Monday, October 20, 2014
New top Justice in Massachusetts urges repeal of mandatory minimums for low-level drug offenders
I just came across this notable Boston Globe article discussing this notable speech delivered late last week by the new Chief Justice of Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Here is how the Globe article starts:
The head of the state’s highest court called for an end to mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders on Thursday, saying they interfere with judges’ discretion, disproportionately affect minorities, and fail to rehabilitate offenders.
Citing the opioid-addiction crisis, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants said the state needs to find better ways to treat addicts than sending them to jail. In 2013, 674 people died of opioid overdoses, compared with 338 in 2000. “To those who favor the status quo in the so-called war on drugs, I ask: How well is the status quo working?” Gants said.
Gants, selected as chief justice by Governor Deval Patrick, called on the Legislature to pass laws to abolish mandatory sentencing. His remarks, in his first State of the Judiciary speech, were part of a call for broader changes in the court system. “We need our sentences not merely to punish and deter, but also to provide offenders with the supervision and the tools they will need to maximize the chance of success upon release and minimize the likelihood of recidivism,” he said.
Sworn in just 80 days ago, Gants said he will convene a group of judges, probation offices, prosecutors, and defense attorneys to study best practices to ensure what he called “individualized, evidence-based sentences.” That means considering mental health or substance abuse treatment as well as time in prison. Mandatory minimum sentences are automatic prison terms for those convicted of certain crimes, limiting judges’ discretion.
Gants’s proposal drew quick praise from members of the Massachusetts Bar Association, his audience at the association’s annual Bench-Bar Symposium in the John Adams Courthouse. Marsha V. Kazarosian, president of the bar association, called Gants’s call to action “a gutsy move.” She said there are “no cookie-cutter remedies” for drug defendants, and that an offender’s background should taken into consideration, and “that’s exactly what a judge is supposed to do.”
Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender agency agreed. “So many people involved in the criminal justice system have substance abuse and mental health issues,” Benedetti said. “That’s the root of the problem, and this gets back to individual, evidence-based sentencing.”
The proposal was criticized by Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, head of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, who argued that the laws are designed to target drug traffickers, not merely drug users. “The midst of an opiate overdose epidemic is not the time to make it easier for drug traffickers to avoid accountability and incarceration,” Blodgett said. “An experienced trial judge should know that the drug defendants sentenced to incarceration are the ones who carry and use firearms, who flood communities with poison, and who commit the same distribution offenses over and over again.”
Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Gants' full speech is worth reading, and here is a notable excerpt from the text:
Mandatory minimum sentencing in drug cases has had a disparate impact upon racial and ethnic minorities. In fiscal year 2013, 450 defendants were given mandatory minimum sentences on governing drug offenses. In that year, which is the most recent year for which data are available, racial and ethnic minorities comprised 32% of all convicted offenders, 55% of all those convicted of non-mandatory drug distribution offenses, and 75% of all those convicted of mandatory drug offenses. I do not suggest that there is intentional discrimination, but the numbers do not lie about the disparate impact of mandatory minimum drug sentences.
The impact of mandatory minimum drug sentences is far greater than the number of defendants who are actually given mandatory sentences. Prosecutors often will dismiss a drug charge that carries a mandatory minimum sentence in return for a plea to a non-mandatory offense with an agreed-upon sentence recommendation, and defendants often have little choice but to accept a sentencing recommendation higher than they think appropriate because the alternative is an even higher and even less appropriate mandatory minimum sentence. For all practical purposes, when a defendant is charged with a drug offense with a mandatory minimum sentence, it is usually the prosecutor, not the judge, who sets the sentence.
I have great respect for the prosecutors in this Commonwealth, and for the exercise of prosecutorial discretion that comes with the job; I was a prosecutor myself for eight years. But where there is a mandatory minimum sentence, a prosecutor's discretion to charge a defendant with a crime effectively includes the discretion to sentence a defendant for that crime. And where drug sentences are effectively being set by prosecutors through mandatory minimum sentences, we cannot be confident that those sentences will be individualized, evidence-based sentences that will not only punish and deter, but also minimize the risk of recidivism by treating the root of the problem behind many drug offenses -- the problem of addiction.
"Why Did the Supreme Court Sidestep Sentencing Dispute?"
The title of this post is not merely the question I had for a few Justices after the denial of cert last week in Jones v. US (lamented here and here), it is also the headline of this new National Law Journal article about this decision authored by Tony Mauro. Here are excerpts:
The U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to add a Washington drug case to its docket would not ordinarily get much notice. But when the court did just that on Oct. 14, it drew wide criticism for missing an opportunity to resolve a long-running dispute over judicial discretion in sentencing.
The court denied certiorari in Jones v. United States, which asked the court to rule that in deciding on a sentence, federal judges should not be able to take into consideration conduct for which the defendant was acquitted. In the Jones case, the trial judge significantly increased the sentences of three defendants by factoring in drug conspiracy charges that the jury had rejected.
"It is really hard to understand why the court ruled as it did," said University of Illinois College of Law professor Margareth Etienne, a sentencing expert. "It goes against everything the Supreme Court has said for the last 15 years."
Cato Institute senior fellow Ilya Shapiro said, "It's not just high-profile culture-war issues like same-sex marriage and the right to bear arms that the Supreme Court is avoiding like the plague." Shapiro said the court's action was "another opportunity lost by the Court, another responsibility shirked. "The issue has been raised in numerous lower court decisions, and in a 2007 Supreme Court case, several justices said it should be taken up if the right case came along. As recently as Oct. 1, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit mentioned the Jones case in a ruling that criticized the "questionable practice" of basing sentences on uncharged or unproven offenses.
An unusual lineup of three justices — Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg — took the rare step of dissenting from the denial of review. "This has gone on long enough," Scalia wrote. "The present petition presents the non-hypothetical case the court claimed to have been waiting for."
In the case the court denied, a District of Columbia jury found Antwuan Ball, Desmond Thurston and Joseph Jones guilty in 2007 of selling between two and 11 grams of cocaine, relatively small amounts. They were acquitted on racketeering and other charges that they were part of an extensive narcotics conspiracy. Yet, when U.S. District Judge Richard Roberts sentenced the three, he said he "saw clear evidence of a drug conspiracy," and sentenced Ball, Thurston and Jones to 18, 16 and 15 years in prison, respectively — four times higher than the highest sentences given for others who sold similar amounts of cocaine, according to filings with the Supreme Court....
Stephen Leckar, of counsel to Kalbian Hagerty in Washington, who represented the defendants in the petition denied last week, said he was disappointed that the petition fell "one vote short" of being granted certiorari. The fact that conservatives Scalia and Thomas dissented — along with liberal Ginsburg — "ought to be a fire bell in the night" signaling that the issue should be resolved, Leckar said....
The University of Illinois' Etienne speculated that some justices may have felt the facts of the Jones case were "too good" to be a vehicle for making a broad pronouncement on the issue. She explained that Jones involved a judge ignoring an actual acquittal by a jury, whereas a more common scenario is a judge basing an enhanced sentence on conduct that may or may not have been charged or was not part of a plea agreement. Ruling on a case involving an actual acquittal might leave the broader issue unresolved. "It is going to take a while" for the court to revisit the issue, Etienne added. "Until it does, the old adage that one is 'innocent until proven guilty' will continue to have little meaning."
Previous related posts on the Jones case:
- Extended examination of ugliness of acquitted conduct enhancement
- Latest chapter in notable federal acquitted conduct case from DC
- "When Acquitted Doesn't Mean Acquitted"
- DC Circuit gives disconcertingly short-shrift to Antwuan Ball's many significant sentencing claims
- Notable follow-up thoughts on acquitted conduct and the sentencing of Antwuan Ball
- Rooting for acquitted conduct petition grant from SCOTUS long conference
- Trying not to get too excited about SCOTUS relist in Jones/Ball acquitted conduct case
- Three Justices dissent from denial of certiorari in Jones/Ball acquitted conduct case
- Refusing to take up acquitted punishment, passive virtues, SCOTUS reputation, and cert-denial-deal speculation
Sunday, October 19, 2014
"Good Conduct Time for Prisoners: Why (and How) Wisconsin Should Provide Credits Toward Early Release"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Michael M. O'Hear. Here is the abstract:
Wisconsin is one of about twenty states not offering good conduct time (GCT) to prisoners. In most states, prisoners are able to earn GCT credits toward accelerated release through good behavior. Wisconsin itself had GCT for more than a century, but eliminated it as part of a set of reforms in the 1980s and 1990s that left the state with what may be the nation’s most inflexible system for the release of prisoners. Although some of these reforms helpfully brought greater certainty to punishment, they went too far in eliminating nearly all meaningful recognition and encouragement of good behavior and rehabilitative progress.
This article explains why and how Wisconsin should reinstitute GCT, drawing on social scientific research on the effects of GCT, public opinion surveys in Wisconsin and across the United States regarding sentencing policy, and an analysis of the GCT laws in place in other jurisdictions. Although the article focuses particularly on Wisconsin’s circumstances, the basic argument for GCT is more generally applicable, and much of the analysis should be of interest to policymakers in other states, too.
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
"Elevating Substance Over Procedure: The Retroactivity of Miller v. Alabama Under Teague v. Lane"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Brandon Buskey and Daniel Korobkin now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This Article proposes a framework establishing that the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, which forbids states from automatically sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment without any meaningful opportunity for release, must apply retroactively to hundreds of juveniles whose convictions and life sentences were already final at the time of the decision. Such a framework is timely and critical. Although the lower state and federal courts are almost evenly divided on the question, the Supreme Court has yet to settle the divide.
The Article reviews how, absent guidance from the Supreme Court, a host of states, led recently by Michigan, have invoked the Miller majority’s statement that it was merely requiring states to follow a "certain process" before sentencing a juvenile to life imprisonment without parole. By this reasoning, Miller is not retroactive under the Supreme Court’s federal retroactivity doctrine established by Teague v. Lane. The Court has always applied new substantive rules retroactively under Teague, while it has never done so for a new procedural rule.
The Article rejects this "process" language as a basis for resolving whether Miller is retroactivity. It concludes that Miller in fact has little to do with process and is instead primarily concerned with sentencing outcomes for youth. In striking down mandatory life without parole for juveniles, Miller adapted the individualized sentencing requirement from Woodson v. North Carolina, which invalidated the mandatory death penalty. This individualized sentencing requirement obligates states to always offer juveniles a sentencing outcome carrying the possibility of release and to consider the essential, mitigating fact of youth before imposing an irrevocable life sentence. These obligations are inherently substantive. By contrast, Miller’s alleged procedural component is undefined and collateral to its substantive altering of juvenile sentencing. Miller therefore announces a substantive rule that must apply retroactively.
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
Refusing to take up acquitted punishment, passive virtues, SCOTUS reputation, and cert-denial-deal speculation
I cannot resist the urge to use this space to reflect upon (and perhaps salve) my disappointment in the learning the certiorari petition in Jones v. US, No. 13-10026 — a case in which I wrote this SCOTUS amicus brief in support of cert — came up only one SCOTUS vote short of making it as the petition today was denied over a dissent authored by Justice Scalia and joined by Justices Thomas and Ginsburg. As I briefly explained in this initial post on the cert denial, I find especially notable and troubling that neither Justices Sotomayor and Kagan provided the key single additional vote for cert given that both were in the majority in two recent cases which, I think, further set a foundation for finding constitutional limits on guideline punishment enhancements based on acquitted conduct.
As I have explained in prior posts and in my Jones amicus brief, in Peugh v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2072 (2013) (authored by Justice Sotomayor), the Supreme Court clarified that Guideline ranges, even though now only advisory after Booker, still have consequential “force as the framework for sentencing” and thus are subject to at least some constitutional limitations on how they are calculated and applied. Id. at 2083-84. And in Alleyne v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2151 (2013) (with both Justices Sotomayor and Kagan as key votes to reverse a pre-Blakely/Booker precedent), the Supreme Court overturned a prior holding that had failed to recognize that the constitutional protections of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments apply fully not only to facts raising maximum sentences, but whenever the law creates a “linkage of facts with particular sentencing ranges." 133 S. Ct. at 2159-62.
I continue to believe (or at least want to believe) that the huge acquitted conduct guideline punishment enhancements at issue in Jones have to trouble greatly any Justice who truly accepts the Apprendi-Blakely Sixth Amendment jurisprudence, AND who truly believes the advisory federal sentencing guidelines still have constitutionally-significant legal force (as Peugh holds), AND who truly claims the Constitution is concerned with judicial findings of facts that raise punishment floors as well as ceilings (as Alleyne holds). In other words, I continue to believe (or at least want to believe) that Justices Sotomayor and Kagan would be votes to reverse the sentences at issue in a case like Jones if and when cert is ever granted to review huge acquitted conduct guideline punishment enhancements.
So why wasn't cert granted this time around, especially with Justices Scalia, Thomas and Ginsburg vocally in support of such a grant in Jones? As the title of this post is meant to suggest, I think Justices Sotomayor and Kagan may have concluded it would be virtuous and valuable to be passive in this setting, at least for right now, because any extended SCOTUS consideration of extended acquitted guidelines punishment could give Sixth Amendment rights (and SCOTUS itself) an extended black eye (especially if one or both of them might ultimately be inclined to uphold extended acquitted guidelines punishments in Jones).
I have long hoped for and sought a cert grant on acquitted conduct enhancements because I have long believed jurisprudes on both the left and the right will (and should) have a hard time defending, especially in light of the strong jury-rights rhetoric in cases like Apprendi and Blakely, a federal guideline sentencing system that still recommends huge punishment increases based essentially on judicial rejection of a not-guilty jury verdict. (Notably, the only time SCOTUS directly addressed this issue, in the 1997 Watts case, the Court issued a summary reversal to permit acquitted conduct enhancements and thus prevented full briefing or oral argument on the matter.) But yet again because of another cert denial, we will not learn if Justices Breyer and Kennedy (or even CJ Roberts), who in other settings express concerns about prosecutorial power and excessive sentencing, might be cajoled through full briefing and argument to see the constitutional vices of allowing prosecutors and judges to trump juries in the federal sentencing process.
Finally, once one starts thinking about the possibility that Justices Breyer and Kennedy and even CJ Roberts might have been especially eager right now to dodge full consideration of acquitted conduct punishments, it becomes hard to avoid speculating about "long confernce" deals to deny cert and thereby dodge consideration now of other (higher profile) hard constitutionally issues. As all Court-watchers know, the really big cert-denial news after the SCOTUS long conference involved denials in all the same-sex marriage cases from around the country. Dare I show my ignorance about what really goes on behind SCOTUS doors when I wonder if, at least tacitly, a large block of Justices concluded during the long conference that it was in every Justices' interest to be "deeply in denial." Just a (silly?) thought.
Previous related posts on the Jones case:
- Extended examination of ugliness of acquitted conduct enhancement
- Latest chapter in notable federal acquitted conduct case from DC
- "When Acquitted Doesn't Mean Acquitted"
- DC Circuit gives disconcertingly short-shrift to Antwuan Ball's many significant sentencing claims
- Notable follow-up thoughts on acquitted conduct and the sentencing of Antwuan Ball
- Rooting for acquitted conduct petition grant from SCOTUS long conference
- Trying not to get too excited about SCOTUS relist in Jones/Ball acquitted conduct case
- Three Justices dissent from denial of certiorari in Jones/Ball acquitted conduct case
Sunday, October 12, 2014
Documenting a notable California legal crusade against sex offender restrictions
This lengthy local article, headlined "Pair seeks repeal of sex-offender laws in California," provides a detailed review of a notable effort to take down via court challenges local sex offender restrictions. The piece merits a full read, and here are a few highlights:
A crusading civil rights attorney and a registered sex offender have partnered in a legal battle that has prompted dozens of California cities to repeal or revise what the pair believe are unconstitutional ordinances restricting the activities of sex offenders.
Since March, Santa Maria attorney Janice Bellucci and Frank Lindsay, a 62-year-old water-treatment specialist from Grover Beach and registered sex offender for 35 years, have filed 18 lawsuits in federal court challenging ordinances in cities from Stockton down to National City.
To date, Bellucci has settled 15 of the lawsuits, while 38 other cities have avoided litigation by agreeing to repeal their ordinances. Six other cities have voluntarily suspended enforcement of their ordinances, while ordinances in another 18 cities are still under review.
“The way I look at it is that I’m protecting the Constitution of the United States as well as the state of California,” said Bellucci, president of California Reform Sex Offender Laws, a nonprofit she launched three years ago as an affiliate to the national Reform Sex Offender Laws organization.
While Bellucci believes she’s fighting for the rights of oppressed sex offenders, others say she’s endangering the state’s youth. “As an elected official and as a mother, I’m concerned about the health and safety of our young people who don’t have a voice,” said Carson Councilwoman Lulu Davis-Holmes. Carson is one city sued by Bellucci that plans to fight the lawsuit. “Our kids did not make the choice to be molested,” Davis-Holmes said. “I personally think we need to do more to protect those who cannot protect themselves,”
Bellucci’s flurry of lawsuits was prompted by a 4th District Court of Appeal’s decision in January that found sex offender ordinances in Orange County and the city of Irvine cannot impose restrictions more stringent than state law, which only restricts sex offenders who are on parole and whose victims were under the age of 14 from visiting public parks without the express permission of their parole agent.
In addition to the suits she filed with Lindsay, Bellucci has filed two lawsuits on her own, challenging ordinances in Canyon Lake and Commerce. Those complaints do not name Lindsay as a plaintiff because ordinances in those cities do not apply to sex offenders whose convictions are as old as Lindsay’s.
In April, the state Supreme Court declined a petition by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office to review the appellate court ruling, leaving it intact. The appellate court ruling, coupled with the spate of litigation initiated by Bellucci, could have a major impact on the lives of California’s 107,913 registered sex offenders, roughly 14 percent of the nation’s 774,600, as cities and counties are forced to either repeal their ordinances or make them uniform with state law.
This companion article, headlined "Sex-crimes convict says registration has ruined his career, endangered his life?," provides a profile of the sex-offender who is the plaintiff in much of the discussed California sex offender litigation.
Friday, October 10, 2014
Wyoming Supreme Court joins group deciding SCOTUS Miller ruling is retroactive
As reported in this local article, headlined "Casper man convicted of murder as a teenager now has possibility of parole," the Wyoming Supreme Court had a big ruling yesterday on juve life sentences. In Wyoming v. Mares, 2014 WY 126 (Wyo. Oct. 9, 2014) (available here), the Court held that Miller v. Alabama announced a substantive rule that is to be applied retroactively under Teague and also that a Wyoming statute enacted last year making juves parole eligible should be applied retroactively. Here is how the unanimous opinion in Mares gets started:
In 1995, Edwin Mares was convicted of felony murder as a juvenile and sentenced to life in prison, which sentence was by operation of law the equivalent of a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. In 2013, Mr. Mares filed a motion, pursuant to Rule 35 of the Wyoming Rules of Criminal Procedure, to correct an illegal sentence. Through that motion, Mr. Mares contended that his sentence of life without the possibility of parole was unconstitutional in light of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. ___, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 183 L.Ed.2d 407 (2012). This Court accepted certification of two questions from the district court. The first question concerns the test to be used in determining the retroactivity of new constitutional rules when a judgment is challenged on collateral review. The second question is whether Miller applies retroactively under our chosen test.
We conclude that as a result of amendments to Wyoming’s parole statutes in 2013, Mr. Mares’ life sentence was changed from one of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole to one of life with the possibility of parole in twenty-five years. This change occurred by operation of the amended law, and the sentence Mr. Mares challenged in his Rule 35 motion therefore no longer exists. We are aware, however, that other collateral challenges to juvenile offender sentences are pending throughout our district courts, and we therefore, in the interests of judicial economy and to avoid conflicting rulings, choose to answer the certified questions. In response to the first certified question, we hold that the proper rule for determining whether a new constitutional rule applies retroactively to cases on collateral review is the test announced by the Supreme Court in Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 109 S.Ct. 1060, 103 L.Ed.2d 334 (1989). In response to the second question, we conclude that under a Teague analysis, the rule announced in Miller applies retroactively to cases on collateral review.
Oklahoma has impressive early success with revised earned credit program
This local article, headlined "Most Oklahoma inmates granted early release since March have stayed out of trouble," reports on another positive state criminal justice reform effort. Here are the details:
Santajuan M. Stepney was released from prison in March after serving less than half of a 10-year sentence for possession of marijuana. By mid-July, he was back in prison, this time sentenced to two years for beating his wife in Canadian County.
Stepney, 31, was among about 1,500 inmates granted an early release by the Corrections Department after they had good-behavior credits restored through the once-obscure Earned Credits program. The releases in question began in March, according to the agency.
A state lawmaker recently questioned the program, saying restoration of good-behavior credits and early release is in the name of saving money, while Corrections Department officials have defended its expanded use....
Jerry Massie, a spokesman for the Corrections Department, said Stepney and inmate Brian Harvey, who was granted early release in March, are the only members of the group who’ve returned to prison since being set free under the Earned Credits program....
Last week, Rep. Aaron Stiles told The Oklahoman he believes Robert Patton, who was hired as the Corrections Department’s executive director earlier this year, is directing staff to release inmates by restoring the good behavior credits that had been lost due to infractions while behind bars. Stiles said Patton is doing so to save money as the cash-strapped prison system continues to struggle with tight budgets and overcrowded prisons.
The lawmaker said “several” Corrections Department employees have contacted him about the mass release of inmates with good behavior credits restored. He said some of the employees, who feared speaking openly, “made recommendations that certain people not be released, but they get overruled by upper level DOC administration.”
“It is all about saving money,” Stiles said last week. “They had 1,800 inmates in county backup. So how do you make room for 1,800 prisoners? Release 1,800 convicts early.”
The Earned Credits program has been around about 20 years, officials say, but it’s never been as widely used as it is now. Essentially, the program allows inmates to have good-behavior credits restored if they’ve been lost as a result of misconduct. The program does not apply to inmates who are required to serve a minimum amount of their sentence, such as 85 percent crimes like rape, murder, and many sex crimes.
Terri Watkins, a spokeswoman for the Corrections Department, said increased use of the program isn’t all about saving money. She said it’s part of a series of changes made by Patton, and that those changes will continue in the future.
This partial report about early success with a revised corrections program in one state does not, obviously, prove conclusively that significant early releases can be achieved without a huge public safety impact. Nevertheless, given the ugly reality that recidivism rates for released prisoners can often exceed 40%, the folks in Oklahoma must be doing something right if only less than 0.15% of prisoners released early this year have committed a crime requiring requiring being sent back to prison so far.
Thursday, October 09, 2014
New survey shows significant and growing support for "eliminating mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent offenders"
As reported via this FAMM news release, which is headlined "New Poll Finds 77% of Americans Support Eliminating Mandatory Minimums for Non-Violent Offenses," there is new polling data suggesting that large and growing percentages of Americans favor mandatory minimum sentencing reform. Here are the basic details:
A new Reason-Rupe Public Opinion Survey finds that 77 percent of Americans support eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses. That number is up from 71 percent in December 2013, the last time Reason-Rupe polled on the question. You can find the full survey results here (PDF); mandatory minimums are question 17.
“Almost three decades have passed since the United States instituted harsh mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses. During that time, countless lives have been ruined and countless families destroyed. The American people have noticed, and they want no more of it,” said Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
The poll question Reason-Rupe posed reads as follows: “Would you favor or oppose eliminating mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent offenders so that judges have the ability to make sentencing decisions on a case-by-case basis?”
Seventy-seven percent of respondents said they favored eliminating mandatory minimums, while only 17 percent of respondents said they were opposed. When Reason-Rupe asked the same question in December 2013, 71 percent of respondents were in favor of eliminating mandatory minimums, and 24 percent were opposed.
Tuesday, October 07, 2014
Rolling Stone laments enduring casualties of drug war's mandatory minimums
Rolling Stone magazine has just published this extensive "special report" titled "The Nation's Shame: The Injustice of Mandatory Minimums." The piece details the stories of seven notable low-level drug defendants serving high-level prison sentences. The piece has this subheading: "For decades, lawyers, scholars, and judges have criticized mandatory drug sentencing as oppressive and ineffective. Yet tens of thousands of nonviolent offenders continue to languish behind bars." And here is a portion of the lead into the seven cases profiled:
Widely enacted in the Eighties and Nineties amid rising crime and racially coded political fearmongering, mandatory penalties — like minimum sentences triggered by drug weight, automatic sentencing enhancements, and three-strikes laws — have flooded state and federal prisons with nonviolent offenders. Intended to ensure uniform discipline, these policies simply shifted discretion to prosecutors. Judges lost latitude to tailor sanctions based on whether someone was a kingpin or courier, for example, while [Professor Mark] Osler says, prosecutors gained "a big hammer. The easy way of doing things is to threaten people with a lot of time, and then plead them out," he says. "But easy and justice don't go together very well."...
[T]he drug war is entrenched in decades of prison buildup. Between 1980 and 2010, state incarceration rates for drug crimes multiplied tenfold, while the federal drug prisoner population ballooned by a factor of 20. Every year, taxpayers shell out $51 billion for drug war spending. Meanwhile, 2.2 million people — or a quarter of the world's prisoners — crowd a system that exacts its harshest toll on the most vulnerable. Racism undermines the justice process from initial stop to sentence, and 60 percent of those incarcerated are people of color. Rates of illiteracy, addiction, and mental illness are disproportionately high.
Amid utter congressional deadlock, sentencing reform is the only issue that has cut across partisan bickering to unite such normally irreconcilable voices as Rand Paul, Dick Durbin, Ted Cruz, Elizabeth Warren, Paul Ryan and John Conyers. Yet the proposed Smarter Sentencing Act, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in January, has since run aground. The bill would halve key mandatory minimums, make relief under the Fair Sentencing Act available to 8,800 federal crack defendants locked up before 2010 and save $4 billion in the process. More than 260,000 people have been imprisoned under federal drug mandatory minimums, and more will continue to cycle through the system — even as others are granted clemency — as long as reforms remain stalled. At the state level, reforms without retroactive application strand drug defendants in prison even after the laws that put them there are reassessed as unjust. The following seven cases epitomize the rigid regimes of the past, and the challenges involved in dismantling them.
Monday, October 06, 2014
Reviewing California's debate over lowering sentences through Prop 47
I have noted in a few prior posts some of the details of California's Proposition 47, which seeks to reduce penalties for certain offenders convicted of low-level property and drug crimes. This new New York Times article, headlined "California Voters to Decide on Sending Fewer Criminals to Prison," discusses the current state of debate over Prop. 47. Here are excerpts:
Twenty years ago, amid a national panic over crime, California voters adopted the country’s most stringent three-strikes law, sentencing repeat felons to 25 years to life, even if the third offense was a minor theft. The law epitomized the tough-on-crime policies that produced overflowing prisons and soaring costs.
Now California voters appear poised to scale back the heavy reliance on incarceration they once embraced, with a measure that would transform several lower-level, nonviolent felonies into misdemeanors punishable by brief jail stays, if that, rather than time in a state penitentiary. The referendum on Nov. 4 is part of a national reappraisal of mass incarceration.
To its advocates — not only liberals and moderates, but also an evangelical conservative businessman who has donated more than $1 million to the campaign, calling it “a moral and ethical issue” — the measure injects a dose of common sense into a justice system gone off the tracks.
“Law enforcement has been on an incarceration binge for 30 years, and it hasn’t worked,” said George Gascón, the San Francisco district attorney and a former police chief who, bucking most of his counterparts around the state, is the main sponsor along with a former police chief of San Diego. For the large numbers of nonviolent offenders with mental health or substance abuse problems, Mr. Gascón said, “Incarceration doesn’t fix the problem.”
California has already been forced by federal courts to trim its prison population because of inhumane crowding, which it did mainly by sending more offenders to county jails. Two years ago, in a previous referendum, voters took the worst sting off the three-strikes law, shortening the sentences of those whose third crime was a minor one.
The new initiative would have wider effects, altering penalties for low-level theft and drug-possession crimes that result in felony convictions, and sometimes prison terms, for thousands of nonviolent offenders each year. Proposition 47, as it is called, would redefine thefts, forgery and other property crimes involving less than $950, and possession for personal use of drugs including heroin and cocaine, as misdemeanors — punishable by at most one year in a county jail, and often by probation and counseling. The changes would apply retroactively, lightening the penalties for thousands already in prison or jails....
The proposals here are modest compared with changes recently taken by other states to curb prison growth. But Proposition 47 has drawn harsh attack from law enforcement officials, including most district attorneys and the association of police chiefs, which calls it “a dangerous and radical package” that will “endanger Californians.”...
In a poll in September conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California, 62 percent of voters said they supported the initiative, and only 25 percent said they opposed it. Proponents like Mr. Gascón and Darrell Steinberg, the Democratic president pro tem of the State Senate, say this shows that the public is far ahead of timid legislators, necessitating the unusual step of a ballot initiative....
But opinions could change, especially if the two sides mount television campaigns in coming weeks. One of the most outspoken opponents, Shelley Zimmerman, the chief of police in San Diego, has already gone on the offensive. “Virtually all of law enforcement is opposed,” Chief Zimmerman said. “It’s virtually a get-out-of-jail-free card” for 10,000 felons, many with violent histories. She and other opponents have zeroed in on two details: Stealing a gun worth less than $950 and possessing date-rape drugs would no longer be automatic felonies....
So far, supporters of the proposal have a large financial advantage, raising more than $4 million as of last week, half of which had been used to get the measure on the ballot, compared to less than $300,000 for the opponents, with most of that donated by a law enforcement officers’ association. Large donations in support have come from the Open Society Policy Center, a Washington-based group linked to George Soros; the Atlantic Advocacy Fund, based in New York; Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix; and Sean Parker, the former president of Facebook.
But the largest single donor is B. Wayne Hughes Jr., a conservative Christian businessman and philanthropist based in Malibu. In one of the most tangible signs yet of growing concern among conservatives about the cost and impact of incarceration, Mr. Hughes has donated $1.255 million....
Even if Proposition 47 passes, California will still lag behind many other states, including some that are politically conservative, in reforms that have achieved prison cuts with no increase in crime, said Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Just looking at the dollar threshold for theft or forgery felonies, he noted, Mississippi recently raised its cutoff to $1,000, and South Carolina to $2,000. “This reform may be modest,” Mr. Gascón acknowledged. “But California led the way early on in draconian sentencing, and now I’m hoping that these reforms, too, will have an impact on the state and the nation.”
Prior related posts:
- Inititative details and debates over California's Proposition 47 to reduce severity of various crimes
- Is California's Prop. 47 a "common-sense" or a "radical" reform to the state's criminal laws?
- Newt Gingrich helps explain "What California can learn from the red states on crime and punishment"
SCOTUS summarily reverses Ninth Circuit habeas grant on AEDPA deference grounds
Thanks to this post by Kent Scheidegger over at Crime & Consequences, I just saw that the Supreme Court kicked off the first Monday of October with its first reversal of the Ninth Circuit in a criminal case. Here is how the per curiam opinion in Lopez v. Smith, No. 13-346 (S. Ct. Oct. 6, 2014) (available here), gets started:
When a state prisoner seeks federal habeas relief on the ground that a state court, in adjudicating a claim on the merits, misapplied federal law, a federal court may grant relief only if the state court’s decision was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.” 28 U. S. C. §2254(d)(1). We have emphasized, time and again, that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), 110 Stat. 1214, prohibits the federal courts of appeals from relying on their own precedent to conclude that a particular constitutional principle is “clearly established.” See, e.g., Marshall v. Rodgers, 569 U.S. __, __ (2013) (per curiam) (slip op. at 6). Because the Ninth Circuit failed to comply with this rule, we reverse its decision granting habeas relief to respondent Marvin Smith.
After reporting on this SCOTUS development, Kent added this pointed commentary about the general failure of lower federal courts to show adequate AEDPA deference:
There is a broad spectrum of viewpoints on the Supreme Court today, but when there is not a single justice who thinks the court of appeals' decision is correct, when the error is so obvious that it doesn't even require full briefing and argument, and when the same pattern recurs "time and again," there is something gravely wrong with some of our courts of appeals (mostly those divisible by 3).
The continuing violation of this provision by some of the lower federal courts is the largest-scale defiance of federal law since the "massive resistance" campaign in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Except this time federal courts are perpetrators of the violations instead of enforcers of the law.
SCOTUS keeps rejecting important follow-up Graham and Miller issues
The Supreme Court this morning issued this lengthy order list that has 60+ pages listing case after case for which the Justices have denied certiorari review. Not suprisingly, folks are surprised to discover that all the same-sex marriage cases brought to the court over the summer are on the cert denied list (SCOTUSblog discussion here, AP discussion here).
Sentencing fans will also be interested to learn about another group of notable state cases on the cert denied list this morning. A helpful reader provided this account: "For what it’s worth, the US Supreme Court declined to hear at least three virtual LWOP cases (Goins v. Lazaroff, Barnette v. Ohio, and Bunch v. Ohio). They also declined to hear at least two cases on the retroactivity of Miller, including one that was an appeal by a state (Evans v. Ohio and Nebraska v. Mantich)."
I have long believed it will only be a matter of time before the Justices take up at least a few important follow-up Graham and Miller Eighth Amendment issues. These cert denials suggest that the Justices are content to let the issues continue to be resolved only by lower courts for the foreseeable future.
Sunday, October 05, 2014
Previewing some of the high-profile criminal cases on the SCOTUS docket
This new Reuters article, headlined "Inmate beards, Facebook threats on U.S. top court's docket," helpfully spotlights some of the higher-profile criminal law cases on the SCOTUS docket for the Term that officially gets started on Monday. Here are excerpts:
The U.S. Supreme Court opens on Monday a new term in which the nine justices will decide issues such as whether a Muslim prison inmate can have a beard and whether a man can be prosecuted for making threatening statements on Facebook. The term, which runs to the end of June, is expected to be defined by whatever action the justices take on whether states can ban gay marriage....
Arguments start on Monday in the cases the court has already accepted. It has agreed to hear a number of cases involving people challenging their treatment by the government, whether it be prosecutors, police or agencies.
Arkansas inmate Gregory Holt's challenge to a state prison grooming policy will be heard on Tuesday. Holt, who initially got the court's attention with a handwritten plea last year, says the policy violates a 2000 federal law giving religious rights to prisoners. He wants to grow a half-inch (1.3 cm) beard in accordance with his Muslim beliefs. Holt's lawyers note that 44 state prison systems and the federal government allow inmates to have similar beards. Legal experts predict he has a good chance of victory....
The Facebook threat case, to be argued on Dec. 1, concerns Anthony Elonis, who posted statements on the social network in 2010 after his wife, Tara Elonis, left him. Aimed at his wife, co-workers and others, the posts were mostly in the form of rap lyrics in which he fantasized about committing violent acts. Elonis was charged with violating a federal law that outlaws sending threatening communications. He was convicted on four of five counts and sentenced to 44 months in prison. The legal question is whether prosecutors needed to convince jurors that Elonis intended his statements to be interpreted as threats.
The first argument the court will hear on Monday comes in a North Carolina case brought by Nicholas Heien, who was charged and pleaded guilty to drug trafficking after police found cocaine in his car during a traffic stop. He challenged whether police had the right to stop his car for having a broken tail light when state law does not require two working tail lights.
Concurrence laments "trend" of federal prosecutors seeking "significantly enhanced terms of imprisonment under the guise of 'relevant conduct'"
An otherwise unremarkable federal drug sentence appeal in the US v. St. Hill, No. 13-2097 (1st Cir. Oct. 1, 2014) (available here) took on some blogworthy character because of a lengthy concurrence by Judge Torruella. Here is the start, heart and close of Judge Torruella's opinion in St. Hill:
I join the court's opinion but write separately to note a disturbing trend in criminal prosecutions. All too often, prosecutors charge individuals with relatively minor crimes, carrying correspondingly short sentences, but then use section 1B1.3(a) of the Sentencing Guidelines ("Guidelines") to argue for significantly enhanced terms of imprisonment under the guise of "relevant conduct" — other crimes that have not been charged (or, if charged, have led to an acquittal) and have not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt....
St. Hill was subject to an additional six to eight years in prison due to isolated drug sales not directly related to the twenty oxycodone pills which led to his conviction, all of which he was never arrested for, never charged with, never pleaded guilty to, and never convicted of by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a prime example of the tail wagging the dog. Even more disturbing: the government could, if it so chooses, still charge St. Hill for these uncharged crimes in a separate proceeding, and he could be convicted and sentenced again without protection from the Double Jeopardy Clause. See Witte v. United States, 515 U.S. 389, 406 (1995)....
[I]f the government intends to seek an increase in a criminal defendant's sentence for conduct that independently may be subject to criminal liability, the government should charge that conduct in the indictment. The Fifth Amendment requires that "[n]o person shall be . . . deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law," U.S. Const. amend. V, while the Sixth Amendment provides an accused with the right to a trial "by an impartial jury," id. amend. VI. The practice of arguing for higher sentences based on uncharged and untried "relevant conduct" for, at best, tangentially related narcotics transactions seems like an end-run around these basic constitutional guarantees afforded to all criminal defendants. Cf. Alleyne, 133 S. Ct. at 2162 ("When a finding of fact alters the legally prescribed punishment so as to aggravate it, the fact necessarily forms a constituent part of a new offense and must be submitted to the jury."). The government's role is to ensure justice, both to the accused and to the public at large; it is not to maximize conviction rates and argue for the greatest possible sentence. And, while it is unclear to me whether this trend is due to shaky police work resulting in cases that cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, prosecutorial laziness, or other less nefarious factors, it remains troubling regardless....
Nevertheless, as a judge, it is my responsibility to faithfully apply the law as articulated by both the Supreme Court and this court, and I do not dispute that both the Guidelines and our interpretation of them currently condone this questionable process. See Witte, 515 U.S. at 396, 406 (finding no constitutional violation where the sentence was based in part on a cocaine offense that defendant "clearly was neither prosecuted for nor convicted of"); United States v. Lombard, 102 F.3d 1, 4 (1st Cir. 1996) (finding no constitutional violation where the district court "choose[s] to give weight to the uncharged offenses in fixing the sentence within the statutory range if it finds by a preponderance of evidence that they occurred"). I nonetheless question whether this interpretation should be revisited — either by the courts or by revisions to the Guidelines.
Friday, October 03, 2014
SCOTUS preview guest-post: "Measuring the Dangerousness of Felonies for Sentencing Purposes"
In this post I lamented that the Supreme Court this week did not grant cert on any new sentencing cases. But there is still some sentencing fun on the SCOTUS docket thanks to the Justices seemingly never having enough fun with interpretations of the Armed Career Criminal Act. Helpfully, Professor Stephen Rushin, who filed in an amicus brief in the latest ACCA case, was kind enough to prepare for posting here a thoughtful preview of a case to be argued to the Justices in early November.
With kudos and thanks to Prof Rushin for this material, here is his preview:
What criminal offenses pose the greatest risk of injury to others? This is the empirical question at issue in a case, Johnson v. United States, before the U.S. Supreme Court this coming term. The case stems from the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), which provides for punishment enhancements for offenders previously convicted of burglary, arson, extortion, use of explosives, and any other felony that presents “serious potential risk of injury to another.”
Since the passage of the ACCA, courts and litigants have struggled to determine which felonies pose such a “serious potential risk of injury to another.” The Court has interpreted this so-called residual clause of the ACCA to cover a range of felonies, including attempted burglary and fleeing from a police officer in a motor vehicle.
In Johnson, the Court must now decide whether the residual clause also covers the possession of a short-barreled shotgun. So how dangerous is mere possession of an unlawful weapon? Professors Evan Lee, Eric Johnson, and I recently submitted an amicus brief in the Johnson case, arguing that the ACCA ought to cover these sorts of weapons law violations.
At first, our argument may seem counter-intuitive. How, after all, can mere possession ever pose a “serious potential risk of injury to another?” Well that depends on how you define a “potential risk of injury.” Admittedly, offenses like weapons possession cannot, or usually do not, injure another person directly. But that does not mean that such offenses do not pose “serious potential risk of injury to another.” Congress’s use of the word “potential” in conjunction with the word “risk” suggests that a felony need not be the direct or exclusive source of an injury in order to qualify under the residual clause. We read the ACCA to mean that any offense that facilitates or is otherwise meaningfully associated with highly injury-prone offenses “poses a serious potential risk of injury.”
Of course, this raises the next obvious question—to what extent are weapons law violations, like possession of a short barreled shotgun, associated with injuries to victims? In previous ACCA cases, the Court has turned to a wide range of statistical data to measure the dangerousness of various felony offenses. In each case, the Court has attempted to find accurate statistical measures of how frequently a particular felony offense leads to injuries. The Court then compares this to the approximate injury frequency of injuries stemming from the offenses explicitly enumerated in the ACCA—burglary, arson, extortion, and use of explosives.
This basic methodology makes perfect sense. Since Congress specifically enumerated a small number of offenses as “violent felonies” in the ACCA, the Court should presume that any offense of equal or greater dangerousness also warrants inclusion under the residual clause. But in employing this methodology, the Court has often relied on weak statistical data.
In entering into this ongoing debate, my coauthors and I make a simple recommendation to the Court in our amicus brief. We suggest that the Court should use the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) in measuring the dangerousness of offenses under the ACCA residual clause. For the unfamiliar, we have traditionally recorded crime data in the U.S. via the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), which primarily record aggregate-level information on the prevalence of eight major criminal offenses—homicide, aggravated assault, rape, burglary, larceny, arson, and auto-theft. With the exception of homicides, these UCR records little to no details about the circumstances surrounding each offense. Recently, though, the FBI has begun collecting additional crime data through the database known as NIBRS. This system requests information from local law enforcement agencies on 46 different offense categories. NIBRS also groups together criminal offenses into incident-level data. This means that if an offender commits two different offenses as part of a single criminal incident, NIBRS groups these two offenses together for data analysis purposes. For example, suppose that an offender commits an assault in the course of committing a burglary. Traditionally, the UCR would register that event as two separate criminal events. By contrast, NIBRS groups together these two criminal offenses into a single incident. Police agencies that use NIBRS also report information on the circumstances of each criminal incident, including whether the incident resulted in any physical injuries to victims.
Of course NIBRS is not perfect. The NIBRS database is not perfectly representative of the United States. Although NIBRS greatly expands on the number of offense categories traditionally used in the UCR, it still cannot capture every single offense category. Nevertheless, NIBRS represents perhaps the best statistical resource available for measuring the “potential risk of injury” associated with felony offenses. For one thing, NIBRS represents the largest and most comprehensive database on injuries associated with criminal offenses. In addition, because NIBRS groups together multiple offenses into incidents, it allows researchers to measure more accurately the risk associated with criminal offenses. And NIBRS allows the Court to compare the dangerousness of different felony offenses accurately because it uses a consistent methodology across reporting jurisdictions.
So how do weapons law violations stack up compared to the explicitly enumerated felonies listed in the ACCA? In a previous study, Evan Lee, Lynn Addington, and I found that weapons law violations like possession of a short-barreled shotgun were more frequently associated with injuries than burglaries, arsons, or extortions. 5.36 percent of incidents involving weapons law violations in 2010 led to some type of physical injury to a victim, compared to just 4.41 percent of extortions, 1.11 percent of arsons, and 1.02 percent of burglaries.
Of course, these sorts of statistics alone cannot resolve the question before the Court. But we argue that this data cuts in favor of including weapons law violations under the ACCA residual clause.
"The Future of Juvenile Appeals in the United States"
The title of this post is the title of this new paper by my OSU colleague Katherine Hunt Federle now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Appellate review of delinquency adjudications is necessary to protect the rights of juvenile defendants and preserve the integrity of the juvenile process. Review is no less important than in adult criminal courts, where the reversal rate on appeals is high enough to suggest that “depriving defendants of their right to appeal would expose them to an unacceptable risk of erroneous conviction.”
Unfortunately, juveniles often fail to exercise this essential right because they are discouraged to do so by courts, denied access to the tools necessary to appeal, or lack the sophistication or means to file appeals. Moreover, because of strict time limits for filing, appellate rights expire. These time frames, which impose an unnecessary and unfair bar to effective review, are inconsistent with protections afforded juveniles in non-delinquency matters. Tolling the time within which to file an appeal during minority, however, may ensure greater (and necessary) access to the appellate courts.
Thursday, October 02, 2014
"Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Before Powell v. Alabama: Lessons from History for the Future of the Right to Counsel"
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing looking article authored by Sara Mayeux now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The doctrinal literature on ineffective assistance of counsel typically begins with the 1932 Supreme Court case of Powell v. Alabama. This symposium contribution goes back farther, locating the IAC doctrine’s origins in a series of state cases from the 1880s through the 1920s. At common law, the traditional agency rule held that counsel incompetence was never grounds for a new trial. Between the 1880s and the 1920s, state appellate judges chipped away at that rule, developing a more flexible doctrine that allowed appellate courts to reverse criminal convictions in cases where, because of egregious attorney ineptitude, there was reason to think the verdict might have been different with a competent lawyer.
In 1932, the Supreme Court drew upon this line of state cases when it ratified the emerging doctrine in Powell. The persistence of similar complaints of unfair trials across very different time periods, and despite much ostensible doctrinal change, suggests that the inequities of the American criminal justice system are structurally embedded in the adversary process more than they are a function of the specifics of the current iteration of right-to-counsel doctrine. As such, this history lends support to arguments for criminal justice reform that emphasize the need for systemic legislative and policy change rather than merely doctrinal tinkering.
SCOTUS grants cert on lots of new cases, with only two on criminal procedure and one on prisoner suits
The Supreme Court this morning released this list of order, which includes orders granting certiorari review in ten new cases. A quick scan of the list does not reveal any notable sentencing cases and only two criminal law cases: Ohio v. Clark, which seems to involve a Confrontation Clause issue; Rodriguez V. US, which seems to involve a Fourth Amendment traffic stop matter. In addition, Coleman v. Tollefson was granted concerning a prisoner's ability to bring a civil suit against correction officials.
I am quite bummed that this order list suggests the Justices are not interested in any sentencing issues raised in the long conference. It is possible that SCOTUS may "relist" rather than outright deny some sentencing petitions I have been following concerning issued like acquitted conduct guideline enhancement and/or Miller retroactivity. But after a period of years in the aftermath of Blakely and Booker, when we could expect a number of major sentencing rulings almost every Term, it lately seems like the Justices are actively trying to avoid taking up any major sentencing cases. Oh well.
Wednesday, October 01, 2014
Peculiar (judicial?) screed against evidence-based sentencing "fad" based on the "need to be realistic"?!!?
I have long been intrigued and generally impressed by the writings and work of Colorado state judge Morris Hoffman. However, this new USA Today commentary by Judge Hoffman, headlined "Emptying prisons is no panacea: Deterring others matters as much as rehabilitation," has me scratching my head about what prompted a thoughtful judge to produce a peculiar screed against evidence-based sentencing. At the risk of making this post much too long, I will reprint the whole commentary before explaining why it made my head hurt this morning:
Just days before Attorney General Eric Holder announced his resignation, the Department of Justice announced one of his signature achievements. After growing for decades, the federal prison population has started to decline. The new data were greeted with wide acclaim, but before we embrace the idea that fewer prisoners is always good, let's step back and consider whether at least one of the drivers of our declining prison population is a good idea.
Like all humans, judges are susceptible to fads. Anger management became a popular feature of American probationary sentences in the 1980s. Teen courts and drug courts followed. The new fad is "evidence-based sentencing." It is both a refreshing attempt at rationality and a dangerous rejection of human nature.
Evidence-based sentencing purports to redirect judges' attention from old-fashioned retribution to enlightened deterrence and rehabilitation. Judges across the country are attending innumerable evidence-based sentencing conferences that focus on how incarceration affects recidivism rates. The claim is that incarceration costs much more than its deterrent benefits. Judges should think twice before throwing away the key.
We don't need conferences to make that point. One of the hidden truths of criminal justice is that most judges, including me, give criminals chance after chance before we sentence them to prison. There are exceptions, such as serious violent crimes and drug crimes that carry mandatory prison sentences. But, for the most part, defendants have to really work hard to land in prison.
We should applaud efforts to put data over gut instinct when trying to predict the future behaviors of our defendants. But we also need to be realistic. There's a reason science stinks at predicting individual behavior. An almost infinite number of bits of data contribute to human decision-making, including the billions of base pairs in our DNA and a lifetime of brain-changing individual experiences, among other things. Not to mention that unscientific interloper: free will.
There is a much more serious problem with evidence-based sentencing. It ignores the most important reason we punish wrongdoers. When I sentence a bank robber to prison, the idea is not just to deter him from robbing again ("specific deterrence"). I also want to deter other people who might be considering robbing a bank ("general deterrence").
General deterrence is what makes us a civilized society. It is the glue that holds us together under the rule of law. It is so deeply engrained, every human society that has left a record shows evidence it punished its wrongdoers. Indeed, our tendency to punish wrongdoers is most likely an evolved trait, which we needed in order to keep our intensely social small groups from unravelling in selfishness. By focusing on specific deterrence, evidence-based sentencing mavens ignore 5,000 years of civilized wisdom and 200,000 years of human evolution.
They seem to recognize this failing, but only half-heartedly. They tend to downplay crimes such as rape and murder to focus on low-harm crimes. But burglary and theft tear the social fabric more broadly simply because they are more frequent. Indeed, low-harm crimes are often crimes of cold economic predation rather than hot emotion. For them, deterrence can be more effective. Giving thieves and burglars a stern lecture and probation, just because some social scientists tell us prison doesn't rehabilitate them, is a surefire way to increase thefts and burglaries.
Those of us fortunate enough to live in civilized societies owe that civilization to the rule of law, which means nothing without the bite of punishment. Punishment must be merciful, but it should not be abandoned to misguided claims that it does not deter.
Candidly, this commentary has so many disconnected and illogical assertions, I have too many criticisms to fit into this blog space. But I can start by highlighting how curious it is that the AG's discussion of the reduction in the federal prison population, brought about largely through changes in federal drug sentencing policies and practices, leads to a state judge worrying we risk not punishing "thieves and burglars" enough to achieve general deterrence. Moreover, AG Holder was bragging last week that in recent years we have lowered prison populations AND lowered crime rates. What evidence-based sentencing seeks to do is find ways to better achieve both specific and general deterrence without continue to rely so heavily on the very costly and too-often-ineffective punishment of imprisonment.
More fundamentally, what really troubled me about Judge Hoffman's analysis is his misguided and harmful perspectives (1) that focused attention to data and evidence about imprisonment's impact on crime is a "fad," and (2) that only lengthy terms of incarceration constitute "real" punishment that can deter. On the first point, I wonder if Judge Hoffman urges his doctors not to be caught up in the "fad" of practicing "evidence-based" medicine. After all, given that "almost infinite number of bits of data contribute" to human health (not to mention that "unscientific interloper, free will"), perhaps Judge Hoffman encourages his doctors to be "realistic" that he is going to die eventually anyway. Indeed, perhaps we ought to be suspect about all efforts to improve and extend human life by "evidence-based [medicine] mavens [who] ignore 5,000 years of civilized wisdom and 200,000 years of human evolution" which shows we all end up dead anyway.
Truth be told, what is truly a "fad" in light of "5,000 years of civilized wisdom and 200,000 years of human evolution" is the extreme use of extreme terms of imprisonment that has come to define the modern American experience with punishment. Brutal physical punishments and public shaming punishment have been the norm and the means use to deter crime in most other societies throughout human history (and in the US until fairly recently). Moreover, all serious social and scientific research on human behavior has demonstrated that the swiftness and certainty of punishment, not its severity, is critical to achieving both specific and general deterrence. That is one (of many) reasons evidence-based sentencing makes long-terms of imprisonment look a lot less effective, at least relative to its high costs, than various other possible punishments.
I could go on and on, but I will conclude by encouraging everyone to appreciate that evidence-based reforms in lots of settings often provoke these kinds of old-world reactions: typically, folks who benefit from or prefer an old-world "faithful" view about how they think the world works will be eager to question and seek to discredit reformers who suggest science and data provides a new perspective that requires significant reform and changes to the status quo. And though I always hope to show respect for old-world "faithful" perspectives, I get worked up by attacks on evidence-based reforms because I am ultimately much more a creature of science than a creature of faith.