Sunday, October 05, 2014

Previewing some of the high-profile criminal cases on the SCOTUS docket

This new Reuters article, headlined "Inmate beards, Facebook threats on U.S. top court's docket," helpfully spotlights some of the higher-profile criminal law cases on the SCOTUS docket for the Term that officially gets started on Monday. Here are excerpts:

The U.S. Supreme Court opens on Monday a new term in which the nine justices will decide issues such as whether a Muslim prison inmate can have a beard and whether a man can be prosecuted for making threatening statements on Facebook. The term, which runs to the end of June, is expected to be defined by whatever action the justices take on whether states can ban gay marriage....

Arguments start on Monday in the cases the court has already accepted. It has agreed to hear a number of cases involving people challenging their treatment by the government, whether it be prosecutors, police or agencies.

Arkansas inmate Gregory Holt's challenge to a state prison grooming policy will be heard on Tuesday. Holt, who initially got the court's attention with a handwritten plea last year, says the policy violates a 2000 federal law giving religious rights to prisoners. He wants to grow a half-inch (1.3 cm) beard in accordance with his Muslim beliefs. Holt's lawyers note that 44 state prison systems and the federal government allow inmates to have similar beards. Legal experts predict he has a good chance of victory....

The Facebook threat case, to be argued on Dec. 1, concerns Anthony Elonis, who posted statements on the social network in 2010 after his wife, Tara Elonis, left him. Aimed at his wife, co-workers and others, the posts were mostly in the form of rap lyrics in which he fantasized about committing violent acts. Elonis was charged with violating a federal law that outlaws sending threatening communications. He was convicted on four of five counts and sentenced to 44 months in prison. The legal question is whether prosecutors needed to convince jurors that Elonis intended his statements to be interpreted as threats.

The first argument the court will hear on Monday comes in a North Carolina case brought by Nicholas Heien, who was charged and pleaded guilty to drug trafficking after police found cocaine in his car during a traffic stop. He challenged whether police had the right to stop his car for having a broken tail light when state law does not require two working tail lights.

October 5, 2014 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Concurrence laments "trend" of federal prosecutors seeking "significantly enhanced terms of imprisonment under the guise of 'relevant conduct'"

An otherwise unremarkable federal drug sentence appeal in the US v. St. Hill, No. 13-2097 (1st Cir. Oct. 1, 2014) (available here)  took on some blogworthy character because of a lengthy concurrence by Judge Torruella. Here is the start, heart and close of Judge Torruella's opinion in St. Hill:

I join the court's opinion but write separately to note a disturbing trend in criminal prosecutions.  All too often, prosecutors charge individuals with relatively minor crimes, carrying correspondingly short sentences, but then use section 1B1.3(a) of the Sentencing Guidelines ("Guidelines") to argue for significantly enhanced terms of imprisonment under the guise of "relevant conduct" — other crimes that have not been charged (or, if charged, have led to an acquittal) and have not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt....

St. Hill was subject to an additional six to eight years in prison due to isolated drug sales not directly related to the twenty oxycodone pills which led to his conviction, all of which he was never arrested for, never charged with, never pleaded guilty to, and never convicted of by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.  This is a prime example of the tail wagging the dog.  Even more disturbing: the government could, if it so chooses, still charge St. Hill for these uncharged crimes in a separate proceeding, and he could be convicted and sentenced again without protection from the Double Jeopardy Clause.  See Witte v. United States, 515 U.S. 389, 406 (1995)....

[I]f the government intends to seek an increase in a criminal defendant's sentence for conduct that independently may be subject to criminal liability, the government should charge that conduct in the indictment.  The Fifth Amendment requires that "[n]o person shall be . . . deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law," U.S. Const. amend. V, while the Sixth Amendment provides an accused with the right to a trial "by an impartial jury," id. amend. VI.  The practice of arguing for higher sentences based on uncharged and untried "relevant conduct" for, at best, tangentially related narcotics transactions seems like an end-run around these basic constitutional guarantees afforded to all criminal defendants.  Cf. Alleyne, 133 S. Ct. at 2162 ("When a finding of fact alters the legally prescribed punishment so as to aggravate it, the fact necessarily forms a constituent part of a new offense and must be submitted to the jury.").  The government's role is to ensure justice, both to the accused and to the public at large; it is not to maximize conviction rates and argue for the greatest possible sentence.  And, while it is unclear to me whether this trend is due to shaky police work resulting in cases that cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, prosecutorial laziness, or other less nefarious factors, it remains troubling regardless....

Nevertheless, as a judge, it is my responsibility to faithfully apply the law as articulated by both the Supreme Court and this court, and I do not dispute that both the Guidelines and our interpretation of them currently condone this questionable process.  See Witte, 515 U.S. at 396, 406 (finding no constitutional violation where the sentence was based in part on a cocaine offense that defendant "clearly was neither prosecuted for nor convicted of"); United States v. Lombard, 102 F.3d 1, 4 (1st Cir. 1996) (finding no constitutional violation where the district court "choose[s] to give weight to the uncharged offenses in fixing the sentence within the statutory range if it finds by a preponderance of evidence that they occurred").  I nonetheless question whether this interpretation should be revisited — either by the courts or by revisions to the Guidelines.

October 5, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Friday, October 03, 2014

SCOTUS preview guest-post: "Measuring the Dangerousness of Felonies for Sentencing Purposes"

ThIn this post I lamented that the Supreme Court this week did not grant cert on any new sentencing cases.  But there is still some sentencing fun on the SCOTUS docket thanks to the Justices seemingly never having enough fun with interpretations of the Armed Career Criminal Act.  Helpfully, Professor Stephen Rushin, who filed in an amicus brief in the latest ACCA case, was kind enough to prepare for posting here a thoughtful preview of a case to be argued to the Justices in early November.

With kudos and thanks to Prof Rushin for this material, here is his preview:

------

What criminal offenses pose the greatest risk of injury to others? This is the empirical question at issue in a case, Johnson v. United States, before the U.S. Supreme Court this coming term. The case stems from the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), which provides for punishment enhancements for offenders previously convicted of burglary, arson, extortion, use of explosives, and any other felony that presents “serious potential risk of injury to another.”

Since the passage of the ACCA, courts and litigants have struggled to determine which felonies pose such a “serious potential risk of injury to another.” The Court has interpreted this so-called residual clause of the ACCA to cover a range of felonies, including attempted burglary and fleeing from a police officer in a motor vehicle.    

In Johnson, the Court must now decide whether the residual clause also covers the possession of a short-barreled shotgun. So how dangerous is mere possession of an unlawful weapon? Professors Evan Lee, Eric Johnson, and I recently submitted an amicus brief in the Johnson case, arguing that the ACCA ought to cover these sorts of weapons law violations. 

At first, our argument may seem counter-intuitive. How, after all, can mere possession ever pose a “serious potential risk of injury to another?” Well that depends on how you define a “potential risk of injury.” Admittedly, offenses like weapons possession cannot, or usually do not, injure another person directly. But that does not mean that such offenses do not pose “serious potential risk of injury to another.” Congress’s use of the word “potential” in conjunction with the word “risk” suggests that a felony need not be the direct or exclusive source of an injury in order to qualify under the residual clause. We read the ACCA to mean that any offense that facilitates or is otherwise meaningfully associated with highly injury-prone offenses “poses a serious potential risk of injury.”

Of course, this raises the next obvious question—to what extent are weapons law violations, like possession of a short barreled shotgun, associated with injuries to victims? In previous ACCA cases, the Court has turned to a wide range of statistical data to measure the dangerousness of various felony offenses. In each case, the Court has attempted to find accurate statistical measures of how frequently a particular felony offense leads to injuries. The Court then compares this to the approximate injury frequency of injuries stemming from the offenses explicitly enumerated in the ACCA—burglary, arson, extortion, and use of explosives. 

This basic methodology makes perfect sense. Since Congress specifically enumerated a small number of offenses as “violent felonies” in the ACCA, the Court should presume that any offense of equal or greater dangerousness also warrants inclusion under the residual clause. But in employing this methodology, the Court has often relied on weak statistical data.

In entering into this ongoing debate, my coauthors and I make a simple recommendation to the Court in our amicus brief. We suggest that the Court should use the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) in measuring the dangerousness of offenses under the ACCA residual clause. For the unfamiliar, we have traditionally recorded crime data in the U.S. via the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), which primarily record aggregate-level information on the prevalence of eight major criminal offenses—homicide, aggravated assault, rape, burglary, larceny, arson, and auto-theft. With the exception of homicides, these UCR records little to no details about the circumstances surrounding each offense. Recently, though, the FBI has begun collecting additional crime data through the database known as NIBRS. This system requests information from local law enforcement agencies on 46 different offense categories. NIBRS also groups together criminal offenses into incident-level data. This means that if an offender commits two different offenses as part of a single criminal incident, NIBRS groups these two offenses together for data analysis purposes. For example, suppose that an offender commits an assault in the course of committing a burglary. Traditionally, the UCR would register that event as two separate criminal events. By contrast, NIBRS groups together these two criminal offenses into a single incident. Police agencies that use NIBRS also report information on the circumstances of each criminal incident, including whether the incident resulted in any physical injuries to victims.

Of course NIBRS is not perfect. The NIBRS database is not perfectly representative of the United States. Although NIBRS greatly expands on the number of offense categories traditionally used in the UCR, it still cannot capture every single offense category. Nevertheless, NIBRS represents perhaps the best statistical resource available for measuring the “potential risk of injury” associated with felony offenses. For one thing, NIBRS represents the largest and most comprehensive database on injuries associated with criminal offenses. In addition, because NIBRS groups together multiple offenses into incidents, it allows researchers to measure more accurately the risk associated with criminal offenses. And NIBRS allows the Court to compare the dangerousness of different felony offenses accurately because it uses a consistent methodology across reporting jurisdictions.

So how do weapons law violations stack up compared to the explicitly enumerated felonies listed in the ACCA? In a previous study, Evan Lee, Lynn Addington, and I found that weapons law violations like possession of a short-barreled shotgun were more frequently associated with injuries than burglaries, arsons, or extortions. 5.36 percent of incidents involving weapons law violations in 2010 led to some type of physical injury to a victim, compared to just 4.41 percent of extortions, 1.11 percent of arsons, and 1.02 percent of burglaries.

Of course, these sorts of statistics alone cannot resolve the question before the Court. But we argue that this data cuts in favor of including weapons law violations under the ACCA residual clause.

October 3, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

"The Future of Juvenile Appeals in the United States"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper by my OSU colleague Katherine Hunt Federle now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Appellate review of delinquency adjudications is necessary to protect the rights of juvenile defendants and preserve the integrity of the juvenile process.  Review is no less important than in adult criminal courts, where the reversal rate on appeals is high enough to suggest that “depriving defendants of their right to appeal would expose them to an unacceptable risk of erroneous conviction.”

Unfortunately, juveniles often fail to exercise this essential right because they are discouraged to do so by courts, denied access to the tools necessary to appeal, or lack the sophistication or means to file appeals.  Moreover, because of strict time limits for filing, appellate rights expire.  These time frames, which impose an unnecessary and unfair bar to effective review, are inconsistent with protections afforded juveniles in non-delinquency matters.  Tolling the time within which to file an appeal during minority, however, may ensure greater (and necessary) access to the appellate courts.

October 3, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 02, 2014

"Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Before Powell v. Alabama: Lessons from History for the Future of the Right to Counsel"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing looking article authored by Sara Mayeux now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The doctrinal literature on ineffective assistance of counsel typically begins with the 1932 Supreme Court case of Powell v. Alabama. This symposium contribution goes back farther, locating the IAC doctrine’s origins in a series of state cases from the 1880s through the 1920s. At common law, the traditional agency rule held that counsel incompetence was never grounds for a new trial. Between the 1880s and the 1920s, state appellate judges chipped away at that rule, developing a more flexible doctrine that allowed appellate courts to reverse criminal convictions in cases where, because of egregious attorney ineptitude, there was reason to think the verdict might have been different with a competent lawyer.

In 1932, the Supreme Court drew upon this line of state cases when it ratified the emerging doctrine in Powell. The persistence of similar complaints of unfair trials across very different time periods, and despite much ostensible doctrinal change, suggests that the inequities of the American criminal justice system are structurally embedded in the adversary process more than they are a function of the specifics of the current iteration of right-to-counsel doctrine. As such, this history lends support to arguments for criminal justice reform that emphasize the need for systemic legislative and policy change rather than merely doctrinal tinkering.

October 2, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

SCOTUS grants cert on lots of new cases, with only two on criminal procedure and one on prisoner suits

The Supreme Court this morning released this list of order, which includes orders granting certiorari review in ten new cases. A quick scan of the list does not reveal any notable sentencing cases and only two criminal law cases: Ohio v. Clark, which seems to involve a Confrontation Clause issue; Rodriguez V. US, which seems to involve a Fourth Amendment traffic stop matter.  In addition, Coleman v. Tollefson was granted concerning a prisoner's ability to bring a civil suit against correction officials.

I am quite bummed that this order list suggests the Justices are not interested in any sentencing issues raised in the long conference. It is possible that SCOTUS may "relist" rather than outright deny some sentencing petitions I have been following concerning issued like acquitted conduct guideline enhancement and/or Miller retroactivity. But after a period of years in the aftermath of Blakely and Booker, when we could expect a number of major sentencing rulings almost every Term, it lately seems like the Justices are actively trying to avoid taking up any major sentencing cases. Oh well.

October 2, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Peculiar (judicial?) screed against evidence-based sentencing "fad" based on the "need to be realistic"?!!?

GalI have long been intrigued and generally impressed by the writings and work of Colorado state judge Morris Hoffman.  However, this new USA Today commentary by Judge Hoffman, headlined "Emptying prisons is no panacea: Deterring others matters as much as rehabilitation," has me scratching my head about what prompted a thoughtful judge to produce a peculiar screed against evidence-based sentencing.  At the risk of making this post much too long, I will reprint the whole commentary before explaining why it made my head hurt this morning:

Just days before Attorney General Eric Holder announced his resignation, the Department of Justice announced one of his signature achievements. After growing for decades, the federal prison population has started to decline.  The new data were greeted with wide acclaim, but before we embrace the idea that fewer prisoners is always good, let's step back and consider whether at least one of the drivers of our declining prison population is a good idea.

Like all humans, judges are susceptible to fads.  Anger management became a popular feature of American probationary sentences in the 1980s.  Teen courts and drug courts followed.  The new fad is "evidence-based sentencing."  It is both a refreshing attempt at rationality and a dangerous rejection of human nature.

Evidence-based sentencing purports to redirect judges' attention from old-fashioned retribution to enlightened deterrence and rehabilitation.  Judges across the country are attending innumerable evidence-based sentencing conferences that focus on how incarceration affects recidivism rates.  The claim is that incarceration costs much more than its deterrent benefits.  Judges should think twice before throwing away the key.

We don't need conferences to make that point.  One of the hidden truths of criminal justice is that most judges, including me, give criminals chance after chance before we sentence them to prison.  There are exceptions, such as serious violent crimes and drug crimes that carry mandatory prison sentences.  But, for the most part, defendants have to really work hard to land in prison.

We should applaud efforts to put data over gut instinct when trying to predict the future behaviors of our defendants.  But we also need to be realistic.  There's a reason science stinks at predicting individual behavior.  An almost infinite number of bits of data contribute to human decision-making, including the billions of base pairs in our DNA and a lifetime of brain-changing individual experiences, among other things.  Not to mention that unscientific interloper: free will.

There is a much more serious problem with evidence-based sentencing.  It ignores the most important reason we punish wrongdoers.  When I sentence a bank robber to prison, the idea is not just to deter him from robbing again ("specific deterrence").  I also want to deter other people who might be considering robbing a bank ("general deterrence").

General deterrence is what makes us a civilized society.  It is the glue that holds us together under the rule of law.  It is so deeply engrained, every human society that has left a record shows evidence it punished its wrongdoers.  Indeed, our tendency to punish wrongdoers is most likely an evolved trait, which we needed in order to keep our intensely social small groups from unravelling in selfishness.  By focusing on specific deterrence, evidence-based sentencing mavens ignore 5,000 years of civilized wisdom and 200,000 years of human evolution.

They seem to recognize this failing, but only half-heartedly.  They tend to downplay crimes such as rape and murder to focus on low-harm crimes.  But burglary and theft tear the social fabric more broadly simply because they are more frequent.  Indeed, low-harm crimes are often crimes of cold economic predation rather than hot emotion.  For them, deterrence can be more effective.  Giving thieves and burglars a stern lecture and probation, just because some social scientists tell us prison doesn't rehabilitate them, is a surefire way to increase thefts and burglaries.

Those of us fortunate enough to live in civilized societies owe that civilization to the rule of law, which means nothing without the bite of punishment.  Punishment must be merciful, but it should not be abandoned to misguided claims that it does not deter.

Candidly, this commentary has so many disconnected and illogical assertions, I have too many criticisms to fit into this blog space. But I can start by highlighting how curious it is that the AG's discussion of the reduction in the federal prison population, brought about largely through changes in federal drug sentencing policies and practices, leads to a state judge worrying we risk not punishing "thieves and burglars" enough to achieve general deterrence.  Moreover, AG Holder was bragging last week that in recent years we have lowered prison populations AND lowered crime rates.  What evidence-based sentencing seeks to do is find ways to better achieve both specific and general deterrence without continue to rely so heavily on the very costly and too-often-ineffective punishment of imprisonment.

More fundamentally, what really troubled me about Judge Hoffman's analysis is his misguided and harmful perspectives (1) that focused attention to data and evidence about imprisonment's impact on crime is a "fad," and (2) that only lengthy terms of incarceration constitute "real" punishment that can deter.  On the first point, I wonder if Judge Hoffman urges his doctors not to be caught up in the "fad" of practicing "evidence-based" medicine.  After all, given that  "almost infinite number of bits of data contribute" to human health (not to mention that "unscientific interloper, free will"), perhaps Judge Hoffman encourages his doctors to be "realistic" that he is going to die eventually anyway.  Indeed, perhaps we ought to be suspect about all efforts to improve and extend human life by "evidence-based [medicine] mavens [who] ignore 5,000 years of civilized wisdom and 200,000 years of human evolution" which shows we all end up dead anyway.

Truth be told, what is truly a "fad" in light of "5,000 years of civilized wisdom and 200,000 years of human evolution" is the extreme use of extreme terms of imprisonment that has come to define the modern American experience with punishment.  Brutal physical punishments and public shaming punishment have been the norm and the means use to deter crime in most other societies throughout human history (and in the US until fairly recently).  Moreover, all serious social and scientific research on human behavior has demonstrated that the swiftness and certainty of punishment, not its severity, is critical to achieving both specific and general deterrence.  That is one (of many) reasons evidence-based sentencing makes long-terms of imprisonment look a lot less effective, at least relative to its high costs, than various other possible punishments.

I could go on and on, but I will conclude by encouraging everyone to appreciate that evidence-based reforms in lots of settings often provoke these kinds of old-world reactions: typically, folks who benefit from or prefer an old-world "faithful" view about how they think the world works will be eager to question and seek to discredit reformers who suggest science and data provides a new perspective that requires significant reform and changes to the status quo.  And though I always hope to show respect for old-world "faithful" perspectives, I get worked up by attacks on evidence-based reforms because I am ultimately much more a creature of science than a creature of faith.

October 1, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack

Monday, September 29, 2014

Rooting for acquitted conduct petition grant from SCOTUS long conference

Today, on the first Monday before the first Monday in October, the US Supreme Court Justices meet for the so called "long conference" at which they consider which of the large number of cert petitions that piled up over the summer ought to be heard during the Court's upcoming term. SCOTUSblog this morning here reviews some of the highest profile matters sure to generate the bulk of coverage and commentary.

Of course, I am always hoping/rooting for the Justices to grant cert on any and all sentencing issues. But there is one particular case, Jones v. US coming up from the DC Circuit, in which I filed an amicus in support of cert and thus in which I have a particular interest.  Regular readers of this blog are familiar with this case, which concerns judicial fact-finding to increase a federal guideline sentence contrary to a jury acquittal. (In prior posts (some of which appear below), I stressed the sentence given to one of the co-defendants in this Jones case, Antwan Ball.)

Over at SCOTUSblog, Lyle Denniston provided this effective review of the case and the SCOTUS filings a few weeks ago, and I encourage readers to check out that post or my prior posts linked below for context and background.  Here I will be content to provide this link to the cert petition and this link to my amicus brief in support of cert, as well as these paragraphs from the start of my amicus brief:

Sentencing rules permitting substantive circumvention of the jury’s work enables overzealous prosecutors to run roughshod over the traditional democratic checks of the adversarial criminal process the Framers built into the U.S. Constitution.  When applicable rules allow enhancement based on any and all jury-rejected “facts,” prosecutors can brazenly charge any and all offenses for which there is a sliver of evidence, and pursue those charges throughout trial without fear of any consequences when seeking later to make out their case to a sentencing judge.  When acquittals carry no real sentencing consequences, prosecutors have nothing to lose (and much to gain) from bringing multiple charges even when they might expect many such charges to be ultimately rejected by a jury.  Prosecutors can overcharge defendants safe in the belief they can renew their allegations for judicial reconsideration as long as the jury finds that the defendant did something wrong.  Indeed, piling on charges makes it more likely that the jury will convict of at least one charge, thus opening the door for prosecutors to re-litigate all their allegations before the judge.  Under such practices, the sentencing becomes a trial, and the trial becomes just a convenient dress rehearsal for prosecutors....

The Petitioners contend, as several Justices have already observed, that the Sixth Amendment is implicated whenever a legal rule (in this case, substantive reasonableness review) makes judge-discovered facts necessary for a lengthy sentence.  Amicus further highlights that this case presents the narrowest and most troubling instance of such a Sixth Amendment problem — namely express judicial reliance on so-called “acquitted conduct” involving jury-rejected, judge-discovered offense facts to calculate an enhanced Guideline sentencing range and thereby justify an aggravated sentence.  By allowing prosecutors and judges to nullify jury findings at sentencing such as in the case at bar, the citizen jury is “relegated to making a determination that the defendant at some point did something wrong,” and the jury trial is rendered “a mere preliminary to a judicial inquisition into the facts of the crime the State actually seeks to punish.” Blakely, 542 U.S. at 306-07.

Though various forms of judicial fact-finding within structured sentencing systems may raise constitutional concerns, this case only concerns the uniquely serious and dangerous erosion of Sixth Amendment substance if and when Guideline ranges are enhanced by facts indisputably rejected by the jury.  It may remain possible “to give intelligible content to the right of a jury trial,” Blakely, 542 U.S. at 305-06, by allowing broad judicial sentencing discretion to be informed by Guidelines calculated based on facts never contested before a jury.  But when a federal judge significantly enhances a prison sentence based expressly on allegations indisputably rejected by a jury verdict of not guilty, the jury trial right is rendered unintelligible and takes on a meaning that could only be advanced by a Franz Kafka character and not by the Framers of our Constitution.

Previous related posts on this case and acquitted conduct sentencing enhancements:

September 29, 2014 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Blakely Commentary and News, Blakely in the Supreme Court, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

"Mitigating Foul Blows"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new paper by Mary Bowman available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

For nearly eighty years, courts have offered stirring rhetoric about how prosecutors must not strike foul blows in pursuit of convictions.  Yet while appellate courts are often quick to condemn prosecutorial trial misconduct, they rarely provide any meaningful remedy. Instead, courts routinely affirm convictions, relying on defense counsel's failure to object or concluding that the misconduct was merely harmless error.  Jerome Frank summed up the consequences of this dichotomy best when he noted that the courts' attitude of helpless piety in prosecutorial misconduct cases breeds a deplorably cynical attitude toward the judiciary.

Cognitive bias research illuminates the reasons for, and solutions to, the gap between rhetoric and reality in prosecutorial misconduct cases.  This article is the first to explore theories of cognition that help explain the frequency of prosecutorial misconduct and the ways that it likely affects jurors and reviewing judges more than they realize.  As a result, the article advocates for sweeping changes to the doctrine of harmless error and modest changes to the doctrine of plain error as applied in prosecutorial misconduct cases.  These solutions will help courts abandon their attitude of helpless piety, clarify the currently ambiguous law on what behavior constitutes prosecutorial misconduct, encourage defense counsel to raise timely objections to misconduct, and reverse convictions when misconduct may well have affected the outcome of the case but affirm when the misconduct was trivial.

September 29, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Teacher resentenced to 10 years in notorious Montana rape case

As reported in this AP piece, a "Montana teacher was sentenced Friday to 10 years in prison in a notorious student rape case that dragged on for years and led to the censure of a judge who partially blamed the victim." Here is more about the latest (and last?) development in a long-run controversy:

Stacey Dean Rambold, 55, was resentenced by a new judge exactly a year after he completed an initial one-month prison term for the crime. Rambold appeared to grimace as Friday’s sentence was read by Judge Randal Spaulding. He then was handcuffed and led away by deputies, pausing briefly to exchange words with family as he exited the courtroom.

Rambold pleaded guilty last year to a single count of sexual intercourse without consent in the 2007 rape of 14-year-old Cherice Moralez, a freshman in his Billings Senior High School business class. She committed suicide in 2010.

Rambold’s attorney had argued for a two-year sentence, pointing out that the defendant had no prior criminal record, underwent sex offender treatment and was considered by the state as a low risk to reoffend.

Spaulding indicated that the nature of the crime outweighed those factors. “I considered your abuse and exploitation of your position of trust as a teacher, and specifically Cherice’s teacher,” Spaulding told the defendant.

The state Supreme Court in April overturned Rambold’s initial sentence, citing in part comments from Judge G. Todd Baugh, who suggested the victim shared responsibility. Baugh was censured and suspended for 31 days. He’s stepping down when his terms ends in January....

Rambold broke down crying during a brief statement to the court. He said he was sorry for his actions and had worked hard to make himself a better person. In a recent letter to the court, he lamented the international publicity the case attracted. “No one can really appreciate and understand what it feels like to have so many people actually hate you and be disgusted by you,” Rambold wrote. “I do not mention this for the sake of sympathy, but it has been hard.”...

During last year’s sentencing, Baugh suggested Moralez had as much control over her rape as the defendant and said she “appeared older than her chronological age.” He gave Rambold a 15-year term with all but one month suspended. That triggered an appeal from the office of Attorney General Tim Fox, and ultimately resulted in the case being reassigned to Spaulding.

Prior related posts:

September 27, 2014 in Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Friday, September 26, 2014

"Hall v. Florida: The Death of Georgia's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt Standard"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper by Adam Lamparello now available on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Welcome: We’re Glad Georgia is On Your Mind.

Georgia is on many minds as Warren Hill prepares for a state court hearing to once again begin the process of trying to show that he is intellectually disabled.  As Warren Hill continues to flirt with death, one must ask, is Georgia really going to execute someone that nine experts and a lower court twice found to be mentally retarded?  The answer is yes, and the Georgia courts do not understand why we are scratching our heads.  The answer is simple: executing an intellectually disabled man is akin to strapping a ten-year old child in the electric chair.

Georgia’s standard for determining intellectual disability -- beyond a reasonable doubt -- is itself intellectually disabled.  In 1986, Georgia became the first state to ban executions of the intellectually disabled.  It should also be the next state to eliminate a standard that, as a practical matter, ensures execution of the intellectually disabled.

Ultimately, the Georgia legislature must explain why it chooses to execute defendants like Warren Hill, and the Georgia courts must explain why they allow it to happen. Intellectually disabled defendants do not appreciate or understand why they are being executed.  Their crimes may be unspeakable, but the punishment is never proportional. Until Georgia provides an answer that extends beyond platitudes and biblically inspired notions of justice, the fact will remain that executing Warren Hill is as heinous as the crimes he committed.  The only acceptable answer should come from the Supreme Court, holding that Georgia’s beyond a reasonable doubt standard violates the Eighth Amendment.

September 26, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Is California's Prop. 47 a "common-sense" or a "radical" reform to the state's criminal laws?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy new FoxNews piece headlined "California voters weigh 'radical' changes to justice system as prisons fill up." Here are excerpts:

Voters this fall, however, could approve big -- and some say "dangerous" -- changes to the state’s sentencing system, aimed in part at easing the overcrowding.  On the state ballot is a proposal that would dramatically change how the state treats certain “nonserious, nonviolent” drug and property crimes, by downgrading them from felonies to misdemeanors.

The measure, known as Prop 47, also would allow those currently serving time for such offenses to apply for a reduced sentence, as long as they have no prior convictions for more serious crimes like murder, attempted murder or sexual offenses. 

Businessman B. Wayne Hughes Jr., who has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to push the ballot measure, told FoxNews.com the changes would affect Californians who are “over-incarcerated and over-unpunished.” 

“I saw Prop 47 as common-sense reform,” Hughes said. “I don’t see it as a radical reform.”

However, the measure is being slammed as dangerous by members of California’s law enforcement, including San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman.   Zimmerman told FoxNews.com “virtually the entire law enforcement community opposes Prop 47.”

“It will require the release of thousands of dangerous inmates,” she said. 

The proposition would reduce penalties for an array of crimes that can be prosecuted as either felonies or misdemeanors in California. This includes everything from drug possession to check fraud to petty theft to forgery.  Prop 47 would, generally, treat all these as misdemeanors, in turn reducing average jail sentences.  According to a state estimate, there are approximately 40,000 people convicted each year in California who would be affected by the measure.

“[Prop 47] allows the criminal justice system to focus in on more serious crimes,” Hughes said.

According to an analysis by the California Budget Project, state and local governments would save hundreds of millions of dollars every year.  The measure dictates the savings be split among three different areas, with 65 percent going to mental health and drug treatment programs, 25 percent going to K-12 school programs and 10 percent going to victim services.  The measure’s supporters say it also would help reduce California’s prison-overcrowding problem, an issue that has dogged the state for years.

The analysis by the California Budget Project found that the California prison population would “likely" decline if Prop 47 were implemented.  “If Proposition 47 reduced the prison population by just 2,300 individuals – through re-sentencing and/or reduced new admissions – the state could meet the court-ordered population threshold via the measure alone,” the analysis said.

However, Zimmerman argued that the proposition would only shift the burden from the state prisons to local law enforcement and communities.   “[Prop 47 is] not a sustainable or responsible way to reduce California’s prison population,” she said.

The California Police Chiefs Association also has come out hard against the proposition.  “Proposition 47 is a dangerous and radical package of ill-conceived policies wrapped in a poorly drafted initiative which will endanger Californians,” the association said....

Former Republican congressional candidate Weston Wamp agreed, saying Prop 47 "might not be perfect, but it’s a breath of fresh air to talk about an issue where there can be some agreement."  Wamp said if passed, he believes Prop 47 could have a positive effect on the nationwide prison reform movement.   "I think it’s realistic if you give people who are not violent criminals, if you give them an opportunity not to just stay behind bars but to make their lives better, you may see over a longer period of time is lower rates in recidivism and a better chance at taking care of the problems and paying the bills," he said. 

For now, it seems like the proposition’s supporters are connecting with voters. An August poll by the Field Research Corporation found that 57 percent of Californians were in favor of the measure, 24 percent were opposed and 19 percent were undecided. 

Prior related post:

September 24, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Split NJ Supreme Court holds that state's sex offender GPS tracking is punishment subject to ex post facto limits

As reported in this local article, headlined "Some sex offenders can't be forced to wear GPS monitors, N.J. Supreme Court rules," the top state court in the Garden State issued a significant constitutional ruling concerning GPS tracking of sex offenders.  Here are the basics:

New Jersey cannot force sex offenders to wear GPS tracking devises if they were convicted before the monitoring program was signed into law seven years ago, the state Supreme Court ruled in a split decision today.

The court voted 4-3 to uphold an appellate panel's decision that said it was unconstitutional for the state Parole Board to require George C. Riley to wear the ankle monitor when he was released from prison in 2009 after serving 23 years for attempted sexual assault of a minor.

Justice Barry Albin wrote today that the Riley, 81 of Eatontown, should not be subject to the 2007 law because it constitutes an additional punishment that was not included in the sentence he already served.... A spokesman for the Parole Board did not respond when asked how many released sex offenders could be affected by the ruling.

Riley was convicted of trying to have sex with an 11-year-old girl in 1986. At the time, New Jersey law did not allow a sentence that included parole for life. But while Riley was in prison, the state enacted Megan's Law in 1994, requiring sex offenders to not only register with local authorities upon release but be placed under parole supervision for life. Then, in 2007, Gov. Jon Corzine signed the Sex Offender Monitoring Act, requiring the state's most dangerous sex offenders to wear GPS devises.

When Riley was released two years later, court papers say, he was not subject to any parole supervision. But he was designated a Tier III offender under Megan's Law — which applies to those who are considered a high risk for committing another offense. Under that tier, Riley was subject to "Internet registration and the most comprehensive degree of community notification," court papers say.

Six months later, though, Riley was told he would need to wear the pager-sized monitor on his ankle 24 hours a day and 7 days a week and carry a cell phone-sized tracking unit when he left his home, the papers say The devise must also be plugged into an electrical outlet to be charged one to two hours each day, the papers say. During that time, Riley could not move further than the length of the cord. And he was assigned a parole officer with access to his home. Riley would be subject to prosecution for a third-degree crime if he didn't comply....

The Supreme Court ... agreed with the lower court that the "retroactive application" of Riley to the GPS program violates the ex post facto clauses in the U.S. and state Constitutions, which safeguard against imposing "additional punishment to an already completed crime." The court also rejected the state's argument that the GPS monitor is not punitive but "only civil and regulatory."

"Parole is a form of punishment under the Constitution," Albin wrote for the high court. "SOMA is essentially parole supervision for life by another name." Albin added that "the disabilities and restraints placed on Riley through twenty -four-hour GPS monitoring enabled by a tracking device fastened to his ankle could hardly be called 'minor and indirect.'" The court also rejected the state's assertion that the Parole Board made its decision as a result of the Megan's Law designation, saying that designation "was based primarily on Riley’s previous sexual-offense convictions."

The full ruling in Riley v. New Jersey State Parole Board, No. A-94-11 (NJ Sept. 22, 2014) is available at this link.

September 23, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Monday, September 22, 2014

Inititative details and debates over California's Proposition 47 to reduce severity of various crimes

One of the most intriguing criminal justice initiatives not dealing with marijuana in the 2014 election season is Proposition 47 in California.  This nonpartisan analysis from the Legislative Analyst's Office provides this simplified summary of the initiative (as well as a more detailed explanation of Prop 47's particulars):

This measure reduces penalties for certain offenders convicted of nonserious and nonviolent property and drug crimes.  The measure also allows certain offenders who have been previously convicted of such crimes to apply for reduced sentences.  In addition, the measure requires any state savings that result from the measure be spent to support truancy (unexcused absences) prevention, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and victim services.

This local recent article, headlined "Arguments Heating Up in Penalty-Reducing Prop 47," provides the essence of the current state of debate over this notable initiative:

Some say under Proposition 47 criminals will get a slap on the wrist, but others argue it's a second chance. The crime-fighting arguments for and against Prop 47 are heating up as we inch closer to the November election.

Prop 47 looks to drop non-violent, non-sexual and non-serious felony crimes into misdemeanors. Supporters say it will ease jail and prison overcrowding by giving some a second chance. But opponents say it's a dangerous way to increase the speed of the revolving jail door.

About two dozen religious activists began a huge push Thursday at St. Rest Baptist Church is Southwest Fresno to support Prop 47, calling it the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act. Catholic Bishop Armando Ochoa was among the speakers who believe Prop 47 would benefit the public. "Incarceration does a miserable job of educating people and treating mental illness, but that has become the norm for California," he said.

Under Prop 47 there is a promise of savings to the state by reducing prison and jail population. The promise includes transferring that savings, around a billion dollars over several years, to K-12 education, mental health and rehab programs.

"It promises to lower crime by making it legal," said Mike Reynolds, author of California's three-strikes law. "That's basically what it's saying." Reynolds penned three strikes after his daughter, Kimber Reynolds, was killed in the Tower District in 1992. "This is going to encourage more young people to come into a life of crime," Reynolds said. "It's going to release dangerous criminals back out on the streets, including three strikers."...

So far several law enforcement groups, like the California Police Chiefs Association, are highly opposed to Prop 47's reduced penalties....

The crimes that would be reduced to misdemeanors include drug possession, forgery and shoplifting, among a host of other crimes.

September 22, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, September 21, 2014

"Under Pressure: The Hazards of Maintaining Innocence after Conviction"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new piece authored by Daniel Medwed and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Innocent people convicted of child abuse or sexual offenses face a classic “Catch-22” situation that has ramifications on their prospects for parole and for exoneration in court. If prisoners continue to maintain their innocence while imprisoned, then corrections officials may interpret this behaviour as demonstrating a key trait of sex offenders — “denial” — and make them ineligible for treatment programs that are a prerequisite for parole in many jurisdictions. Even if they are technically eligible to apply for parole, inmates who claim innocence before parole boards harm their chances for release based on the belief that those unable to admit guilt are likely to re-offend; they are perceived as lacking in remorse and failing to address their offending behaviour.

Prisoners who pursue their innocence through post-conviction litigation also face an uphill climb. This is attributable in part to cognitive biases that affect how prosecutors treat innocence claims in the aftermath of conviction and all too often lead them to discount their potential legitimacy. Considering the hazards that inmates encounter in maintaining their innocence in parole and post-conviction litigation settings, there is reason to think that many of them are not in denial, but rather the victims of profound miscarriages of justice. This Book Chapter will explore this conundrum in these two settings before concluding with some thoughts on reform.

September 21, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Newt Gingrich helps explain "What California can learn from the red states on crime and punishment"

Newt Gingrich and B. Wayne Hughes Jr. are the co-authors of this notable recent Los Angeles Times op-ed headlined " "What California can learn from the red states on crime and punishment." Among other points, the piece makes the case for a proposition on the ballot in California (Prop 47) that would reduce the severity of a number of California crimes. Here are excerpts:

Imagine you have the power to decide the fate of someone addicted to heroin who is convicted of petty shoplifting. How much taxpayer money would you spend to put that person in prison — and for how long? Is incarceration the right form of punishment to change this offender's behavior?

Those are questions states across the nation are increasingly asking as the costly and ineffective realities of incarceration-only policies have set in. Obviously, we need prisons for people who are dangerous, and there should be harsh punishments for those convicted of violent crimes. But California has been overusing incarceration. Prisons are for people we are afraid of, but we have been filling them with many folks we are just mad at.

Reducing wasteful corrections spending and practices is long overdue in California. The state imprisons five times as many people as it did 50 years ago (when crime rates were similar). And as Californians know, the state's prison system ballooned over the last few decades and became so crowded that federal judges have mandated significant reductions.

Contributing to the growth in the number of prisoners and in prison spending has been a dramatic expansion in the number of felonies. In addition, mandatory minimum sentences have been applied to an increasing number of crimes. These policies have combined to drive up the prison population, as more prisoners serve longer sentences. On top of that, California has an alarmingly high recidivism rate: Six out of 10 people exiting California prisons return within three years.

It makes no sense to send nonserious, nonviolent offenders to a place filled with hardened criminals and a poor record of rehabilitation — and still expect them to come out better than they went in. Studies show that placing low-risk offenders in prison makes them more dangerous when they are released.

Over-incarceration makes no fiscal sense. California spends $62,396 per prisoner each year, and $10 billion overall, on its corrections system. That is larger than the entire state budget of 12 other states. This expenditure might be worth it if we were safer because of it. But with so many offenders returning to prison, we clearly aren't getting as much public safety — or rehabilitation — as we should for this large expenditure.

Meanwhile, California spends only $9,200 per K-12 student, and the average salary for a new teacher is $41,926. And as California built 22 prisons in 30 years, it built only one public university.

California is not alone in feeling the financial (and public safety) consequences of over-incarceration. Several states — politically red states, we would point out — have shown how reducing prison populations can also reduce cost and crime. Most notably, Texas in 2007 stopped prison expansion plans and instead used those funds for probation and treatment. It has reduced its prison population, closed three facilities and saved billions of dollars, putting a large part of the savings into drug treatment and mental health services. Better yet, Texas' violent crime rates are the lowest since 1977.

Another red state, South Carolina, made similar reforms for nonviolent offenses. The drop in the number of prisoners allowed South Carolina to close one prison and also lower its recidivism rate. Other states (Ohio, Georgia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Mississippi) have similarly shifted their approach to nonviolent convictions.

Now voters in California will have a chance to do the same, using costly prison beds for dangerous and hardened criminals. It is time to stop wasting taxpayer dollars on locking up low-level offenders. Proposition 47 on the November ballot will do this by changing six nonviolent, petty offenses from felony punishments (which now can carry prison time) to misdemeanor punishments and local accountability.

The measure is projected to save hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars per year, and it will help the state emphasize punishments such as community supervision and treatment that are more likely to work instead of prison time....

If so many red states can see the importance of refocusing their criminal justice systems, California can do the same. It's not often the voters can change the course of a criminal justice system. Californians should take advantage of the opportunity and vote yes on Proposition 47.

September 21, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Seventh Circuit panel seemingly unmoved by feds appeal of probation sentence given to Beanie Babies billionaire

As detailed in this new Chicago Tribune article, "Prosecutors in Warner tax evasion case grilled by appeals court judges," federal prosecutors apparently did not get a warm reception at oral argument in the Seventh Circuit as they pressed their claims that a probation sentence given to a high-profile tax cheat was unreasonable. Here are the basics:

Federal prosecutors appealing the probation sentence of Beanie Babies founder Ty Warner faced a three-judge panel Wednesday to make the case for why the Westmont billionaire should get prison time for evading taxes.

Warner pleaded guilty last year to one count of tax evasion for failing to report more than $24 million in income and skirting $5.5 million in federal taxes on millions of dollars he hid for more than a decade at two Swiss banks.  Prosecutors had been pushing for a sentence of at least one year in prison, partly to deter others from committing the same crime. Sentencing guidelines had called for a prison sentence of up to 57 months.  His defense lawyers had argued that many tax evaders were allowed to join an amnesty program and that, even among those criminally charged and convicted, more than half who had been sentenced received probation.

Ilana Rovner, a U.S. appeals court judge for the seventh circuit, said Wednesday that she had a problem reconciling why the government was seeking to throw out Warner’s sentence when many tax evaders get probation or might not be prosecuted at all.  Also, the amount of tax he evaded was a fraction of what he has paid in taxes, she noted. Warner has already paid a civil penalty for not reporting the offshore accounts and restitution for what he owed in back taxes and interest....

Rovner also noted that prosecutors seem to be ignoring the “considerable discretion” of the district judge, Charles Kocoras, has in imposing a sentence.  He is a “veteran” judge who “obviously agonized” over the decision, she said.

Judge Michael Kanne noted that Warner’s guilty plea “saved the government some money” and that the appeals court “shouldn’t be the sentencing court.”

Judge Joel Flaum wondered why, if Warner’s conduct was so egregious, he was charged with only one count of tax evasion and why the government was seeking at minimum at least a year in prison.  Rovner chimed in, addressing Petersen: “You agreed to this.”

Judge Kanne noted that one count of tax evasion and a minimum prison sentence of a year “doesn’t sound like deterrence to me.”  Petersen responded that probation is a far more lenient sentence than the minimum of one year the government was seeking.

Anyone eager to hear the oral argument in full can access it via this mp3 link from the Seventh Circuit's website.  Notably, former US Solicitor General Paul Clement argued on behalf of the defendant (and I cannot help but wonder if he got some special Beanie Babies from the defendant in addition to the usual fees for his efforts).

Prior related posts:

September 17, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, September 15, 2014

Effective commentary on Sixth Circuit panel upholding 15-year ACCA sentence for possession of shotgun shells

I am pleased to see that by LawProf Richard M. Re  now has posted on his (wonderfully titled) Re's Judicata blog some new critical thoughts about the Sixth Circuit panel ruling late last week in US v. Young, No. 13-5714 (6th Cir. Sept. 11, 2014) (available here).  Young rejected an Eighth Amendment claim by the defendant by ruling that a mandatory 15-year federal imprisonment term was not grossly disproportionate for a felon's possession of shotgun shells.  I first blogged about the Young ruling here, and I have not (yet) commented further because I was involved in the briefing and argument to the Sixth Circuit as an amicus representing NACDL.

Helpfully, Prof Re's extended post on Young, which is titled "A 'Shell' Game in the Sixth Circuit?", highlights some of my own deep concerns about the ruling. I recommend everyone check out the full post, which gets started this way:

In US v. Young, the Sixth Circuit recently affirmed a startlingly severe sentence for what seems like innocuous conduct, and the blogosphere has taken note.  As Eugene Volokh put it in his post title, the case involved a “15-year mandatory minimum federal sentence for possessing shotgun shells (no shotgun) almost 20 years after past felonies.”  The case might go to the Supreme Court on the Eighth Amendment question it raises.

Viewed from another angle, Young illustrates two reasons to lament the rarity of executive clemency.  First, whether Young’s sentence is just seems to depend on factors that weren’t pressed in court but that executive officials likely know about.  A robust clemency tradition would bring those factors to light.  Second, in the absence of executive clemency, the Sixth Circuit seems to have reached outside the proven record to do the executive’s job for it — and, in doing so, the court relied on allegations and innuendo instead of judicial findings.

Prior related posts on Young case:

September 15, 2014 in Examples of "over-punishment", Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Congressional Budget Office reports Smarter Sentencing Act would save federal taxpayers $4.36 billion

As reported in this new piece from The Hill, which is headlined "CBO: Drug sentencing reform saves $4B," this is now an official congressional estimate of just how much federal taxpayer monies would be saved if the Smarter Sentencing Act were to become law. Here are the basics:

Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) announced that their bill to reform nonviolent drug sentencing would reduce prison costs by more than $4 billion. “Making smart reforms to our drug sentencing laws will save the taxpayers billions of dollars,” Lee said on Monday.

On Monday, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported that Durbin and Lee’s bill would save the federal government $4.36 billion in prison costs by giving federal judges more discretion in sentencing those convicted of non-violent drug offenses.

“Today’s CBO report proves that not only are mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses often unfair, they are also fiscally irresponsible,” Durbin said. “By making the incremental, targeted changes that Senator Lee and I have proposed in our Smarter Sentencing Act, we can save taxpayers billions without jeopardizing public safety.”

This press release from Senator Mike Lee's office provides more context and details about potential SSA savings and the broad support the bill has already garnered:

CBO is the second government agency to conclude that the Durbin-Lee bill would produce billions of dollars in savings. The Department of Justice, which administers our federal prison system, has estimated that the bill would avoid prison costs of nearly $7.4 billion in 10 years and $24 billion in 20 years.

With federal prison populations skyrocketing and approximately half of the nation’s federal inmates serving sentences for drug offenses, the Smarter Sentencing Act would give federal judges more discretion in sentencing those convicted of non-violent drug offenses....

The bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act is supported by faith leaders from the National Association of Evangelicals to the United Methodist Church. It is supported by groups and individuals including Heritage Action, Justice Fellowship of Prison Fellowship Ministries, Major Cities Chiefs Association, the ACLU, Grover Norquist, International Union of Police Associations, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, more than 100 former prosecutors and judges, the NAACP, Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, the Sentencing Project, American Conservative Union, Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), the Council of Prison Locals, Ralph Reed, Open Society Policy Center, American Correctional Association, the American Bar Association, National Black Prosecutors Association, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Texas Public Policy Foundation, and the Constitution Project.

September 15, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Sixth Circuit panel finds mandatory 15-year imprisonment term not grossly disproportionate for possession of shotgun shells

Because I filled an amicus brief on behalf of defendant Edward Young and participated in oral argument as well, I am much too close to the Eighth Amendment issue resolved against the defendant today in US v. Young, No. 13-5714 (6th Cir. Sept. 11, 2014) (available here), to provide any objective analysis and perspective.  And rather than provide my biased analysis in this post, let me for now be content to reprint the start the Sixth Circuit panel's per curiam ruling: 

Edward Young received a mandatory fifteen-year prison sentence for the crime of possessing seven shotgun shells in a drawer.  He came into possession of the shells while helping a neighbor sell her late husband’s possessions. When he eventually discovered them, he did not realize that his legal disability against possessing firearms — resulting from felonies committed some twenty years earlier — extended to ammunition. See 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). Under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), Young received a mandatory fifteen-year sentence.

Young now asks this court to conclude that the ACCA, as applied to him, is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment because the gravity of his offense is so low as compared to the harshness of his sentence, and unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment because he lacked notice.  Our precedent compels us to reject these claims and to affirm Young’s sentence.

To its credit, the per curiam decision in Young engages somewhat with some Eighth Amendment principles I sought to stress in my amicus efforts in this case, and Judge Stranch authored an extended concurrence discussing the policy arguments against mandatory minimums. But these aspects of the Young opinion do very little to salve my seething aggravation and frustration with this ruling.

A number of judges on the Sixth Circuit have a (somewhat justified) reputation for going to great lengths to bend and extend Eighth Amendment jurisprudence to block state efforts to execute brutal murderers after a state sentencing jury imposed the death penalty.  Consequently, I was hopeful (though not optimistic) that at least one member of a Sixth Circuit panel could and would conclude the modern Eighth Amendment places some substantive and judicially enforceable limits on extreme application of extreme federal mandatory minimum prison terms.  Apparently not.  Though surely not the intent of this ruling, I think the practical message is that one needs to murder someone with ammunition rather than just possess it illegally for the Sixth Circuit to be moved by an Eighth Amendment claim. (I was hoping to save a screed about this ruling for a future post, but obviously this is already a bit too raw for me to be able to hold my blog tongue.)

I am hopeful that the defendant will be interested in seeking en banc review and/or SCOTUS review, and thus I suspect the (obviously uphill) legal fight against this extreme sentence will continue. I plan to continue helping with that fight, and I would be eager to hear from others eager to help as well.

Prior related posts:

September 11, 2014 in Examples of "over-punishment", Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack