Tuesday, September 12, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few prior recent related posts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 11, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 07, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

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

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

Report Summary

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

Key Findings

The key findings of this report are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 01, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download 20170831 Millard Ruling re Sex Offender Registry

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

Thursday, August 31, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recent prior related posts:

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

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 26, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 25, 2017

Supreme Court of Wyoming continues to interpret Graham and Miller broadly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 24, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 21, 2017

NACDL and FAMM launch "State Clemency Project"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 17, 2017

"Do Criminal Defendants Have Web Rights?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is how Balko's piece wraps up:

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

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

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

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Interesting and consequential Florida Supreme Court decision on retroactivity of Hurst

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few prior related posts:

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

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

"The Practical Case for Parole for Violent Offenders"

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

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

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

Friday, August 04, 2017

Kentucky judge rules death penalty unconstitutional for all offenders under 21 years old

As reported in this local article, headlined "Fayette judge rules death penalty unconstitutional for man under 21," a Kentucky judge reached a significant constitutional conclusion this week. Here are the basic details:

The death penalty is unconstitutional for a defendant who was younger than 21 at the time of his offense, Fayette Circuit Judge Ernesto Scorsone ruled earlier this week. Scorsone issued an order declaring the death penalty unconstitutional in the case of 21-year-old Travis Bredhold. He was 18 years and five months old when he was charged in 2013 with murder and robbery in the fatal shooting of Marathon gas station attendant Mukeshbhai Patel.

Fayette County Commonwealth’s Attorney Lou Anna Red Corn said in a statement Friday that she will appeal Scorsone’s order “because it is contrary to the laws of Kentucky and the laws of the United States.” Red Corn said two other cases eligible for the death penalty and pending before Scorsone will be affected by his ruling.... Red Corn’s statement said the judge’s ruling “will result in delays” in all three cases.

In a 2005 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the execution of people who were younger than 18 at the time of their crimes violated the federal constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishments.

Bredhold’s defense team asked Scorsone to extend that exclusion to people 21 and younger. Prosecutors argued that the death penalty is constitutional and argued that there is no national consensus with respect to offenders under 21.

Scorsone disagreed. “Contrary to the commonwealth’s assertion, it appears there is a very clear national consensus trending toward restricting the death penalty, especially in cases where defendants are 18 to 21 years of age,” Scorsone wrote.

The judge also cited research showing that 18- to 21-year-olds are less culpable for the same reasons that the U.S. Supreme Court found teens under 18 to be. The age group lacks maturity to control their impulses and fully consider risks, making them unlikely to be deterred by knowledge of likelihood and severity of punishment, the judge wrote. In addition, they are susceptible to peer pressure and emotional influence. And their character is not yet well formed, “meaning that they have a much better chance at rehabilitation than do adults,” the judge wrote.

“Given the national trend toward restricting the use of the death penalty for young offenders, and given the recent studies by the scientific community, the death penalty would be an unconstitutionally disproportionate punishment for crimes committed by individuals under 21 years of age,” Scorsone wrote.

An individual evaluation that Bredhold “operates at a level at least four years below that of his peers” further supports the exclusion of the death penalty for Bredhold, the judge concluded.

I cannot yet find a copy of Judge Scorsone's opinion, but I am looking forward to finding it and seeing what he cites to support the assertion that there is a national trend toward restricting application of the death penalty "especially in cases where defendants are 18 to 21 years of age.” I know a lot of death penalty opponents are eager to see Roper extended to older offenders, but I am not aware of any legislation in any state that has precluded those age 18 or older from the reach of the death penalty.

UPDATE:  I just found the full opinion in this case via the Death Penalty Information Center's website, and the court relies heavily on the overall decline of executions and death sentences in recent years to make the "objective" case that application of the death penalty to defendants aged 18 to 21 are in decline. 

August 4, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15)

Split DC Circuit finds unconstitutionally excessive 30-year mandatory minimum sentences for Blackwater contractors who killed Iraqis

A huge new DC Circuit opinion released today in a high-profile criminal case include a significant Eighth Amendment ruling.  The full 100+-page opinion in US v. Slatten, No. 15-3078 (DC Cir. Aug. 4, 2017) (available here), gets started this way:

Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard (“defendants”) were contractors with Blackwater Worldwide Security ("Blackwater"), which in 2007 was providing security services to the United States State Department in Iraq. As a result of Baghdad shootings that injured or killed at least 31 Iraqi civilians, Slough, Liberty and Heard were convicted by a jury of voluntary manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and using and discharging a firearm in relation to a crime of violence (or aiding-and-abetting the commission of those crimes); Slatten was convicted of first-degree murder. They now challenge their convictions on jurisdictional, procedural and several substantive grounds....

The Court concludes ...that the district court abused its discretion in denying Slatten’s motion to sever his trial from that of his co-defendants and therefore vacates his conviction and remands for a new trial. Moreover, the Court concludes that imposition of the mandatory thirty-year minimum under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), as applied here, violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, a holding from which Judge Rogers dissents. The Court therefore remands for the resentencing of Slough, Liberty and Heard.

The majority's Eighth Amendment analysis is really interesting, running more than 30 pages and covering lots of ground. And it wraps up this way:

The sentences are cruel in that they impose a 30-year sentence based on the fact that private security contractors in a war zone were armed with government-issued automatic rifles and explosives. They are unusual because they apply Section 924(c) in a manner it has never been applied before to a situation which Congress never contemplated. We again emphasize these defendants can and should be held accountable for the death and destruction they unleashed on the innocent Iraqi civilians who were harmed by their actions. But instead of using the sledgehammer of a mandatory 30-year sentence, the sentencing court should instead use more nuanced tools to impose sentences proportionally tailored to the culpability of each defendant.

Judge Rogers' dissent from this conclusion is also really interesting, and it concludes this way:

Although it is possible to imagine circumstances in which a thirty-year minimum sentence for a private security guard working in a war zone would approach the outer bounds of constitutionality under the Eighth Amendment, this is not that case.  The jury rejected these defendants’ claim that they fired in self-defense, and far more of their fellow security guards chose not to fire their weapons at all that day.  Yet as my colleagues apparently see it, Congress should have included an exception for all such military contractor employees, or, rather, it would have included such an exception if it had only considered the issue.  See Op. 72–74.  Perhaps so, but that is not the question before us. The district court judge made an individualized assessment of an appropriate sentencing package for each of these defendants, and the result is not disproportionate to the defendants’ crimes, let alone grossly, unconstitutionally disproportionate.

I think it possible (but not at all certain) that the feds will seek cert review of this Eighth Amendment decision, and I think it also possible (but not at all certain) that SCOTUS might be interested in this issue in this setting.

August 4, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Eighth Circuit affirms exclusion of juve who moved from Nebraska's sex offender registry

As noted in this prior post last year, a federal judge has blocked Nebraska from putting a 13-year-old boy who moved to the state from Minnesota on its public sex offender registry. Yesterday, an Eighth Circuit panel affirmed this ruling via this opinion which starts this way:

The State of Nebraska, along with the Nebraska State Patrol (NSP) and various state officials (collectively, the State), appeals the district court's grant of summary judgment to A.W. and A.W.'s guardians, John and Jane Doe, enjoining it from applying to A.W. a provision of Nebraska's Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA).  That provision, Neb. Rev. Stat. § 29-4003(1)(a)(iv), applies SORA to any person who, on or after January 1, 1997, "[e]nters the state and is required to register as a sex offender under the laws of another village, town, city, state, territory, commonwealth, or other jurisdiction of the United States."  We hold that this provision does not apply to appellant A.W. and, accordingly, affirm the district court.

The full panel ruling is interesting for how it applied Nebraska's sex offender registry law, but a final footnote highlights some broader constitutional questions the panel saw implicated in the case. Here are excerpts from the footnote:

We note that even if we found "sex offender" to be ambiguous, leaving us with the choice of selecting between two reasonable constructions, one requiring conviction and one not, we would be strongly inclined to affirm the district court.  We believe the application of SORA and its public notification requirement to juveniles adjudicated delinquent in other jurisdictions but not in Nebraska raises serious constitutional concerns under the rights to travel and to equal protection of the laws.  Of the events triggering application of SORA under NSP regulations -- residency, employment, carrying on a vocation, or attending school in Nebraska, 272 Neb. Admin. Code ch. 19 § 003.02 -- it is highly likely a juvenile would be subject to SORA due to residency. This raises troubling implications under the third prong of the right to travel, arising from the Privileges and Immunities and the Privileges or Immunities Clauses of the U.S. Constitution..., as well as under the Equal Protection Clause.  Further, to the extent the purpose of § 29-4003(1)(a)(iv) is to prevent migration into the state of undesirable citizens, application of SORA to A.W. under that provision may raise other constitutional concerns as well. Saenz, 526 U.S. at 503 ("The states have not now, if they ever had, any power to restrict their citizenship to any classes or persons." (quoting Slaughter-House Cases, 83 U.S. 36, 112 (1872) (Bradley, J., dissenting))). Given the choice between two reasonable constructions, we will generally avoid a construction that raises "grave and doubtful constitutional questions." Union Pac. R.R. Co. v. United States Dep't of Homeland Sec., 738 F.3d 885, 892 (8th Cir. 2013).

August 1, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, July 31, 2017

AP series looks deeply at a "patchwork of justice" for juve lifers after Graham and Miller

The AP has some new in-depth reporting on juvenile LWOP sentences and resentencings in this series labeled "Locked Up For Life."   This lead article published today is headlined "AP Investigation: A patchwork of justice for juvenile lifers," and here are some excerpts from the extended piece:

Five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory life without parole for juveniles in murder cases.  Last year, the court went further, saying the more than 2,000 already serving such sentences must get a chance to show their crimes did not reflect “irreparable corruption” and, if not, have some hope for freedom.

But prison gates don’t just swing open. Instead, uncertainty and opposition stirred by the new mandate have resulted in an uneven patchwork of policies as courts and lawmakers wrestle with these complicated, painful cases.  The odds of release or continued imprisonment vary from state to state, even county to county, in a pattern that can make justice seem arbitrary.

The Associated Press surveyed all 50 states to see how judges and prosecutors, lawmakers and parole boards are re-examining juvenile lifer cases. Some have resentenced and released dozens of those deemed to have rehabilitated themselves and served sufficient time.  Others have delayed review of cases, skirted the ruling on seeming technicalities or fought to keep the vast majority of their affected inmates locked up for life.

Many victims’ relatives are also battling to keep these offenders in prison.  They “already had their chance, their days in court, their due process,” says Candy Cheatham. Her father, Cole Cannon, was killed in 2003 in Alabama by Evan Miller, the 14-year-old whose no-parole sentence was the basis for the 2012 sentencing ban....

The AP’s review found very different brands of justice from place to place.  For years, officials in states with the most juvenile life cases were united in arguing that the Supreme Court’s ban on life without parole did not apply retroactively to inmates already serving such sentences. Now, states are heading in decidedly different directions....

The AP also found that while many states have taken steps to make former teen criminals eligible for parole, in practice, officials regularly deny release.  In Missouri, the parole board has turned down 20 of 23 juvenile lifers, according to the MacArthur Justice Center, which filed a federal lawsuit this year claiming the board is denying the state’s juvenile life-without-parole inmates a meaningful chance for release as required by the Supreme Court....  Maryland, meantime, has 271 juvenile lifers whose sentences have always given them a chance for release.  But no such prisoner has won parole in more than 20 years, prompting a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union....

The impact of last year’s Supreme Court ruling goes far beyond the 2,000-plus offenders who faced mandatory no-parole sentences as teens.  In many states, legal challenges are being mounted on behalf of juveniles sentenced to life without parole at the discretion of a judge or jury, or those who are legally entitled to parole but serving such lengthy terms they are unlikely to ever get out.  The latter group encompasses some 7,300 inmates, according to The Sentencing Project.  The Supreme Court didn’t specifically address these cases, however, and that’s led to different outcomes.

July 31, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, July 20, 2017

OJ Simpson granted parole after serving nine years in prison for Nevada robbery convictions

As reported in this Los Angeles Times article, "O.J. Simpson was granted parole Thursday for convictions connected to a robbery in a Las Vegas about a decade ago. He could be out of jail as early as October. Here is bit more about perhaps the highest profile justice-involved individual:

The ruling came after a hearing in which Simpson testified that he longed to be reunited with his family and children and that he has no interest in returning to the media spotlight.

During the hearing, Simpson was assured by one of his victims that the former football star and actor already has a ride waiting for him when he gets out. “I feel that it’s time to give him a second chance; it’s time for him to go home to his family, his friends,” Bruce Frumong, a sports memorabilia dealer and a friend of Simpson’s, told the Nevada Board of Parole.

Frumong was threatened and robbed by Simpson and some of his associates in a Las Vegas hotel in 2007, and his testimony in that case led to Simpson’s imprisonment. But, Frumong told the board, “if he called me tomorrow and said, ‘Bruce I’m getting out, would you pick me up?….’” At that point, Frumong paused, turned to Simpson and addressed the former USC gridiron star by his nickname: “Juice, I’d be here tomorrow. I mean that, buddy.”

The board went into recess late Thursday morning after hearing more than an hour of testimony from Simpson; his oldest daughter, Arnelle Simpson; and Frumong, who each asked for Simpson’s release. The panel returned about a half hour later and unanimously voted to grant parole....

The commissioners asked Simpson a series of questions about how he had conducted himself in prison, what he thought his life would be like outside of prison and whether he felt humbled by his convictions. Simpson said on several occasions he was “a good guy” and indicated that he mostly wanted to spend time with his family — bemoaning missed graduations and birthdays — and that the state of Nevada might be glad to be rid of him. “No comment,” one of the commissioners said to some laughter.

He expressed regret at being involved with the crime, but drew some pushback from commissioners who took issue with his version of events, in which he said he didn’t know a gun had been brandished in the hotel room during the robbery. But Simpson held to his version, repeatedly apologizing and expressing regret that he had left a wedding in Las Vegas to go recover memorabilia he said was his. “I am sorry things turned out the way they did,” Simpson said. “I had no intent to commit a crime.”

July 20, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Pennsylvania Supreme Court finds state sex offender registration law punitive and thus unconstitutional to apply retroactively

In a big opinion today, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided its state's sex offender registration law, though civil in design, was punitive in practice and thus cannot be applied retroactively. The 55-page majority opinion in Pennsylvania v. Muniz, No. (Pa. July 19, 2017) (available here), gets started this way:

We granted discretionary review to determine whether Pennsylvania’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), 42 Pa.C.S. §§9799.10-9799.41, as applied retroactively to appellant Jose M. Muniz, is unconstitutional under the ex post facto clauses of the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions.  The Superior Court held SORNA’s registration provisions are not punishment, and therefore retroactive application to appellant, who was convicted of sex offenses prior to SORNA’s effective date but sentenced afterwards, does not violate either the federal or state ex post facto clauses.  For the following reasons, we reverse and hold: 1) SORNA’s registration provisions constitute punishment notwithstanding the General Assembly’s identification of the provisions as nonpunitive; 2) retroactive application of SORNA’s registration provisions violates the federal ex post facto clause; and 3) retroactive application of SORNA’s registration provisions also violates the ex post facto clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

The 13-page dissenting opinion authored by Chief Justice Saylor is available here and concludes this way: "Based on the Mendoza-Martinez factors, which I view as almost uniformly suggesting a non-punitive effect, I would conclude that SORNA’s registration requirements do not constitute punishment and do not violate the federal ex post facto clause."

July 19, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (27)

Will (and should) OJ Simpson get paroled in Nevada this week?

This USA Today article, headlined "Why O.J. Simpson is expected to be paroled at July 20 hearing," reports on why an infamous state criminal defendant is expected to secure parole in Nevada after serving only about 30% of his imposed prison term. Here are excerpts:

O.J. Simpson, behind bars in a Nevada prison for almost nine years, is eligible for parole Thursday and one of his former attorneys thinks the matter is all but a foregone conclusion that the former football and TV star will be eligible for release on Oct. 1.

"He’s going to get parole," said Yale Galanter, who represented Simpson during the 2008 trial when Simpson was found guilty of 12 counts, including robbery and kidnapping, and sentenced to nine years minimum and 33 years maximum. "Parole in the state of Nevada is really based on how you behave in prison, and by all accounts he’s been a model prisoner. There are no absolutes anytime you’re dealing with administrative boards, but this is as close to a non-personal decision as you can get."

Four members from the Nevada Board of Parole Commissioners will consider parole for Simpson at the board offices in Carson City, Nev., with the proceedings set to begin Thursday at 1 p.m. ET. Simpson, 70, will participate by video conference from about 100 miles away at Lovelock Correctional Center, where he has been imprisoned since December 2008.

Parole is largely determined by a point system, and how the commissioners feel about Simpson — or his acquittal in the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ron Goldman — can have no impact on parole, according to Galanter. "It really is based on points," he said. "How long have you served, what your disciplinary record is, what the likelihood of committing another crime is, their age, the facts and the circumstances of the case."

The parole board has rejected the idea that Simpson could be facing more conservative commissioners because he’s imprisoned in northern Nevada. In a statement published on its website, the parole board said all commissioners use the same risk assessment and guidelines, adding, "There is no evidence that the board is aware of that indicates that one location has panel members who are more conservative or liberal than the other location."... "Simpson, with the help of several other men, broke into a Las Vegas hotel room on Sept. 13, 2007, and stole at gunpoint sports memorabilia that he said belonged to him. More than a year later, on Oct. 8, 2008, he was found guilty by a jury on all 12 charges. He was granted parole in 2013 on the armed robbery convictions. Galanter called that "the clearest indicator" Simpson will be granted parole on the remaining counts Thursday.

Simpson is being considered for parole for kidnapping, robbery, assault with a deadly weapon and the use of a deadly weapon enhancement. "It’s a fairly routine administrative matter," the attorney said. "It’s more like, 'Mr. Simpson, you’ve been a model prisoner, you have the points, congratulations, do you have anything to say, thank you very much, granted, Oct. 1.' "

Yet, it won’t exactly be routine. The parole board, for example, has said it will issue a decision Thursday so to minimize distractions. The results of some hearings, by contrast, take three weeks to reach the inmate. "The media interest in this one case is a disruption to our operation," the parole board said in its statement. "A decision (on Simpson) is being made at the time of the hearing so that the board’s operation can return to normal as soon as possible after the hearing."...

Simpson will have an opportunity to address the board by video conference as he did during the 2013 hearing. More than 240 media credentials have been approved, according to Keast, who said a dozen satellite trucks are expected at the sites in both in Carson City and Lovelock. If Simpson is paroled, the media figure to return in droves in Oct. 1, when he will be eligible for release from prison.

Notably, Gregg Jarrett at FoxNews believes strongy that OJ shoud not get parole; he explains in this commentary, headlined "O.J. Simpson, up for parole, should never be set free," how the California civil suit finding OJ responsible for wrongful deaths should be sufficient for the Nevada parole board to conclude he presents a risk to public safety.

July 19, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

"Under the Cloak of Brain Science: Risk Assessments, Parole, and the Powerful Guise of Objectivity"

The title of this post is the title of this notable note by Jeremy Isard that was brought to my attention by a helpful reader. Here is the abstract:

This Note examines the adoption of two psychological risk assessment protocols used on “lifers” by the California Board of Parole Hearings in preparation for parole suitability hearings.  Probation and parole agencies employ risk assessment protocols across state and federal jurisdictions to measure the likelihood that an individual will pose a danger to society if released from prison.  By examining the adoption and recent reformulation of risk assessment protocols in California, this Note considers some of the myriad demands that courts and administrative agencies place on brain science.  Applying the California parole process as a parable of such pressures, this Note argues that brain science has a unique capacity to supersede legal inquiry itself, and thus should only be used in legal and administrative settings with extreme caution.  

July 18, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, July 17, 2017

When will SCOTUS take up a follow-up to Graham and Miller?

The question in the title of this post is prompted in part by this recent Atlantic article headlined "The Reckoning Over Young Prisoners Serving Life Without Parole." Here are excerpts:

It’s been more than seven years since the U.S. Supreme Court began to chip away at life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders, and lower courts are still wrestling with how to apply the justices’ logic to the American criminal-justice system.

Life sentences are an American institution. According to a recent Sentencing Project report, more than 200,000 people are serving either life in prison or a “virtual” life sentence: They haven’t been explicitly sentenced to spend their natural lives behind bars, but their prison terms extend beyond a typical human lifespan. Of these prisoners, thousands were sentenced as juveniles. More than 2,300 are serving life without parole, often abbreviated LWOP, and another 7,300 have virtual life sentences. Only after they serve decades in prison do members of the latter group typically become eligible for parole....

What happens to those previously sentenced under old laws has been left to the courts, as with three cases decided in Missouri earlier this week. Lower-court judges are forced to face complex legal and moral questions about when and if it’s proper to lock people up for most of their natural life for crimes they committed as minors. As those judges reach different conclusions, each ruling increases the likelihood the Supreme Court will need to reckon with juvenile LWOP again.

I was a bit surprised that SCOTUS took up the Miller case so soon after they decided Graham, and now I find myself a bit surprised that SCOTUS has not seemed much interested in the further development of this new line of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. (Of course, the Montgomery case clarifying that Miller must be applied retroactively is a recent ruling in this arena and it (arguably) broke some new jursprudential ground.)

July 17, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, July 14, 2017

Is there much to — or much to say about — reasonableness review a decade after Rita, Gall, and Kimbrough?

The question in the title of this post was the one kicking around my head as I reviewed a DC Circuit sentencing opinion handed down last week in US v. Pyles, No. 14-3069 (DC Cir. July 7, 2017) (available here). A helpful reader made sure I did not miss this lengthy opinion (nearly 50 pages), in which the panel splits over the reasonableness of a (nearly-top-of-the-guideline-range) sentence of 132-months imprisonment for child pornography distribution.   In addition to finding generally reasonable the extended reasonableness discussion of both the majority and the dissent in Pyles, I was struck by how the discussion and debate over the nature and operation of reasonableness review has really not changed much at all in the 10 years since the Supreme Court gave us Rita, Gall, and Kimbrough.

I am not sure anyone should have expected many major jurisprudential developments in the circuit courts after Rita, Gall, and Kimbrough. But, on this summer Friday morning, I am struggling to really think of any major reasonableness review developments. Though there are some important specific rulings from specific circuits on specific issues (like the Dorvee ruling on child porn sentencings from the Second Circuit), I am not sure I could describe any defining characteristics  of reasonableness review circa 2017 that is distinct in any big way from the basic reasonableness review template set by Rita, Gall, and Kimbrough in 2007.

I would especially like to hear from federal practitioners about whether I might be missing something obvious or subtle when noting the seemingly staid nature of reasonableness review jurisprudence over the last decade.  What really strikes me in this context is the fact that debates over federal sentencing laws, polices and practices have been anything but staid over the last decade even as reasonableness jurisprudence has sailed forward ever so smoothly.

July 14, 2017 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Missouri Supreme Court extends Miller to juvenile sentenced to mandatory life without parole eligibility for 50 years

The Supreme Court of Missouri yesterday handed down a notable ruling in State ex rel. Carr v. Wallace, No. SC93487 (Mo. July 11, 2017) (available here), which extends the reach of the US Supreme Court Miller ruling beyond mandatory LWOP sentencing.  Here is how the majority opinion in Carr gets going: 

In 1983, Jason Carr was convicted of three counts of capital murder for killing his brother, stepmother, and stepsister when he was 16 years old.  He was sentenced to three concurrent terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole for 50 years.  His sentences were imposed without any consideration of his youth.  Mr. Carr filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in this Court. He contends his sentences violate the Eighth Amendment because, following the decision in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012), juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to life without parole pursuant to mandatory sentencing schemes that preclude consideration of the offender’s youth and attendant circumstances.

Mr. Carr was sentenced under a mandatory sentencing scheme that afforded the sentencer no opportunity to consider his age, maturity, limited control over his environment, the transient characteristics attendant to youth, or his capacity for rehabilitation.  As a result, Mr. Carr’s sentences were imposed in direct contravention of the foundational principle that imposition of a state’s most severe penalties on juvenile offenders cannot proceed as though they were not children.  Consequently, Mr. Carr’s sentences of life without the possibility of parole for 50 years violate the Eighth Amendment.  Mr. Carr must be resentenced so his youth and other attendant circumstances surrounding his offense can be taken into consideration to ensure he will not be forced to serve a disproportionate sentence in violation of the Eighth Amendment.  Habeas relief is granted.

Chief Justice Fischer dissenting from the decision, and here is the heart of his short opinion:

Carr's three concurrent terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole for 50 years do not run afoul of Miller. Miller only applies to cases in which a sentencing scheme "mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders." 132 S. Ct. at 2469.  Therefore, Miller does not require vacating Carr's sentences.  Nor are Carr's sentences inconsistent with this Court's or any of the Supreme Court's current Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. Indeed, the principal opinion's holding that Miller applies to Carr's sentences is, undoubtedly, not just an extension of Miller, but also calls into question whether any mandatory minimum sentence for murder could be imposed on a juvenile offender.  Accordingly, I decline to concur with that implication and remain bound by this Court's unanimous decision in Hart to apply Miller only to cases involving a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

July 12, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Friday, July 07, 2017

Split Third Circuit panel finds numerous problems with short federal sentences for child-abusing Army couple

A remarkable and unusual federal sentencing involving a child-abusing couple led yesterday to a remarkable and unusual federal circuit sentencing opinion in US v. Jackson, No. 16-1200 (3d Cir. July 6, 2017) (available here). Here is how the 80-page(!) majority opinion by Judge Cowen gets started:

John and Carolyn Jackson (“John” and “Carolyn”) were convicted of conspiracy to endanger the welfare of a child and endangering the welfare of a child under New Jersey law— offenses that were “assimilated” into federal law pursuant to the Assimilative Crimes Act (“ACA”).  The United States District Court for the District of New Jersey sentenced Carolyn to 24 months of imprisonment (as well as three years of supervised release). John received a sentence of three years of probation (together with 400 hours of community service and a $15,000 fine). The government appeals from these sentences.

We will vacate the sentences and remand for resentencing.  Concluding that there is no “sufficiently analogous” offense guideline, the District Court declined to calculate Defendants’ applicable sentencing ranges under the Guidelines. Although we adopt an “elements-based” approach for this inquiry, we conclude that the assault guideline is “sufficiently analogous” to Defendants’ offenses of conviction. Furthermore, the District Court failed to make the requisite findings of fact — under the applicable preponderance of the evidence standard — with respect to this Guidelines calculation as well as the application of the statutory sentencing factors.  We also agree with the government that the District Court, while it could consider what would happen if Defendants had been prosecuted in state court, simply went too far in this case by focusing on state sentencing practices to the exclusion of federal sentencing principles. Finally, the sentences themselves were substantively unreasonable.

Here is how the dissenting opinion by Judge McKee gets started:

It is impossible for anyone with an ounce of compassion to read through this transcript without becoming extraordinarily moved by allegations about what these children had to endure. Had the defendants been convicted of assault, or crimes necessarily involving conduct that was in the same “ballpark” as assault as defined under New Jersey law, I would readily agree that this matter had to be remanded for resentencing using the federal guidelines that govern assault.  However, the district court held a ten and a half hour sentencing hearing in an extraordinarily difficult attempt to sort through the emotion and unproven allegations and sentence defendants for their crimes rather than the conduct the government alleged at trial and assumes in its brief. I believe the court appropriately did so pursuant to 18 U.S.C. §3553(a). Accordingly, I must respectfully dissent.

Before I begin my discussion, however, I must note that the defendants in this case were acquitted of the only federal offenses with which they were charged: assault with a dangerous weapon, with intent to do bodily harm, and assault resulting in serious bodily injury.  As I discuss more fully in Section II, these assault charges seem to drive the government’s argument and the Majority’s analysis.  In order to minimize confusion about the precise nature of the charges in this case and the conduct that was proven, a chart listing each of the charges and their outcomes is attached as an addendum to this dissent.

There are lots of lots of interesting elements to this unusual case, but the rarity of reversals of sentences as substantively unreasonable led me to read that part of the majority opinion most closely.  The majority here repeatedly finds flaws in how the district court weighed various permissible § 3553(a) considerations.  And the discussion begins by noting that the guidelines called for sentences of perhaps 20 or more years for these defendants so that "probation for John and 24 months’ imprisonment for Carolyn represented enormous downward variances, which require correspondingly robust explanations for why such lenience was warranted."

July 7, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Divided California Supreme Court decides Prop 47 did not alter rules for retroactivity of Prop 36 three-strikes reform

As reported in this Los Angeles Times article, headlined "California Supreme Court makes it harder for three-strike prisoners to get sentence reductions," earlier this week the top court in California divided over the resolution of an intricate and interesting retroactivity question. Here are the details:

Judges have broad authority in refusing to lighten the sentences of “three-strike” inmates, despite recent ballot measures aimed at reducing the state’s prison population, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday. In a 4-3 decision, the court said judges may freely decline to trim sentences for inmates who qualify for reductions under a 2012 ballot measure intended to reform the state’s tough three-strikes sentencing law.

Justice Leondra R. Kruger, an appointee of Gov. Jerry Brown, joined the more conservative justices to reach the result. The decision aimed to resolve questions posed by two ballot measures in recent years to reduce the population of the state’s overburdened prison system.

Proposition 36 allowed three-strike inmates to obtain sentence reductions if their third strike was neither serious nor violent. Judges were entitled to refuse a reduction if they believed the inmate posed an “unreasonable risk of danger to public safety.” They could consider the inmate’s history, disciplinary record in prison or other evidence.

Two years later, voters passed another ballot measure to reduce the prison population.  That measure, Proposition 47, created a definition of a safety risk that judges were required to apply.  Inmates could be denied a sentence reduction only if they were deemed to pose an unreasonable risk of committing certain crimes, including a killing, a sexually violent offense, child molestation or other serious or violent felony punishable by life in prison or the death penalty.

The court majority, led by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, said Monday that definition did not apply to three-strikers, who have been sentenced to 25 years to life for repeated crimes.  If it had, Cantil-Sakauye wrote, it would “result in the release of more recidivist serious and/or violent offenders than had been originally contemplated under Proposition 36.”

Cantil-Sakauye noted that none of the ballot materials for Proposition 47 mentioned that it would affect three-strike prisoners. Proposition 47 allowed judges to reduce some nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors.  “Based on the analysis and summary they prepared, there is no indication that the Legislative Analyst or the Attorney General were even aware that the measure might amend the resentencing criteria governing the Three Strikes Reform Act,” the chief justice wrote.

The ruling came in appeals filed by David J. Valencia and Clifford Paul Chaney, who were both sentenced to 25 years to life under the three strikes law and both eligible for reduced terms under Proposition 36. Valencia’s criminal history included kidnapping, making criminal threats and striking his wife.  Chaney’s record included armed robbery and three convictions for driving under the influence....

Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar and Brown’s two other appointees — Justices Goodwin Liu and Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar — noted in dissents that Proposition 47 clearly stated that the definition would apply throughout the criminal code.  The more restrictive definition advanced “the goal of concentrating state corrections spending on the most dangerous offenders,” Cuéllar wrote, and gave three-strike prisoners only “a marginally stronger basis” for winning sentence reductions.

Liu said the court majority had concluded “that the drafters of Proposition 47 pulled a fast one on an uninformed public.” But it is also possible that voters, unhappy about the huge amounts of money being spent on prisons, “knew exactly what they were doing,” Liu wrote.  Monday’s ruling “disserves the initiative process, the inmates who are now its beneficiaries, and the judicial role itself,” he said.

The full 110-page(!) opinion in this case is available at this link.

July 5, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Federal district judge explains his remarkable reasons for rejecting an unremarkable plea deal in heroin dealing prosecution

A helpful reader alerted me to a fascinating opinion issued last week by US District Judge Joseph Goodwin of the Southern District of West Virginia in US v. Walker, No. 2:17-cr-00010 (SD W. Va. June 26, 2017) (available here).  The full opinion is a must read, and here is its conclusion:

My twenty-two years of imposing long prison sentences for drug crimes persuades me that the effect of law enforcement on the supply side of the illegal drug market is insufficient to solve the heroin and opioid crisis at hand. I also see scant evidence that prohibition is preventing the growth of the demand side of the drug market. Nevertheless, policy reform, coordinated education efforts, and expansion of treatment programs are not within my bailiwick. I may only enforce the laws of illicit drug prohibition.

The law is the law, and I am satisfied that enforcing the law through public adjudications focuses attention on the heroin and opioid crisis.  The jury trial reveals the dark details of drug distribution and abuse to the community in a way that a plea bargained guilty plea cannot.  A jury trial tells a story.  The jury members listening to the evidence come away with personally impactful information about the deadly and desperate heroin and opioid crisis existing in their community.  They are educated in the process of performing their civic duty and are likely to communicate their experience in the courtroom to family members and friends.  Moreover, the attendant media attention that a jury trial occasions communicates to the community that such conduct is unlawful and that the law is upheld and enforced.  The communication of a threat of severe punishment acts as an effective deterrent.  As with other criminalized conduct, the shame of a public conviction and prison sentence specifically deters the sentenced convict from committing the crime again — at least for so long as he is imprisoned.

Over time, jury verdicts involving the distribution of heroin and opioids reinforce condemnation of the conduct by the public at large. In turn, respect for the law propagates.117 This respect for the law may eventually reduce such criminal conduct.

The secrecy surrounding plea bargains in heroin and opioid cases frequently undermines respect for the law and deterrence of crime.  The bright light of the jury trial deters crime, enhances respect for the law, educates the public, and reinforces their sense of safety much more than a contract entered into in the shadows of a private meeting in the prosecutor’s office.

For the reasons stated, I REJECT the plea agreement.

It will be quite interesting to see if the parties appeal this rejection of the plea agreement or if the defendant decides to plea without the benefit of any agreement (which I believe must be accepted if the judge finds it is voluntary).

July 5, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Monday, July 03, 2017

Highlighting Justice Gorsuch's interesting concurrence in Hicks on the perils of permitting sentencing error to persist

Adam Liptak has this effective new article in the New York Times about the effectiveness of the new Justice on the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch. The article is headlined "Confident and Assertive, Gorsuch Hurries to Make His Mark," and it develops the point that Justice Gorsuch's "early opinions were remarkably self-assured." The article and that line reminded me that I have been meaning to highlight Justice Gorsuch's remarkable little concurrence on the final day of the term in the Hicks v. US, No. 16-7806 (S. Ct. June 26, 2017) (available here).

Hicks is a quirky case in a quirky posture after the defendant was sentenced under the wrong crack sentencing law during the transitional uncertainty after the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act. The government admits in its briefing to SCOTUS that Hicks' 20-year mandatory-minimum sentence was legally erroneous, but the government asked SCOTUS to remand the case to the Fifth Circuit to conduct the full plain error analysis. The Supreme Court did just that via a short order, but the Chief Justice joined by Justice Thomas dissented with a short opinion suggesting that SCOTUS should make a plain error decision before being willing to vacate the judgment below. This dissent, it seems, prompted Judge Gorsuch to want to defend the Court's action and in so doing he had a lot of interesting things to say. These passages from the end of his concurrence in particular caught my attention:

A plain legal error infects this judgment—a man was wrongly sentenced to 20 years in prison under a defunct statute.  No doubt, too, there’s a reasonable probability that cleansing this error will yield a different outcome.  Of course, Mr. Hicks’s conviction won’t be undone, but the sentencing component of the district court’s judgment is likely to change, and change substantially. For experience surely teaches that a defendant entitled to a sentence consistent with 18 U.S.C. §3553(a)’s parsimony provision, rather than pursuant to the rigors of a statutory mandatory minimum, will often receive a much lower sentence.  So there can be little doubt Mr. Hicks’s substantial rights are, indeed, implicated.  Cf. Molina-Martinez v. United States, 578 U. S. ___, ___ (2016).  When it comes to the fourth prong of plain error review, it’s clear Mr. Hicks also enjoys a reasonable probability of success.  For who wouldn’t hold a rightly diminished view of our courts if we allowed individuals to linger longer in prison than the law requires only because we were unwilling to correct our own obvious mistakes?  Cf. United States v. Sabillon-Umana, 772 F.3d 1328, 1333 (CA10 2014).

Now this Court has no obligation to rove about looking for errors to correct in every case in this large country, and I agree with much in Justice Scalia’s dissent in Nunez v. United States, 554 U.S. 911, 911–913 (2008), suggesting caution..... But, respectfully, I am unaware of any such reason here.  Besides, if the only remaining objection to vacating the judgment here is that, despite our precedent routinely permitting the practice, we should be wary of remanding a case without first deciding for ourselves the latter elements of the plain error test, that task is so easily done that in this case that I cannot think why it should not be done. Indeed, the lone peril in the present case seems to me the possibility that we might permit the government to deny someone his liberty longer than the law permits only because we refuse to correct an obvious judicial error.

Based on Justice Gorsuch's votes in a few other criminal cases, early indications suggest that he is far more often going to vote in favor of the government rather than in favor of criminal defendants across the range of criminal law and procedure cases.  But his decision to write separately in this little case to push back at the dissenters here with this particular language leads me to wonder if Justice Gorsuch (like the Justice he replaced) might prove to be an especially interesting and unpredictable vote and voice in federal sentencing cases in particular.

July 3, 2017 in New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The rest of SCOTUSblog's symposium on OT 2016 death penalty decisions

I noted in this post on Tuesday that the folks at SCOTUSblog had a new "Special Feature" in the form of a "Symposium on October Term 2016’s death-penalty decisions."  In the prior post I linked to the first four entries in this symposium, and here are now the last four:

June 29, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

SCOTUSblog begins symposium on OT 2016 death penalty decisions

I will not likely remember the Supreme Court term just completed, October Term 2016, as especially notable for sentencing developments.  There were no big blockbuster sentencing cases, although the Beckles vagueness ruling was certainly consequential and a few other rulings will surely launch a few law review article.  And, of course, in the intricate and endlessly litigated world of the death penalty, a mixed bag of smaller SCOTUS rulings still add up to something worth watching (especially with the added bit of uncertainty that comes with Justice Gorsuch replacing Justice Scalia).

Helpfully for those who just cannot get enough of the SCOTUS capital docket, the folks over at SCOTUSblog have this new "Special Feature" in the form of a "Symposium on October Term 2016’s death-penalty decisions."   Here are links to the four pieces already up at SCOTUSblog, and I surmise more be coming:

June 27, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Pennsylvania Supreme Court issues major Miller ruling declaring presumption against the imposition of LWOP on juvenile killers

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court yesterday handed down a major ruling on the application and implementation of the Supreme Court's modern Miller Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. The lengthy ruling in Pennsylvania v. Batts, No. 45 MAP 2016 (Pa. June 26, 2017 (available here), gets started this way:

Qu’eed Batts (“Batts”) was convicted of a first-degree murder that he committed when he was fourteen years old. His case returns for the second time on discretionary review for this Court to determine whether the sentencing court imposed an illegal sentence when it resentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. After careful review, we conclude, based on the findings made by the sentencing court and the evidence upon which it relied, that the sentence is illegal in light of Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012) (holding that a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, imposed upon a juvenile without consideration of the defendant’s age and the attendant characteristics of youth, is prohibited under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution), and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016) (holding that the Miller decision announced a new substantive rule of constitutional law that applies retroactively and clarifying the limited circumstances in which a life-without-parole sentence is permissible for a crime committed when the defendant was a juvenile).

Pursuant to our grant of allowance of appeal, we further conclude that to effectuate the mandate of Miller and Montgomery, procedural safeguards are required to ensure that life-without-parole sentences are meted out only to “the rarest of juvenile offenders” whose crimes reflect “permanent incorrigibility,” “irreparable corruption” and “irretrievable depravity,” as required by Miller and Montgomery.  Thus, as fully developed in this Opinion, we recognize a presumption against the imposition of a sentence of life without parole for a juvenile offender.  To rebut the presumption, the Commonwealth bears the burden of proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the juvenile offender is incapable of rehabilitation.

Because Pennsylvania has a large JLWOP population impacted by Miller and because proving rehabilitation incapacity beyond a reasonable doubt seem to be perhaps close to impossible, this Batts ruling strikes me as a  big deal jurisprudentially and practically.  (And, for any remaining Apprendi/Blakely fans, it bears noting that the Batts opinion expressly rejects the defendant's contention that a "jury must make the finding regarding a juvenile’s eligibility to be sentenced to life without parole.)

June 27, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, June 26, 2017

SCOTUS denies cert on Wisconsin case with defendant challenging risk-assessment sentencing

I had thought I had reported on all the blog-worthy action in the the Supreme Court on this busy day via prior posts here and here and here ... until one of my favorite colleagues alerted me to the fact that today's SCOTUS order list also included a denial of cert in Loomis V. Wisconsin.  This local press article discusses thie cert denial under the headline "Supreme Court refuses to hear Wisconsin predictive crime assessment case."

As some may recall from some prior postings, Loomis concerned a due process challenge to the use of risk-assessment instruments at sentencing.  And, as noted here, the Supreme Court was interested enough in this issue to invite the Solicitor General to file a brief expressing the views of the United States.  But now it seems SCOTUS was not quite yet ready to take up this interesting and important issue in this case.

Some prior related posts on Loomis case:

June 26, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

SCOTUS rules IAC of appellate counsel in state postconviction proceedings does not excuse procedural default

Resolving a technical and important issue, the US Supreme Court this morning in Davila v. Davis, No. 16-6219 (S. Ct. June 26, 2017) (available here), refused to extend some inmate-friendly habeas jurisprudence. The opinion for the Court in the 5-4 ruling was authored by Justice Thomas and it begins this way:

Federal habeas courts reviewing convictions from state courts will not consider claims that a state court refused to hear based on an adequate and independent state procedural ground.  A state prisoner may be able to overcome this bar, however, if he can establish “cause” to excuse the procedural default and demonstrate that he suffered actual prejudice from the alleged error.  An attorney error does not qualify as “cause” to excuse a procedural default unless the error amounted to constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel. Because a prisoner does not have a constitutional right to counsel in state postconviction proceedings, ineffective assistance in those proceedings does not qualify as cause to excuse a procedural default. See Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U. S. 722 (1991).

In Martinez v. Ryan, 566 U. S. 1 (2012), and Trevino v. Thaler, 569 U. S. 413 (2013), this Court announced a narrow exception to Coleman’s general rule.  That exception treats ineffective assistance by a prisoner’s state postconviction counsel as cause to overcome the default of a single claim — ineffective assistance of trial counsel — in a single context — where the State effectively requires a defendant to bring that claim in state postconviction proceedings rather than on direct appeal. The question in this case is whether we should extend that exception to allow federal courts to consider a different kind of defaulted claim — ineffective assistance of appellate counsel. We decline to do so.

The dissent authored by Justice Breyer and joined by the other more liberal justces begins this way:

As the Court explains, normally a federal habeas court cannot hear a state prisoner’s claim that his trial lawyer was, constitutionally speaking, “ineffective” if the prisoner failed to assert that claim in state court at the appropriate time, that is, if he procedurally defaulted the claim.  See ante, at 1 (the prisoner’s failure to raise his federal claim at the initial-review state collateral proceeding amounts to an “adequate and independent state procedural ground” for denying habeas relief).

But there are equitable exceptions. In Martinez v. Ryan, 566 U. S. 1 (2012), and later in Trevino v. Thaler, 569 U. S. 413 (2013), we held that, despite the presence of a procedural default, a federal court can nonetheless hear a prisoner’s claim that his trial counsel was ineffective, where (1) the framework of state procedural law “makes it highly unlikely in a typical case that a defendant will have a meaningful opportunity to raise a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel on direct appeal,” id., at 429; (2) in the state “‘initial-review collateral proceeding, there was no counsel or counsel in that proceeding was ineffective,’” ibid. (quoting Martinez, 566 U. S., at 17); and (3) “the underlying ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claim is a substantial one, which is to say that the prisoner must demonstrate that the claim has some merit,” id., at 14.

In my view, this same exception (with the same qualifications) should apply when a prisoner raises a constitutional claim of ineffective assistance of appellate counsel. See, e.g., Evitts v. Lucey, 469 U. S. 387, 396 (1985) (Constitution guarantees a defendant an effective appellate counsel, just as it guarantees a defendant an effective trial counsel).

June 26, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

A bit of criminal justice interest in last big SCOTUS order list of Term

The last big Supreme Court order list of OT16 is available here, and an assortment of cert grants and denials, summary opinions and concurrences and dissents are notable.  For criminal justice fans in particular, the denial of a big Second Amendment case out of California and some discussion around the GVRs in a few cases seem especially noteworthy.  And the discussion around the (partial) reversal of an erroneous mandatory minimum crack sentence in Hicks v. US will merit its own posy later today because of some of the comments by the newest Justice.  But first we have some more merits opinions coming (and I have to catch a plane, so perhaps commentors can review anything I missed in transit).

June 26, 2017 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, June 23, 2017

SCOTUS decides defendant can show prejudice from bad plea advice and prevail on Sixth Amendment claim even with no defense to charge

The Supreme Court this morning handed down three more opinions, and the one notable criminal case decided today was Lee v. United States, No. 16–327 (S. Ct. June 23, 2017) (available here). The Chief Justice wrote the opinion for the Court, which starts and ends this way:

Petitioner Jae Lee was indicted on one count of possessing ecstasy with intent to distribute.  Although he has lived in this country for most of his life, Lee is not a United States citizen, and he feared that a criminal conviction might affect his status as a lawful permanent resident.  His attorney assured him there was nothing to worry about — the Government would not deport him if he pleaded guilty.  So Lee, who had no real defense to the charge, opted to accept a plea that carried a lesser prison sentence than he would have faced at trial.

Lee’s attorney was wrong: The conviction meant that Lee was subject to mandatory deportation from this country.  Lee seeks to vacate his conviction on the ground that, in accepting the plea, he received ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of the Sixth Amendment.  Everyone agrees that Lee received objectively unreasonable representation. The question presented is whether he can show he was prejudiced as a result....

We cannot agree that it would be irrational for a defendant in Lee’s position to reject the plea offer in favor of trial. But for his attorney’s incompetence, Lee would have known that accepting the plea agreement would certainly lead to deportation. Going to trial?  Almost certainly. If deportation were the “determinative issue” for an individual in plea discussions, as it was for Lee; if that individual had strong connections to this country and no other, as did Lee; and if the consequences of taking a chance at trial were not markedly harsher than pleading, as in this case, that “almost” could make all the difference. Balanced against holding on to some chance of avoiding deportation was a year or two more of prison time.  See id., at 6.  Not everyone in Lee’s position would make the choice to reject the plea. But we cannot say it would be irrational to do so.

Lee’s claim that he would not have accepted a plea had he known it would lead to deportation is backed by substantial and uncontroverted evidence.  Accordingly we conclude Lee has demonstrated a “reasonable probability that, but for [his] counsel’s errors, he would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial.” Hill, 474 U.S., at 59.

Justice Thomas wrote a dissent joined by Justice Alito which gets started this way:

The Court today holds that a defendant can undo a guilty plea, well after sentencing and in the face of overwhelming evidence of guilt, because he would have chosen to pursue a defense at trial with no reasonable chance of success if his attorney had properly advised him of the immigration consequences of his plea.  Neither the Sixth Amendment nor this Court’s precedents support that conclusion.  I respectfully dissent.

June 23, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Today's SCOTUS CJ scorecard: government wins in two procedural cases, defendant wins in one substantive case

The Supreme Court this morning handed down opinions in three cases, all three of which involve intricate criminal law and procedure issues. I am going to copy and tweak here the summary of all the action from How Appealing for ease of exposition: 

1. Justice Elena Kagan delivered the opinion of the Court in Maslenjak v. United States, No. 16-309. Justice Neil M. Gorsuch issued an opinion, in which Justice Clarence Thomas joined, concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. And Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. issued an opinion concurring in the judgment. 

2. Justice Stephen G. Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court in Turner v. United States, No. 15-1503. Justice Kagan issued a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined. 

3. And Justice Anthony M. Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court in Weaver v. Massachusetts, No. 16-240.  Justice Thomas issued a concurring opinion, in which Justice Gorsuch joined.  Justice Alito issued an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Justice Gorsuch also joined.  And Justice Breyer issued a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Kagan joined. 

As the title of this post indicates, and as the pattern of votes suggests, the defendant prevailed in first of these listed cases, Maslenjak, which concerned the substantive reach of a federal criminal statute.  The government prevailed in the other two cases, one of which concerned the application of Brady (Turner) and the other of which concerned what types of errors can be found harmless in Strickland ineffective assistance analysis (Weaver).

For a variety of reasons, the procedural rulings on behalf of the government in Turner and Weaver seem like a much bigger deal than the Maslenjak ruling, perhaps especially because the government had won below in Turner and Weaver and so it could have been reasonably assumed that the Supreme Court took up the cases in order to reverse the outcome.  Also, of course, issues related to the application of Brady and Strickland impact so many cases, especially on collateral appeal.

Over at Crime & Consequences, Kent Scheidegger has this helpful summary post on all these cases simply and appropriately titled "Materiality."

June 22, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)