Thursday, April 14, 2016

California board recommends parole for former "Manson family member" Leslie Van Houten

Though the federal system and a number of states have abolished parole, a number of states still have this method of prisoner release and high-profile cases often provide a reminder of this important reality. And, as highlighted by this new Los Angeles Times article, headlined "Board recommends parole for Charles Manson follower Leslie Van Houten," high-profile parole cases can reach back to crimes committed nearly a half-century ago. Here are the details and some context:

A California review board recommended parole Thursday for former Charles Manson family member Leslie Van Houten, who was convicted in the 1969 killings of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. The decision was issued following a hearing earlier in the day at the California Institution for Women in Chino.  Van Houten has been denied parole 19 times since she was convicted of murder in the deaths of Leno LaBianca, a wealthy grocer, and his second wife at their Los Feliz home.

After the ruling is reviewed by the parole board's legal team, it will be forwarded to Gov. Jerry Brown, who could decide to block Van Houten’s release.  Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey expressed disapproval after the decision was announced: "We disagree with the board's decision and will evaluate how we plan to proceed."

The youngest of Manson’s followers, Van Houten, 66, has been considered the least blameworthy member of the group, and has been portrayed by supporters as a misguided teen under the influence of LSD on the night of the killings. A former homecoming queen from Monrovia, Van Houten did not join in the Aug. 9, 1969, killings of Sharon Tate, the wife of film director Roman Polanski, and four others at the Benedict Canyon home that Tate was renting.

But the following day, then-19-year-old Van Houten joined in slaying the LaBiancas. Van Houten and another woman held down Rosemary LaBianca as Charles “Tex” Watson stabbed Leno LaBianca. After Watson stabbed Rosemary LaBianca, he handed Van Houten a knife. She testified to stabbing Rosemary at least 14 more times. The blood of the victims was used to scrawl messages on the walls, as had been done at the Benedict Canyon home.

In prior bids for parole, Van Houten's attorneys have characterized her as a model inmate who has obtained a college degree behind bars and has been active in self-help groups. At a 2002 parole board hearing, Van Houten said she was “deeply ashamed” of what she had done, adding: "I take very seriously not just the murders, but what made me make myself available to someone like Manson."...

Van Houten's attorney, Richard Pfeiffer, said he believed the two-member board was most persuaded by her exemplary behavior behind bars. "Since 1980, there were 18 different doctors who did psychiatric evaluations of her. Every single one found she was suitable for parole," Pfeiffer said.

Van Houten told her attorney that she was left "numb" by the decision handed down Thursday. Pfeiffer said he's hopeful that Brown opts to grant her parole. "The opposition to parole has always been the name Manson," he said. "A lot of people who oppose parole don’t know anything about Leslie’s conduct. Her role was bad. Everyone’s was. But they don’t know what she’s done since then and all of the good she’s done."

Last summer, a parole board recommended parole for Manson associate Bruce Davis, who was convicted in the 1969 killings of Gary Hinman and Donald “Shorty” Shea. But in January, Gov. Brown rejected parole for the 73-year-old, stating that “Davis' own actions demonstrate that he had fully bought into the depraved Manson family beliefs.” Davis was not involved in the killings of the LaBiancas, Tate and four others.

April 14, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Two timely stories of marijuana reform not yet helping those serving "Outrageous Sentences For Marijuana"

From two very different media sources today, I see two very notable stories of defendants convicted of marijuana-related offenses serving extreme sentences for a type of behavior that is now "legal" at the state level in some form throughout much of the United States. 

First, the New York Times has this new editorial headlined "Outrageous Sentences for Marijuana," which starts this way:

Lee Carroll Brooker, a 75-year-old disabled veteran suffering from chronic pain, was arrested in July 2011 for growing three dozen marijuana plants for his own medicinal use behind his son’s house in Dothan, Ala., where he lived.  For this crime, Mr. Brooker was given a life sentence with no possibility of release.

Alabama law mandates that anyone with certain prior felony convictions be sentenced to life without parole for possessing more than 1 kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of marijuana, regardless of intent to sell.  Mr. Brooker had been convicted of armed robberies in Florida two decades earlier, for which he served 10 years. The marijuana plants collected at his son’s house — including unusable parts like vines and stalks — weighed 2.8 pounds.

At his sentencing, the trial judge told Mr. Brooker that if he “could sentence you to a term that is less than life without parole, I would.” Last year, Roy Moore, chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, called Mr. Brooker’s sentence “excessive and unjustified,” and said it revealed “grave flaws” in the state’s sentencing laws, but the court still upheld the punishment.

On Friday, the United States Supreme Court will consider whether to hear Mr. Brooker’s challenge to his sentence, which he argues violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments. The justices should take the case and overturn this sentence.

Second, AlterNet has this new piece with this lengthy headline, "As Marijuana Goes Mainstream, California Pioneers Rot in Federal Prison: Luke Scarmazzo and Ricardo Montes opened a dispensary in Modesto. Now they're doing 20 years in federal prison. Their families want them home. "  Here is how it starts:

Behind the headlines about President Obama’s historic visit to federal prisons and highly publicized releases of non-violent drug offenders, the numbers tell a different story. Despite encouraging and receiving more clemency petitions than any president in U.S. history — more than the last two administrations combined, nearly 20,000 — very few federal prisoners are actually being granted clemency.

Nowhere is this irony more glaring than in the world of legal cannabis. Cannabis is now considered the fastest-growing industry in the nation, yet remains federally illegal. The sea change from the Department of Justice since 2009 has allowed state-legal cannabis industries to thrive. Federal solutions seem to be around the corner and for the first time cannabis businesses are being publicly traded and receiving legal Wall Street investment.

Ricardo Montes and Luke Scarmazzo are two of the 20,000 federal prisoners appealing to President Obama for clemency. They have exhausted their appeals and are serving 20-year mandatory minimum sentences for openly running a dispensary in the early days of California’s pioneering medical cannabis law. The irony isn’t lost on them that their crimes are now legal and profitable, but their appeals for clemency aren’t based on justice anymore — they just want to be home with their kids. Their daughters, Jasmine Scarmazzo, 13, and Nina Montes, 10, are appealing directly to President Obama to release their fathers via a Change.org petition.

Given that the Supreme Court has often stated and held that the Eighth Amendment's "scope is not static," but "must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society,” Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 101 (1958), I think both these cases should be pretty easy constitutional calls if courts and/or executive branch officials took very seriously a commitment to updating and enforcing Eighth Amendment limits on lengthy prison terms in light of the obviously "evolving standards of decency" concerning medical use of marijuana throughout the United States and the world.  But, while hoping for some judicial or executive action in this arena, I am not holding my breath that any of these medical marijuana offenders will be free from incarceration anytime soon.

April 14, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Ninth Circuit talks through requirements for Miller resentencing a decade after mandatory LWOP

The Ninth Circuit yesterday issued an interesting opinion faulting a district court for how it limited the evidence it considered and other problems with how it conducted a resentencing of a juvenile murderer given a mandatory LWOP sentence a decade before such a sentences was deemed unconstitutional by the Surpeme Court.  Miller fan will want to read US v. Pete, No. 14-103 (9th Cir. April 11, 2016) (available here), in full, and here is how the opinion starts and along with some key passages from the heart of its analysis: 

Branden Pete was 16 years old when he committed a crime that resulted in a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole.  Later, Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012), held unconstitutional for juvenile offenders mandatory terms of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.  On resentencing, the district court refused to appoint a neuropsychological expert pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3006A(e) to help Pete develop mitigating evidence.

Our principal question on appeal is whether the district court abused its discretion in declining to appoint such an expert to aid the defense.  We conclude that it did, and so remand for appointment of an expert, and for resentencing after considering any expert evidence offered.  We also consider, and reject, Pete’s other challenges to his resentencing....

In rejecting the motion to appoint an expert, the district court ... noted that Pete’s upbringing and the circumstances of the crime have not changed, and maintained that because a psychiatric evaluation had been done in 2003, a second evaluation would be “duplicative.” “[I]t is difficult to conceive how,” the district court stated, “the passage of time may impact [the psychiatric] evidence” presented during the pretrial proceedings nearly ten years before.  Further, the district court held that the impact of incarceration on Pete “is not the type of mitigating evidence which Miller contemplates.”  We disagree with the district court as to all three aspects of its reasoning....

When the district court ruled that no expert testimony was “necessary,” it ignored Miller’s reasoning and directives.  At the time of resentencing, Pete’s neuropsychological condition had not been evaluated in more than a decade.  An updated evaluation could have revealed whether Pete was the same person psychologically and behaviorally as he was when he was 16.  Rather than being “duplicative,” as the district court believed, a new evaluation could have shown whether the youthful characteristics that contributed to Pete’s crime had dissipated with time, or whether, instead, Pete is the “rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.” Id. at 2469 (citation omitted); see also Montgomery, 136 S. Ct. at 733.  Similarly, without current information relating to the policy rationales applicable specifically to juvenile offenders, Pete was hamstrung in arguing for a more lenient sentence.

More specifically, the significant mitigating evidence available to Pete at resentencing, other than his own testimony and that of his lawyer (neither of which the district court credited), would have been information about his current mental state — in particular, whether and to what extent he had changed since committing the offenses as a juvenile. This information was directly related to Pete’s prospects for rehabilitation, including whether he continued to be a danger to the community, and therefore whether the sentence imposed was “sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with the purposes” of sentencing. 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a); see id. (a)(2)(C), (D).  Such information is pertinent to determining whether, as Miller indicates is often the case, Pete’s psychological makeup and prospects for behavior control had improved as he matured, with the consequence that his prospects for rehabilitation and the need for incapacitation had changed.

April 12, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

Taking a close look at the prosecutor dealing with Miller and Montgomery on the ground in Philly

Daniel Denvir has this intriguing piece in Salon about the resentencing of juvenile murderers in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection. The full headline highlights its themes: "The unconstitutional outrage of juvenile life sentences: Why Philadelphia will be a case study for this criminal-justice reform: The city is faced with deciding what to do about 300 now-unconstitutional juvenile life sentences." Here is how it starts:

Children convicted of committing murder on Philadelphia’s violent streets long faced the prospect of receiving the harshest sentence short of death: life without parole. Today, the city has more juvenile offenders locked up for life than any other. It has been a grim and predictable cycle: Young black men mourned at premature funerals and their killers packed into state prisons with only the narrowest hope of ever leaving. And then the tough-on-crime pendulum began to swing back.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life without parole for juveniles was unconstitutional, and in a January decision they made that ruling retroactive. And so Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has roughly 300 big decisions to make: How long will he seek to imprison the onetime juveniles, many now much older, who until recently were set to die behind bars?

States responded to the 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision in a hodgepodge manner, including by abolishing juvenile life without parole entirely. In Pennsylvania, however, then-Gov. Tom Corbett signed a law that angered reform advocates for its harshness, changing the sentence for first-degree murder to 35 years to life for older juveniles, and 25 to life for younger ones. Those convicted of second-degree murder now face sentences of 20 or 30 years to life.

Critically, the law did not make the new sentences retroactive, leaving hundreds of Pennsylvania juvenile lifers in limbo. The Court’s January decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana means that prosecutors and judges throughout Pennsylvania will soon face a deluge of prisoners asking to be re-sentenced. In Philadelphia, advocates are concerned that Williams, who has taken a tough line in the past, will fight to keep many behind bars for a long time.

“The District Attorney has a pretty stark choice,” emails Marc Bookman, director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation. “He can either follow the very obvious trend away from sentencing juveniles to life without parole sentences, or he can swim against the tide and against the dictates of the Supreme Court and continue to seek such sentences.”

Williams’ office, which declined to comment for this story, must navigate the gap between the Supreme Court and the current state law. It’s unclear how he will proceed. The Supreme Court only barred mandatory life without parole sentences, so he could try to keep some locked up. The Court did make it clear, however, that life without parole sentences should only be applied in rare cases where an offender is “irreparably corrupted.”

Brad Bridge, a lead attorney at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, criticized Williams’ past opposition to making Miller retroactive and says that he should move quickly to resolve the cases of those who have been incarcerated the longest. “Based upon [these court rulings,] we now must re-sentence over 300 juvenile lifers in Philadelphia,” emails Bridge. “Given that over 100 of these juvenile lifers have been incarcerated for over 30 years, we should quickly resolve those cases immediately by agreeing to release those who have done well in prison. It is only by prompt resolution of 100, and maybe 200, of these cases that the resources of the judiciary, prosecutor and defense can be properly focused on the 100 cases that cannot be resolved by agreement.”

Bridge and the Juvenile Law Center, a leading critic of juvenile life without parole, have called for the prisoners to be re-sentenced on third-degree murder, carrying a sentence of 20 to 40 years. But Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, has argued that the harsher sentences meted out by the state’s new law should be applied.

Seth Williams is the association’s vice president, and last fall conveyed his opposition to re-sentencing, telling WHYY that the prisoners “aren’t kids in fifth grade doing these things… We’re talking about killings. Not someone who stole someone’s laptop. We’re talking about the loss of life. And us having to look into the eyes of victims’ families, who want something done.”

April 12, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Detailing the desuetude of the death penalty in Pennsylvania

This new local story, headlined "In Pa. and elsewhere, death penalty is dying a slow death," tells a capital tale that has grown old in the Keystone State. Here is how the article gets started:

The crime was horrific: LaQuanta Chapman fatally shot his teenage neighbor, then dismembered him with a chainsaw. The Chester County District Attorney's Office promised it would seek the death penalty — and it delivered.

Chapman was sent to death row in December 2012.  But he remains very much alive, and two weeks ago the state Supreme Court reversed his death sentence, citing prosecutorial error.  Chapman is just the latest example of a death-row inmate spared execution.

In fact, no one has been executed in Pennsylvania since Philadelphia torturer-murderer Gary Heidnik in 1999.  And he requested it.  He is one of only three prisoners put to death since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976.

In Pennsylvania and in other states around the nation, the death penalty — once a hot-button political issue — has been dying a quiet death.  Experts cite a variety a reasons, including a general decline in crime nationwide that has turned voters' attentions elsewhere.

District attorneys and other law enforcement officials continue to advocate for it, but as a political issue, it has all but disappeared.  "Let's face it, how many people actually get put to death?" said G. Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College, calling the death penalty "virtually nonoperative" in Pennsylvania.  "In many states, it's a dead letter."

Gov. Wolf last year imposed a moratorium on executions pending a bipartisan committee's report on the commonwealth's use of capital punishment.  The report, more than two years overdue, is looking at costs, fairness, effectiveness, alternatives, public opinion, and other issues.

The committee, formed in 2011 during Gov. Tom Corbett's administration, has been collecting data with Pennsylvania State University's Justice Center for Research, which has just begun to analyze the information.  The basis for the center's death-penalty analysis will be 1,106 first-degree murder cases completed between 2000 and 2010, said Jeff Ulmer, a Pennsylvania State University professor working on the analysis.

The committee's report should follow before the end of the year, said Glenn Pasewicz, executive director of the state commission that oversees the committee.  Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, which supports the death penalty, said the report needs to come out as soon as possible.

The moratorium, he said, "becomes less and less temporary with every day that passes." State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R., Bucks), one of the leaders of the state task force, stressed the need for it to be thorough.  "I think it's going to be a landmark review of the death penalty, certainly in Pennsylvania, maybe nationally," he said.

The American Bar Association and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System are among the groups that have criticized the inequality of Pennsylvania's capital punishment system and have urged changes.  About 150 death sentences and capital convictions in the state have been overturned in the post-conviction process, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit anti-capital punishment group. Of those, 120 have had new sentences imposed.

But juries continue to issue death sentences.  Pennsylvania has 180 people on death row, the fifth largest number in the country.  The 178 men and two women are housed in three state correctional institutions.

April 10, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, April 08, 2016

Latest USSC retroctivity data suggest prison savings approaching $2 billion from drugs-2 guideline amendment retroactivity

The US Sentencing Commission's website has this new document titled simply "2014 Drug Guidelines Amendment Retroactivity Data Report." This report, dated April 2016, provides "information concerning motions for a reduced sentence pursuant to the retroactive application of Amendment 782.  The data in this report reflects all motions decided through March 25, 2016 and for which court documentation was received, coded, and edited at the Commission by March 29, 2016."

The official data in the report indicate that, thanks to the USSC's decision to make its "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactive, now 26,850 federal prisoners have had their federal drug prison sentences reduced by an average of two years.  So, using my typical (conservative) estimate of each extra year of imprisonment for federal drug offenders costing on average $35,000, the USSC's decision to make its "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactive so far appears to be on track to save federal taxpayers around $1.9 billion dollars.  

As I have said before and will say again in this context, kudos to the US Sentencing Commission for providing at least some evidence that at least some government bureaucrats inside the Beltway will sometimes vote to reduce the size and costs of the federal government.  Perhaps more importantly, especially as federal statutory sentencing reforms remained stalled in Congress and as Prez Obama continues to be cautious in his use of his clemency power, this data provides still more evidence that the work of the US Sentencing Commission in particular and of the federal judiciary in general remains the most continuously important and consequential force influencing federal prison populations and sentencing outcomes.

April 8, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, April 07, 2016

"Reconceptualizing the Eighth Amendment: Slaves, Prisoners, and 'Cruel and Unusual' Punishment"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new article by Alex Reinert now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The meaning of the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause has long been hotly contested. For scholars and jurists who look to original meaning or intent, there is little direct contemporaneous evidence on which to rest any conclusion. For those who adopt a dynamic interpretive framework, the Supreme Court’s “evolving standards of decency” paradigm has surface appeal, but deep conflicts have arisen in application.  This Article offers a contextual account of the Eighth Amendment’s meaning that addresses both of these interpretive frames by situating the Amendment in eighteenth and nineteenth-century legal standards governing relationships of subordination.  In particular, I argue that the phrase “cruel and unusual punishment” was intertwined with pre- and post-Revolutionary notions of the permissible limits on the treatment of slaves.

The same standard that the Framers adopted for the treatment of prisoners in 1787 was contemporaneously emerging as the standard for holding slaveholders and others criminally and civilly liable for harsh treatment of slaves.  Indeed, by the middle of the nineteenth century, constitutional law, positive law, and common law converged to regulate the treatment of prisoners and slaves under the same “cruel and unusual” rubric.  Thus, when the Supreme Court of Virginia referred to prisoners in 1871 as “slaves of the State,” the description had more than rhetorical force.

Going beyond the superficial similarity in legal standards, examining how the “cruel and unusual” standard was explicated in the context of slavery offers important insights to current debates within the Eighth Amendment.  First, the contention by some originalists that the Punishments Clause does not encompass a proportionality principle is in tension with how courts interpreted the same language in the context of slavery. Indeed, relationships of subordination had long been formally governed by a principle of proportional and moderate “correction,” even though slavery in practice was characterized by extreme abuse.  Second, to the extent that dynamic constitutional interpretation supports limiting criminal punishment according to “evolving standards of decency,” the comparative law frame used here raises questions as to how far our standards have evolved.  This, in turn, should cause commentators and jurists to reconsider whether the twenty-first century lines we have drawn to regulate the constitutional bounds of punishment are adequate to advance the principle of basic human dignity that is thought to be at the heart of the Eighth Amendment.

April 7, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

New Jersey Supreme Court reverses murder sentence after trial judge says he always gives that sentence

A unanimous New Jersey Supreme Court today issued an interesting sentencing opinion today in NJ v. McFarlane, No. 075938 (April 7, 2016) (available here), which gets started this way:

Defendant chased an unarmed man, whom he was attempting to rob, and shot him in the back with a revolver.  The victim was alive and gasping for air after he fell to the ground, but defendant robbed him and left him to die.  Defendant was convicted of first-degree murder, among other things, and sentenced to sixty years in prison.

We are called upon to determine whether defendant’s sentence should be vacated and the matter remanded for resentencing before a different judge, because the trial judge remarked during a subsequent, unrelated status conference that he always gives sixty-year sentences to a defendant convicted by a jury of first-degree murder.  While we acknowledge the judge’s subsequent explanation for his remarks, preservation of the public’s confidence and trust in our system of criminal sentencing requires that the matter be remanded for resentencing by another judge of the same vicinage.

April 7, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

"Normative Retroactivity"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new piece by William Berry now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

When the Court interprets the Constitution to accord a new right to criminal offenders, the question quickly becomes which prisoners might benefit from the new rule.  The current retroactivity doctrine relies on a confusing substance-procedure dichotomy.  Drawn from Teague v. Lane, this test often results in lower court splits on the retroactivity question.  Just this term, the Supreme Court has already decided the question of retroactivity in one case — Montgomery v. Louisiana, and has granted certiorari in another — Welch v. United States.

This Article rejects the substance-procedure dichotomy and offers a competing theoretical frame for considering the question of retroactivity.  Specifically, the Article develops the concept of “normative retroactivity,” arguing that retroactivity should relate directly to the normative impact of the new rule on previous guilt and sentencing determinations.  Further, the article advances a doctrinal test for assessing normative retroactivity of new rules of criminal constitutional law that combines the normative impact of the rule with a balancing test that weighs the applicable values of fundamental fairness and equality under the law against the competing values of finality, comity, and government financial burden.

April 6, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Examining how Michigan, thanks to Montgomery, is struggling through Miller retroactivity

Me_lifers_juvenile_040516A couple of month ago I flagged here a press report on the legal and practical challenges unfolding in Pennsylvania after the Supreme Court's ruling in Montgomery v. Louisana forced the state to start dealing with all its now-unconstitutional mandatory juve LWOP sentences.  Now I see this similar story from Michigan headlined " Hundreds of Mich. juvenile lifer cases to be reviewed."  The lengthy and details article gets started this way:

Hundreds of killers sentenced to mandatory life without parole while in their teens could be resentenced this year, but a debate over how to process the cases has left prosecutors and lawyers in limbo. The Michigan Court of Appeals has been asked to decide whether a judge or jury should consider whether to give offenders new sentences. A hearing is anticipated, but a date to make arguments hasn’t been set.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that sentencing a person under 18 to life in prison without parole constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment.” The decision potentially affects 363 cases in Michigan dating to 1962.

Prosecutors have been required to provide a list to the chief judge in every county of the cases that may require resentencing. Wayne County has the most, at 152. Oakland is second with 49, followed by Genesee with 26 and Kent with 24. Macomb has 12 cases to be reconsidered for sentencing. Prosecutors will have to make legal motions to resentence those they feel still deserve life without parole. Other defendants will get a minimum of 25-40 years and a maximum of 60 years to serve before automatically being considered for parole.

Critics, including families of victims, argue mandatory resentencing may be unjust and open old wounds for victims who thought their cases were settled. Local law enforcement officials and prosecutors predict the process will be lengthy, costly and could further traumatize families.

Gov. Rick Snyder has recommended adding $1.1 million to the state budget to fund 11 full-time employees at the State Appellate Defenders Office for compliance with the Supreme Court ruling. But prosecutors, struggling with smaller staffs and tighter budgets, say they need more money too. Defense and appellate attorneys agree it’ll cost money to process the cases, but they argue it’s the right thing to do.

Many young offenders are immature, act impulsively and often are under the direction of older defendants, advocates say. Some juvenile lifers already have served beyond the minimum sentences that would have otherwise taken effect under resentencing, but for the pending hearing in the Michigan Court of Appeals.

“The bottom line is we’re not opening the doors and letting them all out — there will be a process and a hearing and some will be determined unfit for release,” said Valerie Newman, an assistant defender in the State Appellate Defenders Office. “And there will still be parole hearings.”

County prosecutors in Michigan say the process will take time, money and care to ensure that people who should be in prison stay there. St. Clair County Prosecutor Michael Wendling, who recently testified before a state Senate subcommittee on potential problems with resentencing, said: “It will tie up my staff and also challenge our resources — and I have only four cases; some counties have more than a hundred.” Wendling said after it is determined a case will be resentenced, it will mean locating victims, witnesses and experts and diverting assistant prosecutors from new cases.

Among Wendling’s old cases is one from 2010 in which Tia Skinner, then 17, plotted with a boyfriend to kill her parents after they took away her cellphone. Skinner has been resentenced twice, Wendling said. Another involves James Porter, then 17, of Yale who on one morning in 1982, balanced a .22 rifle on the handlebars of his bicycle, pedaled to the house of a friend with whom he had a dispute and fatally shot the teen and four family members. “I suspect we will be seeking the same sentences on all four of our juvenile lifers — these aren’t shoplifting cases,” Wendling said.

April 6, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

More reflections and criticisms of clemency work past, present and future

I reprinted here over the weekend a lovely and positive report by Lisa Rich about all the activity emerging from the White House last week on the important topic of clemency.  Thanks to Mark Osler, I have now learned that Thursday's extended "White House Briefing on Life After Clemency" can be watched in full via YouTube here. Here is how the event is described:

Building on the President's efforts to make our criminal justice system more fair by granting clemency to men and women sentenced under outdated sentencing rules, the briefing brings together academics, advocates and Administration officials seeking to remove obstacles to successful reentry. The briefing provides a collaborative environment to discuss and share ideas on the President's clemency initiative and ways to improve paths to reentry.

Critically, not everyone is having warm feelings about the work of Prez Obama and his administration's work to date in this arena.  In particular, Mark Osler followed up his participation in the White House briefing with this New York Times op-ed headlined "Obama’s Clemency Problem." Here are excerpts:

In the spring of 2014, the Obama administration announced an initiative to consider granting clemency to thousands of federal prisoners serving what Mr. Obama called “unjust” sentences for low-level drug crimes.  Federal prisoners were notified of the project, and more than 30,000 responded by submitting surveys to begin the process.

Despite the relatively high number of commutations that Mr. Obama has now granted, there are still more than 9,000 pending commutation cases, many of the sort singled out in the 2014 initiative as potentially worthy. So why has the president acted on so few?  Typically, a reluctance to exercise the pardon power is a result of political timidity.  But in this case, the Obama administration already took the political risk two years ago when it announced the clemency initiative.

The problem here is that too many cases can’t be adequately considered by the president because of a sluggish and often intransigent review process.  Clemency petitions undergo no fewer than seven levels of review, four of them within the Department of Justice.  Within the Justice Department, clemency petitions run not only through the Office of the Pardon Attorney but also through the office of the deputy attorney general.

When the pardon attorney, Deborah Leff, resigned in January, she complained in her letter of resignation that meritorious clemency cases had been thwarted by those above her. She noted in particular that some of her own recommendations had been overruled by the deputy attorney general, Sally Quillian Yates.  It is not an incidental fact that Ms. Yates is a career prosecutor.  When the Department of Justice reviews clemency cases, the opinions of prosecutors in the district of conviction are solicited and given considerable weight. But prosecutors are the wrong people for the task of vetting clemency cases.

I was a federal prosecutor for five years.  In that job, deciding someone’s fate is a necessary but difficult emotional commitment.  The prospect of being wrong — and a clemency initiative like Mr. Obama’s can feel like a judgment that prosecutors were wrong — can be a lot to bear.  We should not be surprised if, when it comes to Mr. Obama’s clemency initiative, prosecutors systematically resist what is, in effect, an indictment of their work.

President Obama can and should fix this problem with a simple executive order that places the Office of the Pardon Attorney in the White House, rather than at the bottom of the institutional structure at the Department of Justice.  An empowered pardon attorney (or perhaps a pardon board, as we find in many states) would then report directly to the president.  That would allow an independent but thorough review of clemency petitions free from the influence of career prosecutors.

And while Professor Osler is concerned about the slow and cumbersome process for considering clemency requests, this letter to AG Loretta Lynch authored by Senator Richard Shelby highlights that others are troubled by some of the few offenders who have already received sentence commutations.  Here is how Senator Shelby's letter gets started:

I am writing to you in response to yesterday’s announcement that President Barack Obama granted sentence commutations to 61 individuals. I have strong concerns that 12 of these 61 individuals were convicted of one, if not more, firearm-related offenses. These include:

  • Seven convictions of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime;
  • Four convictions of possession of a firearm by a felon; and
  • Two convictions of use of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense.

In August 2014, the Department of Justice announced its rubric for considering federal inmates for the President’s new initiative for executive clemency. Part of these criteria included: non-violent individuals who would not pose a threat to public safety if released; low-level offenders without significant ties to large-scale criminal organizations, gangs, or cartels; inmates who do not have a significant criminal history; and those who have no history of violence prior to, or during, their current term of imprisonment.

By my count, the President has commuted the sentences of over 200 of these “non-violent” federal inmates, of which 33 were convicted of firearm-related offenses.  I am troubled by the nature of the firearm-related convictions and the fact that some individuals are previously convicted felons who continued to commit crimes.  This announcement clearly demonstrates that the Administration is not following its own selection criteria.  Frankly, I am left wondering why the President and the Justice Department consider individuals who carry guns to drug deals as “non-violent”.

April 5, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, April 04, 2016

Lots of little SCOTUS criminal justice work to start April

April is always an exciting month for me as both a sports fan and a SCOTUS watcher: as a sports fan, I have the certain joys of the start of the MLB baseball season, the Masters, and the start of the "real" season in the NBA and NHL; as a SCOTUS watcher, I have the uncertain joys of anticipating the Justices winding down its current Term by perhaps handing down some big criminal justice opinions or cert grants.  And just as the MLB season is off to something of a cold April start — e.g., it was 39 degrees for the very first pitch yesterday in Pittsbugh, and today's Yankees game has already been postponed — so too is SCOTUS keeping it cool in the criminal justice arena at the start of April.

Specifically, the Justices kicked off one of my favorite months with three little criminal justice developments:

  1. A cert grant in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado to consider "whether a no-impeachment rule constitutionally may bar evidence of racial bias offered to prove a violation of the Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury";

  2. A per curiam opinion in Woods v. Etherton to summarily reverse on AEDPA defenence grounds a decision by the Sixth Circuit in favor of a state habeas petitioner;

  3. A unanimous opinion in Nichols v. US to hold that SORNA did not require a sex offender to update his registration in Kansas once he departed the State for the Phillipines. 

If I did not have to obssess over a number of other matters this morning (including whether I managed to acquire any fantasy baseball sleepers during my draft this past weekend), I might be able to find some sleeper SCOTUS story to discuss within these developments. But absent readers helping me identify something big in these seemingly little developments, I am likely to move on to other bloggy matters (such as continuing to speculate how Justice Scalia's untimely demise has been impacting the Court's work in criminal justice cases).

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

Sunday, April 03, 2016

"Subconstitutional Checks"

The title of this post is the title of this great-looking new paper authored by Shima Baradaran Baughman now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Constitutional checks are an important part of the American justice system.  The Constitution demands structural checks where it provides commensurate power.  The Constitution includes several explicit checks in criminal law. Criminal defendants have the right to counsel, indictment by grand jury, trial by jury, the public or executive elects or appoints prosecutors, legislatures limit actions of police and prosecutors, and courts enforce individual constitutional rights and stop executive misconduct.  However, these checks have rarely functioned as intended by the constitution and criminal law has failed to create — what I call — “subconstitutional checks” to adapt to the changes of the modern criminal state.

Subconstitutional checks are stopgaps formed in the three branches of government to effectuate the rights in the constitution when the system is stalled in dysfunction, when one branch has subjugated the others, or when two or more branches have colluded with one another.  The need for sub constitutional checks is evident in the criminal arena. In the modern criminal state, plea agreements have virtually replaced jury trials, discipline and electoral competition between prosecutors is rare, separation of powers does not serve its purpose because the interests of all branches are often aligned, and individual constitutional rights have little real power to protect defendants from the state.

As a result, the lack of structural constitutional checks in criminal law has lead to constitutional dysfunction.  Though never recognized as such, constitutional dysfunction in criminal law is evidenced by mass incarceration, wrongful convictions, overly harsh legislation, and an inability to stop prosecutor and police misconduct.  This Article sheds light on the lack of constitutional checks by performing an external constitutional critique of the criminal justice system to explore this structural gap in the three branches and concludes that creating subconstitutional checks has the potential of reducing criminal dysfunction and creating a more balanced criminal justice system.

April 3, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

A more positive spin on clemency developments and more positive aspects

LisaRichRegular readers may grow somewhat tired of hearing me kvetch about President Obama being much more willing to talk the talk than walk the walk when it comes to criminal justice reform generally and clemency developments in particular. For that reason (and others), I invited always sunny Lisa Rich to provide for blogging her sunny perspective on clemency events that transpired at the White House last week. Here is what she was kind enough to send my way for posting:

A somewhat sentimental post by Lisa A. Rich, former director of Legislative & Public Affairs at the U.S. Sentencing Commission and current director of the Texas A&M School of Law Residency Externship Program in Public Policy:
Last Week, I had the privilege of joining not only the tireless advocates of the Justice Roundtable and White House staff but over two dozen recipients of clemency spanning four presidencies during the Justice Roundtable and White House Briefings on “Life After Clemency.”
Personally, it was a joy to see all of the people — Nkechi Taifa, Mark Osler, Cynthia Rosenberry, Jesselyn McCurdy, Julie Stewart, Margy Love, and so many others who have been working tirelessly to answer the Obama Adminstration’s call to action on clemency.  I am in awe of the ceaseless dedication these advocates demonstrate every day in their pursuit of hope and justice for those human beings who deserve a chance to be something so much more than a statistic in our cycle of mass incarceration. These advocates and those for whom they do their jobs are the role models I discuss in my classes and they are the ones who inspire me to be better.
But more than my personal connection with those I miss because I am no longer living in D.C., the events over these past three days were important for two reasons.  First, all of us, including the President and White House staff saw and heard what hope is all about.  We heard from clemency recipients about heartache, mistake, and loss being turned into determination, faith, and commitment.  We heard people who genuinely want to make their communities and their lives better, stronger, and happier.  I am delighted that policymakers inside and outside of Washington are taking the opportunity to get to know these people — as people, not numbers, not workload, not files on a desk.
Second, I was pleased that two of my students were in the audience — and in fact had been given the opportunity to be involved in preparing for these events.  As part of Texas A&M School of Law’s new externship program in public policy, these students got to see policymaking in action from start to finish; they got to see firsthand the effects of both good and bad policy decisions.  Their experiences may not seem all that different from the hundreds of law students who go to D.C. and elsewhere each semester to partake in policy but it actually was a defining moment for me and them.  These students are the future policymakers and advocates.  To me, the events of these past three days were not just about hope for those impacted by outdated laws and poor decision making, but hope that the next generation of lawyers, policymakers, and advocates being trained by the brilliant people who participated in these events will learn from our mistakes; that they will engage in sound decision making based on evidence and best practices; that they will carry on the work done so well by so many. As an advocate and a teacher that is what hope is all about.

April 3, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

Thursday, March 31, 2016

A telling, but still unsatisfying, SCOTUS discussion of retroactivity during oral argument in Welch

As previewed in this post, yesterday the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Welch v. United States, which is principally concerned with the retroactive application of last Term's significant ruling in Johnson (authored by Justice Scalia) that the "residual clause" of the federal Armed Career Criminal Act was unconstitutionally vague.  I am deeply interested in this Welch case, not only because I helped with this law professor amicus brief in Welch, but also because I have authored this law review article to explain my view that traditional SCOTUS retroactivity doctrines — so called Teague doctrines — developed with unique concern for the importance of preserving the finality of convictions are not necessarily the best was to examine whether and when a new sentencing rule ought to apply retroactivity.

Helpfully, Rory Little has followed up his terrific Welch oral argument preview post at SCOTUSblog with this spot-on oral argument review post titled "Argument analysis: A likely decision in favor of retroactivity?."  Having read the full argument transcript in Welch (which is available here), I fell well positioned to assert that Rory's analysis is a much better and more enjoyable read, and it includes these essential insights at its start and end:

While it is not possible to describe the intricacies of retroactivity doctrine here — let alone wise if we want to keep our readers awake — it looks like last Term’s decision in Johnson v. United States will be declared to apply retroactively for all purposes, including on first and even successive (assuming they are timely filed) habeas corpus petitions. And as I explained in my preview, that result is likely, although not certain, to result in substantial sentencing reductions for a significant number of convicted federal defendants....

The law of retroactivity presents intellectual conundra that may never be fully settled.  The decision in this case is likely to be simply one more precedent in the wavering doctrinal line.  We will never know what Justice Harlan, or Justice Scalia, thinks of it.  But convicted federal felons whose sentences are reduced by five or more years will not care about the intricacies, while young law professors aspiring to tenure will have new grist for their mills.

Though I am no longer a young law professor, the intricacies of retroactivity doctrines as articulated in Teague and its progeny are a source of frustration and concern for me.  And the Welch oral argument leaves me concerned that the current Justices are going to be content to apply existing Teague doctrines in a quirky manner to a quirky case (as they have recently show they are wont to do in Montgomery v. Louisiana decided a few months ago).  As I suggest in this law review article, applying traditional Teague doctrines in retroactivity cases that involving only sentencing issues necessarily involves banging a square equitable peg into and round Teague doctrinal hole.  And yet, after reading the Welch transcript, it seems the Justices are for now content to just keep banging away.

March 31, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Extraordinany (and extraordinarily timely) issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science

The March 2016 issue of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science has an extraordinary collections of essays by an extraordinary array of legal scholars and sociologists and criminologists under the issue title "The Great Experiment: Realigning Criminal Justice in California and Beyond." Though many of the articles focus on California's unique and uniquely important recent criminal justice reforms experiences, all folks interested in and concerned about sentencing and corrections reform in the United States ought to find the time to read most or all of the articles in this collection.

The special editors of this issue, Charis Kubrin and Carroll Seron, authored this introduction to the collection under the title "The Prospects and Perils of Ending Mass Incarceration in the United States."  Here is an excerpt from that introduction:

This volume of The ANNALS represents the first effort by scholars to systematically and scientifically analyze what Joan Petersilia (2012) has described as “the biggest criminal justice experiment ever conducted in America.”  She went on to note that “most people don’t even realize it’s happening,” a point underscored by Franklin Zimring in the volume’s concluding remarks.  At a historic moment in which imprisonment patterns across the U.S. are shifting for the first time in nearly 40 years, the California case is ripe for in-depth examination.  The political landscape around decarceration is also shifting in ways that do not fit the debate of the last 40 years.  The initiative behind the prison buildup was largely an offshoot of more conservative, law and order political agendas, but as the nation debates a move toward prison downsizing and decarceration, there is support from both the Left and the Right for this fundamental shift in policy (Aviram, this volume; Beckett et al., this volume) — unusual bedfellows at a time of political polarization.  While this political convergence will no doubt be contested, as Joan Petersilia emphasizes in the volume’s preface, it nonetheless represents an important moment to have a systematic, rigorous, and scientific evaluation of California’s experiment and its implications on hand for policy-makers.

March 31, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fair Punishment Project releases first major report: "Juvenile Life Without Parole in Philadelphia: A Time for Hope?"

In this post yesterday I noted the new initiative emerging from Harvard Law School's Charles Hamilton Houston for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute called the Fair Punishment Project (FPP).  Today I received an email concerning the great new work of this great new initiative.  Here is part of this email reporting on this new report from FPP:

As Pennsylvania prepares for hundreds of resentencing hearings, a new report released today by the Fair Punishment Project and Phillips Black highlights Philadelphia’s frequent use of life without parole sentences for juveniles, calling the county an “extreme outlier” in its use of the punishment.  The report urges District Attorney Seth Williams to adopt a new approach to dealing with juveniles in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana, which determined that the court’s prior decision barring mandatory life without parole sentences for youth must be applied retroactively.

The report, Juvenile Life Without Parole in Philadelphia: A Time for Hope?, notes that Philadelphia County is responsible for the highest number of juvenile life without parole sentences in the country.  By way of comparison, Philadelphia County is home to just .5% of all Americans, but at least 9% of all juveniles sentenced to life without parole — or nearly one in 10.

“The latest scientific research show us that juveniles have a tremendous capacity to change their behaviors as they age,” stated Johanna Wald, a spokesperson for the Fair Punishment Project. “It is an injustice, and waste of taxpayer resources, to keep individuals locked up until their death for crimes they committed when they were teenagers. They should have an opportunity to prove they are worthy of a second chance.”

Wald notes that the Supreme Court has set a high bar to justify a life without parole sentence for juveniles. “The court has said that juvenile life without parole sentences should be reserved for exceptional cases that reflect ‘irreparable corruption.’ Given that adolescent brains are not fully developed and the capacity children have to change, the court rightfully assumes that it will be rare for an individual to meet this standard.”...

“Philadelphia has sentenced more juveniles to life without parole than anywhere else in the United States,” said John Mills of Phillips Black. “It is an outlier jurisdiction that, thanks to the court’s ruling, now has the opportunity to right the harsh punishments of the past by providing a thoughtful and measured approach to resentencing.”

March 31, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Harvard Law School launches "Fair Punishment Project"

While I was on the road yesterday, I received an email with some exciting news from my law school alma mater.  Here is the text of the email announcement:

We'd like to introduce you to a brand new initiative brought to you by Harvard Law School's Charles Hamilton Houston for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute called the Fair Punishment Project (FPP).  The Fair Punishment Project will use legal research and educational initiatives to ensure that the U.S. justice system is fair and accountable.  The Project will work to highlight the gross injustices resulting from prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective defense lawyers, and racial bias and exclusion. We are dedicated to illuminating the laws that result in excessive punishment, especially the death penalty and juvenile life without parole.

We'll be releasing our first report in the next day or two, so keep an eye out -- you don't want to miss it.  Future reports will highlight the troubling attributes that outlier death penalty counties have in common, examine America's top 10 deadliest prosecutors, and look deeply into counties that are plagued by prosecutorial misconduct. 

The Charles Hamilton Houston Institute was launched in 2005 by Harvard Law School professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr. The Institute serves as a critical bridge between scholarship, law, policy, and practice to solve the challenges of a multi-racial society.  The Criminal Justice Institute trains Harvard Law School students who will be the next generation of ethical, effective, and passionate defense lawyers.  Led by Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., the Institute leads research of the criminal and juvenile justice systems in order to affect local and national reform.

The Fair Punishment Project will strive to be a valuable resource for anyone and everyone who is interested in bringing about a fair and equitable justice system.  We hope you will visit our website at www.fairpunishment.org to learn more about our work, and that you will join us as we address one of the most critical issues of our time.

And here are titles and links to some of the notable sentencing-related content already up at the FPP website:

March 30, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Prez Obama commutes the sentence of 61 more federal drug offenders

As reported in this Washington Post piece, "President Obama commuted the sentences of 61 inmates Wednesday, part of his ongoing effort to give relief to prisoners who were harshly sentenced in the nation’s war on drugs." Here is more on this notable clemency news:

More than one-third of the inmates were serving life sentences. Obama has granted clemency to 248 federal inmates, including Wednesday's commutations.  White House officials said that Obama will continue granting clemency to inmates who meet certain criteria set out by the Justice Department throughout his last year....  Since the Obama administration launched a high-profile clemency initiative, thousands more inmates have applied.  Another 9,115 clemency petitions from prisoners are still pending....

But sentencing reform advocates said that many more prisoners are disappointed they have not yet heard from the president about their petitions. “Sixty-one grants, with over 10,000 petitions pending, is not an accomplishment to brag about,” said Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and an advocate for inmates petitioning for clemency.  “I know some of those still waiting, men who were grievously over-sentenced, who have reformed themselves, and never had a record of violence.  My heart breaks for them, as their hope for freedom — a hope created by the members of this administration — slips away.”

The White House has argued that broader criminal justice reform is needed beyond the clemency program. “Despite the progress we have made, it is important to remember that clemency is nearly always a tool of last resort that can help specific individuals, but does nothing to make our criminal justice system on the whole more fair and just,” said White House counsel W. Neil Eggleston. “Clemency of individual cases alone cannot fix decades of overly punitive sentencing policies.  So, while we continue to work to resolve as many clemency applications as possible — and make no mistake, we are working hard at this — only broader criminal justice reform can truly bring justice to the many thousands of people behind bars serving unduly harsh and outdated sentences.”

Among those granted clemency on Wednesday was Byron Lamont McDade, who had an unusual advocate in his corner.  The judge who sent McDade to prison for more than two decades for his role in a Washington-area cocaine conspiracy personally pleaded McDade’s case for early release. U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman said McDade’s 27-year punishment was “disproportionate” to his crime, but that he had no choice but to impose the harsh prison term in 2002 because of then-mandatory sentencing guidelines. Over the years, the judge had urged the Bureau of Prisons and the White House to reduce McDade’s sentence to 15 years.  He received no response until now....

On Thursday, the White House will hold an event called Life after Clemency that will include former inmates and their attorneys, along with some prison reform advocates. The president’s senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett, is meeting with advocates, former inmates and family members of prisoners Wednesday at the White House for an event about women and the criminal justice system.

This White House Press release provides basic details on the full list of 61 offenders who today learned that they now have a "prison sentence commuted to expire on July 28, 2016." Many of those listed appear to have been involved in a crack offense, though other drug cases sentenced both before and after Booker can be found in the group.  Notably, this NACDL press release reports that "25 of [these 61 offenders] were applicants whose petitions were supported by Clemency Project 2014."  This White House blog post authored by White House counsel W. Neil Eggleston provides more details and context concerning these grants:

Today, the President announced 61 new grants of commutation to individuals serving years in prison under outdated and unduly harsh sentencing laws.  More than one-third of them were serving life sentences.  To date, the President has now commuted the sentences of 248 individuals more than the previous six Presidents combined. And, in total, he has commuted 92 life sentences.

Underscoring his commitment not just to clemency, but to helping those who earn their freedom make the most of their second chance, the President will meet today with commutation recipients from both his Administration and the previous administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.  During the meeting, the commutation recipients will discuss their firsthand experiences with the reentry process and ways that the process can be strengthened to give every individual the resources he or she needs to transition from prison and lead a fulfilling, productive life. 
 
Building on this conversation, tomorrow the White House will host a briefing titled Life After Clemency with advocates, academics, and Administration officials to discuss and share ideas on the President’s clemency initiative and ways to improve paths to reentry. In addition to officials from the White House and the Department of Justice, experts, academics, and commutation recipients will share their expertise and insights on returning to society after years behind bars.  To watch the briefing live, tune in tomorrow, Thursday, March 31, at 2:00 PM EDT at www.whitehouse.gov/live.

March 30, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Fascinating SCOTUS Sixth Amendment splintering in Luis v. United States

The Supreme Court this morning handed down an opinion this morning that is fascinating based simply on the line-up of Justices: "BREYER, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and GINSBURG and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. KENNEDY, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which ALITO, J., joined. KAGAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion." This line-up ruled for the criminal defendant in Luis v. United States, No. 14-419 (S. Ct. March 30, 2016) (available here), and here is how Justice Breyer's plurality opinion starts:

A federal statute provides that a court may freeze before trial certain assets belonging to a criminal defendant accused of violations of federal health care or banking laws. See 18 U. S. C. §1345. Those assets include: (1) property “obtained as a result of ” the crime, (2) property“traceable” to the crime, and (3) other “property of equivalent value.” §1345(a)(2). In this case, the Government has obtained a court order that freezes assets belonging to the third category of property, namely, property that is untainted by the crime, and that belongs fully to the defendant. That order, the defendant says, prevents her frompaying her lawyer.  She claims that insofar as it does so, it violates her Sixth Amendment “right . . . to have the Assistance of Counsel for [her] defence.” We agree.

March 30, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

"Sentencing Reductions versus Sentencing Equality"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting and timely new paper by Susan Klein now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 was enacted by an odd conglomeration of Democrat and Republican who agreed that federal sentences should be based upon relevant offender and offense characteristics, not including such things as race, gender, geography, ideological bent of the sentencing judge, or citizenship. That goal has become lost and less relevant in today’s world of draconian and mandatory minimum sentencing, especially in the drug trafficking, child pornography, and fraud arenas. Mass incarceration has run rampant. Sentences are so out-of-whack with most basic principles justice that the fact that female offenders may receive slightly lower prison terms than their male counterparts should no longer be the very top of our reform agenda.

This is not to suggest that scholars and the public shouldn’t be concerned with sentencing disparity, especially based on race. However, the disparity between federal and state sentences is so much wider (and occurs so much more frequently) than the disparity among similarly-situated federal offenders that the latter appears less of a significant issue in absolute terms. Whatever reform capital policy-makers and scholars retain should be poured into championing alternatives to criminalization (such as fines, drug treatment, and apologies) and alternatives to long prison terms (such as probation and parole). Reforms must focus on discovering what offenses we could safely decriminalize, and what programs are effective in keeping individuals out of prison in the first place (or in curbing recidivism once incarceration has occurred).

If giving judges more discretion at sentencing means lower average prison terms, this will probably rebound to the benefit of our minority populations as a whole, even if it might mean that in particular cases minority defendants receive slightly higher sentences for the same conduct as their white counterparts. Likewise, if sentencing, parole, and probation decisions based upon “risk assessment” leads to lower overall incarceration rates, we may have to tolerate this even if it generates higher risk numbers for certain minority offenders. Critics of every substantive criminal-law and sentencing reform proposal need to remember the big picture, and not lose sight of the forest of mass incarceration for the trees of unwarranted sentencing disparity.

March 30, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Federal court to hear challenge to "scarlet passport" provision of International Megan’s Law

ImagesAs reported in this Wall Street Journal article, a constitutional challenge to a contoversial aspect of a law passed by Congress last month is schedule for a federal court hearing today in California. The article is headined "Law Creating Passport Mark for Sex Offenders Faces First Challenge: Lawsuit targets ‘unique identifier’ for passports of those convicted of sex crimes involving minors," and here are excerpts:

A new federal law requiring the State Department to mark the passports of certain convicted sex offenders is expected to face its first test in federal court on Wednesday. A group of convicted sex offenders has asked a federal judge in Oakland, Calif., to block the measure pending the outcome of a February lawsuit they filed that challenges the law’s constitutionality.

The law, International Megan’s Law to Prevent Demand for Child Sex Trafficking, mandates the State Department to add a “unique identifier” to passports of Americans convicted of sex crimes involving minors and that U.S. officials to alert foreign governments when those Americans travel abroad.

The judge, Phyllis J. Hamilton, is scheduled to hear arguments on Wednesday on whether to suspend implementation of the passport mark and the notification requirement. The lawsuit’s plaintiffs say the law violates the U.S. Constitution by forcing people convicted of sex offenses to bear the equivalent of a “proverbial Scarlet Letter” on their passports. The First Amendment limits what the government can compel people to divulge. The complaint asks a federal judge to strike down the law as unconstitutional.

“For the first time in the history of this nation, the United States Government will publicly stigmatize a disfavored minority group using a document foundational to citizenship,” says the lawsuit, filed on Feb. 8 in federal district court in Oakland, Calif.

The new law codifies a nearly decade-old program called Operation Angel Watch, which U.S. officials said has helped to curb child-sex tourism by alerting countries of sex offenders traveling to them. Supporters say the law will help countries with a lack of resources deal with child predators and encourage foreign governments to reciprocate when sex offenders from their countries try to enter the U.S. “Knowledge is power in terms of protection,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.), who sponsored the bill. Rep. Smith said the passport mark to be created by the State Department will help keep Americans covered by the law from concealing their destination by traveling to a foreign country by way of another to engage in sex tourism.

The law, signed by President Barack Obama on Feb. 7, could cover a wide swath of offenders, including people convicted of misdemeanor offenses such as “sexting” with a minor, according to the lawsuit, which identifies the seven plaintiffs by the pseudonym John Doe.... Rep. Smith said he got the idea for International Megan’s Law during a meeting with a delegation of Thai officials about human-trafficking. He asked them what they would do if the U.S. alerted them when a registered offender was traveling to their country and “They said, ‘Well, we wouldn’t give them a visa,’ ” Mr. Smith recalled....

Janice Bellucci, a lawyer who represents the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, said she found few precedents for the passport identifier in her research. Among them: The Nazis confiscated Jewish passports and marked them with a “J,” and the internal passports in the Soviet Union singled out Jews by listing their ethnicity as Jewish, while other citizens were identified by their place of birth, she said.

Mr. Smith rejected the lawsuit’s comparisons and said California Reform Sex Offender Laws, a group Ms. Bellucci is president of, and others have long sought to weaken sex-offender laws. “U.S. law denies passports to delinquent taxpayers, deadbeat parents and drug smugglers,” the congressman wrote in a recent op-ed published in the Washington Post. “The law’s passport provision, however, does not go this far.”

International Megan’s Law doesn’t allow for offenders who states have deemed rehabilitated, or who have had their records expunged to have the passport mark removed, according to Ms. Bellucci. Nor does it exempt those who were minors at the time of their offense.

Nicole Pittman, director of the Impact Justice Center on Youth Registration Reform, an Oakland, Calif., group pushing to eliminate the practice of placing children on sex-offender registries, said about 200,000 of the roughly 850,000 people registered as sex offenders in the U.S. were under the age of 18 when they were convicted or adjudicated in juvenile court. “This is supposed to protect kids and we’re actually hurting them,” Ms. Pittman said of International Megan’s Law. “We have kids going on the registry for sending nude pictures of themselves.”

March 30, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Oklahoma creates Death Penalty Review Commission full of prominent folks .... which will likely achieve ....?

Though I generally think of myself as an optimist, this notable news item out of Oklahoma, headlined "Oklahoma Bipartisan Death Penalty Review Commission formed, supported," triggers the cynical little voice in my head that comes out when I hear about the creation of a blue-ribbon commission in the sentencing arena.  (For those curious about aesthetic backstories, this Wikipedia entry highlights why we color expert panels blue instead of, say, having pink-ribbon commissions.)  Before I go cynical, here are the details of the latest governmental gathering of note:

A group of prominent Oklahomans joined together Monday (March 28) to form a blue-ribbon, bipartisan Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission.  The Commission will conduct what a press statement called “the first-ever independent, objective and thorough review of the state’s entire capital punishment system.”...

“Oklahoma has an opportunity to lead the nation by being the first state to conduct extensive research on its entire death penalty process, beginning with an arrest that could lead to an execution,” said former Gov. Brad Henry, of Henry-Adams Companies, LLC, one of the group’s co-chairs.“The Commission includes distinguished Oklahomans with differing views and perspectives on capital punishment who are donating their time to work together on a research-driven review,” he said.

Joining Gov. Henry as co-chairs are Reta Strubhar, a judge on the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals (1993-2004) and an Assistant District Attorney of Canadian County (1982-1984); and Andy Lester, of the Spencer Fane law firm and a former U.S. Magistrate Judge for Western District of Oklahoma who served on President Ronald Reagan’s Transition team for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (1980-1981).

Members of the Commission have experience in a variety of aspects of the capital punishment system, including victim advocacy, policymaking, prosecution, defense, and judging. They also include leading lawyers, business leaders, and scholars.  In addition to the co-chairs, the members are Robert H. Alexander, Jr., of The Law Office of Robert H. Alexander, Jr.; Howard Barnett, President of OSU-Tulsa; Dean Andrew Coats, Dean Emeritus of OU College of Law; Dean Valerie Couch, Oklahoma City University School of Law; Maria Kolar, Assistant Professor of OU College of Law; Rob Nigh, Chief Public Defender, Tulsa County; Christy Sheppard, a victims’ advocate; Kris Steele, Director of The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM) and former Speaker of the House; and Gena Timberman, founder of The Luksi Group.

“Our goal is to provide a resource for Oklahomans to allow them to make informed judgments about our state’s capital punishment system that, we hope, will benefit both Oklahoma and the country as a whole,” said Henry.

Though I have long been a fan of any "research-driven review" of any sentencing system, I am not optimistic based on my own experiences in Ohio that this kind of death penalty review commission will be able to achieve all that much other than producing a lengthy report that will be embraced or rejected by political leaders based entirely on their already established views on the death penalty.  This cynical prediction is based on how an array of ABA reports on state death penalty systems and how a recent Ohio Death Penalty Task Force report was received.

Critically, I do not mean to be asserting that this Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission is unimportant or sure to inconsequential.  But I do mean to assert that basic political dynamics rather than refined policy analysis defines and often limits the possibilities for reforming the administration of the death penalty.

March 29, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, March 28, 2016

"Time, Death, and Retribution"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Chad Flanders now available via SSRN. To call this article timely and just dead on is both accurate and punny. Here is the abstract:

The heart of a Lackey claim is that when a death row inmate is kept waiting too long for his execution, this delay can amount to cruel and unusual punishment — either because they delay is itself cruel and unusual, or because the execution on top of the delay is.  All Lackey claims brought by death row inmates have failed, but not for want of trying.  The usual complaint against Lackey claims is that those who, by their own appeals, delay their execution date cannot turn around and use that delay as an argument against their death sentences.  I agree with other scholars that this argument is incorrect.  However, even if it is true that prisoner choice cannot make an otherwise unconstitutional sentence constitutional, Lackey claims can — and should — fail if the courts adopt a certain theory of retribution, what I call “intrinsic desert retribution”.  Examining that type of retribution, distinguishing it from other retributive theories, and showing how intrinsic desert retribution can refute most Lackey claims, is one of this article’s major contributions. In doing so, it breaks with most of the scholarly literature, which tends to be sympathetic to Lackey claims.

But the fact that Lackey claims may survive given a certain theory of retribution does not make that theory something the state may permissibly pursue.  And this is the second major contribution of the article: to make the case that retribution may in fact not be a permissible state purpose.  In short, Lackey claims do not fail because they are too strong — they fail because they are not strong enough.  The Supreme Court has traditionally held that the state may permissibly put someone to death because of retribution.  But the Court has also said, in other contexts, that the state may not pursue certain aims.  The state cannot promote religion, for one; nor can it adopt policies based solely on “animus” against a certain class of persons.  My article suggests that when the state adopts retribution as a goal in capital punishment, and pursues that goal even after years of delay, then retribution starts to look more and more like something that, while it may be morally right, cannot be a goal the state can legitimately pursue.

March 28, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Effective previews via SCOTUSblog before an exciting upcoming SCOTUS week for sentencing fans

This coming week brings two interesting Supreme Court cases about sentencing issues via Betterman v. Montana, to be argued on Monday, March 28, and Welch v. United States, to be argued on Wednesday, March 30.  I will likely have plenty to say about both cases after the oral arguments; helpfully, two great pre-argument previews done by Rory Little over at SCOTUSblog provides an opportunity to gear up for this year's SCOTUS sentencing March madness.  Here are links to, and the start of, these SCOTUSblog previews:

Argument preview: A “clean” constitutional question – does the speedy trial right apply to sentencing?

The Sixth Amendment provides various rights for “all criminal prosecutions.”  Among those listed is “the right to a speedy and public trial.” Next Monday, March 28, in Betterman v. Montana, the Court will consider whether the “speedy” part of the right applies to a criminal defendant’s sentencing that happened about fourteen months after he was convicted by guilty plea.  The briefing in the case is very good, and Betterman is represented by an experienced appellate advocate (Fred Rowley, making his first Supreme Court argument), as well as the UCLA Supreme Court Clinic.  Montana’s solicitor general, Dale Schowengerdt, will argue for the state, and Assistant to the U.S. Solicitor General Ginger Anders will argue on behalf of the United States as an amicus in support of Montana.

Argument preview: Complex retroactivity questions arising from Justice Scalia’s void-for-vagueness decision last Term

It seems increasingly clear that the current Supreme Court Term will have to be headlined “Justice Scalia is sorely missed.” Next Wednesday, March 30, the Court will hear argument in yet another criminal case in which the unexpected passing of Antonin Scalia on February 13 will leave an unanswered “hole” in the Court’s deliberations. Last June, Justice Scalia wrote the opinion in Johnson v. United States, in which, after an eight-year campaign originating in Justice Scalia dissents, a majority declared the “residual clause” of a federal repeat-offender statute unconstitutionally vague. The question quickly arose whether that ruling should be applied to federal cases on collateral review, even though they were “final” before Johnson was decided. That is, should Johnson apply “retroactively”? To answer that question, the Court chose (from among others) the petition in Welch v. United States. (On a tangential note, some courts of appeals have differed on the question of retroactivity for “initial” versus “successive” collateral review requests; this case will apparently answer for both contexts.)

Interestingly, the federal government has told the Court that it agrees with Gregory Welch that Johnson should be fully retroactive, and that Welch’s case should be remanded for resentencing. Thus, the Court has appointed an experienced amicus, Helgi Walker (a former clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas and partner at Gibson Dunn), to defend the judgment below, and the amicus brief, while likely controversial, is excellent.

March 27, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Federal district judge interprets Nebraska law to preclude placing juve on its public sex offender list

As reported in this local article, a "federal judge has blocked Nebraska from putting a 13-year-old boy who moved here from Minnesota on its public list of sex offenders." Here is more about this notable ruling:

Senior U.S. District Judge Richard G. Kopf said if the boy had done in Nebraska exactly what he did in Minnesota he would not have been required to register as a sex offender "and he would not be stigmatized as such." "It therefore makes no sense to believe that the Nebraska statutes were intended to be more punitive to juveniles adjudicated out of state as compared to juveniles adjudicated in Nebraska," the judge wrote in a 20-page order.

In Nebraska, lawmakers opted to exclude juveniles from the Nebraska Sex Offender Registration Act unless they were prosecuted criminally in adult court, even though it meant losing thousands in federal funding. But the way the law is written made it appear that all sex offenders who move to Nebraska must register.

When the Minnesota boy in this case moved here to live with relatives, the Nebraska State Patrol determined he had to register because of a subsection of the law....

In this case, the boy was 11 when he was adjudicated for criminal sexual conduct in juvenile court in Minnesota. A judge there ordered him to complete probation, counseling and community service, and his name went on a part of that state's predatory offender list that is visible only to police. Even before that, the boy had moved to Nebraska to live with relatives.

In August 2014, the Nebraska probation office notified his family he was required to register under the Nebraska Sex Offender Registry Act or could be prosecuted. That same month, the boy's family filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block the patrol from putting him on Nebraska's registry, which is public.

In Monday's order, Kopf concluded that the boy wasn't required to register in Minnesota because he was adjudicated in a juvenile court, not convicted in adult court, so Nebraska's act doesn't apply. He cited Nebraska Juvenile Code, which specifically says juvenile court adjudications are not to be deemed convictions or subject to civil penalties that normally apply. An adjudication is a juvenile court process through which a judge determines if a juvenile committed a given act.

Kopf's order said it was apparent that the purpose was to identify people guilty of sex offenses and to publish information about them for the protection of the public. "It is equally apparent that the Nebraska Legislature has made a policy determination that information regarding juvenile adjudications is not to be made public, even though this has resulted in the loss of federal funding for non-compliance with (the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act)," he said.

Late Monday afternoon, Omaha attorney Joshua Weir said the boy's grandmother was so excited when he called with the news she had to pull over in a parking lot. "They were very, very relieved," he said. Weir said the boy is a healthy, happy kid now and flourishing in school. "It would've been a tragedy if he would have been branded a sex offender," he said. "That's something that sticks with you for the rest of your life."

The state could choose to appeal the decision within the next 30 days. 

March 22, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Unanimous Supreme Court suggests Second Amendment can preclude state felony prosecution for public weapon possession

I wanted a chance to review closely the Supreme Court's notable Second Amendment work yesterday in Caetano v. Massachusetts, No. 14-10078 (S. Ct. March 21, 2016) (available here), before blogging about what strikes me as a significant constitutional ruling.  But even after doing some more review, I am still scratching my head a bit regarding both the Court's brief per curiam opinion and the lengthy and forceful concurring opinion authored by Justice Alito and joined by Justice Thomas.

Caetano strikes me as significant primarily because the Supreme Court has not ruled on the merits in a Second Amendment case since the 2010 McDonald ruling, and also because both McDonald and its landmark precursor, the 2008 Heller ruling, left so much uncertain about the reach and limits of the Second Amendment.  In addition, the merits of the Caetano case seem significant because it involved (1) possession of a weapon other than a traditional firearm (a stun-gun), and (2) a state criminal conviction affirmed by a state Supreme Court based on possession of this weapon outside the home.  Finally, as the title of this post suggests, it seems significant that not a single Justice dissented from the the Caetano per curiam ruling to vacate the judgment of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts based on the Second Amendment.

But Justice Alito's concurrence, which seems like it might have been initially drafted to serve as an opinion for the full Court, reasonably complained that the Court’s per curiam opinion was "grudging" because it seems open to the possibility that the defendant might still have her felony conviction for possession of a stun-gun outside her home affirmed on some other grounds.  Thus, as the title of this post is meant to indicate, I think the Caetano ruling only suggests a broadened application of the Second Amendment to limit a state felony prosecution.

This Lyle Denniston post at SCOTUSblog captures these themes in its title: "The Second Amendment expands, but maybe not by much."  And here is a telling excerpt from that post:

The Court set aside the state court ruling, and told that tribunal to take another look.  The decision left in doubt whether the conviction in the case would stand, and whether the state could come up with other reasons to support its ban.  It is possible that the state’s highest court will call for new legal briefs or a hearing on what to do about the Boston woman in the case, Jaime Caetano.

Her defense lawyer, Boston public defender Benjamin H. Keehn, said after the ruling Monday that he would seek to have her conviction vacated.  Although she was found guilty of a serious crime (a felony) under the Massachusetts procedure used in her case, she was not given a jail sentence or a fine.  Keehn said he was “not positive” what the Supreme Court ruling meant, and said he was studying whether there had been comparable situations in other cases returned to lower courts without specific instructions.

March 22, 2016 in Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

High-profile NYC cop-killer getting off death row spotlights continued challenges SCOTUS jurisprudence

This new AP article, headline "NY Killer Off Death Row as Definition of Disabled Gets Tweak," reports on a notable capital ruling in a high-profile federal capital case and details how the case taps into broader issues surrounding the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment limits on the application of the death penalty. Here are the details:

Prosecutors say Ronell Wilson is a calculating murderer. Since his imprisonment for killing two New York City police detectives, he has been able to dash off emails, memorize passages from books and seduce a female guard.  But Wilson's lawyers were able to convince a judge that he is a person of such a low intelligence that he can't function in society, and therefore can't legally be put to death.

Wilson, 32, and others like him are at the center of a debate over how to enforce a nearly two-year-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling that adds more specificity to the concept that it is cruel and unusual punishment to execute killers who are intellectually disabled.  It says courts should go beyond mere IQ scores to consider the person's mental or developmental disabilities.  A federal judge in New York who revisited Wilson's case based on the ruling tossed out his death sentence, just three years after finding that Wilson's IQ score was high enough to make him eligible to be executed.

A similar review led a judge in California last November to reduce a death sentence given three decades ago to Donald Griffin, a man who raped and murdered his 12-year-old stepdaughter.  A third appeal based on the ruling, that of a Virginia serial killer with a borderline IQ score, failed. Alfredo Prieto was executed in October.

Legal scholars say similar death row decisions are likely to follow, depending on how the high court's ruling is applied around the country.  "We should see courts more carefully considering whether defendants have an intellectual disability ... that doesn't mean we will," said Robert Dunham, the executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.

Wilson is a case study in the difficulty of determining who fits the court's definition of someone too intellectually limited to qualify for capital punishment....  U.S. District Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis said in his ruling Tuesday that he had no sympathy for Wilson and also doubted most clinicians would consider him disabled.  But he said he had "significant deficits in adaptive functioning" - enough to make him ineligible for the death penalty.  Garaufis imposed a new punishment of life in prison.

March 20, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, March 18, 2016

"How many times should a state be able to try to execute someone without running afoul of the Constitution?"

The question in the title of this post is the first line of this notable new commentary authored by Austin Sarat concerning the work of the Ohio Supreme Court  in Ohio v. Broom (previously discussed here).  Here is more of the commentary:

[T]he Ohio Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that neither the federal nor the state constitution forbids Ohio from trying to execute someone more than once.  While this ruling may set up another opportunity for the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the constitutionality of capital punishment, it nonetheless allows the nightmarish possibility that the state can proceed in a negligent manner in carrying out an execution and, if it fails in the first attempt, to try, try again.  This should shock and trouble those who support capital punishment as well as those who oppose it....

On Sept. 15, 2009, Broom, who had been convicted of kidnapping, rape, and murder, was brought to Ohio's death chamber where he was to be executed by lethal injection.  His executioners repeatedly attempted to insert an intravenous line into Broom's arms and legs.  As they did so, Broom winced and grimaced with pain.  At one point, he covered his face with both hands and appeared to be sobbing, his stomach heaving.

After an hour had passed, Broom tried to help his executioners, turning onto his side, sliding the rubber tubing that served as a tourniquet up his left arm, and alternatively squeezing his fingers together and apart. Even when executioners found what they believed to be a suitable vein, it quickly collapsed as they tried to inject the saline fluid. Broom was once again brought to tears. After more than two hours of executioners sticking Broom's arms and legs with the needle, the prison director decided that the execution team should rest.  The governor of Ohio issued a reprieve stopping the execution....

It is almost certain that the Bromell case now will make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court and that it will offer that court the chance to revisit the unfortunate precedent it set more than 60 years ago [allowing Louisiana to try again after a failed electrocution in the Francis case].

One can only hope that the Court will now insist that if the government is going to carry out executions that there be no room for error. Neither simple human decency nor the 8th Amendment can tolerate a government carrying out a death penalty sentence in a shoddy manner.  If we are going to have a death penalty, we cannot allow death, as the dissenting justice in the Francis case put it, to be carried out on the installment plan.

Prior related post:

March 18, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

"The Emerging Eighth Amendment Consensus Against Life Without Parole Sentences for Nonviolent Offenses"

The title of this post is the title of this article authored by Bidish Sarma and Sophie Cull recently posted on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

As the nation moves away from the policies that built a criminal justice system bent on mass incarceration, it is an appropriate time to reassess a sentencing regime that has doomed thousands of individuals convicted of nonviolent offenses to die in prison.  Over the last thirty years, those policies have resulted in more than 3,000 offenders across the country receiving life sentences without the possibility of parole when they were convicted of a nonviolent crime. While it seems clear to many today that this harsh punishment is inappropriate for offenses that involved no physical harm to other people, the individuals serving these sentences continue to face life and death in prison.  The Eighth Amendment offers these offenders an opportunity to demonstrate the unconstitutionality of their punishment to the Supreme Court — the institution in the best position to redress these excessive sentences of a bygone era.

This Article analyzes the claim that there is a national consensus against life without parole sentences for individuals convicted of non-violent offenses.  First, it defines the problem, exploring how and why some offenders received life without parole sentences for nonviolent crime.  This entails a look at the historical development of a series of harsh sentencing policies that made nonviolent offenses punishable by life without the possibility of parole.  The historical developments are then traced through to current times to explain the seismic shift in how leaders in all three branches of government approach punishing low-level and nonviolent crimes.

This Article situates the punishment in the Eighth Amendment context.  How have the Supreme Court's previous Eighth Amendment rulings framed the relevant constitutional questions?  And how can a change in the way the Court considers the link between the nature of the offense and the challenged punishment create new possibilities?  This Article explores how treating individuals sentenced to life without parole for nonviolent offenses as a discrete category based on the nature of the crimes can alter the Eighth Amendment framework that the Court will use to determine the punishment's constitutionality.  The unfavorable "gross disproportionality" cases that have previously been considered by the Court do not need to govern the claim and, therefore, do not foreclose the possibility that the Constitution itself prohibits these sentences.

After exploring how to understand the constitutional claim in a way that brings the Supreme Court's categorical approach to bear (rather than the gross disproportionality approach), this Article assesses the factors the Court considers in its consensus-based categorical test.  It sets out, and then evaluates, the various indicators of consensus upon which the Court relies: the number of jurisdictions that legislatively authorize a punishment; the number of sentences actually imposed; and the degree of geographic isolation.  It also evaluates the various considerations that assist the Court in making an independent judgment of the punishment.  Ultimately, based on binding Eighth Amendment precedent, sufficient evidence is available now to enable the Court to strike down life without parole sentences for nonviolent offenses.  In other words, there is an emerging consensus that the Court should recognize.

March 16, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Another disconcerting report about the failings of the Obama clemency initiative and Clemency Project 2014

USA-JUSTICE-CLEMENCYRegular readers know that, ever since Prez Obama and his Aministration started talking up efforts to get serious about using clemency powers, I have been regularly expressing concerns about how structurally peculiar and procedurally belabored the new (and now not-so-new) clemency push has been.  Here are just a few of my prior related posts on this front:

Still more reason for concern has now emerged via this new Reuters article headlined "Obama's prisoner clemency plan faltering as cases pile up." Here are excerpts:

In April 2014, the administration of President Barack Obama announced the most ambitious clemency program in 40 years, inviting thousands of jailed drug offenders and other convicts to seek early release and urging lawyers across the country to take on their cases.

Nearly two years later the program is struggling under a deluge of unprocessed cases, sparking concern within the administration and among justice reform advocates over the fate of what was meant to be legacy-defining achievement for Obama.

More than 8,000 cases out of more than 44,000 federal inmates who applied have yet to make it to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for review, lawyers involved in the program told Reuters. That is in addition to about 9,000 cases that are still pending at the DOJ, according to the department's own figures.

Only 187 inmates have had their sentences commuted, far below the thousands expected by justice reform advocates and a tiny fraction of the 2.2 million people behind bars in the United States, which has the world's highest incarceration rate....

A senior DOJ official told Reuters it is calling on the lawyers' group -- Clemency Project 2014 -- to simply hand over the outstanding cases without further vetting, saying it is not working fast enough. So far, the group estimates it has handed over around 200 cases.

But criminal justice experts say the administration itself should bear much of the blame. The idea to tap pro-bono attorneys to help vet the cases originated with the DOJ, and critics say it should have prepared its own staff to handle the large volume of applications. “It’s unfair to criticize the volunteer group that you asked to help,” said Rachel Barkow, a criminal law professor at New York University who has studied clemency in U.S. prisons. She estimates that about 1,500 prisoners should be eligible for commutation, saying the 187 granted so far does not "fulfill the promise of the program."...

The delays have left prisoners like Linda Byrnes, 69, in limbo. “I thought clemency was for people like me,” Byrnes told Reuters through an electronic messaging system from a federal prison in Alderson, West Virginia. Byrnes, who has spent 20 years in prison for distributing marijuana and has two years left on her sentence, was recently diagnosed with mouth cancer and has yet to hear whether she has been assigned a lawyer after submitting her application to Clemency Project in August 2014....

Clemency Project 2014 said it does not comment publicly on the individuals it represents. The group vets the applications, writes the petitions and sends them to the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, which oversees all pardons and sentence commutations and makes recommendations for the president's approval.

So far, 25,000 of 34,000 applications received by Clemency Project have been rejected for failing to meet the basic criteria - no record of violence, no significant ties to a gang or drug cartel, good behavior in prison and completion of at least 10 years of sentence. About 10,000 inmates did not go through the Clemency Project and either applied directly to DOJ or through a paid attorney. "It really would be a sad state of affairs if individuals who had asked for a lawyer weren't considered in time because their petitions never reached the pardon attorney's office," a DOJ official told Reuters on the condition of anonymity.

A large number of mostly unqualified applications, a shortage of lawyers and the complexity of the cases have slowed progress, said Cynthia Roseberry, project manager for Clemency Project 2014. "There are a lot of gray areas," said Roseberry, who estimates it takes 30 days for one lawyer to review one case on average. "We've got to unpack each of these applicants to see specifically what factors affect them... and so that takes a little more time."

This includes finding pre-sentencing reports for each case, determining if the person would have received a shorter sentence under current law and reviewing prison behavior records. Roseberry said the group was unaware of any request from the Justice Department to hand over the pending applications. Roseberry said the group's initially slow pace has picked up in recent months....

Roseberry said about 3,000 applicants still need to be assigned to a lawyer, and that it was not certain whether the group will be able to submit all of the applications it has received before Obama leaves office. The group has more than 570 law firms and 30 law schools contributing to the effort.

Some rejected prisoners and those who have yet to hear a decision say they believe they would have had a better chance if they had sent their clemency petition directly to the government.

Josie Ledezma was sentenced to life for conspiracy to transport cocaine and applied for clemency through Clemency Project 2014. She said she did not hear from them for six months and later learned that her assigned lawyer had shut down her legal practice. In January, nearly one year after applying, she was told Clemency Project 2014 could not help her and encouraged her to apply directly. “I wrote back and asked what was it that made me not qualify, but never got a response,” Ledezma told Reuters through an electronic messaging service for federal prisoners.

March 15, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, March 11, 2016

Pennsylvania struggling with what law applies to nearly 500 juve LWOPers needing resentencing after Montgomery

The local article, headlined "Juvenile lifers will get new sentences, but what law applies?," effectively reviews the many headaches that the SCOTUS rulings in Miller and Montgomery have created for folks in Pennsylvania. Here are excerpts:

In 1990, on Robert Holbrook's 16th birthday, he joined a group of men on a robbery that turned into a killing.  He received the only sentence Pennsylvania law allowed for murder: life without parole. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that mandatory life-without-parole sentences were unconstitutional for those younger than 18.  This January, the court ruled that the ban must be applied retroactively, to people like Holbrook. Since then, Pennsylvania's high courts have vacated dozens of life sentences.

It is now clear that Holbrook — along with about 480 other juvenile lifers across the state, 300 of them from Philadelphia — will receive new sentencing hearings following the Supreme Court's ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana. But a key question remains: What sentencing law applies?

"Nobody has any real answer," said State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, a Montgomery County Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee.  "We're in uncharted territory here," he said, "because we have a situation where the law these juveniles have been sentenced under has now been found to be unconstitutional, and the laws that we adopted as a legislature were adopted after they were sentenced originally" and do not apply to them.

The most straightforward resolution might be new legislation, but it's not so simple.  After the 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, Pennsylvania enacted new sentences for juvenile killers: 25 years to life for those younger than 15, and 35 to life for those 15 to 17.  But that law excluded anyone whose sentence was final before the Miller decision. Greenleaf said there's no changing that.  "The problem is, even if we pass something, it would be ex post facto," or retroactive, he said. "I don't think the legislature can do anything at this point, because it could be unconstitutional what we do."

Marsha Levick, chief counsel at the Juvenile Law Center, said no new law is needed.  Her solution: Resentence juveniles to 20 to 40 years in prison, the punishment for third-degree murder. "Because there is no constitutional sentencing statute that applies to these individuals, we would argue the court should apply the next-harshest sentence," she said. "That's all the court can do.  It can only apply a constitutional sentence."

But Pennsylvania courts have already gone a different route. About two dozen juvenile lifers — all sentenced, but still in the appeals process, when Miller came down - have received new sentences based on judges' discretion. The results have varied wildly.  Pennsylvania's Supreme Court, in the case of Qu'eed Batts — who at age 14 committed a gang-related murder — said the appropriate sentence for individuals such as him would carry a minimum number of years in prison and a maximum of life. So brothers Devon and Jovon Knox, who were convicted in a Pittsburgh carjacking and murder, received new sentences, of 35 years to life and 25 years to life respectively.

But in re-sentencing Ian Seagraves, who committed a brutal murder in Monroe County, a judge told him, "At this point in time, I have the option of life with parole or life without parole." The judge concluded that life without parole was still the appropriate sentence....

Pennsylvania Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm has been inundated with calls and emails from prosecutors and judges trying to figure out how to handle the cases and what sentencing laws apply. "I know some of these D.A.s are going to go back and ask for the highest minimum they can because there's a public safety question here," she said.

She said if courts are guided by the state's new sentencing law created after Miller, 189 offenders out of 480 would be immediately eligible for parole. The average time served among the 480 is 36 years, and the longest is 62 years.  "In some of these cases, you're going to see time served become the new minimum.  Obviously that needs to be very carefully negotiated with the D.A., the defender, and the surviving family members."...

Prosecutors, judges, and defense lawyers across the state, which the Pennsylvania Corrections Department says has more juvenile lifers than any other, have been tangling with this question and coming to disparate conclusions.  One Chester County judge converted the cases on his docket to "time served to life," triggering the immediate possibility of parole.

But Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said there was some consensus among prosecutors: "We believe that the sentencing provision enacted by the legislature for those cases after June 2012 can serve as good guidance."

Bradley Bridge, who's working on the cases for the Defender Association of Philadelphia, said he had been meeting with prosecutors and judges in Philadelphia to set up a structure to resolve the cases, including what sentences could be imposed. To him, one thing is clear: Resentencing juveniles to life is not permissible. "They must be given new sentences that have both a minimum and a maximum," he said. "That is what is required under Pennsylvania law."...

Levick said, one outcome is all but certain: There will be even more legal appeals.

March 11, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Rep Lamar Smith makes case against federal sentencing reform by questioning success of Texas reforms

One recurring theme of many advocates for federal sentencing reform is that state-level reforms, lead notably by Texas, have been successful at reducing incarceration levels without seeing an increase in crime. But at the end of this new Washington Times commentary, headlined "How weak prison terms endanger the innocent: Mandatory minimums keep the guilty behind bars to pay their debt to society," US House Representative Lamar Smith from Texas questions whether Texas reforms have truly been effective. Here are some notable excerpts from the piece:

Congress should be wary of reducing federal prison sentences. Unfortunately, much of the discussion on sentencing laws has focused on the criminals. What about the victims of their crimes? What about the dangers of putting these offenders back out on the streets where many prey again on law-abiding citizens?

The lives and property of innocent Americans are at stake.  Past experience should persuade us not to weaken penalties, which could lead to thousands of dangerous criminals being released into our communities....

Supporters of lower prison sentences also argue that judges need more discretion.  They say that a one-size-fits-all penalty does not allow for consideration of mitigating factors, which might be necessary to determine a fair sentence.

But prior experience with judicial discretion in sentencing counters this claim.  It is exactly the problem of too much discretion in the hands of activist judges that fueled the decades-long crime wave that preceded mandatory minimum sentences.  Furthermore, judicial discretion led to widespread discrepancies in sentences, even when the circumstances were similar.

The minimum sentencing structure ensures that judges apply a uniform penalty based on the crime, not on the judge’s subjective opinion.  Criminals receive equal punishment for equal crimes.  And the removal of hardened criminals from our streets for longer periods of time helps make our neighborhoods safer....

In my home state of Texas, new policies sought to reduce incarceration time and focus resources on treatment and post-release supervision.  Yet almost one-quarter of inmates released have been rearrested and sent back to prison within three years.  Early release programs don’t appear to be working.

Mandatory minimums help keep these individuals behind bars where they belong.  That’s one explanation for why crime rates remain down.  The purpose of criminal law is to punish bad behavior, deter criminal acts and protect the American people.  Releasing prisoners too soon could condemn many Americans to becoming victims of violence.  This can be avoided if prisoners are not released before their sentences have been served.

March 10, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, March 07, 2016

Notable split Sixth Circuit ruling on (suspect) limits of retroactive guideline reductions

A split Sixth Circuit panel handed down today an interesting little sentencing opinion in US v. Taylor, No. 15-5930 (6th Cir. March 7, 2016) (available here). Actually, the majority opinion is, according to the dissent, more frustrating than interesting beause that opinion held that a district court, when reducing a sentence based on the retroactive reduced drug guideline, lacked any added discretion "to impose a new below-guidelines sentence based on any factor but a departure for substantial assistance."  

Notably, federal prosecutors in this Taylor case agreed with the defendant (and the dissent) that the district court should have authority to take into account during sentence modification additional mitigating factors.  But the district court concluded that it lacked this authority, and the majority opinion on Taylor affirmed this conclusion. Judge Merritt expressed his frustration with this view in a short dissent that includes these points:

The mathematical percentage estimated for “substantial assistance” almost five years ago at the original sentencing is not a scientific fact, just a guess or speculation, and a new reduction upon resentencing that is “comparably less” (using the Guideline language) does not forbid a new sentence which takes into account such intangible factors as defendant’s additional assistance after the original sentence, her rehabilitation, as well as collateral damage to her family and other similar factors.  It does not forbid a reassessment of what has happened in the last five years.  Both the prosecutor and the defendant agreed that the sentence should not be limited to a nineteen percent reduction but have agreed to a thirty-three percent reduction, and there is no indication that Judge Jordan in the court below would not agree that this would be a more just sentence.  He thought only that the law did not give him the authority to impose the lower sentence....

I do not see why we must continue to take away from the sentencing judge the authority to use his or her best judgment in determining the sentence.  For these reasons and also for the policy reasons stated by Justice Stevens in his dissenting opinion in Dillon v. United States, 130 S. Ct. 2683, 2694-2705 (2010), I would remand to the district court for resentencing with the instruction that the district court is not bound by the nineteen percent reduction used years ago.  Times change.  The law has changed.  Our culture is changing its views about how long we should put people behind bars.  There is no good reason I can see that we should not allow the district judge to use his best judgment here and err on the side of mercy while at the same time reducing the government’s costs of incarceration.

March 7, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Lots of Montgomery GVRs in latest SCOTUS order list

I am on a plane this morning on my way to the Alternative Sentencing Key-Stakeholder Summit (ASKS) taking place today and tomorrow at Georgetown University Law Center.  But conveniently, the Supreme Court released this order list just before I had to shut down my computer, and I see it has a lot of cases from a lot of states with variations on this note as part of a GVR:

The motion of petitioner for leave to proceed in forma pauperis and the petition for a writ of certiorari are granted. The judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded to the Court of Criminal Appeals of Alabama for further consideration in light of Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U. S. ___ (2016).

Justice Thomas, with whom Justice Alito joins, concurring in the decision to grant, vacate, and remand in this case: The Court has held the petition in this and many other cases pending the decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U. S. ___ (2016).  In holding this petition and now vacating and remanding the judgment below, the Court has not assessed whether petitioner’s asserted entitlement to retroactive relief “is properly presented in the case.” Id., at ___ (slip op., at 13).  On remand, courts should understand that the Court’s disposition of this petition does not reflect any view regarding petitioner’s entitlement to relief.  The Court’s disposition does not, for example, address whether an adequate and independent state ground bars relief, whether petitioner forfeited or waived any entitlement to relief (by, for example, entering into a plea agreement waiving any entitlement to relief), or whether petitioner’s sentence actually qualifies as a mandatory life without parole sentence.

I also see a notable split per curiam summary reversal finding a due process Brady problem in a Louisiana capital case. I will discuss that merits ruling and any others of criminal justice interest that may still today come down from SCOTUS in future posts.

March 7, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Updating Delaware's struggles with the post-Hurst hydra

Download (1)As regular readers know, in this post not long after the Supreme Court in Hurst v. Florida declared Florida's death penalty procedures violative of the Sixth Amendment, I coined the term term "post-Hurst hydra" to describe what I expected to be multi-headed, snake-like litigation developing in various courts as judges sort ought what Hurst must mean for past, present and future capital cases.  And in this post about a month ago, I reported on the notable decision in Delaware to put all pending capital murder trials and executions on hold until the state Supreme Court resolved the constitutionality of the state's death penalty law in the wake of Hurst.  

Now, thanks to this local article headlined "Public defenders: Death penalty unconstitutional," we can all read about the arguments from Delaware capital defense attorneys that the post-Hurst hydra must devour the state's existing capital sentencing scheme. Here are the basics from this press account:

Three assistant public defenders have argued to the Delaware Supreme Court that the death penalty law is unconstitutional -- and therefore needs to be fixed by lawmakers.  The attorneys from the Office of Defense Services filed a written argument Monday explaining why they believe Delaware's capital punishment policy violates the U.S. Constitution, especially in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that deemed Florida's similar scheme unconstitutional.

"The Delaware statute contains a number of unconstitutional provisions that cannot be exercised by this court in an effort to salvage the statute," the 58-page argument said.  "Because these multiple constitutional problems require Delaware’s death penalty scheme to be substantially restructured, that task is for the legislature, not the courts."...

Attorneys from the Office of Defense Services said in their argument that it is "crystal-clear that the judge is the independent and paramount capital sentencer" in Delaware.  They went on to argue that Delaware is violating the Sixth Amendment by requiring a judge to make findings regarding aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and their relative weight, before a death sentence can be imposed.

"As the opinion in Hurst makes clear, any fact-finding that is a necessary precursor to a death sentence, rather than one of imprisonment, must be performed by a jury," the argument said.  "The highest courts and legislatures of several states have likewise acknowledged that the Supreme Court’s Sixth Amendment jurisprudence requires the jury to determine the presence of aggravating and mitigating circumstances, as well as the weight of each."

The attorneys went on to say that the practice of allowing juries to be non-unanimous is also unconstitutional.  "There is a nationwide consensus against non-unanimous jury verdicts in capital cases," the attorneys wrote.  "No existing state statute currently permits a non-unanimous determination of aggravating factors, and only two, in Alabama and Delaware, permit a jury’s sentencing determination to be less than unanimous.  That only two states permit non-unanimous jury verdicts in capital cases weighs heavily against its constitutionality."

The full brief referenced above can be accessed at this link.

Prior related post:

March 2, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Has DOJ decided not to appeal Judge Weinstein's recent notable decision in US v. RV to give no prison time to child porn downloaded?

The question in the title of this post is a follow-up to my speculations here about the post-Booker challenges that face federal prosecutors when a district judge gives a very leinent sentence that they dislike.  Specifically, after blogging about US District Judge Jack Weinstein's decision in US v. RV to give a waaaaaaaay-below-guideline sentence in a child porn downloading case, I suggested the Justice Department would struggle with the decision whether to appeal this lenient sentencing ruling to the Second Circuit because of the Second Cicuit's significant 2010 Dorvee ruling which stressed the "irrationality" of the child porn guidelines.

When I posted about US v. RV, my pal Bill Otis seemed to think my appellate speculations here were waaaaaaaay off the mark.  Over in this lengthy post at Crime & Consequences, Bill Otis asserted that my speculation revealed that I know "almost nothing about the workings of US Attorneys' Offices."   Bill went further even in this post, stating repeatedly that he would eagerly "bet $500 here and now that Weirstein [sic] is again going to get reversed in the Second Circuit, again without garnering a single vote."

I did not take up Bill's bet for a number of reasons: (1) I wanted to read Judge Weinstein's 90+ page sentencing opinion in full before speculating on the fate of the decision in RV, (2) based on what Judge Weinstein wrote, I might be inclined to participate in an amicus effort in the Second Circuit if/when DOJ appealed, and (3) I find it a bit unsavory (and perhaps unethical) to make big cash bets on the fate of a real legal case, especially in an area of law I hope to infuence.  But now, as the title of this post hints, I think it may turn out that a lot of us should have taken Bill's bet because it seems, based on my limited research skills, that DOJ has decided not to appeal Judge Weinstein's sentencing decision in RV.

Because I am bad at researching appellate dockets, and also because the process for when and how the Justice Department makes appellate decisions is quite opaque in various ways, I do not yet want to crow about being right here that DOJ did not want to appeal this decision and risk its affirmance by the Second Circuit.  But I am hoping, perhaps with the help of readers, I can soon confirm that the Second Circuit will not be reversing RV because federal prosecutors have decided not to appeal the decision. (Needless to say, I am somewhat excited about the possibility of demonstrating that I now actually do know a lot more than Bill Otis "about the workings of US Attorneys' Offices" even though I have never worked in such an office and Bill spent most of his professional life in these offices.)  If it does turn out true that DOJ has decided not to appeal in US v. RV, I think this discretionary prosecutorial decision is itself a very interesting and important bit of evidence concerning how post-Booker reasonableness review works (and doesn't work) to iron out sentencing disparties in CP downloading cases and many others.

Prior related posts about recent notable CP cases from the EDNY:

March 1, 2016 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Via 6-2 vote, SCOTUS upholds broader interpretation of child-porn mandatory minimum provision

The first official SCOTUS opinion handed down without Justice Scalia as a member of the Supreme Court in three decades just happened to be an intriguing little sentencing opinion: Lockhart v. US, No. 14-8358 (S. Ct. March 1, 2016) (available here). Justice Sotomayor wrote the opinion for the Court on behalf of six Justices, and it begins this way:

Defendants convicted of possessing child pornography in violation of 18 U. S. C. §2252(a)(4) are subject to a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence and an increased maximum sentence if they have “a prior conviction . . . under the laws of any State relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward.” §2252(b)(2).

The question before us is whether the phrase “involving a minor or ward” modifies all items in the list of predicate crimes (“aggravated sexual abuse,” “sexual abuse,” and “abusive sexual conduct”) or only the one item that immediately precedes it (“abusive sexual conduct”).  Below, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit joined several other Courts of Appeals in holding that it modifies only “abusive sexual conduct.”  The Eighth Circuit has reached the contrary result.  We granted certiorari to resolve that split.  575 U. S. ___ (2015).  We affirm the Second Circuit’s holding that the phrase “involving a minor or ward” in §2252(b)(2) modifies only “abusive sexual conduct.”

Justice Kagan, joined by Justice Breyer, writes an extended dissent that kicks off with pop-culture references sure to be highlighted by many in social media:

Imagine a friend told you that she hoped to meet “an actor, director, or producer involved with the new Star Wars movie.” You would know immediately that she wanted to meet an actor from the Star Wars cast — not an actor in, for example, the latest Zoolander.  Suppose a real estate agent promised to find a client “a house, condo, or apartment in New York.”  Wouldn’t the potential buyer be annoyed if the agent sent him information about condos in Maryland or California?  And consider a law imposing a penalty for the “violation of any statute, rule, or regulation relating to insider trading.”  Surely a person would have cause to protest if punished under that provision for violating a traffic statute.  The reason in all three cases is the same: Everyone understands that the modifying phrase — “involved with the new Star Wars movie,” “in New York,” “relating to insider trading” — applies to each term in the preceding list, not just the last.

That ordinary understanding of how English works, in speech and writing alike, should decide this case.  Avondale Lockhart is subject to a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for possessing child pornography if, but only if, he has a prior state-law conviction for “aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward.” 18 U. S. C. §2252(b)(2).  The Court today, relying on what is called the “rule of the last antecedent,” reads the phrase “involving a minor or ward” as modifying only the final term in that three-item list.  But properly read, the modifier applies to each of the terms — just as in the examples above.  That normal construction finds support in uncommonly clear-cut legislative history, which states in so many words that the three predicate crimes all involve abuse of children.  And if any doubt remained, the rule of lenity would command the same result: Lockhart’s prior conviction for sexual abuse of an adult does not trigger §2252(b)(2)’s mandatory minimum penalty.  I respectfully dissent.

I am going to resist the urge to speculate concerning which opinion Justice Scalia might have been likely to join were he still alive today, especially given that the late, great Justice was a fan of ordinary understanding and the rule of lenity, but not a fan of legislative history, in the interpretation of federal criminal statute.  I am also going to resist blogging a lot more about this case unless something jumps out as distinctly blogworthy when I have a chance to review the opinions more closely in the days ahead.

March 1, 2016 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Monday, February 29, 2016

"Can you think of another constitutional right that can be suspended based upon a misdemeanor violation of a State law?"

The question in the title of this post is the question I have been asking again and again since the US Supreme Court decided in Heller and McDonald that the Second Amendment secured an individual right to keep and bare arms that was to be enforced in a manner comparable to other rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights. It also happened to be the question that Justice Clarence Thomas asked the federal government during oral argument today in Voisine v. United States

As highlighted by a whole bunch of press coverage spotlighted here at How Appealing, it is notable simply that Justice Thomas spoke up at oral argument after having been silent in that setting for a decade.  But I trust regular readers will not be surprised to hear that I am excited that Justice Thomas decided he had to speak up to ask what I think is the very hard question about the meaning and reach of the Second Amendment that lacks a very good answer if Heller and McDonald are serious about the need to treat the Second Amendment seriously like all other rights enumerated in the US Constitution's Bill of Rights.

Not only did Justice Thomas ask this important question toward the tail end of oral argument in Voisine, he followed up with a First Amendment analogy that I find pretty compelling:

JUSTICE THOMAS:  [L]et's say that a publisher is reckless about the use of children, and what could be considered indecent [placement in an ad] and that that triggers a violation of, say, a hypothetical law against the use of children in these ads, and let's say it's a misdemeanor violation.  Could you suspend that publisher's right to ever publish again?

MS. EISENSTEIN: Your Honor, I don't think you could suspend the right to ever publish again, but I think that you could limit, for example, the manner and means by which publisher...

JUSTICE THOMAS: So how is that different from suspending your Second Amendment right?

Critically, even though I do not believe the government here had any satisfactory answers for Justice Thomas's tough Second Amendment questions, the Justice was not even making his arguments as forcefully as he could have in the context of the federal criminal prosecution at issue in Voisine.  Critically, Voisine is not a case in which someone previously convicted of a state "reckless" misdemeanor is now seeking a legal declaration that he has Second Amendment rights.  Rather, Stephen Voisine is a schnook who was subject to a federal felony prosecution (and as much as 10 years in federal prison) simply for possessing a rifle (while apparently hunting a bald eagle!?!?) because a number of years earlier he pleaded guilty to a Maine domestic violence misdemeanor. 

For the record, I am not a big fan of Maine schnooks who in the past were involved in a domestic incident and years later go out hunting bald eagles.  But I am even less of a fan of the creation of new jurisprudential doctrines that would allow the federal government to bring a felony prosecution of an individual engaged in what might be otherwise constitutionally protected activity simply based on a long-ago misdemeanor violation of a State law.  That is the reality of what is going on in Voisine, and even folks not supportive of Second Amendment rights should be concerned that a case like Voisine could end up casting poor light on other constitutional protections if his conviction gets upheld in this case.

Some prior related posts:

February 29, 2016 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

SCOTUS taking on array of criminal justice cases this week in which Justice Scalia's absence will again be consequential

The Supreme Court this week hears oral argument in a trio of criminal justice cases this week.  Because all three cases strike me as involving relatively quirky/narrow issues, I am not expecting to get any blockbuster rulings from any of them (especially with a now short-staffed Court).  Via SCOTUSblog, here are links to the cases being heard today and tomorrow with the question presented:

Voisine v. United States (1) Whether a misdemeanor crime with the mens rea of recklessness qualifies as a "misdemeanor crime of domestic violence" as defined by 18 U.S.C. §§ 921(a)(33)(A) and 922(g)(9); and (2) whether 18 U.S.C. §§ 921(a)(33)(A) and 922(g)(9) are unconstitutional under the Second, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments and the Ex Post Facto Clause of the United States Constitution.

Williams v. Pennsylvania: (1) Whether the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments are violated where a state supreme court justice declines to recuse himself in a capital case in which he had personally approved the decision to pursue capital punishment against the defendant in his prior capacity as an elected prosecutor and continued to head the prosecutors’ office that defended the death verdict on appeal, and where he had publicly expressed strong support for capital punishment during his judicial election campaign by referencing the number of defendants he had “sent” to death row, including the defendant in the case now before the court; and (2) whether the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments are violated by the participation of a potentially biased jurist on a multimember tribunal deciding a capital case, regardless of whether his vote is ultimately decisive.

Nichols v. United States: (1) Whether 42 U.S.C. § 16913(a) requires a sex offender who resides in a foreign country to update his registration in the jurisdiction where he formerly resided, a question that divides the courts of appeals.

Because Williams involves an Eighth Amendment case and involves the death penalty, I suspect it will get the most press attention and probably even most of my attention after today's oral argument. But, in part because Williams involves an Eighth Amendment case and involves the death penalty, I am already pretty confident which Justices are likely to be more or less sympathetic to the capital defendant's claims on appeal.

In contrast, both Voisine and Nichols involve questions of statutory interpretation of federal crime statutes in politically fraught settings: Voisine involves the mix of domestic violence and guns, Nichols involves the tracking of sex offenders abroad. Both the specific legal issue before the Court and the context in which it arises makes me uncertain how various justices are likely to approach the cases at oral argument and in an eventual ruling. In both cases, though, the defense side likely is quite sorry to see Justice Scalia's chair empty because he was among the most consistent and forceful voices for the rule of lenity and other principles to limit the reach of government powers in the interpretation of federal criminal justice statutes.

February 29, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, February 26, 2016

Could a new group called Public Safety Officials on the Death Penalty really impact discussions of death penalty reform?

The question in the title of this post is prompted in part by this recent piece by Ted Gest at The Crime Report headlined "Justice System Voices Question Capital Punishment."  Here are excerpts:

As support for capital punishment in the United States erodes, one viewpoint not often heard in debates on the issue is that of the people who do the work that leads to executions: officials of the criminal justice system.

A Washington, D.C., organization called The Constitution Project is moving to fill that gap, with a group called Public Safety Officials on the Death Penalty (PSODP), which it describes as "an independent group of current and former law enforcement, prosecutors and corrections officials strongly concerned about the fairness and efficacy of the death penalty in America."...

[T]he new panel of public safety officials is offering its expertise to policymakers in states that are considering whether to continue executions. The group has three co-chairs: former Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley, former Massachusetts corrections commissioner Kathleen Dennehy, and former Southern Pines, N.C., Police Chief Gerald Galloway, who formerly led the North Carolina Chiefs of Police Association. The group says it stands ready to provide information. It does not take a formal stand on whether capital punishment should be abolished, but it is clear that the co-chairs believe that the current system is not operating fairly and efficiently.

Former Police Chief Galloway declares that the capital punishment system is "dysfunctional," noting that it often takes many years to put an accused murder to death, and that more than 150 people have been removed from death rows in various states after being exonerated or having their convictions overturned for legal reasons. Noting that some convicted murders spend decades on death row amid seemingly endless legal appeals, Galloway told The Crime Report, "The system is unfair. It is too expensive. Some innocent people end up on death row, and victims' families wait for justice that never occurs."

Dennehy said her biggest concern was "the possibility of executing an innocent person -- that is too high a price to pay." S he also cited allegations of "botched executions" in Oklahoma and elsewhere, saying that corrections employees who must carry out the sometimes tricky lethal injection process can suffer psychological harm. (Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett died in 2014 more than an hour after he was placed on an execution gurney after an employee had difficulty inserting a needle.)

Earley, who served as Virginia’s attorney general from 1998 until mid-2001, said last year he had changed his views and now opposes capital punishment. "If you believe that the government always ‘gets it right,’ never makes serious mistakes, and is never tainted with corruption, then you can be comfortable supporting the death penalty," he wrote in the University of Richmond Law Review.  “I no longer have such faith in the government and, therefore, cannot and do not support the death penalty."

Some members of the new group favor capital punishment, but the entire panel agreed that, "each of us is ready to explore alternative ways to achieve a more just and effective public safety system.”  Unless the system can be fixed to insure that innocent people are not sent to death row and that the appeals of those who are convicted in capital cases are handled promptly, those found guilty of murder should serve a maximum penalty of life in prison without the possibility of parole, Galloway and Dennehy said.

Members of the new group will offer their expertise to officials in states considering whether to retain the death penalty, Galloway said. "We represent a powerful perspective" he said, referring to their years of experience working in the justice system.

One major state that faces a close public vote on the issue is California, where there may be competing propositions on the November ballot: one to speed executions and another to abolish capital punishment.... As of last year, California had by far the nation's largest death row, housing 743, inmates, and last conducted an execution in 2006. Jeanne Woodford, former California corrections director, is a member of The Constitution Project's new panel.

February 26, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Acknowledging and reflecting on the costs, both economic and emotional, that flow from proper implementation of Miller retroactively

This local article from Florida, headlined "Killer's brain development at issue in re-sentencing," provide a significant and sobering (and ultimately incomplete) account of the challenges many courts in many states are to face as they comply with the SCOTUS mandates in Miller and Montgomery that require the resentencing of any and every teen killer previously given a mandatory LWOP sentence.  Here are the basic details about this local case:

Maddie Clifton's killer will have his brain development reviewed by an expert before his re-sentencing hearing, a judge decided Thursday. Joshua Phillips, now 31, was convicted in the 1998 murder of 8-year-old Maddie and was sentenced to life without parole.  At the time of the murder, Phillips was 14....

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that automatic life without parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional. In 2015, the Supreme Court said that law applies to previous cases and that it is retroactive ....

“We have a duty to re-sentence the man and give him a proper opportunity,” Judge Waddell Wallace said in court Thursday.

Phillips' attorney, Tom Fallis, filed two motions with the court: one for a new sentencing hearing and another to have the court cover the costs of calling new experts to determine the proper sentencing.  Both motions were granted.

Fallis said some of the medical expertise from Phillips' original trial is no longer relevant, because of current research into juvenile psychology. "We're going to need a lot of experts," Fallis said. "This is going to be a very long hearing when it's set, and there will be evidence from what's happened in the last 20 years, what's happened in prison. I suspect there may be experts on prison life and how it affected a 14-year-old' who's now 30 some odd years old' and so the court needs to be educated. And the way you do that is through experts."

The state argued that calling new specialists and expert could be “absurd” and costly, but Wallace agreed to hiring a new expert and said the findings will be essential to the case, because of Phillips' brain development.

Police said Phillips, Maddie's neighbor, stabbed her and clubbed her to death in his San Jose area home. He hid her body under his waterbed in his room. Phillips' mother discovered the body a week later, after a massive search for the missing girl.  Phillips was convicted a year later.

I submitted amicus briefs in both Miller and Montgomery arguing for the Eighth Amendment rules as adopted and applied in those case, and I think it appropriate that this defendant finally have a chance for a discretionary sentencing hearing after he was decades ago mandatorily given an LWOP sentence for a crime committed at age 14.  And, though I am not quite sure this defendant really needs " a lot of experts" funded by the state to proceed with a proper resentencing, I also think it appropriate that the judge in this case recognized the need for giving the defense some additional resources to conduct a sound "Miller" resentencing.

That all said, I also think it appropriate for any and everyone like me who approved of the results in Miller and Montgomery to note and cope with the considerable costs that taxpayers and individuals are now going to have to endure.  Court resources are always finite, both in terms of time and money, and this press story highlights that it seems a significant amount of the limited court resources are now going to have to be devoted to the very challenging task of figuring out what now is a fair and effective sentence for "Maddie Clifton's killer," Joshua Phillips.  Moreover, and not mentioned in this story, I can only begin to imagine the emotional challenges that resentencing in this case will create for any and everyone connected to both the defendant and the victim.   

Though I continue to believe that mandatory juve LWOP sentencing is very wrong, this story is a reminder that it did have the notable virtue of being very easy. 

February 25, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (24)

Former judges and Justice in Washington urge state's current Justices to strike down state's death penalty

This AP article from Washington reports on a notable brief filed in a capital case in the state Supreme Court.  The article is headlined "Dozens of judges ask Washington high court to ban death penalty," and here are excerpts:

Washington state's relationship with the death penalty over the past few decades has been so tenuous that even mass killers, serial killers and a cop killer have escaped it.  Only five people have been executed in the past 35 years. Gov. Jay Inslee, a one-time supporter of capital punishment, has said no executions will take place while he's in office.  And the state prosecutors association has called for a referendum on whether to bother keeping it on the books.

Now, the state's high court, which came within one vote of striking down the death penalty a decade ago, is re-examining it.  Dozens of former Washington judges have taken the unusual step of urging the court to find it unconstitutional this time — including former Justice Faith Ireland, who sided with the narrow majority in upholding capital punishment back in 2006.

Arguments are scheduled for Thursday in the case of Allen Eugene Gregory, who was convicted of raping, robbing and killing Geneine Harshfield, a 43-year-old cocktail waitress who lived near his grandmother, in 1996.

His lawyers are challenging his conviction and sentence, including procedural issues and statements made by a prosecutor during the trial.  But they also insist that the death penalty is arbitrarily applied and that it is not applied proportionally, as the state Constitution requires.  Certain counties — especially Pierce, where Gregory was convicted — have been aggressive about seeking execution, while others have said a death-penalty case would quickly bankrupt them, making the location of the crime a key factor in whether someone might be sentenced to death....

One of the newer justices, Charles Wiggins, has expressed concerns over indications blacks are statistically more likely to be sentenced to death in Washington than whites, while another, Sheryl Gordon McCloud, represented defendants who had been sentenced to death — and criticized the way the death penalty is applied — during her previous career as an appellate lawyer....

In its brief, the Pierce County Prosecutor's Office urged the court to uphold the punishment, which is allowed by the federal government and 32 states.  It argued the court has repeatedly upheld capital punishment, that those rulings should stand, and that Gregory shouldn't be allowed to make his constitutional arguments because he did not properly preserve those issues for appeal.  "Since death penalty abolitionists are unable to convince large numbers of Washingtonians to abolish the death penalty, defendant turns to this court in hopes that he can convince five of the court's members that abolishing the death penalty is reflective of current public opinion," deputy prosecutor Kathleen Proctor wrote.  "Essentially, defendant asks this court to become a legislative entity and to override the desire of the people of this state to have the death penalty as an available sanction for certain homicides."

In joining 55 other ex-judges who signed a brief filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington urging an end to capital punishment, Ireland, who served a single term on the Supreme Court, was particularly concerned about geographical disparities in death sentences — an issue that the majority held was not squarely before the court in 2006.  "We can't call the death penalty anything but arbitrary when it depends on whether you kill someone in a rich county or one that can't afford such a trial," she wrote in an email to The Associated Press.  "That could be fixed in my opinion by having death penalty prosecutions and defenses funded at the state level."

February 25, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

"Why and How the Supreme Court Should End the Death Penalty"

The title of this post is the title of this new article by Kenneth Williams recently posted to SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In a recent opinion dissenting from the Supreme Court’s holding that a certain drug used in carrying out lethal injections is constitutional, Justice Breyer urged the Court to reconsider whether the death penalty is constitutional. Although the Court has so far declined Justice Breyer’s invitation, his dissent has provoked a discussion as to whether the United States should continue to use the death penalty.  The purpose of this article is to contribute to that discussion.

The article begins with a discussion of the reasons that public support for the death penalty has declined during the last 20 years.  Problems in the administration of the death penalty, such as the increasing numbers of exonerations, the continued racial disparities in death sentencing, the continued arbitrary application of the death penalty, and the substandard representation that many defendants receive are identified as the main reasons for this decline.  The author concludes that going forward, the Supreme Court has two options available in addressing these problems: it can continue to try to reform the death penalty to make it fairer or it can abolish the death penalty.  The article discusses some possible reforms that can be attempted but concludes that these reforms are unlikely to have a significant impact in making the death penalty fairer.  Therefore, the author concludes that the only option available to the Court is to completely abolish the death penalty.

The author argues that the doctrinal framework for the Court to abolish the death penalty is already firmly in place.  The Court could choose to abolish the death penalty for one of several reasons.  First, it could find the death penalty violates Equal Protection because of the continued racial disparities in its application.  Second, there are several Eighth Amendment grounds upon with the Court could rely.  For instance, in the past the Court has found that the application of the death penalty to juveniles and mentally retarded offenders violated the Eighth Amendment because of “evolving standards of decency.”  The Court could similarly find that, given the direction of the states in either abolishing the death penalty by statute or in practice and the significant decline in death sentences by juries, that the continued use of the death penalty also violates “evolving standards of decency.”  Finally, the author responds to several likely objections that will be made in the event the Court seriously considers abolishing the death penalty, such as the text of the Constitution and the fear of another Furman type public backlash.

February 24, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, February 22, 2016

Highlighting that, despite lots of talk and a little action, Prez Obama remains a clemency grinch

Over at his blog Pardon Power, political scientist PS Ruckman does a terrific job tracking and placing in historical context the latest date concerning the use of presidential clemency powers.  And these three recent posts highlight effectively that, despite lots of talk from the Obama Administration about a big clemency initiative, the current President the most notable story to date concerning Obama's clemency record is how stingy it is:

As long-time readers know, I have been urging Prez Obama to live up to his hope and change rhetoric in this arena since the day he was inaugurated seven year ago, as highlighted by these two posts from January 20, 2009: Inaugural rhetoric about freedom and liberty in prison nation and Is it too early to start demanding President Obama use his clemency power?.  (The extensive comments to the second of these posts are especially interesting to review with the benefit of seven years of political hindsight.)  In addition, way back in 2010, I authored this law review article titled "Turning Hope-and-Change Talk Into Clemency Action for Nonviolent Drug Offenders," which closed with this recommendation:

President Obama ought to seriously consider creating some form of a "Clemency Commission" headed by a "clemency czar."...  Though a "Clemency Commission" headed by a "clemency czar" could be created and developed in any number of ways, my vision and goals here are meant to be fairly basic.  The idea is for President Obama to create a special expert body, headed by a special designated official, who is primarily tasked with helping federal officials (and perhaps also state officials) improve the functioning, transparency, and public respect for executive clemency.  Though the structure, staffing, and mandates of a Clemency Commission could take many forms, ideally it would include personnel with expertise about the nature of and reasons for occasional miscarriages of justice in the operation of modem criminal justice systems — persons who possess a deep understanding that, in the words of James Iredell, "an inflexible adherence to [severe criminal laws], in every instance, might frequently be the cause of very great injustice.

The Clemency Commission could and should study the modem causes of wrongful conviction, "excessive" sentences, and overzealous prosecutions, and then make formal and public recommendations to the President and other branches about specific cases that might merit clemency relief or systemic reforms that could reduce the risk of miscarriages of justice.  In addition, the Commission could be a clearinghouse for historical and current data on the operation of executive clemency powers in state and federal systems.  It could also serve as a valuable resource for offenders and their families and friends seeking information about who might be a good candidate for receiving clemency relief. Though the creation of a Clemency Commission would be an ambitious endeavor, the effort could pay long-term dividends for both the reality and the perception of justice and fairness in our nation's criminal justice system.

I have reprinted this suggestion here because, though I made the pitch in print more than half a decade ago, it still strikes me as timely and relevant to the on-going discussions about federal criminal justice reform.  Indeed, given this latest data marshalled by PS Ruckman and the seemingly limited success and limited basis for optimism as of February 2016 surrounding "Clemency Project 2014," I think Prez Obama and the rest of the federal criminal justice reform discussion might benefit now more than ever from the creation of some form of a "Clemency Commission" headed by a "clemency czar."  And, especially with US District Judge John Gleeson now only a few weeks away from stepping off the federal bench, there is an obvious candidate for the ideal first clemency czar.

As regular readers (and my students know), I could go on and on and on about this subject and especially about President Obama's unique missed opportunity to create a criminal justice reform legacy in this historically and constitutionally important arena.  But rather than repeat myself, I will just link to just a few of my prior Obama-era posts while starting to wonder in the wake of recent election results whether President Hillary Clinton or President Donald Trump might have the interest and ability to really bring hope and change to a very sorry modern federal clemency history.

Just a few of many recent and older posts concerning the modern ugly realities of federal clemency:

February 22, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

"The Use of Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 35(b)" to reward cooperators after initial sentencing

The quoted portion of the title of this post is the title of this notable new US Sentencing Commission research report and the second part of the title of this post is intended to highlight exactly why the first part of the title of this post is a sentencing story.  The 42-page report is data-rich, and here is the text of this USSC webpage providing background and noting some of the report's key findings:

This report examines sentence reductions for offenders who cooperate with the government in its efforts to investigate or prosecute others.  Offenders can receive credit for their “substantial assistance” in at least two ways; at the time of sentencing (USSG §5K1.1 departure motions) and after sentencing (Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 35(b) motions).  In both instances, the government must make a motion for a lower sentence.

This publication discusses the history and current use of Fed. R. Crim. P. 35(b).  It also presents data on the number of Rule 35(b) reductions and the jurisdictions where they are granted; the effects of Rule 35(b) reductions on sentences; and the offense and demographic characteristics of offenders who receive such reductions.  The report also compares the circumstances of offenders receiving Rule 35(b) reductions with those who received USSG §5K1.1 departures. 

Key Findings

A review of the 10,811 cases in which Rule 35(b) reductions were granted over the past six years suggests the following conclusions:

  • Rule 35(b) sentencing reductions are used relatively rarely, but a few districts make frequent use of Rule 35(b) sentencing reductions.  There is no clear data-based explanation for these differences, as these districts vary substantially from one another in overall case load, offense mix, and demographic composition.

  • Most offenders receiving a Rule 35(b) reduction were originally sentenced within the guideline range.  This suggests that courts are rarely departing or varying for reasons other than substantial assistance with this group of offenders.

  • Most offenders receiving a Rule 35(b) reduction were convicted of a drug trafficking offense that carries a mandatory minimum penalty.

  • Rule 35(b) sentencing reductions generally provide less benefit than do § 5K1.1 substantial assistance departures.  This general statement holds true whether the Rule 35(b) sentencing reduction is compared to the §5K1.1 substantial assistance departure in terms of the ultimate sentence length or by the extent of the reduction from the original sentence.  The relatively high number of Rule 35(b) offenders who are convicted of drug and firearms offenses, though, as well as the relatively high number of those subject to mandatory minimum penalties, suggests that these offenders may receive a lower reduction because they are more serious offenders.

  • Although Rule 35(b) sentencing reductions are usually less beneficial to offenders than are §5K1.1 substantial assistance departures, offenders who receive both a §5K1.1 departure and a Rule 35(b) sentencing reduction receive the largest overall reduction in their sentences, regardless of how that reduction is measured.

  • Offenders sentenced in jurisdictions that primarily use Rule 35(b) sentencing reductions overall receive less of a benefit for their substantial assistance than do offenders in jurisdictions that rely primarily on §5K1.1 departures or a combination of Rule 35(b) reductions and §5K1.1 departures.

February 22, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Compassionate release consensus and dissensus at US Sentencing Commission public hearing

As detailed in this press report, headlined "Prison-Release Program Debated in Hearing," there were both common and diverse perspectives at the US Sentencing Commission hearing yesterday concerning the federal system's approach to compassionate release:

The compassionate release system for federal prisons is "broken," a series of government witnesses, advocates and stakeholders told the U.S. Sentencing Commission at a public hearing Wednesday.  But while the panels of witnesses generally agreed the program is in need of a fix, they proposed starkly different solutions and laid the blame at the feet of a number of different organizations and agencies.

The compassionate release program is meant to release elderly inmates, those with terminal illnesses and others who meet certain conditions, though as the witnesses at Wednesday's hearing said, the program does not necessarily cover all of the inmates in federal prison it is meant to.

Wednesday's public hearing in a small conference room in the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building in downtown Washington, D.C., was meant to evaluate a proposed set of changes to the compassionate release program, including lowering the age at which an inmate can be considered for release, reducing the amount of their prison term they must serve before qualifying for release, and adding more circumstances that would allow an inmate to go free early.  

The current program allows the director of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to motion for the early release of inmates deemed not a danger to their communities who are least 70 years old and have served at least 30 years of their sentence, or those who have "extraordinary and compelling reasons."  Under the current rule "extraordinary and compelling reasons" are limited to debilitating or terminal physical or mental illnesses or a death in the inmate's family that would leave a minor without care.

The proposed amendment to the program expands these circumstances further and would allow the BOP director to motion for the release of a prisoner who is 65 or older and has served at least 10 years or 75 percent of their sentence, regardless of their medical condition.  

The 10 year requirement drew some criticism from the witnesses, especially Michael Horowitz, inspector general for the U.S. Department of Justice, who suggested the 10-year requirement might have unintended consequences.  Horowitz estimated the requirement that inmates serve at least 10 years of their sentence before being considered for compassionate release cuts out half of the inmates who could benefit from the program.  This includes elderly inmates sentenced to relatively short times in prison, who are arguably the safest prisoners to release into the community, Horowitz said.

The commission seemed to agree with Horowitz and his suggestion to simply eliminate the 10-year requirement and keep the guidelines requiring inmates serve at least 75 percent of their given sentences.  "Where's the science behind the 10 years?" Judge Charles Breyer, vice chair of the commission, asked.  "I don't see it, I'm unaware of it, but is there something that the Justice Department or the Bureau of Prisons have figured out that 10 years?  Because it looks to me that all they're saying is we want to make sure that somebody receives an adequate punishment."

The involvement of the BOP director was another point of contention at Wednesday's hearing, as witnesses offered competing views of who should be in the driver's seat of the compassionate release program.  Jonathan Wroblewski, principal deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department, told the six-member sentencing commission that the BOP is in charge of the compassionate release program, and suggested the commission and courts take on an advisory role....

Margaret Love, a non-voting member of the Practitioners Advisory Group, stood in stark contrast to Wroblewski's executive-centric policy proposal, arguing that Congress intended the U.S. Sentencing Commission to lead the program, with the courts taking a major role and the BOP being relegated to the "gate-keeping" role of applying the guidelines to specific cases....  She urged the commission to develop a clear policy to lead the BOP and suggested an addition to the proposed amendment that would require the BOP director to make a motion for release of an inmate under the compassionate release program if they meet all qualifications, instead of the voluntary system in place now.

This agenda from the USSC hearing yesterday now has links to all the witnesses' written testimony.

February 18, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Rounding up diverse perspectives on Justice Scalia's diverse criminal justice work and the impact of his loss

Though there is already far too much old and new media discussion of Justice Scalia's legacy and the debate over his replacement to be consumed, I am going to try to make an effort to note and link here SCOTUS/Scalia stories with a particular focus on criminal justice issues. Here are the headline from some of what I have seen around the web recently that seem worth a peek:

February 16, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Texas prisons are filling up with the old and the ill — at enormous expense"

The title of this post is the sub-headline of this lengthy new Texas Observer article. Here are excerpts:

Benito Alonzo is a short, 140-pound 80-year-old. His quiet-spoken manner, drooping jowls and gray hair, trimmed in a buzz, give him the appearance of a benevolent grandfather, and indeed, he is a grandfather.  In thick-framed black eyeglasses, he bears a resemblance to the defanged and aging Henry Kissinger.  But Alonzo is neither a celebrity nor a statesman. He’s a convict who has lately grown infirm.  He says he’s been diagnosed with prostate cancer and he’s afflicted with Hepatitis C. For several years he’s been prescribed a drug called Lactulose, which Dr. Owen Murray, chief of medical affairs for the Texas penal system, says “we use for people whose livers are at the end of their lives.”...

Alonzo has been waiting since at least March for the start of a 12-week course of a new liver drug that might keep him alive for years to come. He’s been told that the treatment will cost $94,500.  Were he back on the streets, Medicare would pick up the tab.  But because federal courts have ruled that states must guarantee the safety and health of their inmates, Texas will have to pay.  Alonzo frets that because of the expense, prison bureaucrats will stall the treatment until it’s too late.

The state of Texas operates 109 prisons holding about 148,000 inmates.  Some 27,000 of them are, like Alonzo, over the age of 50.  They account for about 18 percent of the prison population, and are the fastest-growing demographic group among prisoners.  By most estimates, they are also the most expensive to keep under lock and key. According to TDCJ spokesman Robert Hurst, the average cost of housing Texas inmates is about $20,000 a year, but medical and end-of-life expenses hike that figure to some $30,000 for elderly inmates.  In other jurisdictions, the cost is even higher.  A 2012 report from the ACLU calculates the average national expense for keeping a prisoner at $34,000 per year — and twice that much, $68,000, for inmates older than 50.

Both demographic factors and get-tough sentencing have transformed what were once mere penal institutions into hospitals, assisted living centers and nursing homes, too.  The University of Texas Medical Branch operates a freestanding hospital in Galveston for TDCJ, which also contracts with UTMB and the Texas Tech medical school to send prisoners to 146 community hospitals.  Texas prisons now boast of “respiratory isolation rooms,” “brace and limb services” and hospice facilities in which 90 Texas inmates were eased into eternity last year.  More than 300 inmates in Texas prisons use wheelchairs, Dr. Murray says....

Alonzo’s life has been one of alternating spans of heroin addiction and confinement. He served three separate stints in prison — for theft, burglary and heroin possession — from 1958 to 1974. After his parole in 1974, allegedly under the influence of two of his brothers, Pedro and Adolfo, he delivered a pair of pistols to a warden’s trustee who then smuggled them into Huntsville’s Walls Unit. San Antonio gangster Fred Carrasco used those guns in an 11-day hostage-taking and stand-off that culminated in a shootout. Alonzo is serving a life sentence for his connection to the incident....

The state of Texas does have a process for releasing old and infirm prisoners on humanitarian parole, but the record is underwhelming.  A bureaucracy dating to 1987, the Texas Correctional office on offenders with Medical or Mental Impairments, usually named by the clunky acronym TCOOMMI, was assigned to process medically recommended intensive supervision, or MRIS, paroles.  MRIS is a way to move inmates rendered harmless by their frailty or age back into the civilian world.

TCOOMMI reports to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles on an inmate’s health status, leaving the final parole decision to the board.  In a February 2015 biennial report, TCOOMMI reported that of the 1,133 MRIS applications that had been submitted in fiscal year 2014, 318 had been found sufficiently meritorious for presentation to the parole board. Of those, the board had granted 67 releases — a mere 6 percent approval rate.

In a 2012 statement, TDCJ admitted that “the Parole Board’s approval rates of MRIS cases remain low.” But the board’s performance hasn’t shown signs of improvement. In the 2015 fiscal year, 445 prisoners older than 60 filed for medical paroles — but only 24 paroles were granted, all of them on the basis of infirmity, none on the basis of age. The roadblock is a provision of the law allowing the parole board to conclude that a prisoner constitutes a threat despite what doctors say....

Benito Alonzo would today have a hard time exacting any revenge or harming anybody, and whether he lives or dies is of little concern except to a coterie of kin and perhaps in the circles of the Mexican Mafia. If he dies in prison, as we must currently expect, though he’d prefer to be interred in San Antonio, his corpse will be eligible for a casket and a grave at public expense, in the prison cemetery, of course.

February 16, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, February 15, 2016

US Sentencing Commission to conduct hearing on compassionate release and conditions of supervision

As reported in this official notice, the US Sentencing Commission is scheduled to conduct a public hearing the morning of Wednesday, February 17, 2016.  This hearing agenda suggests that the main focus of the hearing is so-called "Compassionate Release" and that all of the leading and most important voices in this space will be speaking to the USSC.  

Some prior related posts:

February 15, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)