Monday, June 22, 2015

Interesting statement from Justice Sotomayor on Fifth Circuit approach to plain-error sentencing review

As noted in this post today (and this prior post from last week) about recent SCOTUS activity, sentencing fans like me eagerly awaiting big Supreme Court rulings in the Johnson Armed Career Criminal Act case and the Glossip lethal execution drug case have to keep waiting at least a few more days for a decision.  But, truly hard-core sentencing fans got a smidgen of unexpected love from Justice Sonia Sotomayor through this brief statement in Carlton v. US concerning how the Fifth Circuit applies plain-error review.  Here are excerpts which provide the context:

The District Court enhanced petitioner Roy Carlton’s sentence based on a factual inaccuracy introduced into the sentencing record by the Government.  The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit refused to review Carlton’s appellate challenge to the enhancement, relying on Circuit precedent holding that factual errors are never cognizable on plain-error review.  For the reasons that follow, I believe the Fifth Circuit’s precedent is misguided....

The doctrine of plain error follows from the recognition that a “rigid and undeviating judicially declared practice under which courts of review would invariably and under all circumstances decline to consider all questions which had not previously been specifically urged would be out of harmony with . . . the rules of fundamental justice.” United States v. Olano, 507 U.S. 725, 732 (1993) (internal quotation marks omitted). And in all the years since the doctrine arose, we have never suggested that plain-error review should apply differently depending on whether a mistake is characterized as one of fact or one of law.  To the contrary, “[w]e have emphasized that a per se approach to plain-error review is flawed.”  Puckett v. United States, 556 U.S. 129, 142 (2009) (internal quotation marks omitted).  The Fifth Circuit’s wooden rule that factual mistakes cannot constitute plain error runs counter to these teachings....

Given its inconsistency with the governing text and longstanding precedent, it is little wonder that no other court of appeals has adopted the per se rule outlined by the Fifth Circuit in Lopez....  All agree the District Court improperly relied on testimony Anderson never gave.  But in the Fifth Circuit — and only the Fifth Circuit — that mistake cannot be reviewed and possibly corrected.  As a result, Carlton may spend several additional months in jail simply because he was sentenced in Alexandria, Louisiana, instead of Alexandria, Virginia.

For all these reasons, I conclude that Lopez’s categorical rule is unjustified. Nevertheless, I reluctantly agree with the Court’s decision to deny certiorari in this case.  The Solicitor General informs us that the Fifth Circuit is at times inconsistent in its adherence to Lopez.  When that sort of internal division exists, the ordinary course of action is to allow the court of appeals the first opportunity to resolve the disagreement. I hope the Fifth Circuit will use that opportunity to rethink its approach to plain-error review.

June 22, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Notable new study on 56 failed capital cases in North Carolina over past 25 years

CDPL-REPORT_-smaller-image-e1434556853262As detailed in this local article, headlined "Report: NC prosecutors sometimes push for death penalty in flimsy cases," a notable new report about capital prosecutions in the Tar Heel State was released this morning. Here are the basics:

Fending off a capital murder charge can cost falsely accused defendants money, jobs, homes and their health, according to a report released by the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

The center studied 56 cases from 1989 to 2015 in which the death penalty was threatened as a potential punishment, but the charges were either dropped or the person charged was acquitted at trial. The results suggest that prosecutors sometimes use the threat of the state's most severe penalty when their evidence is the weakest, said Gerda Stein, a spokeswoman for the center. "They believe they have the right person," Stein said. "The problem is, they don't have enough evidence."

The center's report suggests the death penalty is used to bully defendants into accepting plea deals or to extract confessions from witnesses.

North Carolina has not executed a criminal defendant since 2006 as lawsuits over the method of execution and the now-repealed Racial Justice Act have kept the state from moving forward. During that time, there have been high-profile exonerations of death row inmates, including the recently pardoned Leon Brown and his half-brother, Henry McCollum.

Less well known are cases like that of Leslie Lincoln, who was accused of her mother's 2002 murder. She was implicated in part by faulty DNA evidence. Ultimately, she was found not guilty at trial, but she struggled with the aftermath of spending three years in jail and another two years on house arrest. She lost her job, savings and home and suffered from anxiety and depression after the acquittal, according to the report....

The center distributed embargoed copies of its report last week. One of those who reviewed a copy was former Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, who says he does not oppose the death penalty but is troubled by its uneven application. "I think one of the points the report stresses is the leverage that comes with trying somebody and potentially pursuing the death penalty," Orr said. "It is sometimes the weakest cases, the ones where you don't have the strong evidence, that there seems to be an inclination to try to move forward with the death penalty."

The report doesn't suggest specific fixes to the issue. The center is one of a number of groups that has argued for the elimination of the death penalty altogether.

Orr said that, if the state is going to continue having capital punishment, it needs to do more to ensure a fair system. Both prosecutors and the defense attorneys for indigent defendants need better funding, he said, and he suggested the state ought to somehow centralize the decision on whether the death penalty is pursued, taking it out of the hands of prosecutors who might use the threat of capital punishment as tactical leverage. "That would make for a fairer, more even-handed, dispassionate decision-making process," he said.

The title of this new report is "On Trial for their Lives: The Hidden Costs of Wrongful Capital Prosecutions in North Carolina," and it can be accessed via this link.  That link also provides this summary of report's main findings about the 56 North Carolina cases it studied:

• The state spent nearly $2.4 million in defense costs alone to pursue these failed cases capitally.  Had the defendants been charged non-capitally, all that money could have been saved.  (This conservative figure does not take into account the additional prosecution and incarceration costs in capital cases.)

• Defendants who were wrongfully prosecuted spent an average of two years in jail before they were acquitted by juries or had their charges dismissed by prosecutors.

• The 56 defendants in the study spent a total of 112 years in jail, despite never being convicted of a crime.

• By the time they were cleared of wrongdoing, many defendants lost their homes, jobs, businesses, and savings accounts, and saw personal relationships destroyed.  They received no compensation after they were cleared of charges.

• Serious errors or misconduct played a role in many cases.  The 56 cases involved instances of witness coercion, hidden evidence, bungled investigations, the use of improper forensic evidence, and highly unreliable witnesses.

June 22, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

SCOTUS rules 5-4 against government in two criminal procedure cases

The Supreme Court, back in action this morning, issued two notable split decisions in favor of individuals asserting rights against local or state criminal justice powers.  Here is an abridged (slightly modified) account of the SCOTUSblog early coverage of these rulings (with links):

The opinion in Kingsley v. Hendrickson is here.

This case arises out of an incident in a Wisconsin jail. Kingsley was waiting for trial on a drug charge when he got into a dispute with jail officers, who handcuffed him, forcibly removed him from his cell, and later used a taser on him. Kingsley then filed a lawsuit, alleging that jail officials had used excessive force. The question before the Court was what standard of review should apply to an excessive force claim by a pretrial detainee.

The Court ruled in favor of Kingsley, holding that courts should apply an objective test – the same Fourth Amendment excessive force test that applies to people who have not been arrested.  Vote is 5-4.  Under Section 1983, a pretrial detainee must show only that the force purposely or knowingly used against him was objectively unreasonable to prevail on an excessive force claim.

Scalia dissents, joined by Chief and Thomas, and Alito dissents as well.

 

The opinion in Los Angeles v. Patel is here.

The question in this case was whether a Los Angeles ordinance that required hotel owners to keep registries of guests, and allowed officers to search them without any suspicion is unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment.  The Court the ordinance facially unconstitutional. Statute is facially unconstitutional because it fails to provide motel owners with an opportunity for pre-compliance review.

Sotomayor is writing. Decision of the Ninth Circuit is affirmed.  This is a strong decision for Fourth Amendment lovers.

June 22, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

"Justice Kennedy practically invites a challenge to solitary confinement"

The title of this post is the headline of this Los Angeles Times article which effectively reviews the remarkable (off-point) concurrence penned by Justice Kennedy in last week's SCOTUS ruling in a Davis v. Ayala.  Here are excerpts:

Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in an unusual separate opinion in a case, wrote that it may be time for judges to limit the use of long-term solitary confinement in prisons.  His comments accompanying a decision issued Thursday marked a rare instance of a Supreme Court justice virtually inviting a constitutional challenge to a prison policy.

“Years on end of near-total isolation exacts a terrible price,” he wrote.  He cited the writings of Charles Dickens and 19th century Supreme Court opinions that recognized “even for prisoners sentenced to death, solitary confinement bears ‘a further terror and a peculiar mark of infamy.’”

Sentencing judges and the high court have largely ignored the issue, Kennedy said, focusing their attention on questions of guilt or innocence or on the constitutionality of the death penalty.  “In a case that presented the issue, the judiciary may be required,” he wrote, “to determine whether workable alternative systems for long-term confinement exist, and, if so, whether a correctional system should be required to adopt them.”

Amy Fettig, an attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said Kennedy's comments came as a welcome surprise.  “It’s a remarkable statement.  The justice is sending a strong signal he is deeply concerned about the overuse and abuse of solitary confinement,” she said.

States such as Virginia and Texas routinely put death-row inmates in solitary confinement, she said.  “They are automatically placed there.  It has nothing to do with their being violent or their level of dangerousness,” she said.  This month, a federal judge in Virginia is weighing a “cruel and unusual punishment” claim brought by inmates on death row there, she noted.

Kennedy usually joins with the court’s conservatives in cases involving crime and punishment, but he has also voiced concern over prison policies that he deems unduly harsh. These include life terms for juveniles and long mandatory prison terms for nonviolent drug crimes. Four years ago, he spoke for a 5-4 majority that condemned overcrowding in California’s prisons and said it resulted in unconstitutionally cruel conditions....

Kennedy's comments drew a short, but sharp retort from Justice Clarence Thomas. “The accommodations in which Ayala is housed are a far sight more spacious than those in which his victims … now rest.  And, given that his victims were all 31 years or age or under, Ayala will soon have had as much or more time to enjoy those accommodations as his victims had time to enjoy this Earth,” Thomas wrote.

June 22, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Despite statutory repeal, capital defenders say they need to keep representing Nebraska condemned

Some of the challenging issues facing Nebraska lawyers in the aftermath of the state's legislative repeal of the death penalty are on display in this notable local article headlined "John Lotter's lawyers argue they must stay on case because death penalty issue isn't settled." Here are the details:

Legal arguments over Nebraska’s death penalty repeal have quickly emerged in a federal court case involving one of the state’s death row inmates.  Two Kansas City attorneys argued this week that John Lotter’s death sentence was negated by the Nebraska Legislature’s May 27 repeal of capital punishment.

But lawyers Rebecca Woodman and Carol Camp said their client remains under threat of execution while a referendum petition drive attempts to overturn the repeal law and Gov. Pete Ricketts pushes for the lethal injections of Lotter and the nine other men on death row.  For that reason, the attorneys asked to remain assigned to Lotter’s case.

“Although Mr. Lotter asserts that the U.S. and Nebraska Constitutions would bar his execution even if the governor and his group were able to repeal the repeal, it is clear the governor will keep attempting to execute him until the courts definitively say he may not. That moment has not yet arrived,” the attorneys stated in a court brief filed in U.S. District Court in Lincoln.

In response, Assistant Nebraska Attorney General James Smith argued that only the Nebraska Board of Pardons has the authority to commute a death sentence under the state’s Constitution. Smith contended lawmakers passed flawed legislation by including intent language that says the repeal should apply to the existing death row inmates. “If the act was an unconstitutional power grab by the Nebraska Legislature, Lotter’s final death sentence remains in effect,” Smith said in his brief....

Lotter, 44, has spent 19 years on death row for a New Year’s Eve 1993 triple homicide near Humboldt. One of the victims was targeted for being transgender, which inspired the film “Boys Don’t Cry.” Lotter lost his previous appeals before state and federal courts. That makes him and Carey Dean Moore — convicted of killing two Omaha cab drivers in 1979 — the top candidates for execution depending on what happens with the repeal law.

As of now, however, Nebraska lacks the means to carry out an execution. Two of the three drugs required in the state’s lethal injection protocol have expired, and federal officials have said they will block the state’s attempt to import at least one of the drugs.

Woodman and Camp, who work with the Death Penalty Litigation Clinic, pointed out that no other state has executed an inmate after repealing the death penalty. To do so “would represent the sort of random, arbitrary, purposeless extinction of human life that the Eighth Amendment forbids,” they said in their brief. The two have asked U.S. District Senior Judge Richard Kopf to allow them to continue to represent Lotter while the status of the death penalty remains uncertain. They indicated Lotter has been pursuing constitutional claims never before litigated that would invalidate his death sentence.

June 20, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, June 19, 2015

Split Eleventh Circuit panel discusses reasonableness review at great length

More than a full decade after the Supreme Court's Booker decision, federal circuit courts and judges continue to struggle with their post-Booker responsibility to review sentences for reasonableness.  That struggle is on full display today in the lengthy Eleventh Circuit panel ruling in US v. Rosales-Bruno, No. 12-15089 (11th Cir. June 19, 2015) (available here). The start of Chief Judge Carnes' opinion for the Court provide a crisp outline of the "sole issue" before the appellate court:

This is the second appeal to come before us involving a sentence imposed on Jesus Rosales-Bruno because of his conviction for illegally reentering the United States in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1326.  In the first appeal we vacated his original sentence after concluding the district court had erred in finding that his prior Florida conviction for false imprisonment qualified as a “crime of violence” conviction for enhancement purposes under United States Sentencing Guidelines § 2L1.2(b)(1)(A)(ii). United States v. Rosales-Bruno, 676 F.3d 1017, 1024 (11th Cir. 2012) (Rosales-Bruno I).  That error had increased Rosales-Bruno’s advisory sentencing guidelines range to 70 to 87 months, and the district court had sentenced him to 87 months imprisonment.

On remand, the district court recalculated Rosales-Bruno’s advisory guidelines range without the crime of violence enhancement, which lowered it to 21 to 27 months imprisonment.  After considering the sentencing factors in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), however, the court varied upward from the guidelines range, again imposing an 87-month prison term.  That sentence was 60 months above the high end of Rosales-Bruno’s revised guidelines range but 33 months below the statutory maximum of 120 months imprisonment.  The sole issue in this appeal is whether that sentence is substantively unreasonable.

Chief Judge Carnes thereafter has a 50-page explanation for why he thinks the sentence is substantively reasonable.  In turn, Judge Wilson need 40 additional pages to provide a contrary view on the reasonableness of this sentence.  The dissent starts this way:

For illegally reentering the United States, a crime with no statutory minimum and a base Guidelines range of 0–6 months, Rosales-Bruno was sentenced to more than 7 years in prison. In imposing this sentence, the district court more than tripled the upper end of the applicable Guidelines range.  The justifications supporting this major variance are insufficient, and this sentence — the product of a clear error in judgment — is “greater than necessary[] to comply with the purposes set forth” in 18 U.S.C. § 3553.  See United States v. Irey, 612 F.3d 1160, 1187, 1189 (11th Cir. 2010) (en banc). Therefore, I dissent.

June 19, 2015 in Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Criminal law geek overload as SCOTUS clears most (but not most consequential) of its criminal docket

As the posts preceding this one reveals, the US Supreme Court this morning largely ruined my plans to spend much of the next 80 hours obssessing over one of my favorite summer sporting events.  They did so by handing down four "meaty" criminal law opinions, all of which appears to include an array of doctrinal and dicta nuances that likley will prove to be blogworthy in the days ahead.  I will collect here all the prior posts (which have links to the opinions) in order to help those keeping score to see that criminal defendants prevailed in two cases and lost in two cases:

From a way-too-quick assessment of these rulings, I sense that Clark is the biggest deal both as a matter of constitutional jurisprudence and as a matter of day-to-day criminal trial practice. But, because the Confrontation Clause has generally been deemed inapplicable in sentencing proceedings, hard-core sentencing fans might find a lot more of interest in the other rulings.

Also noteworthy, as the title of this post highlights, still outstanding from the Justices are the two cases I have been following most closely this term: Glossip concerning execution protocols and Johnson concerning the constitutionality and application of the federal Armed Career Criminal Act. I have long assumed and expect that we would not get a ruling in Glossip until the very end of the month, and I now am thinking there is a good chance we might get Johnson as early as next week.

June 18, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

SCOTUS rules 5-4 for state capital defendant in Brumfield v. Cain, and 5-4 against state capital defendant in Davis v. Ayala

The US Supreme Court has just handed down its opinion in the state capital case of Brumfield v. Cain, No. 13-1433 (S. Ct. June 18, 2015) (available here). Justice Sotomayor wrote the opinion for the Court, which divided 5-4 on the case.  The Court's opinion begins this way:

In Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), this Court recognized that the execution of the intellectually disabled contravenes the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.  After Atkins was decided, petitioner, a Louisiana death-row inmate, requested an opportunity to prove he was intellectually disabled in state court. Without affording him an evidentiary hearing or granting him time or funding to secure expert evidence, the state court rejected petitioner’s claim. That decision, we hold, was “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” 28 U.S.C. §2254(d)(2). Petitioner was therefore entitled to have his Atkins claim considered on the merits in federal court.

Justice Thomas authored a lengthy dissent which ends with a picture and starts this way:

Federal collateral review of state convictions interrupts the enforcement of state criminal laws and undermines the finality of state-court judgments. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) addresses that interference by constraining the ability of federal courts to grant relief to state prisoners. Today, the Court oversteps those limits in a decision that fails to respect the Louisiana state courts and our precedents.  I respectfully dissent.

------

Just a few minutes later, the US Supreme Court handed down its opinion in the state capital case of Davis v. Ayala, No. 13-1428 (S. Ct. June 18, 2015) (available here). Justice Alito wrote the opinion for the Court, which divided 5-4 on the case. The Court's opinion begins this way:

A quarter-century after a California jury convicted Hector Ayala of triple murder and sentenced him to death, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granted Ayala’s application for a writ of habeas corpus and ordered the State to retry or release him. The Ninth Circuit’s decision was based on the procedure used by the trial judge in ruling on Ayala’s objections under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), to some of the prosecution’s peremptory challenges of prospective jurors. The trial judge allowed the prosecutor to explain the basis for those strikes outside the presence of the defense so as not to disclose trial strategy.  On direct appeal, the California Supreme Court found that if this procedure violated any federal constitutional right, the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.  The Ninth Circuit, however, held that the error was harmful.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision was based on the misapplication of basic rules regarding harmless error.  Assuming without deciding that a federal constitutional error occurred, the error was harmless under Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619 (1993), and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), 28 U. S. C. §2254(d).

Justices Kennedy and Thomas wrote interesting off-topic concurrences, which I will discuss in a separate post. More on point is the chief dissent in Ayala authored by Justice Sotomayor, which starts this way:

At Hector Ayala’s trial, the prosecution exercised its peremptory strikes to dismiss all seven of the potential black and Hispanic jurors. In his federal habeas petition, Ayala challenged the state trial court’s failure to permit his attorneys to participate in hearings regarding the legitimacy of the prosecution’s alleged race-neutral reasons for its strikes. See Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 97–98 (1986). The Court assumes that defense counsel’s exclusion from these proceedings violated Ayala’s constitutional rights, but concludes that the Ninth Circuit erred in granting habeas relief because there is insufficient reason to believe that counsel could have convinced the trial court to reject the prosecution’s proffered reasons. I respectfully dissent. Given the strength of Ayala’s prima facie case and the comparative juror analysis his attorneys could have developed if given the opportunity to do so, little doubt exists that counsel’s exclusion from Ayala’s Batson hearings substantially influenced the outcome.

June 18, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Federal district judge declares unconstitutional Minnesota sex offender civil commitment program

As reported in this AP piece, today brought a big (but not entirely unexpected) federal court ruling concerning constitutional challenges to Minnesota's civil commitment program for sex offenders. Here are the basics:

A federal judge has ruled that Minnesota's sex offender treatment program is unconstitutional, but has deferred any immediate action to await further proceedings on a remedy.  U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank largely sided with the more than 700 residents who were civilly committed to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program after they completed their prison sentences.

Their lawyers argued during a nearly six-week bench trial in February and March that the program is unconstitutional because nobody has ever been fully discharged from it, even those thought to be at low risk of committing new crimes. The state says it has improved the program, including moving more patients through treatment and perhaps toward provisional release.

Frank is calling on Minnesota government's top leaders to personally appear in court to help come up with an alternative structure to a sex offender confinement program. Frank listed Gov. Mark Dayton, House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk among those he wants to take part in a remedies phase that will start on Aug. 10. Frank says stakeholders must fashion a suitable remedy to avoid having the entire program be eliminated and resulting in the release of civilly committed offenders currently in secure facilities.

In Wednesday's ruling, the judge lays out more than a dozen conditions for a restructured program, including that less-restrictive alternatives be implemented and new evaluation and discharge procedures be developed. Throughout his 76-page ruling, Frank says elected officials have been reluctant to modify the indefinite confinement of more than 700 sex offenders out of political fear. But Frank says "politics or political pressures cannot trump the fundamental rights" of those in the program. He stressed that the U.S. Constitution "protects individual rights even when they are unpopular."

Gov. Mark Dayton says there won't be immediate changes to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program in response to a federal judge's ruling that it's unconstitutional. In a statement that was released Dayton said, "We will work with the Attorney General to defend Minnesota's law."

Dan Gustafson, the attorney who brought the class action suit on behalf of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program clients said he is not surprised by the judge's ruling. He said that he advised his clients to be patient because the remedies will take time to create and not all of the clients will be getting out.

The full 76-page ruling, in a case that still clearly is nowhere close to finished, is now available at this link.

June 17, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

"The Death Penalty Is Cruel. But So Is Life Without Parole."

Download (4)The title of this post is the headline of this notable new New Republic commentary by Stephen Lurie.  Here are excerpts of a piece that echoes my oft-stated and enduring concern that LWOP punishments should garner a lot more attention from the anti-death penalty crowd:

Prison cells don’t attract many spectators, but executions have always drawn crowds. Paradoxically, the names and identities of death row inmates only come to matter when their execution had been scheduled: from impending death we take a sudden interest in life.

Despite the incongruity, this isn’t all that surprising. Twenty-first century America is still susceptible to the time-honored spectacle of state-sanctioned death, even if much of the attention now scrutinizes, rather than cheers, the practice. Recently, there have been many stories typical of the current fascination with American capital punishment, most notably Ben Crair’s piece in this magazine and Jeffrey Stern’s in The Atlantic. Like other recent examinations of the death penalty, both accounts focus specifically on the act of execution by lethal injection; each covers botched executions and the question of cruel and unusual punishment in the death chamber itself....

For Stern and Crair, as well as many human rights-minded activists and advocates, the death chamber is a potent and useful example of inhumanity. Other, newer abolitionists—like the legislators in Nebraska that voted to abolish the death penalty there last month—focus on the act of execution as well. While the death chamber is itself horrific, abolitionists would be remiss to ignore the more common punishment: the immense cruelty of a prisoner’s long wait for execution. The “death row phenomenon” and associated prison conditions cause significant psychological and physical harm; a so-called “death before dying” is both internationally condemned and domestically pervasive. If the end to capital punishment in the U.S. is based on concern for human beings — whether in a religious or moral sense — the reform movement must be concerned with the prison conditions left when death is not on the table.

Executions of any kind are exceedingly rare, so much so that death row itself appears to be the real punishment for the vast majority of inmates. There are just over 3,000 people awaiting execution in United States prisons. In 2013, the latest year for which the Bureau of Justice Statistics has data, there were 39 executions. That is just more than the 31 inmates who died before their scheduled executions; it is just less than the 44 death row convictions or sentences overturned that year....

Because solitary confinement is the de facto housing for American death row convicts, and because excruciating delays are par for the course, international observers have considered U.S. capital punishment inhumane enough to delegitimize its practice entirely. In his report to the UN General Assembly in 2012, Juan Méndez (the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or Punishment) suggested that the realities of imperfect executions and death row conditions almost unavoidably run afoul of the international prohibition against human mistreatment. “Solitary confinement, in combination with the foreknowledge of death and the uncertainty of whether or when an execution is to take place, contributes to the risk of serious and irreparable mental and physical harm and suffering to the inmate,” Méndez writes. “Solitary confinement used on death row is by definition prolonged and indefinite and thus constitutes cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment or even torture.”...

Nearly every prisoner faces an abrogation of his or her 8th Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment; only a small few face the added cruelty and indignity of a botched execution. What about the pain of a cramped concrete cell, of shackling and restraints, attempts at self-harm, inedible food, existential fear, depression, and deprivation of any human contact? If there is concern is over fair treatment of human beings sentenced to death, it’s unwise, from a strategic standpoint, to continue ignoring the majority of their lives. Campaigns based on claims of cruel and unusual treatment would not rely on staying the execution of a single individual, but rest on the indefinite torture of thousands. That would be powerful.

Moreover, the instances of death penalty abolition that do not consider the background conditions for capital punishment invariably leave immense cruelty in its place. Nebraska’s legislation is typical in this regard: All death sentences become sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (LWOP). The de facto alternative for states that abolish the death penalty, LWOP actually retains many of the worst conditions of confinement described above, as well as still effectively sentencing the prisoner to death. It is in almost every way a death row, and as such is also an internationally condemned practice.

It’s for this reason that some, like Andrew Dilts, an assistant professor of political theory at Loyola Marymount University, refer to current forms of death penalty abolition as “death penalty replacement,” the same result but with the added effect that prisoners lose even more legal protections. As Dilts writes in the new volume Death and Other Penalties: Philosophy in a Time of Mass Incarceration, these alternative sentences appease the “almost fetishistic levels” of concern over execution while it “effectively deflects attention away from the moment of death, even though death is necessarily a part of the sentence.” In addition, whereas “the Court requires strict review of offender qualifications, strict procedural guidelines, extended appeals processes, and additional standards of heightened scrutiny…the same procedural and substantive protections are simply not applied” to life sentences. The result, ultimately, is simply a “dramatic reduction of appellate rights” for inmates that are still condemned to die; it’s a slower death with even less of a chance for redemption. While the conversion of these sentences might lessen some of the specific psychological traumas related to the death row phenomenon, it does not address the expected use of solitary confinement or other inhumane treatment. There is nothing in an execution-focused narrative that would lead to the transformation of these conditions: It might, rather, cement them as appropriate penal policy.

June 16, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, June 15, 2015

Perspectives on Clemency Project 2014 from federal prisoners and an advocate for them

Regular readers know I have given lots of space recently to coverage and criticism of federal clemency efforts.  I am pleased to continue now with a guest post via Beth Curtis, a prisoner advocate who runs the website Life for Pot.  Beth sent this extended commentary my way under the heading "Inspired by the Dialogue between Margaret Colgate Love here and Mark Osler here on Douglas Berman’s Blog Sentencing Law and Policy":

At the launch of Clemency Project 2014 [CP-14], Craig Cesal, a non-violent marijuana offender on the Life for Pot site and his cell mate Samuel Edmonson a non-violent cocaine offender were both talking about and working on petitions for commutation.  Both Craig and Samuel had sentences of life without parole and had nothing to lose.

The two cell mates had a discussion about whether or not they should file their own petitions just in case there were going to be commutations before attorneys from The Clemency Project 2014 could prepare one for them.  Craig argued that the project had said there was no reason for filing on your own, as the criteria was different and it would probably have to be done again.  Samuel on the other hand decided that he should be sure he had a petition in the Pardon Attorney’s office and in February of 2014, he filed a brief petition for commutation that he did himself.

Very early in the process both of these offenders were assigned pro bono attorneys from the same law firm.  Samuel and Craig had initial contacts with their pro bono attorneys, but after that contact they were not contacted again and did not know if any work was being done.  

In March of 2015 Samuel received a commutation for his life sentence from President Barack Obama based on the petition he filed himself.

We were interested in this because there were only three life for pot inmates that we knew of who had been assigned pro bono attorneys and they only had initial contacts.  We contacted inmates and suggested that they begin preparing their own Clemency Petitions and file them, we don’t know if CP-14 will be able to overcome the cumbersome procedure.

In March of 2015 Larry Duke, a 68 year old non-violent marijuana offender with a sentence of life without parole was released.  Larry’s immediate release was pursuant to 18 USC 3582(c)(1)(A)(i).  The “extraordinary and compelling reasons” for the release was Larry’s status as an elderly inmate.  Although Larry is over 65 he is also the healthiest of those on the Life for Pot site.  Larry had a contact from a pro bono attorney through Clemency Project 2014.  We called his attorney who did not know he had been released.

We started getting questions about the process for Reduction in Sentence [RIS] from non-violent marijuana offenders.  They wanted to know if they should file for sentencing relief even though they had filled out a survey to request an attorney through Clemency Project 2014.

These are not legal questions, but questions about procedure and we sought answers from an attorney with CP–14.  It was their considered opinion that the elder inmates should not file for RIS until CP–14 had completed the process as clemency might be held up until the (CR/RIS) was resolved.

Inmates found that BOP facilities were not aware of the elderly, over the age of 65, criteria for applying for RIS.  This remedy has seldom been used and “extraordinary and compelling reasons” were interpreted by the BOP as being almost lifeless chained to a hospital bed.

How much hope should we have for this process?  Was Larry Duke’s release singular, or will this be the beginning of an accelerated process?  We would like to know.

The hope and promise of Clemency Project 2014 is like a breath of air for these nonviolent inmates who will be behind bars till they die if no one exercises compassion, mercy and justice.  We’re listening carefully to the dialogue between Mark Osler and Margaret Love about the hope and promise for relief.

We are in the 18th month since the launch of the project and yet only two inmates have been released through this apparently clogged tunnel to freedom.  Much has been written in support of clemency and its use to address serious facility overcrowding and sentencing disparity.  Information about progress is scant and prisoners, their families and advocates worry about the progress and the will of the Administration.

Lately these public discussions by well-known clemency advocates pondering the most effective way to deal with the over incarceration gives us hope.  Margaret Colgate Love and Mark Osler’s point counter point about it on the blog Sentencing Law and Policy by Douglas Berman gave us insight. I believe these discussions are helpful but not a substitute for more transparency and concrete information given to the inmates, their families and advocates about procedure and progress.  We need to respect these vulnerable non-violent citizens.

It would be an insensitive travesty if this program that was announced with such fanfare and gave such hope to thousands of inmates, their family and friends and advocacy groups did not fulfill the promise of compassion and mercy.  These non-violent incarcerated people are accustomed to broken promises, but this one can be easily fulfilled by a bold administration with the courage of their stated convictions.  For years, nonviolent inmate advocates have felt that bi-partisan support would be the key to this realignment of positions and lead to fiscal responsibility and compassion.  Bipartisan support has arrived and we have the promise, it just needs to be fulfilled.

Some prior related posts:

June 15, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (9)

Sunday, June 14, 2015

"Will Nebraska’s Death Penalty Come Back?"

The title of this post is the headline of this new New York Times editorial. The substance of the editorial makes clear that the NYTimes' answer to the question is "We sure hope not!". Here are excerpts:

In a sensible, humane move last month, Nebraska lawmakers abolished the state’s death penalty by a 30­to­19 vote that crossed party lines and overrode a veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts. These lawmakers aren’t renegades; an April poll by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska found that 58 percent of Nebraskans supported alternatives to the death penalty, like life without parole.

Now comes the counterattack. A new group called Nebraskans for the Death Penalty has started a petition drive, supported by Mr. Ricketts, to put the issue directly before voters in 2016. Last week, they got the support of the Nebraska Sheriffs’ Association, which claimed, as Mr. Ricketts has, that public safety depends on the state’s ability to kill certain inmates.

To put the proposed referendum on the ballot, death penalty supporters have about three months to get signatures from 5 percent of registered voters, or about 58,000 Nebraskans. If they can get 10 percent, state law will put the ban on hold until the voters have a chance to weigh in. Whether the effort succeeds will depend in large part on how much money death penalty supporters can muster; paying people to go door to door asking tens of thousands of voters for their signatures doesn’t come cheap. In addition to supporting the referendum, Mr. Ricketts is insisting that he still has the legal authority to execute the 10 people remaining on Nebraska’s death row, on the grounds that the Legislature cannot alter an existing sentence. Lawmakers, however, say they have eliminated all executions. Whatever the courts may decide on this question, it remains unclear whether the state even has the means to carry out these killings....

[T]he votes of the Nebraska Legislature show that when lawmakers across the political spectrum can have an open, honest and informed debate on the issue, capital punishment is quickly exposed for the immoral, ineffective, arbitrary and costly practice that it is.

Prior related posts:

June 14, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Saturday, June 13, 2015

How many hundreds (or thousands?) of ACCA prisoners could be impacted by a big ruling in Johnson?

The Supreme Court Term is winding down, and we might get a ruling as early as this coming wee in the (re)argued case Johnson v. US concerning the (un)constitutionality of the Armed Career Criminal Act.  As federal sentencing fans should know, there seem to be a real chance that Justice Scalia will convince enough of his colleagues to strike down ACCA as unconstitutionally vague.

Helpfully, Leah Litman has already authored an article, "Residual Impact: Resentencing Implications of Johnson v. United States’ Potential Ruling on ACCA’s Constitutionality", about some of the legal issues that might follow from a big constitutional ruling in Johnson.  But the question in the title of this post is focused on the practical question of just how many current federal prisoners serving ACCA sentences of 15 or more years could seek to benefit from ACCA.  

This helpful new "Quick Facts" report from the US Sentencing Commission indicates that in Fiscal Year 2014 roughly 10% of 5,500 federal firearm offenders were sentenced under ACCA to an average sentence of 188 months in prison.  Assuming that these numbers are typical for firearm sentencing in each of the last dozen years, we can then extrapolate to estimate that there may be as many as 7,000 current federal prisoners serving ACCA sentencing term.

Critically, though, even if the Supreme Court were to declare ACCA's residual clause unconstitutionally vague, that ruling alone would not necessarily impact all (or perhaps even most) of current ACCA prisoners.  Sentencing judges in many (maybe most) cases sentenced under ACCA likely did not rely on the residual clause of the statute to find enough triggering prior offenses to require the application of the severe ACCA sentence.  Among the uncertainties which could flow from a big ACCA ruling in Johnson  is whether other parts of the ACCA statute and prior convictions based on other parts of the ACCA statute are still valid if one ACCA clause is struck down as unconstitutionally vague.

Some related prior posts:

June 13, 2015 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, June 12, 2015

Canvassing the "most likely outcomes" of the SCOTUS case on death penalty drugs

Though I think we are still a few weeks away from getting a ruling (and multiple?) opinions in the SCOTUS case (Glossip v. Gross) considering Oklahoma's lethal injection history and plans, it is certainly not too early to begin speculating about what that Court might end up doing in the case.  Helpfully, this extended new Vox article, headlined "The most likely outcomes of the Supreme Court's death penalty ruling," provides a great overview of what we might expect from the ruling. Here are excerpts, along with six possibilities for Glossip's outcome:

The Supreme Court is considering a legal challenge to Oklahoma's use of lethal injection this month — but chances are the effects of a ruling will be quite limited.

The case follows several botched executions in the past couple of years, particularly that of Clayton Lockett in April 2014.  Lockett's execution, in which experimental drugs were used because of a nationwide shortage of lethal injection drugs, took an excruciating 43 minutes.  It led Oklahoma inmates to file a lawsuit challenging the state's lethal injection protocol, eventually putting all executions in the state on hold once the Supreme Court accepted the challenge.

Specifically, the inmates are contesting the state's use of midazolam, a sedative used as part of a three-drug protocol to execute death row inmates.  Midazolam is supposed to put someone to sleep, allowing the painless application of other drugs that actually kill the inmate.  But Lockett appeared to groan and violently struggle during his execution, suggesting the first drug wasn't adequate — and may violate constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

Several death penalty experts and court watchers told Vox what they think the most likely outcomes of a Supreme Court ruling are. They largely rejected the possibility that the Court would make a sweeping decision against lethal injections or the death penalty in general, since most justices consider the death penalty constitutional.  They instead outlined six possibilities — most of which would have a very narrow effect, and would likely allow lethal injections to continue in the US.  Of course, it's entirely possible that the Court, which tends to be full of surprises, takes another approach, but these are the outcomes that seem most likely.

1) Oklahoma messed up, but midazolam isn't necessarily a problem....

2) Midazolam is constitutional....

3) Midazolam is unconstitutional....

4) Midazolam is unconstitutional as part of a three-drug protocol....

5) Inmates have not proven midazolam leads to cruel and unusual punishment....

6) Send the case back to a lower court

June 12, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, June 08, 2015

"Does failed execution attempt mean Ohio prisoner can avoid death penalty?"

The question in the title of this post is both the headline of this Columbus Dispatch article and the notable novel constitutional question facing the Ohio Supreme Court this week.  Here is the backstory:

Ohio’s unusual pending death-penalty case, involving an inmate the state already tried but failed to execute, will be argued on Tuesday before the Ohio Supreme Court. Attorneys for Romell Broom contend that the state would be guilty of unconstitutional double jeopardy if it tries to execute him a second time. They said in a court filing that the state’s contention that their client didn’t suffer physically during a botched execution on Sept. 15, 2009, “ignores the unnecessary psychological suffering Broom endured during two hours of lawless chaos."

Representatives for Attorney General Mike DeWine counter that what happened on Sept. 15, 2009, wasn’t a failed execution but a breakdown in the lethal-injection process, and a new execution should proceed. They argue that the U.S. Constitution doesn’t promise that executions will be pain-free and that what happened to Broom wasn’t unconstitutional “cruel and usual punishment.”

The attempted execution of Broom, 59, on Sept. 15, 2009, was called off by Gov. Ted Strickland after a prison medical team spent two tense hours unsuccessfully trying to attach IV lines for lethal injection. The execution was rescheduled but never took place because Broom’s public defender attorneys filed numerous appeals.

Broom was convicted and sentenced to death for abducting, raping and stabbing to death 14-year-old Tryna Middleton of Cleveland as she walked home from a football game on Sept. 21, 1984. All evidence in the case, including DNA test results, showed Broom was the girl’s killer.

Thus, the failed execution, and not Broom’s guilt or innocence, will be the focus of oral arguments at 9 a.m. on Tuesday before the Ohio Supreme Court. Broom’s case is unique in Ohio’s modern capital-punishment history, being one of only two known cases nationally in which an execution was halted after it began. The other one was Willie Francis, a 17-year-old killer who died on the second try in Louisiana’s electric chair on May 9, 1947, having survived a botched execution a year earlier.

June 8, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 07, 2015

"Expunging America's Rap Sheet in the Information Age"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Jenny Roberts now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

As the Wall Street Journal recently put it, “America has a rap sheet.”  Today, between 70 and 100 million people in the United States have a criminal arrest or conviction record, and anyone — including employers, landlords, and data collection companies — can easily access these records on line.  At the same time, collateral consequences of even the most minor offenses have increased exponentially, affecting employment, housing, parenting, and just about every other aspect of daily life.  The convergence of mass criminalization, ubiquitous criminal records, and pervasive collateral consequences is a major factor in the criminal justice system’s troubling racial and economic disparities.

States are reacting to the criminal records crisis in different ways, with many focusing on expanding record sealing or expungement laws that currently range widely in the relief offered.  The time has come for a well-tailored response to mass criminalization and collateral consequences in the information age.  Sealing and expungement laws must be part of a multi-faceted approach to alleviating harmful consequences of a criminal record.  The goal of limiting access to and use of relevant criminal records to those with a legitimate need to know is best advanced through focused legislative reform.

This Article describes why well-crafted sealing and expungement laws matter, responds to the major moral and practical arguments against such laws, and situates sealing and expungement as part of a comprehensive scheme for relief from a criminal record. Reforms might include regulating data brokers to ensure that sealed or expunged records are removed from their databases, banning employers from asking about arrests not ending in conviction or expunged convictions in the absence of a statutory mandate to do so, and offering employers who comply with such rules immunity from certain negligent hiring lawsuits.

June 7, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, June 05, 2015

Former Pardon Attorney: "A Modest Proposal to Expedite the Administration's Clemency Initiative"

Love_margaret_02_crop2_MA31053191-0003Regular readers know I have given lots of space this week to coverage and criticism of federal clemency efforts.  I am pleased to continue now with a guest post via former Pardon Attorney Margaret Love, which she sent my way under the title "A Modest Proposal to Expedite the Administration's Clemency Initiative":

Mark Osler’s post in this space on June 4 ("Another View on Clemency Project 2014") recounts his unsuccessful efforts several years ago to persuade the Administration to establish a presidential commission, similar to the one that handled cases of Vietnam draft evaders and deserters during the Ford Administration, to review and recommend clemency relief for the thousands of prisoners serving prison sentences imposed more than a decade ago that are now generally considered far too severe.  He suggests that the reason the Administration chose not to follow this path relates to its doubt that Congress would fund such an effort. Instead, the Justice Department chose to address the problem of excessive sentences by asking a consortium of private organizations to manage it through the volunteer efforts of the private bar.

We will never know whether Professor Osler’s commission idea would have worked, or whether lack of funding was the reason it was rejected.  But it does appear that the structure put in place instead to manage the Administration's clemency initiative has (in his words) “struggled with the overwhelming number of cases (over 30,000) referred to it.”

It did not help that the Administrative Office for U.S. Courts sharply limited the role that Federal Public Defender Organizations could play in the clemency initiative, by declaring that CJA funds could not be spent on clemency representations.  Many, including myself, believe that the sentencing expertise and advocacy of the Federal Defenders is critical to implementing the sort of large scale program of sentence reduction the Administration evidently had in mind.

But there is another approach that might have been taken by the Administration that would have ensured a central role for the Federal Defenders.  This approach, which might still be taken, would make extraordinary sentence reduction the responsibility of the federal courts as well as of the President.  Bringing cases back to court would not require new legislation or new funds, since there is already on the books a judicial sentence reduction authority that could achieve the same result as executive clemency, through court proceedings where CJA appointments are clearly authorized.  And, because a large scale sentence reduction program is already underway in the federal courts, economies of scale are possible.

Specifically, 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i) provides that a court may at any time reduce a sentence upon motion of the Bureau of Prisons for “extraordinary and compelling reasons.” The Sentencing Commission is authorized under 28 U.S.C. § 994(t) to establish policy for courts considering BOP motions under § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i), which it has done under USSG ¶ 1B1.13.  Under this policy guideline, “extraordinary and compelling reasons” that may justify sentence reduction include terminal illness, a physical or medical condition that diminishes a person’s ability to provide self-care in a prison environment, the death or incapacitation of a child’s only caregiver, and any other reason that may be determined to be “extraordinary and compelling” by the Director of BOP. It is noteworthy that several of the organizations represented on the Clemency Project 2014 steering committee are on record with the Sentencing Commission as favoring a more expansive menu of “extraordinary and compelling reasons” warranting sentence reduction, including one that now seems prescient: “the defendant would have received a significantly lower sentence under a subsequent change in applicable law that has not been made retroactive.”

Less than two years ago BOP issued a new policy statement with a list of circumstances in which it may seek a sentence reduction, a list that is evidently not intended to be exhaustive. See Program Statement 5050.46, as amended (August 12, 2013).  Accordingly, there is no reason why BOP could not determine, with or without an amendment to ¶ 1B1.13, that “extraordinary and compelling reasons” exist in any case meeting the criteria set forth by the Deputy Attorney General as warranting a grant of clemency. The coincidence of the standards in the two contexts would be particularly fitting in light of the fact that the judicial sentence reduction authority in § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i) was originally enacted in 1976, at the Justice Department’s instance, to expedite sentence reductions that previously had required a clemency application to be submitted to the President through the Office of the Pardon Attorney.

There are in addition other reasons why it would be appropriate to supplement the clemency initiative with a statutory sentence reduction initiative implemented through the courts, including a general preference for a judicial decision-maker under federal sentencing law and policy, and for a congressionally authorized approach over an extra-legal use of executive power. Most scholars agree that clemency ought always to be a second choice where the law provides a remedy for sentencing unfairness or undue severity, as it does in this case.  See, e.g., Daniel J. Freed & Steven L. Chanenson, Pardon Power and Sentencing Policy, 13 Fed. Sent. Rptr. 119, 124 (2001) (“Wherever a rule can be structured to guide the discretion of judges or administrative agencies in determining – with reasons – whether to mitigate the sentences of similarly situated offenders, we think such a system should ordinarily be accorded priority over one that relies exclusively upon the unstructured, unexplained discretion of a president to grant or deny individual pardons or commutations.”)

Traditionally, the Federal Defenders have played a central role in proceedings involving judicial consideration of sentence reduction under § 3582(c)(2) where guideline ranges have been lowered, even though there is no constitutional right to counsel in such proceedings.  They are key players in the massive effort to reduce sentences now underway under the so-called “Drugs Minus Two” guidelines amendment. There is no reason why the Defenders should not play a similar role in judicial sentence reduction proceedings under § 3582(c)(1).  There does not appear to be any relevant difference between the two types of proceedings as far as the discretionary appointment power in 18 U.S.C. § 3006A(a)(2) is concerned. In the interests of judicial economy, these proceedings might even be combined.

All it would take to make this happen would be a resolve on the part of the Department of Justice to use this statute for the purpose it was originally intended.

Augmenting the Administration’s sentence reduction program through broader use of a judicial sentence reduction mechanism, which the Justice Department’s own Inspector General has repeatedly criticized as underutilized (most recently for aging prisoners), would accomplish the Administration’s goals in reducing unduly severe sentences, while at the same time regularizing sentence reduction through the courts pursuant to statute.  It would put sentence reduction on a sounder long-term footing that is more consistent with the principles of determinate sentencing, be more predictable and accountable as a practical matter, and respond to any concerns about the unaccountable use of executive power.

Many years ago, when I was serving as Pardon Attorney, then-Deputy Attorney General Philip Heymann asked me why we should ask the President to commute the sentence of an elderly prisoner when (he said) "we can do the job ourselves."  Now I would ask the new DAG the same question.

Some prior related posts:

June 5, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Imagining a domestic Marshall Plan to rebuild communities after ending the drug war

For many reasons, it is way too early to say the long national war on drugs is over or even that there has been a significant retrenchment of the war at the federal level.  Nevertheless, given the apprarent waning public support and clearly waning criminal justice resources being devoted to this war, it is not too early to start making plans for how best to frame national, state and local policies and priorities when this war ends.  To that end, I have been talking up in some of my classes and lectures the idea of a "Marshall Plan" afte the drug war, and I was pleased and excited when visiting Harvard Law School a few months ago to leasr that some others were thinking along these lines as well.

In particular, David Harris and Johanna Wald, who help run the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, have robustly embraced the notion of a modern domestic Marshall Plan as evidence by this new op-ed they authored for the Boston Globe. The piece is headlined "Proposing a Houston/Marshall Plan for domestic policy," and here are excerpts:

On June 5, 1947, Secretary of State George Marshall spoke to a crowd of 15,000 at Harvard University’s commencement. In a surprise announcement, he unveiled plans for the United States government to rebuild a Europe devastated by almost a decade of war. In simple straightforward language, he declared that this massive effort — which came to be known as the Marshall Plan — “is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos...” The Marshall Plan is largely credited with restoring confidence and hope along with local economies in Europe. It remains a testament to the power of American fortitude and ingenuity.

Sixty-eight years later, Marshall’s words carry a surprisingly potent punch — albeit in response to a very different kind of “war”; one that we have been waging for decades against our own communities of color. During the past year, the curtain has been pulled back, revealing the maze of punishment, fear, and surveillance that traps so many individuals, particularly young men, living in these communities. They attend underresourced schools that expect them to fail and drop out. Police function as a hostile, occupying force, frequently hunting them down, and subjecting them to humiliating arrests and stop-and-frisk practices. They even lack recreational outlets....

Make no mistake about it. These communities did not simply “evolve.” They exist in their current state because of very deliberate educational, transportation, housing, and economic policy choices. These include investing in highways over subways, creating policies that transfer good jobs to areas beyond the reach of public transportation, redlining practices that keep families of color from moving into higher opportunity neighborhoods, and allocating scarce education dollars on surveillance and police rather than on libraries and laboratories. Each choice closes off one more exit out of the maze, and keeps residents stumbling into dead ends.

“The remedy lies in breaking the vicious circle,” stated George Marshall in the speech. Indeed. We propose to create a new Houston/Marshall Plan (named after civil rights giants Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall), focused on helping communities restore themselves after decades of intentional disinvestment.  This new Houston/Marshall Plan will advance strategies, innovations, and solutions designed by those living and working in these neighborhoods.  It is their voices that have been routinely ignored or silenced in public policy discussions.  It will promote public health perspectives that favor recreational, day care and health centers, diversion programs that allow mothers to stay with their children, treatment for addictions, and job training instead of more police, more prosecutions, and more prisons.  It will highlight promising models for building affordable housing units near these jobs, and for creating school cultures that expect students to succeed instead of treating them like criminals-in-waiting.  For those who decry the costs of this rebuilding, we point to the economic and public safety benefits that all of us will reap from investments in communities and lives too long neglected.

June 5, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Professor Mark Osler's informed perspective on recent federal clemency developments

09fbbcfProfessor Mark Osler is rightly considered one of the most informed and effective sentencing reform advocates, especially in the arena of clemency.  Thus I was very pleased when he wrote to me as a follow-up to my recent posts about recent federal clemency developments and provided some lengthy reflections he has titled "Another View of Clemency Project 2014."  Here are Mark's informed and important insights: 

In the fall of 2012, I gathered together four students, a passel of handwritten letters pleading for help, and a bunch of Margaret Colgate Love articles and created the nation's first clinic focused on federal commutations. The project has turned out to be wonderful as a teaching model; my students get to learn the core legal skill of building a narrative and advocating for a client in a process relatively free of procedural snares. It also has propelled me into the simmering debate over the Obama administration's clemency policy.

Of course, for most of the Obama presidency it wouldn't be very accurate to call the way clemency was handled as a "policy." For the most part, it appears, they simply lopped over the failed guidelines and rules of his predecessor rather than work to revive this key Constitutional power. This failure represents a troubling lack of focus in a president who (1) has properly decried the disparate incarceration of black men through the War on Drugs, and (2) came to politics as a Constitutional Law professor.

At the same time I was starting my clemency clinic, I also began to advocate for a vigorous, short-term project to use the pardon power to help those prisoners serving long sentences under mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines on crack cocaine that were amended in 2010, but not made retroactive. With Nkechi Taifa and others, I met four times with administration officials and urged them to follow the example of President Ford, who granted clemency to nearly 15,000 Vietnam-era draft evaders and deserters in just one year. Ford did this by convening a special commission outside of the Justice Department, and that commission left behind a remarkable report full of good advice. I even left a copy of the Ford Presidential Clemency Commission Report with those Obama advisors after a meeting in the Vice President's imposing office in the Eisenhower Building.

The Obama administration did not take our advice, but they did announce a very different short-term commutation initiative -- the Clemency Project 2014, which put in the hands of five non-profit groups the shepherding of worthwhile cases towards clemency. My hunch -- and it is only a hunch -- is that this course was chosen because the administration did not think that it could get the money needed to fund a Ford-style Clemency Board through the House of Representatives. The recent Marino Amendment (which seeks to bar the use of funds for the Clemency Project 2014 or for augmenting the Pardon Attorney's office) passed by the House on June 3rd shows that there was a sound basis for that fear.

As has been well-documented, the Clemency Project 2014 has struggled with the overwhelming number of cases (over 30,000) referred to it. If there is blame in that, I should share it. Though I am not affiliated with any of the five groups in charge, I have taken an active role in training pro bono lawyers for Clemency Project 2014, have tried to rally other law schools to the cause, and have taken on several cases myself. Obviously, the structure of this project is not the one I proposed, but it is the one that we have, and through the end of the Obama administration probably represents the best chance for a historic use of the pardon power by this President. It is unlikely that this administration will suddenly — in the next year and a half — repair its relationship with the House to the point where new funding for clemency reform can be found. The toxic dynamic that probably skunked my proposal is still at work.

Professor Berman has suggested that wealthy clemency proponents like the Kochs could go far in re-making the process if they were to invest their money in reform. I think he is right. There are two areas where those resources could be used efficiently. The first is by investing in the debate over who should be the next president. Sadly, we only talk about clemency in the political realm when it goes wrong (i.e. in the last days of Bill Clinton's presidency or Haley Barbour's governorship). We should be actively asking candidates what they would do with clemency when they are running for office, and urging them towards reform. Rachel Barkow and I have, for example, argued that the next administration should shift permanently to a process centered on a review board outside of the Department of Justice, and others have promoted similar ideas. The "Supernova Federal Clemency Institute" research group Professor Berman proposes is worthwhile — but probably most worthwhile (especially with Koch backing) if it is focused on the 2016 election and the first days of a new presidency.

Beyond that advocacy, it would be wise to devote private-funding resources to the Clemency Project 2014 itself, in two ways. First, the project has a devoted and talented but threadbare staff, and that has a cost. There are few resources available to CP14 to screen cases before sending them out to lawyers, for example, and that is a problem that can be solved with money and more bodies. Second, it would help to have full-time lawyers working as advocates on these cases as specialists, as they would be much more efficient than the pro-bono generalists who often have to learn federal sentencing law from scratch. In collaboration with NYU's Center on the Administration of Criminal Law and others, I am working to do exactly that. The more money we raise, the more lawyers can be hired. But... it has to happen fast. The window is closing, and the election season is already upon us.

Some prior related posts:

June 4, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Spotlighting significant back-end impact of Prop 47 sentencing reform in California

This notable recent Los Angeles Times article, headlined "Under Prop. 47, former felons find themselves shedding a stifling label," details a significant (and perhaps unexpected) back-end effect of the sentencing reform California voters put in place the last election cycle. Here are excerpts:

Proposition 47, an initiative that reduced drug possession and several other nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors ... has prompted the release of more than 3,700 inmates from state prison.

Opponents of the measure said it would make California's streets more dangerous by releasing criminals and would strip away much of the incentive that got people into drug treatment — keeping a felony off their record.  But another part of the law that drew less attention allows people who have already served their time to ask a court to reduce years-old convictions from felonies to misdemeanors.

Thousands of people ... have taken advantage. Since the measure passed, judges in Los Angeles County have received more than 6,660 applications to reduce old felonies to misdemeanors.  Los Angeles County estimates that as many as 300,000 applications could be filed in cases stretching back decades.  (A spokeswoman for the court said officials are not tracking the outcomes of the applications.)

Alhambra Police Chief Mark Yokoyama, president of the California Peace Officers' Assn., which lobbied against the measure, said he's not opposed to people with an old felony or two getting reductions if they've turned their lives around.  He likes that they have that option, he said, but he thinks only a small sliver of the population with felony records falls into that category.

Christine Ward, executive director of Crime Victims Action Alliance, another opponent of the law, said reducing old felonies undermines accountability for offenders. "In our state right now," she said, "we're really minimizing criminal behavior."

But others say the law helps people who are now law-abiding eliminate the barriers of a felony record.  For [some], being labeled a felon affected [doing their] job.  For others, it held them back from getting work or housing. Some say it prevented them from getting custody of their grandchildren.  And many agreed the stigma of a "felon" label felt stifling....

From a back office in the Compton courthouse, Deputy Public Defender Carole Telfer runs a one-stop shop for people looking to reduce their felonies under the ballot measure.  Light pink memo notes — all scribbled with phone numbers and nearly identical "Call re: Prop 47" messages — explode from a green shoe box on her desk.  Nearby, there's a brown accordion folder filled with prisoners' handwritten letters....

Even people who aren't eligible for early release under Prop. 47 are grateful, Telfer said, calling it one of the most rewarding assignments in her 35-year career as a public defender.

After the measure passed, Telfer began with the cases of people still behind bars on charges eligible for reduction. But it was often people with decades-old convictions ... who were most anxious to get through the process. They often call to tell her how eager they are to put the felonies — crimes committed by someone who no longer felt like them — behind.

June 3, 2015 in Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Notable application of Padilla by Fifth Circuit even after judicial deportation warning

The Fifth Circuit yesterday in US v. Batamula, No. 12-20630 (5th Cir. June 2, 2015) (available here), engaged in an extended and interesting discussion of a Padilla claim. The opinion's conclusion highlights why Padilla fans will also like this panel ruling:

For these reasons, we conclude that a judge’s statement at the guilty plea proceeding that deportation is “likely” is not dispositive of whether a petitioner whose counsel failed to advise him regarding the immigration consequences of his plea can demonstrate prejudice as a result therefrom.  Batamula thus is not foreclosed from challenging his guilty plea under Padilla solely because the district court notified him that deportation following the service of his sentence is “likely,” and the district court erred in holding to the contrary. The record is currently insufficiently developed for us to apply the fact-intensive, totality of the circumstances prejudice analysis necessary to determine whether Batamula is entitled to relief on his Sixth Amendment claim.  We therefore REVERSE and REMAND for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

June 3, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 01, 2015

Has the approach and administration of Clemency Project 2014 actually made the federal clemency process worse?

Download (10)The depressing question in the title of this post is prompted by this depressing new USA Today article headlined "Obama administration clemency push gets slow start."  I have long tried to avoid being too pessimistic about what has been unfolding on the federal clemency front over the last 18 months, in part because I sincerely believed it would be nearly impossible to make the modern federal clemency process and products even worse. But this USA Today piece has me fearing that my own pessimistic instincts perhaps should now turn even darker (based on the statements and data points I have highlighted below):

A Justice Department push to shorten long drug sentences through President Obama's clemency powers has gotten off to a slow start: Obama has commuted the sentences of just two of the tens of thousands of federal inmates who have applied through the program.  Lawyers involved in the effort say the year-old clemency initiative has been hampered by the complexity of the cases and questions about the eligibility criteria, which may still be too strict to help most of the prison population.

The result is a system that appears even more backlogged than it was before the initiative began.  "The criteria basically suggest that a whole bunch of good citizens who committed one little mistake got significantly more than 10 years in prison, and fortunately that's pretty rare," said Johanna Markind, a former attorney-adviser in the Office of Pardon Attorney who left in March.  "I think they've kind of belatedly realized that people are doing their jobs, and those perfect cases they think are there don't really exist," she said.  "For all the sound and fury about the commutations, the clemency initiative has only come up with a handful of cases that fit" the criteria.

The clemency initiative was intended to help federal inmates who would have received shorter prison terms had they been sentenced today.  That applies mostly to drug offenders after Congress shortened sentences for crack cocaine in 2010.  To be eligible, inmates must have already served 10 years of their sentence.

Last year, a record 6,561 federal prisoners — three times the usual number — filed petitions with the Justice Department's Office of Pardon Attorney, which advises the president on all requests for clemency.  Under the constitution, the president has the absolute power to grant pardons and commute sentences.

More than 30,000 federal inmates applied for representation through the Clemency Project 2014, a consortium of lawyers who have volunteered to help eligible inmates through the often complicated and time-consuming process of seeking a commutation. But 13 months later, those lawyers have submitted just 31 petitions. And while Obama has used his pardon power to shorten the sentences of 43, most of those cases predate the clemency initiative.  Over six years, Obama has granted just 0.2% of the commutation petitions submitted.

The Justice Department says it expects to recommend more commutations to Obama as it reviews the petitions.  But that could take a while: In its 2016 budget request to Congress, the department said the deluge of clemency applications is too much for the current staff to manage.  "As OPA's existing staff has discovered, expending the substantial resources required simply to manage such a volume of clemency requests significantly decreases those available for analyzing and evaluating the merits of individual applications and preparing the appropriate letters of advice to inform the president," the Justice Department said in its congressional budget justification.

Obama has proposed a 66% budget increase for the Office of Pardon Attorney in 2016, and is seeking twice as many lawyers to process all the paperwork.  And that paperwork can be daunting, requiring an examination of trial transcripts, the pre-sentence report (which is often sealed) and Bureau of Prisons files.

To be eligible under the program, inmates must be low-level offenders with no ties to gangs or cartels.  They must have demonstrated good conduct in prison, have no significant criminal history and no history of violence.  "There are gray areas, What is 'demonstrated good conduct in prison,' for example? Is that a pristine record?" said Cynthia Roseberry, a career public defender who now manages the Clemency Project 2014.

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Without knowing how the Obama administration will apply those vague criteria, it's impossible to know how many could be eligible.  "My hope is that thousands of those will meet the criteria, but I just can't speculate." Roseberry said.  She said she expects the numbers to increase as the Clemency Project continues to screen for likely candidates for commutation.  A Clemency Project screening committee has already notified more than 3,000 inmates it won't be accepting their cases.  Once a case is accepted, it's parceled out to a volunteer attorney such as Mary Davis.

Davis represents Byron McDade, a Washington man sentenced to 27 years for cocaine trafficking even as his co-conspirators — who testified against him — got no more than seven. In 2009, after McDade had served his first seven years, the judge who sentenced him urged Obama to commute his sentence.  "While the Court is powerless to reduce the sentence it was required by then-existing law to impose, the president is not," U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman wrote in another opinion last year,

So Davis assembled a 168-page petition with the help of two West Virginia University law students — Laura Hoffman and Amanda Camplesi — who spent a combined 122 hours on the case, collecting paperwork and visiting McDade at a federal prison in Pennsylvania. Davis said the work was complicated, even as a veteran federal defense attorney specializing in sentencing appeals.  "I know there were attorneys signing up for this who don't do criminal defense work, and I would think it would be extremely difficult," she said.

McDade is an unusual case: Before being convicted in 2002, his only offense was a minor misdemeanor with a $10 fine.  Markind, who worked on commutation cases as a Justice Department lawyer, said the clemency initiative did not relax Obama's "three strikes" policy making anyone with three or more criminal convictions ineligible for clemency. "Criminals with a record do not make the most appealing poster children," she said....

Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis and a former prosecutor ... said the clemency process is already too bureaucratic and too distant from the ultimate decision-maker: the president.  The Clemency Project hopes to cut through the process by helping to provide the Justice Department with better, more complete case files to review.  But that solution has also led to criticism from Capitol Hill, where Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, says that the administration is outsourcing a government responsibility.

"We've failed the same way through different kinds of administrations, and the problem isn't the administration, it's the process," Osler said. "The sad thing is, every president recently has gotten to the end of their term and said, 'Hey, where are all the good clemency cases?' I sure hope that will change, but it's going to be a furious last year as these things start to come in even greater numbers."

It is hard to fault, and I am very disinclined to criticize excessively, all of the well-meaning and dedicated lawyers and administrators operating now in a system taking on Rube-Goldberg-quality with seemingly too many elements, criteria and moving parts.  Still, by now having so many more people applying for clemency, along with so many more lawyers trying to figure out the meaning and importance of so many vague criteria, it is not surprising that the clemency push/project has been most successful in producing a lot more paperwork and so many more questions about what this system is seeking to achieve.

I have long believed that President Obama could and should create an independent commission or task force or working group that would be tasked with making federal clemency reform a priority in a very short period of time.  Notably, as highlighted here, such a proactive approach to policing reform achieved a whole lot in just a matter of months:

On December 18, 2014, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order establishing the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing.  The Task Force Members sought expertise from stakeholders and input from the public as they worked to identify best practices and make recommendations to the President.  The Task Force submitted an initial report to the President on March 2, 2015 and released the final report on May 18, 2015.

Especially in light of all the new troubles and costs that the current approach is generating, I would urge the President to sign an Executive Order ASAP establishing the President's Task Force on 21st Century Clemency.  The Task Force Members could seek expertise from stakeholders and input from the public as they worked to identify best clemency practices and make recommendations to the President no later than December 1, 2015. That would still give Prez Obama a full year to implement an improved clemency process and would leave truly helpful legacy and structure in place from whomever becomes his successor.

Some prior related posts:

June 1, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Via similar 7-2 rulings, SCOTUS narrows reach of federal criminal and deportation statutes in Elonis and Mellouli

Via excerpts and links from this post at How Appealing I can effectively summarize the interesting Supreme Court work on criminal justice issues this morning:

The Court today issued four rulings in argued cases.

1. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court in Mellouli v. Lynch, No. 13-1034. Justice Clarence Thomas issued a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. joined....

4. And Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. delivered the opinion of the Court in Elonis v.United States, No. 13-983. Justice Alito issued an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. And Justice Thomas issued a dissenting opinion....

In early news coverage, The Associated Press has reports headlined "High court throws out conviction for Facebook threats";... "Justices reverse deportation of man over minor drug crime"; ... Richard Wolf of USA Today reports that "Violent threats on Facebook may be OK, justices rule"; ... and "Justices sock it to Justice Department over drug deportations."

As the title of this post suggests, there are considerable similarities between what the Justices did in both Melloni (a low-profile immigration case) and Elonis (a high-profile federal criminal case). In both setting, via a 7-2 vote with Justices Thomas and Alito dissenting, the Court adopted a norrower construction of an applicable federal statute based on concerns that the federal government's (and lower courts') interpretation goes too far (for deportation purposes in Melloni, for criminal prosecution in Elonis).  The rulings and opinions are quite limited in both cases, and Justice Alito's dissent in Elonis fittingly laments this reality at its outset: 

In Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137, 177 (1803), the Court famously proclaimed: “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” Today, the Court announces: It is emphatically the prerogative of this Court to say only what the law is not.

I hope and expect to have more to say about the lengthy opinions in Elonis in future posts, although I suspect that the ruling will ultimately prove more consequental for what it failed to do and say than for what it actually does and says.

June 1, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

"The GOP should turn its attention to prosecutorial misconduct"

The title of this post is the subheadine of this notable new National Review commentary authored by Kevin Williamson.  The provocative main headline for the piece is "When District Attorneys Attack," and here are excerpts:

Prosecutorial misconduct is a plague upon these United States, from the vodka-pickled Democratic political jihadists in Austin to California, where judges complain of an “epidemic” of prosecutorial misconduct abetted by Democratic attorney general Kamala Harris, who is seeking to replace retiring Barbara Boxer in the Senate.

The Democrats have long been acculturated to the climate of corruption that attends government agencies that are largely free of ordinary accountability, where a carefully cultivated lack of transparency shields operatives from scrutiny and normal oversight. Republicans can rouse themselves to action, if only barely, when this involves the federal Internal Revenue Service or Environmental Protection Agency.  But deference to police agencies and prosecutors is so habitual among the members of the law-and-order party that they instinctively look for excuses when presented with obvious examples of police misconduct, and twiddle their thumbs in the 99 percent of cases of prosecutorial misconduct that do not involve a Republican elected official.

But only the Republican party has the credibility and the political capital to take on the difficult and sure-to-be-thankless task of reining in rogue police agencies and abusive prosecutors — and they may as well take a look at our scandalous prisons while they are at it.  Some Republican leaders, notably Texas’s former governor Rick Perry, have been active and energetic partisans of reform, largely under the banner of the excellent Right on Crime campaign.  But this is not really a job for presidents or even governors: This is a job for mayors, city councilmen, district attorneys, sheriffs, and police chiefs.

June 1, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Fascinating fight over fate of offenders on Nebraska's death row after capital repeal

This Fox News piece, headlined "Nebraska AG fighting to block death penalty repeal from reversing death row sentences," highlights the fascinating fight now developing in the Cornhusker state following its formal repeal of its death penalty statutes:

Nebraska's top lawyer is headed to court to prevent the state's sweeping death penalty repeal from reversing sentences of those already on death row -- in the latest flare-up between the legislature and Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts' administration.

The legislature delivered a blow to the governor Wednesday when it voted 30-19 to override Ricketts' veto of legislation that would put an end to capital punishment in Nebraska. With the power play by the state's Republican-dominated legislature, Nebraska becomes the first conservative state in decades to end the death penalty.

But Ricketts' administration is not giving up the fight. While not contesting the ban's impact on future prosecutions, the administration is battling to prevent it from undoing prior death penalty sentences for the 10 inmates currently on death row.

In a written statement, state Attorney General Doug Peterson challenged part of the bill that says the "intent" of the legislature is that any death penalty "imposed but not carried out prior to the effective date of this act" be changed to "life imprisonment." Peterson said: "We believe this stated intent is unconstitutional."

He said that Nebraska's Board of Pardons has exclusive power to change final sentences imposed by courts. "Thus, the Attorney General intends to seek a court decision, at the appropriate time, to definitively resolve the issue of the State's authority to carry out the death sentences previously ordered by Nebraska's courts for the 10 inmates now on death row."

A Ricketts spokesman told FoxNews.com Friday that the governor agrees with the AG's assessment and will pursue the court's legal opinion on the matter as soon as possible....

"My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical tool to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families," Ricketts said in a statement after Wednesday's vote, which broke across party lines and captured the votes necessary to override Ricketts' veto. The legislature had passed the anti-death penalty bill last week, 32-15.

Immediately after the vote, Republican Sen. Beau McCoy, who was against the ban, announced the formation of Nebraskans for Justice to start a petition drive to get reinstatement on the ballot in November.

But this was the third time the legislature voted to repeal capital punishment, which Republicans against it said no longer held to the values of their party, be it morally or fiscally. "The taxpayers have not gotten the bang for their buck on this death penalty for almost 20 years," said Sen. Colby Coash, a Republican and death penalty opponent. "This program is broken. How many years will people stand up and say we need this?"

Other senators said they philosophically support the death penalty, but were convinced legal obstacles would prevent the state from carrying out another execution ever again. The last one in Nebraska was a 1997 electrocution. The state lost its practical ability to execute inmates in December 2013, when one of the three lethal injection drugs required by state law expired. Opponents charged that it was a poorly managed and inefficient government program.

May 31, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Time magazine devotes cover story to "Why the End of Capital Punishment Is Near"

Death-penalty-final-coverI am intrigued to see that the new issue of Time magazine has a cover picture of an empty electric chair and this text: "The Last Execution: Why the Era of Capital Punishment is ending." Here are excerpts from the magazine's lead article:

Despite extraordinary efforts by the courts and enormous expense to taxpayers, the modern death penalty remains slow, costly and uncertain. For the overwhelming majority of condemned prisoners, the final step—that last short march with the strap-down team—will never be taken. The relative few who are killed continue to be selected by a mostly random cull. Tsarnaev aside, the tide is turning on capital punishment in the U.S., as previously supportive judges, lawmakers and politicians come out against it.

Change is not coming quickly or easily. Americans have stuck with grim determination to the idea of the ultimate penalty even as other Western democracies have turned against it. On this issue, our peer group is not Britain and France; it’s Iran and China. Most U.S. states authorize the death penalty, although few of them actually use it. We value tolerance and ­diversity — but certain outrages we will not put up with. Maybe it’s the teenage terrorist who plants a bomb near an 8-year-old boy. Maybe it’s a failed neuroscientist who turns a Colorado movie theater into an abattoir. We like to think we know them when we see them. Half a century of inconclusive legal wrangling over the process for choosing the worst of the worst says otherwise....

Even in Texas, which leads the nation in executions since 1976 (when the U.S. Supreme Court approved the practice after a brief moratorium), the wheels are coming off the bandwagon. From a peak of 40 executions in 2000, the Lone Star State put 10 prisoners to death last year and seven so far in 2015. According to the state’s Department of Corrections, the number of new death sentences imposed by Texas courts this year is precisely zero. There, as elsewhere, prosecutors, judges and jurors are concluding that the modern death penalty is a failed experiment.

The shift is more pragmatic than moral, as Americans realize that our balky system of state-sanctioned killing simply isn’t fixable. As a leader of the Georgia Republican Party, attorney David J. Burge, recently put it, “Capital punishment runs counter to core conservative principles of life, fiscal responsibility and limited government. The reality is that capital punishment is nothing more than an expensive, wasteful and risky government program.”

This unmistakable trend dates back to the turn of the century. The number of inmates put to death in 2014 was the fewest in 20 years, while the number of new death sentences imposed by U.S. courts — 72 — was the fewest in modern American history, according to data collected by the Death Penalty Information Center. Only one state, Missouri, has accelerated its rate of executions during that period, but even in the Show Me State, the number of new sentences has plunged.

Thirty-two states allow capital punishment for the most heinous crimes. And yet in most of the country, the penalty is now hollow. Since the start of 2014, all but two of the nation’s 49 executions have been carried out by just five states: Texas, Missouri, Florida, Oklahoma and Georgia.

Accompanying this coverr story are these two commentaries for and against capital punishment:

Why The Death Penalty Should Live: If you take lives, yours can be taken

Why the Death Penalty Should Die: Killing killers won't bring back victims

May 28, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Newt Gingrich and Van Jones lament treatment of mentally ill in US criminal justice system

CNN has this notable new commentary authored by the notable twosome of Newt Gingrich and Van Jones headlined "Mental illness is no crime." Here are excerpts:

Today, mentally ill Americans are disproportionately more likely to be arrested, incarcerated, suffer solitary confinement or rape in prison and commit another crime once released.

Quick: Name the largest provider of mental health care in America. If you guessed "our prisons and jails," you would be right. A 2006 U.S. Department of Justice study found that three out of four female inmates in state prisons, 64% of all people in jail, 56% of all state prison inmates and 45% of people in federal prison have symptoms or a history of mental disorder.

America's approach when the mentally ill commit nonviolent crimes -- locking them up without addressing the problem -- is a solution straight out of the 1800s.

When governments closed state-run psychiatric facilities in the late 1970s, it didn't replace them with community care, and by default, the mentally ill often ended up in jails. There are roughly as many people in Anchorage, Alaska, or Trenton, New Jersey, as there are inmates with severe mental illness in American prisons and jails, according to one 2012 estimate. The estimated number of inmates with mental illness outstrips the number of patients in state psychiatric hospitals by a factor of 10.

Today, in 44 states and the District of Columbia, the largest prison or jail holds more people with serious mental illness than the largest psychiatric hospital. With 2 million people with mental illness booked into jails each year, it is not surprising that the biggest mental health providers in the country are LA County Jail, Rikers Island in New York and Cook County Jail in Chicago.

Our system is unfair to those struggling with mental illness.  Cycling them through the criminal justice system, we miss opportunities to link them to treatment that could lead to drastic improvements in their quality of life and our public safety.  These people are sick, not bad, and they can be diverted to mental health programs that cost less and are more effective than jail time. People who've committed nonviolent crimes can often set themselves on a better path if they are provided with proper treatment....

A new initiative, "Stepping Up," unites state and local governments and the American Psychiatric Foundation to promote research-based practices to tackle our overreliance on jail as mental health treatment, such as in-jail counseling programs that reduce the chances of repeat offenders.

State and local officials have shown us the way.  We've seen large communities such as Miami-Dade County, Florida, completely redesign their systems at every level, training police officers in crisis intervention, instituting careful assessments of new jail admissions and redirecting their mentally ill populations into treatment, effectively reducing the rates of re-arrest....

Perhaps most surprisingly in these partisan times, Republicans and Democrats in Congress are standing shoulder-to-shoulder to support mental health reform.  The bipartisan Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act, co-sponsored by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in the Senate, passed unanimously out of the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month. The legislation includes simple measures that would fund alternatives to jail and prison admissions for those in need of treatment and expand training programs for law enforcement personnel on how to respond to people experiencing a mental health crisis.

The notion of bipartisan, comprehensive criminal justice reform is not just idle talk.  It is happening.  Both sides see practical alternatives to incarceration that can reduce prison populations, improve public safety, save lives and save money.  If Congress moves swiftly to pass the great ideas now percolating in the House and Senate, it will become a reality. Take it from a conservative and a liberal: A good place to start is by addressing the needs of our mentally ill citizens in jails and prisons.

May 28, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

"A new report could have a big impact on New York’s prison population — if anyone pays attention"

The title of this post is the astute subheadline of this effective Marshall Project piece by Beth Schwartzapfel talking about a sentencing reform report finally released in New York. Here are excerpts:

A new report by some of New York’s key criminal justice players recommends major changes to the state’s sentencing system.  The report, which [is available here], would reduce the length of prison sentences and broaden eligibility for probation and other alternatives to incarceration for about one-third of the felony convictions New York hands down each year.  The report would also end the state parole board’s traditional role as the arbiter of when, exactly, prisoners go home.

With more than 50,000 people imprisoned in New York State, even small sentencing changes can make a big difference. “If you increase the time served even by three months across 10,000 people, you’re going to generate a whole lot more imprisonment,” says Martin Horn, executive director of the New York State Sentencing Commission, which produced the report.

Jonathan Lippman, chief judge of the state’s highest court, established the commission in 2010 to craft a simpler, more transparent sentencing scheme. “He did not specifically charge us to reduce the prison population,” Horn says. “If that turns out to be a side benefit, that’s terrific.”

At this point, the commission’s recommendations are just that — recommendations. The suggested changes were compiled into a piece of draft legislation that the committee has submitted to the state legislature.  But the bill so far has no sponsor, and the prospect of fewer prison beds — and, by extension, fewer prisons — has traditionally faced fierce opposition by the New York state correctional officers union and by legislators representing the upstate communities where most of the state’s prisons are located.  As it is, upstate District Attorney Kathleen Hogan, who served on the Commission, says she would not support the legislation. “I would support the idea of migrating to determinate sentences, but I think that the numbers are too low,” she told The Marshall Project. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not said whether he will support the proposals.

New York’s body of sentencing laws is a patchwork, with the history of the state’s changing politics woven into it and over it.  As a result, the new report says, sentencing is “confusing and misleading” for prisoners and victims alike.

Historically, New York State’s sentences were all indeterminate: a judge could hand down a range of years that a prisoner might serve (such as 1-to-3 or 5-to-15).  When during that window the person would actually go home was unpredictable: it was up to a parole board.

The changes began in 1995 under Gov. George Pataki. The nation had just kicked off a federally-funded prison-building boom, and a get-tough attitude prevailed. Pataki proposed eliminating parole for those convicted of violent felonies.  Under the resulting law, judges handed down determinate sentences — a specific number of years, with very little wiggle room — and they were long.

In the 2000s, the public began calling for a change to the 1973 Rockefeller drug laws, which mandated draconian sentences like 15 years to life for even low-level drug crimes. The resulting reforms in 2004 and 2009 eliminated indeterminate sentences for most drug crimes, too.

So now, sentences for violent felonies and drug crimes are fixed, and sentences for everything else depend on the parole board. The crimes still subject to the parole board’s discretion are a hodgepodge, from filing a false tax return to second-degree stalking. The commission’s report is aimed at these crimes — class C, D, and E felonies — considered “non-violent” under the law but not always so in reality.  About 5,500 out of the 14,000 people who enter the New York State prison system each year are convicted of these crimes.

The commission, composed of judges, victims’ representatives, professors, and attorneys, recommended bringing these sentences into line with those for other crimes by eliminating the parole board’s discretion. They suggested a new matrix of sentence lengths that judges can hand down, eliminating mandatory minimums for a wide range of crimes and expanding the number of crimes eligible for alternatives to incarceration like drug treatment and community service. They also recommended much shorter terms of supervision once people are out of prison; for most offenders, researchshows that longer periods on parole do not improve public safety but do increase the odds that someone will go back to prison for a technical violation....

Similar recommendations by the 2007 O’Donnell Commission, established by Gov. Eliot Spitzer, never gained any legislative traction, in part because the recommended sentence ranges in that report were too harsh, Horn says: “The Assembly rejected that. They felt those maximums were too high, were too broad.”

This time around the opposite might be true; with these recommendations shaving months off of thousands of sentences, district attorneys and other tough-on-crime advocates might push back. Lake George District Attorney Kate Hogan submitted a letter — included as an addendum to the report — expressing “grave concerns” about the shortened sentence ranges.  She told the Marshall Project that reducing the maximum penalty available for certain crimes “discounts plea bargaining in its entirety. No one pleads the maximum. That’s how you incentivize someone to resolve a case by plea.”

May 27, 2015 in Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Nebraska legislature, with every vote counting, repeals death penalty by overriding Gov veto

As reported in this local article, the "death penalty has been repealed in Nebraska."  Here is how:

In a historic vote Wednesday, senators voted 30-19 to override a veto from Gov. Pete Ricketts. The bill (LB268) had passed a week ago on a 32-15 vote. 

Ricketts had worked hard in the last week to get senators to flip their votes.  He needed three to change their minds, but only two -- Sens. Jerry Johnson of Wahoo and John Murante of Gretna -- changed their votes to sustain the veto.

"This is it," said Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha as he entered the legislative chamber to begin the debate on a motion to override the veto.  Chambers has offered a bill to repeal the death penalty 40 times in his tenure of the Legislature.  In 1979, Chambers won legislative approval of death penalty repeal, but the bill fell victim to a veto by Gov. Charles Thone.

Nebraska lawmakers debated more than two hours Wednesday on a motion to override Gov. Pete Ricketts' veto of a death penalty repeal bill.  "Once we take this step, there is not going to be a falling apart of this state," Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers said at the start of discussion on the floor of the Legislature.  "This building will not implode."

The historic significance of the event attracted a large group of onlookers, legislative staffers and media watched as debate began at 1:30 p.m....  Miriam Thimm Kelle, sister of Rulo murder victim James Thimm, was among onlookers in the legislative chamber Wednesday.  Thimm's murderer, Michael Ryan, died this week on death row.  Kelle has lobbied in support of abolishing the death penalty.

On Tuesday, Vivian Tuttle, whose daughter Evonne Tuttle was killed in the Norfolk bank robbery, joined the governor at a press conference to ask senators to sustain the veto. "I want justice for my grandchildren," she said. "I want justice for all the other families."

May 27, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Split Connecticut Supreme Court applies Miller retroactively to 50-year discretionary juve sentence

Yesterday the Connecticut Supreme Court, splitting 4-3, gave the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment jurisprudence concerning juvenile LWOP sentencing the furthest reach of any major ruling I have seen through its opinion in Casiano v. Commissioner of Correction, No. SC19345 (Conn. May 26, 2015) (majority opinion here, dissents here and here).  Here is how the majority opinion gets started:  

We recently held in State v. Riley, 315 Conn. 637, 659, A.3d (2015), that, to comport with the eighth amendment to the federal constitution, the trial court must give mitigating weight to the youth related factors set forth in Miller v. Alabama, U.S. , 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2464–65, 2468, 183 L.Ed. 2d 407 (2012), when considering whether to impose a life sentence without the possibility of parole on a juvenile homicide offender.  In Riley, the defendant challenged on direct appeal a total effective sentence of 100 years with no possibility of parole before his natural life expired, a sentence that the state conceded was the functional equivalent to life without parole.  State v. Riley, supra, 642. The different procedural posture and sentence in the present case raises two significant issues regarding the reach of Miller: whether Miller applies retroactively under Connecticut law to cases arising on collateral review, and, if so, whether Miller applies to the imposition of a fifty year sentence on a juvenile offender.  We answer both questions in the affirmative and, therefore, reverse the habeas court’s decision rendering summary judgment in favor of the respondent, the Commissioner of Correction, on the petition for a writ of habeas corpus filed by the petitioner, Jason Casiano.

May 27, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Nebraska Gov officially vetoes bill to repeal death penalty in the Cornhusker State

As reported in this local article, "Gov. Pete Ricketts delivered Tuesday on his promise to veto legislation that would repeal the death penalty for murderers in Nebraska." Here is more on the decision and what is likely to follow it:

"This is a matter of public safety," Ricketts said. "We need to have strong sentencing. We need to be sure our prosecutors have the tools to put these hardened criminals behind bars."

"I urge our senators to stand with Nebraskans and law enforcement," Ricketts said.

The governor was joined by Attorney General Doug Peterson and family members of Evonne Tuttle, who was one of five people killed in the 2002 Norfolk bank robbery. Three of the killers involved in the robbery are on death row. Evonne's mother, Vivian Tuttle, said she sat through the trials. In each one, she watched the surveillance video that showed Jose Sandoval put a gun to her daughter Evonne's head as she knelt on the floor and was shot to death. "I want justice for my grandchildren. I want justice for the other families," she said.

The Legislature passed the death penalty bill (LB268) on Wednesday on a 32-15 vote. Thirty votes would be required to override the governor's veto. The governor said Friday that senators who voted to repeal the death penalty weren't in touch with their constituents. But a number of those senators said Tuesday at least half of their constituent contacts are telling them to stick to their votes in favor of repeal.

Supporters have lost at least one override vote -- Sen. Jerry Johnson of Wahoo. Johnson said he was shaky on his repeal vote last week. Then, most of his emails urging him to vote for repeal were from the faith community. What he has learned since last week's vote is that people in the pews aren't necessarily on the same page as church leadership, he said....

Another senator who voted for repeal -- Sen. John Murante of Gretna -- also is reconsidering his vote, he said. He is discussing it with many constituents who have called him over the past few days, he said. "I've always been torn on the issue of the death penalty," he said, "and I'm gathering as many opinions as I can before rendering a vote on the veto override."

Sounds like every single vote is going to matter now in Nebraska's unicameral legislature. Stay tuned.

May 26, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

SCOTUS grants cert on a federal sentencing case and state capital case

This morning's Supreme Court order list, available here, includes two grants of certiorari.  Both cases are criminal cases, Lockhart v. US and Foster v. Humphrey, and here are the links to casepages and the issues via SCOTUSblog:

Lockhart v. US:  Whether the mandatory minimum sentence of 18 U.S.C. § 2252(b)(2) is triggered by a prior conviction under a state law relating to "aggravated sexual abuse" or "sexual abuse," even though the conviction did not "involv[e] a minor or ward," an issue that divides the federal courts of appeals.

Foster v. Humphrey: Whether the Georgia courts erred in failing to recognize race discrimination under Batson v. Kentucky in the extraordinary circumstances of this death penalty case.

May 26, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, May 22, 2015

"Federal Sentencing Error as Loss of Chance"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new piece available via SSRN authored by Kate Huddleston. Here is the abstract:

Federal courts have taken the wrong approach to discussing sentencing error.  Circuit court opinions in career offender cases have framed the debate over collateral review of federal sentencing error as a conflict between finality and fairness.  This Comment contends that disagreement over the cognizability of such claims is actually a dispute about the nature of the harm in sentencing error.  What federal courts are actually asking, in effect, is whether the lost probability of a lower sentence is itself a cognizable injury.

The Comment draws on an analogy to tort law to argue that sentencing debates are, at their core, about loss of chance.  Part I highlights the role that probability plays in recent sentencing opinions.  It argues that, as an empirical matter, loss of chance is an accurate way to describe sentencing error given the anchoring effect of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines on sentencing practices.  Part II makes the structural case for conceptualizing Guidelines sentencing error as a problem of probability, arguing that failure to recognize the probability dispute has obscured an underlying debate about the continued vitality of the Guidelines system.  After United States v. Booker, the Sentencing Guidelines are advisory in principle and influential in practice. Part II argues that treating Guidelines error as loss of chance — and a loss that may constitute a fundamental miscarriage of justice — is necessary in order to enforce a Guidelines regime that is neither too rigid nor wholly indeterminate.

May 22, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Two notable voices from the (far?) right calling again for drug war and sentencing reform

Download (2)The two recent stories about recent comments by notable advocates reinforce my sense that more and more traditional (and not-so-traditional) conservative voices are feeling more and more confortable vocally criticizing the federal drug war and severe drug sentencing:

Headline: "Grover Norquist: Malloy Right On Drug Sentencing Reform"

Money Quotes:   If you told me a year ago that I [Grover Norquist] would be speaking out in favor of one of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's top priorities, I would have said you were crazy. The governor is a tax-and-spend liberal and I have spent my entire career fighting high taxes and wasteful government spending. Yet, just as a broken clock gets it right once in a while, Gov. Malloy is right about the need to reform mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

Contrary to their original intent, mandatory minimum laws have done little to reduce crime. They have, however, been significant drivers of prison overcrowding and skyrocketing corrections budgets. That's why conservatives and liberals in Washington, D.C., and in statehouses all across the country are coming together to repeal and reform these one-size-fits-all laws. Oklahoma, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas and Florida are just a handful of the states where conservatives have not simply supported, but led, the efforts to scale back mandatory minimum sentences.

Conservatives in Connecticut should support the governor's mandatory minimum proposals for two reasons. First, the reforms are very modest — addressing only drug possession. In some states, such as Connecticut's neighbor, Rhode Island, and Delaware, lawmakers have repealed mandatory minimum sentences for all drug offenses. Still more states have enacted significant reform to their drug mandatory minimum laws so that judges have discretion to impose individualized sentences that fit the crime. In all of these states, crime rates have dropped.

Conservatives in Connecticut also should embrace sentencing reform because of the state's awful budget mess. For too long, fiscal hawks have turned a blind eye to wasteful law enforcement spending. Not wanting to appear "soft on crime," they have supported every program and policy to increase the prison population without subjecting those ideas to cost-benefit analysis.

Those days are over. After watching state spending on prisons skyrocket more than 300 percent over the last two decades, state leaders across the country seem to understand that they can no longer afford to warehouse nonviolent offenders in prison.

-----

Headline: "Glenn Beck Calls for the Repeal of Federal Drug Prohibition"

Money QuotesToday on Glenn Beck's radio (and TV) show, I [Jacob Sullum] debated marijuana prohibition with Robert White, co-author (with Bill Bennett) of Going to Pot: Why the Rush to Legalize Marijuana Is Harming America The conversation turned to the war on drugs in general and also touched on federalism, the Commerce Clause, the nature of addiction, and the moral justification for paternalistic interference with individual freedom.  Reading from my recent Forbes column, Beck said he is strongly attracted to the Millian principle that "the individual is sovereign" over "his own body and mind," which rules out government intervention aimed at protecting people from their own bad decisions. "I'm a libertarian in transit," he said. "I'm moving deeper into the libertarian realm.... Inconsistencies bother me." By the end of the show, Beck was declaring that the federal government should call off its war on drugs and let states decide how to deal with marijuana and other psychoactive substances.

Addendum: Marijuana Majority's Tom Angell notes that Beck indicated he favored marijuana legalization back in 2009, saying, "I think it's about time we legalize marijuana...  We either put people who are smoking marijuana behind bars or we legalize it, but this little game we are playing in the middle is not helping us, it is not helping Mexico and it is causing massive violence on our southern border...  Fifty percent of the money going to these cartels is coming just from marijuana coming across our border." As far as I know, however, this is the first time Beck has explicitly called for an end to federal prohibition of all the other currently banned drugs.

May 22, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Examining what qualifies as an LWOP sentence for purposes of Graham and Miller

This new piece at The Marshall Project, headlined "Life Expectancy: How many years make a life sentence for a teenager?," spotlights an Eighth Amendment issue that has been engaging lower courts in the five years since SCOTUS in Graham began putting limits of LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders.  Eventually the Supreme Court will have to resolve the issue of just what qualifies as an LWOP sentence, and here is an account of issue (with some links to notable rulings):

James Comer was 17 when he, an older cousin, and their friend made a series of violent and irreversible decisions: One night in April 2000, they robbed four people at gunpoint. They followed one of their victims for miles as she drove home from her night shift as a postal worker, then pointed a gun at her head outside her house.  Comer’s friend, 17-year-old Ibn Ali Adams, killed their second victim when he discovered the man had no money.

Comer’s youth, his lawyers argue, was at least partly responsible for his poor judgment and impulsive behavior. And it is his youth that may save him from dying in prison. Earlier this month, an Essex County, New Jersey, judge ordered a new sentencing hearing for Comer in light of Miller v. Alabama. ...

But Comer isn’t serving life without parole, at least not technically. For felony murder and multiple counts of armed robbery, he was sentenced to 75 years. He will be eligible for parole, but not until his 86th birthday — more than 20 years past his life expectancy, according to actuarial data his lawyers cited. This sentence “amounts to de facto life without parole and should be characterized as such,” the judge wrote.

Miller v. Alabama was the third in what’s come to be known as the “Roper/Graham/Miller trilogy” of cases in which the Supreme Court ruled, essentially, that kids are different. Teenagers’ still-developing brains make them more impulsive, more susceptible to peer pressure, and less able to understand the consequences of their actions. This makes them less culpable than adults and more amenable to rehabilitation as they mature, the court said.

With Roper, the court outlawed the death penalty for juveniles. With Graham, it struck down life-without-parole sentences for non-homicide crimes. With Miller, the justices forbid mandatory life-without-parole sentences, even for murder. Life sentences for juveniles are allowed only if the judge first has the chance to consider how youth and immaturity may have contributed to the crime....

Now a growing number of courts are interpreting the trilogy even more broadly, applying their principles to cases, like Comer’s, that aren’t explicitly covered by the court’s rulings.

“When read in light of Roper and Graham,” Miller v. Alabama “reaches beyond its core holding,” the Connecticut Supreme Court held last month in State v. Riley. In that case, 17-year-old Ackeem Riley was sentenced to 100 years in prison after he shot into a crowd in a gang-related incident, killing one teenager and wounding two children.  The court ordered a new sentencing hearing, finding that the sentencing judge had not adequately considered Riley’s youth.  Though Miller specifically targeted mandatory life without parole sentences — technically, Riley’s sentence was neither mandatory nor life without parole — the Supreme Court’s reasoning “counsels against viewing these cases through an unduly myopic lens,” the Connecticut court said.

Courts have handed down similar rulings in Wyoming, Florida, California, Iowa, and Colorado.  Another case is pending in Ohio.

In Brown v. Indiana, the state supreme court ordered a new sentencing hearing for Martez Brown, who was 16 when he and two friends killed a couple in a botched robbery. Quoting Miller, the court ruled that “similar to a life without parole sentence, Brown’s 150 year sentence ‘forswears altogether the rehabilitative ideal.’”  Although Brown’s sentence was not formally a life-without-parole sentence, they wrote, “we focus on the forest — the aggregate sentence — rather than the trees — consecutive or concurrent, number of counts, or length of the sentence on any individual count.”

May 21, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

After Boston bomber's condemnation in liberal Massachusetts, is the death penalty really "withering away"?

Download (1)The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy new commentary by George Will carrying the headline "Capital punishment’s slow death." Here is the full commentary, which claims to be making a "conservative case against capital punishment":

Without a definitive judicial ruling or other galvanizing event, a perennial American argument is ending. Capital punishment is withering away.

It is difficult to imagine moral reasoning that would support the conclusion that an injustice will be done when, years hence, the death penalty finally is administered to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon terrorist who placed a bomb in a crowd and then strolled to safety. Sentencing to death those who commit heinous crimes satisfies a sense of moral proportionality. This is, however, purchased with disproportionate social costs, as Nebraska seems to be concluding.

Nebraska is not a nest of liberals. Yet on Wednesday its 49-member unicameral legislature passed a bill abolishing the death penalty 32 to 15. Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, vows to veto it.

This comes at a time when, nationwide, exonerations of condemned prisoners and botched executions are dismayingly frequent. Nebraska’s death penalty opponents, including a majority of Nebraskans, say it is expensive without demonstrably enhancing public safety or being a solace to families of murder victims. Some Nebraska families have testified that the extended legal processes surrounding the death penalty prolong their suffering. That sentiment is shared by Bill and Denise Richard, whose 8-year-old son was killed by Tsarnaev.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments about whether one component of a three-drug mixture used in lethal injection executions — and recently used in some grotesquely protracted ones — is unreliable in preventing suffering that violates the Eighth Amendment proscription of “cruel and unusual punishments.” States use the drug in question because more effective drugs are hard to acquire, partly because death penalty opponents are pressuring drug companies not to supply them.

For this, Justice Antonin Scalia blamed a death penalty “abolitionist movement.” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. asked, “Is it appropriate for the judiciary to countenance what amounts to a guerrilla war against the death penalty, which consists of efforts to make it impossible for the states to obtain drugs that could be used to carry out capital punishment with little, if any, pain?” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wondered, “What bearing, if any, should be put on the fact that there is a method, but that it’s not available because of opposition to the death penalty? What relevance does that have?”

The answers are: Public agitation against capital punishment is not relevant to judicial reasoning. And it is not the judiciary’s business to worry that a ruling might seem to “countenance” this or that social advocacy.

The conservative case against capital punishment, which 32 states have, is threefold. First, the power to inflict death cloaks government with a majesty and pretense of infallibility discordant with conservatism. Second, when capital punishment is inflicted, it cannot later be corrected because of new evidence, so a capital punishment regime must be administered with extraordinary competence. It is, however, a government program. Since 1973, more than 140 people sentenced to death have been acquitted of their crimes (sometimes by DNA evidence), had the charges against them dismissed by prosecutors or have been pardoned based on evidence of innocence. For an unsparing immersion in the workings of the governmental machinery of death, read “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, executive director and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.

Third, administration of death sentences is so sporadic and protracted that their power to deter is attenuated. And the expensive, because labyrinthine, legal protocols with which the judiciary has enveloped capital punishment are here to stay. Granted, capital punishment could deter: If overdue library books were punishable by death, none would be overdue. But many crimes for which death is reserved, including Tsarnaev’s crime of ideological premeditation, are especially difficult to deter.

Those who favor capital punishment because of its supposed deterrent effect do not favor strengthening that effect by restoring the practice of public executions. There has not been one in America since 1937 (a hanging in Galena, Mo.) because society has decided that state-inflicted deaths, far from being wholesomely didactic spectacles, are coarsening and revolting.

Revulsion is not an argument, but it is evidence of what former chief justice Earl Warren called society’s “evolving standards of decency.” In the essay “Reflections on the Guillotine,” Albert Camus wrote, “The man who enjoys his coffee while reading that justice has been done would spit it out at the least detail.” Capital punishment, say proponents, serves social catharsis. But administering it behind prison walls indicates a healthy squeamishness that should herald abolition.

May 21, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Nebraska legislature votes by large margin to repeal state's death penalty

As reported in this new AP article, " Nebraska lawmakers gave final approval on Wednesday to a bill abolishing the death penalty with enough votes to override a promised veto from Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts."  Here is more:

The vote was 32 to 15 in Nebraska's unicameral Legislature.  If that vote holds in a veto override, Nebraska would become the first conservative state to repeal the death penalty since North Dakota in 1973.  The Nebraska vote is notable in the national debate over capital punishment because it was bolstered by conservatives who oppose the death penalty for religious reasons and say it is a waste of taxpayer money.

Nebraska hasn't executed a prisoner since 1997, and some lawmakers have argued that constant legal challenges will prevent the state from doing so again.

Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, a death penalty supporter, has vowed to veto the bill. Ricketts announced last week that the state has bought new lethal injection drugs to resume executions.  Ricketts, who is serving his first year in office, argued in his weekly column Tuesday that the state's inability to carry out executions was a "management problem" that he is committed to fixing.

Maryland was the last state to end capital punishment, in 2013. Three other moderate to liberal states have done so in recent years: New Mexico in 2009, Illinois in 2011, Connecticut in 2012. The death penalty is legal in 32 states, including Nebraska.

May 20, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Notable sentencing and clemency comments from newly-confirmed Deputy Attorney General

I just came across this recent Washington Post profile of Sally Quillian Yates, the new number two at the Department of Justice.  The piece is headlined "New deputy attorney general: ‘We’re not the Department of Prosecutions’," and here are some notable excerpts:

The odds were stacked against lawyer Sally Quillian in her first trial in rural Barrow County, Ga. Before an all-white jury, she was representing the county’s first African American landowning family against a developer over a disputed title to six acres of land. The family was so distrustful of the court system back in the 1930s that they hadn’t recorded their deed.  Instead, the family’s matriarch kept the deed, written on cloth, folded inside her dress every day while she worked the fields.  Now, a developer was trying to take their property, and Quillian was arguing the case using an arcane legal theory.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” Quillian — now Sally Quillian Yates — recalled. “I had never tried a case before.”  But the jury came back with a verdict in favor of her client. “These 12 white jurors, who knew and went to church with and socialized with everybody on the other side, did the right thing,” said Yates, who was then at a private firm.  “This court system that my client’s family had mistrusted so much that they wouldn’t even file their deed had worked for them as it’s supposed to and had given them back the property that had been so important to their family all of these years.”

That case some 30 years ago had a deep impact on Yates, who went on to become a prosecutor in Atlanta for 20 years.  In 2010, President Obama nominated Yates to be the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia.  Last week, she was confirmed to be deputy attorney general , the second-highest-ranking position at the Justice Department.  A bottle of champagne still sits in her fourth-floor corner office, which overlooks Constitution Avenue and where senior officials celebrated her ­84-to-12 Senate vote....

One of Yates’s priorities will be to follow through with the criminal justice reform efforts begun by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., including the push to give clemency to “nonviolent drug ­offenders” who meet certain criteria set out by the department last year, she said in her first interview since taking the job.

Yates and other prosecutors enforced the harsh sentencing policies from the 1980s and ’90s.  “Those policies were enacted at a time of an exploding violent-crime rate and serious crack problems,” Yates said.  “They were based on the environment we were in. But things have changed now, and violent crime rates have dropped dramatically.”

More than 35,000 inmates are seeking clemency, but a complicated review process has slowed the Obama administration’s initiative.  In February, Obama commuted the sentences of 22 drug offenders, the largest batch of prisoners to be granted early release under his administration and the first group of inmates who applied after the new criteria were set.

“Certainly, there’s some growing pains at the beginning,” Yates said.  “There’s start-up time involved in this. I think all of us are frustrated that it’s taken longer than we would like for this to be operating as efficiently as possible.  But I think we are headed down that road now. There are going to be more recommendations from the department, and I would expect more commutations that the president will be issuing.”...

Yates commutes every other weekend to Atlanta to be with her husband, who is the director of a school for children with learning disabilities, and to plan the wedding of her 24-year-old daughter, the older of two children.  She said the back-and-forth is worth the opportunity to influence criminal justice issues, including civil rights and sentencing reform, at the highest level.

She plans to urge lawmakers on Capitol Hill to pass legislation to change sentencing policies. “Certainly, I don’t think I can ever be accused of being soft on crime,” Yates said. “But we need to be using the limited resources we have to ensure that we are truly doing justice and that the sentences we’re meting out are just and proportional to the crimes that we’re charging.”

“We’re not the Department of Prosecutions or even the Department of Public Safety,” Yates said. “We are the Department of Justice.”

May 19, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Is a former lobbyist and former federal prisoner likely to be a uniquely good sentencing reform advocate?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new CQ Roll Call article headlined "Out of Prison, Ex-Lobbyist Pushes Sentencing Overhaul." Here are excerpts:

Kevin Ring helped write a bill in the 1990s that toughened penalties for methamphetamine charges. Now, recently out of prison, the former Team Abramoff lobbyist says he wants Congress to overhaul the nation’s justice system and to undo mandatory minimum requirements altogether.

His own effort comes at a pivotal time for the issue on Capitol Hill, where bipartisan measures (S 502, HR 920) to reduce stiff sentencing requirements for drug charges appear to be gaining some traction.

Ring, a former Hill aide, is wrapping up his 20-month sentence for an honest services fraud conviction by serving home confinement that allows him to work in downtown Washington, D.C. He is drawing on his K Street and criminal justice experiences at Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group devoted to peeling back the same sort of laws he helped push through while serving as a Senate Judiciary Committee staffer.

“We wanted to look tough on meth,” said Ring, a Republican, who recently started working full-time as FAMM’s new director of strategic initiatives. “The Hill is run by too many 20-year-olds with a lot of opinions and not enough experience, and I was part of that. I didn’t have enough experience to write criminal statutes. What did I know?”

Ring is a former colleague of ex-K Street power player Jack Abramoff, and like Abramoff he went to the federal prison camp in Cumberland, Md. Ring started working with FAMM part-time five years ago, doing grant writing. He’d already lost two jobs at K Street firms amid the unraveling Abramoff scandal, and he needed work. He had to terminate all outside employment during his prison term.

“When he first interviewed with us, he was incredibly humble, hat in hand, and said, ‘I’m about to be indicted,’” recalled Julie Stewart, FAMM’s president and founder and a self-described libertarian. “I immediately realized what an incredible gem we had in Kevin because of his conservative background. It was very clear to me that Kevin could do so much good for FAMM and for our issue and promoting it in a voice that could really be heard by the people we were trying to influence on the Hill.” FAMM, she noted, is a rare organization that gets funding from conservative David Koch and liberal George Soros.

Ring, 44, said he doesn’t expect he will meet the legal definition of a lobbyist at FAMM, but he intends to write op-eds, congressional testimony and advocacy letters. In short, he plans to influence the process largely from the background. It's not likely to be an easy sell.

Even as the White House and Republicans on the Hill, including Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Rep. Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho, are championing sentencing overhaul legislation, such proposals are far from a fait accompli. Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa has pushed back on criticism that he is blocking sentencing legislation, but he’s made clear his support would come with a price....

Grassley, in a recent speech at the Press Club, said white-collar criminals such as Ring receive "paltry sentences." He has suggested such criminals ought to be subject to mandatory minimums in exchange for reduced minimums for nonviolent drug offenders. "The last thing we need is to take away a tool that law enforcement and prosecutors use to get the bad guys," Grassley said.

His spokeswoman, Beth Levine, said Grassley’s staff and aides to the lawmakers pushing for sentencing legislation “have been sitting down to work something out.”

FAMM, as well as Ring, opposes new mandatory minimum requirements for white-collar crimes. “It’s an awful, awful idea,” Ring said during an interview last week in FAMM’s offices near Metro Center. “Even without mandatory minimums, prosecutors can threaten you with such a long sentence that you want to plead guilty.”

He said the mandatory minimums have inflated sentencing guidelines across crimes, even those not subject to mandatory sentences. In Ring’s case, prosecutors asked the judge to sentence him to at least 20 years in prison. He said even his current home confinement, which includes a GPS ankle tracker to monitor his location 24 hours a day, is surprisingly restrictive and ought to be used more for nonviolent offenders — keeping them out of the prison system and allowing them to continue to work, pay taxes and care for their children.

It’s a message that resonates with budget-conscious Republicans, especially those with a libertarian stance. Stewart, who started FAMM 24 years ago, when her brother went to federal prison for growing marijuana in Washington state, said the current conversation on Capitol Hill and across the country is unprecedented. “My one fear is that talk is cheap,” she said. “It’s going to be a push.”

And Ring will be right in the middle of it. “I believed it before, and now I just feel like I’m better informed for having had the experience,” Ring said. “You know I wouldn’t wish the experience on anyone, but now that I have it, I feel compelled to say what I saw. So that goes to not only how prosecutions work, how sentencing works, but then also how prisons work or don’t work.”

May 19, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, May 18, 2015

DC Circuit on child porn and sentencing manipulation and nonfrivolous arguments (aka departures and variances and Booker, oh my!)

I sometime consider Washington DC to be a land like Oz where weird, and sometimes magical, sometimes scary, sometimes bizarre, events can transpire.  Thus, when reading the DC Circuit's recent  opinion in US v. Bigley, No. 12-3022 (DC Cir. May 15, 2015) (available here), I kept hearing Dorothy's voice as the opinion twisted and turned through a variety of notable sentencing issues in the dark Booker forest.  Here is how the per curiam opinion gets started:

Before United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), rendered the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines advisory, we forbade district courts from relying on sentencing manipulation as a basis for mitigation.  See United States v. Walls, 70 F.3d 1323, 1329–30 (D.C. Cir. 1995).  But Booker and its offspring fundamentally changed the sentencing calculus, requiring courts to now consider any mitigation argument related to the sentencing factors contained in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) when imposing a sentence within the statutory range of punishment. See Pepper v. United States, 131 S. Ct. 1229, 1241–48 (2011); Kimbrough v. United States, 552 U.S. 85, 101–02 (2007); Rita v. United States, 551 U.S. 338, 357 (2007). A sentencing court, post-Booker, must consider nonfrivolous arguments for mitigation, even if those arguments were previously prohibited under the mandatory guidelines regime. Because the district court failed to consider a nonfrivolous claim of sentencing manipulation when it pronounced its sentence, we vacate the sentence and remand.

Notably, the full opinion for the DC Circuit panel here does not quite say that a district court always has an obligation to address expressly a nonfrivolous argument raised by the defendant. Judge Rogers concurs separately to advocate such a holding by the circuit:

“Sentencing is a responsibility heavy enough without our adding formulaic or ritualized burdens.” United States v. Cavera, 550 F.3d 180, 193 (2d Cir. 2008).  I am not indifferent to concerns about saddling busy district courts with more procedural loads and I appreciate this court’s reluctance.  But the burden of providing a brief explanation is small and the advantages great.  “Most obviously, [an explanation] requirement helps to ensure that district courts actually consider the statutory factors and reach reasoned decisions.” Id. at 193; see also In re Sealed Case, 527 F.3d 188, 192 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (“The requirements that a sentencing judge provide a specific reason for a departure and that he commit that reason to writing work together to ensure a sentence is well-considered.”).  It also promotes the “perception of fair sentencing,” Gall, 552 U.S. at 50, and “helps the sentencing process evolve by informing the ongoing work of the Sentencing Commission,” Cavera, 550 F.3d at 193. When a sentencing court responds to a defendant’s arguments, it “communicates a message of respect for defendants, strengthening what social psychologists call ‘procedural justice effects,’ thereby advancing fundamental purposes of the Sentencing Reform Act.” See Michael M. O’Hear, Explaining Sentences, 36 FLA. ST. U. L. REV. 459, 472 (2009). The requirement also assures an adequate record with which we can conduct “meaningful appellate review.” Gall, 552 U.S. at 50. I would join the majority of circuits in holding district courts should address a defendant’s nonfrivolous argument for a variance from the Guideline range.

Though the formal ruling and the discussion of sentencing procedural are surely the most consequential aspects of this Bigbey ruling, I cannot overlook or fail to comment on the case facts and on how the remarkable severity of the federal child porn guidelines shaped the entire sentencing dynamic of this case. Here is the sad and remarkable (guideline) tale: The defendant in this case was charged and pled guilty to "one count of interstate travel with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct with a minor" after he drove to DC to hook up with a (fictional) 12-year-old daughter of a friend of an (undercover) agent chatting on-line. At the suggestion of the agent, the defendant bought a digital camera with him on his trip to DC for taking pictures of the girl, which had this impact in the calculation of the guideline range:

When the probation office calculated his advisory sentencing guideline range, it employed the Section 2G1.3(c)(1) cross-reference guideline provision, which requires the application of Section 2G2.1 when an offense involves “causing, transporting, permitting, or offering . . . a minor to engage in sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of such conduct.” U.S.S.G. § 2G1.3(c)(1). By applying Section 2G2.1, Bigley’s base offense level increased from 24 to 32, which, when the other guideline calculations were made, boosted his sentence guideline range from 46 to 57 months to 135 to 168 months of imprisonment.

In other words, because (and only because) the defendant was talked into bringing a digital camera on his illegal child booty-call trip, his recommended guideline sentence shot up from 4-5 years to 12-14 years. I have heard of some severe gun-possession sentencing enhancements, but I have never seen such a severe camera-possession sentencing enhancement.  Perhaps the NRA (the Nikon Rights Association) should consider filing an amicus brief at the resentencing.

May 18, 2015 in Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

NY Times editorial astutely praises "Justice Reform in the Deep South"

Throughout too much of America's history, the term "Southern Justice" would invoke shudders and fear. (Indeed, as discussed here, Norman Rockwell used this term as the title for his historic painting depicting the deaths of three civil rights workers killed for seeking to register African American voters.) But, as effectively highlighted by this new New York Times editorial, lawmakers in the deep south are lately doing a lot to remake the image of southern justice:

It has been getting easier by the day for politicians to talk about fixing the nation’s broken criminal justice system. But when states in the Deep South, which have long had some of the country’s harshest penal systems, make significant sentencing and prison reforms, you know something has changed.

Almost all of these deep-­red states have made changes to their justice systems in the last few years, and in doing so they have run laps around Congress, which continues to dither on the passage of any meaningful reform.  Lawmakers in Alabama, for example, voted nearly unanimously early this month to approve a criminal justice bill.  Alabama prisons are stuffed to nearly double capacity, endangering the health and lives of the inmates, and the cost of mass imprisonment is crippling the state budget at no discernible benefit to public safety.

The bill would cut the state’s prison population of nearly 25,000 by about 4,500 people over the next five years. Sentences for certain nonviolent crimes would be shortened, and more parole supervisors would be hired to help ensure that people coming out of prison don’t return. Gov. Robert Bentley is expected to sign the measure as soon as Tuesday.

Before Alabama, South Carolina passed its own package of reforms in 2010.  In February, it closed its second minimum-­security prison in a year.  Georgia got on board with significant reforms to its adult and juvenile prison systems in 2012 and 2013, including giving judges more leeway to sentence below mandatory minimums and increasing oversight of prisons.  In 2014, Mississippi passed its own systemic fixes, like providing more alternatives to prison for low­level drug offenders.

Of course, all these states had abysmal conditions to start with. Mississippi imprisons more of its citizens per capita than China and Russia combined. That’s worse than any state except Louisiana, which has not yet managed reforms as broad as its neighbors. Alabama was facing the threat of federal intervention to alleviate its crushingly overcrowded prisons if it didn’t act.  And many of these state reforms are far more modest than they should be....

Nonetheless, these initiatives show important progress. Less than a decade ago, it was difficult to find any governor anywhere, of either party, who would go near this issue. Now, a Republican governor like Nathan Deal of Georgia is pointing with pride to two major reform packages, as well as the state’s “ban the box” law, which prohibits the state from asking potential employees about their criminal history until later in the hiring process.

Still, justice reform is a fragile proposition, and can be easily thwarted by more powerful political forces.  As the 2016 presidential election approaches, most of the major candidates agree that criminal­justice reform is a priority, but there remains a good deal of ambivalence on how to move forward.  There needn’t be.  The reforms in the southern states, though limited, are already paying off.  The presidential candidates — not to mention Congress — should be paying close attention.

May 18, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, May 17, 2015

"Does Michigan's sex offender registry keep us safer?"

B9317136721Z.1_20150516190456_000_G8HANTDOK.1-0The question in the title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new Detroit Free Press article. The piece carries this subheadline: "Experts say such registries can be counterproductive; courts question constitutional fairness." Here are excerpts of a must-read piece for any and everyone concerned about the efficacy of sex offender regulations:

It has been 10 years since Shaun Webb, a married father and caretaker at an Oakland County Catholic church, was convicted of groping a teenage girl over her sweater, a claim Webb vehemently denies.  Webb, then-37 with a clean criminal record, was convicted of misdemeanor sexual assault and sent to jail for seven months.

Though a misdemeanor, state law demanded Webb be listed on the same public sex offender registry as hard-core rapists, pedophiles and other felons.  It has meant a decade of poverty, unemployment, harassment and depression for him. Under current state law, he'll be on the list until 2031.  "It's destroyed my life," Webb said from his rural home in Arenac County, where he now lives alone with his dog, Cody.

Webb is one of 43,000 convicted sex offenders in Michigan, most of which appear on the state online sex offender registry managed by the State Police.  Each state has a digital registry that can be searched on the Internet with a total of about 800,000 names.  The registries are widely monitored by parents, potential employers and cautious neighbors.

To be sure, registries in Michigan and across the nation help track violent sexual offenders and pedophiles who prey on children, and they're also politically popular and get lots of traffic online.  But Michigan's law — and some others across the nation — have come under fire lately as overly broad, vague and potentially unconstitutional.  For example, Michigan has the fourth-highest per capita number of people on its registry and is one of only 13 states that counts public urination as a sex crime.

Research also suggests registries do little to protect communities and often create ongoing misery for some who served their sentences and are unlikely to re-offend....

Even some early advocates have changed their minds about registries, including Patty Wetterling, the mother of Jacob Wetterling, who went missing when he was 11 and was never found. Police suspect Jacob was abducted by a convicted pedophile who was living nearby unbeknownst to neighbors.  No one was charged.

At the time, Wetterling lobbied passionately for a federal law authorizing registries and was at the White House in 1994 when President Bill Clinton signed legislation into law.  But she now advocates revisiting the laws, saying some juveniles and others who made mistakes are unnecessarily tarred for decades or life.  "Should they never be given a chance to turn their lives around?" she said in a published 2013 interview. "Instead, we let our anger drive us."

But some legislators and law enforcement officials say registries are useful because they help keep track of potentially dangerous people.  The supporters also dismiss the research, saying it's impossible to determine who might re-offend.  They caution against narrowing the definition in Michigan's law of who should be listed and are against adopting a new recommendation by some that defendants should be judged case by case by who is most likely to re-offend.

"The problem I have is should we go back and say only pedophiles have to register?" said state Sen. Rick Jones, a former sheriff who helped draft some of Michigan's sex offender registry laws. "Do we want violent sex offenders on the school grounds? Do we want public masturbators on the school grounds? I'm not prepared to change the way the list operates."

Many parents say the registries makes them feel safer.  Lori Petty, a legal secretary, has been logging on regularly over the years as she raised her two sons in Commerce Township. "If they were going over to a friend's house to visit, I would look to see who lived nearby, if there was a high concentration," she said. "Not that there was anything I could do, but it helps to know."  Her sons are now 18 and 25, and she monitors the site less frequently, using it to see who may have moved close by, she said. "I want to know who is living in my neighborhood."

Sex offender registry laws were first passed in the 1990s following a string of horrific child murders.  The registries were originally accessible only by police, allowing them to track the most dangerous offenders. But lawmakers in Michigan and other states expanded the laws over the years — they are now public record and include teenagers who had consensual sex, people arrested for public urination, people who had convictions expunged at the request of their victims, and people like Webb who have no felony convictions.

Earlier this month, a Florida couple was convicted of lewd behavior after having consensual sex on a public beach. They will have to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives.  In Michigan, most of those convicted of sex offenses are listed online and show up with just a few key strokes on a website managed by the Michigan State Police....

Convicted sex offenders don't generate much public sympathy, but research in the last two decades shows they might not be very effective.  And higher courts recently called registries harsh and unconstitutional, including a ruling last month that says parts of Michigan's law are vague and unconstitutional, making it impossible in some instances for offenders to know whether they are following the law.  For many, there is also a question of fundamental fairness when, for example, a 19-year-old is convicted of having sex with his underage girlfriend or somebody convicted of public urination is grouped on the same list as a serial rapist.

Despite the court rulings and the research, it's doubtful public sex offender registries are going away, although it seems apparent Michigan and other states might be pushed into making some changes.  A big question, though, is whether Michigan's expansive definition of who should be on the sex offender registry is fair to people like Webb....

Nationally, there are about 800,000 people registered as sex offenders across the 50 states.  Michigan is particularly aggressive, ranking fourth in the nation with the number of offenders on the registry, following only California, Texas and Florida. It also ranks fourth per capita, with 417 registrants per 100,000 citizens.  It is one of only 13 states that count public urination as a sex crime, although two convictions are required before registration. And Michigan continues to require registration for consensual sex among teenagers if the age difference is greater than four years....

Michigan legislators are reviewing [the recent federal court] ruling and considering reforming the laws to make them compliant.  Some, though, think tougher laws are in order.  And they dismiss critics who say the registries cause unnecessary misery to those who have already served their sentences. "I say if you do the horrible rape, or if you have sex with a child, you deserve the consequences," said state Sen. Rick Jones, who helped draft some of Michigan's sex offender registry laws.

Jones questions the research that shows sex offenders are much less likely to re-offend and that the majority of those on the registry pose no threat. "I have 31 years of experience in police work, and as a retired sheriff in Eaton County I formed some very strong opinions that the science is still not clear for pedophiles. I believe it is society's duty to keep pedophiles from children so that the temptation isn't there. So I say you need to stay a thousand feet from schools."

A 2010 study by the American Journal of Public Health, examining sex offender laws nationwide and the best way to reduce recidivism, noted: "Research to date indicates that after 15 years the laws have had little impact on recidivism rates and the incidence of sexually based crimes. " Instead, the study found, "The most significant impact of these laws seems only to be numerous collateral consequences for communities, registered sex offenders — including a potential increased risk for recidivism — and their family members."

J.J. Prescott, a law professor at the University of Michigan and a nationally recognized expert on sex offender registry laws, agrees.  He has done statistical analysis of the impact the laws have on crime rates. "I believe that if a sex offender really wants to commit a crime, these laws are not going to be particularly effective at stopping him," he said, noting that there is no evidence that residency restrictions or "school safety zones" have had any positive impact on the rate of sexual assault on children, according to studies nationwide....

While his research also shows that the mere threat of having to publicly register may deter some potential offenders from committing their first crime, this effect is more than offset in states with large registries by higher levels of recidivism among those who have been convicted.

May 17, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

After reversal of most serious charges, elderly nun and fellow peace activists released from federal prison

As reported in this AP article, headlined "3 anti-nuclear activists released from federal prison," a notable federal civil disobedience case has taken some notable new turns this month. Here are the details:

An 85-year-old nun and two fellow Catholic peace activists who vandalized a uranium storage bunker were released from prison on Saturday, their lawyer said.  Attorney Marc Shapiro says Sister Megan Rice was released just hours after 66-year-old Michael Walli and 59-year-old Greg Boertje-Obed also were let out of prison.

The trio was ordered released by a federal appeals court on Friday.  The order came after the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati last week overturned their 2013 sabotage convictions and ordered resentencing on their remaining conviction for injuring government property at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge.

The activists have spent two years in prison.  The court said they likely already have served more time than they will receive for the lesser charge.

On Thursday, their attorneys petitioned the court for an emergency release, saying that resentencing would take weeks if normal court procedures were followed.  Prosecutors responded that they would not oppose the release, if certain conditions were met. "They are undoubtedly relieved to be returning to family and friends," said Shapiro, who represented the activists in their appeal.

Rice, Walli and Boertje-Obed are part of a loose network of activists opposed to the spread of nuclear weapons.  To further their cause, in July 2012, they cut through several fences to reach the most secure area of the Y-12 complex.  Before they were arrested, they spent two hours outside a bunker that stores much of the nation's bomb-grade uranium, hanging banners, praying and spray-painting slogans....

Rice was originally sentenced to nearly three years and Walli and Boertje-Obed were each sentenced to just over five years.  In overturning the sabotage conviction, the Appeals Court ruled that their actions did not injure national security.

Boertje-Obed's wife, Michele Naar-Obed, said in a phone interview from her home in Duluth, Minnesota, she hoped her husband would be released from prison by Monday, which will be his 60th birthday.  Naar-Obed previously served three years in prison herself for anti-nuclear protests.  She said that if their protests open people's minds to the possibility of life without nuclear weapons, then "yeah, it was worth it."

Prior related posts:

May 17, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice call for absolute capital abolition

As reported in this Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, headlined "Former justice calls for end to death penalty," reports on a notable speech given by a notable former jurist.  Here are the details:

A former chief justice of Georgia’s highest court on Tuesday strongly renounced the death penalty and called for its abolition.  Norman Fletcher, who served 15 years on the Georgia Supreme Court, said the death penalty is “morally indefensible,” “makes no business sense” and is not applied fairly and consistently.

“Capital punishment must be permanently halted, without exception,” Fletcher said. “It will not be easy, but it can and will be accomplished.”

Fletcher, now a Rome lawyer, retired from the state Supreme Court in 2005.  Although considered one of the court’s more liberal members, he cast numerous votes upholding death sentences.  In more recent years, he has signed on to legal briefs urging courts to halt the executions of a number of condemned inmates.

Fletcher made his remarks Tuesday evening at the Summerour Studio near Atlantic Station, where he received the Southern Center for Human Rights’ Gideon’s Promise Award for his role in helping create a statewide public defender system.  In his acceptance speech, Fletcher said he was about to “shock” those attending the ceremony.

Lawyers who once criticized his decisions upholding death sentences were justified, he said. “With wisdom gained over the past 10 years, I am now convinced there is absolutely no justification for continuing to impose the sentence of death in this country,” Fletcher said....

Fletcher added, “There can be no doubt that actually innocent persons have been executed in this country.”  Too often, Fletcher contended, budgetary issues, race and politics factor into the decision-making of whether to seek the death penalty.

Fletcher cited the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, who once said he could “no longer tinker with the machinery of death.”  Blackmun made this declaration before he retired from the high court in 1994. “It is time for us to quit the tinkering and totally abolish this barbaric system,” Fletcher said.

May 13, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Senator Cornyn highlights his plan to "ensure that prisons don’t become nursing homes behind bars"

This recent post spotlighted the Washington Post's extended front-page story about the graying of America's prison populations.  Notably, Senator John Cornyn has now penned this letter to the editor to explain what he is trying to do to deal with this issue:

A bipartisan proposal working its way through Congress would offer a path home for some nonviolent, elderly prisoners.

The Corrections Act, which I have introduced with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), includes a provision that would make prisoners age 60 and older eligible for early release after serving two-thirds of their sentences.  This reform builds on an expired pilot program from a bipartisan prison reform law known as the Second Chance Act of 2007.  That program showed good results before it was canceled last year, and our proposal would save taxpayer money by treating seriously ill and dying individuals with compassion.

It is becoming increasingly clear that we must make bipartisan efforts to reform our criminal justice system.  Many of the issues involved are complex, but reforming the system to ensure that prisons don’t become nursing homes behind bars doesn’t need to be one of them.

May 13, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Electrifying Tennessee fight over electric chair as back up execution method

BuzzFeed has this interesting new article about an interesting legal fight unfolding in Tennessee.  This extensive headline provides the basics: "Tennessee Officials Fight Inmates’ Attempt To Challenge Electric Chair Plans: The electric chair is Tennessee’s plan B if the state can’t get ahold of lethal drugs. The inmates argue it’s unconstitutional, but the state argues that they can’t challenge it yet."  Here are some details from the start of the article:

Can death-row inmates challenge the constitutionality of electrocution?  The Tennessee Supreme Court will soon decide.  

Death penalty states once phased out the electric chair in favor of drugs — for humane reasons.  Now that drugs have become hard to obtain, states like Tennessee have turned to older execution methods like the chair as a backup.

On Wednesday, the state court will weigh whether death-row inmates can challenge the method’s constitutionality.  Thirty-four inmates allege electrocution is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment — that the electric chair disfigures the body and is an affront to evolving standards of decency.

But Tennessee has pushed to have the lawsuit dismissed, arguing that the inmates can’t challenge the method because none of them are actually scheduled to face electrocution.

Tennessee’s preferred method is lethal injection, using pentobarbital made from a secret compounding pharmacy.  Lawmakers passed a law last year that makes electrocution the contingency plan if either drug makers or the courts make lethal injection impossible.

“The[y] are asking the court in this case to… consider hypothetical situations involving uncertain or contingent future events that may or may not occur as anticipated or, indeed, may not occur at all,” Attorney General Herbert Slatery’s office wrote.

May 7, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Seventh Circuit, in 6-5 en banc ruling, allows new federal 2241 review of Atkins claim based on new evidence

If you love to spend a spring weekend thinking through the statutes and policies that govern federal collateral review of federal death sentences — and really, who doesn't? — then the en banc Seventh Circuit has a great ruling for you.  Dividing 6-to-5, the Seventh Circuit in Webster v. Daniels, No. 14-1049 (7th Cir. May 1, 2015) (available here), decided that a federal death row inmate was "not barred as a matter of law from seeking relief under section 2241" to continue to pursue based on new evidence his claim that he was "so intellectually disabled that he is categorically ineligible for the death penalty under Atkins and Hall."

This following paragraph from the dissent authored by Judge Easterbrook highlights why this ruling took the majority many pages to reach and is controversial:  

Whether Webster is “retarded” was the principal issue at his trial and sentencing.  He raised his mental shortcomings as a mitigating factor, and four jurors found that they mitigate his culpability, but the jury still voted unanimously for capital punishment.  The sentencing hearing spanned 29 days, with abundant evidence.  The district judge found that Webster is not retarded within the meaning of §3596(c) and sentenced him to death. The Fifth Circuit affirmed on the merits and later affirmed a district court’s decision denying a petition under §2255 addressed to retardation.  If Webster is retarded, he is ineligible for the death penalty.  Whether he is retarded has been determined after a hearing, collateral review under §2255, and multiple appeals.  What Webster now wants is still another opportunity to litigate that question.  The majority gives Webster that opportunity in a new district court and a new circuit, setting up a conflict among federal judges.  Section 2255 is designed to prevent that, and prudential considerations also militate against one circuit’s disagreeing with another in the same case.

May 2, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, May 01, 2015

Judicial second-thoughts leads to greatly reduced prison sentences for cheating Atlanta school administrators

As reported here a few weeks ago, the judge presiding over the sentencing of 10 former Atlanta public school educators convicted of participating in a widespread conspiracy to cheat on state tests ordered three of the defendants to serve seven years in state prison.  But, as this CNN article reports, now that same judge has reduced their sentences to three years in prison. Here is why:

"I'm not comfortable with it," Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter said of the sentences he handed down to the three defendants April 14. "When a judge goes home and he keeps thinking over and over that something's wrong, something is usually wrong."

Tamara Cotman, Sharon Davis-Williams and Michael Pitts also were ordered Thursday to serve seven years on probation, pay $10,000 fines and work 2,000 hours in community service.

Baxter had come under fire from some community leaders for giving prison sentences to eight teachers and administrators who stood trial and were convicted of racketeering. They'd been accused of taking part in an effort to raise tests scores at struggling schools by erasing wrong answers and putting in correct answers.

Outside of court, Benjamin Davis, the lawyer for Cotman, questioned the judge's rationale in handing down heavy sentences a few weeks ago. "I had never seen a judge conduct himself in that way," he said. "What was going on with Judge Baxter?"

Davis-Williams said she was pleased judge Baxter changed his mind. Her attorney, Teresa Mann, added, "We are happy. We are elated that judge Baxter took the opportunity to reflect." Cotman, Davis-Williams and Pitts, all school reform team executive directors, got the harshest sentences during an April 14 hearing: Seven years in prison, 13 years of probation and $25,000 fines.

Baxter said of his change of mind: "I'm going to put myself out to pasture in the not-too-distant future and I want to be out in the pasture without any regrets."

During the earlier sentencing hearing, Baxter was frustrated when defendants didn't admit their guilt. "Everybody knew cheating was going on and your client promoted it," Baxter said to an attorney representing Davis-Williams. At one point he said, "These stories are incredible. These kids can't read."

At a press conference held April 17, most of the convicted educators insisted they were innocent. "I didn't cheat. I'm not a racketeer," said Diane Buckner-Webb, a former elementary teacher.

All defendants sentenced to prison have appealed and are out on bond. The lower prison sentences given to other defendants -- ranging from one to two years -- have not been reduced....

Of 35 Atlanta educators indicted in 2013, more than 20 took a plea deal. Twelve educators went on trial six months ago, with 11 convicted and one acquitted on April 1. Of the 11 convicted, two took a deal in which they admitted guilt, waived their right to appeal and received much lighter sentences. One defendant was giving birth during the sentencing phase not been sentenced.

On Thursday, Baxter urged the defendants to engage in community service while they're appealing. He said that might lighten the punishment if the convictions are upheld. The judge said he was tired of dealing with the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal, which he referred to as "this mess."

"I'm ready to move on. So, anyway, adios," Baxter said, and ended the hearing. 

Notably, under federal law, a judge is not legally permitted to change a sentence based only on subsequent second thoughts about the appropriateness of the sentence. I have long understood (though not always thought wise) that a federal judge gets only one bite at the sentencing apple, and I would love to hear from commentors whether they this is it just and appropriate to let sentencing judges adjust sentences in the way and for the reasons done in this state case.

Prior related post:

May 1, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Ninth Circuit finds procedural error in teen's 30-month federal sentence for laser beam prank

A Ninth Circuit panel today handed down a notable sentencing opinion in US v Gardenhire, No. 13-50125 (9th Cir. April 30, 2015) (available here).  This unofficial summary of the ruling provided by court staff highlights why federal sentencing fans will want to check out the full ruling:

The panel vacated a sentence imposed for knowingly aiming the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 39A, and remanded for resentencing, in a case in which the district court applied an enhancement for reckless endangerment under U.S.S.G. § 2A5.2(a)(2)(A).

The panel held that the district court erred in concluding that the defendant acted recklessly when he aimed his laser beam at the aircraft, where the record is devoid of evidence, let alone clear and convincing evidence, that the defendant was aware of the risk created by his conduct.

The panel could not say that the error was harmless, and instructed that the matter be assigned to a different district judge on remand.  The panel observed that the district court’s statements show its commitment to the idea that, regardless of the evidence presented, the defendant’s conduct was reckless, and that it would likely impose the same sentence on remand, regardless of this court’s rulings.

In light of the extremely steep sentencing regime dictated by the recklessness enhancement for wide-ranging conduct covered by § 2A5.2, the panel wrote that it is particularly important that the government is held to its burden of proof and that the enhancements are supported by clear and convincing evidence.

April 30, 2015 in Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Intriguing reports on Supreme Court oral argument about Oklahoma's lethal injection protocol

Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog has this report on the oral argument today in the Supreme Court case concerning Oklahoma's lethal injection protocols.  It starts this way:

For months, the Supreme Court has given no explanation as it refused to give inmates awaiting execution any chance to learn about the methods by which they would be put to death, and has said nothing as it allowed states to experiment with new lethal-drug combinations even after some of those executions were seriously botched. It allowed one inmate to be put to death even before it decided whether to hear his case. In other words, the regime of capital punishment went forward without any new constitutional assessment of it by the Justices; they have not done so on lethal-drug executions for seven years.

On Wednesday, the nation may have gotten the beginnings of an explanation. What appears to be a clear majority of the Court has grown frustrated with the repeated constitutional assaults on the death penalty, especially since that penalty is still constitutionally permitted. That frustration almost boiled over as the Court heard the case of Glossip v. Gross.

That case, at its core, is only about whether the first drug Oklahoma uses in its three-drug lethal combination is capable of making the inmate sufficiently unconscious that he feels little or no pain as the next two, highly toxic drugs paralyze and then kill him. The grim possibility of that particular protocol was described alarmingly by Justice Elena Kagan as “burning alive, from the inside.”

And Wednesday’s argument started out as if it would proceed through a detailed examination of the properties of that first drug — midazalom — and how two lower courts had analyzed its effect in the execution chamber. There was much discussion about judicial fact-finding and what was open to the Supreme Court to second-guess about that.

But the tone and the substance of the argument changed abruptly, when Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., moved aggressively into an exchange with the Oklahoma death-row inmates’ lawyer, Robin C. Konrad. “Let’s be honest about what’s going on here,” Alito began. He mentioned how controversial the death penalty is, and said its opponents would be free to continue to try to get it abolished. But, he said, until that happens, “is it appropriate for the judiciary to countenance what amounts to a guerilla war against the death penalty which consists of efforts to make it impossible for the states to obtain drugs that could be used to carry out capital punishment with little, if any, pain?”

This Reuters article about today's arguments, headlined "Lethal injection case exposes U.S. top court's death penalty divide," develops similar themes in its review of the arguments. It starts this way:

Tensions on the Supreme Court over America's use of the death penalty boiled over on Wednesday as the justices appeared badly split in a case challenging Oklahoma's lethal injection method as a breach of the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The nine-member court's five conservatives seemed likely to side with Oklahoma in the case brought by three death row inmates, while its four liberals expressed doubt about the propriety of using the drug at the center of the dispute. Conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, who often casts deciding votes in close cases, said nothing to suggest he would side with the liberals.

The full oral argument transcript is available at this link.

Recent related posts:

April 29, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack