Friday, June 03, 2016

Prez Obama commutes 42 more federal prison sentences

Chart_060316_commutations[1]As reported in this AP piece, this afternoon "President Barack Obama is commuting the sentences of 42 people convicted of drug-related offenses." Here is more:

Obama's latest round of clemency brings to 348 the total number of sentences Obama has commuted since taking office. The pace has increased substantially as Obama approaches the end of his presidency. Roughly half of the 42 receiving commutations Friday were serving life sentences. Most are nonviolent offenders, although a few were also charged with firearms violations.

Obama's commutation shortens their sentences, with most of the inmates set to be released October 1.

White House counsel Neil Eggleston says Obama will keep using his clemency power to give deserving individuals a second chance. Obama has pushed to overhaul the criminal justice system but a bipartisan effort has struggled to maintain momentum.

Via this blog post (which provides the graphic reprinted here), Prez Obama's counsel notes that that "President Obama Has Now Commuted the Sentences of 348 Individuals" and highlights that now "the President has commuted the sentences of more individuals than the past 7 presidents combined." Here is more from the blog posting:

Today, the President announced 42 additional grants of clemency to men and women serving years in prison under outdated and unduly harsh sentencing laws. The individuals receiving a presidential commutation today have more than repaid their debt to society and earned this second chance.

To date, the President has commuted the sentences of 348 individuals -- more than the previous seven Presidents combined. He remains committed to using his clemency power throughout the remainder of the Administration to give more deserving individuals that same second chance....

Despite these important efforts, only legislation can bring about lasting change to the federal system. There remain thousands of men and women in federal prison serving sentences longer than necessary, often due to overly harsh mandatory minimum sentences. That is one reason it is critical that both the House and the Senate continue to cooperate on a bipartisan basis to get a criminal justice reform bill to the President's desk.

June 3, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Conservatives should celebrate Obama’s commutations"

Institute_for_Policy_Innovation_1313374The title of this post is the headline of this new Dallas Morning News commatary.  The piece is authored by Tom Giovanetti, president of the Institute for Policy Innovation, a group that explains its focus to be "on approaches to governing that harness the strengths of individual liberty, limited government, and free markets." Here are excerpts:

The White House recently announced that 58 federal inmates, mostly non-violent drug offenders, would have their sentences shortened through commutation.  This brings the total number of commutations during the Barack Obama years to 306, more than any recent administration.  And word out of the White House is that there will be more to come during President Obama’s final months in office.

Many conservatives will be initially inclined to see Obama’s commutations as the act of a liberal who is soft on crime.  But conservatives should celebrate President Obama’s commutations. In fact, as people who prize liberty and individual rights, and who are skeptical about government power, conservatives need to do a rethink on criminal justice.

It’s becoming clear that something has gone very wrong with the justice system in the United States.  Today, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world.  Too many crimes have been federalized, as opposed to being handled more locally by state and local courts.  Excessive punishments are being meted out for non-violent crimes because of mandatory sentencing requirements.  And it’s dawning on people that the justice system is plagued by the same careerism and corruption that characterize other branches of government....

Taking reasonable discretion away from judges was a mistake, and it caused a shift in power from judges to prosecutors, who can select and “stack” charges involving mandatory minimums.  While judges are appointed or elected to consider both sides of a case, prosecutors are hired to convict.  It should trouble conservatives that the government side of the equation has been awarded such disproportionate power, which has clearly led to abuses.

Consider the case of Weldon Angelos, who at age 24 was arrested in Utah for selling marijuana and possessing a firearm.  Because of stacked charges with mandatory minimums, Federal Judge Paul Cassell had no choice but to sentence him to 55 years in prison.  Judge Cassell has ever since been pleading for a commutation to Angelos’ sentence, pointing out that far worse crimes, such as hijacking, rape, and second-degree murder, have lighter sentences.  But the judge, who clerked for Antonin Scalia, was appointed by President George W. Bush, and who favors the death penalty, was powerless in the face of a prosecutor armed with federal mandatory minimum sentences.

Yes, our justice system should be about public safety first. But all too often it is about careerism, government revenue and corruption.  Stephanos Bibas, professor of law and criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, reminds us that “the criminal justice system and prisons are big-government institutions.  They are often manipulated by special interests such as prison guard’s unions, and they consume huge shares of most states’ budgets.”

Social conservatives should understand the need for criminal justice reform, since we believe that every human life has inherent dignity and value, and we believe in the possibility of redemption.  Non-violent offenders can be punished and make restitution while keeping families intact and offenders productive.  Economic conservatives should recognize that non-violent offenders are better deployed working in the private sector than incarcerated in expensive government facilities.  And libertarians — well, libertarians already get it.

There are many pieces to the justice reform movement, including giving judges more sentencing leeway, eliminating civil asset forfeiture, and prioritizing drug treatment and in-home monitoring of incarceration.  But commuting sentences for non-violent offenders that are far in excess of the crime is a great place to start.

June 3, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Appellate judges certify to Florida Supreme Court whether state sentencing scheme violates Due Process Clause or Eighth Amendment

A helpful reader alerted me to a remarkable decision handed down earlier this week by the Florida's Fourth District Court of Appeals. The reader provided this helpful summary that I could reprint here (with my emphasis added):

The Fourth District Court of Appeal wrote a decision that (in essence) asks our Supreme Court to revisit the constitutionality of our sentencing scheme, a scheme that gives judges complete discretion to sentence a defendant anywhere between a calculated "lowest permissible sentence" and the statutory maximums stacked end to end. This system of nearly unlimited sentencing discretion is everything Judge Frankel decried, and the sentence the court reviewed is a case in point: the defendant was 55 years old, he had no prior record, and his "lowest permissible sentence" was 23.7 months in prison.  For trying and failing to steal three boat motors he was sentenced to 35 years in prison (the statutory maximums stacked end to end), effectively a life sentence.

Judge Gross wrote a thoughtful and scholarly concurring opinion that begins with the history of sentencing in Florida, talks about the evils of unfettered sentencing discretion, and ends with Judge Frankel and his modest proposal that judges be required to explain their sentencing decisions (at present they need say nothing).

Here is the question the court certified to Florida Supreme Court as one of great public importance:

Does a sentence within the statutory maximum under the Criminal Punishment Code violate either the Due Process Clause or Eighth Amendment when it is significantly greater than the lowest permissible sentence on the defendant’s scoresheet or the offered plea and grossly disproportionate to the median sentence imposed for similar crimes within the jurisdiction?

Alfonso-Roche v. Florida, No. 4D13-3689 (Fla. 4th DCA June 1, 2016) (available here).

I do not know enough about Florida's appellate procedures to know if the Florida Supreme Court will now have to, or at least is now very likely to, take up these important constitutional issues.  But for anyone and everyone working in state or federal systems worried about the exercise of unfettered sentencing discretion, this Alfonso-Roche decision is today's must-read.

June 3, 2016 in Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Is "geography" really an "arbitrary feature" of a capital prosecutions?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this passage today in Justice Breyer's dissent from the denial of certiorari in Tucker V. Louisiana (with my emphasis added):

Lamondre Tucker shot and killed his pregnant girlfriend in 2008.  At the time of the murder, Tucker was 18 years, 5 months, and 6 days old, cf. Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 578 (2005) (“The Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid imposition of the death penalty on offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed”), and he had an IQ of 74, cf. Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 321 (2002) (execution of the intellectually disabled violates the Eighth Amendment). Tucker was sentenced to death in a Louisiana county (Caddo Parish) that imposes almost half the death sentences in Louisiana, even though it accounts for only 5% of that State’s population and 5% of its homicides. See Pet. for Cert. 18.

Given these facts, Tucker may well have received the death penalty not because of the comparative egregiousness of his crime, but because of an arbitrary feature of his case, namely, geography.  See Glossip v. Gross, 576 U. S. ___, ___–___ (2015) (BREYER, J., dissenting) (slip op., at 12–14).  One could reasonably believe that if Tucker had committed the same crime but been tried and sentenced just across the Red River in, say, Bossier Parish, he would not now be on death row.

I do not dispute that Tucker might not have been sent to death row if he had committed the same murder, and had been tried and sentenced, in another county. Indeed, one can certainly assert that had Tucker committed the same murder in, say, Michigan, a state without te death penalty, he definitely would not be on death row.  But, I do not think it quite right to call this geographic reality "an arbitrary feature of his case."  Arbitrary means "not based on reason," but there are many (seemingly sound) reasons why geography often will define and influence how a capital prosecution proceeds.

Most obviously, a criminal being capitally prosecuted has generally picked where his murder took place, and he typically will be (and some times only can be) prosecuted in a particular locality due to his own homicidal choices.  Moreover, the locality where a murder is committed necessarily experiences the impact of the crime most directly, and local decision-makers ought to be most responsive to local concerns as to how best to respond to that murder.  And, a locality's prosecutors and judges and jurors have all been selected to be respresentative of local community views and judgments.  (Indeed, in his concurring opinion in Ring v. Arizona, Justice Breyer made much of a "community’s moral sensibility" in the resolution of capital cases and the importance of a jury's role in reflecting "a community’s sense of capital punishment’s appropriateness in a particular case.")

In other words, to parrot a newly popular SCOTUS term, I think it is nonsense to call geography an "arbitrary feature" of a criminal case. And while lots of abolitionists complain about the impact of geography on the adminstration of capital punishment, I have never found this complaint to be conceptually convincing or nearly as compelling as other arguments against the modern administration of the death penalty.

May 31, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

SCOTUS order list inclludes a couple notable criminal appeal summary reversals

The Supreme Court returned from the long weekend with this long order list, which includes a few long per curiam decision in an habeas case from the Ninth Circuit (Johnson v. Lee) and a capital case from Arizona (Lynch v. Arizona). In addition, the Court denied cert in Tucker v. Louisiana, a case in which the constitutionality of the death penalty was directly challened and Justice Breyer (joined by Justice Ginsburg) dissented in an opinion that calls again for taking up this question.

Notably, the Ninth Circuit (and the criminal defendant) is the loser in Lee, whereas the capital defendant prevails in Lynch.  There was not dissent from the ruling in Lee, but Justice Thomas (joined by Jusice Alito) dissented from Lynch.

May 31, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, May 27, 2016

Split Iowa Supreme Court decides any and every "sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a juvenile offender violates article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution"

As noted in prior posts here and here, yesterday brought notable post-Miller juve sentencing decisions from state supreme courts in California and Florida. But today the Iowa Supreme Court has one-upped its colleagues via its post-Miller ruling in Iowa v. Sweet, No. 14–0455 (Iowa May 27, 2016) (available here).  The lengthy majority opinon in Sweet wraps up this way:

In sum, we conclude that sentencing courts should not be required to make speculative up-front decisions on juvenile offenders’ prospects for rehabilitation because they lack adequate predictive information supporting such a decision. The parole board will be better able to discern whether the offender is irreparably corrupt after time has passed, after opportunities for maturation and rehabilitation have been provided, and after a record of success or failure in the rehabilitative process is available. See Seats, 865 N.W.2d at 557 (“Even if the judge sentences the juvenile to life in prison with parole, it does not mean the parole board will release the juvenile from prison.”); see also State v. Andrews, 329 S.W.3d 369, 379 (Mo. 2010) (Wolff, J., dissenting) (noting an offender sentenced to life with parole may nonetheless “spend the rest of his life in prison if the parole board does not determine that he is suitable for parole release”).  Steinberg has poignantly made this very point:

It’s not only adolescents’ immature judgment that demands that we treat them differently when they break the law.  If the plasticity of the adolescent brain makes juveniles more amenable to rehabilitation, this argues against mandatory life sentences that don’t allow courts to consider whether an impulsive or impressionable teenager might grow into a law-abiding adult who can control his impulses and stand up to peer pressure.  Of course, a teenager who kills another person deliberately should be punished — no one is arguing otherwise.  But should he be incarcerated for the rest of his life, with no chance to prove that he has matured?

Steinberg at 188. Thus, juvenile offenders’ prospects for rehabilitation augur forcefully against speculative, up-front determinations of opportunities for parole and leads inexorably to the categorical elimination of life-without-the-possibility-of-parole sentences for juvenile offenders.

For the above reasons, we adopt a categorical rule that juvenile offenders may not be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole under article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution. As a result, the sentence of the district court in this case is vacated and the matter remanded to the district court for resentencing.

Nothing in this opinion, of course, suggests that a juvenile offender is entitled to parole.  The State is not required to make such a guarantee, and those who over time show irredeemable corruption will no doubt spend their lives in prison.  The determination of irredeemable corruption, however, must be made when the information is available to make that determination and not at a time when the juvenile character is a work in progress.

A lengthy dissent authored by Justice Mansfield gets started this way:

Recognizing that our legislature and our trial courts have the primary role in determining criminal sentences, I would affirm the life-without-parole (LWOP) sentence for this seventeen year old who murdered his grandparents who had raised him.

Today, the court breaks new ground in finding that the Iowa Constitution categorically forbids such sentences.  As I will explain below, I believe the justification offered by the majority for its ruling is insufficient.  More is needed before we strike down a legislatively authorized sentence — especially one the general assembly reauthorized by large majorities in both houses just last year.

May 27, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Split Florida Supreme Court finds technical eligibility for parole insufficient to comply with Miller Eighth Amendment requirements

The Florida Supreme Court today handed down a notable new opinion applying Miller in a case involving a juvenile offender who got a life sentence for a murder back in 1990.  Here is how the opinion in Atwell v. Florida, No. SC14-193 (Fla. May 26, 2016) (available here), gets started:

Angelo Atwell was sixteen years old when, in August 1990, he committed armed robbery and first-degree murder. Under the statute then in effect, Atwell was sentenced for the first-degree murder to a mandatory term of life imprisonment, with the possibility of parole after twenty-five years, and was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for the armed robbery.

As mandated by the existing statutory scheme, Florida’s parole process requires “primary weight” to be given to the “seriousness of the offender’s present offense and the offender’s past criminal record.” See § 947.002, Fla. Stat. (2015). Under this statutory scheme, twenty-five years after Atwell was sentenced, the Commission on Offender Review conducted a parole hearing and set Atwell’s presumptive parole release date, which is the earliest date he may be released from prison as determined by objective parole guidelines, for the year 2130—one hundred and forty years after the crime and far exceeding Atwell’s life expectancy. Thus, while technically Atwell is parole-eligible, it is a virtual certainty that Atwell will spend the rest of his life in prison.

The issue we consider is whether Atwell’s sentence for first-degree murder is constitutional, in light of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2469 (2012), which held that the Eighth Amendment “forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders.” We conclude that Florida’s existing parole system, as set forth by statute, does not provide for individualized consideration of Atwell’s juvenile status at the time of the murder, as required by Miller, and that his sentence, which is virtually indistinguishable from a sentence of life without parole, is therefore unconstitutional. 

May 26, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

This breaking news just in: the Connecticut death penalty is still dead

Download (2)I am demonstrating my age (and my affinity for Saturday Night Live) when I thought of one of the first famous SNL catch-phrases upon seeing this new local headline from Connecticut: "State Supreme Court Upholds Abolishment Of Death Penalty, Including For Death-Row Inmates."  Here are the serious details of a serious decision that prompted my not-so-serious reaction:

The Connecticut Supreme Court has upheld its decision to abolish the state's death penalty, including for inmates on death row. The 5-2 ruling, released Thursday, upholds the justices 4-3 decision last August that the death penalty was unconstitutional for all — including 11 convicts on Connecticut's death row — following the legislature's abolition three years ago of capital punishment in Connecticut. Lawmakers made the law prospective, meaning it applied only to new cases and kept in place the death sentences already imposed on those facing execution before the bill was passed.

Attorneys for those on death row challenged the law, saying it violated the condemned inmates' constitutional rights. The ruling last August came in the case of Eduardo Santiago, who had faced the death penalty for the December 2000 killing of Joseph Niwinski in West Hartford. Santiago has been resentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release.  In the August ruling, the justices in the majority wrote that executing an inmate "would violate the state constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment" and that the death penalty "no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency."

Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers, who joined with Justice Carmen E. Espinosa and Justice Peter T. Zarella in the August dissents, voted this time with the majority, saying she felt bound to the doctrine of "stare decisis," a Latin term meaning "stand by things decided."

"Just as my personal beliefs cannot drive my decision-making, I feel bound by the doctrine of stare decisis in this case for one simple reason — my respect for the rule of law," Rogers wrote. "To reverse an important constitutional issue within a period of less than one year solely because of a change in justices on the panel that is charged with deciding the issue, in my opinion, would raise legitimate concerns by the people we serve about the court's integrity and the rule of law in the state of Connecticut."

Rogers said, "stability in the law and respect for the decisions of the court as an institution, rather than a collection of individuals, in and of themselves, are of critically important value, especially on an issue of such great public significance as the constitutionality of the death penalty."

In separate dissents, Zarella and Espinosa rejected the assertion that respect for precedent mandated Thursday's ruling, saying that doctrine should never be used to enshrine a flawed decision. And they pointedly noted that Rogers herself had blasted the original Santiago decision as "a house of cards, falling under the slightest breath of scrutiny." They also criticized Justice Richard A. Robinson, who came on the court after the Santiago decision and voted with the majority, along with justices Richard N. Palmer, Dennis G. Eveleigh and Andrew J. McDonald. Like Rogers, Robinson cited the importance of respecting precedent.

"I cannot fathom how Chief Justice Rogers and Justice Robinson believe they respect the rule of law by supporting a decision that is completely devoid of any legal basis or believe it is more important to spare this court of the purported embarrassment than to correct demonstrable constitutional error," Zarella wrote....

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, in a statement released Thursday afternoon, said the ruling "reaffirms what the court has already said: those currently serving on death row will serve the rest of their life in prison with no possibility of ever obtaining freedom."  Malloy noted that Connecticut in the last half century has executed only two inmates, both of whom volunteered for death....

Chief State's Attorney Kevin T. Kane said his office respects the decision and would "move forward" to re-sentence the individuals currently on death row to a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release.  "The Division of Criminal Justice and I extend our deepest sympathy and condolences to the victims of these crimes and to their families," Kane said in a statement.  "I also wish to express my appreciation to the dedicated professionals in the Division of Criminal Justice who have devoted so much of themselves throughout this process."

All the opinions in this new case can be found right now at this Connecticut Supreme Court link.

May 26, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Creating Meaningful Opportunities for Release: Graham, Miller and California's Youth Offender Parole Hearings"

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

This article presents findings from a study on the implementation of California’s new Youth Offender Parole Hearing law, which aims to provide juvenile offenders with meaningful opportunities to obtain release from adult prison.  It contributes to the debate surrounding how to apply the “meaningful opportunity to obtain release” standard that the Supreme Court deliberately left open to interpretation in Graham v. Florida and, to some extent, in Miller v. Alabama. The Supreme Court’s recent opinion in Montgomery v. Louisiana reinforces the idea that juveniles who demonstrate that they are capable of change are entitled to release.

The data contained in this Article was obtained by reviewing the transcripts of the first 107 Youth Offender Parole Hearings; this sample represents all but two of the Youth Offender Parole Hearings that took place between January 2014 and June 2014.  In the first six months of the law’s implementation, juvenile offenders were found suitable for parole at younger ages than the general population.  Further, youth offenders appeared to have a more realistic chance of being released under the new law. This reform is, at the very least, an important step towards offering juvenile offenders more meaningful opportunities to earn their release from prison.  At the same time, it does not go far enough.  After discussing some limitations of the law, this Article concludes by recommending guidelines that would provide youth offenders more meaningful opportunities for release in parole hearings. 

May 26, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

"Many serving sentences for marijuana offenses deserve clemency"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent San Francisco Chronicle commentary authored by Alex Contreras, a former federal inmate serving a 40-year sentence for drug and gun charges who received clemency from President Obama in December 2015.  Here is the text:

More than 10,000 clemency applicants wake up every day in a federal prison, awaiting an answer from President Obama on whether their lengthy prison sentence will come to an end. Most of them will be crushed when they are eventually denied.  There are a few, however, who will realize the unlikely and overwhelming joy of finally being released. I was one of those rare few whose name was on the list of Obama’s recent clemency grants.  And while I was excited to finally be going home — and extremely grateful to the president — I was also perplexed by those who weren’t on the list.

In speaking about criminal justice reform, Obama has highlighted the injustice of incarcerating marijuana offenders for “long stretches,” and has described marijuana as being “less harmful than alcohol” and a “vice,” not unlike cigarette smoking. He also instructed his Justice Department to not prosecute medical or recreational marijuana sellers who are operating under state law.  But his pool of clemency recipients does not reflect these views.

Out of the 306 clemency grants, less than 3 percent were marijuana offenders, and not one of them was a medical marijuana provider, despite being the most deserving given that they were following state law and the Obama administration is no longer prosecuting them. Some of them are even serving decades in prison.

One such inmate is Ricardo Montes, a Latino serving a harsh mandatory 20-year sentence for operating a medical marijuana dispensary in Modesto under California law.  Montes and his co-defendant received the longest sentences ever doled out to any medical marijuana provider, because — during the aggressive George W. Bush administration — they were charged under a fearsome mandatory minimum statue designed for drug kingpins and dangerous cartels.

Individuals like Montes are even more deserving of clemency than I was.  Yet I fear that men such as Montes will be left to serve the remainder of their lengthy prison terms, while others reap the rewards of the change in the legal landscape of our nation’s marijuana policies. I hope that Obama’s remaining clemency grants will reflect his sensible views regarding marijuana, ensuring that our criminal justice system “keeps its basic promise of equal treatment for all.”

May 25, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Examples of "over-punishment", Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Making a friendly pitch for SCOTUS to consider constitutional limits on extreme judicial sentencing increase based on uncharged homicide

Regular readers know that I have long been troubled by significant sentence increases by judges based on so-called acquitted conduct, and that I have filed a number of federal appellate briefs articulating my concerns. Building on some of that prior work, I recently had a chance to work on an amicus brief in support of certiorari in Hebert v. US, a case out of the Fifth Circuit involving an extreme sentence increase based on uncharged conduct. The full amicus (which the fine folks at the Jones Day in DC made so fine) can be downloaded below, and here are excerpts from its start providing context and key arguments:

It is difficult to imagine a starker violation of the Sixth Amendment and due process than what transpired below. Mr. Hebert pleaded guilty to a $16,000 fraud that carried a guidelines range topping out at 5 years.  After persuading Mr. Hebert to admit responsibility for his fraud and accept punishment for that crime, the Government ambushed him at sentencing by asserting that he had committed an intentional murder along with the fraud to which he had confessed. The Government then asked the district court to find it was more likely than not that Mr. Hebert committed this un-charged, non-admitted, never-convicted, non-federal crime. Then, on the basis of that judicial determination, the district court gave Mr. Hebert a 92-year sentence — a sentence the Government has conceded and the Fifth Circuit recognized “would have been substantively unreasonable under the post-Booker sentencing regime absent a judicial finding of murder,” Pet.App.22a — again, a crime with which Mr. Hebert has never even been charged.

Because Mr. Hebert has never been charged with — much less convicted of — murder, he remains entirely innocent of that crime. If the Government wishes to convict Mr. Hebert of murder, it is welcome to try.  But what it cannot do is use Mr. Hebert’s confession to lesser crimes as the springboard for de facto convicting him of a far more serious crime in a judicial proceeding with no jury, the civil standard of proof, and none of the criminal justice system’s fundamental rules and procedures....

There are at least two constitutional provisions that, under this Court’s well-established jurisprudence, forbid this inverted regime.  First, this Court has made clear that a criminal defendant has a Sixth Amendment “right to have a jury find the facts behind his punishment.” Hurst v. Florida, 136 S. Ct. 616, 621 (2016).  That right reflects the vital role of the jury as the “circuitbreaker in the State’s machinery of justice” — a role that cannot be “relegated to making a determination that the defendant at some point did something wrong [as] a mere preliminary to a judicial inquisition into the facts of the crime the State actually seeks to punish.” Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296, 306–07 (2004).  The Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial is a constitutional protection of “surpassing importance,” Apprendi, 530 U.S. at 476, yet the decision below makes a mockery of it....

Second, this Court has long recognized that due process forbids grossly unfair procedures when a person’s liberty is at stake. Specifically, this Court has indicated that (1) judges are sometimes limited from imposing distinct new punishments based on “a new finding of fact that was not an ingredient of the offense charged,” Specht v. Patterson, 386 U.S. 605, 608 (1967) (citation omitted); (2) the “safeguards of due process” in criminal cases are “concerned with substance rather than [any] kind of formalism,” Mullaney v. Wilbur, 421 U.S. 684, 698–99 (1975); and (3) constitutional concerns are raised whenever sentencing findings become “a tail which wags the dog of the substantive offense,” or when the government restructures criminal prosecutions “to ‘evade’ the commands” of the Constitution. McMillan v. Pennsylvania, 477 U.S. 79, 88–89 (1986).

The simple principle that unifies these decisions is fatal to the legal rule embraced below: Due process forbids prosecutors from manipulating the criminal justice system to evade its core protections.  Applied here, that principle barred prosecutors from waylaying Mr. Hebert at sentencing with allegations of a far more serious crime for which he has never been indicted or convicted — allegations that depend, moreover, on evidence which the prosecutors were apparently unwilling to subject to the crucible of a criminal trial or test against the burden of proof they must carry there.  Due process demands more.

Download Berman Amicus in Support of Cert in Hebert

May 25, 2016 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Dynamic commentary on SCOTUS work in Foster and related Monday news

A number of bright folks have already had some dynamic takes the Supreme Court's rulings yesterday in the Georgia capital case, Foster v. Chapman.  Organized alphabetically by location of the commentary, here are a few early takes that caught my eye:

The pieces by Epps and Otis are extra-notable because they link into their discussions the SCOTUS Miller remands and the not guilty verdict in a Freddy Gray prosecution, respectively.

UPDATE Scott Greenfield made via Twitter the excellent point that the list above included only "commentaries on Foster from people who don't pick juries & nothing from anyone who does." So, with Scott's help, I am here rounding out my round-up of Foster takes:

May 24, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Virginia Republicans go directly to state Supreme Court to try to undo Gov's clemency order restoring vote to former felons

As first reported in this post last month, Gov Terry McAuliffe of Virginia used his executive clemency powers to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 former felons who had been permanently disenfranchised under Virginia's state election laws.  Now, as reported in this Washington Post piece, political opponents are going to court to try to undo this effort to allow more people to participate in democracy.  Here are the details:

Leaders of Virginia’s House and Senate went to the state’s highest court Monday in a bid to reverse Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s sweeping order to restore voting rights to 206,000 felons. Skipping lower courts, they filed a complaint with the Supreme Court of Virginia, contending that McAuliffe (D) exceeded his authority in April when he restored voting rights to felons en masse instead of individually.

The lawsuit — bankrolled by private donors — presents a complex constitutional question with the urgency of presidential election-year politics. Republicans are seeking an expedited review so that reinstated ex-cons who have registered to vote can be stripped from the rolls before November.

Virginia governors have restored felons’ voting rights, but none with anything close to McAuliffe’s scale and speed. “From Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson to Tim Kaine and Bob McDonnell, every Governor of Virginia has understood the clemency power to authorize the Governor to grant clemency on an individualized basis only,” said the lawsuit, filed on behalf of House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) and four other Virginia voters....

The governor says that his move helps former convicts to fully reenter society. Republicans call it a favor to Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, McAuliffe’s close friend and political ally, who could benefit from higher numbers of minority voters in the crucial swing state.

McAuliffe blasted the lawsuit, suggesting that Republicans were trying to hold onto a remnant of the Jim Crow era, since African Americans have been disproportionately affected by felon disenfranchisement. One in four African Americans in Virginia had been banned from voting because of laws restricting the rights of those with convictions.

“Today Republicans filed a lawsuit to preserve a policy of disenfranchisement that has been used intentionally to suppress the voices of qualified voters, particularly African Americans, for more than a century,” McAuliffe said in a written statement. “These individuals have served their time and are now living, raising families and paying taxes in our communities — this suit is an effort to continue to treat them as second-class citizens.”...

The lawsuit, filed by Charles J. Cooper, who ran the Office of Legal Counsel under President Ronald Reagan, pushed back against the claim that felon disenfranchisement was rooted in racism. “Governor McAuliffe has falsely suggested that Virginia’s felon disenfranchisement provision was first introduced into the Constitution after the Civil War for the purpose of disenfranchising African-Americans,” the lawsuit says. “But Virginia has prohibited felons from voting since at least 1830 — decades before African-Americans could vote.”...

McAuliffe’s predecessor, Republican Robert F. McDonnell, simplified and sped up the application process for nonviolent offenders. When he was governor, Democrat Timothy M. Kaine, now a U.S. senator, considered a broader action but opted against it on the advice of his senior counsel, Mark Rubin. “A blanket order restoring the voting rights of everyone would be a rewrite of the law rather than a contemplated use of the executive clemency powers,” Rubin wrote in 2010. “And, the notion that the Constitution of the Commonwealth could be rewritten via executive order is troubling.”

McAuliffe’s order also allows ex-felons to serve on juries, run for public office and apply for restoration of their gun rights. It applies to all ex-felons, including those guilty of violent offenses such as murder and rape — a point emphasized by Republicans. The lawsuit notes that attorneys for a man accused of killing a state police trooper in Dinwiddie County are seeking to have felons whose civil rights were restored added to the pool of eligible jurors for his trial.

The McAuliffe administration notes that felons would still need a judge’s approval before winning back their gun rights and would still be vetted by the jury selection process before being added to such a panel. McAuliffe said that nearly 80 percent of those affected by his order were convicted of nonviolent offenses. Still, Republicans say, that means McAuliffe restored rights to 40,000 violent felons.

Prior related posts:

May 24, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, May 23, 2016

SCOTUS has "firm conviction" strikes in Georgia capital case were "motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent"

The Supreme Court's one criminal justice ruling today comes in Foster v. Chatman, 14-8349 (S. Ct. May 23, 2016) (available here), a capital case out of Georgia involving a Batson claim. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the opinion for the Court, which garnered six votes, and its ruling is reasonably summarized via these passages: 

As we explained in Miller-El v. Dretke, “[i]f a prosecutor’s proffered reason for striking a black panelist applies just as well to an otherwise-similar nonblack [panelist] who is permitted to serve, that is evidence tending to prove purposeful discrimination.” 545 U. S. 231, 241 (2005). With respect to both Garrett and Hood, such evidence is compelling. But that is not all. There are also the shifting explanations, the misrepresentations of the record, and the persistent focus on race in the prosecution’s file. Considering all of the circumstantial evidence that “bear[s] upon the issue of racial animosity,” we are left with the firm conviction that the strikes of Garrett and Hood were “motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent.” Snyder, 552 U. S., at 478, 485....

The contents of the prosecution’s file, however, plainly belie the State’s claim that it exercised its strikes in a “color-blind” manner. App. 41, 60 (pretrial hearing). The sheer number of references to race in that file is arresting....

The State’s new argument today does not dissuade us from the conclusion that its prosecutors were motivated in substantial part by race when they struck Garrett and Hood from the jury 30 years ago. Two peremptory strikes on the basis of race are two more than the Constitution allows.

Justice Alito has an interesting corcurrence about procedures that I will likely discuss in another post. Justice Thomas, in notable contrast, dissents on the merits, and his dissent starts this way:

Thirty years ago, Timothy Foster confessed to murdering Queen Madge White after sexually assaulting her with a bottle of salad dressing. In the decades since, Foster has sought to vacate his conviction and death sentence on the ground that prosecutors violated Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U. S. 79 (1986), when they struck all black prospective jurors before his trial.  Time and again, the state courts have rejected that claim.  The trial court twice rejected it, and the Supreme Court of Georgia unequivocally rejected it when Foster directly appealed his conviction and sentence. Foster v. State, 258 Ga. 736, 736, n. 1, 738–739, 374 S. E. 2d 188, 190, n. 1, 192 (1988), cert. denied, 490 U. S. 1085 (1989).  A state habeas court rejected it in 2013. App. 175–176, 192–196.  And most recently, the Supreme Court of Georgia again rejected it as lacking “arguable merit,” Ga. Sup. Ct. Rule 36 (2001). See App. 246.

Yet, today — nearly three decades removed from voir dire — the Court rules in Foster’s favor.  It does so without adequately grappling with the possibility that we lack jurisdiction. Moreover, the Court’s ruling on the merits, based, in part, on new evidence that Foster procured decades after his conviction, distorts the deferential Batson inquiry.  I respectfully dissent.

May 23, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

SCOTUS concurrences explore what Montgomery GVRs might mean for juve murderers originally sentenced to death

Continuing its recent trend, the short-staffed Supreem Court opted in this new order list not to grant certiorari review in any new cases.  But the list still has some intrigue for sentencing fans thanks to dueling concurrences in a set of cases vacated and remanded for further consideration in light of Montgomery v. Louisiana.  The start of Justice Alito's corcurrence in Adams v. Alabama sets up what makes these cases potentially different from other post-Montgomery GVRs:

The present case differs from most of those in which the Court grants, vacates, and remands for reconsideration in light of Montgomery.  The petitioner in this case — as with a few others now before the Court — was sentenced to death prior to our decision in Roper v. Simmons, 543 U. S. 551 (2005), which held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits a death sentence for a minor. During that pre-Roper period, juries in capital cases were required at the penalty phase to consider “all relevant mitigating evidence,” including “the chronological age of a minor” and a youthful defendant’s “mental and emotional development.” Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U. S. 104, 116–117 (1982); see also Roper v. Simmons, supra, at 603 (O’Connor, J., dissenting) (“A defendant’s youth or immaturity is, of course, a paradigmatic example” of the type of mitigating evidence to which a “sentencer in a capital case must be permitted to give full effect”). After Roper, death sentences imposed on prisoners convicted of murders committed as minors were reduced to lesser sentences.

Justice Alito goes on to explain his view that this case history might be of constitutional consequence now:

In cases like this, it can be argued that the original sentencing jury fulfilled the individualized sentencing requirement that Miller subsequently imposed.  In these cases, the sentencer necessarily rejected the argument that the defendant’s youth and immaturity called for the lesser sentence of life imprisonment without parole.  It can therefore be argued that such a sentencer would surely have felt that the defendant’s youth and immaturity did not warrant an even lighter sentence that would have allowed the petitioner to be loosed on society at some time in the future.  In short, it can be argued that the jury that sentenced petitioner to death already engaged in the very process mandated by Miller and concluded that petitioner was not a mere “‘child’” whose crimes reflected “‘unfortunate yet transient immaturity,’” post, at 2 (SOTOMAYOR, J., concurring in decision to grant, vacate, and remand), but was instead one of the rare minors who deserves life without parole.

Justice Stotmayor is not so sure that Justice Alito's view on this matter should carry the day on remand, and she explains why in her concurrence:

Miller v. Alabama, 567 U. S. ___ (2012), did not merely impose an “individualized sentencing requirement”; it imposed a substantive rule that life without parole is only an appropriate punishment for “the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.” Montgomery, 577 U.S., at ___ (slip op., at 17) (internal quotation marks omitted). “Even if a court considers a child’s age before sentencing him or her to a lifetime in prison, that sentence still violates the Eighth Amendment for a child whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity.” Id., at ___–___ (slip op., at 16–17) (same).  There is no indication that, when the factfinders in these cases considered petitioners’ youth, they even asked the question Miller required them not only to answer, but to answer correctly: whether petitioners’ crimes reflected “transient immaturity” or “irreparable corruption.” 577 U.S., at ___–___ (slip op., at 16–17).

The last factfinders to consider petitioners’ youth did so more than 10 — and in most cases more than 20 — years ago. (Petitioners’ post-Roper resentencings were generally automatic.)  Those factfinders did not have the benefit of this Court’s guidance regarding the “diminished culpability of juveniles” and the ways that “penological justifications” apply to juveniles with “lesser force than to adults.”  Roper, 543 U.S., at 571.  As importantly, they did not have the benefit of this Court’s repeated exhortation that the gruesomeness of a crime is not sufficient to demonstrate that a juvenile offender is beyond redemption: “The reality that juveniles still struggle to define their identity means it is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character.” Id., at 570; see also id., at 573; Miller, 567 U. S., at __ (slip op., at 17).

May 23, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, May 21, 2016

DAG Yates spotlights in commencement speech role of Georgia School of Law in clemency achievement

Today, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates returned to her alma mater, the University of Georgia School of Law, to deliver this Commencement address. Like all good Commencement addresses, the whole piece is a lovely read. But sentencing fans should be especially interested in these closing comments:

I’d like to close by telling you about a recent intersection between the work of some students graduating here today and my work in Washington.  As some of you may know, the Obama Administration has embarked on a clemency initiative designed to address the disproportionately long sentences given to lower-level, non-violent drug offenders who were sentenced under outdated drug laws.  As Deputy Attorney General, I am charged with making a recommendation to President Obama on each petition. One such recent clemency petition was prepared by two of today’s graduates. These students participated in the representation of a man named Steven Boyd.  In 1998, Mr. Boyd was convicted of selling crack and sentenced to life in prison. He had absolutely no history of violence and other than a few small time drug deals, no other criminal history. Yet the harsh mandatory minimum statutes in effect at the time mandated a life sentence.  That’s life with no possibility of parole. The students prepared Mr. Boyd’s petition for clemency and submitted it to the Justice Department.  That petition made its way to my desk and then on to the White House. And just three weeks ago, the president granted Mr. Boyd’s clemency petition. Mr. Boyd served 18 years and paid his debt to society. As a result of your classmates’ hard work and their commitment to their duty as lawyers, Mr. Boyd will be a free man. Your classmates unlocked justice for Steven Boyd.

Each and every one of you has both the capacity and the obligation, in the words of Attorney General Kennedy, to breathe meaning and force into the pursuit of justice.  I hope that you will seize opportunities to right wrongs large and small, that you will stand up for the voiceless and that you will uphold the promise of our country. I hope that you will use the key that you are about to receive to unlock justice.

May 21, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 20, 2016

Does anyone think former Subway pitchman Jared Fogle has any real chance to have his long federal sentence reversed as unreasonable?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local story discussing the high-profile sentencing appeal being heard today by the Seventh Circuit.  Here are the basic details:

Former Subway pitchman Jared Fogle is asking a federal appeals court judge to shorten his nearly 16-year prison sentence. A hearing on Fogle's appeal, which is scheduled this morning in the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, comes about six months after U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt sentenced Fogle to 15 years and eight months in federal prison.

Fogle argued that his sentence was unreasonable and that Pratt abused her discretion when she went beyond the sentence that federal prosecutors had recommended as part of a plea agreement.

The one-time face of Subway sandwiches pleaded guilty to possession or distribution of child pornography and traveling across state lines to have commercial sex with a minor. Prosecutors recommended a maximum sentence of 12.5 years, while Fogle's defense attorneys asked for five years....

On appeal, Fogle argued that the sentence he received is "procedurally flawed" for three reasons. First, Fogle did not plead guilty to production of child pornography, and he played no role in producing the images and videos he received from Taylor, according to court records filed by Fogle's attorney.

Second, the punishment is "erroneously grounded in acts that Fogle didn't do and in Fogle's fantasies," neither of which should have been used to justify an enhanced sentence, court records say. "Notwithstanding any fantasies Fogle may have had, or his discussions with third parties concerning possible sexual contact with children younger than the prostituted minors, these events never ultimately culminated in any chargeable criminal activity," court records say.

Third, the sentence was erroneously based on Fogle collecting and viewing pornography of children as young as 6. Fogle argued that although he viewed pornographic images of children, he neither collected them nor asked Taylor for the images.

The district court also seemed to punish Fogle for seeking treatment after his arrest, court records say, and erroneously rejected a probation officer's recommendation for a less harsh sentence based on the additional stress and collateral damage he will endure because of his notoriety.

Fogle also argued that he never had sex with the minors whom Taylor recorded, and never shared any of the pornographic images and videos with anyone other than on one occasion, when he showed them to a woman with whom Fogle was romantically involved. Although he expressed interest in having sex with minors as young as 14, court records say, he never actually did.

In response to Fogle's arguments, federal prosecutors said Pratt "thoroughly and appropriately explored the unusual nature and circumstances of Fogle's offenses and his history and characteristics." Although Fogle was not involved in the production of child pornography, "he knew where the production took place, knew that it was going to happen, and did nothing, instead waiting for his chance to receive the material," according to court records filed by the U.S. attorney's office.

While prosecutors acknowledged the differences between Fogle and Taylor, they said Fogle rationalized and encouraged Taylor's conduct — and, for several years, benefited from it. "Fogle's fantasies were grounded in reality, in that he fantasized about and sought actively to repeat what he had already done, i.e., pay minors for sex," court records say.

Prosecutors also echoed Pratt's statements during Fogle's sentencing hearing last November. Fogle, unlike many offenders, had a relatively easy childhood, free of abuse and neglect. Although he did seek medical treatment, he did so only after he was caught.

Prior related posts:

May 20, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Celebrity sentencings, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Two interesting intricate criminal justice rulings from SCOTUS (including a first-ever casebook cite in Betterman!)

The Supreme Court release three opinions this morning, two of which are criminal justice cases. Here are the most essential basics with links via How Appealing:

1. Justice Elena Kagan delivered the opinion of the Court in Luna Torres v. Lynch, No. 14-1096. Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen G. Breyer joined. You can access the oral argument via this link.

2. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court in Betterman v. Montana, No. 14-1457. Justice Thomas issued a concurring opinion, in which Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. joined. And Justice Sotomayor also issued a concurring opinion. You can access the oral argument via this link.

Statutory interpretation fans will be most interested in the ruling, but sentencing fans will be focused on the Betterman ruling. It gets started this way:

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury . . . .” Does the Sixth Amendment’s speedy trial guarantee apply to the sentencing phase of a criminal prosecution?  That is the sole question this case presents.  We hold that the guarantee protects the accused from arrest or indictment through trial, but does not apply once a defendant has been found guilty at trial or has pleaded guilty to criminal charges.  For inordinate delay in sentencing, although the Speedy Trial Clause does not govern, a defendant may have other recourse, including, in appropriate circumstances, tailored relief under the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.  Petitioner Brandon Betterman, however, advanced in this Court only a Sixth Amendment speedy trial claim.  He did not preserve a due process challenge.  See Tr. of Oral Arg. 19.  We, therefore, confine this opinion to his Sixth Amendment challenge.

Because I would like to see the Due Process Clause play bigger role in regulating sentencing matters, I am inclined to like the Betterman ruling. And, as the title of this post highlights, I definitely linked this passage from the majority opinion for an obvious personal reason:

[A] central feature of contemporary sentencing in both federal and state courts is preparation by the probation office, and review by the parties and the court, of a presentence investigation report. See 18 U. S. C. §3552; Fed. Rule Crim. Proc. 32(c)–(g); 6 W. LaFave, J. Israel, N. King, & O. Kerr, Criminal Procedure §26.5(b), pp. 1048–1049 (4th ed. 2015) (noting reliance on presentence reports in federal and state courts). This aspect of the system requires some amount of wholly reasonable presentencing delay.8 Indeed, many — if not most— disputes are resolved, not at the hearing itself, but rather through the presentence-report process.  See N. Demleitner, D. Berman, M. Miller, & R. Wright, Sentencing Law and Policy 443 (3d ed. 2013) (“Criminal justice is far more commonly negotiated than adjudicated; defendants and their attorneys often need to be more concerned about the charging and plea bargaining practices of prosecutors and the presentence investigations of probation offices than . . . about the sentencing procedures of judges or juries.”); cf. Bierschbach & Bibas, Notice-and-Comment Sentencing, 97 Minn. L. Rev. 1, 15 (2012) (“[T]oday’s sentencing hearings . . . rubber-stamp plea-bargained sentences.”).

May 19, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Implementing Graham and Miller: just what qualifies as a "meaningful opportunity to obtain release"?

This new Marshall Project piece effectively details the enduring challenges that states necessarily face in honoring both the letter and spirit of the Supreme Court's modern Eighth Amendment work limiting LWOP sentences for juveniles.  The piece's full headline highlights its themes:  "When Parole Boards Trump the Supreme Court: The high court has said most kids shouldn't be sentenced to life without parole, but some prisoners' fate are in the hands of politics."  Here is how the piece started (with links from the original):

Almost everyone serving life in prison for crimes they committed as juveniles deserves a shot at going home. That’s the thrust of a series of Supreme Court rulings, the fourth and most recent of which was decided this year. Taken together, the high court’s message in these cases is that children are different than adults when it comes to crime and punishment — less culpable for their actions and more amenable to change. As such, court rulings have determined all but the rarest of juvenile lifers are entitled to “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”

The court left it up to states how to handle this year's new ruling but suggested parole boards were a good choice. “Allowing those offenders to be considered for parole,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in January, gives states a way to identify “juveniles whose crimes reflected only transient immaturity—and who have since matured.” Most states have taken this option, changing juvenile lifers’ sentences en masse from life without to lifewith the possibility of parole.

But prisoner’s rights advocates and attorneys have begun to argue whether parole boards, as they usually operate, may not be capable of providing a meaningful opportunity for release. A handful of courts have agreed.

Last month, a New York state appeals court judge ruled that the state’s parole board had not “met its constitutional obligation” when it denied parole to a man who had killed his girlfriend when he was 16. Dempsey Hawkins is now 54 and has been denied parole nine times in hearings that, the court said, did not adequately weigh what role his youth and immaturity had played in his crime.

Also last month, a group of juvenile lifers in Maryland filed suit, arguing that not a single juvenile lifer had received parole in that state in the last 20 years. “Rather than affording youth a meaningful and realistic opportunity for release…grants of release are exceptionally rare, are governed by no substantive, enforceable standards, and are masked from view by blanket assertions of executive privilege,” the lawsuit says.

Similar suits are proceeding in Iowa, Michigan, Florida, Virginia and North Carolina, where a judge heard oral arguments last week.

“There are just two relevant kinds of sentences: those that provide a meaningful opportunity for release and those that don’t,” says Sarah French Russell, a Quinnipiac University law professor who studies juvenile justice. “Sentences that are not technically labeled life without parole can deny a meaningful opportunity for release because of the procedures or criteria used by the parole board.”

A few of many prior related posts:

May 19, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

California voters in November to have "mend it or end it" death penalty initiative options

As reported in this new AP article, headlined "Showdown Set Over Future of California's Death Penalty," two competing ballot initiative appear poised to be before voters on the Left Coast this fall. Here are the details:

Death penalty supporters are setting the stage on Thursday for a November showdown over whether to speed up executions in California or do away with them entirely. Crime victims, prosecutors and other supporters plan to submit about 585,000 signatures for a ballot measure to streamline what both sides call a broken system.

No one has been executed in California in a decade because of ongoing legal challenges.  Nearly 750 convicted killers are on the nation's largest death row, but only 13 have been executed since 1978.  Far more condemned inmates have died of natural causes or suicide.

Supporters plan 10 news conferences statewide to promote an initiative they say would save taxpayers millions of dollars annually, retain due process protections and bring justice to murder victims and their families.  The measure would speed what is currently a lengthy appeals process by expanding the pool of appellate attorneys and appointing lawyers to the death cases at the time of sentencing.

Currently there is about a five-year wait just for condemned inmates to be assigned a lawyer.  By contrast, the ballot measure would require that the entire state appeals process be completed within five years except under extraordinary circumstances. To meet that timeline, appeals would have to be filed more quickly and there would be limits on how many appeals could be filed in each case....  Additional provisions would allow condemned inmates to be housed at any prison, not just on San Quentin's death row, and they would have to work and pay victim restitution while they wait to be executed....

Opponents say their measure, too, would save money by doing away with the death penalty and keeping currently condemned inmates imprisoned for life with no chance of parole. They submitted about 601,000 signatures on April 28 with much less fanfare, said deputy campaign manager Quintin Mecke.  Each side needs nearly 366,000 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.  "It's unfortunate that the DAs (district attorneys) want to double down on a fundamentally broken death penalty system that simply can't be fixed," Mecke said. "You can't streamline or reform a failed policy."

A similar attempt to abolish the death penalty failed by 4 percentage points in 2012. Besides the latest initiative put forward by opponents, that failed effort spurred this year's counter-move by law enforcement and crime victims.

May 19, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

"Jurisdiction and Resentencing: How Prosecutorial Waiver Can Offer Remedies Congress Has Denied"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new and timely scholarship authored by Leah Litman and Luke Beasley. Here are excerpts from the start of the piece which highlights its themes and timeliness: 

This Essay is about what prosecutors can do to ensure that prisoners with meritorious legal claims have a remedy. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) imposes draconian conditions on when prisoners may file successive petitions for post-conviction review (that is, more than one petition for post-conviction review).  AEDPA’s restrictions on post-conviction review are so severe that they routinely prevent prisoners with meritorious claims from vindicating those claims.

Take, for example, the recent litigation about whether prisoners with “Johnson” claims may be resentenced. Johnson v. United States held that the “residual clause” of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) is unconstitutionally vague. ACCA imposed a mandatory fifteen-year term of imprisonment on prisoners; but without ACCA, the statutory maximum term of imprisonment for these prisoners is ten years.  Johnson therefore means these prisoners could lawfully be sentenced to no more than ten years in prison.  Prisoners whose ACCA sentences depended on the residual clause are now seeking to have their 15-year sentences reduced to the lawful 10 years.  But three courts of appeal held that AEDPA bars prisoners with Johnson claims from obtaining relief if they have already filed one petition for post-conviction review, because the prisoners do not satisfy AEDPA’s conditions for filing a successive petition for postconviction review....

Part I describes AEDPA’s restrictions on post-conviction petitions that are preventing prisoners with meritorious claims from obtaining relief, and how the United States is attempting to bypass those restrictions by waiving the argument that AEDPA’s restrictions are not satisfied.  Part II argues that AEDPA’s restrictions on filing successive petitions for post-conviction review are not jurisdictional, and that courts may therefore accept the government’s waiver and allow prisoners to obtain relief on their claims even if prisoners do not satisfy AEDPA’s preconditions for filing successive petitions for post-conviction review.

May 18, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

So who would you like to see on Prez candidate Donald Trump's SCOTUS shortlist?

The question in the title of this post came to mind upon seeing this new National Review commentary by Jim Geraghty headlined "Where Is Trump’s Supreme Court Shortlist?".  Here are excerpts:

Back on March 21, Donald Trump, sensing there was some conservative anxiety about whom he would nominate to the Supreme Court, promise to compile and release a list of five to ten “great conservative judges” with “great intellects.”

“I will guarantee that those are going to be the first judges that I put up for nomination if I win,” Trump said. “And that should solve that problem.”  It’s mid-May now, Senate Republicans are holding the line against hearings or a confirmation vote on President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, and there remains no sign that a list of potential Trump nominees is forthcoming.

Trump’s handling of the Supreme Court question is worrisome on three fronts. First, there is the simple failure to deliver on a public promise....

Second, he gives little indication he’s spent more than a few minutes thinking about who would make a good pick for the Court, or about the role of the judiciary in our government....

Third, there’s little sign that Trump or anyone around him grasps how important and consequential the issue of judicial appointees is, or how much good it would do him to reassure Republicans who aren’t jumping on board the bandwagon. If there were a way to be absolutely certain that Trump would appoint two, three, or four Antonin Scalia clones during his presidency, a lot of Trump-skeptic conservatives might immediately see one giant reason to vote for him.  If nothing else, they could rest easy knowing that the Second Amendment wouldn’t be effectively nullified or curtailed, that Citizens United would remain the law of the land, that voter-ID laws would be upheld, and that pro-lifers could continue to make progress in the courts....

And that’s the real tragedy of Trump’s rise: At a time when the future of the issues most vital to conservatives is more tied to the Court’s composition than ever before, the Republican party is about to nominate a man who inspires little confidence in conservatives.  There are still actions he can take to help allay conservative concerns, and there’s still time for him to take them.  But if he does, all evidence suggests it will be because they’re in his own best interests rather than the nation’s.  Though it’s less than ideal, getting the right outcomes for the wrong reasons may be the best we can hope for now.

For a number of reasons, sentencing fans should be very interested in who will become the next Supreme Court Justice, and it is seemingly becoming more and more likely that it Justice Scalia's replacement will not be Judge Garland (at least not in 2016 before Election Day).  And though I am not through this post trying to make any predictions about who is likely to be the next President, I can confidently predict that the next person nominating federal judges (both to SCOTUS and to lower courts) will have a "yuge" impact on the future of all sorts of sentencing jurisprudence.

So, dear SL&P readers, if you had The Donald's ear, what names would you whisper to him if and whenever he starts thinking seriously about judicial nominations?

UPDATE:  Seemingly only a few minutes after I put up this post, Trump did release his SCOTUS shortlist. This AP article provides these details:

Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, released Wednesday a list of 11 potential Supreme Court justices he plans to vet to fill the seat of late Justice Antonin Scalia if he's elected to the White House.

The list of conservative federal and state judges includes Steven Colloton of Iowa, Allison Eid of Colorado and Raymond Gruender of Missouri. Also on the list are: Thomas Hardiman of Pennsylvania, Raymond Kethledge of Michigan, Joan Larsen of Michigan, Thomas Lee of Utah, William Pryor of Alabama, David Stras of Minnesota, Diane Sykes of Wisconsin and Don Willett of Texas. Trump had previously named Pryor and Sykes as examples of kind of justices he would choose....

In a statement, Trump said the list "is representative of the kind of constitutional principles I value" and said that, as president, he would use it "as a guide to nominate our next United States Supreme Court Justices." His campaign stressed the list was compiled "first and foremost, based on constitutional principles, with input from highly respected conservatives and Republican Party leadership."...

Apart from Sykes, who is 58, the others all are younger than 55 and David Stras is just 41. The eight men and three women on the list are all white.

As a commentor below has aleady suggested, I am disappointed (but not suprised) that there does not appear to be any person with a history as a criminal defense attorney on this list. But I am excited to see Judge Pryor on the list due to his thoughtful sentencing writings and his recent experiences as a member of the US Sentencing Commission (as well as my pleasant interactions with him).

May 18, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Two notable new Colorado Supreme Court rulings concerning sex offender treatment and Fifth Amendment protections

A helpful reader alerted me to two new ruling from the Colorado Supreme Court concerning sex offender supervision and the Fifth Amendment.  Here are links to the opinions and the summary that appears at the start:

People v. Ruch, No. 13SC587, 2016 CO 35 (May 16, 2016) (available here):

This case requires the supreme court to determine whether the trial court properly revoked the defendant’s probation for, among other things, refusing to enroll or participate in sex offender treatment based on his concern that in the course of such treatment, he would have been compelled to incriminate himself in violation of the Fifth Amendment.

The supreme court perceives no Fifth Amendment violation here, where the trial court revoked the defendant’s probation based on his total refusal to attend treatment.  In these circumstances, the defendant’s purported invocation of his Fifth Amendment rights was premature and amounted to a prohibited blanket assertion of the privilege. Accordingly, the court holds that the trial court properly revoked Ruch’s probation based on his refusal to attend treatment.

People v. Roberson, No. 13SA268, 2016 CO 36 (May 16, 2016) (available here):

The supreme court concludes that on the facts presented here, the defendant’s Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination precluded the district court from revoking the defendant’s sex offender intensive supervision probation based on his refusal to answer a polygraph examiner’s question regarding his use or viewing of child pornography while he was on probation.  On the record before the court, however, the court is unable to determine whether the defendant’s privilege against self-incrimination precluded the district court from revoking the defendant’s probation based on his refusal to answer questions concerning any post-trial sexual fantasies involving minors that he might have had within the six months immediately preceding the polygraph examination.  Accordingly, the supreme court makes its rule to show cause absolute and remands this case to the district court with directions that the court conduct further proceedings as more fully set forth in this opinion.

May 17, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 16, 2016

SCOTUS back to work with no new cert grants, punting, and a per curiam AEDPA summary reversal

The Supreme Court this morning issued orders and a number of opinions after returning from a few weeks off, and the lead story seems to be primarily what the Justices did not do: the Court did not grant certiorari on any new cases, did not conclusively resolve (but essentially punted issues back to lower courts) a couple high-profile argued cases, and did not split 4-4 (or even 5-3) on any merits opinions.

The one thing the Court did do that might interest criminal justice fans involves a per curiam ruling in a federal habeas case coming from the Ninth Circuit. The ruling in Kernan v. Hinojosa, No. 15-833 (S. Ct. May 16, 2016) (available here), gets started this way:

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) requires a state prisoner seeking federal habeas relief first to “exhaus[t] the remedies available in the courts of the State.” 28 U. S. C. §2254(b)(1)(A). If the state courts adjudicate the prisoner’s federal claim “on the merits,” §2254(d), then AEDPA mandates deferential, rather than de novo, review, prohibiting federal courts from granting habeas relief unless the state-court decision “was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law,” §2254(d)(1), or “was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts,” §2254(d)(2). The Ninth Circuit in this case decided that the Supreme Court of California’s summary denial of a habeas petition was not “on the merits,” and therefore AEDPA’s deferential-review provisions did not apply. We summarily reverse.

Notably, Justice Sotomayor issued a dissenting opinion, which Justice Ginsburg joined, to explain why she thought the Ninth Circuit was in the right when refusing to apply AEDPA’s deferential-review provisions in this case.

May 16, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Noting that Henry Montgomery (and many other juve LWOPers) are still awaiting impact from Montgomery

At Jost on Justice, Ken Jost has this notable new piece, headlined "For Juvenile Lifers, Wheels of Justice Grind Slow," about the application of the Supreme Court's ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana in state systems. Here are excerpts:

Henry Montgomery has lived behind prison walls for 53 years now, but even so he is a “little bit antsy” according to his lawyer while waiting to learn when he will get a chance at freedom under a new Supreme Court decision.

Montgomery is one of 300 or so Louisiana inmates serving time under life-without-parole sentences imposed for murders they committed as juveniles — sentences ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court four years ago.  The court followed with a 6-3 ruling in January that the earlier decision applies retroactively to prisoners even if their regular appeals had already ended....

The hang-up in Louisiana and in several other states stems not only from the customarily slow pace of judicial proceedings but from uncertainty about how to comply with the high court’s ruling. The 6-3 decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana appeared to prescribe parole hearings as the remedy rather than court resentencings for inmates now seeking release.

The court’s earlier decision, Miller v. Alabama (2012), prohibited states from automatically sentencing juvenile murderers to life-without-parole but left open the possibility of such sentences in some murder cases.  In the new opinion, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said that prisoners “who have shown an inability to reform will continue to serve life sentences.”  Citing Montgomery’s record as a model prisoner, however, Kennedy said that inmates like him “must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption.”

Kennedy appeared to be letting states off easy by negating any need to resentence the juvenile lifers in court, much less to review their convictions.  But leaders of a juvenile justice advocacy group working to abolish life-without-parole sentences view courts as a more receptive forum than state parole boards for inmates to gain their freedom. Heather Renwick, legal counsel for the Washington-based Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, says courts are a more favorable forum than politically appointed parole boards....

Nationwide, there are an estimated 1,300 prisoners serving life-without-parole sentences for offenses committed as juveniles. Louisiana and two other states, Michigan and Pennsylvania, account for the lion’s share.  In Louisiana, Montgomery’s lawyer is impatient for the state’s high court to act.  “It’s in limbo right now,” says Mark Plaisance, a private lawyer representing Montgomery on contract with the East Baton Rouge Parish public defender’s office.

Montgomery, who turns 70 in November, was sentenced for killing a school truancy officer in 1963 when he was 17. Plaisance says Montgomery shares his impatience with the delayed follow-up.  “Not only him but several of the defendants are antsy about how quick can we get back into court,” Plaisance says.

For its part, the juvenile sentencing group acknowledges the slow pace but takes encouragement from recent moves by Utah and South Dakota to become the 15th and 16th states to abolish life-without-parole for juvenile offenders altogether.  “There is broad bipartisan support for alternatives to death-in-prison sentences for children,” says Jody Kent Levy, the group’s director and national coordinator. “Still, there is work to be done to ensure reforms are implemented meaningfully.”

Prior related post with my scholarly take on Montgomery:

May 16, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Sixth Circuit panel sends Miller litigation about Michigan juve LWOPers needs review anew after Montgomery

A Sixth Circuit panel today issues an interesting (non)opinion about the state and fate of federal litigation over the fate and future of Michigan juveniles serving LWOP sentences that are unconstitutional because imposed under a mandatory sentencing system. Here is how the opinion in Hill v. Snyder, No. 13-2661 (6th Cir. May 11, 2012) (available here), gets started:

This long-running case returns us to the difficult topic of juvenile crime and punishment. Our return, however, is to a new legal landscape, one defined by the Supreme Court’s developing jurisprudence recognizing that the unique characteristics of youth matter in determining the propriety of their punishment.  This case began when Michigan charged and tried the named plaintiffs as adults for acts they committed while under the age of 18.  Each received a conviction for first-degree murder and a mandatory sentence of life in prison. Michigan laws in place at the time rendered anyone convicted of firstdegree murder ineligible for parole, meaning that the plaintiffs in this case effectively received mandatory sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole for acts they committed as children.

Plaintiffs filed suit in federal district court in 2010 challenging, among other things, the constitutionality of the Michigan statutory scheme that barred them from parole eligibility. Since that time, at least three important legal events have come to pass.  First, the Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012), “that mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishments.’” Id. at 2460.  Second, Michigan amended its juvenile offender laws in light of Miller, but made some of those changes contingent upon either the Michigan Supreme Court or the United States Supreme Court announcing that Miller’s holding applied retroactively.  See Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. §§ 769.25, 769.25a (2014).  And, third, the United States Supreme Court recently held in Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016), that Miller’s prohibition on mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders is indeed retroactive.

The district court wisely (and presciently) reached the conclusion that Miller should apply retroactively when it ruled on the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment in 2013.  That conclusion also drove the district court’s issuance of an injunctive order against defendants requiring compliance with Miller.  In light of the legal changes described above, however, and for the reasons that follow, we VACATE the challenged district court orders and REMAND for the district court to address these issues under the legal landscape established by Montgomery v. Louisiana, Miller v. Alabama, and this opinion.

May 11, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

How many death sentences nationwide would get overturned if juror unanimity were constitutionally required for death sentences?

The question in the title of this post came to my mind after seeing this Los Angeles Times opinion piece headlined "Florida's death penalty should require unanimous jury votes." Here are excerpts from piece:

In a criminal jury trial, a conviction requires a unanimous verdict of guilt, whether the crime is a low-level drug possession charge or capital murder. But in Florida, after all 12 members of a jury have found the accused guilty, only 10 of them have to agree that the defendant should die for the crime. It’s absurd to require a lower level of agreement to send someone to death than is required to find the person guilty in the first place.

Florida Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch reached the same conclusion in a decision Monday that declared Florida’s latest death penalty law in violation of the state’s constitution. That decision followed arguments a few days earlier before the state’s Supreme Court over whether the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hurst v. Florida, which found the state’s sentencing-decision process unconstitutional, meant that all 390 people on Florida’s death row should have their sentences converted to life. Yes, it does. If the sentencing process is unconstitutional, then the sentences are, too....

In the Hurst case, the Supreme Court affirmed that only a jury can make a finding of fact. Florida, in an effort to save its death penalty, rewrote its law to say the jury must decide whether the death penalty was appropriate. But the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t say how many jurors must make that call, and the revised state law raised the threshold to 10 of the 12 jurors.

Hirsch’s decision on Monday said that no, under the state’s constitution, a super-majority is not enough. His logic is a bit attenuated, but sound. Florida’s constitution guarantees trial by jury but doesn’t specify that a unanimous verdict must be reached. However, decades of practice, and common law, set unanimity as the standard threshold for a verdict. And since the revised law calls the jury’s finding for the death penalty a verdict, then it must be unanimous....

The least Florida can do is require unanimity by a jury before deciding to kill someone. And it should either grant fresh sentencing trials for those on death row or — and this is the preferred, more humane solution — commute the death sentences to life sentences.

Notably, two of the four states in the US with the largest death rows (Florida and Alabama) have sentenced a significant number of murderers to death without a unamimous jury recommendation to that effect. Though it is not clear that roughly all 600 persons on those states' death rows would be sure to get relief from a constitutional rule requiring jury unanimity for death recommendations, a suspect a significant number would. And even if only half of those condemned would get relief, that could cut the size of the US death row population down by more than 10 percent.

The Supreme Court's ruling in Hurst studiously avoided weighing in on this jury unaniminty issue, but I am not sure it is point to be able to avoid it for too much longer in light of what is going on in Florida and perhaps other places in the post-Hurst world.

A few prior related post:

May 11, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

"Litigating from the Prison of the Mind: A Cognitive Right to Post-Conviction Counsel"

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

This article attempts to draw a picture of the incarcerated without counsel, who are separated from justice by the inhumanity of their imprisonment, the poverty of their information resources and the detriments of their cognitive life.

Part I sets the stage by describing the conditions of confinement, the confined, and the state of pro se personhood.  Part II addresses the reality of petition or perish created by Bounds and Casey.  Part III concentrates on the necessity of a right to counsel borne from the conditions of confinement and the technological, physical and psychological barriers that burden the incarcerated.  Among the most significant barriers to be considered are: (1) legal illiteracy and inferior research media; (2) impaired learning and thinking due to stress of confinement; and (3) cognitive disadvantage engendered by the gap between print and electronic research.

May 10, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, May 09, 2016

Florida state judge declares unconstitutional state's post-Hurst revised death penalty procedures

As reported in this new local article, a "Miami-Dade judge has ruled that Florida’s death penalty is unconstitutional because jurors are not required to agree unanimously on execution." Here is more:

Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch on Monday issued the ruling in the case of Karon Gaiter, who is awaiting trial for first-degree murder. Hirsch wrote that Florida’s recently enacted “super majority” system – 10 of 12 juror votes are needed to impose execution as punishment for murder – goes against the long-time sanctity of unanimous verdicts in the U.S. justice system.

“A decedent cannot be more or less dead. An expectant mother cannot be more or less pregnant,” he wrote. “And a jury cannot be more or less unanimous. Every verdict in every criminal case in Florida requires the concurrence, not of some, not of most, but of all jurors – every single one of them.”...

In January, in the case of Timothy Lee Hurst, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the state’s death sentencing system unconstitutional because it gave too little power to juries. For decades, jurors only issued majority recommendations, with judges ultimately imposing the death penalty. The high court, however, did not rule on the unanimity question. Except for Alabama and Florida, all other states that have the death penalty require a unanimous jury verdict to impose the death sentence....

After the Hurst case was decided in January, Florida lawmakers were forced to fix the death-penalty sentencing scheme. Florida’s new law requires juries to unanimously vote for every reason, known as aggravating factors, that a defendant might merit a death sentence. Whether to actually impose the death sentence requires 10 of 12 jurors. “All of these changes inure to the benefit of the defendant,” Assistant State Attorney Penny Brill wrote in a motion in the Gaiter case earlier this year. “These requirements render Florida’s system constitutional under the United States Supreme Court’s precedents.”

Judge Hirsch, in his order, said the fixes don’t matter. “Arithmetically the difference between twelve and ten is slight,” Hirsch wrote. “But the question before me is not a question of arithmetic. It is a question of constitutional law. It is a question of justice.”

The full 18-page order referenced here is available at this link, and a quick scan of opinion reviews that it includes quotes from William Shakespeare, William Blackstone, Winston Churchill, Glanville Williams, the prophet Elijah, and lots of other notable sources.

May 9, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Some critical reflections on Prez Obama's clemency efforts and some ideas about what could have been

Late last week, the Washington Post had this lengthy article reviewing the various problems encoutered during President Obama's clemency push over the last few years.  The piece is headlined "Lack of resources, bureaucratic tangles have bogged down Obama’s clemency efforts," and it effectively summarized many of the difficulties previously reported on this blog. Here are excerpts:

In the waning months of his presidency, Obama has made commutations for nonviolent drug offenders a centerpiece of his effort to reform the country’s criminal-justice system. But behind the scenes, the administration’s highly touted clemency initiative has been mired in conflict and held up by a bureaucratic process that has been slow to move prisoner petitions to the president’s desk.

Obama has granted 306 commutations to federal prisoners — more than the past six presidents combined. But as of Friday, 9,115 commutation petitions were pending with little time left to review them. Of these, fewer than 2,000 appear to be eligible for the president’s clemency program, according to a Justice Department official. Thousands more are still being reviewed by outside lawyers.

From the beginning, the program was beset by problems, including a lack of resources and a cumbersome, multilevel review system. The U.S. pardon attorney at the Justice Department makes recommendations that move to the deputy attorney general, who reviews the cases and sends them to the White House counsel, who considers them again before choosing which ones go to Obama.

The pardon attorney became so frustrated that she quit earlier this year and wrote a scathing resignation letter to Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates. Deborah Leff said that despite her “intense efforts” to do her job, the Justice Department had “not fulfilled its commitment to provide the resources necessary for my office to make timely and thoughtful recommendations on clemency to the president.”...

On Thursday, Obama commuted the sentences of 58 prisoners, his second round of clemencies in three months as the program has picked up steam. Administration officials say that they are addressing obstacles that have plagued the clemency initiative. The Justice Department has added lawyers to the pardon office. And White House Counsel Neil Eggleston has promised that many more petitions will be granted in the president’s final eight months.

“The President is deeply committed to the clemency initiative. That is evident not only by the historic number of commutations he’s granted to date, but by his wholesale approach to revamping the way the government approaches commutations,” White House spokeswoman Brandi Hoffine said in a statement. “That change helped spark a long overdue conversation about reforming our criminal justice system, which we hope will result in Congressional action so that many more deserving individuals can benefit from a second chance.”...

An attorney who worked in the pardon office at the same time as Leff said that with petitions flooding in, it was extremely difficult with so few lawyers to sort out complicated drug cases and figure out whether they met the department’s strict criteria. To get more help, Cole reached out to the private bar to set up another layer of lawyers to read applications.

Outside lawyers formed an organization called Clemency Project 2014, which includes Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. An army of about 4,000 volunteer lawyers from across the country signed up to help in what has become one of the largest pro bono efforts in the history of the American legal profession. Seventy large law firms, more than 500 small firms and solo practitioners, and 30 law schools are involved, according to Cynthia W. Roseberry, the project’s manager. But it took nearly a year for the group to get organized and recruit and train lawyers, many of whom had no experience in criminal law.

An overwhelming 36,000 inmates — about 17 percent of the federal prison population — filled out surveys asking for help from the Clemency Project. Even though the Justice Department had its own backlog, officials there privately complained that the outside Clemency Project lawyers, with their multiple levels of review, were taking too long to send more petitions. That in turn frustrated the Clemency Project attorneys, who said they were working carefully to locate old legal documents, contact prosecutors and judges, look at prison behavior records and try to get pre-sentencing reports and sentencing transcripts. At the same time, they have been weighing risks to public safety....

Some critics say the White House could have avoided many of these headaches by modeling the process after the way President Gerald Ford handled clemencies for Americans who had deserted the Army or failed to show up for the draft during the Vietnam War.  With 600 people working on a special commission to review the cases, Ford granted 14,000 clemencies in one year. Law professor Mark Osler, co-founder of New York University’s Clemency Resource Center, said the initiative also might have gone more smoothly if Obama had moved the pardon attorney’s office into the White House rather than keeping it under career prosecutors who may find it difficult to reverse other prosecutors’ decisions.

This recent Fusion piece, headlined "The bold step President Obama could take to let thousands of federal inmates go free," provides a thorough discussion of the special clemency commission that President Ford had set up to deal with a massive number of Veitnam draft dodgers and desserters and which was able to process tens of thousands of clemency cases in just a year.  Here is how it concludes:

If Obama had appointed a Ford-style clemency board, he could have cut down the bureaucracy to three or four steps: a review by the board’s staff, a review by the board, a review by the White House counsel, a review by the president.

In the last few months, Obama’s advisers have been making the argument that he’s granted “more [clemencies] than the previous six Presidents combined.” But that calculation is false, as it incorrectly ignores the clemencies granted through Ford’s commission. (A White House spokesperson noted that Department of Justice statistics only count the 22 non-Vietnam related clemencies that Ford granted.)

For many recent presidents, clemency has been treated more like an afterthought. Until recently, Obama announced them at the end of each year, before he jets off to Hawaii with his family — a last-minute Christmas gift to a tiny handful of prisoners.

With fewer than 10 months left in office, even if Obama had a change of heart and decided to create a clemency board today, it would almost surely be too late. But [clemency advocates Nkechi] Taifa and Osler say it’s an idea that should be picked up by the next president. “This should not end with the Obama administration,” Taifa said.

“I do not want to delay another day in resolving the dilemmas of the past, so that we may all get going on the pressing problems of the present,” Ford said when he announced his clemency board. If President Obama—or the next president—wants to resolve the past failings of our criminal justice system, then they should also take lessons from one of its rare success stories.

May 8, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Saturday, May 07, 2016

An astute accounting of one view on how the post-Hurst hydra in Florida ought to be slayed

Regular readers know that, after the US Supreme Court in Hurst declared Florida's death penalty procedures violative of the Sixth Amendment, I coined the term "post-Hurst hydra" to describe the multi-headed, snake-like capital litigation sure to develop as judges tried to make sense of what Hurst must mean for past, present and future cases.  Of particular significance in Florida, which has second largest death row in the nation and holds roughly one of every seven condemed murderers in the US, is what will become of all those sentenced to death before Hurst.

As noted in this post a few days ago, the Florida Supreme Court took up this question this past week, and some prominent Floridians argued that all those previously sentenced to death should have their sentences changed to life without parole.  But, with this is sure to be a popular view among death penalty abolitionists, death penalty supporters are not likely to readily embrace this solution.  And, very helpfully, Kent Scheidegger at Crime & Consequences has this lengthy and thorough post providing an astute review of what existing Supreme Court retroactivity jurisprudence should mean. The post is titled "What Happens to the Florida Death Row Cases After Hurst?", and here is how it starts and ends:

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Hurst v. Florida that the Florida capital sentencing system did not comply with a series of cases beginning with Apprendi v. New Jersey (2000). Yesterday, the Florida Supreme Court heard oral argument on remand in the Hurst case.  Several people have asked me what should/will happen to the cases of the murderers presently on death row in Florida. "Should" is easier to answer than "will":

1.  Cases final on direct appeal (i.e., those where the Florida Supreme Court has affirmed the judgment in the initial appeal and the U.S. Supreme Court has denied the petition to take the case up or the defendant did not file one) should not be affected by Hurst.

2.  Cases already tried and pending on appeal should be affirmed under the "harmless error" rule if it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that the jury would have unanimously found at least one aggravating circumstance if they had been asked to do so.  For example, if the jury convicted the defendant of robbery and murder and there is no question in the case that the murder was committed in the course of the robbery (an aggravating circumstance), that would be harmless error.

3.  Cases where there is a Hurst error that does not meet the standard for harmless error should be retried as to penalty under the new statutory procedure....

The Florida Legislature acted swiftly after Hurst to enact a new procedure meeting the newly minted constitutional requirements.  Why? Because it considers enforcement of the death penalty important. Why, then, would the legislature want a whole class of sentences wiped out? It would not.  Attributing such an intended result makes no sense given the purpose of the law.

Finally, there is the matter of arbitrariness. Arbitrariness necessarily works both ways. Just as people should not arbitrarily be sentenced to punishment, neither should they arbitrarily be spared a punishment they deserve.  Arbitrary sparing of some is necessarily arbitrary infliction on those not spared.

The whole point of our complex jurisprudence of capital sentencing is to make the sentence fit what the murderer deserves.  Commuting a wide swath of sentences based on an accident of timing without any regard for just deserts is arbitrary.  Absent strong evidence the legislature intended this result, it should not be attributed to them.

The new act should apply to any cases remanded for resentencing.

May 7, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, May 06, 2016

"Gutting Habeas Corpus: The Inside Story of How Bill Clinton Sacrificed Prisoners’ Rights for Political Gain"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Intercept piece, which gets started this way:

On the eve of the New York state primary last month, as Hillary Clinton came closer to the Democratic nomination, Vice President Joe Biden went on TV and defended her husband’s 1994 crime bill.  Asked in an interview if he felt shame for his role passing a law that has been the subject of so much recent criticism, Biden answered, “Not at all,” and boasted of its successes — among them putting “100,000 cops on the street.”  His remarks sparked a new round of debate over the legacy of the crime bill, which has haunted Clinton ever since she hit the campaign trail with a vow to “end the era of mass incarceration.”

A few days later, on April 24, a lesser-known crime law quietly turned 20. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 — or AEDPA — was signed by Bill Clinton in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing.  While it has been mostly absent from the recent debates over the crime policies of the ’90s, its impact has been no less profound, particularly when it comes to a bedrock constitutional principle: habeas corpus, or the right of people in prison to challenge their detention.  For 20 years, AEDPA has shut the courthouse door on prisoners trying to prove they were wrongfully convicted.  Americans are mostly unaware of this legacy, even as we know more than ever about wrongful convictions.  Barry Scheck, co-founder and head of the Innocence Project, calls AEDPA “a disaster” and “a major roadblock since its passage.”  Many would like to see it repealed.

If the Clintons have not been forced to defend AEDPA, it’s partly because neither the law nor its shared history with the crime bill is well understood.  AEDPA’s dizzying provisions — from harsh immigration policies to toughened federal sentencing — were certainly a hasty response to terrorism.  But the law was also the product of an administration that long before the Oklahoma attack had abandoned its party’s core principles on criminal justice, deciding instead to wield crime policy as political weapon.  After the Republicans seized control of Congress in the historic 1994 midterm elections, the Clinton White House sought to double down on its law-and-order image in advance of the 1996 presidential race. In the short term, it was a winning political strategy for Clinton.  In the long term, it would help pave the way to one of the worst laws of his presidency.

May 6, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

More evidence of a failed drug war: foot soldier always high while fighting

This recent AP article, headlined "Reports: Chemist Who Worked on Drug Cases Was Usually High," provides yet another reason why I see the so-called war on drugs to be an abject failure. Here are the details:

Investigators say a former chemist who tested drugs for Massachusetts police departments was high almost every day she went to work for eight years, potentially putting thousands of criminal convictions in jeopardy.

Sonja Farak, who worked for an Amherst lab that tested drug samples for police, was high on methamphetamines, ketamine, cocaine, LSD and other drugs during most of her time there, even when she testified in court, according to a state investigative report released Tuesday. Farak worked at the lab between 2005 and 2013.

Cyndi Roy Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Maura Healey, said the information gathered about Farak "will no doubt have implications for many cases," but it is unclear just how many. She said it will be up to prosecutors, defense attorneys and the courts to determine the full scope of cases affected by Farak's misconduct. "We are deeply concerned whenever the integrity of the justice system is called into question or compromised," she said.

One defense attorney told the Boston Herald that Farak handled about 30,000 cases during her career. "This is a statewide scandal, and I think it's going to take an enormous toll on the system," attorney Luke Ryan said.

Farak's case is unrelated to the case of Annie Dookhan, who worked at a state drug lab in Boston. Dookhan was sentenced in November 2013 to at least three years in prison after pleading guilty to faking test results in criminal cases that jeopardized thousands of convictions.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts said the number of criminal cases affected by Farak's misconduct could rival the approximately 40,000 cases thrown into question by Dookhan's actions. "It's now beyond doubt that the drug war in Massachusetts during the Dookhan-Farak era was built on a foundation of falsified evidence," said Matthew Segal, the ACLU's legal director.

Segal said he doesn't have an estimate of how many cases could be challenged, but said prosecutors who got convictions using drug samples she tested "have an obligation to identify and notify everyone who might have been denied due process" as a result of Farak's actions. Segal said that because Farak admitted ingesting lab "standards" — drug samples used as benchmarks to test against substances submitted by police for testing — all cases that went through the lab should be re-examined.

Last year, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ordered an investigation into the timing and scope of Farak's misconduct. Healey's office conducted the investigation. Many of the shocking details came from Farak's own grand jury testimony, including that she once smoked crack before a 2012 state police accreditation inspection of the now-closed lab. Farak also testified that she manufactured crack cocaine for her personal use in the lab.

Farak, 37, of Northampton, pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence, stealing cocaine from the lab and unlawful possession in January 2014 and was sentenced to 18 months behind bars and five years of probation. She served her sentence and has been released from prison....

Gov. Charlie Baker said the state will likely have to allocate more money to deal with the Farak scandal. In the Dookhan case, the state Legislature authorized up to $30 million to cover costs incurred by the court system, prosecutors, public defenders and other state agencies. "We certainly believe we are going to have a big responsibility to work with the courts and with others to make sure that people who are affected by this have the appropriate opportunity to engage in that conversation," Baker said. "And we fully expect we will be doing that for the next several months."

May 6, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Prez Obama commutes 58 more federal drug sentences

As detailed via this terse White House press release, "On May 5, 2016, President Barack Obama granted commutation of sentence to 58 individuals." The release lists the 58 new recepients of executive clemency, and a quick scan reveals that all appear to be drug defendants and most involving cocaine and/or crack.

This press release from NACDL adds these notable particulars: "In his second set of clemency grants in under six weeks, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 58 prisoners today, 28 of whom were applicants whose petitions were supported by Clemency Project 2014."

UPDATE:  I just saw that Prez Obama now has this new Medium entry headlined "A Nation of Second Chances." Here are excerpts:

Earlier this spring, I met with a group of individuals whose sentences were commuted either by President Bush, President Clinton, or myself. They were all at different stages of a new chapter in their lives, but each of their stories was extraordinary.

Take Phillip Emmert. When he was 27, Phillip made a mistake. He was arrested and convicted for distributing methamphetamines and received a 27-year sentence. So, by the time he was released, he’d have spent half his life behind bars. Unfortunately, while in prison, his wife was paralyzed in an accident. So while he was in prison, Phil learned everything he could about fixing heating and air conditioning systems — so he could support his wife when he got out. And after his sentence was commuted by President Bush, he was able to do just that. Today, he’s gainfully employed. He’s a caregiver for his wife, an active father, and a leader in his community.

Like so many nonviolent offenders serving unduly harsh sentences, Phillip is not a hardened criminal. He’s taken responsibility for his mistakes. And he’s worked hard to earn a second chance.

Today, I commuted the sentences of an additional 58 individuals just as deserving as Phillip — individuals who can look to him as inspiration for what is possible in their lives.

As President, I’ve been working to bring about a more effective approach to our criminal justice system, particularly when it comes to drug crimes. Part of that effort has been to reinvigorate our commutations process, and highlight the individuals like Philip who are doing extraordinary things with their second chances. To date, I will have commuted 306 individual sentences, which is more than the previous six presidents combined....

As a country, we have to make sure that those who take responsibility for their mistakes are able to transition back to their communities. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing to do. And it’s something I will keep working to do as long as I hold this office.

May 5, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23)

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Ninth Circuit explains why disappearing does not get one out of a plea agreement or a mandatory minimum sentence

A little criminal decision handed down by the Ninth Circuit today brought to my mind the Woody Allen quote that half of life is just showing up.  Specifically, US v. Ornelas, No. 14-50533 (9th Cir. May 4, 2016) (available here), reveals that if you do not show up after signing a plea agreement, you still will get sentenced and be stuck with 100% of the terms of agreement. Here is how the opinion for gets started:

Federal law gives defendants the right to be present at their trials and sentencings unless they voluntarily waive this right. In this case, after signing a plea agreement admitting to drug distribution, but before sentencing, Israel Ornelas disappeared and lost contact with his lawyer.  The district court proceeded with sentencing in absentia and imposed a prison term of 120 months — the mandatory minimum for the charged crimes.

Ornelas was subsequently arrested and now claims the district court’s sentencing without his presence violated both the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and the Due Process Clause to the Constitution.  Because we find the district court did not abuse its discretion or violate Ornelas’s constitutional rights by sentencing him in absentia, we enforce the appeal waiver and DISMISS this appeal.

May 4, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (5)

"Should His PTSD Keep Him From Death Row?"

The question in the title of this post is from the second part of the headline of this Mother Jones article.  The first part of the headline explains "An Ex-Marine Killed Two People in Cold Blood," and here is how the piece starts:

At 12:44 p.m. on March 6, 2009, John Thuesen called 911. "120 Walcourt Loop," he told the dispatcher, breathing hard. "Gunshot victims." The dispatcher in College Station, Texas, asked what had happened. "I got mad at my girlfriend and I shot her," he said. "She has sucking chest wounds…"

He'd not only shot Rachel Joiner, 21, but also her older brother Travis.  Thuesen had broken into the house after midnight, not sure what he'd do but wanting to see his estranged girlfriend.  She was out with her ex-boyfriend, but when she returned later that morning, things "got out of hand."  Thuesen, a 25-year-old former Marine reservist, called 911 and almost immediately expressed remorse.  When he was arrested, he repeatedly asked the police about the victims and tried to explain why he'd kept shooting Rachel and her brother: "I felt like I was in like a mode…like training or a game or something."

The prosecution in the case gave its opening statement on May 10, 2010. With DNA evidence and no other suspects, it only took prosecutors three days to make their case.  Over the next week, the defense team touched on the facts that Thuesen suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his service in Iraq, but pleaded for leniency in his sentence. None of that swayed the jury: On May 28, 2010, he was sentenced to death.

While on death row, Thuesen was given new lawyers, death penalty experts from the state's Office of Capital and Forensic Writs.  In Texas, there are often two trials, one to determine guilt or innocence and the second to determine sentencing.  Lawyers argued in their 2012 petition to have both the death penalty and the conviction vacated, and for a new sentencing trial, arguing that if his lawyers had served him adequately, "John Thuesen would not be on death row today, awaiting an execution date." In July 2015, Judge Travis Bryan III — the same judge who had presided over the criminal trial — agreed, and ruled that Thuesen's lawyers hadn't adequately explained the significance of his PTSD to jurors, and how it had factored into his actions on the day of the murders.  Bryan also ruled that Thuesen's PTSD wasn't properly treated by the Veterans Health Administration.  He recommended that Thuesen be granted a new punishment-phase trial.  The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals could rule on Bryan's recommendation at any time.

The ruling on his case has implications for a question that has concerned the military, veterans' groups, and death penalty experts: Should service-related PTSD exclude veterans from the death penalty?  An answer to this question could affect some of the estimated 300 veterans who now sit on death rows across the country, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.  But it's unclear how many of them suffer from PTSD or traumatic brain injuries, given how uneven the screening for these disorders has been.

Experts are divided about whether veterans with PTSD who commit capital crimes deserve what is known as a "categorical exemption" or "exclusion."  Juveniles receive such treatment, as do those with mental disabilities.  In 2009, Anthony Giardino, a lawyer and Iraq War veteran, argued in favor of this in the Fordham Law Review, writing that courts "should consider the more fundamental question of whether the government should be in the business of putting to death the volunteers they have trained, sent to war, and broken in the process" who likely would not be in that position "but for their military service."  In a 2015 Veterans Day USA Today op-ed, three retired military officials argued that in criminal cases, defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges often don't consider veterans' PTSD with proper due diligence.  "Veterans with PTSD…deserve a complete investigation and presentation of their mental state by the best experts in the field," they wrote.

That idea is utterly unacceptable to Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a California-based victims-of-crime advocacy group, who contends a process already exists for veterans' defense attorneys to present mitigating evidence.  To him, a categorical exclusion would be an "extreme step" that would mean "one factor — always, in every case — necessarily outweighs the aggravating factors of the case, no matter how cold, premeditated, sadistic, or just plain evil the defendant's actions may have been."

May 4, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Prominent Floridians call for state Supreme Court to reverse all past Florida death sentences

As reported in this AP piece, now with "the fate of hundreds of Florida death row inmates in limbo, a group of former top judges and legal officials called on the state Supreme Court to impose life sentences on nearly 400 people now awaiting execution." Here is more about a notable amicus filing:

The group, which includes three former state Supreme Court justices and two former presidents of the American Bar Association, filed a legal brief Tuesday in a case that could determine the fate of Florida's death penalty.

After the U.S. Supreme Court declared Florida's death sentencing law unconstitutional in January, the state's high court halted two executions and state legislators overhauled the way convicted killers can be sentenced to death.  But the Florida Supreme Court still hasn't decided what should happen to the 389 people on death row under the previous sentencing scheme.  The court is taking the highly unusual step of this week of holding a second hearing before issuing a ruling — a sign that the seven-member court could be deeply divided.

The court said it wanted to hear from attorneys representing death row inmate Timothy Lee Hurst and the state on what affect the new sentencing law will have on his case....  In March, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a new sentencing process for those convicted of murder.  The new law requires at least 10 out of 12 jurors recommend execution for it to be carried out.  Florida previously required that a majority of jurors recommend the death sentence. It remains one of only a handful of states that does not require a unanimous jury decision.  The new law also requires prosecutors to spell out, before a murder trial begins, the reasons why a death sentence should be imposed, and requires the jury to decide unanimously if there is at least one reason, or aggravating factor, that justifies it.

The decision to hold a second hearing in Hurst's case prompted three former state justices — Harry Lee Anstead, Gerald Kogan and former U.S. District Judge Rosemary Barkett — to join with two former heads of the bar association and an organization representing defense attorneys to argue that an existing state law requires those now on death row to have their sentences reduced to life in prison.

The state has objected and argued the U.S. Supreme Court ruling is not retroactive.

The full amicus brief referenced in this piece is available at this link, and here is its key heading:

Because the United States Supreme Court held Florida’s death penalty unconstitutional in Hurst v. Florida, section 775.082(2) of the Florida statutes requires that all persons previously sentenced to death for a capital felony be resentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

May 3, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Eighth Circuit panel (sort of) finds severe erroneous career-offender sentence substantively unreasonable

A helpful reader alerted me to a notable Eighth Circuit panel ruling today in US v. Martinez, No 15-1004 (8th Cir. May 3, 2016) (available here). Here is how the majority opinion gets started and a few notable substantive statements:

Fernando Martinez pled guilty to possession of fifty grams or more of methamphetamine with the intent to distribute. The district court found Martinez to be a career offender based in part on the residual clause of § 4B1.2(a)(2) of the United States Sentencing Guidelines (U.S.S.G.) and sentenced him to 262 months' imprisonment.  It indicated, alternatively, it would sentence Martinez as a career offender even if he was not a career offender.  Martinez appeals, arguing he is not a career offender and his sentence is substantively unreasonable.

The government concedes Martinez is no longer a career offender under the guidelines following the United States Supreme Court's decision in Johnson v. United States, __ U.S. __, 135 S. Ct. 2551, 2557 (2015), but asserts no remand is necessary because the district court imposed a reasonable alternative sentence that renders any error harmless. Because we conclude otherwise — that the district court's alternative sentence is substantively unreasonable — we reverse and remand for resentencing....

We infer from [a sentencing] statement that the district court believed the escape conviction was a crime of violence — and Martinez was a career offender — whether the guidelines classified it as a crime of violence or not.  In other words, the district court sentenced Martinez to an additional nine years because, as a nineteen-year-old, Martinez threw an elbow at a police officer without striking the officer and ran from police for a short distance.  This severe variance is unreasonable.

The district court's other justifications do not support the degree of the upward variance either.  First, Martinez's convictions do not warrant such a severe upward variance.  Martinez's two convictions undoubtedly demonstrate serious, violent behavior, but the guideline range already accounted for these prior convictions, each of which received three criminal history points....

Second, the evidence the government presented relating to Martinez's gang ties does not justify a nine-year upward variance either.  The government presented evidence Martinez appeared in music videos along with other members of the East Side Locos prior to his incarceration.  He also appeared with other East Side Locos gang members in photographs.  While these photos and videosshow Martinez's gang ties, they do not depict Martinez actively engaging in any violent behavior.  And, more importantly, they do not depict such egregious, violent behavior that they warrant the substantial upward variance the district court imposed.

May 3, 2016 in Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Some Dostoevsky-inspired insights on the death penalty delay canard

It is sometimes hard to find an academic eager to lambast death penalty abolitionists for even their weaker arguments, so I was somewhat surprised to see this new commentary by Noah Feldman titled "Delaying Execution Isn't Cruel and Unusual." Here are excerpts:

Following a view he has held since the 1990s, [Justice] Breyer argued that the death penalty is unconstitutional because it takes too long for condemned inmates to be put to death.  The claim that death delayed is worse than death itself is a particularly shocking one because it's the converse of arguing that taking a human life before its natural endpoint is fundamentally immoral.  Instead, the view asserts that death must be administered quickly after sentencing to avoid the convicted person living on many years in prison -- even if that person wants to live as long as possible.

Make no mistake: in every case where an inmate has been on death row for many years, it’s by choice. In the case considered Monday, the defendant had been on death row for 32 years.  That’s the result of numerous appeals by his lawyers, and numerous delays in hearing those appeals by state and federal courts.  A defendant who wants to die can skip the appeals, like Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, who waived his appeals and was executed expeditiously.

The judges who hear capital appeals understand all this perfectly well.  They could put death penalty cases on the top of the docket.  But they don’t, at least in part because they know that every day of delay is another day of life for the defendant.  It’s one of the persistent facts about the death penalty that almost every person who is sentenced to die chooses to fight the sentence.

In theory, it's easy to say you’d rather be executed than spend your life in prison.  That sentiment is a stock line in television and film.  And I confess that I share it – or at least I think I do.  But no matter how powerful the thought, the empirical evidence suggests that, when push comes to shove, the human instinct to live another day is overwhelming. That’s why so-called “volunteers” such as McVeigh are vanishingly rare in our legal system....

So in what sense could it be cruel and unusual not to execute someone over a long period of time while his appeals are pending?  The answer has to be that the long-term prospect of death is itself a kind of torture, worse than the experience of contemplating your own execution in the immediate future.

That insight seems to follow from our imagined scene of the prisoner in his cell awaiting execution, like a character out of Dostoevsky.  The trauma and psychological pain of contemplating one’s imminent mortality seem bad enough. Imagine if that same trauma and pain were repeated for 32 years. In these terms, the delay could be seen as an unconscionable form of quasi-permanent torture.

But the reality must surely be otherwise.  A prisoner on death row doesn’t actually expect to be executed every day that he is there. Yes, courts often set execution dates.  But they do so in the full knowledge that those dates will probably be deferred.

From the perspective of the prisoner, the mere setting of the date is no doubt terribly upsetting.  But over time, even the most sensitive prisoner would surely get used to the repetitive structure of sentencing date followed by delay.  To cite Dostoevsky again, if imprecisely: “Man can get used to anything -- the brute!”

It emerges, I think, that the so-called Lackey claim to which Breyer is still devoted is psychologically unconvincing.  To live every day in the knowledge that eventually one will die is in fact the universal human condition.  Many of us will die in the next 32 years.  And none of us knows exactly on what day that will occur.

Those who oppose the death penalty on moral grounds have plenty of strong arguments on their side.  They don’t need this one, which in fact undercuts their claims about the inherent value of every day of human life.  The remedy for death delayed, after all, can only be death itself.

Prior recent related post:

May 3, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, May 02, 2016

Digging deeply into Virginia's crowded prisons and parole paractices

A local public radio station in Virginia now has available at this link a detailed look as corrections practices in the state.  The umbrella title for all the coverage is "Crowded Prisons, Rare Parole: A Five Part Series," and here are the subheadings and introductions for each part of the series:

May 2, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

At SCOTUS, "age-old principes of conspiracy law" produces brand new division of Justices

More than six months after oral argument, the Supreme Court this morning finally released its opinion in Ocasio v. United States, No. 14-361 (S. Ct. May 2, 2016) (available here), which concerns the application of a federal conspiracy law surrounding extortion. Justice Alito wrote the opinion for the Court, and here is how it gets started:

Petitioner Samuel Ocasio, a former officer in the Baltimore Police Department, participated in a kickback scheme with the owners of a local auto repair shop.  When petitioner and other Baltimore officers reported to the scene of an auto accident, they persuaded the owners of damaged cars to have their vehicles towed to the repair shop, and in exchange for this service the officers received payments from the shopowners.  Petitioner was convicted of obtaining money from the shopowners under color of official right, in violation of the Hobbs Act, 18 U. S. C. §1951, and of conspiring to violate the Hobbs Act, in violation of 18 U. S. C. §371. He now challenges his conspiracy conviction, contending that, as a matter of law, he cannot be convicted of conspiring with the shopowners to obtain money from them under color of official right. We reject this argument because it is contrary to age-old principles of conspiracy law.

Few should be surprised that Justice Alito in Ocasio was not moved by a criminal defendant's effort to make more challenging pursuit of a conspiracy charge (a type of crime Judge Learned Hand famously describes as the "darling of the modern prosecutor's nursery").  But I was certainly surprised with how the votes of the other seven Justices broke down:

ALITO, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which KENNEDY, GINSBURG, BREYER, and KAGAN, JJ., joined. BREYER, J., filed a concurring opinion. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which ROBERTS, C. J., joined.

Because I do not spend all that much time thinking about either extortion or conspiracy, I doubt I will have much more to say about Ocasio. But I would be grateful to hear from readers in the comments as to whether they think this opinion was worth the wait and/or whether the unusual divides of the Justices has a possible significance beyond this one case.

May 2, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Justice Breyer dissents alone(!) in California capital case concerning long delays before execution

At the end of this morning's Supreme Court order list, Justice Breyer has a brief two-page dissent from the Court's decision to deny certiorari review in a capital case in which "Richard Boyer [who] was initially sentenced to death 32 years ago" requested that the Justices "consider whether the Eighth Amendment allows a State to keep a prisoner incarcerated under threat of execution for so long."  Here is part of what Justice Breyer has to say:

These delays are the result of a system that the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice (Commission), an arm of the State of California, see Cal. S. Res. 44 (2004), has labeled “dysfunctional.” Report and Recommendations on the Administration of the Death Penalty in California 6 (2008)....  It noted that many prisoners had died of natural causes before their sentences were carried out, and more California death row inmates had committed suicide than had been executed by the State.  Indeed, only a small, apparently random set of death row inmates had been executed. See ibid. A vast and growing majority remained incarcerated, like Boyer, on death row under a threat of execution for ever longer periods of time....

Put simply, California’s costly “administration of the death penalty” likely embodies “three fundamental defects” about which I have previously written: “(1) serious unreliability, (2) arbitrariness in application, and (3) unconscionably long delays that undermine the death penalty’s penological purpose.”  Glossip v. Gross, 576 U. S. ___, ___ (2015) (BREYER, J., dissenting) (slip op., at 2); see Lackey v. Texas, 514 U. S. 1045 (1995) (memorandum of Stevens, J., respecting denial of certiorari); see also Valle v. Florida, 564 U. S. 1067 (2011) (BREYER, J., dissenting from denial of stay); Knight v. Florida, 528 U. S. 990, 993 (1999) (BREYER, J., dissenting from denial of certiorari). 

Notably, not a single other Justice joined this dissent, not even Justice Ginsburg who was along for ride a little less than a year ago when Justice Breyer wrote his anti-death penalty magnum opus dissent in Glossip.  That reality reinforces my belief that death penalty abolitionists should not be especially hopeful that a majority of Justices will find capital punishment per se unconstitutional anytime soon.

May 2, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, April 30, 2016

"Why Vague Sentencing Guidelines Violate the Due Process Clause"

The title of this post is the title of this new article by Kelsey Heilman now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The United States Sentencing Guidelines are the mandatory starting point and the lodestone for the sentences of 75,000 federal defendants each year.  Though advisory after the 2005 Supreme Court decision in United States v. Booker, the Guidelines continue to exert tremendous influence over federal sentencing practice.  Last term, in Johnson v. United States, the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutionally vague a sentencing provision of the Armed Career Criminals Act.  In the ensuing year, a circuit split developed regarding whether that decision dooms a textually identical provision of the Guidelines, with some courts holding advisory sentencing guidelines are completely immune from due process challenges.  In this Article, I argue the Guidelines violate the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution if they are so vague they deny fair notice to defendants and invite arbitrary enforcement by judges.

April 30, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (3)

Georgia continuing to lead and innovate state sentencing reform with new focus on mass probation

The most astute observers of criminal justice systems realize that tackling mass incarceration will always be an uphill battle if we do not also look closely at the realities of (even more massive) modern probation and other laws and rules that place many persons under significant criminal justice supervision.  Consequently, I am encourage to see that the folks in Georgia, who have already been at the forefront of state-level sentencing reforms, are now turning to this issue. This local article, headlined "Nathan Deal aims to cut ‘extraordinarily high’ number of Georgia offenders on probation," tells the basic story:

Fresh off another round of changes to Georgia’s criminal justice system, Gov. Nathan Deal said he’ll urge lawmakers next year to tackle the stubborn problem of the “extraordinarily high” number of offenders on probation in Georgia. He wants to target the rise of “split sentencing” in Georgia – a practice in which a defendant serves part of the sentence behind bars, and then often a greater time outside prison. He called it an “unusual phenomenon, and we don’t know why it’s happening.”

“We have a significantly high number of people who are under probation supervision – an extraordinarily high number compared with most other states,” he said. “You’re going to see the general area of probation being a focus point.” Georgia led the nation in placing its citizens on probation in 2015 and topped the charts for its probation rate, which critics said reflected an overuse of the system.

The state moved to reform the misdemeanor probation system after an AJC investigation showed courts contract with private probation companies to “supervise” and collect payments from people who can’t afford to pay off expensive traffic tickets and other misdemeanor fines on the day they go to court. Deal’s Council on Criminal Justice Reform has recommended that lawmakers consider taking another step in 2017 by decriminalizing most traffic violations and rethinking the length of probation terms.

April 30, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 28, 2016

"Senators Announce New Provisions & Cosponsors to Bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act"

The title of this post is the title of a US Senate Judiciary Committee press conference that took place this afternoon and can be watched at this link (though you need for fast-forward to about the 11:45 mark of the recorded video).  This Reuters article provides these highlights:

A revised criminal justice reform bill moved closer to a full U.S. Senate vote on Thursday when it gained support from more Republicans after being stalled for months in Congress.

In a legacy-shaping issue for President Barack Obama, the measure's sponsors announced four new Republican co-sponsor senators and a new version of the bill at a press conference in the Senate. The measure now has 37 co-sponsors, according to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley. Grassley said he had been waiting for the bill to be finalized before asking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring it up for a full Senate vote, but that "it is time for those discussions to start right now."

As revised, it still lowers mandatory minimum sentences for some non-violent federal drug offenders, but it no longer applies to anyone convicted of a serious violent felony. That change was a response to conservative critics of the bill, which is central to Obama's efforts to overhaul the country's federal criminal justice system and reduce prison overcrowding. That effort has been a rare example of Republican and Democratic agreement in the polarized Congress.

The bill's advocates have said they hope the revisions and new co-sponsors, such as Republican senators Mark Kirk of Illinois and Steve Daines of Montana, will convince McConnell to bring up the bill for a Senate vote.  Daines and Kirk lent their support after adding minor requirements, including a provision that savings from it go toward purposes such as fighting gangs of national significance.

After a group of conservative Republican senators led by Tom Cotton of Arkansas claimed in January the reforms would release violent felons, the bill’s authors began excising parts of the proposal that eased the sentences of violent criminals. The bill now includes a new mandatory minimum sentence for crimes involving the opiate fentanyl, mirroring parallel sentencing reforms that await a floor vote in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The House legislation is likely to contain changes to "mens rea" laws that govern criminal intent, said Senator John Cornyn, a sponsor of the Senate bill, at Thursday's press conference. Mens rea reform was excluded from the Senate measure because its authors were divided on the issue. Democratic lawmakers generally oppose strengthening mens rea requirements on the grounds it would enable more corporate malfeasance as it is difficult to prove the "intent" of a corporation.

To exclude violent criminals from the Senate bill, the authors removed a section that lowered minimum sentences for unlawful gun owners with three prior convictions for violent felonies or serious drug offenses, known as “armed career criminals.” Such criminals represent nearly a fifth of the 12,908 current inmates who would have been eligible for resentencing under the old bill, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

The folks at FAMM have this press release responding to this news, headlined "Strengthen, Don’t Weaken, Sentencing Reforms," which includes this quote from FAMM leader Julie Stewart:

“It’s hard not to get caught up in the enthusiasm of having a tenacious group of bipartisan Senators seek sentencing reform. However, this bill was very modest to begin with, and Congress should be strengthening it, not weakening it. In the last several days, Oklahoma, Maryland, and Iowa lawmakers have passed bold reforms that reduce or eliminate mandatory minimum drug sentences. Congress should be following that example, capitalizing on public support for sentencing reform and passing significant reform that will seriously impact who goes to prison and for how long."

The folks at the Brennan Center have this press release headlined "Senate Should Swiftly Pass Revised Sentencing Bill."

These developments make me somewhat more optimistic that a big sentencing reform bill will get to Prez Obama's desk in the next few months, but I am still not quite ready to say enactment of such reforms are now probable.

A few 2016 related posts:

April 28, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Reviewing the final SCOTUS oral argument week that was full of criminal justice issues

As noted in this post last week, three of the final five cases that the Justice were scheduled to hear during this last week of the Term's oral arguments involved criminal justice issue.  The highest-profile and perhaps most consequential of these cases was argued today  concerning the public corruption verdict against former Virginia Gov Bob McDonnell.  Thanks to the always great folks at SCOTUSblog, I can link here to two posts about the McDonnell and to single post on the two other cases heard yesterday:

April 27, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Intriguing intricate split Seventh Circuit panel discussing Indiana sentencing appeals and ineffective assistance of appellate counsel

A split Seventh Circuit panel handed down an interesting habeas opinion yesterday in Miller v. Zatecky, No. 15-1869 (7th Cir. April 26, 2016) (available here). One needs to be a hard-core habeas AND state sentencing fan to be fully engrossed by all the substantive issues covered in the majority panel opinion or the dissent.  Still, there is some interesting extra (law-nerd?) spice in both opinions thanks to good work by their authors --- Circuit Judge Easterbook and District Judge Lynn Adelman (sitting by designation), respectively. 

What struck me as blog-worthy from Miller, especially because I spend a lot of time thinking about how to make appellate review of federal sentences efficient and effective in a post-Booker world, was this passage and footnote from the dissent about Indiana state sentencing appeals:

Indiana appellate courts are authorized to independently “review and revise” sentences.  Ind. Const. Art. 7, § 4; Pierce v. State, 949 N.E.2d 349, 352 (Ind. 2011).  This authority is implemented through Indiana Appellate Rule 7(B), which provides that the appellate court may revise a sentence if after due consideration of the trial court’s decision the appellate court finds the sentence is inappropriate in light of the nature of the offense and the character of the offender.  Pierce, 949 N.E.2d at 352.  As Miller shows in his brief, Indiana appellate courts have not hesitated to use this authority; he cites no less than 11 cases in which Indiana appellate courts shortened sentences in similar cases.[FN 2]

[FN 2] Pierce v. State, 949 N.E.2d 349 (Ind. 2011) (revising 124 year sentence on four counts of child molestation to 80 years); Sanchez v. State, 938 N.E.2d 720 (Ind. 2010) (revising total sentence of 80 years on three counts of child molestation to 40 years); Harris v. State, 897 N.E.2d 927 (Ind. 2008) (revising consecutive sentences of 50 years on two counts of child molesting to concurrent); Smith v. State, 889 N.E.2d 261 (Ind. 2008) (revising four consecutive sentences of 30 years each, a total of 120 years, to a total of 60 years); Monroe v. State, 886 N.E.2d 578 (Ind. 2008) (reducing sentence of 100 years to 50 years); Estes v. State, 827 N.E.2d 27 (Ind. 2005) (revising sentence of 267 years on 14 counts of child molesting and sexual misconduct with a minor to 120 years); Serino v. State, 798 N.E.2d 852 (Ind. 2003) (revising sentence of 385 years on 26 counts of child molestation to 90 years); Kien v. State, 782 N.E.2d 398 (Ind. Ct. App. 2003) (revising consecutive sentences of 40 years on three counts, a total of 120 years, to 80 years total); Ortiz v. State, 766 N.E.2d 370 (Ind. 2002) (revising 30 year consecutive sentences on child molesting counts to run concurrently); Haycraft v. State, 760 N.E.2d 203 (Ind. Ct. App. 2001) (revising 190 year sentence for child molesting and related offenses to 150 years); Walker v. State, 747 N.E.2d 536 (Ind. 2001) (revising consecutive sentences of 40 years on two counts of child molesting to be concurrent).

April 27, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, April 25, 2016

Notable dissent from Eighth Circuit panel ruling affirming re-imposed stat-max 10-year sentence for possessing unregistered sawed-off shotgun

A helpful reader alerted me to an intriguing ruling by a split Eighth Circuit panel today in US v. Webster, No. 15-3020 (8th Cir. April 25, 2016) (available here). Here is the key substantive paragraph from the majority per curiam ruling in Webster:

Webster’s challenge to the substantive reasonableness of his sentence is reviewed under a deferential abuse-of-discretion standard.  See United States v. Feemster, 572 F.3d 455, 461 (8th Cir. 2009) (en banc).  As Webster notes, the district court imposed the same sentence on remand as Webster received in the first sentencing, and this court identified in the first appeal several mitigating sentencing factors that indicated a reasonable probability Webster would have received a shorter sentence but for the sentencing error.  See Webster, 788 F.3d at 893.  However, the fact that this court “‘might reasonably have concluded that a different sentence was appropriate is insufficient to justify reversal of the district court.’”  Feemster, 572 F.3d at 462 (quoting Gall v. United States, 552 U.S. 38, 51 (2007)).  While “substantive review exists, in substantial part, to correct sentences that are based on unreasonable weighing decisions,” United States v. Kane, 639 F.3d 1121, 1136 (8th Cir. 2011) (quotation omitted), this court “must give due deference to the district court’s decision that the § 3553(a) factors, on a whole, justify the extent of the variance.”  Feemster, 572 F.3d at 461-62 (quoting Gall, 552 U.S. at 51).  In reimposing the 120-month sentence, the district court commented in part that the Guidelines did not adequately take into account the seriousness of the offense: Webster had discharged the subject firearm into a fleeing vehicle, narrowly missing the driver.  See U.S.S.G. § 5K2.6 (stating that court may depart if weapon was used in commission of offense; extent of increase depends on dangerousness of weapon, manner it was used, and extent its use endangered others; discharge of firearm may warrant “substantial sentence increase”).  In short, after careful review, this court cannot say that this is the “unusual case” where the district court’s sentence will be reversed as substantively unreasonable.  See Feemster, 572 F.3d at 464.

Judge Bright's dissent from this decision by the majority is what really makes Webster worth a full read by sentencing fans. Here are excerpts that provide a taste for why (with emphasis in the original and some cites omitted):

[O]ur reversal on the basis of substantive unreasonableness is often left to a district court’s decision to vary below the Guideline range.  Rarely, if ever, do we hold sentences above the Guideline range substantively unreasonable.  The pattern of failing to reverse above-Guideline sentences on the basis of substantive unreasonableness perpetuates our broken sentencing system.

As discussed by Former Attorney General Eric Holder, the problem with the federal sentencing system is the “outsized, unnecessarily large prison population.” See Eric Holder, Attorney Gen. of the U.S., U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Remarks at the Annual Meeting of the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates (Aug. 12, 2013), available at http://www.justice.gov/iso/opa/ag/speeches/2013/ag-speech- 130812 .html. As the Attorney General stated, “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.” Id.  Our sentencing policy has also resulted in “harsher punishments” for “people of color” throughout the United States.  Id. The White House recently highlighted the “decades of overly punitive sentencing policies” through the commutation of numerous prison terms....

Webster is an African-American man with a high school education.  At the time of the offense, Webster had no employment record and came from a broken home. In spite of his adverse life circumstances, Webster has a limited criminal record with the lowest category criminal history score.  At the resentencing hearing, Webster also informed the district court of his completion of a 14-hour drug treatment program, and attendance at both anger management and victim impact classes.  (Resent’g Tr. 11- 12). Thus,  in the year between Webster’s original sentence and the resentencing hearing, Webster showed the ability for successful rehabilitation....

Further, Webster was 20-years-old at the time of the offense. Since 2005, the Supreme Court, has consistently held young people are most likely to change during a period of incarceration. In fact, psychological research indicates the human brain does not reach its ultimate stage of development until adolescents reach their mid-twenties....

Based on the current move in this country to shorten federal sentences, coupled with Webster’s age [20], criminal history, education level, remorse, and efforts to rehabilitate himself, the district court’s punishment may well be excessive “under the totality of the circumstances in this case, judged in light of all of the § 3553(a) factors.” Kane, 639 F.3d at 1136.  Therefore, I would vacate Webster’s sentence and remand for reconsideration consistent with this opinion.

April 25, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (17)

SCOTUS grants cert on two new criminal cases

The Supreme Court, as previewed here, is wrapping up the oral arguments of its current Term with a considerable amount of criminal law work.  And today, via this new order list, the Justices took up two new criminal law cases for its docket next Term.  Here are the cases and the issues via SCOTUSblog for the two cases taked up by the Justices today:

Manrique v. United States

Issue: Whether a notice of appeal from a sentencing judgment deferring restitution is effective to challenge the validity of a later-issued restitution award.

Shaw v. United States

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

April 25, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 22, 2016

Split Kansas Supreme Court, reversing itself in real time, ultimately decides that state's lifetime sex offender registration law is constitutional

In a significant ruling today in the Supreme Court of Kansas, the Court splitting 4-3 upheld the state's sex offender registration laws via an opinion in Kansas v. Petersen-Beard, No. 108,061 (Kansas April 22, 2016) (available here). This opinion has one of the strangest first paragraphs you will ever read:

Henry Petersen-Beard challenges his sentence to lifetime post-release registration as a sex offender pursuant to the Kansas Offender Registration Act (KORA), K.S.A. 22-4901 et seq., as cruel and unusual punishment in violation of § 9 of the Kansas Bill of Rights and the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Because we find that lifetime registration as a sex offender pursuant to KORA is not punishment for either Eighth Amendment or § 9 purposes, we reject Petersen-Beard's argument that it is unconstitutionally cruel and/or unusual and affirm his sentence. In so doing, we overrule the contrary holdings of State v. Redmond, 304 Kan. ___, ___ P.3d ___ (No. 110,280, this day decided), State v. Buser, 304 Kan. ___, ___ P.3d ___ (No. 105,982, this day decided), and Doe v. Thompson, 304 Kan. ___, ___ P.3d ___ (No. 110,318, this day decided).

This local article, headlined "Sex offenders win and lose in unusual rulings by the Kansas Supreme Court," explains how the court issued three rulings on these matters today and then overruled those via its final ruling in Petersen-Beard:

In an apparently unprecedented series of rulings, the Kansas Supreme Court on Friday overruled three of its own Friday opinions regarding state sex offender registration laws. In three separate opinions issued Friday, the court found 2011 changes to the sex offender registry law cannot be applied retroactively to offenders convicted before the law took effect. But then in a fourth opinion also released Friday, the court found that those rulings were incorrect. The highly unusual circumstance appear to be the result of a one-justice change in the makeup of the court.

The panel that decided the three cases concerning the 2011 changes included a senior district court judge, who sided with the majority in the 4-3 decisions.

But for the fourth case, that district judge was replaced by the newest Supreme Court justice, Caleb Stegall.  That case was also decided 4-3, with Stegall casting the deciding vote. The three justices who were part of the majority in the first three opinions became the minority in the fourth opinion.

The upshot was a finding that the Kansas law requiring lifetime registration for convicted sex offenders does not violate federal and Kansas constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

In the three other cases, the court ruled that offenders convicted of crimes before 2011 could not have their 10-year registration periods extended to 25 years because the 25-year law took affect after they committed their crimes. But those rulings apparently apply only to those three offenders. Others will be governed by the fourth ruling Friday.

April 22, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)