Ross said in an emailed statement that “Congress gave the [Bureau of Prisons] authority” to decide which inmates should be granted release. “Review includes deliberation on the most important factor, ensuring that an inmate's release would not pose a danger to the safety of any other person or the community,” he said. “This must be considered before any request is submitted to a court.”
Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, says prison officials are ill-equipped to make those kinds of decisions. Prison officials’ “job is to keep people locked up. Identifying people who should no longer be incarcerated is just not what they do,” she said....
Prisoner advocates at Human Rights Watch and other organizations have proposed allowing inmates to go before a judge to appeal rejections. “Unless there’s an institutional change or a criteria that they have to follow, this will never change,” Seitles said.
Interesting split DC Circuit opinions about challenging prior convictions and supervised release conditions
While I was spending all my extra time yesterday reviewing the big Blewett en banc Sixth Circuit decision (basics here and here), the DC Circuit handed down two little penal decision concerning relatively technical aspects of modern federal sentence in US v. Martinez-Cruz, No. 12-3050 (DC Cir. Dec. 3, 2013) (available here) and US v. Malenya, No. 12-3069 (DC Cir. Dec. 3, 2013) (available here).
Federal sentencing practitioners ought to check out both rulings for the merits, and others may be interested in the lengthy dissenting opinions in each case authored by Judge Kavaugh. Indeed, to provide a summary of each ruling, I will us the first paragraph of the Judge's dissents.
KAVANAUGH, Circuit Judge, dissenting: As a lower court in a system of absolute vertical stare decisis headed by one Supreme Court, it is essential that we follow both the words and the music of Supreme Court opinions. This case is controlled by at least the music, if not also the words, of the Supreme Court’s decision in Parke v. Raley, 506 U.S. 20 (1992). There, the Supreme Court made clear that the defendant in a recidivist sentencing proceeding may be assigned the burden of proof when challenging the constitutionality of a prior conviction that is being used to enhance or determine the current sentence. Consistent with Parke v. Raley, every court of appeals to consider the question has reached that same conclusion. By ruling otherwise here, the majority opinion, in my view, both deviates from Supreme Court precedent and creates an unwarranted circuit split.
KAVANAUGH, Circuit Judge, dissenting: Malenya, then a 41-year-old man, attempted to have sex with someone he knew to be 14. Malenya’s attempt was thwarted only because the 14-year-old’s mother fortuitously intercepted explicit text messages Malenya sent to the 14-year-old. For his conduct, Malenya ultimately pled guilty and received a relatively short prison sentence of one year and a day in prison, followed by three years of supervised release with certain special conditions attached. On appeal, Malenya objects to the special conditions imposed by the District Court and asks that they be vacated. The majority opinion vacates the special conditions. With one exception, I would affirm the special conditions. I therefore respectfully dissent.
Interesting (similar?) accounts of distinct forms of tough justice being reconsidered
Yesterday's New York Times had two distinct pieces telling similar types of stories about the review and reconsideration of tough sanctions that have not always worked out ideally. Here are the headlines and links, with just a bit of excerpted content:
Faced with mounting evidence that get-tough policies in schools are leading to arrest records, low academic achievement and high dropout rates that especially affect minority students, cities and school districts around the country are rethinking their approach to minor offenses.
To most of the world – back in 1992 and even now — Mike Reynolds’s effort to keep repeat violent offenders locked up for life after the murder of his 18-year-old daughter, Kimber, in Fresno, Calif., was a non-event, not the opening salvo of what would become a barrage of state laws and referendums eventually known as the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” movement....
A few noted criminologists predicted at the time that “three strikes” laws, which would sweep the nation, were unlikely to have much effect on crime, would fill the nation’s prisons to bursting and would satisfy frustrated voters at the expense of bad public policy. They were largely ignored. As this Retro Report points out, California voters eventually concluded that its three strikes law was excessive in its zeal and financial burden, and last year they amended the law that Mr. Reynolds had put before them two decades earlier.
Tuesday, December 03, 2013
Doesn't the Sixth Circuit Blewett majority opinion contradict SCOTUS precedent that the Eighth Amendment evolves?
Though lacking time to fully consume all the opinions in today's lengthy Sixth Circuit en banc ruling in Blewett (basics here), I did this morning find time to read the discussions of Eighth Amendment issues because they are relatively brief and cursory. And, as the the title of this post reveals, I believe that the majority's treatment of the Eighth Amendment is wrong and contradicts clear Supreme Court precedent concerning the evolving nature of the Constitution's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments.
Here are the key passages from the majority's (far too brief) discussion of Eighth Amendment issues that have me all worked up (with cites left out but emphasis in the original):
Even if the Fair Sentencing Act applies only to individuals sentenced after its effective date and even if § 3582(c)(2) does not convert the Act into a retroactive change to these mandatory minimums, the Blewetts claim that the Constitution’s equal-protection and cruel-and-unusual-punishment principles give them relief. Long before the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, our court and others repeatedly rejected similar constitutional challenges to the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparities....
Congress’s mitigation of the crack and powder disparities does not weaken these precedents; it strengthens them. Besides, the Blewetts cite no cases that call these conclusions into question....
Turning to another part of the Constitution, the Blewetts and Judge Merritt (with support from Judge Moore’s opinion) contend that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the continued imprisonment of a defendant sentenced under the old mandatory minimum laws. Yet they cannot contend that their 10-year sentences were cruel and unusual when imposed. After all, the Supreme Court has upheld a mandatory minimum of life without parole for possession of 672 grams of cocaine without intent to distribute. Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957 (1991). The Blewetts’ crimes are less serious in one respect (they possessed less cocaine), but more serious in two others (they possessed with intent to distribute and they had prior felony drug convictions). Harmelin precludes the conclusion that the Blewetts’ much shorter mandatory minimum sentences were cruel and unusual.
The Blewetts persist that their sentences became cruel and unusual when Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act. But the Eighth Amendment is not a ratchet that makes a harsher system of penalties unconstitutional the moment a more lenient one is (prospectively) adopted, a theory that would have the perverse effect of discouraging lawmakers from ever lowering criminal sentences. Withholding the benefits of a change from previously sentenced defendants at a any rate is not “unusual”; it is the general practice in federal sentencing, as Dorsey and § 109 confirm.
With all due respect to the Sixth Circuit and the author of this opinion (whom I know well and respect greatly), these passages seem deeply misguided in light of the evolving nature of the Eighth Amendment and the importance of objective factors in assessing the Amendment's evolution that have been repeatedly stressed by the Supreme Court.
To begin, it is just flat out wrong that Congress's decision to repeal the Blewetts sentences makes stronger prior rejections of their Eighth Amendment claims. The Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment ruling in Atkins stressed that legislative decisions by states to repeal the death penalty for mentally retarded defendants showed that society's view had evolved so that in 2002 it was unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded even though the Court had held in 1989 in Penry that the Eighth Amendment did not preclude such executions. In other words, there is clear Supreme Court precedent demonstrating legislative repeal(s) of a punishment makes a defendant's Eighth Amendment claims stronger, not weaker.
In addition, the question here (as it was in Atkins and all other Eighth Amendment cases) is not just "when" a sentence might have become unconstitutional, but rather whether an extreme punishment is cruel and unusual now. Thus, it is misguided to assert that the Blewetts claim "that their sentences became cruel and unusual when Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act" back in 2010. Rather, the issue needing to be resolved under the Eighth Amendment is whether now, in December 2013, after Congress passed the FSA in 2010 repealing the sentences being served by the Blewetts, AND after the US Sentencing Commission made lower guidelines retroactively available to tens of thousands of more serious crack offenders (and Congress approved that decision), AND after thousands of judges have lowered the sentences of thousands of more serious crack offenders by an average of more than two years, AND after the US Attorney General has given major speeches and issued new policies assailing the application of mandatory minimums in these kinds of cases, whether it is now cruel and unusual that only less serious crack offenders like the Blewetts do not even get a chance to ask a judge to have their sentences lowered.
My view on these issues is, of course, deeply biased by my involvement in this case in which I authored a brief for NACDL explaining why I think the Blewetts' sentences are unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment. The reason I come to this view is because I take very seriously the Supreme Court's frequent and repeated admonition that Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments evolves. I fully understand those who disagree with this jurisprudential approach to the Eighth Amendment and who advocate that the Supreme Court no longer analyze and apply the Amendment this way. But, as an inferior court, the Sixth Circuit has to follow even parts of SCOTUS precedent it does not like. In this case, however, it seems the Sixth Circuit was content just to ignore that precedent rather than consider it honestly and seriously.
In lengthy split opinions, en banc Sixth Circuit rejects all efforts to give any relief to pre-FSA crack defendants still serving mandatory minimums
The Sixth Circuit this morning has handed down a lengthy set of opinion in the closely-watched Blewett litigation. All the opinions, which can be accessed here, run a full 79 pages. It appears the vote to reject providing any relief to pre-FSA defendants still serving now-repealed mandatory minimums was 10-7, and here is the complicated accounting of the votes and opinions:
SUTTON, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which BATCHELDER, C. J., BOGGS, GILMAN, GIBBONS, COOK, McKEAGUE, GRIFFIN and KETHLEGE, JJ., joined, and MOORE, J., join ed in the result. MOORE, J. (pp. 21–33), delivered a separate opinion concurring in the judgment. MERRITT, J. (pp. 34–37), delivered a separate dissenting opinion, in which DONALD J., joined. COLE, J. (pp. 38–43), delivered a separate dissenting opinion. CLAY, J. (pp. 44–58), delivered a separate dissenting opinion, in which DONALD, J., joined. ROGERS, J. (pp. 59–67), delivered a separate dissenting opinion, in which WHITE and STRANCH, JJ., joined, MERRITT, J., joined in part, and COLE, J., joined except for the last paragraph. WHITE, J. (pp. 68–79), delivered a separate dissenting opinion.
I am not at all surpsised by the line-up here, which notably seems to go down party lines save for Clinton appointees Judges Gilam and Moore with the Republican-appointee-heavy marjority, and Bush appointees Judges Rogers and White voting with the Democratic-heavy dissenting minority. Here is how the opinion of the Sixth Circuit majority ends:
At the end of the day, this is a case about who, not what — about who has authority to lower the Blewetts’ sentences, not what should be done with that authority. In holding that the courts lack authority to give the Blewetts a sentence reduction, we do not mean to discount the policy arguments for granting that reduction. Although the various opinions in this case draw different conclusions about the law, they all agree that Congress should think seriously about making the new minimums retroactive. Indeed, the Fair Sentencing Act, prospective though it is, dignifies much of what the Blewetts are saying as a matter of legislative reform and may well be a powerful ground for seeking relief from Congress. Yet the language of the relevant statutes (the Fair Sentencing Act, § 109 and § 3582(c)(2)) and the language of the relevant decisions (Dorsey, Davis and Harmelin) leave us no room to grant that relief here. Any request for a sentence reduction must be addressed to a higher tribunal (the Supreme Court) or to a different forum altogether (the Congress and the President).
Especially because I have a very busy teaching week, I am unlikely to find the time to read and assess these opinions in full for a little while. Moreover, because I have a much more robust view of the limits of the Eighth Amendment than most members of the federal judiciary, I suspect I will not be moved by how the majority disposed of this matter with reference to Harmelin and other cases which do not involve the sui generis reality of sustaining lengthy federal prison terms that have been resoundly and repeatedly rejected and disavowed by all other branches of the federal government and by all the states in the Union as well.
December 3, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack
Calling out DOJ for talking the talk, but not walking the walk, on mandatory minimums
Andrew Cohen has this lengthy and effective new piece via The Atlantic highlighting a case in the SCOTUS cert pool that highlights the ways federal prosecutors are able to use mandatory minimums to force judges to impose lengthy prison terms for drug offenders. The piece's headline and sub-head highlight its themes: "Attorney General Mean What He Says About Sentencing Reform?: Eric Holder has spent a great deal of time and energy lately advocating for reforms to mandatory minimum sentences. So why is the federal government trying to stiff Clarvee Gomez in court?". And here is how piece starts and concludes:
When the justices of the United States Supreme Court confer Friday morning to consider new cases they will have the opportunity to accept for review a dispute that tests not just the meaning of their own recent Sixth Amendment precedent but the viability of a major new policy initiative implemented this summer by the Justice Department to bring more fairness to federal sentencing while reducing the terrible costs of prison overcrowding.
In Gomez v. United States, a Massachusetts case, the justices have been asked to determine whether they meant what they wrote about juries and drug sentences in Alleyne v. United States, decided just this past June, and at the same time whether Attorney General Eric Holder meant what he said, in August, when he promised to curb the ways in which his federal prosecutors abuse "mandatory minimum" sentences in drug cases to obtain guilty pleas (or higher sentences).
The justices should accept this case for review. And the Court should affirm the just principle that a man cannot constitutionally be sentenced based upon charges that are not brought or upon facts a jury does not even hear. But even if the justices aren't willing to muster up that level of indignation, they ought to at least take the opportunity to call out federal prosecutors for saying one thing in front of the microphones and another in court papers....
The government's positions in this case — both the tactics employed by Gomez's prosecutors and the arguments made now by federal attorneys — are utterly inconsistent with the much-publicized policies the Attorney General himself promulgated this summer....
Even after the Court's mandate in Alleyne, even after the Attorney General's pointed memorandum, even after all the public speeches about sentencing reform, federal attorneys still are trying to argue that the result in the Gomez case is both fair and constitutional. It is neither and the Supreme Court ought to say so — or at least expose the incoherence and hypocrisy of the government's position. If true sentencing reform is going to come it's going to come one case at a time — and this is as good a case as any to start.
Monday, December 02, 2013
What sentencing issues should SCOTUS be taking up to fill out its docket?
I have noted (and been disappointed by) the relative paucity of major sentencing cases on the Supreme Court docket this Term. But, as highlighted by this new Washington Post article, headlined "Supreme Court busy looking for cases — but finding fewer than usual," SCOTUS is now facing a relative paucity of all cases on its docket.
That all said, this recent Politico article, headlined "Digital era confounds the courts," spotlights that a number of cases concerning the intersection of the Fourth Amendment and new technology likely to be on the SCOTUS docket soon:
[T]he nation’s top court is set to consider whether to take up three key related cases ... [with] big tech issues that could finally get decided:...
Lower courts have been split on the authority of police to search your technology [incident to an arrest]. Currently, court rulings have required warrants to search a cellphone in six states, while they are not required in 20 other states, according to a map put together by Forbes and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.....
In the age of encryption and passwords, law enforcement officials can obtain a warrant for a hard drive, but they may not be able to access the material on it. So can police compel someone to provide a password or to unlock an account or decrypt a file? Courts have in some cases ruled that individuals can refuse to provide a password under their Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate themselves....
Another nettlesome issue brought up in part by the ubiquity of cellphones and smartphones is the ability of police to track a person’s movements. While the Supreme Court ruled last year that police cannot affix a GPS tracking device to a car without a warrant, it decided U.S. v. Jones based on a question of trespassing, which doesn’t apply when police get location information from a suspect’s devices or service provider.
The courts are also split on this issue. In July alone, two courts made opposite rulings: The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Texas found that law enforcement may get cell location data from service providers without a warrant. In a New Jersey case, a very different result -- the state supreme court held that the state’s constitution requires a warrant.
Like all criminal procedure issues, these constitutional search question are sure to have eventual sentencing echoes. But, of course, hard-core sentencing issues are the ones that really get me excited, and I think there are plenty the Justices should be taking up to fill out their docket.
Some of the most obvious sentencing issues seemingly ready for SCOTUS review are follow-ups to its recent Eighth Amendment work in Graham and Miller. Lower courts are deeply split over the retroactivity of Miller and also concerning what kinds of crimes and sentences fit within the categorical ban of juve LWOP sentences for nonhomicide offenses announced in Graham.
In addition, plenty of federal sentencing issues in the post-Booker world are still roiling district and circuit courts. I personally would like to see the Justices throw some more dirt on the worst guidelines by taking up, and then reversing as unreasonable, a poorly-justified, within-guideline sentence based on guidelines widely recognized to be badly broken (e.g., the crack or CP or fraud guidelines). But I doubt many Justices are eager to spend their spring further fighting with Justice Breyer over the mysteries of his Booker remedy.
I could go on issue spotting here for the Justices, but I am really eager to hear from informed readers about the question in the title of this post. What issues do folks working day-to-day in the sentencing vineyards believe the Supreme Court should take up ASAP?
December 2, 2013 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack
Saturday, November 30, 2013
Years after Graham and Miller, Florida still working on its legislative response
As reported in this local article, Florida is continuing to struggle with how it wants to respond legislatively to the Supreme Court's determination that the state cannot be so quick to give so many juvenile offenders life without parole. Here are the details:
After a stinging defeat last year on the floor of the Senate, Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, has again filed legislation to align Florida’s juvenile-sentencing laws with recent United States Supreme Court rulings.
In 2010, the Supreme Court said it’s unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile to life in prison without the possibility of parole, though it allowed exceptions for juveniles convicted of murder. Ever since, lawmakers have failed to pass legislation changing Florida’s juvenile sentencing laws to comply with those opinions. There are 265 inmates in custody of the Department of Corrections that were given life sentences as juveniles.
Additionally, without a tweak to state law, courts across the state have been left to interpret the Supreme Court’s decisions differently. “We owe it to our courts to provide guidance,” Bradley said. “It’s the Legislature’s job.”
During the 2013 legislative session, Bradley, a private attorney, ushered a proposed legislative fix through three committee stops, but halted his own bill on the Senate floor after opponents tacked on an amendment he opposed. Bradley’s bill would have required a judge to consider factors like background and ability for rehabilitation during a mandatory hearing before sentencing a juvenile convicted of murder to life in prison.... Bradley’s bill also capped at 50 years the sentence a judge could give a juvenile who did not commit murder.
The amendment, offered by state Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, would have allowed a parole hearing every 25 years for juveniles given life sentences for non-fatal crimes and for those who committed murder. “Why not give that judge the ability to review a case after 25 years?” Garcia asked during April floor debate.
This year, Bradley’s legislation offers parole hearings after 25 years for juveniles convicted of non-fatal crimes, and caps sentences for those offenders at 35 years. It does not offer hearings for juveniles convicted of homicide. “The bill I filed still does not offer hearings to murderers,” Bradley said.
Thursday, November 28, 2013
What SCOTUS sentencing cases are you least thankful for?
A couple of years ago, I asked on Turkey Day in this post "What SCOTUS sentencing cases are you thankful for?". For lack of a better idea for a Thanksgiving post, I though it might be fun (or informative or interesting or a way to keep busy during football blowouts and before heading out shopping) to ask now what SCOTUS sentencing cases are you least thankful for.
Of course, I tend to be thankful for all of SCOTUS's sentencing decisions, as they have given me lots to write about in this space and elsewhere for nearly two decades now. But there is at least one major Eighth Amendment ruling that has always bothered me throughout the years, Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957 (1991), which upheld against an Eighth Amendment challenge Michigan's imposition of a mandatory life without the possibility of parole sentence for just the possession of 672 grams of cocaine. I believe that ruling, which reflected sentiments prevailing at the height of the modern "war on drugs," has long thwarted reasonable development of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.
Friday, November 22, 2013
Two notable Sixth Circuit rejections of notable sentencing appeals by notable defendants
While I was distracted by teaching responsibilities, the Sixth Circuit yesterday handed down two notable (and lengthy) opinions rejecting two distinct defendants' intriguing claims concerning two distinct sentencing outcomes. The first paragraphs of each opinion highlights why both cases are worthy of full reads:
US v. Volkman, No. 12-3212 (6th Cir. Nov. 21, 2013) (available here):
When a doctor first enters the practice of medicine, he or she swears to abide by a prime directive of the profession: “First, do no harm.” Paul Volkman breached this sacrosanct tenet when he prescribed narcotics to addicts and individuals with physical, mental, and psychological frailties. A federal jury looked at Volkman’s actions and found him guilty of breaking several laws, chief among them the law prohibiting the unlawful distribution of controlled substances. After receiving the jury’s verdict, the district court sentenced Volkman to four consecutive terms of life imprisonment, to be served concurrently with a number of less-lengthy terms.
Volkman now appeals, contending that several errors arose throughout the course of his trial and sentencing. We disagree, and we AFFIRM Volkman’s convictions and sentence.
US v. Marshall, No. 12-3805 (6th Cir. Nov. 21, 2013) (available here):
Dylan Marshall pled guilty to receiving child pornography over a period of 5 years, from the time he was 15 un til he was 20. The district court varied downward from the guideline range and sentenced him to 5 years in prison — the mandatory minimum sentence for the offense — expressing its concerns with the perceived harshness of that sentence as it did so. Marshall has a rare physiological condition called Human Growth Hormone Deficiency, which he believes entitles him to the Eighth Amendment protections accorded to juveniles. But despite his condition, Marshall was an adult at the time of the offense. We therefore affirm his sentence.
November 22, 2013 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Thursday, November 21, 2013
Split Texas appeals court refuses to allow additional habeas action for death row defendant complaining about racialized testimony
As reported in this local article from Texas, that "state’s highest criminal court Wednesday dismissed an appeal by death row inmate Duane Buck, who claims his sentence is improper because it was based, in part, on a psychologist’s finding that he presents a greater danger to society because he is black." Here is more about the ruling and its context:
In a 6-3 ruling, the Court of Criminal Appeals said that Buck had already filed his one guaranteed appeal, known as a petition for writ of habeas corpus, in 1999 and wasn’t legally entitled to another.
But the court’s newest member, Judge Elsa Alcala, submitted a blistering dissent that said Buck had been ill-served by previous lawyers and the court system. “The record in this case reveals a chronicle of inadequate representation at every stage of the proceedings, the integrity of which is further called into question by the admission of racist and inflammatory testimony from an expert witness,” Alcala wrote in a dissenting statement joined by Judges Tom Price and Cheryl Johnson.
The upshot, Alcala said, is that no state or federal court has examined, let alone ruled on, Buck’s claim that his constitutional rights had been violated by the inclusion of inappropriate racial testimony and by the incompetence of previous lawyers. “This cannot be what the Legislature intended when it (voted in 1995 to provide) capital habeas litigants ‘one full and fair opportunity to present all claims in a single, comprehensive post-conviction writ of habeas corpus,’” Alcala wrote.
Though there is no question about Buck’s guilt — he gunned down a former girlfriend and her male friend, shot his stepsister and targeted a fourth adult in Houston — his case has become a rallying point for judicial reformers and civil rights advocates, largely because of its racial overtones at trial.
The controversy centers on punishment-phase testimony by psychologist Walter Quijano, a defense expert who told jurors that Buck was less likely to pose a future danger — and therefore not eligible for the death penalty — because the crime wasn’t a random act of violence. But Quijano also testified, unprompted, that “Hispanics and black people are overrepresented in the criminal justice system.” On cross-examination, a prosecutor followed up by asking Quijano if race, particularly being black, increases a defendant’s future dangerousness “for various complicated reasons.” Quijano replied, “Yes.”
Buck was sentenced to death in 1997. Three years later, however, then-state Attorney General John Cornyn, now a U.S. senator, acknowledged that seven death penalty convictions — including Buck’s — had been improperly influenced by Quijano’s testimony linking race to dangerousness. The attorney general’s office did not oppose new punishment trials for the other six inmates to cure the constitutional defect.
State lawyers later decided, however, to oppose a new trial for Buck, arguing that his case was “strikingly different” because Quijano was a defense expert whose questionable testimony was elicited by a defense lawyer. Instead, lawyers for Texas argued that Buck should have objected to the racial testimony in his 1999 habeas petition. Because he didn’t, Buck lost his chance to appeal the matter, they argued.
On Wednesday, the Court of Criminal Appeals agreed, dismissing Buck’s latest habeas petition as improper. In her dissent, Alcala said she would have accepted the new petition because Buck’s 1999 appeal was so poorly done that it amounted to no defense at all, depriving a death row inmate of a full review of constitutional claims before his execution.
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Missouri mass murderer gets two last-minute execution stays from two federal judges... UPDATE: stays reversed, execution completed
As reported in this new Reuters article, "[t]wo federal judges granted a serial killer stays of execution on Tuesday hours before he was to be put to death, allowing him to challenge Missouri's new lethal drug protocol and his mental competence, and the state immediately appealed the rulings." Here is more:
Joseph Paul Franklin, an avowed white supremacist, was convicted and sentenced to death for killing one man and wounding two outside a St. Louis-area synagogue in 1977. He was scheduled to be executed early on Wednesday at a Missouri prison.
Franklin, 63, has been linked to the deaths of at least 18 other people. He was convicted of killing eight in the late 1970s and 1980s in racially motivated attacks around the country. The victims included two African-American men in Utah, two African-American teenagers in Ohio and an interracial couple in Wisconsin.
Franklin also has admitted to shooting Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt in 1978, paralyzing him. Flynt has argued that Franklin should serve life in prison and not be executed.
In October, Missouri changed its official protocols to allow for a compounded pentobarbital, a short-acting barbiturate, to be used in a lethal dose. The state also said it would make the compounding pharmacy mixing the drug a member of its official "execution team," which could allow the pharmacy's identity to be kept secret.
In granting the stay, U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey noted that Missouri had issued three different protocols in the three months preceding Franklin's execution date and as recently as five days before. "Franklin has been afforded no time to research the risk of pain associated with the department's new protocol, the quality of the pentobarbital provided, and the record of the source of the pentobarbital," Laughrey wrote in the stay order entered in federal court in Jefferson City, Missouri....
In the second case, U.S. District Judge Carol Jackson in St. Louis ordered Franklin's execution stayed, concluding that a delay was required to permit a meaningful review of his claim that he is mentally incompetent and cannot be executed.
The Missouri Attorney General's office asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit to lift the stays.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon denied Franklin clemency on Monday. Franklin is one of 21 plaintiffs challenging the constitutionality of the execution protocol issued by the Missouri Department of Corrections.
UPDATE: As the commentors to this post noted before I got back on-line, Franklin was executed by Missouri after the Eighth Circuit reversed both the stays he received. Here is an AP report on the execution:
Joseph Paul Franklin, a white supremacist who targeted blacks and Jews in a cross-country killing spree from 1977 to 1980, was put to death Wednesday in Missouri, the state's first execution in nearly three years.
Franklin, 63, was executed at the state prison in Bonne Terre for killing Gerald Gordon in a sniper shooting at a suburban St. Louis synagogue in 1977. Franklin was convicted of seven other murders and claimed responsibility for up to 20, but the Missouri case was the only one that brought a death sentence.
Mike O'Connell, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Corrections, said Franklin was pronounced dead at 6:17 a.m. The execution began more than six hours later than intended, and it took just 10 minutes....
Franklin's lawyer had launched three separate appeals: One claiming his life should be spared because he was mentally ill; one claiming faulty jury instruction when he was given the death penalty; and one raising concerns about Missouri's first-ever use of the single drug pentobarbital for the execution.
But his fate was sealed early Wednesday when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal appeals court ruling that overturned two stays granted Tuesday evening by district court judges in Missouri. The rulings lifting the stay were issued without comment.
"Death Meted Out by Politicians in Robes"
The title of this post is the headline of this New York Times editorial, which riffs off of Justice Sotomayor's dissent from the denial of cert concerning Alabama’s death sentencing scheme (discussed here). Here are excerpts:
In nearly all of the 32 states that permit capital punishment, a jury makes the final decision on whether a defendant will live or die. Not so in Alabama, where elected judges may override a jury verdict of life in prison and unilaterally impose a death sentence....
On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to this law, which appears to violate a 2002 ruling that capital defendants “are entitled to a jury determination of any fact” necessary to sentence them to death.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a 12-page opinion, joined partly by Justice Stephen Breyer, dissenting from the court’s decision not to hear the current case, Woodward v. Alabama. While the court previously upheld the Alabama law in 1995, she noted, the state is now alone in overriding jury verdicts of life. Because it undermines “the sanctity of the jury’s role in our system of criminal justice,” Justice Sotomayor wrote, the Alabama law is “constitutionally suspect.”
Justice Sotomayor rightly identified the reason Alabama’s judges impose more death sentences per capita than any other state. The judges, she wrote, “who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures.”...
In his dissent from the 1995 ruling upholding the Alabama law, former Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that allowing a judge to override a jury verdict in this way severs “the death penalty from its only legitimate mooring.”
The death penalty should have no legitimate mooring at all in modern American society, and it certainly should not be imposed by a judge who is worried about keeping his job.
Monday, November 18, 2013
Florida Supreme Court delays execution to hear about new drug used in injection protocol
Concerns about new lethal injection drugs has bought at least a few more weeks of life for a Florida death row defendant. This Miami Herald update, headlined "Miami killer's execution delayed amid questions about new drug," explains:
In a 5-2 decision, the Florida Supreme Court on Monday ordered that Thomas Knight's scheduled execution be delayed so he can argue that a new drug used to anesthetize a prisoner at the start of a lethal injection could subject him to "serious harm." Knight, also known as Askari Abdullah Muhammad, had been scheduled to die at Florida State Prison on Dec. 3.
Florida is the only state in the U.S. that uses midazolam hydrochloride as an anesthetic in the first stage of a three-drug lethal injection mixture. The new drug replaced pentobarbital after the state Department of Corrections exhausted its supply.
The state's high court stayed Knight's execution until at least Dec. 27 and sent his case back the state's Eighth Judicial Circuit, which includes Bradford County, where he is imprisoned. A circuit court judge must hold a hearing on the inmate's claims and issue a ruling no later than 2 p.m. Nov. 26, two days before Thanksgiving, after which time both sides can file additional arguments.
Knight has been on Death Row since 1975 for the murders of a Miami couple. While in prison he stabbed a correctional officer, Richard Burke, to death. It is that killing for which he is condemned to die.
In its order, the court said: "The Court has determined that Muhammad’s claim as to the use of midazolam hydrochloride as an anesthetic in the amount prescribed by Florida’s protocol warrants an evidentiary hearing. We conclude based on the allegations in Muhammad’s 3.851 motion that he has raised a factual dispute, not conclusively refuted, as to whether the use of midazolam hydrochloride in Florida’s lethal injection protocol will subject him to a 'substantial risk of serious harm.'
"We further direct the DOC (Department of Corrections) to produce correspondence and documents it has received from the manufacturer of midazolam hydrochloride concerning the drug’s use in executions or otherwise, including those addressing any safety and efficacy issues," the court ordered.
Justice Sotomayor calls for Alabama's capital sentencing system to get a "fresh look"
SCOTUS wrapped up its formal November activities with an order list this morning that included two dissents from denials of cert in state criminal cases. SCOTUSblog here reports on these basics:
Among cases the Court declined to hear was a challenge to Alabama’s death sentencing scheme, filed by an inmate who was given such a sentence by the judge even though the jury had voted eight to four against that punishment. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a twelve-page dissent most of which was joined by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, said that the Court should take a new look at Alabama’s capital punishment approach. It is now the only state where judges have imposed death sentences contrary to advisory verdicts recommended by juries. In a part of the opinion that Justice Breyer did not join, Justice Sotomayor argued that the Alabama approach may violate a string of modern Court rulings enhancing the role of juries in the sentencing process. She wrote as the Court denied review in Woodward v. Alabama (13-5380).The Court’s denial of review in two other cases drew dissenting opinions or separate statements by Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. One was Rapelje v. McClellan (12-1480), a test of federal courts’ power in habeas cases to defer to summary rulings by state courts in criminal cases. Justice Antonin Scalia joined the Alito dissent in that case.
The case concerning Justice Alito has more to do with habeas review than sentencing issues, but the case concerning Justice Sotomayor has to be right in the wheel-house of sentencing fans. Here is how Justice Sotomayor's dissenting opinion (which has a graph in the middle) gets started and concludes:
The jury that convicted Mario Dion Woodward of capital murder voted 8 to 4 against imposing the death penalty. But the trial judge overrode the jury’s decision and sentenced Woodward to death after hearing new evidence and finding, contrary to the jury’s prior determination of the same question, that the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances. The judge was statutorily entitled to do this under Alabama law, which provides that a jury’s decision as to whether a defendant should be executed is merely an “advisory verdict” that the trial judge may override if she disagrees with the jury’s conclusion. In the last decade, Alabama has been the only State in which judges have imposed the death penalty in the face of contrary jury verdicts. Since Alabama adopted its current statute, its judges have imposed death sentences on 95 defendants contrary to a jury’s verdict. [FN1] Forty-three of these defendants remain on death row today. Because I harbor deep concerns about whether this practice offends the Sixth and Eighth Amendments, I would grant Woodward’s petition for certiorari so that the Court could give this issue the close attention that it deserves....[FN1] A list of these 95 defendants sentenced to death after a jury verdict of life imprisonment is produced in an appendix to this opinion. By contrast, where juries have voted to impose the death penalty, Alabama judges have overridden that verdict in favor of a life sentence only nine times.
Eighteen years have passed since we last considered Alabama’s capital sentencing scheme, and much has changed since then. Today, Alabama stands alone: No other State condemns prisoners to death despite the considered judgment rendered by a cross-section of its citizens that the defendant ought to live. And Apprendi and its progeny have made clear the sanctity of the jury’s role in our system of criminal justice. Given these developments, we owe the validity of Alabama’s system a fresh look. I therefore respectfully dissent from the denial of certiorari.
Sunday, November 17, 2013
"Correcting a Fatal Lottery: a Proposal to Apply the Civil Discrimination Standards to the Death Penalty"
The title of this post is the title of this notable student note by Joseph Thomas now available for download via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Claims of discrimination in death penalty proceeding receive disparate treatment compared to virtually every other type of discrimination: employment, housing, jury venire, reverse-racial discrimination, racial profiling by police, racial profiling by private security, racial gerrymandering, qualified immunity by a state prison guard, qualified immunity by city officials and police, felon disenfranchisement laws. They each use the same process when there is no direct evidence of discrimination -- a burden shifting framework to help present the evidence in an organized manner with a standard of the preponderance of the evidence that must be demonstrated to prove discrimination took place. Dissimilarly, death penalty proceedings are the exception to the rule -- all of the evidence is presented in one stage, without any organization, and the heightened standard of exceptionally clear proof must be demonstrated to prove discrimination took place.
With the use of disparate standards to adjudicate the exact same thing -- claims of discrimination without direct evidence -- makes the process used in the death penalty unconstitutional because with life and liberty at stake, defendants in the death penalty should be afforded more protections, not less. Alternatively, I propose my own standard for handling discrimination cases in the death penalty, based off of the civil standards.
Friday, November 15, 2013
"Reducing crime by reducing incarceration"
The title of this post is the headline of this new Washington Times op-ed authored by David Cole and Marc Mauer. Here are excerpts:
The United States remains the world leader in imprisonment, with an incarceration rate five times higher than that of many of our European allies. It wasn’t always this way. From 1925 through 1975, our incarceration rate was about 160 per 100,000 persons. Today it is nearly 700 per 100,000. It rose consistently for more than three decades, largely as a result of changes in policy, not crime rates. These policy changes, under the rubric of the “get tough” movement, were designed to send more people to prison and to keep them there longer. As the prison population has expanded, however, whatever impact incarceration may have had on crime has confronted the law of diminishing returns. Meanwhile, the corrections system costs us $80 billion a year.
In response to these concerns, recent years have seen significant reforms across the country. States from Texas to California to New York have reduced mandatory minimum sentences, softened “three-strikes” laws, or established drug-offender diversion programs. The number of people incarcerated in state prisons nationwide has dropped for three years in a row. California, New York and New Jersey have each reduced their prison populations by about 20 percent in the past decade — with no increases in crime.
In an era of heightened partisan politics, reform is a rare bipartisan issue. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Republican Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee don’t often see eye to eye, but they have all advocated measures to reduce mandatory minimums. The American Legislative Exchange Council, which promotes free-market law reforms in the states, has identified reducing prison overcrowding as one of its priorities. Regardless of one’s politics, no one can be proud of the fact that the world’s wealthiest society locks up more of its citizens per capita than any other nation.
Most of the reforms thus far have focused on nonviolent offenders, especially drug-law violators — and for good reason. The large-scale incarceration of low-level drug offenders has had little impact on the drug trade; street-corner sellers and couriers are easily replaced. Incarceration imposes substantial costs on society at large, though, and on the life chances and families of those locked up.
If we are to tackle the incarceration rate effectively, we need to focus not only on those who receive the shortest sentences, but also on those who receive the longest sentences — lifers. Even as incarceration rates have begun to fall, life sentences have increased. One in nine prisoners in the United States is now serving a life sentence, including 10,000 serving life for a nonviolent offense (often the “third strike” under a three-strikes law). Nearly a third of the life sentences are imposed with no possibility of parole.
While most of these individuals have committed serious offenses, the increased reliance on life sentences is counterproductive. Criminal offenses tend to drop with age. As offenders grow older, their incarceration is increasingly less likely to have any incapacitative value. Nor is there any evidence that life sentences have greater deterrent effect. Studies find that it is the certainty of punishment, not its severity, that is most correlated with deterrence. Yet many states have adopted a “life means life” policy with no consideration of parole. Such sentences effectively write off the offender, rejecting the possibility of redemption altogether....
A key factor in the prison expansion of recent decades has been that offenders sentenced to prison are serving much longer sentences. American sentences today are frequently two to three times the length for similar offenses in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France and other industrialized nations. Sentencing reform has begun with the low-hanging fruit of mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses, but if it is to succeed, we must reduce the length of criminal sentences generally.
Recent related post:
- New ACLU report spotlights thousands of nonviolent prisoners serving LWOP terms
- New York Times op-ed asks "Serving Life for This?"
Tuesday, November 12, 2013
"The Eighth Amendment as a Warrant Against Undeserved Punishment"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Scott Howe now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Should the Eighth Amendment prohibit all undeserved criminal convictions and punishments? There are grounds to argue that it must. Correlation between the level of deserts of the accused and the severity of the sanction represents the very idea of justice to most of us. We want to believe that those branded as criminals deserve blame for their conduct and that they deserve all of the punishments that they receive. A deserts limitation is also key to explaining the decisions in which the Supreme Court has rejected convictions or punishments as disproportional, including several major rulings in the new millennium.
Yet, this view of the Eighth Amendment challenges many current criminal-law doctrines and sentencing practices that favor crime prevention over retributive limits. Mistake-of-law doctrine, felony-murder rules and mandatory-minimum sentencing laws are only a few examples. Why have these laws and practices survived? One answer is that the Supreme Court has largely limited proportionality relief to a few narrow problems involving the death penalty or life imprisonment without parole, and it has avoided openly endorsing the deserts limitation even in cases in which defendants have prevailed. Yet, this Article presents a deeper explanation. I point to four reasons why the doctrine must remain severely stunted in relation to its animating principle. I am to clarify both what the Eighth Amendment reveals about the kind of people we want to be and why the Supreme Court is not able to force us to live up to the aspiration.
Monday, November 11, 2013
"Sentence Appeals in England: Promoting Consistent Sentencing through Robust Appellate ReviewThe title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Briana Rosenbaum now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Unlike in most areas of the law, federal courts of appeals in the United States defer to trial courts on many issues of sentencing law and policy. As a result, the power to decide sentencing law and policy is often at the discretion of individual district court judges. Law reform scholars have long decried the disparity, lack of transparency, and legitimization concerns that this practice raises. These concerns are heightened in the post-Booker sentencing regime, where the advisory nature of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines undermines those Guidelines’ ability to further sentencing consistency.
The deferential approach to federal sentence appeals is in sharp contrast to the approach in England, where the appellate court conducts de novo review of sentencing law and policy to develop a common law of sentencing that is independent of the English sentencing guidelines. The English model of appellate review suggests a new way to design the role of appellate courts in the federal system: from bodies that merely enforce guidelines to further consistency of sentencing outcomes, to bodies that develop sentencing law to further consistency of sentencing approach.
In this paper, I explore the primary functional, institutional, and normative arguments behind the resistance to robust appellate review in the federal appellate courts and study the English model as a means of evaluating these critiques. Ultimately, I suggest that the federal courts of appeals borrow England’s “mixed deference approach” to sentence appeals, including de novo review of sentencing law and principles. Doing so will promote greater sentencing consistency without either over-enforcement of the Guidelines or unwarranted encroachment of sentencing discretion.
Wednesday, November 06, 2013
Unanimous Supreme Court of New Hampshire upholds state's first modern capital conviction (with proportionality review to follow)As reported in this AP piece, "New Hampshire's top court upheld the sentence of the state's only death row inmate, clearing the way for a convicted cop killer to become the first person executed in New Hampshire since 1939." Here are more of the basics:
Michael Addison, 33, was convicted of gunning down Michael Briggs in 2006 as the 35-year-old Manchester police officer was attempting to arrest him on a string of armed robbery charges. The high court's unanimous ruling came nearly a year after it heard unprecedented daylong arguments in the first death penalty appeal to come before it in 50 years....
Of all 22 issues raised by Addison's lawyers on appeal, the justices concluded, "We find no reversible error."
The Supreme Court will next schedule arguments on its fairness review — weighing Addison's sentence against those meted out in 49 cases around the country between 2000 and 2009 in which a police officer was shot in the line of duty.
Addison's lawyers objected to the scope of the comparison, saying it ignores the only other New Hampshire capital case in recent history. That case involved a wealthy white man — John Brooks — who plotted and paid for the killing of a handyman he thought had stolen from him. Brooks was spared a death sentence in 2008 — the same year Addison was sentenced to die....
Attorney General Joseph Foster said the magnitude of the court's 243-page ruling is appropriate given the magnitude of the loss suffered by the Briggs' family. He did not comment on the ruling itself, noting that aspects of the case remain pending.
Briggs was 15 minutes from the end of his shift on Oct. 16, 2006, when he and his partner — both on bicycle patrol — confronted Addison in a dark alley. Jurors found that Addison shot Briggs in the head at close range to avoid arrest. Addison was later convicted of going on a violent rampage in the days before Briggs' death, including two armed robberies and a drive-by shooting....
The last person executed in New Hampshire was Howard Long, an Alton shopkeeper who molested and beat a 10-year-old boy to death. He was hanged — still a viable form of execution in New Hampshire if lethal injection is not possible.
As the AP piece revelas, the massive ruling in NH v. Addison (available here) does not conclusively affirm the defendant's death sentence. Here is why, as the NH Supreme Court explains in the introduction to its lengthy opinion:
With respect to the issues raised by the defendant on appeal, we find no reversible error. Accordingly, we affirm the defendant’s conviction for capital murder. Furthermore, we conclude that the sentence of death was not imposed under the influence of passion, prejudice or any other arbitrary factor, and that the evidence was sufficient to support the jury’s findings of aggravating circumstances. We note that our review of the defendant’s sentence is not yet complete. Only after additional briefing and oral argument on comparative proportionality under RSA 630:5, XI(c) will we conclude our review of the defendant’s sentence of death, at which time we will issue a further opinion.