Monday, August 15, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 14, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 11, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Reflections from those working hard to get their clients clemency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

"Put Away The Pitchforks Against Judge Persky"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some prior related posts:

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

Monday, August 08, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Two midsummer New York Times editorials lamenting federal sentencing nightmares

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

"Holding Sentencing Reform Hostage"

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

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

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

"Mercy Is Far Too Slow at the Justice Department"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 04, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Prez Obama commutes 214 more federal sentences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related posts:

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

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 28, 2016

"California Votes 2016: An Analysis of the Competing Death Penalty Ballot Initiatives."

The title of this post is the title of this lengthy report recently published by the Alarcón Advocacy Center at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles and co-authored by Professor Paula Mitchell, executive director of the Alarcón Advocacy Center, and Nancy Haydt, Board of Governors, California Attorneys for Criminal Justice.  The perspective on whether to end or mend the California death penalty is somewhat predictable based on the past work of the authors, and this overview from the document itself provides a summary of its analysis:

California voters will decide the fate of the state’s death penalty this November. There is now a broad consensus that California’s death penalty system is broken.  Voters will be asked to choose between two starkly different proposals to address its dysfunction and failures.  Competing ballot initiatives will ask voters either to replace the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole, or to double down on the failed system by spending millions more to modify and expand it.

Voters can either support YES on Prop 62, which will replace the death penalty with life without parole and save the state $150 million per year.  Or, voters can support Prop 66 to keep the death penalty system and implement multiple changes to how it operates.  Each proposition would make substantial and far reaching changes to California’s criminal justice system. But only one can pass into law: if both propositions receive more than 50% of the vote, then the one with most votes will become law and the other will not.

This Report analyzes the competing initiatives.  It looks at the current state of the death penalty system in California and analyzes how each initiative will work in practice.  In particular it looks at whether the initiatives will achieve their stated goals, and whether there would be other, perhaps unintended, consequences to their passage into law.

This Report concludes that Prop 66’s proposed “fixes” to the current system will cost millions more than the already expensive death penalty system and will not speed up executions.  In fact, Prop 66 will only make matters worse by creating more delays and further clogging the state’s over-burdened court system.  Prop 66 will add layers of appeals to a system already facing an insurmountable backlog of decades of death penalty appeals waiting to be decided.

Prop 66 contains other provisions that proponents claim will speed up executions, such as keeping the lethal injection protocols secret and out of the public’s purview, exempting them from the Administrative Procedures Act.  This and other key features of Prop 66 will certainly be subject to litigation challenging the provisions on constitutional and other grounds, should Prop 66 pass, adding yet more delays to death penalty cases.

The Report further finds that Prop 66 fails to make the constitutional changes required to deliver the results it promises.  At the same time, its proposals are so convoluted that they are likely to create many new problems that will not only complicate the administration of the death penalty system, but will also impact and harm the rest of California’s legal system.

This Report finds that Prop 62, by contrast, is straightforward and transparent.  It replaces the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole, saving the state $1.5 billion in the next ten years alone.  Prop 62 requires inmates to work and increases the victim compensation rate.  Prop 62 ensures that the state never executes an innocent person, without jeopardizing public safety.

July 28, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

New Fair Punishment Project report laments frequent and persistent use of juve LWOP in one Michigan county

In this post earlier this year, 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).   And the first big project of the FPP was this interesting report highlighting the history of Philadelphia frequently using life without parole sentences for juvenile murderers.  Now, as reported via this blog posting, FPP has another notabe report on this topic focused on another region another northern state.  Here are the details (and links) via the start of the blog posting:

A new report [focused on Michigan juvenile sentencing realities] highlights Wayne County’s frequent use of juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) sentences, calling the county an “extreme outlier” in its use of the punishment.  The report also criticizes D.A. Worthy’s decision, which was announced Friday, to again seek life sentences for at least one out of three individuals currently serving this sentence.

The report urges District Attorney Kym Worthy 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, and that the punishment is only appropriate in the rarest of cases where a juvenile is determined to be “irreparably corrupt.”

The report, Juvenile Life Without Parole in Wayne County: Time to Join the Growing National Consensus?, notes that Wayne County is responsible for the highest number of juvenile life without parole sentences in the country now that Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has recently announced that he will not be seeking LWOP sentences for any of the individuals previously sentenced to JLWOP there.

Currently there are more than 150 individuals serving JLWOP in Wayne County.  While Wayne County has just 18% of the statewide population, it has at least 40% of the JLWOP sentences in the state of Michigan.  Most incredibly, African-Americans are 39% of Wayne County’s population, but more than 90% of the individuals serving juvenile life with parole sentences from the county are Black.  D.A. Worthy’s office obtained 27 JLWOP sentences during her tenure.

July 28, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

John Hinkley now to be freed from a psychiatric hospital, now 35 years after his crime and verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity

As reported in this Reuters piece, "John Hinckley Jr., who wounded U.S. President Ronald Reagan and three other people in a 1981 assassination attempt prompted by his obsession with actress Jodie Foster, can be freed from a psychiatric hospital to live with his mother, a federal judge ruled on Wednesday."  Here is more about this notable ruling in perhaps the highest-profile insanity case of all time:

U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman said Hinckley, 61, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity in a 1982 trial, no longer posed a danger to himself or others. He said Hinckley could be released from St. Elizabeth's, a government psychiatric hospital in Washington, as soon as Aug. 5, subject to nearly three dozen conditions. "Since 1983, when he last attempted suicide, he has displayed no symptoms of active mental illness, exhibited no violent behavior, shown no interest in weapons, and demonstrated no suicidal ideation," Friedman said of Hinckley in a 103-page opinion.

In addition to Reagan, Hinckley's attack wounded presidential press secretary James Brady, a policeman and a Secret Service agent. It helped launch the modern gun control movement, as Brady and his wife, Sarah, founded what is now known as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence after he was left permanently disabled. The Bradys' support helped the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act become law in 1993, imposing federal background checks on gun purchases and a five-day waiting period.

The Hinckley verdict also led several states to rewrite their laws making it more difficult to use the insanity defense while the U.S. Secret Service tightened its protocols for presidential security.

Upon his admission to St. Elizabeth's, doctors diagnosed Hinckley with depression and psychosis - two maladies they say have been in remission for years. Friedman said Hinckley will be required to spend at least a year living with his mother, Jo Ann, 90, in Williamsburg, Virginia, about 130 miles (210 km) south of Washington, where he has been making increasingly long furlough visits for several years.

If Hinckley's treatment team approves, he may then move into his own residence by himself or with roommates, Friedman said. He also said if Hinckley's mother becomes unable to monitor him in her home, his brother or sister will be required to live there with him until the hospital determines an alternate plan. In a May story about Hinckley's life, Washingtonian magazine cited neighbors in her gated community who liked Mrs. Hinckley but did not want him living there.

Hinckley had unsuccessfully sought jobs in Williamsburg at places such as Starbucks and a Subway sandwich shop and tried to become involved in volunteer programs in the town, Washingtonian said. He eventually took a volunteer job in the library of a psychiatric facility in Williamsburg. Hinckley's behavior during his furlough visits has been unimpeachable aside from a few occasions, the judge wrote. Twice in 2011, Hinckley lied to hospital staff about where he had been.

Friedman's order imposes nearly three dozen conditions, including a requirement that Hinckley meet with his psychiatrist in Washington monthly and notify the Secret Service when he travels for the appointment. He is barred from making contact with Foster or her family, Reagan's family and relatives of the other victims, and he is required to either work or volunteer at least three days per week. He is restricted to a 50-mile radius of Williamsburg and must make information about his mobile phone, vehicle and Internet browsing history available to his treatment team and law enforcement.

The petition for release from Hinckley was supported by his doctors but opposed by U.S. prosecutors. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did Hinckley lawyer Barry Levine. Hinckley was a 25-year-old college dropout with vague aspirations of a musical career when he fired at Reagan. He had become obsessed with Foster and the Martin Scorsese film "Taxi Driver" in which she played a teenage prostitute. Hinckley began to identify with the film's main character, Travis Bickle, who planned to assassinate a presidential candidate, and spent several years trying to make contact with Foster, who was a student at Yale University in Connecticut.

On March 30, 1981, Hinckley wrote Foster a letter detailing his plans to kill Reagan in an effort to win her over. Later that day, Hinckley approached Reagan outside the Washington Hilton Hotel and opened fire. Reagan suffered a punctured lung but recovered relatively quickly. Brady's death in 2014 was attributed to his wounds but federal prosecutors said the following year they would not charge Hinckley with his murder.

Foster has refused to comment publicly on Hinckley since addressing it in 1981, and a publicist for the Academy Award-winning actress did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

The full 103-page opinion in US v. Hinckley is available at this link.

Some prior related posts:

July 27, 2016 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Spotlighting the travesty of how the Eleventh Circuit is handling Johnson claims

I highlighted in this post here last week the potent opinions by a number of Eleventh Circuit judges explaining why they think the Circuit's precendents for dealing with prisoner petitions based on the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in Johnson v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), are so very wrong and unjust.  A helpful reader made sure that I did not miss this recent Bloomberg commentary on this topic authored by Noah Feldman headlined "This Is What 'Travesty of Justice' Looks Like."  Here are excerpts:

Call it Scalia’s revenge. In one of the last cases that he authored before he died in February, Justice Antonin Scalia convinced his colleagues to strike down a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act because it was unconstitutionally vague.  As a result, thousands of convicted felons are now asking courts to have their sentences reduced.

The legal rules for considering such post-conviction requests are tricky and technical.  But in most of the country, prisoners are getting another day in court to have their ACCA convictions reviewed in the light of the new legal principle.  In the Eleventh Circuit, which includes Alabama, Georgia and Florida, the process has gone badly awry [and] a judge on the circuit's court of appeals cried foul, calling for a fundamental change in how its handling these cases....

Before a prisoner can go back to the district court for what’s called a “second, successive” post-conviction petition, he or she needs special permission from a federal court of appeals.  The stakes are high for the prisoners.  In some cases, the difference might be between the 15-year minimum imposed on felons with three prior convictions, and a sentence of 10 years or less for fewer convictions.

Consequently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has been immersed in the time-consuming process of figuring out who should be allowed a second chance to file a petition in District Court seeking review of their sentence.  It's studying presentence reports to ascertain whether any of the prior convictions should still count, and, if so, how that might change the petitioner's sentence.  Yet no other court of appeals appears to be engaging in this kind of case-by-case analysis. They’ve been approving the requests automatically and allowing a federal district court to sort out the details.

Judge Beverly Martin of the Eleventh Circuit issued an unusual and stirring opinion ... declaring that the process in her court wasn’t working.  Martin asserted that among the thousands of applications and hundreds of denials, her court has been making mistakes -- mistakes that, by their legal nature, can't be appealed. “A court of appeals is simply not equipped to construct a new basis for a prisoner’s old sentence in this way,” she wrote.

To make matters worse, the Eleventh Circuit gives itself 30 days to rule on each request.  The presentence report can be inadequate or misleading, and there are no attorneys involved to explain what it means.  And most prior convictions are under state law, which varies from place to place and have technical details that are hard for the court to determine without a lawyer’s help.

What's more, the Eleventh Circuit had rejected petitions for reconsideration before the Supreme Court said its Johnson ruling applied retroactively.

The upshot is that something very like a travesty of justice is happening in the Eleventh Circuit.  And as you know if you’re still reading this, the issue is sufficiently technical that it’s hard to draw attention to the problem.  But real people are spending potentially many extra years in prison on the basis of an unconstitutional law.  That’s wrong.  In the spirit of Justice Scalia, the Eleventh Circuit should change course and start allowing district courts to review post-Johnson ACCA petitions the way the other circuits do.

July 27, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

"The Death Penalty and the Fifth Amendment"

The title of this post is the title of this essay authored by Joseph Blocker and just published online by the Northwestern Law Review. Here is part of the introduction: 

Can the Supreme Court find unconstitutional something that the text of the Constitution “contemplates”?  If the Bill of Rights mentions a punishment, does that make it a “permissible legislative choice” immune to independent constitutional challenges?

The dueling opinions in Glossip v. Gross have brought renewed attention to the constitutionality of the death penalty. In a dissent joined by Justice Ginsburg, Justice Breyer identified “three fundamental constitutional defects” with the death penalty.... Justice Breyer’s dissent marked the first time that two members of the current Court have announced a belief that the death penalty is likely unconstitutional “in and of itself,” and the opinion has justifiably been treated as a significant development.

In a blistering concurrence, Justice Scalia (joined by Justice Thomas) wrote that the dissent was full of “gobbledy-gook,” and that “not once in the history of the American Republic has this Court ever suggested the death penalty is categorically impermissible.” Justice Scalia argued that the Fifth Amendment afforded a textual basis for the capital punishment’s continued constitutionality....   Announcing his concurrence from the bench, Justice Scalia made the point even more strongly, saying that “the death penalty is approved by the Constitution.” He and many others have made some version of this point...

The Fifth Amendment contains prohibitions, not powers, and there is no reason to suppose that it somehow nullifies other constitutional prohibitions — most importantly, the ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  The real target of the Fifth Amendment Argument can only be the Court’s longstanding Eighth Amendment doctrine, which is not limited to the punishments considered cruel and unusual at the time of the Constitution’s framing. Unless and until that doctrine changes, the Argument itself carries no weight.

To be clear, the inverse argument would be equally faulty. The weakness of the Fifth Amendment Argument does not mean that the death penalty is unconstitutional, let alone “categorically” so, only that the “constitutional defects” Justice Breyer identifies cannot be dismissed out of hand.  Glossip, along with other developments in law and practice, have made the continuing constitutionality of capital punishment a pressing question. That question should be answered without the distraction of the Fifth Amendment.

July 26, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19)

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Michigan prosecutor wants 71-year-old "juve lifer" to still have no chance of parole

This local AP article, headlined "Prosecutor: No sentencing break for Michigan's oldest juvenile lifer," reports on the disinclination of a Michigan prosecutor to be open to considering even the possibility of parole for an elderly prisoner given LWOP more than a half-century ago. Here are the details:

Oakland County prosecutor Jessica Cooper said Friday she'll seek another no-parole sentence for a 71-year-old man who is the oldest so-called juvenile lifer in the Michigan prison system. Sheldry Topp has been in prison for nearly 54 years. He was 17 in 1962 when he ran away from a state hospital, broke into an Oakland County home and fatally stabbed the owner.

Life sentences with no chance for parole are no longer automatic for anyone under 18. Juvenile lifers have a right to new hearings as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court decision. Judges now have discretion and can consider an offender's childhood, education and a variety of other factors.

Prosecutors across Michigan are filing their sentencing proposals this week in more than 350 cases.

The prosecutor said she'll seek no-parole sentences again for 44 people who are in prison, including Topp. She declined to explain her position in Topp's case during an interview with The Associated Press, referring a reporter to a court filing, which wasn't available after business hours.

"When we talk about doing due diligence, we did an incredible amount of due diligence in these cases," said Cooper, a former judge. "The cases that we've been reviewing are not the kids who were at the wrong place at the wrong time. We're talking about stabbings, shootings and strangulations. ... I'm shocked."

Topp, who turns 72 in September, is in a prison in Muskegon. In a recent court filing, attorney Deborah LaBelle said he was in a hospital with heart problems. She couldn't be reached for comment Friday. In 1987 and 2007, the state parole board recommended that Topp's sentence be reduced, but governors declined.

Meanwhile, in Wayne County — the state's largest — prosecutor Kym Worthy said she would seek no-parole sentences again for at least 60 prisoners who were convicted of murder as teens.

Worthy said she'll ask that 81 people be given a certain number of years in prison instead of a no-parole sentence. That could lead to freedom for some who already have been locked up for decades.

July 23, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thursday, July 21, 2016

California DA makes the case for mending rather than ending California's capital punishment system

The District Attorney of Sacramento County has this new commentary urging citizens of her state to vote for reform rather than repeal of the death penalty.  The piece is headlined "California’s broken death penalty system can be fixed," and here are excerpts:

In 1978, California enacted today’s California death penalty statute, the so-called Briggs Initiative. Now, Ron Briggs supports repealing the statute his “family wrote,” but his argument reads more like a surrender to death penalty abolitionists (“Death penalty is destructive to California”; Forum, July 10).  Instead of waving a white flag, Briggs should endorse Proposition 66, the Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act of 2016, as a worthy successor to his family’s work.  This initiative deals with the concerns Briggs raises about California’s death penalty system.

The reason that no executions have occurred in California for 10 years is the state’s delay in drafting regulations for a method of execution.  Otherwise, there could have been at least 15 sentences carried out during the past decade.  It’s outrageous that victims’ families were forced to sue the state to draft these regulations. Proposition 66 will prevent biased and unsympathetic politicians and government bureaucrats from interfering with this process.

Proposition 66 also addresses concerns about how death row inmates occupy their time, requiring them to work or lose their privileges.  If they owe restitution, it will come out of their wages. The proposal makes other significant reforms as well.  It addresses the backlog of cases at the state level by expanding the pool of qualified counsel for death row inmates.  The initiative expedites review of prisoners’ complaints by returning their cases to the original trial court and prompts the Judicial Council to develop standards for the completion of appeals in state court in five years. Victims’ families will have the right to sue to force them to meet deadlines.

Briggs believes abolition will benefit victims’ survivors by closing cases and sparing them further “wounds.”  That is offensive and presumptuous. In our experience, most survivors want “justice” for the murderers of their family members. Repealing the death penalty will not heal these peoples’ wounds; it keeps them permanently open.

Briggs naively touts life without parole as a sufficient alternative to the death penalty. He forgets that the last murderer executed in California, Clarence Ray Allen, was sentenced to death for the murder of three people, which he planned while already serving a life sentence for murder.  Life imprisonment was not enough to protect the public from Allen....

Finally, Briggs is dead wrong to assert that the death penalty has been conclusively shown not to deter crime. Experience and common sense confirm a deterrent effect.  Briggs risks lives on the unproven idea that the death penalty does not deter murder and that life sentences will protect public safety. Rather than capitulating to abolitionist arguments, he should support his families’ legacy and endorse Proposition 66.

Prior related posts:

July 21, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (9)

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Perhaps previewing coming SCOTUS work in Beckles, four Eleventh Circuit judges make case against circuit's refusal to apply Johnson to guidelines

In this post after the US Supreme Court ruled that a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violated "the Constitution’s prohibition of vague criminal laws" in Johnson v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2551 (2015) (available here), I flagged the question of how Johnson would impact application of the (now older, pre-reform version) career offender guideline of the US Sentencing Guidelines.  Notably, the Justice Department has consistently conceded Johnson-based constitutional problems with that career offender guideline, which in turn has led to most circuit courts finding Johnson-based constitutional problems with sentences based on that guideline. 

But, as noted in this post last September, an Eleventh Circuit panel in US v. Matchett, 802 F.3d 1185 (11th Cir. 2015) (available here), squarely addressed this issue and ruled that Johnson and its vagueness problem just do not apply to advisory sentencing guidelines.  I considered this ruling suspect, but an amicus brief I helped put together urging en banc review in Matchett did not led to its reconsideration.  As blogged here last month, though, we know have the ultimate judicial authority on this issue poised to weigh in: the final Supreme Court order list of last Term included a grant of certiorari in Beckles v. United States, No. 15-8544, which will explore whether Johnson's constitutional holding applies to the residual clause in the older, pre-reform version of the career offender guideline.

For a variety of reasons, I am expecting that SCOTUS will ultimately agree with the majority of circuits that Johnson's holding applies to the career offender guidelines and thereby reject the Eleventh Circuit's Matchett precedent.  What I did not expect was that a number of Eleventh Circuit judges would set forth, in essence, some amicus briefing to SCOTUS in order to explain in detail why they think their own circuit's work in Matchett was wrong.  But that is what I see via a series of recent concurring opinions in In Re: William Hunt and In re: Charles Therion Clayton, cases in which a panel felt duty-bound to reject habeas applications due to the Matchett precedent but then followed up with separate opinions by Circuit Judges Wilson and (Jill) Pryor and Rosenbaum and Martin all explaining why they think Matchett is so wrong and so troublesome as we await a SCOTUS ruling in Beckles.

If you have read this far into this post, you probably have some interest in the application of Johnson and its impact on the career offender guidelines, which in turns means you ought to find the time to read all the judicial thoughts shared in Hunt and Therion.  I know that is my plan for this evening, and to whet everyone's appetite I will close this post by quoting the closing paragraph authored by Judge Pryor in these cases:

If the Supreme Court decides in Beckles that the residual clause in the career offender guideline is void for vagueness, there may be new hope for the scores of inmates who have tried to obtain relief since Johnson, only to be turned away by this Court based upon Matchett.  I hope next time around we will avoid the mistakes I have identified. And I hope that, rather than being behind the march of justice, we, as our nation’s designated guardians, will be at the front.

July 19, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Defense builds case for unconstitutionality of death penalty in federal court in Vermont

Those who follow the federal death penalty closely surely have heard of the long-running case from Vermont involving Donald Fell.  Fell was involved in the murder of three persons way back in 2000, and the feds have been trying to secure and preserve a death sentence for the last dozen years.  After an original death sentence reversed on appeal, Fell is getting a new opportunity to build a record in the District Court concerning his claims that the death penalty is unconstitutional.  This recent local article, headlined "Fell's defense: The federal death penalty is 'irrational'," reports on these recent developments.  Here are excerpts:

The final witness for the defense in the Donald Fell death penalty hearing in Rutland testified on the results of more than 20 years of research he’s gathered for the Federal Death Penalty Resource Council Project.

Based on that data, Kevin McNally, the project’s director and an attorney in Kentucky, said that the “federal death penalty is driven by irrational or illegal considerations,” including race, gender, geography, or luck. “It’s akin to being struck by lightning,” McNally said.

McNally cited the Donald Fell case as a prime example of the role luck and timing can play in capital cases and the authorization of the death penalty....

Fell was convicted in the brutal killing of Terry King, a North Clarendon grandmother, and sentenced to death in 2005. The verdict was overturned due to juror misconduct and a retrial is scheduled for early next year.  The two-week long hearings in Rutland could lead to a historic Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of the death penalty....

The lack of a uniform standard for seeking the death penalty is one of many factors that has eroded public trust in capital punishment, according to Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, who also testified on Friday.  Although a majority of Americans still support the death penalty, Dieter said, growing numbers have expressed concern about the way it is applied....

Counsel for the U.S. government questioned whether the Death Penalty Information Center was a neutral source of information as Dieter characterized it.  Attorney Sonia Jimenez read the titles of several reports published by the center: “Struck by Lightning: The Continuing Arbitrariness of the Death Penalty”; “The 2% Death Penalty: How a Minority of Counties Produce Most Death Cases at Enormous Costs to All”; and “A Crisis of Confidence: Americans’ Doubts About the Death Penalty.”

Asked if he was opposed to the death penalty, Dieter said he took a fact-based approach. “It’s not a philosophical issue for me,” he said. “It’s not a moral issue.”

“The present system is broken,” he continued. “Can it be fixed? Maybe it can’t be fixed.”

The government will present its case next week in Rutland District Court.

In this post over at PrawfsBlawg, Michael J.Z. Mannheimer provides some additional context and highlights his distinct interest in the case:

The defense filed the usual battery of motions for a capital case, arguing among other things that the death penalty has become cruel and unusual punishment.  Curiously, the court issued an order this past February calling for a hearing on the issue.  Citing Justice Breyer’s dissenting opinion in Glossip v. Gross, 135 S. Ct. 2726, 2755 (2015) (Breyer, J., dissenting), the court expressed an interest in the suggestion there that the risk of wrongful execution, the geographic disparities in the implementation of the death penalty, the long delays before execution, and the purported arbitrariness in meting out the death penalty all added up to its unconstitutionality.  However, the court seemed unsatisfied with deciding these issues without a factual record complete with testifying experts, and wrote that the purpose of a hearing “is to develop the fullest possible expression of both sides' factual and empirical arguments.”  In particular, while capital defendants typically repeat the same empirical assertions in their briefs, a hearing would provide the Government the opportunity to “cross-examine[] the sources of social and statistical information cited by the defense” and “offer[] its own empirical evidence in response.”...

Irrespective of how the court rules, it appears that the court is attempting to get as complete a factual record as possible in order to tee the unconstitutionality issue up for appeal.  My interest in this particular case stems from the fact that this is a federal capital prosecution for crimes occurring in a non-death penalty State (well, here, two separate non-death penalty States).  I have appeared in the case as an amicus and have filed an amicus brief on my own behalf making the argument, based on my prior scholarship, that the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause forbids the imposition of the federal death penalty under these circumstances.  Presumably, the court will ultimately address that issue as well, unless it is mooted by a broader ruling that the death penalty is unconstitutional full stop.

July 17, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (15)

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Wisconsin Supreme Court rejects due process challenge to use of risk-assessment instrument at sentencing

In prior posts here and here, I noted the notable Loomis case in Wisconsin in which the defendant was contesting on due process grounds the reliance by a sentencing court on risk-assessment tools.  Today the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued this lengthy opinion rejecting the defendant's constitutional challenge.  The Court's extended introduction to its extended opinion is thoughtful, and includes these passages:

In 2007, the Conference of Chief Justices adopted a resolution entitled "In Support of Sentencing Practices that Promote Public Safety and Reduce Recidivism." It emphasized that the judiciary "has a vital role to play in ensuring that criminal justice systems work effectively and efficiently to protect the public by reducing recidivism and holding offenders accountable." The conference committed to "support state efforts to adopt sentencing and corrections policies and programs based on the best research evidence of practices shown to be effective in reducing recidivism."

Likewise, the American Bar Association has urged states to adopt risk assessment tools in an effort to reduce recidivism and increase public safety. It emphasized concerns relating to the incarceration of low-risk individuals, cautioning that the placement of low-risk offenders with medium and high-risk offenders may increase rather than decrease the risk of recidivism. Such exposure can lead to negative influences from higher risk offenders and actually be detrimental to the individual's efforts at rehabilitation.

Initially risk assessment tools were used only by probation and parole departments to help determine the best supervision and treatment strategies for offenders. With nationwide focus on the need to reduce recidivism and the importance of evidence-based practices, the use of such tools has now expanded to sentencing.  Yet, the use of these tools at sentencing is more complex because the sentencing decision has multiple purposes, only some of which are related to recidivism reduction....

Use of a particular evidence-based risk assessment tool at sentencing is the heart of the issue we address today. This case is before the court on certification from the court of appeals. Petitioner, Eric L. Loomis, appeals the circuit court's denial of his post-conviction motion requesting a resentencing hearing.

The court of appeals certified the specific question of whether the use of a COMPAS risk assessment at sentencing "violates a defendant's right to due process, either because the proprietary nature of COMPAS prevents defendants from challenging the COMPAS assessment's scientific validity, or because COMPAS assessments take gender into account."

Loomis asserts that the circuit court's consideration of a COMPAS risk assessment at sentencing violates a defendant's right to due process.  Additionally he contends that the circuit court erroneously exercised its discretion by assuming that the factual bases for the read-in charges were true.

Ultimately, we conclude that if used properly, observing the limitations and cautions set forth herein, a circuit court's consideration of a COMPAS risk assessment at sentencing does not violate a defendant's right to due process.

We determine that because the circuit court explained that its consideration of the COMPAS risk scores was supported by other independent factors, its use was not determinative in deciding whether Loomis could be supervised safely and effectively in the community.  Therefore, the circuit court did not erroneously exercise its discretion.

Prior related posts:

July 13, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, July 11, 2016

First Circuit finds sentence enhanced based on a song (and thrice longer than guideline range) substantively unreasonable

Thanks to Howard Bashman at How Appealing, I did not miss the interesting First Circuit panel ruling in Alvarez-Núñez, No. 15-2127 (1st Cir. July 9, 2016) (available here), declaring an above-guideline sentence substantively unreasonable. Here are excepts from an opinion that has a wordy flair that would justify reading in full:

In this case, the sentencing court confused the message with the messenger. That led the court to blur the line between the artistic expression of a musical performer and that performer's state of mind qua criminal defendant. Concluding, as we do, that this line-blurring undermined the plausibility of the court's sentencing rationale (and, thus, rendered the sentence substantively unreasonable), we vacate and remand for resentencing....

Evidence extrinsic to the protected words or conduct may make clear that a performance or artistic work speaks to a defendant's motive, state of mind, or some other attribute in a way that is relevant to sentencing.  In the absence of such extrinsic evidence, the mere fact that a defendant's crime happens to resemble some feature of his prior artistic expression cannot, by itself, establish the relevance of that expression to sentencing.

Evidence that might support such an inference is conspicuously lacking in this case. Nothing in the record indicates that the lyrics or music videos had any direct application either to the defendant or to his lifestyle.  Nor is there any basis for a claim that they are unlawful in any respect.  By like token, there is no hint that the defendant had any prior involvement with illegal firearms, much less with violence or murder.  The government did not so much as attempt to prove any uncharged conduct, nor did the district court make any findings about the defendant's involvement in any other criminal activity. To the contrary, the PSI Report — accepted in this regard both by the government and the district court — confirms that, at age 34, the defendant had no adult criminal history.

The district court's conclusions — that the lyrics and music videos comprised "objective evidence . . . that this [crime] was not a mistake," that they reflected that the defendant had a history of involvement "with firearms, with violence, [and] with murders," and that they made it likely that the defendant possessed the gun for nefarious purposes — thus rested entirely on naked inferences drawn from the content of the lyrics and music videos....

Taking the lyrics and music videos as "objective evidence" of factors relevant to sentencing, without an iota of corroborating evidence, results in a sentencing rationale wholly unsupported by the record. Like a house built upon a porous foundation, a sentence built upon a rationale that is unsupported by the record cannot stand.

July 11, 2016 in Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 08, 2016

The demise of irreducible life sentences in the Netherlands

I am pleased to be able to provide this guest posting from Dirk van Zyl Smit, who runs the Life Imprisonment Worldwide Project at the University of Nottingham, concerning a big recent ruling from the Netherlands:

The Netherlands has long been an exception to the general European rule that all persons sentenced to life imprisonment must have a realistic prospect of release before they are too old or ill to again lead a full life in free society. There are only a small number of life-sentenced prisoners in the Netherlands, 32 at the last count, but they all serve sentences akin to US-style life without parole, and are rarely, if ever, released. On 5 July 2016, that position changed dramatically. The Hoge Raad, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands, ruled that the remote possibility of a pardon, which hitherto has been the sole mechanism by which Dutch life-sentenced prisoners theoretically could be released, was inadequate. The current pardon system did not provide them with a clear prospect of being considered for release and was therefore contrary to Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which prohibits torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

In coming to this conclusion the Hoge Raad quoted extensively from the standards developed by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in 2013 in Vinter and others v United Kingdom and in 2016 in Murray v The Netherlands but then set them out and developed them further in its own words. (The translations are my own.)

The Hoge Raad began cautiously (para 3.2), noting

that the life sentence is not inherently contrary to the provisions of art. 3 of the ECHR, even if it is fully executed. From the jurisprudence [of the European Court of Human Rights] however, it follows that life imprisonment cannot be imposed if it is not already clear at the time of imposition that in due course there will be a real opportunity to reassess the life sentence, which in the appropriate cases can lead to the shortening of the sentence or (conditional) release. This does not mean that providing an opportunity for review of the sentence will always lead to a reduction of the penalty. Reassessment can indeed also lead to a finding that there is no ground for reducing the sentence.

The Hoge Raad then explained the various conditions it regarded as essential prerequisites for a review of a life sentence (para 3.3):

In the review, the question that needs to be addressed is whether there have been such changes on the part of the convicted person and whether he or she has made such progress in their resocialisation that the continued implementation of life imprisonment is no longer justified. The criteria used in this context should not be so stringent that release is allowed only when a serious illness or other physical obstacle stands in the way of the further implementation of life imprisonment, or upon reaching an advanced age. The review must be based on information with respect to the convicted person as an individual as well as the opportunities offered for resocialisation. Moreover, at the time of the imposition of a life sentence, it must be clear to the convicted person to a sufficiently precise extent what objective criteria will be applied in the review, so that he knows what requirements must be met, if he wants - eventually – to be considered for a reduction of his sentence or for (conditional) release.

The point of departure in the future must be that the review must take place after no more than 25 years after the imposition of life imprisonment and that after that period the possibility of periodical re-assessment is required. The reassessment shall be surrounded with sufficient procedural safeguards. The case law of the European Court of Human Rights does not require that a provision to curtail a life sentence can only consist of a statutory periodic review of the sentence by a judge. That does not detract from the view of the Hoge Raad that assigning the reassessment to a judge in itself represents an important guarantee that the implementation of life imprisonment will take place in accordance with Art. 3 of the ECHR.

Finally, in order to provide a real opportunity for reassessment, it is important that the convicted person during the execution of the life sentence - even before the reassessment takes place - must be able to prepare for a possible return to society and that, related to this, possibilities for resocialisation should be offered within the framework of the implementation.

The very basis of this decision is a rejection of official Dutch policy on the treatment of life-sentenced prisoners, for until now they have not been offered opportunities for resocialisation, because it had been presumed that they would never be released. The prison regimes for these prisoners will have to change.

The remedy that the Hoge Raad put forward is equally drastic. It ordered the Dutch government to legislate in order to reform the law relating to life imprisonment so that it would meet the standards it had spelled out. Such reforms have to be introduced by 5 September 2017. The Hoge Raad will remain seized with the case until then, when it will again consider the matter and decide whether the legislative reform meets the standards it has now set.

The decision of the Hoge Raad of 5 July 2016 is recognition that Dutch jurisprudence on life imprisonment must move forward to take account of the development in European human rights law that has led to a clear rejection of irreducible life sentences. It stands in contrast to the much more conservative approach of the English Court of Appeal, in R v Mcloughlin, which has insisted that English provisions that would allow life-sentenced prisoners, subject to a whole life order, to leave prison only when ill or dying are sufficiently flexible to be regarded as a form of release to meet the standards of Art. 3 of the ECHR. This interpretation of European standards by the Court of Appeal has been challenged before the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR in Hutchinson v the United Kingdom. Judgment in this last case, which was argued in October 2015, is keenly awaited. What remains to be seen is how the British authorities, including the UK courts, will respond if the ECtHR follows the trend that the Dutch Supreme Court has endorsed and rejects the interpretation of the Court of Appeal. The recent British referendum in favour of leaving the European Union does not affect the legal status of the United Kingdom as a party to the ECHR. However, there has been much press speculation that a decision against the United Kingdom in this latest case about irreducible life sentences may prompt a reconsideration of Britain’s relationship with the ECtHR and lead eventually to a formal withdrawal from its jurisdiction. The measured decision of the Hoge Raad on 5 July 2016 is an example of a less confrontational approach to European jurisprudence by a national apex court. One can only hope that the courts and indeed the government of the United Kingdom will learn from it.

July 8, 2016 in Sentences Reconsidered, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

"Implementing Proportionality"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Perry Moriearty and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Over the last fourteen years, the Supreme Court has issued five decisions that impose substantive constraints on our harshest punishments -- forbidding the execution of those with “mental retardation” in Atkins v. Virginia, of juveniles in Roper v. Simmons, and of those convicted of child sexual assault in Kennedy v. Louisiana, and forbidding the sentence of life without parole for juveniles who had not killed in Graham v. Florida and for all juveniles when it is imposed mandatorily in Miller v. Alabama.  Because the offenders in question were categorically less culpable, the proscribed punishment was disproportionately severe, the Court held.  

In many respects, these decisions reinvigorated the Court’s substantive proportionality jurisprudence, which had been virtually dormant for two decades.  Yet, three of the five decisions simply have not yielded in practice what they promised in principle.  The implementation of Atkins, Graham and Miller has been so protracted, litigious and encumbered by procedural obstacles that, of the nearly 3,000 inmates nominally impacted by the decisions, only a fraction has been relieved of their sentences.  In the meantime, inmates with IQs of 61 have been executed, and others have died waiting to hear whether the Court’s decisions apply retroactively.

This Article argues that, despite its transformative potential, the Court’s contemporary proportionality jurisprudence has been diminished in scope and potency in the course of its implementation -- a dynamic that has been called “slippage.”  In many respects, the “slippage” of these mandates can be attributed to the decisions themselves, which are deregulatory and, in concert with the Court’s broader efforts to limit federal court jurisdiction over state criminal justice processes, tie the scope of relief to the political whims and majoritarian preferences of the States.  On some issues, the procedural docility of these decisions has proven so problematic that the Court has twice within the last two years had to intervene, striking portions of Florida’s capital sentencing scheme in 2014 and, just weeks ago, declaring in Montgomery v. Louisiana that Miller does in fact apply retroactively.  

While the Court’s reluctance to regulate the implementation of its proportionality mandates may be rationalized as necessary deference to the principles of federalism and finality, these justifications are far less compelling in the Eighth Amendment context.  The very establishment of federal habeas, executive clemency, and Supreme Court review suggests that the Framers themselves recognized that there are normative points when interests in federalism and finality simply must yield.  By contrast, the risk of offending constitutional norms through slippage may be at their most pronounced since one of the Eighth Amendment’s primary purposes is to protect the politically powerless from government overreach.  I conclude that, if the Court is serious about implementing in practice the substantive constraints on punishment it has imposed over the last fourteen years, it must accompany its substantive mandates with a minimum threshold of procedural prescription.

July 6, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Death Penalty Reforms, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Split Eighth Circuit panel affirms three-month sentence for Iowa egg executives whose company caused salmonella outbreak

As reported in this AP piece, the Eighth Circuit today rejected an array of challenges to upheld short jail sentences for two egg industry executives who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor corporate crimes. Here is more about the case and the ruling:

In a 2-1 decision, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld three-month jail sentences issued last year to 82-year-old Austin "Jack" DeCoster and his son Peter DeCoster, 53.

The DeCosters were aware of unsanitary conditions at their sprawling Iowa egg farms but failed to improve them before the outbreak, which sickened up to 56,000 people and left some with permanent injuries, Judge Diana Murphy wrote. "We conclude that the record here shows that the DeCosters are liable for negligently failing to prevent the salmonella outbreak," Murphy wrote, joined by Judge Raymond Gruender.

The case, a rare prosecution against those responsible for an outbreak of foodborne illness, was closely watched by advocates for consumer safety and food and drug manufacturers. The Justice Department praised the ruling, saying the DeCosters disregarded basic food safety standards for years and deserved jail time....

At issue was whether corporate executives could face imprisonment for violating the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which allows "responsible corporate agents" to be held criminally liable even if they were not aware of the wrongdoing. The DeCosters, who owned and operated Quality Egg LLC, had pleaded guilty to violating the law by introducing adulterated eggs into interstate commerce. They said they did not know the eggs were contaminated but acknowledged they were in a position to stop the problems had they known.

U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett ordered the jail time in April 2015, saying they knew or should have known about the risks posed by the presence of salmonella in and around millions of egg-laying hens. But he allowed the DeCosters to stay free while they appealed the sentences, which they argued were unconstitutional and unreasonably harsh.

Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, filed friend-of-the-court briefs backing the DeCosters' appeal. They argued that it would be unfair to send corporate executives to prison for violations that they were unaware of or that were committed by subordinates.

Murphy rejected those arguments, saying Congress did not require executives to have known about the violations to be subject to the food safety law's criminal penalties. She said the jail terms were relatively short, within federal guidelines and "not grossly disproportionate to the gravity of their misdemeanor offenses." Gruender added in a concurring opinion that the DeCosters were not being punished for the acts of others, saying their own failure to take steps to prevent the outbreak was to blame.

Dissenting Judge C. Arlen Beam said prosecutors failed to show that the DeCosters had criminal intent, and therefore "there is no precedent" for sending them to jail. He said they were not aware the products were tainted with salmonella and that they immediately recalled hundreds of millions of eggs once the outbreak was confirmed "at great expense."...

Quality Egg paid a $6.8 million fine after pleading guilty to felony charges of shipping eggs with false processing and expiration dates and bribing a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector to approve sales of poor-quality eggs.

The full ruling in US v. DeCoster, No. 15-1890 (8th Cir. July 6, 2016), is available at this link.

July 6, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Examining Justice Sonia Sotomayor's unique SCOTUS voice on criminal justice issues

This past week as brought these two notable examinations of the work of Justice Sonia Sotomayor on criminal justice issues:

July 6, 2016 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Might the Nebraska death penalty repeal referendum in 2016 be even more important symbolically than the dueling California capital initiatives?

As highlighted in prior posts here and here, death penalty opponents and supporters will surely be focused on California during the 2016 election season as voters there will be have a clear capital punishment reform choice between "end it" and "mend it" based on two competing ballot proposals. But this local article from Nebraska, headlined "Death penalty debate heats up," provides a useful reminder that citizens in a very different state will also be voting on the future of the death penalty in their jurisdiction. Here are the basics:

Nebraskans will go to the polls four month from now and vote for an array of issues-one being whether or not to reinstate the death penalty in Nebraska. The legislature voted 30-19 to repeal it in the Spring of 2015, but supporters of capital punishment were able to get enough signatures to get the issue on the November ballot.

“It's a very complicated system, the system is broken and it doesn't work,” said Retain a Just Nebraska campaign manager Darold Bauer [campaign website here]. “The repeal of the death penalty was very unpopular across the state,” said Rod Edwards, state director for Nebraskans for the Death Penalty [campaign website here].

Those for the death penalty say murder victim’s families want justice. “They want that just penalty for the people who killed their loved ones,” said Edwards.

However the group Retain a Just Nebraska said the system doesn’t work and actually harms murder victim’s families. “Eliminate years and years of appeals, and eliminate the possibility of executing an innocent person,” said Bauer.

Both sides of this issue are now ramping up their campaigns this summer coordinating their army of volunteers and getting their message out. “We are re-energizing those volunteers we are working with our Facebook followers to make sure they get the message out and working with those 166-thousands signature gathers to expand that to an electorate,” said Edwards.

Even churches are getting involved-handing out materials urging their people to vote for a specific item. This past weekend, some parishioners likely saw a bit of politicking in the pews. “We are getting help from a number of different churches and different denominations, we are not turning anyone away, if they believe what we do in eliminating the death penalty, we welcome their support,” said Bauer.

Both campaigns will start airing ads on TV and radio soon.

Because California has the nation's largest death row (as well as the largest population of any state in the nation), the outcome of the death penalty reform initiatives in that state will, practically and politically, be far more consequential in the short-term than whatever happens in Nebraska.  But, as the question in the title of this post is meant to suggest, I think the vote in Nebraska could have more symbolically importance and long-term significance for the future of the death penalty in the United States.

California is, of course, a "deep-blue" state and its quirky and complicated history with the death penalty will make it relatively easy for whichever side that loses in November to claim that the result is not really representative of the views of the national as a whole.  But Nebraska is a "deep-red" state, and its legislative repeal of the death penalty was driven by conservative elected officials.  If Cornhusker voters embrace capital repeal at the ballot this November, I think death penalty abolitionists can and will assert forcefully that this vote shows that even conservative citizens want to see an end of capital punishment int he US. But if Nebraska voters reject the repeal, and especially if they do so by a large margin, supporters of capital punishment can and still will be able to point to the outcome as proof that most voters in most states still support the punishment of death for some murderers.

July 6, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Split Iowa Supreme Court upholds state's broad felon disenfranchisement provisions

As reported in this local article, headlined "Iowa Supreme Court upholds ban on felons voting in Iowa," a divided state Supreme Court rejected a challenge to Iowa's felony disenfranchisement laws. Here is how the press report on the decision starts:

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled against an expansion of voting rights for convicted criminals on Thursday, finding that all felonies are "infamous crimes" resulting in disenfranchisement under the state constitution. The 4-3 decision upholds what critics say is one of the harshest felon disenfranchisement laws in the nation, and means the state will not see a significant shift in voter eligibility ahead of the 2016 election.

Iowa's top elections officer immediately cheered the ruling, while criminal justice reform advocates said they would begin exploring their options for constitutional and legislative reforms. "This ruling goes in line with 150 years of precedence and has been reaffirmed by the people of Iowa and their elected representatives on multiple occasions," Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate said in a statement. Pate's office oversees elections in the state, and he was named as the defendant in the case.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, which argued the case before the court, had sought to limit disenfranchisement to a handful of felonies directly relating to elections and governance. If the court had upheld that view, thousands of Iowans with felony convictions could have had their voting rights restored ahead of this November's presidential election. "This is no way (to) run a democracy," ACLU attorney Rita Bettis said in a statement following the decision. The group now intends to draft a constitutional amendment allowing offenders to vote after completing their sentences.

The lengthy ruling from the Supreme Court of Iowa is available at this link, and the majority opinion authored by the court's Chief Justice gets started this way:

This appeal requires us to decide if the crime of delivery of a controlled substance is an “infamous crime” under the voter disqualification provision of the Iowa Constitution. The district court held the crime is an infamous crime, and a conviction thereof disqualifies persons from voting in Iowa. Following the analysis we have used in the past to interpret provisions of our constitution, we agree and affirm the judgment of the district court.

The term “infamous crime” was generally recognized to include felony crimes at the time our constitution was adopted. This meaning has not sufficiently changed or evolved to give rise to a different meaning today. In addition, unlike some past cases when we have interpreted provisions of our constitution, the facts and evidence of this case are insufficient to justify judicial recognition of a different meaning. Constrained, as we must be, by our role in government, we conclude our constitution permits persons convicted of a felony to be disqualified from voting in Iowa until pardoned or otherwise restored to the rights of citizenship. This conclusion is not to say the infamous-crime provision of our constitution would not accommodate a different meaning in the future. A different meaning, however, is not for us to determine in this case. A new definition will be up to the future evolution of our understanding of voter disqualification as a society, revealed through the voices of our democracy.

Among other interesting aspects of this ruling is the wide array of cites to recent legal scholarship appearing in both the majority opinion and the longest dissent. (I bring that fact up not only because it makes me pleased given how much time I give to reading and writing such scholarship, but also because it helps reinforce my belief that Judge Posner is way off base with some recent (and past) comments about the legal academy failing to work on projects of any interest and importance to the bench and the practicing bar.)

June 30, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Sixth Circuit affirms way-below guideline five-year child porn sentence based in part on jury poll urging sentence even lower

A number of helpful readers made sure that, despite being on the road all day, I did not miss the remarkable Sixth Circuit panel decision today in US v. Collins, No. 15-3236 (6th Cir. June 29, 2016) (available here).  I first blogged about this case here after initial sentencing, recounting these basic details via a news account:

A jury convicted Ryan Collins in October of one count possessing, distributing and receiving child pornography and one count possession of child pornography. Police found more than 1,500 files on his computer, and he was charged with distributing because he used peer-to-peer file sharing programs.

Under federal law, a judge can sentence a defendant to up to 20 years in prison if he or she is found guilty of child porn distribution. On Tuesday, during Collins' sentencing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan asked U.S. District Judge James Gwin to give the maximum sentence for the charge.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Probation and Pretrial Services said a guideline sentence for Collins, who is 32 and has no criminal history, would be between about 21 and 27 years in federal prison. While higher than the maximum sentence, the office's calculation accounted for several factors in Collins' case -- including the age of the victims and not taking responsibility for his actions.

But Gwin handed down a five-year sentence to Collins, the minimum allowable sentence for a distribution charge. The judge said that after Collins' trial, he polled jurors on what they thought was an appropriate sentence. The average recommendation was 14 months, Gwin said.

Unhappy with this outcome, federal prosecutors appealed the sentence as unreasonable, but now has lost before a unanimous Sixth Circuit panel. The Court's relatively short opinion includes these passages:

The government also argues that the jury poll was an “impermissible factor[]” for the district judge to consider in crafting an appropriate sentence. Conatser, 514 F.3d at 520. We again disagree. Federal law provides nearly unfettered scope as to the sources from which a district judge may draw in determining a sentence....

District courts also have the authority to “reject the Guidelines sentencing ranges based on articulated policy disagreements in a range of contexts.” United States v. Kamper, 748 F.3d 728, 741 (6th Cir. 2014). Indeed, we have suggested the plausibility of rejecting guidelines ranges in child pornography cases based on policy disagreements. See United States v. Bistline (Bistline I), 665 F.3d 758, 762-64 (6th Cir. 2012) (finding that the district court “did not seriously attempt to refute” the judgments underlying the guidelines).

When establishing the Sentencing Commission, Congress directed it to take “the community view of the gravity of the offense” into account when crafting appropriate criminal sanctions. 28 U.S.C. § 994(c)(4). As reflected in his writing on the subject, and briefly in the sentencing hearing below, the district judge reasons that the Commission fell short of this directive. See Judge James S. Gwin, Juror Sentiment on Just Punishment: Do the Federal Sentencing Guidelines Reflect Community Values?, 4 HARV. L. & POL'Y REV. 173, 185 (Winter 2010)....

Though we reiterate that juries lack “the tools necessary for the sentencing decision,” Martin, 390 F. App’x at 538, they can provide insight into the community’s view of the gravity of an offense. See Gwin, supra at 193-94; see also Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584, 615-16 (2002) (BREYER, J., concurring) (jurors “reflect more accurately the composition and experiences of the community as a whole” and are “better able to determine in the particular case the need for retribution”) (internal quotations and citations omitted). The jury did not determine or impose defendant’s sentence. Rather, the district judge – who does possess the necessary tools for the sentencing decision – was at all times interposed between the jurors’ views of an appropriate sentence and the sentencing guidelines’ § 3553(a) factors. Considering the jury’s sentencing recommendation as part of the sentencing calculus did not conflict with the district judge’s duty or ability to properly weigh the § 3553(a) factors and independently craft an appropriate sentence.

June 29, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Final SCOTUS order list has nine Mathis GVRs ... and I suspect hundreds more cases will be impacted

The Supreme Court this morning finished up its work before heading out on summer vacation by issuing this order list. Though the Justices granted review in eight new cases, none appear to involve criminal justice issues. But the order list still had a bit of sentencing intrigue by including nine GVRs based on its Mathis ACCA ruling from last week (basics here).

Though it is never surprising to see a spate of GVRs in the wake of any significant ruling about a federal sentencing statute, I suspect that the fall-out from Mathis will extended to many more cases because, as reported via Justice Alito's dissent, it seems the ruling means that "in many States, no burglary conviction will count" as a possible ACCA predicate offense. That reality not only can impact many past, present and future ACCA cases, but also could also echo through the application of burglary (and even other crimes) in past career offender guideline cases.

Ultimately, I would be very surprised in the impact and import of Mathis end up nearly as grand or as complicated as last Term's Johnson ruling. But the consequential sentencing math of Mathis still may be major.

June 28, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, June 27, 2016

Eager to hear various perspectives on the SCOTUS sentencing Term that was

R-2958783-1407368094-7528.jpegIn this post last September, I previewed the SCOTUS Term that just wrapped up this morning by asking "Are we about to start the #Best Ever SCOTUS Term for Eighth Amendment?".  (I thereafter followed up with a grand total of one post promoting the silly hashtag, #BESTEA = Best Ever SCOTUS Term for Eighth Amendment for this Supreme Court Term.)  

Looking back now, I do not think this past SCOTUS Term proved to be truly monumental for the Eighth Amendment, although I do think the Montgomery ruling is a (so-far under-examined) big deal.  Ironically, the surprising and sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia may have been the biggest Eighth Amendment development: Justice Scalia had long been among the most vocal and frequent critics of the Court's modern "evolving standards" Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, and his eventual replacement, no matter who that ends up being, seems unlikely to be as hostile to this jurisprudence.  Indeed, the next new Justice will be joining a Court that seems to already have at least five, and maybe even six, Justices open to continuing to interpret the Eighth Amendment as a serious limit on serious punishment other than just the death penalty.  (I am counting the Chief Justice as the sixth, based in part on his surprising vote with the Kennedy majority opinion in the Montgomery case.) 

Of course, there were a number of notable constitutional cases/developments outside of the Eighth Amendment context this past Term involving important sentencing issues.  For death penalty followers, the Sixth Amendment ruling in Hurst was and will remain a very big deal for the forseeable future (especially in Alabama, Delaware and Florida).  And the shock-waves of the Johnson Fifth Amendment ruling from the end of last SCOTUS Term has and will continue to rumble through the Welch retroactivity ruling and today's grant in the Beckle case to address the application of Johnson to the career offender provision of the federal sentencing guidelines.

In the coming days and weeks, I will likely to some writing about the SCOTUS sentencing Term that was along with some predictions about what the future might hold for SCOTUS sentencing jurisprudence.  In the meantime, though, I would be eager to hear from readers (in the comments or via email) concerning what sentencing case(s)/opinion(s) they think were most important or significant or telling or consequential.  And anyone who can provide perspectives on the SCOTUS sentencing Term that was wth a Tom Lehrer flair will be sure to get extra praise and promotion in this space.

June 27, 2016 in Recap posts, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

Per the Chief, SCOTUS unanimously vacates former Gov's conviction while adopting "more bounded interpretation" of corruption statute

Wrapping up yet another remarkable Term with a notable bit of unanimity, the Supreme Court's final opinion for this SCOTUS season was a win for a high-profile federal defendant McDonnell v. United States, No. 15-474 (S. Ct. June 27, 2016) (available here). Chief Justice Roberts authored the opinion for the unanimous Court, and here are some key excerpts from the start and center of the ruling:

In 2014, the Federal Government indicted former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and his wife, Maureen McDonnell, on bribery charges.  The charges related to the acceptance by the McDonnells of $175,000 in loans, gifts, and other benefits from Virginia businessman Jonnie Williams, while Governor McDonnell was in office.  Williams was the chief executive officer of Star Scientific, a Virginia-based company that had developed a nutritional supplement made from anatabine, a compound found in tobacco.  Star Scientific hoped that Virginia’s public universities would perform research studies on anatabine, and Williams wanted Governor McDonnell’s assistance in obtaining those studies.

To convict the McDonnells of bribery, the Government was required to show that Governor McDonnell committed (or agreed to commit) an “official act” in exchange for the loans and gifts.  The parties did not agree, however, on what counts as an “official act.”  The Government alleged in the indictment, and maintains on appeal, that Governor McDonnell committed at least five “official acts.”  Those acts included “arranging meetings” for Williams with other Virginia officials to discuss Star Scientific’s product, “hosting” events for Star Scientific at the Governor’s Mansion, and “contacting other government officials” concerning studies of anatabine.  Supp. App. 47–48.  The Government also argued more broadly that these activities constituted “official action” because they related to Virginia business development, a priority of Governor McDonnell’s administration.   Governor McDonnell contends that merely setting up a meeting, hosting an event, or contacting an official — without more — does not count as an “official act.”

At trial, the District Court instructed the jury according to the Government’s broad understanding of what constitutes an “official act,” and the jury convicted both Governor and Mrs. McDonnell on the bribery charges.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed Governor McDonnell’s conviction, and we granted review to clarify the meaning of “official act.”...

Taking into account the text of the statute, the precedent of this Court, and the constitutional concerns raised by Governor McDonnell, we reject the Government’s reading of §201(a)(3) and adopt a more bounded interpretation of “official act.”  Under that interpretation, setting up a meeting, calling another public official, or hosting an event does not, standing alone, qualify as an “official act.”...

It is apparent from Sun-Diamond that hosting an event, meeting with other officials, or speaking with interested parties is not, standing alone, a “decision or action” within the meaning of §201(a)(3), even if the event, meeting, or speech is related to a pending question or matter.  Instead, something more is required: §201(a)(3) specifies that the public official must make a decision or take an action on that question or matter, or agree to do so....

In sum, an “official act” is a decision or action on a “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy.” The “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy” must involve a formal exercise of governmental power that is similar in nature to a lawsuit before a court, a determination before an agency, or a hearing before a committee. It must also be something specific and focused that is “pending” or “may by law be brought” before a public official. To qualify as an “official act,” the public official must make a decision or take an action on that “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy,” or agree to do so. That decision or action may include using his official position to exert pressure on another official to perform an “official act,” or to advise another official, knowing or intending that such advice will form the basis for an “official act” by another official. Setting up a meeting, talking to another official, or organizing an event (or agreeing to do so) — without more — does not fit that definition of “official act.”

June 27, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

By vote of 6-2, SCOTUS upholds broad application of federal prohibition on firearm possession by certain misdemeanants

Confirming that the Second Amendment has far more bark than bite when push comes to shove (puns intended), the Supreme Court this morning rejected a narrow interpretation of the federal criminal statute that forever prohibits any firearm possession by any persons who are convicted of certain misdemeanors. The opinion for the Court authored by Justice Kagan in Voisine v. US, 14-10154 (S. Ct. June 27, 2016) (available here), gets started this way:

Federal law prohibits any person convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” from possessing a firearm. 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(9).  That phrase is defined to include any misdemeanor committed against a domestic relation that necessarily involves the “use . . . of physical force.”  §921(a)(33)(A).  The question presented here is whether misdemeanor assault convictions for reckless (as contrasted to knowing or intentional) conduct trigger the statutory firearms ban. We hold that they do.

Justice Thomas authored a dissent in Voisine, which was partially joined by Justice Sotomayor.  His dissent is nearly twice as long as the opinion for the Court, and it starts and ends this way:

Federal law makes it a crime for anyone previously convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” to possess a firearm “in or affecting commerce.” 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(9).  A “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” includes “an offense that . . . has, as an element, the use or attempted use of physical force . . . committed by [certain close family members] of the victim.” §921(a)(33)(A)(ii).  In this case, petitioners were convicted under §922(g)(9) because they possessed firearms and had prior convictions for assault under Maine’s statute prohibiting “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly caus[ing] bodily injury or offensive physical contact to another person.” Me. Rev. Stat. Ann., Tit. 17–A, §207(1)(A) (2006).  The question presented is whether a prior conviction under §207 has, as an element, the “use of physical force,” such that the conviction can strip someone of his right to possess a firearm.  In my view, §207 does not qualify as such an offense, and the majority errs in holding otherwise.  I respectfully dissent....

At oral argument the Government could not identify any other fundamental constitutional right that a person could lose forever by a single conviction for an infraction punishable only by a fine.  Tr. of Oral Arg. 36–40.  Compare the First Amendment.  Plenty of States still criminalize libel....  I have little doubt that the majority would strike down an absolute ban on publishing by a person previously convicted of misdemeanor libel.  In construing the statute before us expansively so that causing a single minor reckless injury or offensive touching can lead someone to lose his right to bear arms forever, the Court continues to “relegat[e] the Second Amendment to a second-class right.”  Friedman v. Highland Park, 577 U. S. ___, ___ (2015) (THOMAS, J., dissenting from denial of certiorari) (slip op., at 6).

In enacting §922(g)(9), Congress was not worried about a husband dropping a plate on his wife’s foot or a parent injuring her child by texting while driving.  Congress was worried that family members were abusing other family members through acts of violence and keeping their guns by pleading down to misdemeanors.  Prohibiting those convicted of intentional and knowing batteries from possessing guns — but not those convicted of reckless batteries — amply carries out Congress’ objective.

Instead, under the majority’s approach, a parent who has a car accident because he sent a text message while driving can lose his right to bear arms forever if his wife or child suffers the slightest injury from the crash.  This is obviously not the correct reading of §922(g)(9).  The “use of physical force” does not include crimes involving purely reckless conduct. Because Maine’s statute punishes such conduct, it sweeps more broadly than the “use of physical force.”  I respectfully dissent.

June 27, 2016 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)

SCOTUS grants cert on Johnson application to career offender guidelines

As noted in this prior post, SCOTUS has been relisting throughout June two notable petitions on Johnson's applicability to the career offender guidelines.  Excitingly for sentencing fans, today's final Supreme Court order list includes a grant or certiorari in Beckles v. United States, No. 15-8544, which SCOTUSblog has described this way:

Issue: (1) Whether Johnson v. United States applies retroactively to collateral cases challenging federal sentences enhanced under the residual clause in United States Sentencing Guidelines (U.S.S.G.) § 4B1.2(a)(2) (defining “crime of violence”); (2) whetherJohnson's constitutional holding applies to the residual clause in U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(2), thereby rendering challenges to sentences enhanced under it cognizable on collateral review; and (3) whether mere possession of a sawed-off shotgun, an offense listed as a “crime of violence” only in commentary to U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2, remains a “crime of violence” after Johnson.

IN other words, Beckle buckle-up your seat-belts, sentencing fans, as the post-Johnson criminal history bumpy ride is now sure to continue in the Supreme Court for at least the next Term and likely beyond.

Notably and significantly, the SCOTUS order list reports that "Justice Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision of ... this petition." In other words, it seems that Justice Kagan's prior history as Solicitor General has caused her to be conflicted out of this case. Ergo, it will likely be only be a seven (or perhaps and eight-member) Court that will be resolving the application of vagueness doctrines in this case.  

A few (of many) prior related posts:

June 27, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, June 24, 2016

Helpful review of Johnson's impact a year latter, just before ACCA prisoners need to file Johnson collateral appeals

A year ago, as first reported in this post and immediate follow-ups here and here, the Supreme Court  in Johnson v. United States, No. 13-7120 (S. Ct. June 26, 2015) (available here), ruled that a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violated "the Constitution’s prohibition of vague criminal laws."  This morning's Washington Post has this effective (and well-timed) extended article, headlined "Local Small words, big consequences for possibly thousands of federal prisoners,"looking at the impact of that ruling now a year later.  I recomment the piece in full, and here are excerpts: 

Hundreds if not thousands of federal prisoners are likely to have their sentences shortened — and in some cases get immediate release — due to one of the final opinions written by Justice Antonin Scalia. Scalia’s little-noticed opinion focused on one phrase in federal law but has created uncertainty and upheaval for judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys facing a pile of prisoner requests to have their cases reviewed.

Federal inmates have until Sunday to try to challenge their prison terms after the Supreme Court labeled 12 words in the criminal code “unconstitutionally vague” in an opinion announced by Scalia last June, eight months before his death.  The ruling eliminated a section of law that prosecutors relied on to seek stiffer penaltiesfor defendants they said were especially dangerous.  Defense attorneys had decried the wording because it was used to brand too many defendants as violent....

For defense attorneys, the court’s decision provides a new avenue to challenge lengthy sentences for prisoners who received severe penalties for nonviolent offenses, such as resisting arrest.  “It was a dumping ground,” said Amy Baron-Evans of the Sentencing Resource Counsel Project of federal public defenders.  “It ended up sweeping in crimes that no one would think of as being violent.”

Filings from inmates are piling up in judicial chambers throughout the country.  In Atlanta, one judge took the unusual step this spring of flagging the names of 110 prisoners from her district eligible to refile for shorter sentences to alert them to the deadline this month — one year from the date the Supreme Court decision was handed down.  In Richmond last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which covers Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, received more than 500 filings for sentence reviews, according to the clerk’s office. In the same period last year, there were 18.  More than 350 petitions have been filed in the 8th Circuit in St. Louis since May, contributing to a record number of filings in a single month....

The language overturned by the Supreme Court in the criminal code echoes in other parts of the justice system.  Nearly identical words about career offenders appear in federal sentencing guidelines, which use a formula to give judges a recommended range of possible prison time for the defendants who come before them.

Federal public defenders and the U.S. Justice Department agree that the Supreme Court ruling negates those words in the guidelines for defendants sentenced since Scalia’s 2015 opinion.  The Supreme Court separately is being asked to settle a dispute about whether inmates punished before the 2015 opinion should have another chance at sentencing.

The Justice Department says they should not, according to the government’s court filings.  The judges who handed down those prison terms were not bound to a particular mandatory sentence and imposed what they thought were appropriate punishments that should stand, the government says.  To the public defenders, that position is at odds with the Obama administration’s advocacy for clemency. If the court rules that the decision does apply retroactively to the guidelines, another 6,000 federal inmates sentenced between 1992 and 2015 could ask to have their prison time cut, according to an estimate from the public defenders’ sentencing project.

Prosecutors say “the sky is going to fall and all of these violent people are going to be let out,” said federal public defender Paresh Patel, who is handling appeals for the Maryland office.  “People are not getting a windfall. They were wrongly sentenced as career offenders.”

Justice Department spokesman Patrick Rodenbush said the administration’s position is “fully consistent” with its clemency efforts.  The guidelines apply “only to individuals convicted of specific crimes of violence and are wholly distinct from grants of clemency to drug offenders who have been vetted for public safety concerns.”

Prosecutors worry about the ripple effects of Scalia’s opinion. Inmates and their lawyers argue that the court’s decision to eliminate words in one law should stick to other areas of law with parallel language. These filings raise new questions about what types of crimes meet the technical definition of a “crime of violence” and how judges assess a person’s criminal past.

In response to the Supreme Court’s decision, attorneys for Dustin John Higgs in May asked the 4th Circuit for permission to challenge his death sentence.  Higgs was sentenced in 2001 for ordering the murders of three young women in Beltsville. The women were shot to death on a desolate stretch of federal land near the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Higgs was convicted of using a firearm during a “crime of violence” — in this case kidnapping and murder....

Even if Higgs does not personally benefit, prosecutors say, a new interpretation in his case could upend plea agreements with others facing similar firearms counts.  The uncertainty is already changing the way prosecutors draw up and negotiate charges.

The article states that "federal inmates have until Sunday to try to challenge their prison terms," based on the one-year statute of limitations in AEDPA for bringing 2255 collateral appeals following certain critical legal development. As the title of my post indicates, it seems clear that inmates serving ACCA sentences need to get Johnson claims filed now due to this statutory deadline. Less clear, though, is whether inmates eager to extend the reach of Johnson to the career offender guidelines or other statutes are subject to the smae deadline (and, as noted in this prior post, SCOTUS has been relisting throughout June two notable petitions on Johnson's applicability to the career offender guidelines). Also, I suppose, based on the right facts, equitable tolling arguments could be made (though probably would face an uphill battle) for any inmates who missed the AEDPA deadline for bringing Johnson claims in various settings.

Long story short, as I forecasted in some of the posts below right after the Johnson ruling last year, it seems all but certain that many thousands of inmates (and thousands of lawyers) are going to be having Johnson dreams or nightmares for many years to come.

A few (of many) prior related posts:

June 24, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, June 23, 2016

California legislators introduce bill seeking to mandate that any future Brock Turners face three-year minimum prison terms

As reported in this Reuters piece, headlined "California lawmakers move to change sentencing law following Stanford case," the common legislative reaction by policy-makers to concerns about an unduly lenient sentence is in progress in the wake of the high-profile sexual assault sentencing of Brock Turner. Here are the basics:

Seizing on a nationwide furor over the six-month jail term handed to a former Stanford University swimmer following his conviction for sexual assault on an unconscious woman, California lawmakers on Monday introduced legislation to close a loophole that allowed the sentence. The bill, known as AB 2888, marks the latest response to the sentence given to 20-year-old Brock Turner by Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky in June, which was widely condemned as too lenient. Prosecutors had asked that Turner be given six years in state prison.

"Like many people across the nation, I was deeply disturbed by the sentence in the Brock Turner case," Assemblyman Bill Dodd, one of two California state legislators who introduced the bill, said in a written statement. "Our bill will help ensure that such lax sentencing doesn't happen again."

Turner was convicted of assault with intent to commit rape, penetration of an intoxicated person and penetration of an unconscious person in the January 2015 attack. Under California law, those charges are not considered rape because they did not involve penile penetration. According to the lawmakers, current California law calls for a mandatory prison term in cases of rape or sexual assault where force is used, but not when the victim is unconscious or severely intoxicated and thus unable to resist.

The new legislation, which was introduced in the state assembly on Monday, would eliminate this discretion of a judge to sentence defendants convicted of such crimes to probation, said Ben Golombek, a spokesman for Assemblyman Evan Low, a co-author of the bill. Golombek said that the effect of the proposed new law, which must still be approved by both houses of the legislature and signed by Governor Jerry Brown, is that Turner would have faced a minimum of three years behind bars.

Prior related posts:

June 23, 2016 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Another ACCA win for federal defendants in Mathis

The Supreme Court this morning handed down its last sentencing case this Term, and Mathis v. United States, No. 15–6092 (S. Ct. June 23, 2016) (available here), is another win for federal criminal defendants.  Here is the start of the Mathis opinion for the Court authored by Justice Kagan:

The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA or Act), 18 U. S. C. §924(e), imposes a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence on certain federal defendants who have three prior convictions for a “violent felony,” including “burglary, arson, or extortion.”  To determine whether a past conviction is for one of those offenses, courts compare the elements of the crime of conviction with the elements of the “generic” version of the listed offense — i.e., the offense as commonly understood.  For more than 25 years, our decisions have held that the prior crime qualifies as an ACCA predicate if, but only if, its elements are the same as, or narrower than, those of the generic offense. The question in this case is whether ACCA makes an exception to that rule when a defendant is convicted under a statute that lists multiple, alternative means of satisfying one (or more) of its elements. We decline to find such an exception.

Justice Kennedy issued a concurring opinion, and so did Justice Thomas. Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Ginsburg, issued a dissenting opinion. And Justice Alito issued his own dissenting opinion.

June 23, 2016 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Anyone interested in making bold predictions on the last four criminal cases still to be decided by SCOTUS this Term?

Amy Howe at SCOTUSblog has this helpful new post reviewing the final eight cases still to be resolved by the eight Justices before they take their summer vacations.  Some of these opinions will be handed down tomorrow and the others are likely to be released early next week.  Notably, four of the remaining eight are criminal cases (and I am leaving out of this accounting the big immigration case).  Here are Amy's review of the four criminal cases left:

Voisine v. United States (argued February 29, 2016). Stephen Voisine and William Armstrong, the other petitioner in this case, both pleaded guilty in state court to misdemeanor assaults on their respective domestic partners. Several years later, each man was charged with violating a federal law that prohibits the possession of firearms and ammunition by individuals who have previously been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.  Voisine and Armstrong contend their state convictions (which the First Circuit affirmed) do not automatically qualify as misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence because the state-law provisions can be violated by conduct that is merely reckless, rather than intentional.

Birchfield v. North Dakota (argued April 20, 2016).  Twelve states and the National Park Service impose criminal penalties on suspected drunk drivers who refuse to submit to testing to measure their blood-alcohol levels. The question before the Court is whether those penalties violate the Fourth Amendment, which only allows police to “search” someone if they have a warrant or one of a handful of exceptions to the warrant requirement applies. Three drivers from North Dakota and Minnesota argue that neither of those conditions is met, and so the laws must fall.   The North Dakota and Minnesota Supreme Courts ruled in favor of the states, and now the Justices will weigh in.

Mathis v. United States (argued April 26, 2016).  After having been convicted of several burglaries in Iowa, Richard Mathis was later prosecuted by the federal government for being a felon in possession of a firearm and received a mandatory minimum sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act based on his burglary convictions.  The Eighth Circuit affirmed his conviction.  The question before the Court is how to determine whether state convictions like Mathis’s qualify for federal mandatory minimum sentences and for removal under immigration law.

McDonnell v. United States (argued April 27, 2016).  Former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell is challenging his convictions for violating federal laws that make it a felony to agree to take “official action” in exchange for money, campaign contributions, or anything else of value. The Fourth Circuit affirmed, and so the Justices agreed to weigh in.  He argues that merely referring someone to an independent decision maker – in his case, in an effort to help promote a Virginia businessman’s nutritional supplement – doesn’t constitute the kind of “official action” that the statute bars.

I think it is possible that any of these cases could turn into a blockbuster, and Birchfield and McDonnell arguably require the Justices to do some "big" jurisprudential work to resolve the issues before them. Narrow/technical rulings seem more likely in Voisine and Mathis, though the former may get some extra attention in light of the on-going political discussions and sparring over gun control following the Orlando shootings and the latter seems sure to add yet another chapter to the lengthy and complicated ACCA jurisprudence.

As we await these final rulings (and especially because all are sure to be eclipsed in the mainstream media by the abortion, affirmative action and immigration cases also on tap), I would be eager to hear from readers about what they are expecting or even hoping for as the SCOTUS Term winds down.

June 22, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Ninth Circuit discusses timing and tolling for successor 2255 petitions making Johnson claims

Hard-core habeas fans know that all sorts of procedural issues can potentially trip up federal defendants serving Armed Career Criminal Act sentences from being able to bring claims collaterally attacking their sentences based on Johnson v. US.  Some of the procedural trip-wires, and potential work-arounds, are discussed today by a Ninth Circuit panel in Orona v. US, No. 16-70568 (9th Cir. June 22, 2016) (available here).

I am not sure any of the particulars discussed in Orona are that noteworthy, but I thought the case merited a blog mention because this week is, arguably, the last week in which defendants with long-final sentences can bring timely collateral attacks based on Johnson.

June 22, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

"Society would benefit from rewarding attorneys for identifying the wrongly and unnecessarily imprisoned"

Regulation-summer-16-cover_0The title of this post is the subheading of this great new article in the latest issue of Regulation published by the Cato Institute. The article, authored Christopher Robertson and Jamie Cox Robertson, carries the main title of "Reducing Wasteful Incarcerations," and here are excerpts from the start and heart of the article:

Prisons are essential to a safe and civil society.  Prisons are also costly for the taxpayers whose government houses, feeds, medicates, and supervises millions of people underlock and key.  This expense is compounded by errors in the U.S. legal system that produces both false guilty verdicts and overly harsh penalties.  It’s time for the United States to take a closer look at these unnecessary incarcerations.  By working to release prisoners who don’t belong in prison, we can lower the costs of the prison system — not to mention restore freedom to people who are wrongly being deprived of it.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to identify which prisoners are wrongly incarcerated, and itwould take an enormous investment of professional expertise and money to produce that information.  However, we could make valuable progress on this issue by offering appropriate incentives for attorneys to identify some of these wasteful incarcerations, thus saving public money and serving the ends of liberty....

Under current law, most prisoners probably deserve to be there, and there is no simple algorithm for identifying which ones don’t.  The challenge is to separate the wheat from the chaff, and that requires professional skills and the investment of both time and money.  Currently, to do this sorting, we largely depend on charity, luck, and pluck, which is no way to run a multibillion dollar government enterprise.

A better approach would be for the government to increase funding for public defenders so they can do more post-conviction litigation.  Some public defenders already have in-house innocence projects.  Still, funding for public defenders’ offices is notoriously scarce, the salaries offered for these cases often fail to attract the best attorneys needed to undertake such complex work, and the overworked offices naturally triage in favor of new cases.

Of course, we could spend more on public defenders.  But as a centrally planned solution, it’s hard to assessthe optimal level of investment.  Prior reform efforts suggest that additional spending on public defenders may also be politically infeasible because it is often viewed as providing a service for criminals.

Instead, governmentsshould consider using a contingent-fee system for post-conviction counsel.  Attorneys would only receive this fee if they successfully show that a prisoner’s continued incarceration is wrongful.  The fee could be based on a simple proportion of the estimated amount the government would save by stopping the incarceration — perhaps 50% of those costs.  Or, the system could be set up like the statutory fee paid to civil rights attorneys, taking into account a reasonable hourly rate multiplied by a factor to recognize the low chances of prevailing.  In the False Claims Act, passed during the Civil War to root out fraud by government contractors, and the more recent whistle blower statute that the Internal Revenue Service uses to expose tax evaders,we have precedents for paying financial rewardsthat align the interests of knowledgeable individuals and the government.

The advantage of a contingent fee is that it gives attorneys an incentive to search for worthy cases and bring them to prosecutors and the courts, which is exactly what a cost-conscious government needs.  Unlike desperate and unskilled prisoners representing themselves, attorneys would have no incentive to clog the courts with frivolous claims for post-conviction relief.  Any such claim would require the investment of time and money without promise of return.  Instead, we should expect a small industry of specialist attorneys to develop, at first focusing on the low-hanging fruit, but then becoming more specialized to identify entire categories of cases where review is most promising.

June 21, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Open letter from large group of reform advocates urges Prez Obama to "accelerate the process" for granting clemency

As reported in this new USA Today piece, headlined "Experts warn White House that time is running out for clemency initiative," an impressive group signed on to this open letter to Prez Obama discussing his clemency activities.  Here are excerpts from the USA Today reporting providing some pf the leteer's context and content:

Thousands of federal inmates could be eligible to have their sentences reduced under the Obama administration's initiative to free non-violent offenders from prison, but experts are warning the White House that time is running out for the president to take action.

A record-setting number of clemency petitions, lack of resources and a confusion over eligibility have hampered President Obama's plan to use his constitutional pardon power to shorten sentences, particularly for low-level drug offenders serving mandatory minimum sentences.  If those inmates are going to have any hope, President Obama needs to personally intervene in the process, a group of advocates, law professors and attorneys said in a letter to the president Tuesday.

"The initiative has been plagued by bureaucratic inefficiencies that have kept petitions that meet all of your stated criteria from reaching your desk," the letter said.  "We are concerned that as your days in office diminish, the clemency initiative is moving too slowly to meet the goals you set when you announced it in 2014."

The letter was signed by 41 people, led by Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums and including and law professors from Harvard, Yale, Georgetown, Berkeley, Columbia, Northwestern, New York University and others. Also notable: former White House special adviser Van Jones and former U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner.

In response, the White House said Obama "has demonstrated a commitment to the commutations process not seen by any other president in the modern era."  He's issued more commutations than the past seven presidents combined, written personal letters to clemency recipients and met with recipients to urge society to give them second chances.

"As we have said, the president will continue to issue additional commutations throughout the remainder of his time in office," said Assistant White House Press Secretary Brandi Hoffine.  "The clemency process alone, however, will not address the vast injustices in the criminal justice system resulting from years of unduly harsh and outdated sentencing policies."

Obama has stepped up the pace of commutations in his last year in office, no longer waiting until the end of the year to announce clemency decisions. Obama granted 61 commutations in March, 58 in May and 42 this month — part of what White House Counsel Neil Eggleston said was a deliberate attempt to grant clemency on a more regular basis. In all, Obama has commuted the sentences of 348 people, more than any president since Franklin Roosevelt.  (He's also granted just 70 pardons, fewer than any full-term president since 1800.)

But according to the Office of Pardon Attorney, 11,861 commutation petitions were still pending as of June 6, fueled largely by the Judtice Department's call for more applications from volunteer defense attorneys in 2014. And this isn't the first time there have been warnings of a backlog in the process.  A year ago, former Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff told defense lawyers that "the clock is running," and that petitions weren't coming in quickly enough.  There were questions about the eligibility criteria, and many cases required a complete re-examination of court and prison records.  Then in January, Leff resigned, citing a lack of resources and interference from Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates that prevented her recommendations from reaching the president's desk.

I had the honor of being asked to sign on to this open letter, and I agree with nearly all of its sentiments.  But, as I stressed in this post a few months ago, I have been clamoring for clemency reform since Prez Obama's first day on the job, and I remain deeply disappointed and troubled that there seems to have been no serious interest or commitment to any kind of structural/institutional reform in this space.  As a result, I did not feel I could comfortable sign this letter because it includes a sentence stating that, in th clemency arena, the signers "believe [Prez Obama's] leadership will bring lasting change to the country and set the table for further reforms in future administrations."

I certainly do not want to unduly criticize Prez Obama's (still very important) efforts in this arena, and I am especially pleased to see this open letter getting press attention.  But, unless Prez Obama does something more than just grant a few hundred more commutations (which is what I am expecting to see in the coming months), I am still going to view his Presidency in terms of a unique missed opportunity to create a criminal justice reform legacy in this historically and constitutionally important arena.

June 21, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 20, 2016

A couple of SCOTUS wins for prosecution in procedural cases

There really are no more big sentencing cases pending on the SCOTUS docket, but the Supreme Court is still resolving a number of cases dealing with a number of criminal justice issues.  Today, two such cases were handed down, and here are the basics (with links) via How Appealing:

Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. delivered the opinion of the Court in Taylor v. United States, No. 14-6166. Justice Clarence Thomas issued a dissenting opinion.... 

Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court in Utah v. Strieff, No. 14-1373. Justice Sotomayor issued a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Ginsburg joined in part. And Justice Kagan issued a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Ginsburg joined. 

For some early commentary, here are two posts from Crime & Consequences on these cases:

I expect C&C and SCOTUSblog and others will have more commentary on these cases before too long, though neither appear to blockbusters. And because I am on the road most of the rest of the day, I hope commentors will flag anything in these opinions that ought to be of special interest to sentencing fans.

June 20, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

GVRs based on Foster generates opinions, including dissent from Justices Alito and Thomas

Last month, as reported here, the Supreme Court's reversed a conviction in Georgia capital case, Foster v. Chapman, because the Court had a "firm conviction" juror strikes in the case were "motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent." Today, at the end of this order list, the Court now has relied on Foster to issue this order in a few cases:

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 Supreme Court of Mississippi for further consideration in light of Foster v. Chatman, 578 U. S. ___ (2016).

Justice Ginsburg explains this order via a concurrence in one of the cases, while Justice Alito joined by Justice Thomas cries foul.  Here is how Justice Alito starts his dissent on one of these cases:

This Court often “GVRs” a case—that is, grants the petition for a writ of certiorari, vacates the decision below, and remands for reconsideration by the lower court—when we believe that the lower court should give further thought to its decision in light of an opinion of this Court that (1) came after the decision under review and (2) changed or clarified the governing legal principles in a way that could possibly alter the decision of the lower court. In this case and two others, Williams v. Louisiana, No. 14–9409 and Floyd v. Alabama, No. 15–7553, the Court misuses the GVR vehicle. The Court GVRs these petitions in light of our decision in Foster v. Chatman, 578 U.S. ___ (2016), which held, based on all the circumstances in that case, that a state prosecutor violated Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), by striking potential jurors based on race. Our decision in Foster postdated the decision of the Supreme Court of Mississippi in the present case, but Foster did not change or clarify the Batson rule in any way. Accordingly, there is no ground for a GVR in light of Foster.

June 20, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Alabama appeals court says, in essense, "roll tide" to its capital sentencing process

78f550493aece6b4d5c83d32617bce5eAs reported in this post from a few months ago, a county judge had declared Alabama's capital murder sentencing scheme unconstitutional because it allows judges to override jury recommendations of life without parole and instead impose the death penalty.  But, as reported by this local article, late last week an Alabama appeals court took a different view.  Here are the basics:

An Alabama appeals court on Friday ordered a Jefferson County judge to vacate her rulings earlier this year that declared the state's capital punishment sentencing scheme unconstitutional. In its order the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals says the state's capital sentencing scheme is constitutional and told Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Tracie Todd to vacate her March 3 order in the pending capital murder cases of four men that says otherwise.

The Alabama Attorney General's Office had filed four petitions for a writ of mandamus asking the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to direct Todd to vacate her orders and allow the state to decide whether to seek imposition of the death penalty in those cases if it decides.

The cases involve Kenneth Eugene Billups, Stanley Brent Chapman, Terrell Corey McMullin, and Benjamin Todd Acton who were all indicted for various counts of capital murder. Chapman and McMullin are charged in the same case and the others in separate cases. Before their trials, the men each filed a motion to bar imposition of the death penalty in their cases and to hold Alabama's capital-sentencing scheme unconstitutional based on the United States Supreme Court's decision in January declaring Florida's death sentencing system unconstitutional....

Todd agreed and declared the capital murder sentencing law unconstitutional in a 28-page order. "The Alabama capital sentencing scheme fails to provide special procedural safeguards to minimize the obvious influence of partisan politics or the potential for unlawful bias in the judiciary," Todd stated in her ruling. "As a result, the death penalty in Alabama is being imposed in a "wholly arbitrary and capricious" manner."

The Court of Criminal Appeals, however, said Friday that the state's capital sentencing law is constitutional. "Alabama's capital-sentencing scheme is constitutional under (U.S. Supreme Court rulings) Apprendi, Ring, and Hurst, and the circuit court (Todd) erred in holding otherwise and prohibiting the State from seeking the death penalty in capital-murder prosecutions," the appeals court opinion on Friday states.

The Alabama Attorney General's Office established the prerequisites for the appeals court to issue an order to Todd telling her to vacate her opinion, the appeals court stated in its order. "Therefore, the circuit court (Todd) is directed to set aside its order holding Alabama's capital-sentencing scheme unconstitutional and to allow the State to seek the death penalty in capital-murder prosecutions if it chooses to do so.

The appeals court ruled that under Alabama's capital-sentencing scheme a capital murder defendant "is not eligible for the death penalty unless the jury unanimously finds beyond a reasonable doubt, either during the guilt phase or during the penalty phase of the trial, that at least one of the aggravating circumstances ... exists."

The court noted that Florida's law, which was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in January as unconstitutional, was conditioned on a first-degree-murder defendant's eligibility for the death penalty based on a finding by the trial judge, rather than the jury, that an aggravating circumstance existed. The appeals court also criticized the fact that the Attorney General was not given a the required notice that a state law was being challenged as unconstitutional and that Todd then didn't allow an assistant AG to speak at the hearing she held before making her ruling. Todd also had pre-written her ruling before the hearing, the court stated.

Judges Mike Joiner and Liles Burke concurred with the majority although they differed on some points in separate opinions. Both Joiner and Burke criticized Todd's order. Todd's order "contains sparse analysis on the application of Hurst to Alabama's capital-sentencing scheme," Burke wrote. "The majority of the order is devoted to the trial court's opinions regarding partisan politics, the effects of an elected judiciary, court funding, and the propriety of the death penalty in general," Burke states. "Additionally, the trial court extensively cites secondary sources, including materials from "Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty" as well as from the Web site of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization whose attorneys are representing the defendants in this very proceeding." "In reviewing the materials that were filed with this Court, I find no mention of these issues," Burke writes. "Thus, I question whether the trial court's (Todd's) ultimate conclusion is based on its analysis of Hurst or on the trial judge's personal opinions regarding Alabama's death penalty."

Alabama's attorney general reacted to the ruling early Friday night. "Today's decision by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals is the first case to affirm under Hurst that Alabama's capital sentencing is constitutional," Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange stated in a Friday evening press release. "The Appeals Court vacated the Jefferson County Court's March order and thereby held that Alabama can continue to seek the death penalty in capital murder prosecutions."

It's unclear, however, how Friday's ruling might affect recent orders by the U.S. Supreme Court telling the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to reconsider the appeals of three Alabama death row inmates in light of the Supreme Court's ruling earlier this year striking down Florida's capital punishment scheme.

The full 58-pages of opinions from the Alabama Court of Appeals can be accessed at this link.

Some prior related posts:

June 19, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Making the case that Congress should, at the very least, make the Fair Sentencing Act fully retroactive

Julie Stewart, the President of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), has this notable new Huffington Post commentary headlined "The Least Congress Can Do on Criminal Justice Reform." Here are extended excerpts:

Five and a half years ago, I wrote an op-ed in this space in which I urged Congress to apply retroactively the recently passed Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (FSA).  The FSA reduced the indefensible disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences from 100:1 to 18:1.  Every member of the U.S. Senate, including Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), supported the FSA because they recognized that there was simply no scientific or public safety rationale for the disparity and yet ample evidence of its racially discriminatory effect.  Yet five and a half years later, Congress still has not approved FSA retroactivity.

There are approximately 4,900 individuals still serving the crack cocaine sentences Congress repudiated when it passed the FSA.  They are the people whose cases we used to illustrate why the law needed to change, yet they did not benefit.  After the FSA passed, the U.S. Sentencing Commission fixed all of the non-mandatory minimum crack sentences by lowering its guidelines consistent with the new law.  But the Commission only has authority to changes its guidelines, not mandatory minimum punishments set by Congress and found in statutes.

Today, legislation to make the FSA retroactive is included in a broader sentencing reform bill, which was introduced by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and is pending in the Senate....  [T]he U.S. Sentencing Commission, at FAMM’s urging and with FAMM’s support, has done all it can to reduce drug sentences and make those reductions retroactive for tens of thousands of federal prisoners.  Notably, those who received retroactive relief from the Commission have reoffended at a lower rate than those who served their full sentences.

We recognize that bipartisan consensus and compromise are essential to passing criminal justice reform through the Congress. Because of the hard work of key senators and outside advocates from across the ideological spectrum, we believe that Senator Grassley’s bill would receive more than the 60 votes necessary to invoke cloture and would probably receive closer to 70 votes on final passage.  But in an election year, especially a presidential election year, consensus is not enough. The bar is much higher.  Unanimity, not broad consensus, is required. Without unanimity, any reform bills will require floor time and will be subject to hostile amendments that could significantly weaken them.

Unanimity is lacking today because of a number of factors.  A couple of vocal but mistaken members of Congress insist that any drug sentencing reform will endanger the public, an election-year fearmongering tactic that has no basis in fact. There is also strong disagreement about whether to include minimum criminal intent requirements (“mens rea”) in any final reform bill.  House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) support broad mens rea protection; the White House and most Democrats strongly oppose it.  The congressional calendar presents an equally daunting challenge.  We are in June of an election year.  The Senate only plans to be in session for roughly 40 days between now and the November election....

For 4,900 people serving sentences Congress itself deemed unfair, members of the Senate and House need not wait a day longer. If prospects for passing a larger package of criminal justice reforms do not dramatically improve in the coming days, Congress should at least pass narrow legislation making the FSA retroactive.  Those serving discredited, excessive sentences for crack offenses should not be forced to wait any longer for justice.  The Sentencing Commission’s evidence suggests that giving retroactive relief to those serving excessive crack sentences does not harm public safety. To the contrary, making the FSA retroactive would save lives, money, and right a terrible wrong. That is a legacy both parties can be proud to share with their voters this Fall.

June 16, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Delaware Supreme Court struggles to tame 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. This local article reports on the Delaware Supreme Court arguments yesterday trying to sort out the constitutionality of the state's death penalty law in the wake of Hurst.  Here are excerpts:

After two sides argued their cases Wednesday morning, justices on Delaware’s highest court departed to consider the constitutionality of the most severe punishment of all – death.

The Delaware Supreme Court is weighing the merits of a judge’s role in capital punishment sentencing and how it relates to the right to a jury trial. “We understand how important this is (to all you),” said Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr. before exiting the packed courtroom with his four Supreme Court colleagues.

The issue arose after the U.S. Supreme Court determined in January that Florida’s death penalty statute was unconstitutional and that “the Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death.” After the ruling, all death penalty trials in Delaware were stopped until more clarity was brought to the state’s process and how it relates to the constitution.

According to the Supreme Court in an order, there are over two dozen capital cases pending in Superior Court, four scheduled for trial, in less than 120 days.

Questions to the court were raised in the currently pending murder case of Benjamin Rauf. On Wednesday, attorneys presented their beliefs before the court in a scheduled 60-minute session, at times engaging in question and answer discussions with the justices.

Since a jury decides whether a case is death penalty eligible in Delaware, the state maintains that constitutional requirements are currently met. Deputy Attorney General Sean Lugg argued for the state on Wednesday. Mr. Lugg said Delaware’s sentencing scheme, which was revised in 2002 in response to a previous U.S. Supreme Court ruling, meets all of the elements outlined by the Supreme Court in the Florida decision, according to the Associated Press. “The fundamental right to a jury is provided by the Delaware statute,” he said....

In Delaware, judges have the final say on whether a death sentence is ordered; a jury must find at least one statutory aggravating factor unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt to make a defendant death penalty eligible. In Florida, judges had the responsibility to find any “aggravating factors” that qualify it for possible capital punishment sentencing.

Assistant Public Defender Santino Ceccotti argued for the appellant. “The Sixth Amendment requires not a judge, but a jury, to find each fact,” he said.

Prior related post:

June 16, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)