Tuesday, October 04, 2016

"The Original Meaning of 'Cruel'"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by John Stinneford now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

This Article demonstrates that the word “cruel” in the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause means “unjustly harsh,” not “motivated by cruel intent.”  The word refers to the effect of the punishment, not the intent of the punisher.  In prior articles, I have shown that the word “unusual” means “contrary to long usage,” and thus a punishment is cruel and unusual if its effects are unjustly harsh in light of longstanding prior practice.

This Article solves several important problems plaguing the Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.  First, it clarifies the Eighth Amendment’s intent requirement.  To violate the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, some government official must possess intent to punish but not necessarily intent to punish cruelly. Second, it demonstrates how to determine whether a given punishment is so harsh that it violates the Eighth Amendment.  The question is not whether a punishment is unjustly harsh in the abstract but whether it is unjustly harsh in comparison to the traditional punishment practices it has replaced.  Third, it shows how to sort between those unintended effects of punishment that may properly be considered part of the punishment and those that may not.  If a given punishment heightens the risk of severe, unjustified harm significantly beyond the baseline risk established by longstanding prior practice, it is cruel and unusual.  

Finally, this Article establishes that the core purpose of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause is to prevent unjust suffering, not the coarsening of public sensibilities.  Historically, governmental efforts to protect public sensibilities by making punishment less transparent have increased the risk that the offender will experience undetected cruel suffering.  When the government undertakes such efforts, it should bear the burden to show that they do not significantly increase this risk.

The original meaning of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause calls into question the constitutionality of several current punishment practices, including lengthy prison sentences for certain offenses, long-term solitary confinement, the three-drug lethal injection protocol, and certain prison conditions, to name a few.

October 4, 2016 in Recommended reading, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, October 03, 2016

Previewing the (very criminal) start of the new SCOTUS Term

As this October Term 2016 merits case list via SCOTUSblog highlights, six of the first seven cases that the Supreme Court has scheduled for oral argument to kick off its new season involve criminal justice issues.  And, with thanks again to the extraordinary work that SCOTUSblog always does to make it so much easier to keep up with all the Supreme Court action, here are links to case pages, issues and previews of the first two of the cases, which are to be heard on Tuesday:

Shaw v. United States: Whether, in the bank-fraud statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1344, subsection (1)’s “scheme to defraud a financial institution” requires proof of a specific intent not only to deceive, but also to cheat, a bank, as nine circuits have held, and as petitioner argued here.

Argument preview: Court to consider scope of federal bank-fraud statute

 

Bravo-Fernandez v. United States: Whether, under Ashe v. Swenson and Yeager v. United States, a vacated, unconstitutional conviction can cancel out the preclusive effect of an acquittal under the collateral estoppel prong of the Double Jeopardy Clause.

Argument preview: Double jeopardy opens the Term

And for those looking for more of an overview perspective on what the Justices might be doing in the criminal justice arena this Term, Andrew Cohen has this useful commentary over at the Brennan Center headlined "A Hindered Court Will Tweak Criminal Law."

October 3, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Dignity and the Death Penalty in the US Supreme Court"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Bharat Malkani now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

The US Supreme Court has repeatedly invoked the idea of dignity in its Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, particularly in cases involving capital punishment.  However, it has never articulated a clear and consistent conception of dignity.  The first half of this paper examines the Court's inconsistent use, and highlights how various justices have used different conceptions of human dignity, communitarian dignity, and institutional dignity to uphold the constitutionality of capital punishment.  This stands in contrast to how foreign and international authorities have used the idea of dignity to advance abolition.

The second half of this paper uses the Supreme Court's own accounts of dignity, and philosophical approaches to dignity, to argue that respect for dignity must pull towards a finding that the death penalty is unconstitutional.  Respect for dignity, it is argued, requires a consideration of how human, communitarian, and institutional dignity inter-relate and inform one another.  For example, it makes little sense to examine the death penalty and the dignity of the legal system without considering the human dignity of the people involved in administering capital punishment.  When these three dignities are considered together, it becomes clear that the death penalty cannot comport with respect for dignity, as required by the Eighth Amendment.

October 3, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Happy SCOTUS new year/Term ... which has already gotten started with more Johnson fall-out

Today is the always exciting first Monday in October, the traditional first day of a new Supreme Court Term.  But because today is also Rosh Hoshanah, the Justices are not hearing the first oral argument of the Term until tomorrow. (I suspect Justices Breyer, Ginsburg and Kagan are going to be partying like it is 5777, which is the year starting today.)

But, while I was spending all my extra time Friday focused on my favorite sporting event, the Supreme Court sort-of got off to a running start for the new Term by announcing Friday afternoon that the were going to review on the merits eight new cases. This SCOTUSblog posting provides details on all these new cases, and this pair should be of particular interest to criminal justice fans:

In Lynch v. Dimaya, the justices will consider whether, for purposes of federal immigration law, the general definition of a “crime of violence” is so vague that it is unconstitutional. In 2015, the court ruled in Johnson v. United States that the so-called “residual clause” in the Armed Career Criminal Act’s definition of “violent felony” was unconstitutionally vague. Relying on that decision, the 9th Circuit ruled that the definition of “crime of violence” suffers from the same problem as the ACCA’s residual clause, and the federal government asked the court to decide the issue. The government emphasized (among other things) that the text of the definition is quite different from that of the ACCA’s residual clause – as evidenced by the fact that it “has not generated the widespread confusion and interpretive failures that led this Court to invalidate the ACCA’s residual clause.”

Nelson v. Colorado is the case of two Colorado residents who were convicted and sent to prison; they were also ordered to pay restitution and a variety of fees. After their convictions were reversed on appeal, they unsuccessfully sought a refund of the money they had paid. The question before the court is the constitutionality of the state’s requirement that defendants whose convictions are reversed can obtain a refund only if they show, by clear and convincing evidence, that they are innocent. The former inmates argue that Colorado “appears to be the only state” that imposes such a requirement, and they add that the state has “no legitimate interest to keep money that rightly belongs to people whose convictions have been reversed.”

October 3, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Untroubled by SCOTUS Hurst ruling, unanimous Alabama Supreme Court upholds state's capital punishment procedures

6a00d83451574769e201bb08b85699970d-320wiAs reported in this local article, headlined "Supreme Court of Alabama has unanimously upheld the state's capital murder sentencing scheme," a top state court has concluded that its capital punishment law is not to be consumed by the post-Hurst hydra.  "post-Hurst hydra"  (As regularly readers may recall, in this post not long after the Supreme Court in Hurst declared Florida's death penalty procedures violative of the Sixth Amendment, I coined the term "post-Hurst hydra" to describe what I expected to become multi-headed, snake-like capital litigation as judges tried to make sense of what Hurst must mean for past, present and future cases.)  Here are the basics and the context for this significant ruling:

The Supreme Court of Alabama has unanimously upheld the state's capital murder sentencing scheme, which signifies Alabama as the last state in the country that allows for this type of scheme.  The ruling allows for judicial override, which means a judge can impose the death penalty even after a jury has recommended a lesser sentence.

This happened in Montgomery county in 2008, when Circuit Judge Truman Hobbs overrode a jury’s decision to sentence Mario Woodward to life in prison without the possibility of parole for killing Montgomery police officer Keith Houts.  After finding him guilty, the jury recommended life in prison without parole, “But Hobbs said the 34-year-old should die for killing Houts in September 2006,” the Advertiser reported at the time of the sentencing.

In March, Jefferson County Circuit Judge Tracie Todd ruled that the judicial override sentencing scheme was unconstitutional in light of Hurst v. Florida — a January U.S. Supreme Court decision stating that Florida’s sentencing scheme, which also incorporated a judicial override system, was unconstitutional.  Florida’s scheme left it to the judge to find the aggravating factors, not the jury.

The case that sparked Alabama's judicial override appellate process stems from a case involving four men who were charged with three capital murders.  Defense attorneys argued the men should be barred from receiving the death penalty based on that the Supreme Court of the United States' decision.

Todd ruled in their favor, which barred prosecutors from seeking the death penalty.  In her 28-page ruling, Todd called the judicial override practice a “life-to-death override epidemic” and questioned Alabama’s partisan judicial elections. “There is a time and place for diplomacy and subtlety,” Todd wrote. “That time and place has been expunged by the dire state of the justice system in Alabama.  It is clear, from here on the front line, that Alabama’s judiciary has unequivocally been hijacked by partisan interests and unlawful legislative neglect.”

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange asked the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to vacate Todd’s order shortly after it was issued.  In June the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals vacated her decision, stating that Alabama’s scheme differs from Florida’s because in Alabama the jury determines the aggravating factors before deciding the sentence.

Jerry Bohannon, one of the defendants challenging Alabama's sentencing scheme, subsequently petitioned for a writ of certiorari.  Upon review, Alabama Supreme Court Justices echoed points made by the Court of Criminal Appeals. "Because in Alabama a jury, not the judge, determines by a unanimous verdict the critical finding that an aggravating circumstance exists beyond a reasonable doubt to make a defendant death-eligible, Alabama's capital-sentencing scheme does not violate the Sixth Amendment," wrote acting Chief Justice Lyn Stuart....

Strange praised the court’s decision, stating “Today’s ruling is an important victory for victims and for criminal justice.  The Hurst ruling has no bearing whatsoever on the constitutionality of Alabama’s death penalty, which has been upheld numerous times.”  Since Hurst, The United States Supreme Court has told the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to reconsider appeals filed on behalf of at least three Alabama death row inmates.

The full opinion from the Alabama Supreme Court is available at this link. I would call it a near certainty that some Alabama death row defendants will continue to seek certiorari review based on Hurst, and I suspect SCOTUS review will eventually be more a question of when rather than whether.

October 2, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, September 26, 2016

Looking at the impact of SCOTUS Johnson ruling in the heart of the state in the heart of it all

I live in the center of a state that sometimes uses the tourism slogan "Ohio, The Heart of It All."  Though some might dicker with the formal accuracy of this sloganeering, there is little basis to resist the claim that Ohio is a bellwether state, and that reality makes extra interesting this new Columbus Dispatch article about the impact of the most consequential of Supreme Court sentencing rulings in recent years.  The piece is headlined "U.S. Supreme Court ruling on sentencing law could free hundreds in Ohio," and here are excerpts:

Celia Ward has the menu planned for her son’s welcome-home dinner: fried chicken, cabbage, cornbread and mac and cheese. It’s been a while since Hozae Rodriguez Ward, 39, sat down at his mother’s table.

From 1995 to 2007, he was in the county jail and state prison. Since 2009, he has been in federal prison.  But according to the U.S. Supreme Court, he should have been home five years ago.  Ward is eligible for immediate release after the high court ruled on June 25, 2015, that the Armed Career Criminal Act, under which Ward was sentenced, was too vague.

The ruling probably affects many more than just Ward.  The federal public defender’s office in Cincinnati is conducting an “initial” review of 400 federal inmates sentenced under the act to see if they, too, have been in prison too long.  The office covers only the Southern District of Ohio.  The total number of inmates affected nationwide is unknown, but there are 89 district courts in the 50 states, including two in Ohio.

On Wednesday in Columbus, U.S. District Judge Michael H. Watson ordered Ward’s release, which should occur within 30 days.  Watson sentenced Ward on June 30, 2009, to the minimum mandatory term of 15 years after he pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of ammunition. “No one is terribly comfortable with that, given your previous record,” Watson said.  “Nonetheless, you’ve served more than twice the guideline range, as recalculated.”  The defense and prosecution agreed that, based on the high court’s ruling, Ward’s maximum sentence should have been 27 months.

The Armed Career Criminal Act imposed a mandatory minimum 15-year prison sentence on felons convicted of a firearm offense who had three previous convictions for violent felonies or serious drug offenses.  The act defined those violent felonies as burglary, arson, extortion and those involving the use of explosives.  The problem, the justices wrote in Johnson v. United States, is that the act continued to add a broad “residual clause” that included crimes that “otherwise involve conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”  The court ruled that the residual clause violated the Fifth Amendment’s due-process provision because it was too vague and “invites arbitrary enforcement” by judges....

“We’ve had numerous folks who have walked out the Bureau of Prison door,” said Kevin Schad, appellate director for the federal public defender’s office for the Southern District of Ohio.  In addition to his office’s 400 cases, others are being reviewed by attorneys appointed by the court to help, said Schad, who filed the motion in Ward’s sentencing....

Schad said the number of inmates affected by the ruling might grow.  The Supreme Court has agreed to hear an outgrowth of Johnson v. United States.  The petitioners in Beckles v. United States argue that a similarly vague clause exists in other enhanced-sentencing guidelines.  “That opened up a whole number of other cases,” Schad said. 

September 26, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, September 24, 2016

"Originalism and the Criminal Law: Vindicating Justice Scalia's Jurisprudence ― And the Constitutution"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Adam Lamparello and Charles MacLean now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract (which unfortunately does not seem to flesh out the title or themes of the piece's focus on Justice Scalia's criminal jurisprudence):

Justice Scalia was not perfect — no one is — but he was not a dishonest jurist. As one commentator explains, “[i]f Scalia was a champion of those rights [for criminal defendants, arrestees], he was an accidental champion, a jurist with a deeper objective — namely, fidelity to what he dubbed the ‘original meaning’ reflected in the text of the Constitution — that happened to intersect with the interests of the accused at some points in the constellation of criminal law and procedure.”  Indeed, Justice Scalia is more easily remembered not as a champion of the little guy, the voiceless, and the downtrodden, but rather, as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said, an ‘unwavering defender of the written Constitution.’”

Justice Scalia’s frustration with the Court was certainly evident at times during his tenure, and understandably so.  In United States v. Windsor, Scalia lamented as follows: "We might have covered ourselves with honor today, by promising all sides of this debate that it was theirs to settle and that we would respect their resolution. We might have let the People decide. But that the majority will not do. Some will rejoice in today's decision, and some will despair at it; that is the nature of a controversy that matters so much to so many. But the Court has cheated both sides, robbing the winners of an honest victory, and the losers of the peace that comes from a fair defeat. We owed both of them better."

The above passage captures the essence of Justice Scalia’s philosophy, and the enduring legacy that will carry forward for many years after his death. At the end of the day, Justice Scalia, whether through well-reasoned decisions, blistering dissents, or witty comments at oral argument, spoke a truth that transcends time: “[m]ore important than your obligation to follow your conscience, or at least prior to it, is your obligation to form your conscience correctly.” And “[h]ave the courage to have your wisdom regarded as stupidity… and have the courage to suffer the contempt of the sophisticated world.” You will be missed, Justice Scalia. You left the Court — and the law — better than it was before you arrived.

September 24, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

"The Constitutional Right to Collateral Post-Conviction Review"

The title of this post is the title of this new and timely new article authored by Carlos Manuel Vazquez and Stephen Vladeck. Here is the abstract:

For years, the prevailing academic and judicial wisdom has held that, between them, Congress and the Supreme Court have rendered post-conviction habeas review all-but a dead letter. But in its January 2016 decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court may have dramatically upended that understanding in holding — for the first time — that there are at least some cases in which the Constitution itself creates a right to collateral post-conviction review, i.e., cases in which a state prisoner seeks retroactively to enforce a “new rule” of substantive constitutional law under the familiar doctrine of Teague v. Lane.

On the surface, Montgomery held only that state courts are required to employ Teague’s retroactivity framework when and if they adjudicate habeas petitions relying on new substantive rules of federal law. But, in reaching that conclusion, the Court clarified that Teague’s holding that new substantive rules of federal law are retroactively applicable on collateral review was a constitutional one, a holding that, as we explain, was both novel and important.

We next consider which courts — state or federal — have the constitutional obligation to provide the constitutionally required collateral review recognized in Montgomery. Either way, the implications of Montgomery are far-reaching.  To conclude that the state courts must provide collateral review would run counter to the conventional wisdom that states are under no obligation to permit collateral attacks on convictions that have become final. On the other hand, the conclusion that federal courts must have jurisdiction to grant such collateral review is in significant tension with the Madisonian Compromise.  In our view, the Supreme Court’s Supremacy Clause jurisprudence establishes that the constitutionally required collateral remedy recognized in Montgomery must be available, in the first instance, in state courts — even if the state has not chosen to provide collateral post-conviction relief for comparable state-law claims.  The state courts also have the constitutional power and duty to afford such relief to federal prisoners, but Congress has the power to withdraw such cases from the state courts by giving the federal courts exclusive jurisdiction over such claims.  Thus, we conclude that the state courts are constitutionally obligated to afford collateral post-conviction review to state prisoners in the circumstances covered by Montgomery, and the federal courts should be presumed to have the statutory obligation to afford such review to federal prisoners.

Finally, we examine some of the important questions raised by the conclusion that state and federal prisoners have a constitutional right to collateral relief. Although the questions are complex, and not all of the answers are clear, the uncertainties surrounding some of the contours of the remedy recognized in Montgomery should not obscure the fact this seemingly innocuous holding about the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction actually upends a half-century’s worth of doctrinal and theoretical analyses of collateral post-conviction review, a result that could have a breathtaking impact on both commentators’ and courts’ understanding of the relationship between collateral post-conviction remedies and the Constitution.

When I got involved in writing a little commentary about the Montgomery opinion earlier this year, Montgomery's Messy Trifecta, I came to see themes and language in the Montgomery opinion that struck me as very important and very ground-breaking.  Thus, I am especially pleased to discover that I am not the only one who believes (and arguably welcomes) the fact that a "seemingly innocuous holding about the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction actually upends a half-century’s worth of doctrinal and theoretical analyses of collateral post-conviction review."

September 20, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Lethally Deficient: Direct Appeals in Texas Death Penalty Cases"

Td2The title of this post is the title of this notable new lengthy report produced by the Texas Defender Service.  The start of this news release provides an overview of the report's contents:

Texas’ system of providing direct appeal representation in death penalty cases is in dire need of reform, according to a new report by Texas Defender Service.  The report, Lethally Deficient, evaluates six years of direct death penalty appeals and concludes that the current system is broken.  The Texas Legislature should, Texas Defender Service recommends, create a capital appellate defender office to handle these appeals, establish a statewide appointment system with caseload controls and uniform compensation, and require the appointment of two qualified lawyers to each death penalty direct appeal.

Lethally Deficient: Direct Appeals in Texas Death Penalty Cases is the first report to engage in an in-depth examination of direct appeals for Texas death penalty cases. Texas law requires all death sentences to be directly appealed from the trial court to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.  A direct appeal is based on the trial record and transcript.

“This report documents that, in case after case, most death row inmates are not well represented on direct appeal,” said Kathryn Kase, Executive Director of Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit law firm that works on capital cases and related criminal justice issues. “Texas should do what it did to address the crisis in capital habeas representation: create a public defender office that handles only direct death penalty appeals.”

TDS examined all direct appeals filed in each of the 84 death penalty cases decided by the Court of Criminal Appeals between January 1, 2009 and December 31, 2015.  The study uncovers multiple deficits in capital direct appeal representation. Lawyers submitted briefs that recycled failed legal arguments without updating to reflect current law, failed to meet — and at times, correspond with — their clients, failed to request oral argument, and avoided filing reply briefs and applications for U.S. Supreme Court review.  And while other jurisdictions reported attorneys needing between 500 and 1,000 hours to brief a capital direct appeal, defense lawyers for the cases in the TDS study billed between 72.1 to 535.0 hours for each appeal, for an average of only 275.9 hours.

In the six years – 2009 through 2015 – that these deficiencies occurred, TDS found that the CCA did not reverse a single conviction in a death penalty case on direct appeal.  The CCA affirmed convictions and death sentences in 79 cases, and reversed death sentences in just three cases.

When compared to capital litigants in other jurisdictions, Texas death penalty appellants fare far worse. Death row inmates outside Texas are 2.8 times more likely to have their cases reversed on direct appeal.  TDS reviewed 1,060 capital direct appeal decisions issued by the highest courts in the 30 other death penalty states between 2005 and 2015, and these courts collectively reversed 16.0% of all death sentences.  By contrast, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed just 5.7% of the death penalty cases heard on direct appeal between 2005 and 2015.

September 20, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Terrific TakePart series of article and commentary on "Violence and Redemption"

TakePart has this great "Big Issue" collection of articles, videos and commentary under the heading "Violence and Redemption: Can Rehabilitating Felons Make Us Safer."  There is so much important and insightful material collected here, I cannot easily link to it all.  But I can provide this introductory paragraph and some headlines/links to whet appetites:

With 5 percent of the world’s people but 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated, the United States is home to the largest prison population in the world.

A meaningful reduction in the prison population of 2.3 million people can’t happen without addressing those incarcerated for violent offenses. They make up at least 53 percent of the total in state prisons. Is that too many? Are they in for the right reasons? Are they hopeless cases, or can something be done to help reform and rehabilitate them, make them valuable members of society who won’t commit crimes again? Advocates cite three possible approaches to this problem: reforming justice, rehabilitation, and forgiveness.

September 20, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 16, 2016

GOP Congressman Sensenbrenner explains why federal criminal justice reform is necessary to fix a "broken system" which is "fiscally unsustainable" and "morally irresponsible"

Representative Jim Sensenbrenner has a long and dynamic history working on federal criminal justice issues, and not that long ago he was an ardent supporter of many mandatory minimum sentencing provisions.  But more recently, Rep Sensenbrenner has become a potent voice calling for federal reforms, and his latest pitch on that front appear in this new commentary headlined "Criminal Justice Reform Bills Are On The Table In Congress. Now It Needs To Pass Them."  Here are excerpts from this piece:

In 2013, House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) created the Over-criminalization Task Force which examined the depth, seriousness, and complexities of the problems facing our federal criminal justice system. The findings that came from the task force allowed Members on the Committee to identify key problem areas and begin the reform process.  Last year, momentum for criminal justice reform reached an all-time high. It united a wide range of law enforcement and political organizations, advocacy groups, and Congressional leaders under a common goal: to fix our broken system....

Although a large number the nation’s 2.3 million inmates deserve their place behind bars, too many low-level, non-violent individuals are caught up in broken system.  Their incarceration diverts limited resources away from other priorities, such as policing and the capture and punishment of violent and career criminals.  For too long, the pressing need for criminal justice reform has been put on the backburner.  It has led to increasing financial burdens on taxpayers, violent outbursts in economically depressed neighborhoods throughout the nation, and the breakdown of hundreds of thousands of American families.

Fifty percent of the current prison population suffers from substance abuse problems, mental health issues, or a combination of both.  Our criminal justice system is not equipped to provide these individuals with the help they need to gain control of their lives and acquire the critical work skills necessary to successfully re-enter society and the workforce.  Without these basic tools, the likelihood of recidivism is high....

Each piece of legislation currently on the table addresses specific problems in the current system and offers common sense, fiscally responsible solutions that will increase public safety, support law enforcement and victims of crime, and decrease the overwhelming financial burden on hardworking taxpayers.  However, none of it matters unless Congress is willing to pass legislation and President Obama is ready to sign it.

At the heart of federal criminal justice reform is the desire to create a better way forward for every American struggling under our broken system.  Families ripped apart by incarceration, communities divided by a seemingly impenetrable wall between law enforcement and the neighborhoods they protect, and an ineffective justice system not only weakens the fabric of society, but hinders economic growth and opportunity for all Americans.

Three years ago, Congress began a journey to rectify the injustices in our federal criminal justice system.  Right now, we have the opportunity to finish the job and pass meaningful and effective reform legislation. Our system cannot continue on its current trajectory.  It’s not only fiscally unsustainable, but morally irresponsible.  We must do better and we can do better.

 Prior recent posts regarding some federal CJ work and statements by Rep Sensenbrenner:

September 16, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Clarity in Criminal Law"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new article authored by Shon Hopwood now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Over the past thirty years, thousands of new federal criminal laws have been enacted, many of which are unclear and leave prosecutors and courts to now define the boundaries of the criminal code.  Tolerating unclear laws in the criminal arena has always been problematic, but it is especially so in this era of overcriminalization and excessive punishment, where a lack of clarity can result in arbitrary application of criminal statutes and the sentencing consequences of a conviction are so severe.  Although several justices have noted the lack of clarity in the criminal law, the Court as a whole has not fully reacted.

This Article suggests what that reaction should be.  It argues for a more robust review of unclear federal criminal laws, using amplified versions of two tools already at the Court’s disposal: the rule of lenity and void for vagueness doctrine.  Employing those doctrines vigorously would, in effect, create a clear statement rule in criminal law.

September 16, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Detailing interesting sentencing dynamics in the latest batches of "term" commutations by Prez Obama

091416-Obama-commutations-online_1USA Today has this great new article highlighting an especially interesting aspect of the most recent clemency work by President Obama.  The piece is headlined "For Obama, a shift in clemency strategy," and here are excerpts:

For 126 federal inmates who received presidential clemency last month, the good news might have come with a dose of disappointment. President Obama had granted their requests for commutations, using his constitutional pardon power to shorten their sentences for drug offenses. But instead of releasing them, he left them with years — and in some cases, more than a decade — left to serve on their sentences.

As Obama has begun to grant commutations to inmates convicted of more serious crimes, Obama has increasingly commuted their sentences without immediately releasing them. These are what are known as "term" commutations, as opposed to the more common "time served" commutations, and they represent a remarkable departure from recent past practice. Unlike a full pardon, commutations shorten sentences but leave other consequences of the conviction in place.

A USA TODAY analysis of Obama's 673 commutations shows a marked change in strategy on his clemency initiative, one of the key criminal justice reform efforts of his presidency. Before last month, almost all of the inmates whose sentences were commuted were released within four months, just long enough for the Bureau of Prisons to arrange for court-supervised monitoring and other re-entry programs. But in the last two rounds of presidential clemency in August, 39% of commutations come with a long string attached: a year or more left to serve on the sentence.

The strategy has also allowed Obama to commute the sentences of even more serious offenders. Before last month, 13% of inmates receiving clemency had used a firearm in the offense. For those granted presidential mercy last month, it was 22%. Through lawyers in the Justice Department and the White House Counsel's Office, the president is effectively recalculating the sentences using the federal guidelines in effect today — as opposed to the harsher penalties mandated by Congress in the 1980s and '90s.

While previous presidents have granted term commutations on a case-by-case basis — President Bill Clinton required a Puerto Rican nationalist convicted of seditious conspiracy to serve five more years, and President Richard Nixon made a Washington, D.C. murderer serve another decade — Obama appears to be the first to employ them as a matter of policy. "There are a number of cases where it’s a genuine re-sentencing. It’s unprecedented,” said former pardon attorney Margaret Love, who served under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton. “That signals to me that the power is being used in a way it’s never been used before.”

There may also be a political calculation to the new clemency strategy, reflecting a general understanding that there's no guarantee that a President Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump would continue Obama's signature clemency initiative. While it's not entirely settled, most scholars believe a commutation warrant cannot be revoked by a future president once it's granted, delivered and accepted.

Explaining his philosophy on commutation power at a press conference last month — the day after he set a single-day clemency record by granting 214 commutations — Obama gave the example of an inmate who has already served a 25-year sentence but would have only served 20 if sentenced under today's laws. "What we try to do is to screen through and find those individuals who have paid their debt to society, that have behaved themselves and tried to reform themselves while incarcerated, and we think have a good chance of being able to use that second chance well," he said.

But increasingly, recipients of Obama's mercy are years away from paying their debt to society.

White House Counsel Neil Eggleston, who's the last stop for a clemency application before it goes to the president, acknowledged the change in strategy on Aug. 3, the day Obama issued 214 commutations. "While some commutation recipients will begin to process out of federal custody immediately, others will serve more time," he wrote in a blog post. "While these term reductions will require applicants to serve additional time, it will also allow applicants to continue their rehabilitation by completing educational and self-improvement programming and to participate in drug or other counseling services."

Critics say Obama is no longer reserving his clemency power for extraordinary circumstances, but instead substituting his own judgment for that of Congress and the courts. "To impose these things, and to have the commutation take effect after he leaves office — and even after the presidency of someone who succeeds him — seems inappropriate to me," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

But Goodlatte also acknowledged that the power to "grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States" is one of the Constitution's most ironclad powers, and amending the Constitution would be difficult....

"He has effectively set himself up as a judge, reviewing thousands of cases where they’ve been prosecuted, convicted, sentenced and appealed beyond the district court level. And he's undercut all that work by commuting their sentences," Goodlatte said. "I think the president is taking a misguided approach to this issue when he tries to set himself up as a super-judge who would oversee the actions of a separate branch of government."

Mary Price, who has represented drug offenders seeking presidential clemency, said the president is the only person who can act under present law. "In our system, there's a heavy emphasis on finality of judgment," said Price, chief counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which advocates for changes in drug laws. "The court has no jurisdiction to go back and change that sentence." For inmates with one or two years left on their Obama-shortened sentence, the president's clemency could motivating them to prepare for reentry into society, Price said. One drug treatment program gives inmates an additional year off their sentence if they complete it.

While Obama's re-sentencing strategy is a departure from recent practice, experts note that presidents have granted term commutations before. For example, any commutation of the death penalty to life imprisonment would fit the definition of that the Justice Department calls a "term commutation," as opposed to the more typical "time served" commutation.

And if recent presidents haven't done it that way, it's more because they've granted so few commutations to begin with. As the White House is quick to note, Obama has now commuted the sentences of more prisoners than the previous 10 presidents — that's Dwight Eisenhower through George W. Bush — combined. "Is Obama doing it at some unprecedented level? I don't know. Maybe," said P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political scientist who has analyzed data on presidential clemency back to George Washington. "But I am not so sure what to make of that either," he said. "That's what checks and balances are all about."

September 16, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Grover Norquist and Wade Henderson say now is the time for federal statutory sentencing reform

This new National Review commentary authored by the notable pairing of Grover Norquist and Wade Henderson makes the case for having Congress finally getting sentencing reform to the desk of Prez Obama now.  The piece is headlined "No Better Time Than Now to Pass Justice Reform," and here are excerpts:

Picture this: a legislative reform initiative that has garnered more than 70 percent approval from both Democrats and Republicans in state after state. Imagine a package of reform bills that has brought together elected officials from the left and right and passed through House committee with near unanimous support. Now consider that the speaker of the House is the biggest champion of these bills.

What issue has brought together both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and has civil-rights groups working with top prosecutors and law enforcement? Justice reform. And given all this success, you would say these policies have every chance of becoming law, right? It’s not that simple, but it should be.

In the months since bipartisan-backed sentencing- and prison-reform legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives, Congress managed to name about ten post offices, revised coastal-barrier boundaries, ordered the Mint to create commemorative coins, and adopted bison as the national mammal of the United States.

In the states during that time, Minnesota introduced and passed the most significant reforms to its drug laws in 30 years. These bills reduced mandatory minimums for low-level drug crimes and devoted greater resources to treatment instead of incarceration. Iowa took similar steps. Maryland repealed mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Even states with high incarceration rates took action. Oklahoma and Louisiana eliminated employment barriers for those with criminal records. And Kentucky passed one of the most aggressive expungement bills in the country that seals criminal records for certain offenses.

It’s time for Congress to act on justice reform. The states have proven that treatment and rehabilitation in lieu of incarceration can often provide better outcomes. Unnecessarily harsh sentences for nonviolent offenders do not make better citizens; they lead them to commit more offenses. We also know that the easier it is for someone who leaves incarceration to get a job, improve his education, and support his family, the better shot he has at turning away from crime altogether.

In an election year, real reforms can easily get jettisoned for campaign-trail antics. Yet we know justice reform makes for good politics as well as good policy. In polling in battleground states such as Florida, Nevada, Ohio, and North Carolina, support for reforms that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences and focus resources on rehabilitation ranges from the low 70s to the high 80s for both Republicans and Democrats. These numbers show that the risk lies not in supporting these reforms, but in opposing them.

When one in three American adults has a record, these issues are now affecting every corner of society. That explains why the diversity of support for justice reform spans the breadth and depth of our political ideologies. Whether it’s about redemption and second chances, as is the case for religious groups such as the Southern Baptist Convention, or about reducing the cost of an ineffective system, as is the case for Americans for Tax Reform and many other conservatives, millions of Americans from all different perspectives are getting behind this movement....

Our justice system should be a part of the solution to crime and its root causes. We can do better than using a one-size-fits-all sentencing regime that lumps nonviolent offenders with violent ones. And when some estimates have re-arrest rates for ex-offenders at 65 percent within three years, we cannot afford to continue the status quo. The reforms on the table would improve outcomes while ensuring that public safety is a top priority.

The best chance we have of passing this legislation is now. The political stars are aligned, and support for reform is at a zenith. We need our elected officials to seize this moment and pass legislation that saves money and makes us safer. Congress must not squander this opportunity.

September 15, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Why Oklahoma is having arguably the most important vote in Campaign 2016 for those concerned about criminal justice reforms

Logo Final (002)Though I am thoroughly depressed by my Presidential choices in Campaign 2016 (and remain distressing undecided about whether and how I will cast a top-of-the-ticket vote), I am thoroughly excited by all the interesting (and unpredictable) criminal justice reform initiatives that are going to voters in lots of states this November.  The highest-profile reform initiatives are probably those in five states seeking to legalize recreational marijuana and the handful of others seeking to legalize medical marijuana.  But also getting plenty of attention are the death penalty repeal/reform/retain votes that will take place in California and Nebraska.  But this new article from Fusion, headlined "Why Oklahoma activists are bringing criminal justice reforms directly to voters," helps spotlight why I think criminal justice reformers should really be paying extra attention to the Sooner State.  Here are excerpts:

Oklahomans will vote in November on two proposals that could significantly reduce the number of people sent to prison in one of the most incarcerating states in the country.  The measures, State Questions 780 and 781, would reclassify simple drug possession and property crimes under $1,000 from felonies to misdemeanors. Instead of prison time, people convicted of those crimes would receive drug treatment, mental health treatment, and rehabilitation programs that would be paid for by the savings from not locking them up.

Oklahoma has the second-highest incarceration rate in the country, after Louisiana, and its prisons are at 115% capacity. If the measures are approved by voters, they’re expected to reduce annual prison admissions by 25%, the rate of new inmates who are currently convicted of low-level property crimes and drug possession.  Because it costs Oklahoma $15,000 to incarcerate someone and only $6,000 to treat them while they’re on probation, the state could save between $30 and $40 million a year. Reducing the number of felonies would also mean less people would struggle to find employment, housing, and education because of a permanent criminal record. One in 12 state residents is a convicted felon, according to The Oklahoman newspaper.

Legislators and Governor Mary Fallin have already taken steps to reform the state’s criminal justice system, including lowering mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and raising the threshold for some property felonies to $1,000.  But Kris Steele, the former Republican Speaker of the State House and one of the referendums’ chief backers, said most legislators would be wary of being tarred as “soft on crime” if they passed broader reforms to drug laws.

“We want to sort of bypass the political gridlock that has set us back and give the people of Oklahoma a chance to weigh in on these issues,” he told me. “If we are successful in November, I truly believe the legislature will feel like the people have spoken and that it’s OK and probably even expected to take a smarter approach to criminal justice policy.” Of course, the opposite is also true.  “If these state questions do not pass in November, it’s likely that the legislature will interpret that result as the people have spoken and we’re probably done talking about this issue for the next 10 years,” he said. “That keeps me up at night.”

That makes it a high-risk, high-reward proposition for criminal justice activists, who so far have been mostly focused on lobbying legislators. The only other state with criminal justice reform on the ballot in November is California, where voters will decide whether to support a measure backed by Gov. Jerry Brown that would allow thousands of inmates serving time for nonviolent charges to get early parole. (Californians and Nebraskans will also vote on referendums over ending the death penalty.)...

Nationally, polls show that Americans support reforms to reduce sentences for low-level criminals, especially those convicted of drug crimes. Steele said internal polling has shown Oklahomans are also supportive of the measures.  The coalition of groups supporting the initiatives — known as Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform — includes the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, the conservative group Right on Crime, and several law enforcement leaders.  So far, supporters of the initiatives have collected 110,000 signatures to get each of the measures on the ballot and held a series of town hall meetings around the state promoting them. Now they’re planning direct mail and TV ads in the two months until election day....

There doesn’t seem to be any organized group opposing the measures, although some sheriffs and prosecutors have spoken out against them. The proposals’ supporters want “to let everybody out of prison, and that’s not what’s healthy for the communities,” Greg Mashburn, the DA for Cleveland County, told The Norman Transcript. Steele said he’d encourage activists in other states to take reform initiatives straight to the voters. “It’s resulted in a very healthy conversation happening in our state” about the costs of mass incarceration, he said—one that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

For so many reasons, I think this direct democracy vote in Oklahoma could have profound echoes throughout the nation, especially if "deep red" Oklahoma voters, while mostly voting for "law and order" Prez candidate Donald Trump, end up voting for significant sentencing reform in the state.  Not only will approval of sentencing reforms by direct democracy likely make Oklahoma elected officials feel more comfortable moving forward with legislative reforms, I think it will send a very strong message to lots of political observers and policy advocates nationwide that the "Right on Crime" movement has real majority support among even conservative-minded voters.

Based on developments in many states and especially at the federal level, it still seems the reality that many politicians, especially older ones on both sides of the aisle, continue to believe quite strongly that vocally supporting significant criminal justice reforms risks a kind of political suicide.  That said, the recent modern success that "deep red states like Texas and Georgia have experienced with "smart-on-crime" reforms has played a major role in giving the "Right on Crime" movement momentum, and that momentum has carried over in a number of other red and purple states.  But at the federal law, persistent "soft-on-crime" political fears, especially among "old-guard" Democratic leaders like the Clintons and Senators Reid and Representative Pelosi, in my view largely explains why significant statutory sentencing reforms (other than the middling Fair Sentencing Act) have not gotten done throughout the Obama era.

Many people for sensible reasons think the fate of federal sentencing reforms now will turn on who is the next occupant in the Oval Office and who controls the Senate.  But I really believe that if Oklahoma voters end up significantly supporting sentencing reform in their state (especially if Trump wins in OK by, say, a 55/40 vote but then sentencing reform is supported by a 60/40 vote), we all can and should become a lot more optimistic about even federal sentencing reforms over the next decade no matter who is in control in DC.  For this reason (and others), I strongly believe that criminal-justice-reform-minded "big donors" — yes, I am talking to you Koch brothers and Mr. Soros — should think very seriously about devoting resources to this initiative campaign where a little extra campaign investment could go a very long way in fostering reform in a lot more places than just Oklahoma.

September 14, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Highlighting polling reality that death penalty remains pretty popular on Left Coast

Ed Morrissey has this effective new commentary about the latest capital punishment polling under the heading "Hmmm: Blue California wants to keep its death penalty, 52/36." Here are excerpts (with a few links retained from the original):

California voters, among the most reliably liberal in the nation, have an opportunity to pass a repeal of the death penalty in November. Proposition 62 would commute the sentence of those on California’s Death Row to life without parole and require a higher percentage of inmate income to go to victim restitution.  With opposition to the death penalty a big progressive goal, and with California’s execution process among the slowest and most frustrating in the nation, one would expect overwhelming support for Proposition 62.

Not so, according to a new poll from Survey USA. In fact, opposition to repeal leads by sixteen points, 36/52, and leads among almost all demographics.  Majorities of both men (38/54) and women (33/50) oppose repeal.  Voters under the age of 35 oppose it in plurality (40/45), but all other age groups oppose it by majorities and double-digit gaps.  Black voters and Democrats support repeal, but not significantly enough to overcome overwhelming opposition among all other ethnic and partisan groups.  Perhaps most tellingly, the only ideological demo to support repeal are those who identify as “very liberal” — and even then unimpressively at 52/32.  Even the ultra-liberal Bay Area has a slight plurality opposed to repeal, 42/47....

The problem with the death penalty in California (besides the issues that form my general opposition to it) is that it’s almost purely academic.  California hasn’t executed anyone since 2006, and Clarence Ray Allen had been on Death Row for more than 23 years at that point.  That was the second-longest string for those who eventually got executed; Stanley “Tookie” Williams spent almost 25 years waiting for his execution, which finally came in December 2005.  They are two of only 13 inmates executed since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1978.

How many are actually on Death Row now? The state’s September 2016 lists 747 inmates, with sentencing dates from 1982 to this past May.  Eight times more inmates have died of other causes (104) than of executions (13).

Death penalty proponents will also have a referendum on the November ballot. Proposition 66 would offer several reforms to speed up the execution process, including expediting all appeals to the state Supreme Court and having attorneys assigned to death-penalty appeals immediately. Presumably this will find more support than Proposition 62, although SUSA didn’t poll on it.  Will Californians take steps to fix its capital-punishment system — or be satisfied with a Death Row that just waits inmates to death?

September 14, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Eleventh Circuit judges discuss guidelines and vagueness at great length after denying en banc review in Matchett

As regular readers should recall (and as I like to remind everyone), in this post right after the US Supreme Court ruled that a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violated "the Constitution’s prohibition of vague criminal laws" in Johnson v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2551 (2015) (available here), I flagged the question of how Johnson would impact application of the (now older, pre-reform version) career-offender guideline of the US Sentencing Guidelines.  As I have noted before, the Justice Department has consistently conceded Johnson-based constitutional problems with that guideline, even though there was some prior rulings in some circuits that the federal guidelines could not be attacked based on traditional void-for-vagueness doctrines. 

In the last year, most of the circuit courts, perhaps moved a lot by DOJ 's view, have come to rule that vagueness challenges to the guidelines are proper and have concluded that there are Johnson-based constitutional problems with sentences based on the old career-offender guideline.  But, as noted in this post last September, an Eleventh Circuit panel in US v. Matchett, 802 F.3d 1185 (11th Cir. 2015) (available here), ruled that Johnson and its vagueness problem just do not apply to advisory sentencing guidelines.  

As I have previously noted, I consider the ruling Matchett suspect; but an amicus brief I helped put together urging en banc review in Matchett was not sufficiently convincing to that court.  Today, as revealed here, the Eleventh Circuit announced that a majority of its members voters against considering this issue en banc.  (For practical reasons, even though I disagree on the merits, this decision now makes sense: as blogged here this past June, we now have the ultimate judicial authority on this issue poised to weigh in:the final Supreme Court order list of last Term included a grant of certiorari in Beckles v. United States, No. 15-8544, which will explore whetherJohnson's constitutional holding applies to the residual clause in the older, pre-reform version of the career offender guideline.)

The actual order denying en banc review is only one-sentence long.  But following the order comes 80+ pages of fascinating concurring and dissenting opinions that will surely intrigue any and everyone closely following the legal and practical issues that Beckles implicates.  Highly recommended reading for all sentencing fans and law nerds.

September 13, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, September 10, 2016

"Fewer Hands, More Mercy: A Plea for a Better Federal Clemency System"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new paper by Mark Osler now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The constitutional pardon power has generated more controversy than mercy over the past three decades.  Even President Obama, who has pursued a focused clemency initiative, has struggled to meet historical standards.  While changing ideas relating to retribution play a role in this decline, there is another significant factor at play: too much bureaucracy.
Beginning around 1980, a review process has evolved that is redundant and biased towards negative decisions. No fewer than seven levels of review take place as cases course through four different federal buildings, a jagged path that dooms the process.  For years, this bureaucracy stymied even President Obama’s intention to reduce prison populations; the relative success of his clemency initiative came despite this bureaucracy, not because of it, and only after seven and a half years of futility.
This article analyzes the development of this system and the problems it creates before offering solutions based on the experience of state governments and President Ford’s successful use of a Presidential Clemency Board.

September 10, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, September 09, 2016

DOJ, wisely in my view, decides to drop prosecution against former Virginia gov Bob McDonnell and his wife

As reported in this Reuters article, "U.S. prosecutors on Thursday dropped corruption charges against former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and his wife, bringing to a close a case that tarnished the once-rising star of the Republican Party."  Here are more details and context:

"After carefully considering the Supreme Court’s recent decision and the principles of federal prosecution, we have made the decision not to pursue the case further," the U.S. Justice Department said in a statement. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out McDonnell's bribery convictions in a ruling that could make it tougher to prosecute politicians for corruption.

The eight justices, liberals and conservatives alike, overturned McDonnell's 2014 conviction, saying that his conduct fell short of an "official act" in exchange for a bribe as required for conviction under federal bribery law. Jurors had convicted McDonnell for accepting $177,000 in luxury gifts and sweetheart loans to him and his wife Maureen McDonnell from a wealthy Richmond businessman seeking to promote a dietary supplement. He was sentenced to two years in prison but remained free pending appeal.

The case was a rare instance of the nation's highest court reviewing a high-level public official's criminal conviction. The court sent the case back to lower courts to determine if there was sufficient evidence for a jury to convict McDonnell, which had kept alive the possibility of a new trial.

His lawyers applauded the decision, saying in a statement on Thursday: "Governor McDonnell can finally move on from the nightmare of the last three years and begin rebuilding his life." McDonnell served as governor from 2010 to 2014 and once was considered a possible U.S. vice presidential candidate.

His wife was convicted in a separate trial and given a one-year sentence but remained free while pursuing a separate appeal.  The Supreme Court ruling effectively applied to Maureen McDonnell too, meaning that her conviction also had to be tossed out....

Legal observers have noted that the Supreme Court ruling opens the possibility that politicians could sell meetings and other forms of access without violating federal law.  The decision was criticized by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a corruption watchdog group.  It said in a statement the Justice Department had "sent a clear signal that it would not aggressively enforce corruption laws to hold public officials accountable when they abuse their office.”

As I suggested in this prior post, I am generally pleased that the Justice Department has decided that there is now no real public benefit in continuing to use taxpayer moneys to seek to further condemn and harm former Gov McDonnell and his wife for their various suspect actions.

A few of many prior related post:

September 9, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

"What Lurks Below Beckles"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new paper available via SSRN authored by Leah Litman and Shakeer Rahman. Here is the abstract:

The Supreme Court will soon decide if Travis Beckles’s prison sentence is illegal. Mr. Beckles was sentenced years ago, and his appeal to the Supreme Court is on post-conviction review.  Normally when the Supreme Court invalidates a prison sentence in a post-conviction case, the Court’s holding applies to all other post-conviction cases as well.  But the way Mr. Beckles’s lawyers are arguing his case, relief for Mr. Beckles will mean nothing for prisoners in certain circuits whose sentences would be illegal for the same reason as Mr. Beckles’s.  This is due to a number of a circuit splits that the Supreme Court may not get an opportunity to address after the Beckles case.

The Court should both be aware of these lurking issues and use Beckles as the vehicle to weigh in on them.  Doing so may be the only way to ensure that prisoners — particularly those in the Eleventh Circuit — will have a remedy for their unlawful sentences and to ensure that any right announced in Beckles applies uniformly across the country.  

While the Court typically limits itself to analyzing questions that are directly raised in the petition for certiorari, AEDPA is a reason the Court should depart from that practice here. Two decades ago, when the Supreme Court upheld AEDPA’s restrictions post-conviction review, several Justices warned that circuit splits related to successive motions might re-open the question of whether AEDPA’s restrictions are constitutional.  As we show below, the aftermath of Johnson and Welch in the lower courts is what those Justices warned about.  These constitutional concerns are a reason for the Court to depart from its usual reluctance to analyze questions that are not directly raised in a petition for certiorari and frame the analysis in Beckles in a way that avoids a repeat of the mess that ensued after Johnson and Welch.

September 6, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, September 03, 2016

"State Bans on Debtors' Prisons and Criminal Justice Debt"

The title of this post is the title of this article by Christopher Hampson recently posted to SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Since the 1990s, and increasingly in the wake of the Great Recession, many municipalities, forced to operate under tight budgetary constraints, have turned to the criminal justice system as an untapped revenue stream.  Raising the specter of the “debtors’ prisons” once prevalent in the United States, imprisonment for failure to pay debts owed to the state has provoked growing concern in recent years.  Existing approaches have failed to recognize an alternate potential font of authority: state bans on debtors’ prisons, enacted over several decades in the first half of the nineteenth century, as a backlash against imprisonment for commercial debt swept the nation.  This Note takes a first pass at this missing constitutional argument.

September 3, 2016 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Clemency advocate explains her view on "How to inspire criminal justice reform"

The title of this post is drawn in part from the headline of this lengthy new CNN commentary authored by Brittany K. Barnett-Byrd, whom CNN describes as "an attorney and criminal justice reform advocate [who] has handled several successful clemency petitions, including the nationally reported cases of Sharanda Jones and Donel Clark."  Here are excerpts from her commentary:

As the daughter of a formerly incarcerated mother, I know that when one person goes to prison, the whole family goes to prison. Mass incarceration has devastated families and communities across America.  The United States makes up nearly 5% of the world's population and almost 25% of the world's prison population.  Today, there are over 2.2 million people incarcerated in this country.

The dramatic growth in incarceration as a result of the failed war on drugs cannot be ignored. At the state level, the number of people in prison for drug offenses has increased tenfold since 1980. In addition, nearly half of all federal prisoners are serving time for drugs.

While the statistics are astonishing, to truly understand the issue, we must look beyond the numbers and see the human capital sacrificed in the name of misguided appeals for law and order.  The human element is rarely addressed but is necessary to inspire and drive the change needed to reform our criminal justice system.

#17061-112. This number was assigned to my client Corey Jacobs 17 years ago when he began serving a life sentence in federal prison for nonviolent drug convictions. Corey had no prior felony convictions.  But with no parole in the federal system, he has been fundamentally condemned to die in prison.

Over two decades ago, Corey, now 47, began dealing drugs with a small group of college friends in Virginia. Though Corey was not a kingpin, he received an essential death sentence largely because three of his co-conspirators testified against him in exchange for reduced sentences.  Due to federal laws, Corey was held accountable for all "reasonably foreseeable" quantities of drugs attributed to the five other people involved in the conspiracy. Absolutely no dimension of his conduct was violent.

Despite facing the grim reality of dying in prison, Corey has worked diligently to prove that he is deserving of a second chance. He has devoted himself to extensive rehabilitative programming, completed three self-improvement residential programs and received over 100 learning certificates that have enhanced his education and personal development....

While there is little doubt that a prison sentence was warranted in Corey's case, he doesn't deserve to die in a cell because of it.  Life in prison without the possibility of parole is, short of execution, the harshest punishment available in America.  It screams that a person is beyond hope, beyond redemption.  It suffocates mass potential as it buries people alive. And, in Corey's case, it is a punishment that does not fit the crime.

Recently, I went to visit Corey in prison to discuss his pending clemency petition.  As I sat in the bleak, cold concrete interior of the attorney-client visiting room, I was struck by Corey's remorse, intelligence and dedication to bettering himself.   I learned Corey is an avid meditator. He mentioned how he once read nature could enhance the meditation experience, but he had not seen a tree in years. The prison yard is surrounded by daunting, gray brick buildings. The rest of our conversation was a blur because I could not move past the fact that he had not seen a tree. A tree.

Though I never imagined that visiting a United States Penitentiary would change the trajectory of my legal career, the state of consciousness I achieved after meeting Corey empowered me.  I no longer wanted to be just a lawyer.  I wanted to use this platform to promote the greater good.  Because of thousands of cases like Corey's, three months ago I resigned from my corporate law job to become a full-time advocate for criminal justice reform....

Last year the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (S. 2123) was introduced into Congress. This crucial bill would pull back mass incarceration and save taxpayers billions of dollars by reducing mandatory minimums and making the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive.  And yet despite unprecedented bipartisan support, it still has not come to the Senate floor for a vote.  We must urge Congress to pass this overdue, life-changing legislation.

But Congress is not the only branch of government beginning to address this injustice. Obama has shown he is committed to reinvigorating the clemency process through his administration's groundbreaking initiative to prioritize clemency applications for individuals like Corey....

Our criminal justice system is tangled in overcrowded prison cells, draconian sentences, shameful sentencing disparities, burdensome incarceration costs and heartbroken children and families.  Reform is desperately needed.  The time is now for the people who hold the levers of power to believe in humanity and to simply do the right thing.  After all, there is nothing more urgent than freedom.

August 31, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Continuing his notable clemency momentum, Prez Obama grants 111 more commutations

Chart_082916_commutationsAs reported in this new NPR piece, "President Obama shortened the prison sentences of 111 inmates Tuesday, including 35 people who had expected to spend the rest of their lives in federal custody, authorities told NPR." Here is more about today's exciting clemency news and its context:

Word of the new batch of clemency grants came as the second-in-command at the Justice Department told NPR that lawyers there have worked through an enormous backlog of drug cases and, despite doubts from prisoner advocates, they will be able to consider each of the thousands of applications from drug criminals before Obama leaves office in 2017.

"At our current pace, we are confident that we will be able to review and make a recommendation to the president on every single drug petition we currently have," Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates said.

The early releases apply to mostly non-violent drug offenders who would have received lighter punishments if they committed the same crimes today. The new commutations mean this White House has granted 673 commutations, more than the past 10 presidents combined. Tuesday's grants follow 214 more earlier this month.

In February the new pardon attorney, Robert Zauzmer, asserted that stacks of petitions would not be left on his table next year. But that had long been in doubt. After the Justice Department and the White House launched the initiative for drug offenders about two years ago, white collar criminals, sex predators and violent criminals sent their applications, too. Those petitions flooded volunteer lawyers and officials in the Office of Pardon Attorney. The pardon attorney, Deborah Leff, ultimately resigned after raising alarms about insufficient resources to do the job, which she said could "change the lives of a great many deserving people."

Lawyers working for prisoners said there's still a lot more work for the administration to do. Mark Osler, who led an effort by three dozen law professors and advocates to get the White House to pick up the pace, estimated that 1,500 drug prisoners should win commutations based on the administration's criteria. By his math, that means the president has not yet moved on more than half of the inmates who should win shorter sentences....

In an interview, White House Counsel Neil Eggleston said the president gives each request a special, individualized review, keeping in mind their crimes, their record in prison and whether they merit a second chance, to walk their grandchildren to school or hug their families. Eggleston said the president "doesn't think of it as a number he wants to reach."

"The president's view is that he would like to grant as many worthy petitions as get to his desk and I think he's going to tell me to put worthy petitions on his desk until the last day, and that's what I intend to do," Eggleston said.

Eggleston has this new posting at the White House blog with the chart reprinted here under the heading "President Obama Grants 111 Additional Commutations, the Most Commutations Granted in a Single Month."  Here are excerpts:

Earlier this month, President Obama granted commutation to 214 federal inmates, the most commutations granted in a single day by any President in this nation’s history. With today’s additional 111 grants, the President has commuted the sentences of 325 people in the month of August alone, which is the greatest number of commutations ever granted by a president in a single month. The 325 commutations the President has granted in just one month is more than any president granted in a single year for nearly a century.

Today’s 111 commutation grants underscore the President’s commitment to using his clemency authority to provide a second chance to deserving individuals. To date, President Obama has granted 673 commutations: more commutations than the previous ten presidents combined. More than one-third of the President’s commutation recipients, or 232 individuals, were serving life sentences....

While I expect that the President will continue to grant commutations through the end of this administration, the individualized nature of this relief highlights the need for bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation, including reforms that address excessive mandatory minimum sentences. Only the passage of legislation can achieve the broader reforms needed to ensure our federal sentencing system operates more fairly and effectively in the service of public safety.

August 30, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Lameting modern parole practices while making a case that "Jailing Old Folks Makes No Sense"

The quoted title of this post is the headline of this new New York Times op-ed authored by Geraldine Downey and Frances Negrón-Muntaner.  But, as these extended excerpts from the commentary highlight, the piece is mostly focused on problems with modern parole decision-making:

In 1980, the methadone clinic that had been treating Gloria Rubero as an outpatient dropped her. She was soon desperate for drugs. In August that year, she and an associate took part in a burglary that went wrong and led to the murder of an elderly neighbor.  Ms. Rubero was arrested three days later, and was eventually convicted of robbery and second-degree homicide.  The judge at Ms. Rubero’s trial gave her an indeterminate sentence of 20 years to life.

At the start of her jail term, Ms. Rubero felt suicidally depressed.  But over time, she devoted herself to helping others.  In 1985, she became a founding member of the Youth Assistance Program and logged more than 200 hours of speaking to at-risk youth on the harshness of prison life.... Ms. Rubero also got an education: earning, first, her G.E.D.; and then, between 1992 and 1993, an associate in arts and a bachelor of science from Mercy College, in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. She even made the dean’s list. [S]he also joined the maintenance staff, and excelled at electrical and plumbing work [and later] was accorded the very rare privilege of carrying tools like craft knives, screwdrivers and wire cutters.

Despite this record of rehabilitation, she was denied parole five times in a period of six years.  Each time, the parole board concluded that Ms. Rubero could not be granted parole because the “serious” and “violent” nature of her crimes made her release “incompatible with the welfare and safety of the community.”  In 1999, Ms. Rubero suffered several major strokes, and at a subsequent parole board hearing, she was unable to walk or talk. Yet she was still considered a danger to the community, and her application was denied. Ms. Rubero gradually recovered, and finally, after her sixth hearing, was granted parole and walked out of prison.  She was 56 and had spent 26 years behind bars.

Many incarcerated people would be the first to acknowledge the pain and loss their crimes caused.  But if prisoners older than 50 have served decades-long sentences and have shown evidence of rehabilitation, the only rationale for holding them appears to be endless punishment and retribution.

The problem is growing as the American prison population gets grayer.  By 2012, there were almost 125,000 inmates age 55 and older out of a total population of 2.3 million. Even as the overall prison population continues to decrease, it is estimated that by 2030, there will be more than 400,000 over 55s — a staggering increase from 1981, when there were only 8,853.  The numbers are rising despite recognition that continuing to lock up older prisoners not only does nothing to reduce crime, but is also expensive and inhumane.  More and more aging people are becoming seriously ill and dying in prison.  Prisons are not equipped to be nursing homes.

And there is mounting evidence that there is little, if any, public safety benefit to keeping people like Ms. Rubero in prison for so long.  According to recent studies, a vast majority of people over 50 who are released from prison in the United States, including those with convictions for violent offenses, are much less likely to commit a crime than younger people who have never been incarcerated.  Nationally, rearrests occur for only 2 percent of former prisoners over 50, and hardly at all among over-65s.  Most people simply age out of crime.

If older people in prison pose so little danger, why not free them?  As Ms. Rubero’s experience suggests, a major reason is a resistance to granting parole.  The criteria of parole boards in states like New York include assessments of a prisoner’s possible threat to public safety and her chances of reintegrating into society.  Yet boards primarily base their decisions to deny on the seriousness of the crime for which the person was convicted.

Overlooking the fact that elderly people who have served long sentences are not a public safety risk, parole boards focus instead on the past criminal behavior.  In effect, they prefer to resentence the prisoner rather than make a judgment about the individual’s growth since entering prison.

What can be done to change course and stop spending billions of taxpayer dollars to keep people behind bars for excessive lengths of time ? An immediate first step would be for parole boards to give more weight to a prisoner’s transformation since entering her incarceration. Indefinitely locking up prisoners who pose no security risk once they have served their minimum term and who could contribute more outside is an inexcusable waste of money and human potential.

August 30, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, August 29, 2016

Detailing efforts by Michigan prosecutors to have LWOP juveniles resentenced to LWOP

This lengthy local article, headlined "Michigan prosecutors defying U.S. Supreme Court on ‘juvenile lifers’," details some of the remarkable efforts of Michigan's local prosecutors in response to the Supreme Court's Miller and Montgomery rulngs requiring the resentencing of juvenile murderers preiously given mandatory LWOP sentences.  Here are some extended excerpts:

Prosecutors across Michigan are fighting to uphold sentences for most of the 350-plus prison inmates now serving mandatory life terms for crimes they committed as juveniles.  Their stance is in apparent defiance of a U.S. Supreme Court directive this year that courts across the nation are supposed to reduce life sentences for young offenders except in only “rare” cases.

According to data, which Bridge obtained from a network of Michigan lawyers, at least nine county prosecutors are asking judges to uphold life sentences for every so-called “juvenile lifer” convicted in their courts.  They argue that these inmates, including some who have behind bars for decades, can never be safely returned to society.

“I think what the prosecutors are doing is appalling,” said Ann Arbor lawyer Deborah LaBelle, a prisoner rights advocate who is organizing free legal representation for about 100 juvenile lifers.  “The Supreme Court says the vast majority have to have the chance at being paroled,” LaBelle said.  “You can’t just lock them up and throw away the key for things they did as a child.”

Among the most resistant to the Supreme Court’s ruling: Saginaw County Prosecutor John McColgan Jr., who wants to uphold 21 of 21 sentences in which life terms were given to juvenile defendants.  It’s nine of nine in Kalamazoo County. And seven of seven in Muskegon County.  

Meanwhile, Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper has asked judges to uphold mandatory life sentences for 44 of 49 inmates who committed crimes as juveniles.  In Genesee County, Prosecutor David Leyton is asking the same in 23 of 27 cases.

More broadly, four large Michigan counties — Genesee, Oakland, Saginaw and Wayne — account for 150 of the 218 cases for which prosecutors are seeking to uphold life without parole. In Wayne County, which includes Detroit, Prosecutor Kym Worthy is seeking life without parole in 61 of 153 cases – hardly rare at 40 percent, but lower than Oakland County’s request to uphold 90 percent of juvenile life sentences.

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard put an incendiary exclamation mark on the position of prosecutors when he held a press conference in July in which he compared juvenile lifers to a famous fictional serial killer. “I looked at a sample of these individuals and they are Hannibal Lecters who committed very heinous murders — often, multiple murders — and then they’ve continued to display very assaultive behavior in prison and show no remorse,” Bouchard said.

Overall, according to the data, prosecutors are seeking to uphold life-without-parole sentences for 218 of the 363 men and women in state prisons for crimes committed as minors.  Most were convicted of first-degree murder or of abetting first-degree murder. Some were as young as 14.  The oldest is now 71.  The effort to keep juvenile lifers permanently behind bars faces pushback from legal advocates, as well as some federal prosecutors....

Prosecutors in Michigan were given a July deadline to name juvenile lifers within their jurisdictions who they contend remain too dangerous to ever walk free.  Those named will face an eventual mini-trial in which prosecutors have to prove they were among the irretrievably depraved.  The facts of the original crime, statements by friends or relatives of the victim and each inmate’s background and behavior in prison are to be weighed.  For those lifers not targeted by prosecutors, legislation signed by Gov. Snyder in 2014 spells out a default minimum sentence of 25 years in prison to maximum of 60 years....

In an interview with Bridge, Oakland County prosecutor Cooper called the 44 cases that she challenged for parole some of the most “heinous” crimes she has seen.  She said her decision on those cases was reached only after months of exhaustive review. “We are talking about victims who were stabbed, drowned, bludgeoned and decapitated,” Cooper said. “We are not talking about people who took Dad’s car and drove over somebody’s lawn.  Many of these crimes were totally random. They walked up to a car and decided to shoot in it. On and on and on and on. We are really talking about awful cases.”...

Michael Dettmer, former U.S. Attorney for Michigan’s Western District, joined with another former Western District U.S. Attorney, James Brady, and Richard Rossman, former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District, recently wrote an op-ed condemning the move by state prosecutors to challenge lesser sentences for juvenile lifers.  “As former U.S. Attorneys,” they wrote, “we would have expected Michigan prosecutors to understand Montgomery’s central tenet that children are uniquely capable of growth and maturation and must be able to demonstrate their rehabilitation.

“Instead, too many prosecutors are focusing on the crime committed by a troubled adolescent without exercising the judgment to recognize whether the adult before them today has rehabilitated himself.”  Dettmer said he considers state prosecutors’ push to keep so many in prison for life “a slap in the face” of the court’s instruction on rehabilitation.

But county prosecutors have a powerful ally in Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette.  Schuette has vigorously fought reconsideration of juvenile life sentences, filing a friend of the court brief in 2015 in the Montgomery case on behalf of Michigan and 15 other states opposing any retroactive look at those sentences.  Asked to comment on the high rate of challenges by county prosecutors, a Schuette spokesperson said, “In general, Attorney General Schuette supports local prosecutors and their decisions.”

August 29, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, August 28, 2016

"Federal Review of State Criminal Convictions: A Structural Approach to Adequacy Doctrine"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Eve Brensike Primus now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Modern state postconviction review systems feature procedural labyrinths so complicated and confusing that indigent defendants have no realistic prospect of complying with the rules.  When defendants predictably fail to navigate these mazes, state and federal courts deem their claims procedurally defaulted and refuse to consider those claims on their merits.  As a result, systemic violations of criminal procedure rights — like the right to effective counsel — persist without judicial correction.

But the law contains a tool which, if properly adapted, could bring these systemic problems to the attention of federal courts: procedural adequacy.   Procedural adequacy doctrine gives federal courts the power to ignore procedural defaults and declare state procedural rules inadequate when those rules unduly burden defendants’ abilities to assert violations their federal rights.  And unlike the more commonly invoked cause-and-prejudice doctrine, which excuses default on the theory that a defendant’s unusual circumstances justify an exception to the rules, procedural adequacy doctrine allows courts to question the legitimacy of the state procedural regimes themselves.  As a result, procedural adequacy doctrine can catalyze reform in a way that cause-and-prejudice cannot.

For procedural adequacy litigation to catalyze reform, however, it must be adapted to modern circumstances in one crucial respect.   Historically, procedural adequacy doctrine focused on cases involving the deliberate manipulation of individual rules.  Today, what is needed is a structural approach to adequacy, one that would consider how the interaction of multiple procedural rules unfairly burdens federal rights.  Such a structural approach to adequacy is consistent with the doctrine’s original purposes and is the most sensible way to apply procedural adequacy under current conditions.  Litigants should accordingly deploy a structural approach to procedural adequacy doctrine and use it to stop states from burying systemic constitutional violations in complicated procedural labyrinths.

August 28, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, August 27, 2016

"Fourteen Years Later: The Capital Punishment System in California"

The title of this post is the title of this new and timely article authored by Robert Sanger and avaiable for download via Bepress.  Here is the abstract:

Fourteen years ago, the Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment issued a Report recommending 85 reforms in the criminal justice system in that state to help minimize the possibility that an innocent person would be executed.  The following year, this author conducted an empirical study, later published in the Santa Clara Law Review, to determine if California’s system was in need of the same reforms.  The study concluded that over ninety-two percent of the same reforms were needed in California.  In addition, the study showed that the California system had additional weaknesses beyond those of Illinois that also could lead to the execution of the innocent.

This article is an effort, fourteen years later, to determine what has transpired in California during the last fourteen years.  It will survey of the major scholarly and judicial work that has been published in the last fourteen years on the death penalty nationally and specifically with regard to California as well as on the progress, if any, to meet the unmet recommendations of the Illinois Commission.  

This article concludes that there has been much additional criticism of the failures of the criminal justice and death penalty systems in the country and specifically in California. Nevertheless, the empirical study demonstrates that no additional Recommendations of the Illinois Commission have been met in California in the last fourteen years.  Illinois, itself, enacted significant reforms to meet at least some of the Illinois recommendations.  Nevertheless, Illinois repealed its death penalty.  California, despite no reforms, has not, as yet. The voters will have that option on November 8, 2016.  By voting “Yes“ on Proposition 62, the California death penalty would be repealed.

August 27, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, August 26, 2016

"Where Recreational Marijuana Is Legal, Should Those in Prison for Weed Crimes Get a Puff, Puff, Pass?"

Marijuana-Pot-arrestThe question in the title of this post is not only one that I have given a lot of thought to in recent years, but also the headline of this recent article from The Root. The piece usefully highlights that California's marijuana legalization initiative to be voted upon in November speaks a bit to this issue.  Here are excerpts from the piece:

Twenty years ago, Rico Garcia was 21 when he got caught up in a marijuana sting in Colorado with a friend who wanted to buy some weed. The seller turned out to be a police informant, and Garcia and his friend were arrested. “The police came and arrested us and said we were selling weed,” says Garcia, now a 41-year-old marijuana advocate who runs Cannabis Alliance for Regulation and Education. “My friend said it was his, but … under Colorado law at the time, 8 ounces was possession with intent and I got a felony.”

Garcia says he was a first-time offender and a public defender got him to agree to accept a plea deal. He didn’t realize the full ramifications of having such a charge on his record. “They said, ‘No jail’ — that’s how they get brown people — and I said, ‘That sounds nice,’” recalls Garcia, who is Puerto Rican. He says he got four years’ probation and was released from it in two years, but the felony is still affecting his life. “You’re pretty much disqualified for housing. … Most who could give you a loan for a car or house give you a different rate or simply won’t lend to you. You can’t own a firearm, even in a pro-gun state; you can’t get any government grants or hold certain occupational licenses.”

Even though medical and recreational use of marijuana is legal under most circumstances in Colorado, Garcia’s felony precludes him from being part of the weed boom the state is enjoying, a problem that plagues many people of color trying to get into the weed business. There’s also a debate about the fate of nonviolent offenders currently incarcerated for weed crimes in states where recreational marijuana is now legal. Some marijuana advocates support the idea of state pardons for offenders incarcerated for such crimes as more states consider legalizing recreational marijuana....

[T]here has been some debate among marijuana advocates over whether lawmakers and voters would support such an effort involving weed crimes because they had to walk such tightropes to get legislation for medical and recreational marijuana approved in the first place. California — where most advocates expect Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, to pass in November in a state that has had a medical-marijuana program for 20 years — could set a national standard for the fate of nonviolent marijuana offenders caught up in the prison system.

Not only does Proposition 64 reduce the current penalty for selling marijuana for nonmedicinal purposes from up to four years in prison to six months in jail and a fine of up to $500, but it also includes big changes for those previously convicted of marijuana crimes. Those serving sentences for activities that are either legal or subject to lesser penalties under the new measure would be eligible to be resentenced. Plus, those who have already done their time could apply to have their convictions removed from their records....

But the politics surrounding whether nonviolent marijuana users should be pardoned or allowed to have their records expunged completely are complicated. In Colorado, Andrew Freeman says, people can apply to have their felony conviction for a marijuana offense that is no longer illegal under Amendment 64 changed to a misdemeanor. But that stays on your record.

Freedman notes that few of the people still in prison in Colorado for marijuana are there only for a single, nonviolent offense, which would make it easy for them to be released. According to a 2014 report (pdf) by the state’s Department of Corrections, there are only 71 nonviolent marijuana offenders among Colorado’s 20,300 inmates....

Tom Angell at the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Marijuana Majority breaks it down even further, saying that the pardoning of nonviolent marijuana offenders has been part of a general debate among advocates about what is the best, most comprehensive marijuana-reform proposal that can be put on the ballot and garner the support of voters.

“I think there’s some question as to whether a sufficient number of voters would be skittish about the notion of releasing people from prison en masse,” Angell says. “In an ideal world, we want to release all the marijuana offenders yesterday! We absolutely do. But this is politics and reality, and you can’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. We need to achieve what is achievable today and build on those victories and keep getting wins on the scoreboard.”

This Root story usefully highlights why folks interested in criminal justice and sentencing reform ought to keep a special eye on discussions and developments with marijuana reform in California this election season. Moreover, as this review of some recent posts from my Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog should highlight, I see no shortage of interesting marijuana reform issues that ought to interest criminal justice and civil rights folks:

August 26, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Collateral consequences, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Preparing for pot professing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Sixth Circuit panel concludes Michigan sex offender registration amendments "imposes punishment" and thus are ex post unconstitutional for retroactive application

In a significant panel ruling today, the Sixth Circuit has concluded in Does v. Snyder, No. 15-1536 (6th Cir. Aug. 25, 2016) (available here) that Michigan's amendments to its Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA) "imposes punishment" and thus the state violates the US Constitution when applying these SORA provisions retroactively.  Here is some of the concluding analysis from the unanimous panel decision reaching this result:

So, is SORA’s actual effect punitive?  Many states confronting similar laws have said “yes.”  See, e.g., Doe v. State, 111 A.3d 1077, 1100 (N.H. 2015); State v. Letalien, 985 A.2d 4, 26 (Me. 2009); Starkey v. Oklahoma Dep’t of Corr., 305 P.3d 1004 (Okla. 2013); Commonwealth v. Baker, 295 S.W.3d 437 (Ky. 2009); Doe v. State, 189 P.3d 999, 1017 (Alaska 2008).  And we agree.  In reaching this conclusion, we are mindful that, as Smith makes clear, states are free to pass retroactive sex-offender registry laws and that those challenging an ostensibly non-punitive civil law must show by the “clearest proof” that the statute in fact inflicts punishment.  But difficult is not the same as impossible.  Nor should Smith be understood as writing a blank check to states to do whatever they please in this arena.

A regulatory regime that severely restricts where people can live, work, and “loiter,” that categorizes them into tiers ostensibly corresponding to present dangerousness without any individualized assessment thereof, and that requires time-consuming and cumbersome in-person reporting, all supported by — at best — scant evidence that such restrictions serve the professed purpose of keeping Michigan communities safe, is something altogether different from and more troubling than Alaska’s first-generation registry law.  SORA brands registrants as moral lepers solely on the basis of a prior conviction.  It consigns them to years, if not a lifetime, of existence on the margins, not only of society, but often, as the record in this case makes painfully evident, from their own families, with whom, due to school zone restrictions, they may not even live.  It directly regulates where registrants may go in their daily lives and compels them to interrupt those lives with great frequency in order to appear in person before law enforcement to report even minor changes to their information.

We conclude that Michigan’s SORA imposes punishment.  And while many (certainly not all) sex offenses involve abominable, almost unspeakable, conduct that deserves severe legal penalties, punishment may never be retroactively imposed or increased.  Indeed, the fact that sex offenders are so widely feared and disdained by the general public implicates the core countermajoritarian principle embodied in the Ex Post Facto clause.  As the founders rightly perceived, as dangerous as it may be not to punish someone, it is far more dangerous to permit the government under guise of civil regulation to punish people without prior notice.  Such lawmaking has “been, in all ages, [a] favorite and most formidable instrument[] of tyranny.” The Federalist No. 84, supra at 444 (Alexander Hamilton).  It is, as Justice Chase argued, incompatible with both the words of the Constitution and the underlying first principles of “our free republican governments.” Calder, 3 U.S. at 388–89; accord The Federalist No. 44, supra at 232 (James Madison) (“[E]x post facto laws . . . are contrary to the first principles of the social compact, and to every principle of sound legislation.”). The retroactive application of SORA’s 2006 and 2011 amendments to Plaintiffs is unconstitutional, and it must therefore cease.

I was involved with some amicus briefing in this case, so I am a bit biased when saying I think the Sixth Circuit got this one right.  But I do not think I am showing any bias when asserting this ruling is a big deal (and could become an even bigger deal if Michigan seeks a further appeal to the full Sixth Circuit or to the US Supreme Court).

August 25, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (21)

Monday, August 22, 2016

"Race, Privilege, and Recall: Why the misleading campaign against the judge who sentenced Brock Turner will only make our system less fair"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Medium commentary authored by Akiva Freidlin and Emi Young.  Here are excerpts:

As recent graduates of Stanford Law School who work on behalf of low-income people affected by our criminal justice system, we have been closely attuned to the Brock Turner sexual assault case. We recognize the urgency of feminist-led reforms to rape law, and of efforts to address and prevent sexual violence, but the misguided campaign to recall Judge Aaron Persky advances neither goal. Instead, the recall proponents have used misleading arguments to inflame the perception that Judge Persky imposes unfair sentences depending on a defendant’s race and class. These distortions misdirect long-overdue public outrage over the state of America’s criminal justice system to support Persky’s recall, while threatening to make the system less fair for indigent defendants and people of color.... In July, the recall campaign began drawing misleading comparisons between Turner and a Latino man named Raul Ramirez, whose case was overseen by Judge Persky. The campaign claims that Ramirez, a low-income person of color, received a three-year sentence for “very similar crimes,” proving that Judge Persky has “shown bias.”  But there are two crucial legal differences between the cases, which render the comparison meaningless....

Ramirez received a three-year sentence as part of a negotiated plea deal between his attorney and the prosecutor, so Judge Persky had no discretion to give him a lesser sentence.... [And] Ramirez and Turner were charged with crimes that are treated differently under the law. Ramirez received a prison sentence because the District Attorney charged him under a statute that absolutely requires it.... These realities explain the differences between Brock Turner’s sentence of probation and Raul Ramirez’s three-year prison term  —  not the recall campaign’s unsupported claims of judicial bias....

Now the campaign has begun to publicize a misleading barrage of claims about another plea bargain, using rhetoric that undermines hard-won reforms to immigration policy. In this case, a defendant named Ming Hsuan Chiang pleaded guilty to a domestic violence charge in exchange for a sentence that critics deride as being too lenient.  The facts in this case, and the injuries to the victim, are upsetting  —  but once again, as in the Ramirez case, Judge Persky approved a sentence recommended by the District Attorney’s office, in fulfillment of the prosecution’s agreement with Chiang’s attorney.  Nevertheless, the campaign claims that the sentence somehow provides evidence that Persky has “shown bias.” 

One of the recall campaign’s main proponents  —  Professor Michelle Dauber, who teaches at our law school   — has also pointed to the plea bargain’s consideration of Chiang’s immigration status as a sign that Judge Persky is somehow unacceptable as a judge....  This insinuation turns law and policy on its head.  For non-citizens, being convicted of even a relatively minor crime may trigger federal immigration penalties such as mandatory detention, deportation, and permanent separation from close family . Addressing harmful and unjust “crimmigration” penalties has been a top priority of immigrants rights advocates, especially here in California, where one out of four residents is foreign-born....

Our criminal system is deeply unjust, but attributing these problems to Judge Persky is a mistake — and the effort to recall him only harms less privileged defendants.  The false personal accusations against Judge Persky distract from real understanding of structural inequalities.  In Brock Turner’s case, the probation department’s recommendation against prison weighed specific legal factors that, while putatively neutral, often correspond to race and class.  For instance, consideration of a defendant’s past criminal record tends to benefit middle-class whites like Turner, who have never been subjected to the dragnet policing and “assembly-line justice” that leave young men of color with sentence-aggravating prior convictions.  Similarly, for Turner, the loss of valuable educational opportunities was seen as mitigating the need for greater punishment, whereas for less privileged defendants, institutional barriers  —  like disciplinary policies that have created a “school-to-prison pipeline”  —  impede access to those opportunities in the first place. The time and money being spent to remove Persky from the bench will not address these dynamics or help untangle the web of policies that perpetuate inequality along racial and class lines.

Here in California, voters have finally begun to remedy the unintended and disparate effects of the 1993 “Three Strikes” ballot initiative and other mandatory sentencing laws, by permitting the discretionary re-sentencing of people convicted under these schemes.  By sending the message that unpopular but lawful decisions may lead to a recall, the campaign threatens the sole mechanism for individualized consideration of mitigating circumstances.

This will only make it harder for low-income defendants and those who advocate for them.... Those effects are not merely speculative.  As shown in ten empirical studies analyzed by the Brennan Center for Justice, judges impose harsher sentences when pressured by elections, and some studies find that these effects are concentrated on defendants of color.  Holding a recall election out of frustration with Turner’s lawful sentence will only exacerbate these problems.  As a prominent Santa Clara County judge has explained, a recall will “have trial judges looking over their shoulders, testing the winds before rendering their decisions.”...

Even in anger, the public must take a hard look at the rationale and likely effect of recalling Judge Persky.  By stoking public anger with misleading claims, the recall campaign encourages a short-sighted response without accounting for the actual sources of structural injustice, or the consequences to those already burdened by inequality.

Some prior related posts:

August 22, 2016 in Celebrity sentencings, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Would the "the first liberal Supreme Court in a generation" really reshape the criminal justice system in the United States?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new Vox article headlined "How the first liberal Supreme Court in a generation could reshape America." Interestingly (and appropriately?), the article talks a lot and at length about sentencing issues, and thus it is this week's first must-read. And here are excerpts:

Odds are that very soon, the Supreme Court will become something it hasn’t been in nearly 50 years: made up of a majority of Democratic-appointed justices.

Ever since Abe Fortas’s resignation in 1969, the Court has either been split down the middle or, more often, made up primarily of Republican appointees. Some of those Republican appointees nonetheless turned out to be liberals, but even taking that into account, the Court hasn’t been majority liberal since 1971, when William Rehnquist and Lewis Powell joined....

The unfilled vacancy of Antonin Scalia’s seat combined with a Hillary Clinton victory in November could set the Court on a new course. Merrick Garland, nominated by Barack Obama in March, has yet to face a vote. But though Senate Republicans have denied they’ll confirm him in the lame-duck session this winter, should Hillary Clinton win they might be tempted to confirm him lest she name a more liberal nominee. Either way, the result is a moderate to liberal justice in Scalia’s seat, moving the Court appreciably to the left.

Clinton also stands a good chance of replacing the moderate-to-conservative Anthony Kennedy (who recently turned 80) with a reliable liberal, and keeping Ruth Bader Ginsburg (83 and a two-time cancer survivor) and Stephen Breyer’s (78) seats in liberal hands. The result would be a solid 6-3 liberal majority of a kind not seen in many decades....

A liberal Court could end long-term solitary confinement. It could mandate better prison conditions in general, making it more costly to maintain mass incarceration. It could conceivably end the death penalty. It could uphold tough state campaign finance rules and start to move away from Citizens United. It could start to develop a robust right to vote and limit gerrymandering. It could strengthen abortion rights, moving toward viewing abortion rights as a matter of equal protection for women....

Let’s start with perhaps the biggest thing that could happen under a liberal Court, perhaps even a Court where another conservative replaces Scalia: the end of long-term solitary confinement. In 2015, Anthony Kennedy filed a concurring opinion in Davis v. Ayala, a death penalty case in which the Court (joined by Kennedy) sided against the defendant. Nevertheless, Kennedy used his concurrence to unleash a bracing jeremiad against the evils of solitary confinement, in which the defendant had been held for most of his more than 25 years in prison....

The implication was clear: Kennedy wanted advocates to bring a case challenging the constitutionality of long-term solitary confinement on the grounds that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. He basically dared them to, and suggested that if such a case reached the Court, he’d be inclined to limit the practice. With four reliable liberals already on the Court and likely to join him, it’s quite likely that such a case would end with solitary confinement sharply limited....

Solitary confinement is perhaps the most shockingly cruel condition of imprisonment in the United States, but the sheer scale of mass incarceration is also an issue in need of addressing. And because federal courts have the ability to affect policy at both the federal and state level, they can have considerable influence on the incarceration rate going forward.... "The new focus of prison conditions, which could be a real game changer in my view, is the intersection of overcrowding with mental and physical health burdens. The real game changer in terms of the current prison population is how disease-burdened it is," [Professor Jonathan] Simon says. "That could be pretty far-reaching because states have to contemplate the consequence of incarcerating so many aging prisoners."...

One way in which the courts could be more receptive to directly challenging sentences, she says, is by starting to take "collateral consequences" into account. That’s the technical term for the myriad ways that criminal convictions, and in particular sex crime convictions, can hamper defendants’ lives in the long term. That includes restrictions on where they can live after they’re released from prison, bans on government employment and benefits like public housing, inclusion on sex offender registries, bans on gun purchases and voting, and so forth....

Almost as explosive as Kennedy's 2015 concurrence was a dissent filed by Stephen Breyer and joined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg that same year. The case, Glossip v. Gross, resulted in a 5-4 ruling affirming that the particular drug cocktail Oklahoma currently uses in executions doesn't violate the Eighth Amendment. One dissent, by Sonia Sotomayor and joined by the Court's other three liberals, narrowly argued against the specific drugs. Breyer's dissent took aim at capital punishment as a whole....

It’s telling that neither Sotomayor nor Elena Kagan, the two other liberals on the Court, joined Breyer’s opinion. And it’s hard to imagine Merrick Garland, who was one of the prosecutors who successfully sought to see Timothy McVeigh executed, declaring his own past actions categorically unconstitutional. But if Garland’s nomination fails and Clinton picks a less tough-on-crime nominee for Scalia’s seat, or if Kennedy leaves the Court during her presidency, it’s conceivable there would exist five votes for outright abolition of the death penalty.

"I would not be surprised to see Sotomayor and Kagan supportive of [abolishing the death penalty]," Simon says. "Kennedy is a harder call. The reason I'm somewhat optimistic about including Kennedy goes back to his interest in dignity. The strongest of the opinions in Furman" — the 1972 case that briefly abolished capital punishment — "was William Brennan's, and Brennan based it most directly on human dignity. He argued the Eighth Amendment bans any punishment you can't carry out without respecting the dignity of those being punished." Kennedy leaned heavily on the importance of dignity in Brown v. Plata, the California prison overcrowding case....

One other death penalty–related case Simon thinks the Court could amend or overturn, which could have widespread implication outside this specific issue area, is McCleskey v. Kemp, a 1987 case in which the Court ruled 5-4 that a death sentence for a black defendant could not be overturned due to the state of Georgia's hugely disproportionate imposition of capital punishment on African Americans. The effect of that was to foreclose challenges to the criminal justice system premised on its discriminatory effect — the Court required that plaintiffs show that discrimination was intended, not merely that the system was in effect discriminating against African Americans.

"It's been terrible for equal protection law generally. Criminal justice is run through with very disproportionate racial practices that are very difficult to prove as discrimination," Simon says. "Overturning McCleskey, and a companion case a few years later, could be a really important change agent both in unleashing the potential for trial court challenges to racially disproportionate criminal justice practices of all sorts, and perhaps ending the death penalty in those states where it seems most firmly rooted, like Texas and Florida."

August 22, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Poll suggests Californians will vote in November 2016 to mend rather than end the death penalty in their state

This new press release from the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, which is titled "IGS Poll Finds Support for Retaining Death Penalty," suggests that California voters have some strong preferences regarding competing death penalty ballot initiatives.  Here are the interesting details via the main text of the press release:

California voters oppose an effort to abolish the death penalty and strongly support a competing measure that would streamline procedures in capital cases, according to a new poll released today by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Respondents opposed the abolition measure 55.1 percent to 44.9 percent, while three out of four respondents supported the streamlining proposition, the survey found. Since the two measures conflict, if both should pass, the measure receiving more votes would take effect.

The poll used online English-language questionnaires to survey respondents from June 29 to July 18. All respondents were registered California voters, and the responses were then weighted to reflect the statewide distribution of the California population by gender, race/ethnicity, education and age. The sample size for the questions on the two death penalty initiatives was 1,506 respondents for one question and 1,512 for the other.

A stark partisan difference emerged on Proposition 62, which would abolish capital punishment and replace it with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Democrats supported the measure, 55.1 percent to 44.9 percent. Republicans overwhelmingly opposed it, 70.2 percent to 29.8 percent. Independents were also opposed, though by only 60.6 percent to 39.4 percent. By contrast, there was support across partisan lines for Proposition 66, which would streamline procedures in capital cases to speed up the resolution of those cases. Even among Democrats there was strong support (69.7 percent) for the measure, and support was even higher among independents (81.1 percent) and Republicans (85 percent).

A majority (60 percent) of African-Americans favored abolishing the death penalty, but among all other ethnic groups, most respondents opposed that proposal. Support for the death penalty was stronger among older people.

Interestingly, religious differences were reflected in views about abolishing the death penalty, but mostly that difference was related to whether the respondent was or was not religious, rather than to differences among various religious denominations. Among all religious groups there was majority opposition to eliminating the death penalty; only among the self-identified atheists and agnostics did most voters support abolition of capital punishment.

Prior related posts:

August 18, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Empirical SCOTUS highlights how sentencing cases of OT 15 already "have the greatest downstream effects" in lower courts

I just saw this fascinating new Empirical SCOTUS post by Adam Feldman titled "Five SCOTUS Decisions Making Waves in the Lower Courts." I was not at all surprised that three of the five cases making the list are sentencing cases (and the other two deal with criminal procedure matters), and here are snippets from the post providing the highlights:

[Supreme Court] rulings in many cases each Term go under the radar [because] they deal with less politically salient issues. Some of these cases, however, have the greatest downstream effects.

This post looks at five “sleeper cases” from this past Term that have made their major impact through the lower courts. The immediate significance of these decisions is in how they change or clarify rules and laws and consequently the trajectory of many lower court decisions. They are especially impactful in criminal cases as they tend to arise when dealing with rights of those accused or convicted of crimes.

The post ranks the cases based on the relative number of times they have been cited by a combination of federal and state lower courts (even though these decisions were made across several months of the Term, the number of times they were cited makes it unlikely that the variation in decision timing has a substantial effect on this list of cases).

5) Mathis v. United States, decided June 23, 2016 (75 lower court citations)...

4) Ross v. Blake, decided June 6, 2016 (107 lower court citations)...

3) Mullenix v. Luna (per curiam), decided November 9, 2015 (213 lower court citations)...

2) Montgomery v. Louisiana, decided January 25, 2016 (373 lower court citations) ....

1) Welch v. United States, decided April 18, 2016 (765 lower court citations) ...

My colleagues and students are certainly tired of hearing me claim that sentencing issues are often the most important public policy issues of this generation and that SCOTUS sentencing rulings are often the most consequential of all cases. Needless to say, these notable empirics is not going to reduce my tendency to aggrandize the issues and cases that are my own professional obsession.

August 18, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

New York Times editorial pushes for "Mercy on Texas’ Death Row" for condemned getaway driver

Today's New York Times has this notable new editorial discussing a notable capital case in Texas under the headline "Rare Chance for Mercy on Texas’ Death Row." Here are excerpts:

When it comes to capital punishment, there is not much official mercy to be found in the state of Texas.  As 537 death row inmates were executed there over the last 40 years, only two inmates were granted clemency.  The last commutation to life in prison occurred nine years ago, when Gov. Rick Perry, despite his formidable tally of 319 executions, chose to make an exception and spare a man convicted of murder under the state’s arcane and patently unfair “Law of Parties.”

This law in effect holds that someone waiting outside at the wheel of a getaway car deserves the same capital punishment as his associate inside who shoots and kills a store clerk.  This is the rough equation that now finds Jeffrey Wood on death row in Texas, 20 years after his involvement in just such a crime.  The actual killer was executed in 2002; Mr. Wood faces execution next Wednesday as a somehow equally culpable party, unless the state commutes his sentence to life in prison.

The Law of Parties has been on trial as much as Mr. Wood has in the arduous criminal justice process in which he faces death. With an I.Q. of 80 and no criminal history, Mr. Wood, who was 22 then, was initially found by a jury to be incompetent to stand trial. But the state persisted, and he was convicted in a slipshod proceeding in which no mitigating evidence or cross-examination was attempted in his behalf during the crucial sentencing hearing....

The theory underpinning the Law of Parties — that an accomplice deserves to die even though he did not kill the victim — has been abandoned as difficult to apply if not unjust in most state jurisdictions in recent decades.  It holds that an accomplice should have anticipated the likelihood of a capital murder and deserves the ultimate penalty.  Since the death penalty was restored in 1976, there have been only 10 executions in six states under accomplice culpability laws, in which defendants did not directly kill the victim, according to Texas Monthly.  Five of them have been in Texas. Jared Tyler, Mr. Wood’s lawyer, who specializes in the state’s death row cases, says he has never seen a sentence of execution “in which there was no defense at all on the question of death worthiness.”

This is just one of many grounds for the clemency that four dozen evangelical leaders have recommended to avoid a gross injustice. The state parole board would have to make this recommendation, with the final decision by Gov. Greg Abbott, who has not granted clemency in 19 executions.

The Law of Parties stands as a grotesque demonstration of how utterly arbitrary capital punishment is. The only true course for justice in Texas is for the law to be scrapped and Mr. Wood’s life to be spared.

UPDATE:  For more interesting and timely coverage of this case, check out this new Texas Tribune article headlined "State Rep. Leach Tries to Stop Jeff Wood Execution."  Here is how the article gets started:

It’s not often that a staunch conservative loses sleep over imposition of the death penalty, but state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, says he is up nights over the impending execution of Jeff Wood.

The two-term legislator has spent the past week poring over court documents and speaking with the governor’s office and Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, hoping to prevent what would be the state’s seventh execution of the year. Wood is set to die by lethal injection Aug. 24.  “I simply do not believe that Mr. Wood is deserving of the death sentence,” Leach told the Tribune. “I can’t sit quietly by and not say anything.”

August 18, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Split Pennsylvania Supreme Court limits reach of state's lifetime sex offender registry requirement

As reported in this local article, a "ruling issued by a sharply-divided Pennsylvania Supreme Court could greatly alter the registration requirements imposed on some types of convicted sex offenders." Here is more about the ruling and its likely impact:

The decision by the court's majority states that offenders who commit some kinds of sex crimes, such as possessing child pornography, cannot be made to register with state police for life unless they commit at least one more sex crime after their initial convictions. In other words, they have to become recidivists to qualify for the lifetime registration. State police have been requiring such first-time offenders to register for life if they have multiple sex crime convictions stemming from just one criminal incident.

Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico said Tuesday that the high court's decision likely will have an impact on plea negotiations in certain sex-crime cases. The difference in registration requirements - some offenses carry registration terms as low as 10 years - can prompt a defendant to plead guilty to a lesser sex crime to avoid the lifetime registration. "The biggest impact will be with plea negotiations," Marsico said. "These registration requirements are often at issue."

The dispute before the Supreme Court hinged on the interpretation of the wording of a state law that requires lifetime registration for some sex offenders who receive "two or more convictions." A Supreme Court majority consisting of Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor and Justices Kevin M. Dougherty, Max Baer and Christine Donohue concluded the wording means sex offenders in some cases must be convicted of such crimes for two separate incidents to trigger the lifetime registration mandate. Justices Debra McClosky Todd and David N. Wecht dissented.

The majority decision means sex offenders convicted of "Tier 1" crimes including kidnapping of minors, child luring, institutional sexual assault, indecent assault, prostitution involving minors, possessing child porn and unlawful contact with a minor won't be required to register for life on their first offense, no matter how many charges their first convictions entail. They will still have to register with police for 10 years.

The Supreme Court majority opinion written by Dougherty dealt with the case of a 21-year-old Montgomery County man who was convicted of persuading his 16-year-old girlfriend to take and send sexually explicit photos of herself. He was arrested in 2000 when her father found the pics. After pleading guilty to seven child porn counts, he was sentenced to 5 to 23 months in county prison, plus 5 years of probation.

At the time of his plea and sentencing, the man, who is identified in the court opinion as A.S., along with the judge, prosecutor and defense attorney believed he would be subject to a 10-year registration, Dougherty noted. State police told him he had to register for life because of his multiple convictions in that single case....

Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed agreed with Marsico that the Supreme Court ruling could affect some plea talks. Still, he said it won't greatly alter the course of sex crime prosecutions. "As prosecutors, we'll be able to handle this," Freed said. The question is whether there will be moves in the Legislature to alter the law in light of the high court's decision.

Defense attorney Brian Perry praised the Supreme Court ruling for giving some offenders a chance to reform. "The court's decision allows individuals to rehabilitate themselves and not have to deal with (registration) for the rest of their lives," Perry said. "From the first-time defendant's perspective, it certainly makes sense."

The full opinion from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in this case is available at this link.

August 17, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, August 15, 2016

Poll suggests Nebraska voters will reject legislature's rejection of death penalty

As this local article reports, "poll results released Sunday by death penalty supporters suggest a majority of Nebraska voters favor repealing the bill that ended capital punishment in the state last year." Here is more from this press report:

In the poll of 600 likely general election voters conducted Aug. 7-10, 47.8 percent said they would definitely vote to keep the death penalty and another 10.5 percent said they probably would vote to keep the death penalty, Nebraskans for the Death Penalty said. Combined, voters favoring a vote to repeal the bill outpaced voters in support of the bill eliminating the death penalty by a 58.3-30.3 percent margin. The poll's margin of error is 4 percent.

“If the election were held today, Nebraskans would vote in overwhelming numbers to repeal LB268 in order to keep the death penalty,” Don Stenberg, honorary co-chair of Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, said in a news release. Stenburg is a former Nebraska attorney general and current state treasurer....

In a response to the poll, a spokesman for Retain a Just Nebraska said residents of the state are tired of spending millions of dollars on a failed government program. “This is a flawed poll and should not be viewed as an accurate measurement of how Nebraskans view the death penalty," Dan Parsons said. "It’s a push poll that misleads Nebraskans into thinking they have no other option than getting rid of the death penalty. When in reality, the question that will appear on the November 8 ballot asks voters if they wish to replace the death penalty with life in prison.

"Our polling and numerous others across the country show that when given that choice, voters chose life in prison.”...

According to the survey, support for the death penalty is strong among men and women, across all of Nebraska’s congressional districts and among members of different political parties. The Legislature passed LB268 last year over a veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts, but a successful petition drive last summer blocked the law until voters have their say in November.

Helpfully, we will have an actual vote in a few months and so will not have to figure out whether this poll is accurate or not as a reflection of Nebraskan voters' perspective on capital punishment.

August 15, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Realistic (though incomplete) discussion concerning how marijuana reform is not a panacea for mass incarceration

Marc Mauer has this timely and effective new commentary in The Hill headlined "Can Marijuana reform end mass incarceration?". Any regular reader of this blog knows that the only simple and accurate answer to this question is "no," but the commentary provides a fuller accounting of some reasons why I see many possible positive synergies between sentencing reform and marijuana reform movements. Here are excerpts:

This week’s DEA decision to keep marijuana classified as a Schedule I drug (categorized as having no medical potential and a high potential for abuse) has disappointed advocates for drug policy reform. They contend that marijuana is less dangerous and addictive than drugs like cocaine and heroin, or even alcohol.  But many reformers also argue that marijuana reform is the first step in ending mass incarceration.  In many respects this appears to be wishful thinking.

There’s no question that the “war on marijuana” is overblown and unproductive. Since the early 1990s the focus of drug arrests nationally has shifted from a prior emphasis on cocaine and heroin to increasing marijuana arrests.  By 2014 marijuana accounted for nearly half of the 1.5 million drug arrests nationally. But while this elevated level of marijuana enforcement is counterproductive in many respects, there is little evidence to indicate that it has been a substantial contributor to mass incarceration.  Of the 1.5 million people in state or federal prisons, only about 40,000 are incarcerated for a marijuana offense.  The vast majority of this group is behind the walls for selling, not using, the drug, often in large quantities.  We could debate whether even high-level marijuana sellers should be subject to lengthy incarceration, but they constitute less than 3% of the prison population.

In other respects, though, marijuana law enforcement imposes substantial costs on the justice system.  Few marijuana arrests may result in a prison term, but they consume enormous resources through police time making arrests and court appearances, probation and parole revocations, and time spent in local jails following arrest or serving a short sentence. And all of this activity comes with public safety tradeoffs.  Time spent by police making marijuana arrests is time not spent responding to domestic violence disputes or guns on the streets.

While it may be misleading to portray the marijuana reform movement as the beginning of the end of mass incarceration, there are ways in which we could transform the national dialogue to make a more direct link.  For a start, we should call attention to the parallels between marijuana and the overall drug war.  In particular, the drug war has prioritized supply reduction through international interdiction campaigns and a heavy-handed law enforcement response.  This approach has had little impact on either drug availability or price, and has drained resources from more effective allocations to prevention and treatment programming.

The racial disparities of marijuana law enforcement are emblematic of the drug war as well, with African Americans more than three times as likely to be arrested for a marijuana offense as whites, despite similar rates of use. Such outcomes bring to mind the vast disparities in crack cocaine arrests, as well as the use of “stop and frisk” policing tactics often premised on drug law enforcement, and exacting a substantial toll in communities of color....

There is reason for hope that change may be at hand. National drug policy is shifting toward a greater emphasis on treatment approaches to substance abuse, and thoughtful leaders in law enforcement are serving as models for how to engage communities in collaborative efforts for promoting public safety.  The national debate on drug policy is worthwhile on its own, but we should also seek to extend that conversation into the realm of mass incarceration.

For reasons both practical and political, it is appropriate for Mauer and others to be quick to note that marijuana reform will not "end" mass incarceration. At the same time, given that a wealth of other reforms at the state and national level over the last decade has done no more than keep incarceration levels flat, a reduction of 40,000 prisoners in state and federal prisons would still mark a significant achievement in these modern times. Moreover, and as Mauer suggested, national marijuana reform not only could help demonstrate that public-health and regulatory approaches to drug issues are more cost-effective than criminal justice prohibitions, but also could provide a significant source of new public revenue for prevention and treatment programming.

One of many reasons I have become so interested in marijuana reform developments is because I have grown so frustrated in recent years at the seeming inability (or unwillingness) of elite policy-makers (especially in DC) to take bold action to deal with modern mass incarceration. Tellingly, modern marijuana reform in the United States is a ground-up movement that has been engineered at the local and state level despite disconcerting and persistent opposition by elite policy-makers (such as the Obama Administration at its DEA).  I continue to fear that elite policy-makers will continue to fail to see that the vast marijority of Americans are eager to move dramatically away from blanket federal marijuana prohibition, though I also expect a lot of significant developments in this space once we get through the 2016 election cycle.  With nearly 25% of the US population in numerous states that will be voting on marijuana reforms this November (most notably California and Florida), this election year will be the closest possible to a national referendum on marijuana prohibition.  If reform wins big with voters in most states this fall, I think elite policy-makers will finally fully appreciate which way these reform winds are now blowing.

In the meantime, here are some recent highlights on related front from my blogging efforts of late over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

August 14, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Preparing for pot professing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Former AG Eric Holder brags about his "too little, too late" approach to dealing with federal sentencing's myriad problems

Holder-covington-feature-heroEric Holder, who served as attorney general of the United States from 2009 to 2015, has this notable New York Times op-ed that I ultimately find more frustrating than encouraging. The article is headlined "Eric Holder: We Can Have Shorter Sentences and Less Crime," and here are excerpts that prompt my frustration (based on the dates I highlighed above, and related dates highlighted below, and a bit of inserted commentary):

The financial cost of our current incarceration policy is straining government budgets; the human and community costs are incalculable. Today, a rare bipartisan consensus in favor of changing drug-sentencing laws presents an opportunity to improve the fairness and efficiency of America’s criminal justice system. But to build on this coalition for reform, which includes senior law enforcement officials, we need action in Congress.

In February 2015, President Obama convened a group of lawmakers — including the Republican senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Rand Paul of Kentucky and the Democratic senators Dick Durbin of Illinois and Cory Booker of New Jersey — to build support for sweeping reforms. But the momentum has slowed thanks to opposition from a small group of Republican congressmen using language dredged from the past. One, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, even claimed recently that “we have an under-incarceration problem.”

The Republican presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump, is now fanning fears about the level of crime in America, which is actually at historic lows [Ed Note: crime was at historic lows in 2014 and has recently been going up]. Such pandering is a reminder of how we got here in the first place....

Controlling for other factors, the United States Sentencing Commission found that between December 2007 and September 2011, black male defendants received sentences 20 percent longer than their white counterparts. From 1983 to 1997, the number of African-Americans sent to prison for drug offenses went up more than 26-fold, compared with a sevenfold increase for whites. By the early 2000s, more than twice as many African-Americans as whites were in state prisons for drug offenses....

The Justice Department has pioneered reform.  Three years ago, as attorney general, I established the Smart on Crime initiative to reduce draconian mandatory minimum sentencing for low-level drug offenses and encourage more investment in rehabilitation programs to tackle recidivism. The preliminary results are very encouraging. Over the last two years, federal prosecutors went from seeking a mandatory minimum penalty for drug trafficking in two-thirds of cases to doing so in less than half of them — the lowest rate on record. The initiative may not be solely responsible, but 2014 saw the first consecutive drop in the federal prison population in more than three decades, coinciding with a falling crime rate.

Those who argue that without the hammer of a mandatory minimum sentence defendants won’t cooperate are wrong — in fact, the rate of cooperation held steady under the initiative, and the rate of guilty pleas remained constant. The system remained effective and became fairer. Reform has not made us less safe....

Mandatory minimum sentences should be eliminated for many offenses, and where they are still applied, their length should be reduced. The legislative proposals necessarily reflect a compromise, but we must ensure that they go far enough: The judiciary needs greater discretion in imposing mandatory minimums, as do our prosecutors in seeking them. Given the absence of parole in the federal system, we should increase the amount of sentence-reduction credit available to inmates with records of good conduct. And all offenders, regardless of their designated risk level, should get credit for participating in rehabilitation programs....

There is still a disparity in sentencing for offenses relating to crack and powder cocaine, chemically identical substances. Given the policy’s differential racial impact, which erodes confidence in the justice system, this disparity must go. In the light of recent events, we can’t afford criminal justice policies that reduce the already fragile trust between minority communities and law enforcement agencies....

Whatever the outcomes of the bills before Congress and the presidential election, the Justice Department existing reforms must be preserved. Important as they are, all these initiatives have a bearing only on the federal justice system, which houses about 10 percent of the prison population.  For the federal effort to be a template for reform in the states, where most prisoners are detained, Congress must lead.

The nation’s lawmakers must stiffen their spines, ignore divisive language and schedule votes in this congressional session on reform legislation.  An opportunity like this comes once in a generation. We must not miss it.  The over-reliance on mandatory minimum sentences must come to an end.

I have emphasized dates here because I consider former AG Eric Holder (and his boss President Obama) to be among those who really should bear much responsibility if federal policy-makers miss what Holder calls a "once in a generation" opportunity for federal sentencing reform.  Tellingly, much of the incarceration data Holder stresses were well known and widely discussed when he assumed office in early 2009. (For example, in this Harvard Law & Policy Review piece from Fall 2008, I stressed the problems of modern mass incarceration and urged progressives to "mine modern movements in Constitutional and political theory to make new kinds of attacks on mass incarceration and extreme prison punishments" and to "be aggressively reaching out to modern conservatives and libertarians in order to forge new coalitions to attack the many political and social forces that contribute to mass incarceration.")  And yet, as Holder notes, he did not establish DOJ's Smart on Crime initiative until August 2013, and Prez Obama did not convene a group of lawmakers to push for reform in Congress until February 2015.

In other words, both Prez Obama and AG Holder fiddled while the federal sentencing system was still burning with tough-on-crime, mandatory-minimum "over-reliance" from 2009 to 2013 during the entire first Obama Administration Term.  And, critically, we should not lose sight of the important reality that Prez Obama's party controlled both houses of Congress until early 2011 and contolled the Senate until early 2015.  Moreover, the enduring and continued (misguided) opposition of Prez Obama and the Justice Department to mens rea reforms supported by the GOP establishment has arguably been the most critical roadblock to getting sweeping reform legislation enacted even now.

Last but not least, and as Holder reveals in this op-ed, federal prosecutors are still charging mandatory minimum drug sentencing provisions in near half of all drug cases (including in many crack cases where there is still a major, race-skewing sentencing disparity).  I suspect that when Holder says "mandatory minimum sentences should be eliminated for many offenses," he is largely referencing drug offenses in which no guns or violence were involved (where other mandatory minimums are applicable).  If Holder really believed that it would be sound and sensible to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences in such cases, he could have on his own included provisions in his Smart on Crime initiaitve to require line prosecutors to avoid charging under these statutes in all but the rarest drug cases rather than continuing to have these statutes still be applied in nearly half of all drug cases.

Sadly, I could go on and on and on about all the things former AG Holder could have and should have done while serving as U.S. Attorney General for six full years to deal with all the problems he now is quick to lament in the pages of the New York Times.  (Here it bears noting that he gets to write about these problems now from the safety of a corner office at a big DC firm where he is, according to this article, likely making more than $5,000,000/year, well over 20 times more than the hardest working federal prosecutors and federal defense attorneys make.)  Holder's closing sentiment urging federal lawmakers to "stiffen their spines" really gets my goat when his own spine struck me as so soft for his six years as Attorney General, and especially now that he gets to enjoy cashing in on the inside-the-Beltway privileges of allowing one's spine to blow back-and-forth with the prevailing political winds. 

August 14, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Second Circuit panel rules that district court lacks ancillary jurisdiction to expunge a valid conviction

As noted in this new post at the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, which is headlined "Federal expungement order reversed on appeal," the Second Circuit today ruled on the federal government appeal of former US District Judge John Gleeson remarkable ruling in Doe v. US, 110 F. Supp. 3d 448 (EDNY May 21, 2015) (discussed here) ordering expungement of old federal fraud conviction.  Here are excerpts from the majority opinion in Doe v. US, No. 15-1967 (2d Cir. Aug. 11, 2015) (available here):

We conclude that the District Court did not have jurisdiction over Doe’s motion pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3231 because Doe’s conviction was valid and the underlying criminal case had long since concluded....

Relying on Kokkonen, Doe argues that the District Court’s exercise of ancillary jurisdiction served to “vindicate its sentencing decree” issued in 2002. Appellee’s Br. 27. The District Court phrased the same point slightly differently by characterizing its original decree as having “sentenced [Doe] to five years of probation supervision, not to a lifetime of unemployment.” Doe, 110 F. Supp. 3d at 457.

We reject Doe’s argument.  The District Court’s sentence had long ago concluded and its decrees long since expired by the time Doe filed her motion.  Under those circumstances, expunging a record of conviction on equitable grounds is entirely unnecessary to “manage [a court’s] proceedings, vindicate its authority, [or] effectuate its decrees.”  Kokkonen, 511 U.S. at 380.  “Expungement of a criminal record solely on equitable grounds, such as to reward a defendant’s rehabilitation and commendable post‐conviction conduct, does not serve any of th[e] goals” identified in Kokkonen’s second prong. Sumner, 226 F.3d at 1014; see also United States v. Lucido, 612 F.3d 871, 875 (6th Cir. 2010) (holding that a district court lacked jurisdiction to consider a motion to expunge records of a valid indictment and later acquittal because “[t]hese criminal cases have long since been resolved, and there is nothing left to manage, vindicate or effectuate”).

August 11, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Reflections from those working hard to get their clients clemency

The National Law Journal has this notable new article headlined "Lawyers Reflect on Clemency Work After Obama Executive Action," and here are excerpts:

When President Barack Obama commuted the sentences last week of 214 nonviolent drug offenders, he changed the lives of many inmates who may never have expected to leave prison.  The action also had a profound impact on defense lawyers involved in pursuing the clemency petitions that the president has now granted.

When criminal defense attorney James Felman calls down to the Cole­man Penitentiary in Florida to inform his clients that their clemency petitions have been granted, he said the experience is sometimes a little awkward. Surrounded by guards in the warden's office­­ — where prisoners are typically brought if they are in trouble or a loved one has died — the inmate may not exactly feel free to celebrate, Felman said. "It's not like they can start dancing," he said.

Felman, a partner at Kynes Markman & Felman in Tampa, saw five of his clients granted clemency on Aug. 3, when President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 214 inmates — the highest number a president has ever granted in a single day.  The move comes amid a broader effort by the president to reduce sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.  Since 2010, Obama has granted 562 commutations and 70 pardons, more commutations than the last nine presidents combined.

Of Felman's clients to receive clemency last week, all were men convicted on nonviolent drug charges.... "You can't imagine a more rewarding experience as a lawyer," Felman said.

Felman, whose firm has successfully advocated for 12 clemency petitions, served as the chair of the American Bar Association Section of Criminal Justice from 2014 to 2015, and is a member of the steering committee for the Clemency Project 2014, a working group of lawyers who review clemency petitions.  Through the project, inmates who qualify for clemency under the guidelines are assigned a lawyer, who works the case pro bono....

Marjorie Peerce, a New York partner at Ballard Spahr and a member of the project's steering committee, has been involved with the project since its inception, and supervises about 100 lawyers at her firm who work these cases.  She estimated that the project had submitted about 1,500 petitions to the U.S. Office of the Pardon Attorney and had about 4,000 lawyers volunteering, both from criminal defense backgrounds and from unrelated fields. "The private bar really stepped up," Peerce said.  Her firm had three clients granted clemency on Aug. 3, but she declined to discuss their cases specifically.

Sherrie Armstrong, a Washington environmental lawyer at Crowell & Moring, worked on behalf of Stephanie George, who had her life sentenced commuted in December 2013.  Armstrong worked with George's sister to collect recommendation letters, including letters from a community pastor, an interested employer and George's children. Armstrong added that the writing style demanded by these clemency petitions differs from that of her normal style as an environmental lawyer.  "You're not writing for a court.  It's a more persuasive, emotional appeal," she said.

August 10, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Finding (substantive?) due process violation, federal district judge refuses to apply statutory mandatory minimum made applicable by government stash-house sting

A helpful reader alterted me to a very interesting new federal sentencing opinion authored by Gerald Austin McHugh, Jr. in US v. McLean, No. 13-CR-487 (ED Pa Aug. 8, 2016) (available here). The full 29-page McLean opinion is a must-read for all persons interested in federal drug sentencing and dynamic views on sentencing limits that might be found in the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause. The opinion's introduction highlights why this decision is so interesting (and might make for a very interesting case to watch if federal prosecutors appeal to the Third Circuit):

The latitude given to federal authorities in charging drug offenses has been described as creating a “terrifying capacity for escalation of a defendant's sentence.”1 [FN1: United States v. Barth, 990 F.2d 422, 424 (8th Cir. 1993).]  This case exemplifies that reality, as a defendant caught by an undercover “sting” operation faces a Guideline sentence of 35 years to life imprisonment, with a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years, because of a professed willingness to rob a drug stash house that was invented entirely by Government agents, containing a fictional amount of drugs chosen by those agents.  At sentencing, Defendant Clifton McLean argued that his sentence should be reduced because the Government improperly inflated his culpability by choosing a quantity of drugs — 5 kilograms of cocaine — that would trigger such a high mandatory minimum.

In an earlier opinion, I described the historical background of ATF “sting” cases, and concern among both judges and commentators over the consequences of this particular law enforcement tactic.  United States v. McLean, 85 F. Supp. 3d 825 (E.D. Pa. 2015).  Although I denied Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss the Indictment, resulting in his trial and conviction, as to this issue, I agree that imposing the sentence prescribed for the quantity of cocaine charged would violate his constitutional right to Due Process of Law on the facts of this case.  I have as a result imposed a sentence that excludes consideration of the amount specified by the Government, imposing only two of the three mandatory minimums for the reasons that follow.

August 9, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Put Away The Pitchforks Against Judge Persky"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new Politico commentary authored by Lara Bazelon, which carries this sub-headline "Yes, he gave Stanford rapist Brock Turner a break. But to recall him would be to overturn our legal system."  Here is how the commentary, which merits a full read, gets started:

On this we can all agree: Brock Allen Turner, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, one-time All-American Stanford freshman swimmer, is stone cold, beyond-a-reasonable-doubt guilty of committing a violent sexual assault against an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. Because what Turner did was brutal, criminal and depraved, and because of his utter lack of remorse—much less insight into his behavior—he should have gone to prison.

But the reaction to the lenient sentence given to Turner by Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky is, frankly, frightening, dangerous and profoundly misguided.

In a charge spearheaded by Stanford law professor Michele Dauber — a close friend of the victim’s family — an effort is underway to recall Persky from office.  Sixteen state legislators have demanded that the California Commission on Judicial Performance investigate Persky for misconduct. Over a million members of the feminist organization UltraViolet signed an online petition voicing their agreement.  The group also hired a plane to fly over Stanford during graduation carrying a banner that said, “Protect Survivors. Not Rapists. #PerksyMustGo,” and paid for a billboard on a nearby, high-traffic freeway that sends the same message.

Earlier this summer, prosecutors filed a motion to disqualify Judge Persky from presiding over another sexual assault case involving an unconscious victim — a sedated patient allegedly fondled by a nurse.  More recently, Persky came under fire once again for imposing a three-year sentence on a Latino man who committed an assault, that, on the surface at least, seemed similar to Turner’s.   But unlike the Turner case, the sentence was imposed after the defense and the prosecution agreed to it.  Nevertheless, the mob pounced. It was yet another sign, they said, of Persky’s bias toward white, affluent men — presumably the only kind of person he was able to relate to.  Dauber told NPR, “Hopefully, a qualified woman will replace him.”

As a law professor well-versed in the vital importance of an independent judiciary, Dauber should know better. Removing a judge — never mind investigating him for misconduct — because of a single bad decision undermines the rule of law.  It sends a chill down the spines of elected judges everywhere, which is nearly every judge in the state court across the United States.

I am pleased to see someone talking about rule-of-law concerns if/when folks get heavily invested in seeking to recall a judge for what is viewed as a bad ruling. But I actually think the Brock Turner case serves as even more of an object lesson in how hard it will be to fully address modern mass incarceration in the United States when there are still so many powerful and prominent Americans who are eager to devote time and energy to vindicate and operationalize the view that lengthy terms of incarceration are the only "fitting" form of punishment for many crimes and many defendants.

Some prior related posts:

August 9, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Monday, August 08, 2016

Great coverage and analysis of Prez Obama's recent clemency work at Pardon Power

Regular readers and/or hard-core clemency fans know that P.S. Ruckman over at the Pardon Power blog is a must-read whenever President Obama's gets his clemency pen out. Here are just some of many recent posts discussing the historic number of commutations that Prez Obama issued last week (basics here), and responding to some notable recent criticisms of what the Prez is up to:

August 8, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Data on sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Split en banc Fifth Circuit limits reach of Johnson vagueness ruling while debating what makes for a "constitutional sockdolager"

Especially while traveling and being engaged with lots of other projects, I have not been able to keep up fully this summer with many lower federal court cases exploring the application of the Supreme Court's Johnson ACCA vagueness ruling to other comparable provisions of other federal sentencing statutes and guidelines.  Helpfully, though, an en banc ruling by the Fifth Circuit late last week in US v. Gonzalez-Longoria, No. 15-40041 (5th Cir. Aug. 5, 2016) (available here), provides something of a primer on developments in one notable context. Here is how the en banc majority opinion (per Judge Higginson) gets started and a key part of its analysis:

This case presents the question whether the “crime of violence” definition provided by 18 U.S.C. § 16(b), when incorporated by reference into United States Sentencing Guidelines § 2L1.2(b)(1)(C), is unconstitutionally vague on its face in light of Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), in which the Court struck as unconstitutionally vague the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(ii). We hold that 18 U.S.C. § 16(b) is not unconstitutionally vague....

The [textual] distinctions [in how “crime of violence” is defined in § 16(b)] mean that the concerns raised by the Court in Johnson with respect to Armed Career Criminal Act’s residual clause do not cause the same problems in the context of 18 U.S.C. § 16(b). While there might be specific situations in which 18 U.S.C. § 16(b) would be vague — although Gonzalez-Longoria does not suggest any in particular — it is certainly not a statute that “simply has no core.”

And here is how the dissenting opinion (per Judge Jolly) gets started and key parts of its analysis (with emphasis from the original):

I am in agreement with the majority’s framework for deciding this case. Specifically, I agree that Johnson “highlighted two features of the [Armed Career Criminal] Act’s residual clause that together make the clause unconstitutionally vague [and that] 18 U.S.C. § 16(b) shares these two features.” I also agree that “neither feature causes the same level of indeterminacy in the context of 18 U.S.C. § 16(b).”  The majority, however, drifts from reason — and into the miasma of the minutiae — when it determines that these vagaries suffice to distinguish § 16(b) from the residual clause.  Accordingly, I respectfully dissent....

I can agree that [a textual distinction] provides a shadow of difference, but hardly a constitutional sockdolager. This difference between the two statutes is particularly slight because, through judicial interpretation, § 16(b) not only contains an example, it contains the very example that most troubled the Johnson Court....

These statutes read extremely similarly. The majority of circuits to have considered the question have held that these two similar texts must suffer the same constitutional fate. The majority, engrossed by thinly sliced and meaningless distinctions, adopts the minority view and errs by losing track of the entirety: these statutes, in constitutional essence, say the same thing.

August 8, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (4)

Broad perspectives on the narrowness of recent federal clemency and sentencing reform efforts

Two of my favorite lawprof colleagues, Erik Luna and Mark Olser, remind me why they are among my favorites through this new Cato commentary titled "Mercy in the Age of Mandatory Minimums." Here are excertps:

Recently, we stood in a backyard eating barbecue with a man named Weldon Angelos.  He was only a few weeks out of federal prison, having been freed some four decades early from a 55-year sentence for selling a small amount of marijuana while possessing firearms.  Weldon was not among the 562 inmates whose sentences were commuted by President Obama, including Wednesday’s historic grant of commutation for 214 nonviolent prisoners. Instead, Weldon’s release was made possible through a negotiated motion by the government that, alas, cannot be replicated in other cases.

For a dozen years, Weldon had been the poster boy of criminal justice reform for liberals and conservatives alike. His liberation is cause for celebration for those who believed the punishment did not fit the crime.  Nonetheless, the Angelos case remains a cautionary tale about both the inherent ruthlessness of “mandatory minimum” terms of imprisonment and the ineffectiveness of the Obama administration’s clemency initiative.

Mandatory minimum laws bar the consideration of facts upon which a sentencing judge would normally rely.  In Weldon’s case, the law compelled a 55-year sentence.  It didn’t matter that Weldon was a first-time offender with no adult record or that he was the father of three young children.  Nor did it matter that he never brandished or used the firearms and never caused or threatened any violence or injury....

Most of all, it did not matter that the sentencing judge — a conservative Bush appointee known for being tough on crime — believed that the punishment was “unjust, cruel, and irrational.”  Ultimately, the judge was bound not only by the mandatory minimum statute but also the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence, which largely acquiesces to prosecutors’ charging decisions while providing almost no check on excessive prison terms.

Absent a doctrinal reversal by the Supreme Court (don’t hold your breath), any meaningful safeguard against misapplication of mandatory minimums will have to come in the form of legislation from Congress or from the president through the application of the clemency power.  As for the former, lawmakers are considering several [reform] bills... [that] are entirely laudable, but they are also quite modest.  Indeed, the Senate bill passed in April expands some mandatory minimum provisions and adds a couple of new ones to the federal code....

The positive aspects of the reform bills should be supported all the same.  Sadly, legislative efforts appear to be mired in an intramural fight among Republicans, as well as hindered by Democratic intransigence toward another worthy reform, namely, a requirement that law enforcement prove a culpable mental state rather than holding defendants strictly liable.  Until lawmakers can agree on a means to prevent draconian sentences, clemency will remain the only remedy for such miscarriages of justice.

Unfortunately, the federal clemency system is also dysfunctional.  Weldon’s petition for clemency was filed in November 2012 — and it then sat, unresolved one way or another, for three-and-a-half years.  The support for the petition was unprecedented, spanning activists, academics and experts from every political camp imaginable.  While Weldon is not wealthy and could not afford high-priced lobbyists or attorneys, the facts of his case drove the story onto the pages of leading news outlets.  Yet nothing happened.  Even when the Obama administration launched the “Clemency Project 2014” and Weldon’s case was accepted into that program, he languished in prison as the petition slogged through the seven vertical levels of review any successful clemency case must navigate.

Clemency is meant for cases like Weldon’s, where the requirements of the law exceed the imperatives of justice.  The fact that a case like his cannot receive clemency from an administration dedicated to expanding the use of this presidential prerogative lays bare the root problem we face — too much process and bureaucracy coursing through a Department of Justice that bears a built-in conflict of interest....

It was thrilling to see Weldon free, eating off of a paper plate in the light of a Utah evening.  He is just one of many, though, and systemic reform of both mandatory minimums and the clemency process should be an imperative for this and the next administration.

August 8, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Two midsummer New York Times editorials lamenting federal sentencing nightmares

In Act 1 of Scene 1 of The Bard's famous summer comedy, Lysalnder notes that "The course of true love never did run smooth."  And in Act 4 of Scene 1 of his play set in a watery city, Portia explains that "The quality of mercy is not strained."  These two literary references came to mind after I saw these two New York Times editorials, which might be headlined "The course of sentencing reform has not run smooth" and "The Justice Department has strained to show quality mercy."  Here are the editorial's true headlines and key passages:

"Holding Sentencing Reform Hostage"

An opportunity to pass the most significant federal criminal justice reform in a generation may be slipping away — despite the tireless efforts of many top Republicans and Democrats in Congress, as well as a rare exhortation from President Obama during last month’s State of the Union address....

The sentencing reform legislation is not perfect, but it represents remarkable progress in what is often a harsh, oversimplified debate about crime and punishment in America.  It should not be weakened, either by narrowing its reach or by sneaking in an unrelated mens rea provision.

Throughout all of this, red and blue states around the country continue to take big, bold steps to reduce state prison populations by shortening sentences and giving inmates returning to society a real chance to succeed.  Congress should be racing to catch up. 

"Mercy Is Far Too Slow at the Justice Department"

The country needs a variety of mechanisms for reducing unreasonably long sentences.  And the Justice Department, which has considerable latitude in these matters, needs to do more within the course of its regular operations to deal with the legacy of sentencing policies that have been recognized as destructively unfair....

The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 authorizes the bureau to ask a federal judge to reduce an inmate’s sentence when there are “extraordinary and compelling” reasons for doing so.

That provision is typically used for elderly or gravely ill inmates. But the bureau has the ability to define the term as it sees fit, which means that the program could cover people who were unfairly sentenced as well. The agency has, however, done virtually nothing on this front.  The Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General was sharply critical of the bureau in a 2013 report, noting that the agency did not “have clear standards on when compassionate release is warranted,” which led to ad hoc decisions.

The United States Sentencing Commission took up this issue in April, when it broadened compassionate-release criteria.  Under the amended policy, federal inmates may be eligible for compassionate release for reasons of age, medical condition, family circumstances or “other extraordinary and compelling reasons.”  The commission also urged the prison bureau to take cases back to court when the defendant meets the criteria laid out in the new policy.

A more broadly conceived compassionate-release mechanism would not by itself cure the problem of unfair sentencing.  But the Justice Department should be using every tool it has to mitigate unfair sentences.  A system that funnels this problem to the president’s office is not enough.

August 7, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, August 04, 2016

"A New Era for Expungement Law Reform? Recent Developments at the State and Federal Levels"

The title of this post is the title of this notable paper authored by Brian Murray and now available via SSRN. Here is the abbstract:

In the past decade, due to heightened interest in criminal law reform, several states have enacted specific laws attempting to expand the range of expungement remedies available to individuals with publicly available criminal records.  This article evaluates these efforts.

It begins with a discussion of the pervasive availability of arrest and conviction records, both publicly and privately.  It then surveys the myriad collateral consequences that enmesh individuals who have made contact with the criminal justice system and details how jurisdictions have responded with somewhat unambitious expungement regimes.  It notes that while these remedies were crafted with good intentions, they were often limited by skepticism of the soundness of their legal basis.

The article proceeds to evaluate a few legislative efforts at the state level that are geared towards increasing relief, discussing the texts of the laws in depth and comparing them with previously existing remedies.  The article also evaluates recent federal legislative efforts and efforts in the federal courts to allow for expungement at the federal level.  The piece concludes by situating these recent reforms within a broader discussion about how to alleviate the effects and collateral consequences of criminal records.

August 4, 2016 in Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Prez Obama commutes 214 more federal sentences

Commutations_chart_0As reported here by Politico, "President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 214 people on Wednesday, bringing his total number of commutations to 562." Here is more about this latest encouraging clemency news, with some political context:

The president's biggest batch of commutations comes as Donald Trump touts a "law and order" message. But for advocates of sentencing reform, it's a sign that the administration isn't letting up on the 2014 Justice Department initiative to ease punishments for low-level drug offenders who received long sentences due to mandatory minimums. It includes 67 people who had been facing life sentences.

Obama has granted more commutations than his nine most recent predecessors combined, White House Counsel Neil Eggleston noted in a blog post on Wednesday.  However, he added, “Our work is far from finished. I expect the President will continue to grant clemency in a historic and inspiring fashion.”

While criminal justice reform advocates have cheered the intention behind the initiative, they’ve complained that the pace of commutations has failed to meet expectations and that the process appears arbitrary. Eggleston promised to speed things up this spring, noting new resources for the Pardon Attorney, and in April, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates wrote to a consortium of defense attorneys helping prisoners to submit applications, urging them to get applications in by May....

This latest batch of commutations comes at a politically sensitive time, just two weeks after Trump stressed a “law and order theme” at the Republican National Convention, with warnings of danger in the streets fueled by attacks on police in Dallas and Baton Rouge.... The focus on policing issues has drawn public attention away from the broader criminal justice reform agenda. Though there is bipartisan support for changes that would reduce mass incarceration, and the House is expected to vote on sentencing reform when it returns in September, advocates acknowledge that prospects for full passage before the election look grim.

The chart reprinted above comes from the White House blog posting by Eggleston, which also includes these statements of note:

Today began like any other for 214 federal inmates across the country, but ultimately became a day I am confident they will never forget. This morning, these individuals received a message from the President: your application for clemency has been granted.

This news likely carries special weight to the 67 individuals serving life sentences – almost all for nonviolent drug crimes – who, up until today, could only imagine what it might be like to once again attend a loved one’s birthday party, walk their child to school, or simply go to the grocery store. All of the individuals receiving commutation today, incarcerated under outdated and unduly harsh sentencing laws, embody the President’s belief that “America is a nation of second chances.”...

To date, President Obama has granted 562 commutations: more commutations than the previous nine presidents combined and more commutations than any individual president in nearly a century. Of those, 197 individuals were serving life sentences. And, today’s 214 grants of commutation also represent the most grants in a single day since at least 1900.....

In each of these cases, the President examines the application on its individual merits. As a result, the relief afforded is tailored specifically to each applicant’s case. While some commutation recipients will begin to process out of federal custody immediately, others will serve more time.

For some, the President believes that the applicant’s successful re-entry will be aided with additional drug treatment, and the President has conditioned those commutations on an applicant’s seeking that treatment. For others, the President has commuted their sentences to a significantly reduced term so they are consistent with present-day sentencing policies. While these term reductions will require applicants to serve additional time, it will also allow applicants to continue their rehabilitation by completing educational and self-improvement programming and to participate in drug or other counseling services. Underlying all the President’s commutation decisions is the belief that these deserving individuals should be given the tools to succeed in their second chance.

The individual nature of the clemency process underscores both its incredible power to change a person’s life, but also its inherent shortcoming as a tool for broader sentencing reform. That is why action from Congress is so important. While we continue to work to act on as many clemency applications as possible, only legislation can bring about lasting change to the federal system. It is critical that both the House and the Senate continue to work on a bipartisan basis to get a criminal justice reform bill to the President's desk.

August 3, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

"It's Silicon Valley vs. law enforcement on California death penalty"

The title of this post is the title of this local press report on the alignment of various participants in the debate over the future of the death penalty in California, where voters will be considering reform initiatives this fall.  Here are the details:

Two competing November ballot measures that aim to abolish or expedite California’s long-dormant death penalty each raised more than $3 million through the first half of the year, according to state campaign finance records, and largely drew their funding from a narrow group of major donors: Silicon Valley executives and law enforcement unions.

Proposition 62, which would replace capital punishment with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, led its rival campaign with nearly $4.1 million raised through June 30, filings show. Proponents argue that executions are costly, inhumane and bound to kill wrongly convicted people.

The dozen top contributors, each of whom gave at least $50,000, are nearly all affiliated with the technology industry in the Bay Area. They include Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, venture capitalist John O’Farrell, and data management company Integrated Archive Systems, which was founded by major Democratic donor Amy Rao. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and Nicholas McKeown, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Stanford University who has started several technology companies, have each given $1 million to the effort so far. Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and Y Combinator CEO Paul Graham both put in $500,000.

Supporters of Proposition 66, an initiative to speed up the death penalty by putting the California Supreme Court in charge of a revised appeals process with strict time limits, raised almost $3.5 million through June 30, according to financial records. It currently can take decades for a death row inmate to exhaust their appeals, though California has not executed anyone since 2006 because of legal challenges to its lethal drug cocktail.

Nearly 80 law enforcement groups have given to the campaign, led by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association with $325,000, the Peace Officers Research Association of California with $305,000, the California Association of Highway Patrolmen with $250,000 and the Los Angeles Police Protective League with $225,000. Among the largest contributors, twenty of whom have donated more than $50,000 to the campaign, are a handful of individuals, including former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan, Orange County businessman Henry T. Nicholas III, and A. Jerrold Perenchio, the former CEO of Univision....

California voters last weighed in on capital punishment in 2012, when another initiative to repeal the death penalty narrowly failed. A January Field Poll showed an even split, with 48 percent of respondents supporting speeding up the process and 47 percent favoring abolishing it. If both Proposition 62 and Proposition 66 pass in November, whichever has a higher number of votes will become law.

Prior related posts:

August 3, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

In wake of Hurst, Delaware Supreme Court declares state's death penalty unconstitutional

The post-Hurst hydra took an especially big bite out the the death penalty in the First State this afternoon: as reported in this local article, via "a landmark decision, the Delaware Supreme Court has ruled that the state's death penalty statute is unconstitutional." Here are the basics:

A 148-page opinion released Tuesday afternoon said that the current law is a violation of the Sixth Amendment role of the jury. The decision of whether and how to reinstate the death penalty should now be left to the General Assembly, the opinion said.

The question before the top state court arose after the U.S. Supreme Court found in January that Florida's death penalty law was unconstitutional because it gave judges – not juries – the final say to impose a death sentence. Delaware and Alabama are the only other states that allow judges to override a jury's recommendation of life....

The last execution in the state was in 2012, when Shannon Johnson, 28, was killed by lethal injection. All pending capital murder trials and executions for the 14 men on death row are currently on hold while the court considered the constitutionality issue.

The full 148-page opinion in Rauf v. Delaware is available at this link.  A brief per curiam summary kicks off the opinion, starting this way:

The State has charged the Defendant, Benjamin Rauf with one count of First Degree Intentional Murder, one count of First Degree Felony Murder, Possession of a Firearm During those Felonies, and First Degree Robbery.  The State has expressed its intention to seek the death penalty if Rauf is convicted on either of the First Degree Murder counts.  On January 12, 2016, the United States Supreme Court held in Hurst v. Florida that Florida‘s capital sentencing scheme was unconstitutional because "[t]he Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death."  On January 25, 2016, the Superior Court certified five questions of law to this Court for disposition in accordance with Supreme Court Rule 41.  On January 28, 2016, this Court accepted revised versions of the questions certified by the Superior Court and designated Rauf as the appellant and the State as the appellee.

In this case, we are asked to address important questions regarding the constitutionality of our state‘s death penalty statute. The Superior Court believed that Hurst reflected an evolution of the law that raised serious questions about the continuing validity of Delaware‘s death penalty statute.  Specifically, Hurst prompted the question of whether our death penalty statute sufficiently respects a defendant‘s Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury.

Because answering the certified questions requires us to interpret not simply the Sixth Amendment itself, but the complex body of case law interpreting it, we have a diversity of views on exactly why the answers to the questions are what we have found them to be.  But that diversity of views is outweighed by the majority‘s collective view that Delaware‘s current death penalty statute violates the Sixth Amendment role of the jury as set forth in Hurst.  We also have a shared belief that the importance of the subject to our state and our fellow citizens, reflected in the excellent briefs and arguments of the parties, makes it useful for all the Justices to bring our various perspectives to bear on these difficult questions.

August 2, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)