Monday, July 06, 2015

Did Justice Department during AG Eric Holder's tenure really do "as much as [they] could" on criminal justice reform?

The question in the title of this post is my (somewhat muted) reaction to a key quote from this newly published Q&A interview with former Attorney General Eric Holder.  Let me quote the Q&A passage of interest here and then provide a somewhat less muted reaction thereafter:

Q: Back to the criminal side, during your tenure, you made criminal justice reform a big priority. Are you frustrated with how far you got or didn't get, and is that something you can work on at Covington also?

A: I'm actually kind of satisfied with where we got.  The job's not done.  You know, I think we did as much as we could using executive branch discretion, but now it's up to Congress to put in place measures that will last beyond this administration.  We made a sea change from the policies that I inherited and consistent with kind of my own experience as just a line lawyer at the Justice Department for 12 years.  Put more discretion in the hands of those line lawyers, who I have great respect for.  But now Congress needs to act.

I am happy and eager to credit former AG Holder for doing significant criminal justice reform work while heading the Justice Department through "executive branch discretion" on topics ranging from mandatory minimum charging policies to marijuana enforcement to drug sentencing reform advocacy.  But the claim that DOJ under AG Holder did "as much as we could" genuinely leads me to wonder, if being a bit intemperate, "What the **%&$^# are you talking about or smoking, Eric!?!?!?!?."  On "executive branch discretion" fronts ranging from implementing the Fair Sentencing Act to DOJ clemency policies and practices to executive branch advocacy in other branches, Holder's Justice Department could have (and, in my view, should have) done so much more to transform the modern structures and systems that have produced modern mass incarceration.

I am inclined to agree with former AG Holder that a "sea change" on criminal justice policies has transpired, but I believe AG Holder and his Justice Department were, generally speaking, much more content to ride along with the changing tides rather than taking a leading role in directing this change.  Consequently, in my view, a more fitting and honest statement from former AG Holder would have had him saying something like: "Given the limited political capital I was willing to spend on significant criminal justice reforms, especially during Prez Obama's first Term, and my own disinclination to lead on this front until I decided exactly when I wanted to resign, I think we ended up getting more done than some people might have expected and we effectively avoided stirring up too much political backlash (except from folks like Bill Otis)."

July 6, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, July 05, 2015

"A Reassessment of Common Law Protections for 'Idiots'"

The title of this post is the title of this new piece by Michael Clemente recently posted to SSRN. Here is the abstract:

When the Eighth Amendment was ratified, common law protections categorically prohibited the execution of “idiots.”  On two occasions, the Supreme Court considered whether these protections proscribe executing people with intellectual disabilities; however, the Court concluded that idiocy protections shielded only the “profoundly or severely mentally retarded.”

This Note argues that the Court’s historical analysis of idiocy protections was unduly narrow.  It then proceeds to reassess common law insanity protections for idiots and finds strong evidence that these protections included people with a relatively wide range of intellectual disabilities.  Based on this new historical account, this Note argues that there are people with intellectual disabilities on death row today who likely would have been protected from execution in 1791.

July 5, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, July 04, 2015

"Obama Plans Broader Use of Clemency to Free Nonviolent Drug Offenders"

The title of this post is the headline of this encouraging lengthy front-page New York Times article. Here are excerpts:

Sometime in the next few weeks, aides expect President Obama to issue orders freeing dozens of federal prisoners locked up on nonviolent drug offenses. With the stroke of his pen, he will probably commute more sentences at one time than any president has in nearly half a century.

The expansive use of his clemency power is part of a broader effort by Mr. Obama to correct what he sees as the excesses of the past, when politicians eager to be tough on crime threw away the key even for minor criminals.  With many Republicans and Democrats now agreeing that the nation went too far, Mr. Obama holds the power to unlock that prison door, especially for young African-­American and Hispanic men disproportionately affected.

But even as he exercises authority more assertively than any of his modern predecessors, Mr. Obama has only begun to tackle the problem he has identified.  In the next weeks, the total number of commutations for Mr. Obama’s presidency may surpass 80, but more than 30,000 federal inmates have come forward in response to his administration’s call for clemency applications.  A cumbersome review process has advanced only a small fraction of them.  And just a small fraction of those have reached the president’s desk for a signature.

“I think they honestly want to address some of the people who have been oversentenced in the last 30 years,” said Julie Stewart, the founder and president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a group advocating changes in sentencing. “I’m not sure they envisioned that it would be as complicated as it is, but it has become more complicated, whether it needs to be or not, and that’s what has bogged down the process.”...

“It’s a time when conservatives and liberals and libertarians and lots of different people on the political spectrum” have “come together in order to focus attention on excessive sentences, the costs and the like, and the need to correct some of those excesses,” said Neil Eggleston, the White House counsel who recommends clemency petitions to Mr. Obama.  “So I think the president sees the commutations as a piece of that entire process.”

The challenge has been finding a way to use Mr. Obama’s clemency power in the face of bureaucratic and legal hurdles without making a mistake that would be devastating to the effort’s political viability.  The White House has not forgotten the legacy of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who raped a woman while furloughed from prison and became a powerful political symbol that helped doom the presidential candidacy of Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts in 1988.

But with time running short in Mr. Obama’s presidency, the White House has pushed the Justice Department to send more applicants more quickly.  Mr. Eggleston told the department not to interpret guidelines too narrowly because it is up to the president to decide, according to officials.  If it seems like a close case, he told the department to send it over.

Deborah Leff, the department’s pardon attorney, has likewise pressed lawyers representing candidates for clemency to hurry up and send more cases her way. “If there is one message I want you to take away today, it’s this: Sooner is better,” she told lawyers in a video seminar obtained by USA Today. “Delaying is not helpful.”...

In his second term, Mr. Obama embarked on an effort to use clemency and has raised his total commutations to 43, a number he may double this month. The initiative was begun last year by James M. Cole, then the deputy attorney general, who set criteria for who might qualify: generally nonviolent inmates who have served more than 10 years in prison, have behaved well while incarcerated and would not have received as lengthy a sentence under today’s revised rules....

Margaret Love, who served as pardon attorney under the first Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton and now represents prisoners applying for clemency, said the process had become a mess. “It’s really poor management,” she said. “These are people who don’t have any history with sentence reduction. They’ve been putting people in prison all their lives. They don’t know how to get them out.”...

In December, Mr. Obama commuted the sentences of eight drug offenders, and in March he followed up with 22 more.  If he accepts most of the latest applications sent to the White House, some officials said it would probably double that last batch of 22, exceeding the 36 commutations Mr. Clinton issued at one time on his last day in office. Among those Mr. Obama granted clemency in March were eight prisoners serving life sentences for crimes like possession with intent to distribute cocaine, growing more than 1,000 marijuana plants or possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

Needless to say, I am pleased to hear this report that dozens of additional clemency grants for nonviolent drug offenders may be coming soon from the Obama Administration.  But even if Obama were, after 18 months of lots of big talk about a clemency push, to now commute next week as many as 80 federal drug prisoners, this would still be not be as substantively consequential for the federal prison population as the 400+ drug defendants who will sentenced to lengthy federal prison terms the very same week!  Roughly speaking, in the months since the clemency talk got started, perhaps as many as an additional 35,000 drug offenders (many of whom are nonviolent) have been sentenced to significant federal terms. 

One of many reasons I have been distinctively skeptical and cynical concerning Clemency Project 2014 and related clemency work generated by the Obama Administration's clemency talk was my fear that Prez Obama would lack the courage and desire to commute many thousands of federal sentences. Practically speaking, unless and until the President starts talking about mass commutations, truly significant and consequential sentencing reforms and relief have to come from Congress, the Sentencing Commission or the courts.  (Indeed, rather than worry too much about clemency particulars, I wish the New York Times and all those concerned about mass incarceration in the federal system would focus on the profound impact that the Supreme Court's recent Johnson ruling could have if (and only if) Obama's Department of Justice and the US Sentencing Commission and lower courts apply it broadly and enhance its potential impact.)

July 4, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Friday, July 03, 2015

New CRS report: "Risk and Needs Assessment in the Criminal Justice System"

A helpful colleague alerted me to this intriguing new Congressional Research Service report concerning risk assessments and other crime-control focused criminal justice reforms. Here is the report's summary:

The number of people incarcerated in the United States has increased significantly over the past three decades from approximately 419,000 inmates in 1983 to approximately 1.5 million inmates in 2013.  Concerns about both the economic and social consequences of the country’s growing reliance on incarceration have led to calls for reforms to the nation’s criminal justice system.

There have been legislative proposals to implement a risk and needs assessment system in federal prisons.  The system would be used to place inmates in rehabilitative programs. Under the proposed system some inmates would be eligible to earn additional time credits for participating in rehabilitative programs that reduce their risk of recidivism.  Such credits would allow inmates to be placed on prerelease custody earlier.  The proposed system would exclude inmates convicted of certain offenses from being eligible to earn additional time credits.

Risk and needs assessment instruments typically consist of a series of items used to collect data on behaviors and attitudes that research indicates are related to the risk of recidivism.  Generally, inmates are classified as being high, moderate, or low risk. Assessment instruments are comprised of static and dynamic risk factors.  Static risk factors do not change, while dynamic risk factors can either change on their own or be changed through an intervention.  In general, research suggests that the most commonly used assessment instruments can, with a moderate level of accuracy, predict who is at risk for violent recidivism.  It also suggests that no single instrument is superior to any other when it comes to predictive validity.

The Risk-Needs-Responsivity (RNR) model has become the dominant paradigm in risk and needs assessment.  The risk principle states that high-risk offenders need to be placed in programs that provide more intensive treatment and services while low-risk offenders should receive minimal or even no intervention.  The need principle states that effective treatment should focus on addressing needs that contribute to criminal behavior.  The responsivity principle states that rehabilitative programming should be delivered in a style and mode that is consistent with the ability and learning style of the offender.

However, the wide-scale adoption of risk and needs assessment in the criminal justice system is not without controversy.  Several critiques have been raised against the use of risk and needs assessment, including that it could have discriminatory effects because some risk factors are correlated with race; that it uses group base rates for recidivism to make determinations about an individual’s propensity for re-offending; and that risk and needs assessment are two distinct procedures and should be conducted separately.

There are several issues policymakers might contemplate should Congress choose to consider legislation to implement a risk and needs assessment system in federal prisons, including the following:

• Should risk and needs assessment be used in federal prisons?

• Should certain inmates be excluded from earning additional time credits?

• Should risk assessment be incorporated into sentencing?

• Should there be a decreased focus on punishing offenders?

July 3, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

"Anti-Death Penalty Activists Are Winning The Fundraising Battle In Nebraska"

The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing new BuzzFeed piece providing a "follow-the-money" update on who is really concerned about reversing or preserving the repeal of the death penalty in Nebraska.  Here are excerpts: 

After the Nebraska legislature successfully abolished the death penalty in the state, an expensive battle has begun to bring it back.  But so far, the side against the death penalty is winning the fundraising battle.  The money is all about the potential for a statewide vote on the death penalty.

In May, the state’s conservative legislature narrowly overruled Republican Gov. Pete Rickett’s veto of the measure that abolished the death penalty. Ricketts vowed there would be a referendum to give voters the option to bring it back.  Nebraskans for the Death Penalty will need to collect 57,000 signatures by August to get the vote on the ballot.  If they can manage to collect 114,000 signatures, the death penalty will remain on the books until voters weigh in.

The group estimates that it would need to spend about $900,000 to do so....  [So far] Nebraskans for the Death Penalty raised $259,744 — and more than 75% of that came from the governor’s family. Ricketts and his father, the founder of TD Ameritrade, have given $200,000 to the group.  Another $10,000 was given to the pro-death penalty organization by an Omaha police union.

Nebraskans for the Death Penalty has spent almost all of the money it has currently raised in starting the signature collecting process.  The group has $26,000 in cash remaining, but has $25,000 in unpaid legal and consulting bills.

On the other side, Nebraskans for Public Safety (an anti-death penalty group) has not yet filed its full campaign finance report as of Tuesday evening.  But the group has disclosed receiving a $400,000 contribution from a progressive organization called Proteus Action League.  The group is a 501c(4), meaning it does not disclose its donors. This isn’t the first time Proteus Action League has spent money against the death penalty — the group spent more than $3.4 million on anti-death penalty efforts in 2012, according to an IRS filing.

The anti-death penalty group Nebraskans for Public Safety, which is affiliated with Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska, has spent some of the money on television ads urging voters to not sign the petition.

Regardless of the outcome, Ricketts believes he will still be able to carry out the executions of the 10 men on death row.  In pursuit of that, his Department of Correctional Services has spent more than $50,000 on execution drugs from a seller based in India.

July 1, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Reviewing the energies and intricacies involved in Clemency Project 2014

Download (1)The July 2015 issue of the ABA Journal has this very lengthy new piece reporting on the work of Clemency Project 2014.  The piece, headlined "Clemency Project 2014 is out to help prisoners doing excessive time due to inflexible sentencing," and here are excerpts:

[L]ast year, the Department of Justice announced an extraordinary project that could provide relief to ... perhaps thousands of [federal prisonsers]. In January 2014, the department announced a plan to shorten thousands of long sentences handed down for nonviolent drug crimes, using President Barack Obama's clemency power.

It's a radical departure from the way modern presidents have used clemency. Rather than correcting injustices here and there, the project seeks to systematically reduce sentences handed down during an era of inflexible sentencing.

Equally extraordinary was the Justice Department's call for help from the private bar. Because an influx of pro se petitions could overwhelm Justice's small Office of the Pardon Attorney, the DOJ asked private attorneys to volunteer their help.

Enter Clemency Project 2014. About 1,500 volunteer attorneys have come forward to help eligible prisoners submit the best possible clemency petitions. This small volunteer army is being led by five groups of criminal justice stakeholders: the American Bar Association's Criminal Justice Section, the American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and a group of federal defenders—the heads of the 84 offices of federal public or community defenders.

"It is unprecedented, it is important — and the chance of a lifetime for a defense attorney to be able to walk someone out the prison doors this way," says Donna Lee Elm, the federal defender for the Middle District of Florida and part of the CP14 management.

Clemency cases move slowly; FAMM says an answer typically takes from two to seven years. But CP14 doesn't have that much time. Because the project relies on Obama's power to grant clemency — and there's no guarantee his successor will embrace the project — all decisions have to be made before January 2017.

That stress was increased last July when one fertile source of volunteers was cut off. A memo from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts forbade federal public defenders from actively representing CP14 clients, though they may still do administrative work. And although there is increasing bipartisan support for sentencing reform, CP14 has drawn criticism from both the right and the left. Among other complaints, critics say the federal government shouldn't allow nongovernmental groups to be so heavily involved in making policy....

CP14 relies on the constitutional power to grant clemency — pardons, sentence commutations and other actions that ease the consequences of a conviction. Though Obama's past statements have suggested he's concerned about unduly harsh drug sentences, he's made little use of his clemency powers. That's the case in general for presidents serving from 1980 onward....

Submissions come after a lengthy review process. Normally, clemency seekers submit their petitions directly to the [Office of the Pardon Attorney] OPA (either pro se or by using one of the few lawyers who specialize in clemency). An OPA lawyer then scrutinizes the petition closely, typically calling the prosecutor's office and judge involved in the original case for an opinion. Once that work is done, the deputy attorney general (currently Sally Quillian Yates) examines it and sends it to the White House with the office's recommendations.

Though petitioners are still free to take that direct route, those going through CP14 get additional review. For those without [any] close relationship to a former attorney, the process started with a survey sent out last year by the Bureau of Prisons, asking whether the prisoner meets the DOJ's clemency criteria. As of early June, CP14 had received more than 30,000 of them. Any volunteer attorney who has completed CP14's training — a six-hour online course — may take up one of those surveys. Volunteers dig through old documents to investigate whether the prisoner really meets the criteria, then create an executive summary. That goes to a screening committee, whose job is to thoroughly double-check whether the case meets the DOJ's criteria.

If the case gets through that round, it goes to a CP14 steering committee, which is responsible for ensuring that each of the project's five partner organizations is comfortable signing off on the case. That's a lot of layers of approval, but Felman says organizers felt each was necessary because they all have different functions. If the case is approved, the volunteer attorney drafts the actual petition. The petition goes to the Office of the Pardon Attorney with a cover letter from CP14, saying the project organizers believe this prisoner meets the criteria. From there, it's out of CP14's hands.

"I'm not saying that that [letter] gives that petition any special weight over there," Felman explained at the midyear meeting. "Our hope is it gives them a little more confidence. But there's no question that they will put it through their regular, routine process."

If the OPA approves a case, it goes to the Office of the White House Counsel. From there, Felman says, CP14 doesn't know what happens. Several emails to the White House press office were unreturned. Clemency Project 2014 petitions began going to the OPA at the end of 2014. In March, the president issued the first four commutations with project involvement, as part of a group of 22 commutations. Though it's hard for CP14 to predict what the president might do, Felman says he's been told the White House would like to start approving cases on a quarterly or even rolling basis. He notes that the March commutations were issued at the end of the year's first quarter and says he would not be surprised to see more issued at the end of the second quarter. This would be another departure from modern presidents' standard practice of granting clemency at Christmas or the end of their terms.

Even when petitions are approved, it's not clear whether clemency recipients will be able to go home right away. No government representative has commented on the issue, but Felman says CP14 has assumed the president will shorten sentences to what they would have been if handed out today. But the March commutations didn't follow that formula; all but one recipient were slated for release at the same time, in July....

[T]he loss of the defenders exacerbated another problem: insufficient volunteers. The project has quite a lot already — about 1,500 as of early June — and is recruiting from large law firms and law school clinics. But with roughly 30,000 prisoner surveys to review — and the end of President Obama's term looming — CP14 needs more.

Another problem, which is endemic to old cases, involves getting the paperwork. Because the Justice Department requires petitioners to have served at least 10 years in prison, the cases are at least that old. That makes it tough to establish a prisoner's eligibility, especially if no former attorney can forward the case file. Many of the cases require an in-person trip to a courthouse because older documents are not on PACER. Even tougher to get are the presentence investigative reports, or PSRs, which are usually sealed. Felman said at the midyear meeting that a handful of judges have denied requests to unseal them; and in one case, a prosecutor opposed it....

[C]ritics of CP14 aren't just law-and-order advocates. In fact, the project has been criticized by some of the most ardent supporters of clemency. On the political right, one critic has been Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley.... Another conservative organization, the watchdog group Judicial Watch, has sued the DOJ under the Freedom of Information Act in an effort to get records of its communications with CP14 partner organizations. Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton says this is a rule of law issue. "There's this effort to abuse the clemency power of the president, to bypass Congress' sentencing laws," he claims. "The whole project by itself is an affront to the idea that the clemency power of the president is exercised on a case-by-case basis."...

Law professors Mark Osler of the University of St. Thomas (who runs a commutation clinic) and Rachel Barkow of New York University ... argued in a November Washington Post op-ed that the clemency process has far too many layers of bureaucracy and creates a conflict of interest because the Justice Department reviews convictions won by its own prosecutors. They called for a stand-alone, bipartisan agency like those used for clemency in many states.

Other critics from the left contend that the DOJ criteria leave too many prisoners out—particularly those who meet all criteria except the 10-year requirement. Felman says CP14 organizers pushed back a little on this issue, but to no avail.

Lots of prior related posts about Clemency Project 2014:

July 1, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Virginia Gov creates commission to study bringing back parole in state sentencing scheme

DownloadI have long thought and feared that the broad move in the 1980s and 1990s to abolish parole in the federal sentencing system and in many state systems was a significant (and rarely recognized) contributor to modern mass incarceration problems.  Consequently, I am intrigued and pleased to see this recent press report headlined "McAuliffe creates commission to study bringing parole back to Virginia." Here are the details of what is afoot in Virginia, as well as some highlights of the enduring political issues and debates that surround parole abolition and reforms:

Gov. Terry McAuliffe will create a commission to study reinstating parole in Virginia, two decades after it was abolished by then-Gov. George Allen amid a wave of tough-on-crime laws across the country.... McAuliffe (D) signed an executive order to review whether doing away with parole reduced crime and recidivism, analyze costs and make recommendations.

“It’s time to review whether that makes sense. Is it keeping our citizens safe? Is it a reasonable, good, cost-effective way? Are we rehabilitating folks?” he said. “Are sentences too long for nonviolent offenses? Are we keeping people in prison too long?”

The move is consistent with McAuliffe’s push to restore voting rights to thousands of former prisoners and remove from state job applications questions about criminal records, known as the ‘ban the box’ campaign. It also comes at a time when the country is redefining the way it enforces its laws, and sometimes questioning the strict policing and corrections strategies of the 1990s....

Carl Wicklund, the executive director of the American Probation and Parole Association, said research suggests that the laws of the 1990s were not necessarily effective, and politicians from both parties are embracing change. Parole gives inmates motivation to better themselves in hopes they could be let out early, he said. “People are starting to look at that, how do you incentivize people when they’re in prison to actually start to get their act together?” Wicklund said.

But others say that crime declined in Virginia in the two decades since parole was abolished and that the prisons are not overflowing with nonviolent first-time offenders. “I want to ask them which murderer, rapist or armed robber they want to get out of jail,” said former Virginia attorney general Jerry Kilgore (R), a lawyer in private practice who was Allen’s secretary of public safety. “Under the old system, murderers were serving a fourth to a third of their time.”

C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), a former prosecutor, said Virginia tends to lock up what he called “the right people”: violent offenders, repeat offenders, chronic probation violators and drug dealers. “Why the governor would want to tinker with undoing a good thing is beyond me,” he said. “It’s pure politics. I’m sure he’s getting a tremendous amount of pressure from the base of his party to tear down the criminal justice system. Criminal apologists would love nothing more than to have no one serve any time for practically anything.”

In the interview with WTOP (103.5 FM), McAuliffe said it is his job to protect citizens, but also safeguard taxpayer dollars. The state houses 30,369 inmates at a cost of $27,462 per year per inmate and a total of $833 million annually, he said. Inmates must serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before they can be released for good behavior. “The question now, 20 years later, is has it made us safer or have we spent a lot of money and we haven’t done what we need to do for rehabilitation?” he said.

Former Virginia attorney general Mark L. Earley Sr. — a Republican whom Allen once portrayed as an ally in abolishing parole — will chair the commission with McAuliffe’s secretary of public safety, Brian Moran, and his secretary of the commonwealth, Levar Stoney. The Commission on Parole Review must complete a final report by Dec. 4. “I want everybody just to relax here. We’re not saying let everybody out. We’re not doing that. We’re going to do a comprehensive study,” McAuliffe said.

The effects of parole abolition were also the subject of a study by the Senate Finance Committee released in November, which deemed the policy change a success. “Virginia has the third-lowest rate of violent crime and the second-lowest recidivism in the nation,” the 74-page report concluded. “Sentencing reform is working as intended.”

But the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia said there is little evidence that parole abolition has made Virginians safer. In fact, the state’s incarceration rate has increased and crime rate has declined at a slower rate than states that have reduced their incarceration levels, the group said. “By removing the opportunity for parole, the commonwealth has also compounded the disproportionate impact that our criminal justice system has on people of color,” said ACLU executive director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga.

Democrats generally praised McAuliffe for revisiting the policy. “It’s an issue of public safety and our commitment to rehabilitation, are we actually doing that in Virginia?” said Del. Charniele L. Herring (D-Alexandria), chairwoman of the House Democratic caucus. Virginia House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville) said the commission could recommend relaxing parole for some offenders, but not others. “I don’t believe the governor has any interest in encouraging any policy that’s going to release hardened criminals in advance of their sentence being served,” he said.

But Republicans denounced any effort to roll back one of the landmark reforms of Allen’s governorship. Del. Robert B. Bell (R-Albemarle), a criminal lawyer and former prosecutor who is planning to run for attorney general in 2017, said changing the state’s policy “would be an enormous step back for public safety in Virginia” and would create a “backdoor out of prison” after jurors, detectives and victims have left the courtroom.

House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said he agreed that the current system has served the commonwealth well and has become a national model. “While there are always improvements to be made, the notion that Virginia needs wholesale criminal justice reform seems to be more about politics than policy,” he said.

Parole abolition was popular in Virginia when Allen pushed for it, said Chris LaCivita, a Republican strategist who worked on Allen’s 1993 campaign. Allen won the governor’s office that year by an 18-point margin on the promise to abolish parole, and the General Assembly, then controlled by Democrats, passed it his first year in office, he said. “When Allen abolished parole in 1994, it was for violent offenders,” LaCivita said. “And the primary reason was because so many of those who were convicted of violent crimes were only serving a part of their sentence.”

As of 2000, 16 states had done away with discretionary release on parole, and four other states had gotten rid of the practice for certain crimes, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Experts said few, if any, states seem to have reversed course. If Virginia were to do so completely, it might be the first, said Keith Hardison, the chief administrative officer of Association of Paroling Authorities International, which represents parole board staffers. “It’s not unexpected, because it seems like a logical extension of some of the changing, perhaps backing off somewhat of the ‘get tough’ era, and the ‘nothing works’ era,” he said.

Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos (D) said it “makes abundant sense” to revisit the policy but noted that she did not feel abolishing parole was a mistake. Crime has dwindled in Virginia since parole was abolished, and while she said there might not be a causation, it was a factor to be considered. “It’s a function of a lot of things, but clearly, the bad folks who are in for a long time . . . for the time that they’re in for, they’re not committing crimes on the street,” she said. Stamos noted that no matter what the commission finds, it would be up to the Republican-controlled General Assembly to restore parole — an unlikely outcome.

June 30, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Lots and lots of Johnson GVRs with Justice Alito explaining their meaning and (limited?) import

Today's final Supreme Court order list confirms my view that the Johnson ACCA vagueness ruling is the most consequential criminal case of the just-completed SCOTUS Term.  That is because the list has, by my count, over 40 cases in which the Justices have now "GVRed" an Armed Career Criminal Act sentence: in all these appeals to the court, the order list states that certiorari for each case is granted and then the judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded to the appropriate circuit court "for further consideration in light of Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. ___ (2015)."

Notably, there were GVRs in this order list to nearly every one of the 12 federal circuit courts, and I am confident that even the few circuits left out of this morning's GVR fun have at least a few Johnson pipeline cases already on their docket. Consequently, it will be interesting to see which of the circuits is the first to have a significant Johnson implementation ruling. To that end, Justice Alito notably added this statement to nearly every Johnson GVR:

Justice Alito concurring in the decision to grant, vacate, and remand in this case: Following the recommendation of the Solicitor General, the Court has held the petition in this and many other cases pending the decision in Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. ____ (2015). In holding this petition and now in vacating and remanding the decision below in this case, the Court has not differentiated between cases in which the petitioner would be entitled to relief if the Court held (as it now has) that the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984, 18 U.S.C. Sec. 924(e)(2)(B)(ii), is void for vagueness and cases in which relief would not be warranted for a procedural reason. On remand, the Court of Appeals should understand that the Court’s disposition of this petition does not reflect any view regarding petitioner’s entitlement to relief.

Some prior posts on Johnson and its possible impact:

June 30, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 29, 2015

"A Place to Call Home: Courts are reconsidering residency restrictions for sex offender"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable article from the July 2015 issue of the ABA Journal.  Here are excerpts:

[T]he California Supreme Court struck down the blanket application of [the state's] Jessica’s Law in March’s In re Taylor (PDF).  The justices noted that parole officers may impose residency restrictions on a case-by-case basis.  But they unanimously agreed that universal application of the law violates offenders’ constitutional rights — and doesn’t keep children safe.

The law “has hampered efforts to monitor, supervise and rehabilitate such parolees in the interests of public safety, and as such, bears no rational relationship to advancing the state’s legitimate goal of protecting children from sexual predators,” now-retired Justice Marvin Baxter wrote.  Though the decision applied only to parolees in San Diego County, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation soon extended it to parolees statewide. CDCR spokesman Luis Patino says the state attorney general’s office believes courts would apply Taylor to every county.

California is not the only such state.  Later in March, a Michigan federal court struck down application of that state’s “geographic exclusion zones” to six plaintiffs, saying the law is unconstitutionally vague.  And in February, the New York Court of Appeals ruled that all local sex offender residency laws are pre-empted by state law, which does not include residency restrictions.

Courts weren’t always so friendly to these challenges. The highest court to rule on residency restrictions, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at St. Louis, ruled in 2005’s Doe v. Miller (PDF) that Iowa’s residency restrictions did not violate offenders’ constitutional rights.  That’s an important case, says professor Wayne Logan of Florida State University College of Law.  Most courts considering federal challenges on the issue have followed it.

But there are signs that things are changing.  Responding to compelling personal stories and mounting evidence that residency restrictions don’t work — and might even hurt public safety — courts are casting a more critical eye on these laws.  “There’s a public appetite for [sex offender laws], but there’s no evidentiary support that either registries or exclusion zones work,” says Miriam Aukerman, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan who represented the plaintiffs in the Michigan case. “And as a result, you’re seeing judges starting to rethink this.”

The facts of Taylor point to one of the biggest criticisms of residency restrictions: They often eliminate so much housing that they force ex-offenders into homelessness.  A 2011 report from the California Sex Offender Management Board expressly noted that “nearly 32 percent of sex offenders on parole are homeless due to Jessica’s Law.”...

And perhaps most damning, Levenson says the consensus among social science researchers is that residency laws don’t reduce recidivism. “We know from decades of research that most child sex abuse victims are well-known to their perpetrators,” she says. “So a person’s residential proximity … is really irrelevant.”

June 29, 2015 in Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Providing great reading (and little else of consequences), concurring and dissenting Justices use Glossip to debate death penalty's constitutionality

As noted in this prior post, states eager to move forward with challenged execution protocols got a big win on the merits from the Supreme Court this morning in Glossip v. Gross.  And while the substantive ruling from the Court will be of considerable consequence for states eager to move forward with scheduled executions, commentators (and law professors and death-penalty advocates) will likely take more note of the back-and-forth between Justice Breyer and Justices Scalia and Thomas in their separate Glossip opinion.  

Justice Breyer uses Glossip as an occassion to write a 40-page dissenting opinion (with Justice Ginsburg along for the ride) explaining why he now believes "it highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment" and that "the Court should call for full briefing on the basic question." Unsurprisingly, this disquisition prompts both Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas to author separate (and much shorter) concurring opinions seeking to explain why they think Justice Breyer's constitutional views are all washed up.

The work of these Justices debating the constitutionality of capital punishment as a categorical matter makes for great fun for those who enjoy constitutional debate as blood-sport (and for those eager to read the latest, strongests (policy) arguments against the modern death penalty). But the fact that seven current Justices apparently do not question the death penalty's essential constitutionality, including the five youngest Justices, suggests to me that abolitionists still have a lot more work to do before they can reasonable hope to see a majority of Justices find compelling a categorical constitutional ruling against capital punishment in all cases.

June 29, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

SCOTUS rules 5-4 against capital defendant's challenge to execution protocol in Glossip v. Gross

The Supreme Court handed down this morning the last big opinion of likely interest to sentencing fans via Glossip v. Gross, No. 14-7599 (S. Ct. June 29, 2015) (available here).  Here is how Justice Alito's opinion for the Court gets started:

Prisoners sentenced to death in the State of Oklahoma filed an action in federal court under Rev. Stat. §1979, 42 U.S.C. §1983, contending that the method of execution now used by the State violates the Eighth Amendment because it creates an unacceptable risk of severe pain.  They argue that midazolam, the first drug employed in the State’s current three-drug protocol, fails to render a person insensate to pain.  After holding an evidentiary hearing, the District Court denied four prisoners’ application for a preliminary injunction, finding that they had failed to prove that midazolam is ineffective.  The Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed and accepted the District Court’s finding of fact regarding midazolam’s efficacy.

For two independent reasons, we also affirm.  First, the prisoners failed to identify a known and available alternative method of execution that entails a lesser risk of pain, a requirement of all Eighth Amendment method-ofexecution claims.  See Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35, 61 (2008) (plurality opinion).  Second, the District Court did not commit clear error when it found that the prisoners failed to establish that Oklahoma’s use of a massive dose of midazolam in its execution protocol entails a substantial risk of severe pain.

Based on a too-quick read, the majority opinion seems like a big win for states seeking to move forward even with new and questionable execution methods. I doubt Glossip will halt all the lower-court litigation on state execution protocols, but it certainly should provide lower court judges a much clearer standard and basis for rejecting Eighth Amendment claims in this setting.

June 29, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Two distinct SCOTUS dissents from the denial of cert in capital federal habeas cases

Though a forthcoming opinion from the Supreme Court in Glossip v. Gross concerning executions methods is likely to highlight the Justices' distinct views on capital punishment, another example of this reality appears in this morning's SCOTUS order list.  At the end, one can find two lengthy dissents from the denial of cert: one, authored by Justice Thomas (and joined by Justice Alito), laments the Court's failure to take up a case from the Fourth Circuit that required further review of a North Carolina death sentence; the other, authored by Justice Sotomayor (and joined by Justices Ginsburg and Kagan), laments the Court's failure to take up a case from the Fifth Circuit that upheld a Mississippi death sentence.

Based on a quick read of both opinions, I must say I am generally content that the full Court did not bother to take up these cases as a prelude to seemingly inevitable 5-4 split capital decisions.  More generally, with so many interesting and important non-capital criminal law and procedure issues churning in lower courts, I hope the majority of Justices persistently resist what I see as a too-common tendency to get too-deeply engaged in what too often ends up as one-case-only, deeply-divided capital case error-correction (as I think we saw this term in Brumfield v. Cain and Davis v. Ayala).  

June 29, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Some real-world (conservative?) reasons why only Justice Alito advocated "real-world conduct" approach to ACCA

This past weekend afforded me the opportunity read more closely the various opinions in the big SCOTUS constitutional sentencing ruling in Johnson v. US striking down a provision of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) as unconstitutionally vague.  Looking forward, it will be interesting to see how many federal prisoners will claim Johnson demands they receive a lower sentence and also to see how various lower courts sort through such claims.  (I flagged some post-Johnson litigation issues in this prior post, and I will say more on this front in future posts.)  Here I want to look back a bit to explain why I think Justice Alito was unable to get a single colleague to support his suggested ACCA jurisprudence revision to preserve the sentencing provision stuck down in Johnson.

The Court is Johnson finds so much uncertainty in the ACCA residual clause because it "requires a court to picture the kind of conduct that the crime involves in 'the ordinary case,' and to judge whether that abstraction presents a serious potential risk of physical injury."  The Court stressed that it "is one thing [and presumably constitutional] to apply an imprecise 'serious potential risk' standard to real-world facts; it is quite another to apply it to a judge-imagined abstraction."  I think the Johnson majority is basically right on this front, especially seeing how lower courts have struggled greatly mapping various offenses abstractly onto ACCA's residual clause.

But Justice Alito has a readily response: noting ACCA "makes no reference to 'an idealized ordinary case of the crime," he contends the "residual clause can [and should] be interpreted to refer to 'real-world conduct'."  In other words, Justice Alito has a solution to the interpretive problems lamented by the majority: rather than looking at prior convictions in the abstract, sentencing courts could and should engaging in a "conduct-specific inquiry" to assess whether a prior offense presented a "serious potential risk of physical injury."

But while sounding like a viable and reasonable solution, I suspect Justice Alito's suggestion was rejected by all the other Justices because they could see many real-world challenges posed by a "conduct-specific inquiry" in this ACCA setting.  For starters, if a factual inquiry determined ACCA predicates, sentencing courts would have to conduct mini-trials to look at all the real-world conduct behind (long-ago) priors. The mini-trials of priors would implicate an array of complex Fifth and Sixth Amendment procedure issues --- e.g., what would be the burden of proof for the judge (or jury)? would the defense be able to call witnesses and assert confrontation rights?  what review standard applies for the (factual/legal?) determination of "serious potential risk"?

Moveover, with each ACCA case hinging on factual rulings about "real-world conduct," there could be no firm ACCA precedents: even after one court decided defendant Al's real-world drunk driving or flight from the police triggered ACCA, defendant Bert could and would still litigate the same issue in the next case based on his own distinct "real-world conduct."  Even in cases that facially should be easy ACCA calls, the prosecution or the defense might try to argue unique "real-world" conduct made, say, an offense of littering especially risky or an offense of sexual imposition especially safe.

Finally, Justice Alito's own concluding approach to Johnson's case itself reveals how ipse dixit the analysis of "real-world conduct" would still be under ACCA.  Obviously eager to trump up the seriousness of Johnson's shotgun possession offense, Justice Alito asserts "drugs and guns are never a safe combination" and posits that "collateral damage" and "carnage" were real possibilities.  But he seems to be making suppositions as a means to an end no more firm or determinate than considering shotgun possession in the abstract.

In short, I suspect Justice Alito was unable to convince any of his colleagues to embrace his "real-world conduct" approach to ACCA because they understood that this approach would likely create more real-world problems than it would solve.

Some prior posts on Johnson and its possible impact:

June 29, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Gearing up for the next SCOTUS death penalty case while awaiting Glossip ruling

Though the Supreme Court has saved for last its decision in the still-pending Glossip case concerning execution protocols, I still am not expecting that Glossip will prove to be a blockbuster ruling.  I am guessing the decision will focus principally on Oklahoma's history with various execution drugs (and, if lower courts are lucky, will provide a clearer script for resolving Eighth Amendment challenges to execution protocols).  

Consequently, an especially for those who are even more concerned about the imposition of death sentences than how they get carried out, it is perhaps not too soon to look ahead to future SCOTUS death penalty cases.  One such case already on the near horizon comes from Florida, as this new local press article highlights.  The article is headlined simply "Fla. death penalty faces scrutiny from Supreme Court," and here are excerpts:

Thirteen years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juries, not judges, should decide death sentences, Florida stands alone in how its justice system imposes capital punishment....  Now the nation’s highest court is poised to consider in its next term whether Florida needs to change its system for deciding whom to execute.  The issue concerns the role of juries in death penalty decisions. It’s an aspect of the state’s system of capital punishment that courts have struggled with for years.

In Florida, as in other states, when defendants are convicted of murder in a death penalty case, juries hear evidence regarding the existence of “aggravating factors,” or aspects of the case that weigh in favor of a death sentence, as well as “mitigating factors,” information that favors a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.  In recommending a sentence, a jury determines whether aggravating factors in a case outweigh the mitigating circumstances and justify the imposition of a death sentence.

But Florida juries, unlike most other states, are told their decisions are merely advisory, and that the judge will make the ultimate determination over whether to sentence a defendant to death.  Trial judges in Florida are required to make their own, independent findings and are permitted to impose sentences different from jury recommendations. Juries in Florida also are not required to reach unanimous decisions on the existence of specific aggravating factors or on whether to recommend a death sentence.

No other state allows the imposition of a death sentence without jurors either finding unanimously that a specific aggravating factor has been established or unanimously finding that capital punishment is appropriate.  The American Bar Association, which takes no position on the overall constitutionality of the death penalty, is urging the U.S. Supreme Court to direct Florida to make changes and require jurors to specify which aggravating factors they have unanimously found to be present.  The association wants the high court to require jurors to unanimously agree on the imposition of death sentences....

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 threw out Arizona’s system of capital punishment, ruling it was unconstitutional because judges, not juries, determined the existence of aggravating factors and sentenced defendants to death.  Months later, the Florida Supreme Court left intact the state’s system of capital punishment, concluding that the U.S. Supreme Court had repeatedly reviewed it and found it constitutional.  The state’s high court noted that the U.S. Supreme Court had refused to hear the appeal of one of the Florida defendants challenging the state system, even after it made the Arizona decision....

The state Supreme Court called in 2005 for the state Legislature to make changes to the state’s death penalty law to require unanimity in jury recommendations.  But state lawmakers didn’t act.  In the ensuing years, the state Supreme Court continued to hold that the state’s death penalty system is constitutional.  One of those rulings came in the Escambia County case of Timothy Lee Hurst, convicted of murdering coworker Cynthia Harrison in a robbery at Popeye’s restaurant on May 2, 1998....

At the conclusion of the second sentencing hearing [in Hurst's case], jurors returned a verdict of 7-5 in favor of death.  Hurst appealed again to the state Supreme Court, which upheld his death sentence, rejecting arguments that included assertions the jury should have been required to unanimously find a specific aggravating circumstance and unanimously decide his sentence.

The state Supreme Court noted in its Hurst ruling that it has previously concluded that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Arizona case did not require juries to make specific findings of aggravating factors or to make unanimous decisions regarding death sentences. The Florida court refused to revisit its prior rulings.

Hurst also argued the jury should have been required to determine whether he was mentally disabled, a finding that would have barred the implementation of the death penalty.  After hearing testimony from witnesses and experts, the trial judge ruled that Hurst was not mentally disabled.  The state Supreme Court ruled that although some states require such findings be made by juries, Florida is not one of those states, and the U.S. Supreme Court has not mandated that procedure.

Hurst appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case in its next term, which begins in October.

June 28, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, June 27, 2015

"Will New Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform Plan Fly?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this notable new Crime Report piece by Ted Gest discussing the prospects for the newly introduced SAFE Justice Act (basics here). Here are excerpts:

As support for criminal justice reform has spread, many states have left the federal government behind when it comes to reducing their prison populations. There were 208,598 federal inmates as of yesterday, dwarfing the state with the most in the last national count: Texas, with about 168,000. Prisons are consuming at least a quarter of the U.S. Justice Department's budget, putting a squeeze on other spending.

Until yesterday, most discussion of the issue in Congress has taken place in the Senate, where several members, ranging from conservative Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky to liberal Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey have filed competing bills that would change federal sentencing laws and help inmates return successfully to society.

Now, two key House members from both major political parties are weighing in with a "Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective Justice Act"-- dubbed SAFE -- they suggest could go even farther than the Senate measures.

They are James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, and Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat, who have long headed the House subcommittee dealing with crime. (Scott recently moved from the panel, officially called the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations, and turned his role over to Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas.)...

Sensenbrenner and Scott headed a House over-criminalization task force that has spent the last year and a half holding hearings on the issue that led in large part to the new bill. Sensenbrenner contended yesterday that over-criminalization is a "major driver" of the federal prison count, although he conceded that no one know how many such cases are filed.

Liberals are much more interested in drug cases, arguing that mandatory minimum penalties dating from the 1980s have ensnared thousands of Americans serving terms of five or ten years or longer for relatively minor violations. Scott said that two-thirds of federal inmates serving mandatory terms in drug cases are not narcotics kingpins. He argued that in the end, the nation's high incarceration rate "generates more crime than it stops."

One notable aspect of yesterday's announcement was the presence of a wide range of organizations supporting the bill, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the conservative Koch Industries, the American Conservative Union Foundation, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and the Police Foundation.

Helpfully, this article provides this link to this full text of the new House proposal which is formally the "Sensenbrenner-Scott Over-Criminalization Task Force Safe, Accountable, Fair, Effective Justice Reinvestment Act of 2015."

Prior related post:

June 27, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, June 26, 2015

How many federal prisoners have "strong Johnson claims" (and how many lawyers will help figure this out)?

After this post, I am going to take some time off-line in order to calmly and carefully read all the opinions in the big SCOTUS constitutional sentencing ruling today in Johnson v. US.  (Sadly, I think it is a bit too early to get some liquid assistance in calming down, but that will change in due time.) Helpfully, Justice Scalia's opinion for the Court in Johnson is relatively short and thus it should not prove too difficult for everyone to figure out the import of the Johnson ruling for future applications of ACCA or even for future vagueness/due process Fifth Amendment constitutional jurisprudence.

But, as the title of this post is meant to highlights, I suspect it may prove quite difficult for everyone to figure out the impact of the Johnson ruling for past applications of ACCA and those currently serving long federal ACCA mandatory prison sentences.  I am pretty sure vagueness ruling are considered substantive for retroactivity purposes, so even long-ago sentenced federal prisoners should at least be able to get into federal court to now bring Johnson claims.  But not every federal prisoner serving an ACCA sentence has even a viable Johnson claim and I suspect most do not have what I would call a strong Johnson claim.  In my mind, to have a strong Johnson claim, a defendant would have to be able to show he clearly qualified for an ACCA sentence based on and only on a triggering prior conviction that hinged on the application of the (now unconstitutional) residual clause.

That said, I suspect that there are likely many hundreds, and perhaps even thousands, of current federal prisoners who do have strong Johnson claim.  And the potential legal consequences of a strong Johnson claim claim could be profound because it may mean that a prisoner who previously had to be sentences to at least a mandatory 15 years in federal prison now may only legally be sentenced to at most 10 years in federl prison.

I have a feeling that this new Johnson ruling may ruin the weekend (and perhaps many weeks) for some federal prosecutors and officials at the Justice Department because they are perhaps duty bound to try to start figuring out how many federal prisoners may have strong (or even viable) Johnson claims and what to now do about these prisoners.  In addition, I am hopeful that some federal defenders and even private (pro bono Clemency project 2104) lawyers will also start working hard to identify and obtain relief for persons now in federal prison serving lengthy ACCA sentences that the Supreme Court today concluded were constitutionally invalid. 

Some prior posts on Johnson and its possible impact (last two from before the opinion)

June 26, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)

A (way-too-quick) Top 5 list of thoughts/reactions to the votes and opinions Johnson

As noted here, the US Supreme Court issued a (very?) big constitutional criminal procedure ruling today in Johnson v. US.  I will need at least a few hours (if not a few days and certainly many reads) to really figure out how big a deal Johnson is.  But I can and will here, at the risk of prioritizing speed over accuracy, quickly type out the first big 5 thoughts that have come to mind concerning the  line-up of jurists in the Johnson ruling:

1.  It is truly amazing (and quite significant) that Justice Scalia was able to convince five of his colleagues (including three of the four newer Justices) to issue a big pro-defendant constitutional criminal procedure ruling in Johnson.

2.  It is very significant that Chief Justice Roberts joined Justice Scalia's significant pro-defendant constitutional criminal procedure ruling for the Court in Johnson.

3.  It is interesting that Justice Kennedy briefly concurred separately and did not join Justice Scalia's significant pro-defendant constitutional criminal procedure ruling for the Court in Johnson.

4. It is notable that the concurrence authored by Justice Thomas is longer than the majority opinion (and I suspect it was going to be the opinion for the Court before Justice Scalia convinced his colleagues to order rehearing on the constitutional issue the majority addressed).

5. It is not at all surprising Justice Alito alone dissents, and I may start formally counting how many (non-capital) criminal cases have been (and will in the coming years) be defined by that reality.

June 26, 2015 in Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

SCOTUS finds, per Justice Scalia, that ACCA residual clause is unconstitutionally vague

In a very important Fifth Amendment criminal procedure ruling, though one certain to be overlooked because of an even more important Fourteenth Amendment ruling issued right before it, the Supreme Court this morning in Johnson v. United States, 13-7120 (S. Ct. June 26, 2015) (available here), ruled that a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violated "the Constitution’s prohibition of vague criminal laws."  Justice Scalia wrote the main opinion for the Court (which carried five other Justices, including the Chief), and here is a key paragraph from the begining of the opinion's legal analysis:

We are convinced that the indeterminacy of the wide-ranging inquiry required by the residual clause [of ACCA] both denies fair notice to defendants and invites arbitrary enforcement by judges. Increasing a defendant’s sentence under the clause denies due process of law.

I will need some time to review and reflect to figure out how big a ruling Johnson may prove to be. But the basic reality that the defendant prevailed here on the broadest constitutional ground (and especially the fact that only Justice Alito was prepared to rule for the federal government on appeal) further proves a point I have been making since Blakely was handed down over a decade ago: The modern US Supreme Court is, at least on sentencing issues, the most pro-defendant appellate court in the nation.

That all said, and of particular significance for ACCA sentences that are built on convictions that do not depend on interpretations of the residual clause, the Court's opinion in Johnson ends with this critical and clear discussion of the limits of the holding:

We hold that imposing an increased sentence under theresidual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violates the Constitution’s guarantee of due process. Our contraryholdings in James and Sykes are overruled. Today’s decision does not call into question application of the Act to the four enumerated offenses, or the remainder of the Act’s definition of a violent felony.

June 26, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Bipartisan SAFE Justice Act with array of federal sentencing reforms introduced by House leaders

SS-602x399As this report from The Hill details, a notable and significant group of Representatives are backing a notable and significant new federal criminal justice reform bill.  Here are the basics:

A bipartisan pair of lawmakers on Thursday unveiled a comprehensive criminal reform bill aimed at reducing the federal prison population.  The Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act from Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) calls for new rehabilitation methods and sentencing reforms.  The bill is the result of the House Judiciary Committee's over-criminalization task force which examined ways to reform federal prisons....

Sensenbrenner said the bill was intended to reverse the staggering increase in the prison population, which has quadrupled in the last 30 years.  Despite increased incarceration and spending on prisons, recidivism still remains a problem, he also noted.  The bill applies mandatory minimums only to major crimes, and “expands recidivism reduction programming to incentivize and reward those who are working to make a change,” Sensenbrenner said....

Scott said the bill would encourage innovate approaches to criminal justice reform. “We were not interested in playing politics with crime policy,” said Scott.  He noted that 32 states had been able to reduce both crime and incarceration rates over the past five years. Calling those states "laboratories of democracy," he said the bill adopted many of those tested practices.

Scott lamented the high incarceration rate in the U.S. He said the bill aims to “direct non-violent low level, first time offenders from prison" and better acknowledge the conditions that lead to crime.  “If you address those underlying issues, you will have a better return rate than just from locking them up,” he said.

The bill also garnered support from major groups across the political spectrum. Leaders and representatives from Koch Industries, the ACLU, the NAACP, the Washington D.C. Police Foundation, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union have expressed support for the bill.

The bill is co-sponsored by Reps. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), Judy Chu (D-Calif.), Mia Love (R-Utah), and Scott Rigell (R-Va). “Too many of our children have gotten caught into a cycle that they can not get out of,” said Love, explaining the bill's appeal.

Rep. Rigell touted the broad coalition backing the bill, which includes Koch Industries, owned-by the Koch Brothers, who are major conservative donors. “If you think of those as two gate posts, “ he said, noting Koch Industries and the ACLU, “that’s an awfully wide gate.”

I am struggling to find on-line the full text of this important new federal sentencing reform proposal, but this summary from FAMM leads me to believe that this new SAFE Justice Act may go significantly farther (and be more politically viable) that the Smarter Sentencing Act and the Justice Safety Valve Act proposals that failed to move forward in the last Congress.  Indeed, these passages from this new Vox article, which provides the most detailed media account of the SAFE Justice bill's specifics, is prompting me to think all would-be federal reformers — including Prez Obama and his Justice Department, and especially Senators Cruz and Paul and other reform-minded GOP Prez candidates — should think seriously about giving up on the SSA and other reform bills now in the Senate in order to put all their advocacy efforts behind getting SAFE Justice passed through the House ASAP:

While Senate efforts at criminal justice reform have exposed a generational split in the Republican Party, in which young reformers like Senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul face off against old-school, tough-on-crime conservatives like Senators Chuck Grassley and Jeff Sessions, the House's bill was written by one of those old-school Republicans — Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin — as well as Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA).

Sensenbrenner and Scott think of the Safe Justice Act as a federal version of the criminal justice reform bills that have been taken up in state after state over the past several years, many of them under the mottos of "justice reinvestment" and "smart on crime." In their minds, they're building on what's worked in the states and are in line with reformers' emphasis on "data-driven" and "evidence-based" criminal justice policymaking.

The Safe Justice Act is a collection of dozens of different reforms. Most of them aren't terribly big on their own, but many of them overlap. That makes it really hard to estimate exactly how much the federal prison population would shrink if the bill became law. But its effect would be bigger than anything that's been introduced in Congress so far.

Many of the reforms would cut sentences for drug crimes — which reflects a growing consensus that nonviolent drug offenses aren't as bad as violent crimes. Drug prisoners are about half of all federal prisoners (unlike in states, where violent crime is the biggest cause of incarceration). That means that many of the Safe Justice Act's biggest reforms would target the largest slice of the federal population....

Most changes to prison sentences in Congress have focused on cutting mandatory minimum sentences, which force judges to sentence people to five, 10, or 20 years for certain drug crimes. But across-the-board cuts to mandatory minimums have been met with serious resistance from old-school Republicans, including Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA). The House's solution, via the Safe Justice Act, isn't to reduce the mandatory minimums themselves — but to narrow the range of people who they apply to. Instead of someone who's convicted of trafficking a certain amount of cocaine being automatically sentenced to 10 years, for example, he'd only trigger the 10-year minimum if he were also a leader or organizer of an organization of five or more people. And even then, the bill says that judges can override the mandatory minimum if the defendant doesn't have much of a criminal history, or has a serious drug problem.

The bill would also make it possible for more people to be sentenced to probation instead of getting sent to prison. It would allow drug offenders to get probation if they'd been convicted of low-level drug crimes before. It would encourage judges to give probation to first-time low-level offenders. And it would encourage districts to start up drug courts and other "problem-solving courts"; some states have found these are better ways to treat some addicts than prison is....

Current prisoners whose sentences would have been affected by the bill's front-end reforms could apply to get their sentences reduced that way. But the Safe Justice Act would also give them another way to reduce their sentences: by getting time off for rehabilitation. Under the bill, every federal prisoner would get an individual case plan, based on what particular prison education, work, substance abuse, or other programs are the best fit for his needs. For every month a prisoner follows the case plan, he'd get 10 days off his prison sentence — meaning a prisoner with a perfect behavior record could get his sentence reduced by a third. (Prisoners serving time for homicide, terrorism, or sex crimes aren't eligible for time off, but that's a very small slice of the federal prison population.) The logic is that prisoners who want to rehabilitate themselves, and whose good behavior shows they're succeeding, shouldn't be forced to spend extra time in prison just for prison's sake.

The bill goes even further when it comes to probation — which affects many more people than prison. For every month of perfect behavior on probation, the offender would get 30 days off the end of his sentence — essentially cutting the probation term in half. If the offender violated probation, on the other hand, there would be a set of gradually escalating punishments, instead of an automatic ticket back to prison....

In the year 2015, it is extremely hard to get any sort of bill through Congress. And Sensenbrenner, Scott, and their fellow reformers have a narrow window before the presidential campaign saps Congress of any will to act it has left. So the barriers are pretty high. But this isn't, in itself, supposed to be a polarizing bill. The presence of Sensenbrenner and other old-school Republicans reflects that. And this is something that both houses of Congress have been debating for some time.

If House leadership decides to snatch up the Safe Justice Act and bring it to the floor quickly, it might give the Senate enough time to act. Maybe they'll be interested in the provisions that would make it a little harder for the federal government to treat regulatory violations as crimes; that's a pet cause of conservatives, even those who aren't otherwise committed to reforming criminal justice.

Still, House leadership might not be interested. But this is the broadest bill that's been introduced during the current wave of criminal justice reform, and it's a marker of just how much consensus there is among reformers in both parties when it comes to reducing federal incarceration.

June 26, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"A Second Chance: Rebiography as Just Compensation"

I often tell my sentencing students that every good legal or policy debate has some important sentencing story lurking within it.  The title of this post is the title of this intriguing article authored by Jamila Jefferson-Jones just now appearing on SSRN, and it argues Fifth Amendment's Takings Clause has an important sentencing story lurking within.  Here is the abstract:

Once upon a time, reinvention was an integral part of the myth of the American Dream. As the story went, one could leave the old country or old neighborhood, without looking back -- fashioning one's own second chance by stepping into a newer, better identity, crafting a redesigned life story out of whole cloth if necessary.  As one legal historian noted, "American culture and law put enormous emphasis on second chances."  For most of the 20th Century, this notion of the second chance was also alive and well in the American criminal justice system, as rehabilitation was considered its primary goal.  My earlier article, "A Good Name: Applying Regulatory Takings Analysis to Reputational Damage Caused by Criminal History," couched the need for rebiography upon reentry in terms of the ongoing reputational damage suffered by the previously convicted.  Then, regulatory takings analysis was applied to that reputational damage.  In doing so, it analyzed the critical property-like characteristics of reputation, concluding that reputation is a form of "status property" and that such continued stigma attachment and reputational damage constitutes a "taking" without just compensation.  Finally, it was argued that rebiography can serve as "just compensation" for this type of taking.

Rebiography as "just compensation" for the reputational taking suffered by the previously convicted leaves open two questions: First, does the takings analysis have the same outcome regardless of the offender?  In other words, does an offender have to try to use her reputation in a positive manner and be prevented from doing so in order to have a takings claim, or is it enough to say that requiring disclosure of criminal history is a taking across the board that always requires just compensation?  Secondly, what is the relationship between "rebiography" and "privacy"?  In "A Good Name," an established continued stigma attachment was shown as a governmental taking. Now, it is offered in a way to show that "just compensation" is owed to the previously convicted and that the way to provide it is through establishing a "rebiography right," stemming from the taking of a constitutionally cognizable property right.

Part I of this new article provides the introduction, giving general definitions of rebiography and “just compensation.”  In Part II, there are reviews of the application of the Takings Clause to the reputational damage suffered by the previously convicted and apply this analysis to actual cases.  In Part III, it is further explained as to why rebiography is necessary given statistics on the previously convicted's employment prospects and recidivism.  The article goes on to examine legislative and judicial options for rebiography.

June 26, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Circa mid-2015, Clemency Project 2014 will go down as an abject failure if it does not submit more petitions before 2016

This notable new USA Today article, headlined "'The clock is running' on Obama clemency initiative," reports that the various administrative and practical difficulties encountered (and self-created?) by those trying to get Prez Obama more good clemency case are now seemingly at risk of completely "screwing the pooch" on the whole clemency push.  Here are the discouraging details:

The Obama administration is urging lawyers for federal inmates to move more quickly in filing petitions for presidential clemency, reminding them that "the clock is running" on the Obama presidency. The new urgency from the Justice Department comes more than a year into a program intended to shorten the sentences to federal inmates who would have gotten less time under current law.

That clemency initiative was coupled with the Clemency Project 2014, an outside consortium of lawyers working on those cases. But the Clemency Project filed only 31 petitions in its first year, leading to criticism from some proponents of criminal justice reform that the process is moving too slowly.

"If there is one message I want you to take away today, it's this: Sooner is better," U.S. Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff told volunteer lawyers in a video seminar last week. "Delaying is not helpful." Leff is the Justice Department official who provides recommendations on commutations and pardons to the president, who under the Constitution has the power to shorten sentences for federal crimes and to restore other civil rights....

The Clemency Project has set a goal of Jan. 20, 2016, for all petitions to be filed, to give the Obama administration a full year to consider them and send them to the president's desk for a decision before his term ends. Leff said any petitions that come in after that date could be left to Obama's successor. "So if we receive an enormous number of petitions at the last minute, yes, they will be reviewed. But a lot of them will not be reviewed during this administration," she said.

She also suggested that attorneys were spending too much time on cases. "While I greatly admire your legal skills, this is not the time to prepare a treatise of hundreds of pages," she told the lawyers.

Another problem is paperwork. The Office of the Pardon Attorney requires the pre-sentence report for every inmate, but that can involve a complicated process of court approval. "It's been a real bottleneck to get these documents into the hands of the lawyers," said James Felman, a Tampa attorney who chairs the criminal defense committee of the American Bar Association. So the Clemency Project has now streamlined that process, allowing the Bureau of Prisons to supply that document unless a judge objects.

Felman said lawyers also need to understand that they're asking the president for mercy, and so need to be forthright about the strengths and weaknesses of the case. "Aggressive lawyering is not necessarily going to pay off," he said. The cases don't have to be perfect. Felman said the Justice Department has signaled a willingness to consider cases that don't meet all of the criteria. "Some of the criteria are less definite than others. Like, for example, a clean record in prison. Nobody has a perfect record in prison," he said.

And the Justice Department said that even cases that aren't appropriate for the clemency initiative — which is intended for people who have already served at least 10 years — will still get consideration. "In addition to the president's clemency initiative, he continues to consider commutations under the traditional criteria for clemency," said Justice Department spokeswoman Dena Iverson. "Every applicant for clemency receives an individual review."

Margaret Love, a Washington attorney who had Leff's job in the Clinton administration, said she worries that an emphasis on the volume and speed of cases could compromise the ability of attorneys to make the best argument for their clients. "What I heard was hurry up, hurry up, deliver as many cases as quickly as you possibly can," she said. "If it's true that there were only 31 cases submitted by the project by the end of May, that's surprising given the number of lawyers they have working on them."

Regular readers know that, ever since Prez Obama and his Aministration started talking up an effort to get serious about using the clemency power seriously, I have been regularly expressing concerns about how structurally peculiar and procedurally belabored this new (and now not-so-new) clemency push has been. My particular worry, which is exacerbated by articles like this one and other similar reports, has been that a robust effort by defense lawyer groups to (1) review the complete files of, and (2) provide trained lawyers for, and (3) present a complete and extensive argument/application for, any and every federal prisoner who might want to pursue a clemency application could create a whole lot of costly and time-consuming busy work with few real substantive benefits. This is especially so given that, as all serious federal clemency advocates should know, the Pardon Attorney's Office has historically always taken its sweet time to assemble and review the files of any clemency application and will always (and justifiably) be wary of relying on just the information and representations made by a clemency applicant and is lawyer.

That all said, I remain hopeful that all the hard work being done by all the groups and lawyers involved in Clemency Project 2014 will prove meaningful and valuable and will ultimately enable Prez Obama to live up to his promises to get serious about using the clemency power seriously before he leave office in January 2017. But that might now require those working on Clemency Project 2014 to get serious about getting their applications submitted ASAP rather than continuing to spend time letting the perfect be the enemy of the good enough in this arena.

Some prior related posts:

June 25, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Noticing Senator Cornyn's notable role in federal criminal justice reform efforts

ImagesRegular readers know that Senator Charles Grassley is perhaps the most critical current player in the current debates over federal sentencing reform because of his role as Senate Judiciary Committee Chair.  But this new National Journal article, headlined "Cornyn's New Role: The 'Bridge' on Tricky Bipartisan Bills," highlights the key role now being played by the current Senate whip.  Here are excerpts from an interesting piece about Texas Senator John Cornyn:

On April 10, John Cornyn toured a huge prison in rural east Texas, about a three-hour drive north of his Houston birthplace. Nearly 700 security employees stroll the H.H. Coffield facility, which has a maximum capacity of around 3,800 prisoners, and Cornyn, a three-term senator who rose to the Texas Supreme Court and attorney general positions during the lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the key 1990s, was there to draw attention to a project helping prisoners learn the skills they need to rehabilitate — and get out.

"Some of the inmates were so poorly educated they couldn't even read a tape measure," said Cornyn in an interview in his Washington office this week. "Which if you think about it, it doesn't say much for our public education system, but it also just shows how big a problem we have when people have zero coping skills — no education — and they basically have lived a continuous life of crime, and they know nothing else in terms of the challenges. We have to break that cycle."

Almost seven months into his role as Senate majority whip, Cornyn talks quite a bit about breaking cycles, whether in prisons or the nature of crises in the Senate. His official role is to keep the Republicans in line and on-message, but he also has been an influential figure — the "bridge," as one Democrat puts it — on bipartisan pieces of legislation, particularly on two in the Judiciary Committee that bedeviled the last Congress: a criminal-justice reform package — the cause du jour infiltrating liberal and conservative think tanks, as well as the 2016 presidential debate — and patent-reform legislation with Sen. Chuck Schumer. Neither is on the Senate GOP leadership's short list, but both bills could see floor action with Cornyn's help, especially if the appropriations process breaks down, leaving room in the schedule.

On criminal justice, Democrats see Cornyn as an instrumental figure in creating the package that requires low-risk offenders to participate in recidivism-reduction programs for an earlier release—saving taxpayer money and making communities safer — and that includes a bipartisan bill reducing mandatory-minimum prison sentences. That bill is supported by members across the ideological spectrum but was opposed by Cornyn — who says now that it wasn't ready for "prime time" — along with Sen. Chuck Grassley, now the Judiciary Committee chairman, and others last year.

"I think we need a marriage of both of those proposals," said Cornyn, who would like to build on his bill to include some sentencing reforms. "I think looking at nonviolent offenders, low-risk offenders, I think there's some things we can do."

"My hope is that in the near future we will have a product that we can then have a hearing on and then mark up, and my hope is that we'll get something to the president this year," he added.

Sen. Dick Durbin, who is leading the sentencing-reform effort with Sen. Mike Lee, said Tuesday that Congress could have a "dramatic impact" on the federal prison population by addressing even just a "very narrow" category of drug offenses not involving firearms, gangs, violence, or terrorism.

Grassley has been an obstacle on the issue, according to Sen. Jeff Flake, a Judiciary panel member. Grassley was not invited to a White House meeting to discuss the topic this year and was advised in his hometown paper to take up sentencing reform a few months ago. But he seems more willing to move the package now — he said recently that the committee has the "capability" of reaching a bipartisan agreement this year — and has been convening meetings to see if a compromise can be struck.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Judiciary Committee Democrat, sees Cornyn as the "bridge" trying to get their bills through the panel. "As you know, I think Chairman Grassley has gone to the floor three separate times to express his displeasure and dissatisfaction with the mandatory-minimum bill," said Whitehouse. "So by way of the chairman putting a marker down that he's not pleased with a piece of legislation in his committee, it would be hard to imagine much of a bigger, louder marker than that."

"And I think Senator Cornyn is a very helpful voice in trying to be a bridge among the different parties involved here," he added. "Whether it's Chairman Grassley, or Senator Lee or Senator Durbin, I think both Senator Cornyn and I are trying to be that bridge, but given that the chairman is a Republican and given that Senator Cornyn is a former attorney general, former judge, and leader within the Republican caucus, I think Senator Cornyn is a particularly important figure in the bridge between Senator Lee and Chairman Grassley."

June 25, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Notable new federal drug sentencing guideline reform data and discussion from US Sentencing Commission

I just received via e-mail a notable alert from the US Sentencing Commission concerningnotable new information and materials now available on the USSC's website.  Here is the text of the alert I received (along with relevant links):

Today, the U.S. Sentencing Commission released its first report on retroactive application of the 2014 drug guidelines amendment, which reduced the drug quantity table in the federal sentencing guidelines by two levels.  This report includes motions decided through the end of May 2015 for a reduced sentence under the new amendment.  Read the report.

For background information on why the Commission amended the drug guidelines, read the first of our new Policy Profile series, “Sensible Sentencing Reform: The 2014 Reduction of Drug Sentences.”

The Commission is also seeking public comment on proposed priorities for the upcoming amendment cycle.  Public comment is due on or before July 27, 2015.  More information

There is data and discussion in each of thse three new USSC documents that merit careful study and perhaps future substantive comment. For now, though, I am eager just to praise the Commission for the creation of the reader-friendly and astute "new Policy Profile series." I have long thought it a good idea for the USSC to say a lot more about matters of policy, but to do so in smaller forms than the traditional lengthy 300+ page reports to Congress. Thus, I consider this new Policy Profile series to be both a great idea and one that could pay lots of dividends for all policy-makers, researchers and advocates who are concerned about federal sentencing law and policy,

June 24, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

DOJ indicating it will appeal Judge Glesson's remarkable federal expungement order

As reported in this prior post, last month US District Judge John Gleeson examined the collateral workplace consequences of an old federal fraud conviction in the course of ordering the (legally questionable?) remedy of expungement in Doe v. US, No. 14-MC-1412 (EDNY May 21, 2015) (available here).  Now, as reported in this Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Justice Department Sets Its Sights on Rare Expungement Order," it appears that the Second Circuit will have a chance to consider this matter. Here are the basics:

The Justice Department spearheads the federal government’s efforts to help people convicted of crimes return to society after paying their dues, but a case in Brooklyn is putting its views to the test. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York signaled Friday that it will appeal a rare order by a federal judge expunging the fraud conviction of a health-care aide and mother of four who said her efforts to hold down a job have been sabotaged by her criminal record.

In his May order, U.S. District Judge John Gleeson nodded to “a growing recognition that the adverse employment consequences of old convictions are excessive and counter-productive.” He cited a 2011 letter by then Attorney General Eric Holder pressing state attorneys general to reassess state laws that limit the job prospects of ex-offenders. That same year, Mr. Holder established a council of 20 government agencies whose goal is “to remove federal barriers to successful reentry, so that motivated individuals — who have served their time and paid their debts — are able to compete for a job, attain stable housing, support their children and their families, and contribute to their communities.”

“If the government is trying to look out for people in these situations, why take this case of all cases?” said Brooklyn lawyer Bernard H. Udell, who is representing the woman whose conviction Judge Gleeson expunged. A spokeswoman at the Justice Department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., declined to comment. A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn had no immediate comment.

In 2002, Judge Gleeson sentenced the woman, who is identified in court documents by the pseudonym Jane Doe, to five years of probation for feigning injury in a staged car crash and falsely claiming to have received medical services as part of a scheme to collect insurance money. She landed several jobs as a health-care aide since her conviction but lost them after her record came to light in background checks, according to her petition. Judge Gleeson cited several factors in support of his decision to expunge her record, including the 17 years that have elapsed since she committed a crime, the trouble she has had keeping jobs, her age (mid-50s) and the nonviolent nature of her crime.

The Brooklyn U.S. attorney’s office opposed the petition in Judge Gleeson’s court, saying in a January legal brief that employers in the health-care industry were entitled to know about her criminal past. The brief said expungement should be used only in extreme circumstances, citing cases involving illegal arrests and police misconduct.

Prior related post:

June 23, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, June 22, 2015

How much will get spent on (merely symbolic?) death penalty referendum efforts in Nebraska?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable local article from Nebraska headlined "Group fighting death penalty retention gets $400,000 grant."  Here are the interesting "follow-the-money" details:

Death penalty opponents got a cash injection Friday, and death penalty advocates accused them of using it to suppress voter rights.

ACLU of Nebraska will give the $400,000 grant from Massachusetts-based Proteus Action League to the Nebraskans for Public Safety coalition formed to fight the effort to retain capital punishment in the state.  Proteus Action has given $21 million nationwide in the past five years toward repeal of the death penalty.  "This support demonstrates the world is watching what is happening here this summer," Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska.  "This support will be like rocket fuel to the campaign."

ACLU of Nebraska is part of the coalition, as are Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Nebraska Innocence Project, faith leaders, conservative leaders and the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association.

Friday afternoon, Nebraskans for the Death Penalty called ACLU participation in the coalition shameful.  “Nebraskans have a constitutional right to vote on whether they wish to restore the death penalty," founding member Bob Evnen said in a statement. "The ACLU has announced that it will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to sabotage the right to vote on this very important issue.  Few rights in a democracy are more fundamental than the right to vote.  The ACLU’s effort to thwart that right is shameful.”

Replied Conrad: "I absolutely disagree with that.  I don't understand that attack." Conrad said her group's work is the opposite of voter suppression.  Declining to sign the pro-death-penalty petition is in fact exercising one's right to vote, she said.

Last month, Nebraska became the first red state since 1973 to abolish capital punishment.  The Legislature voted for repeal May 20 and a week later overrode a veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts. The bill (LB268) goes into effect Aug. 31.

Almost immediately, Omaha Sen. Beau McCoy said he'd look at putting the issue to a vote, and Nebraskans for the Death Penalty opened offices in Omaha and Lincoln the first week of June.... Death penalty supporters have 72 more days to gather 115,000 verified signatures -- 10 percent of registered voters -- to suspend the law and put it to a vote in November 2016.  They need about half that number to put the issue to a vote after the law takes effect.

"I think both are hard," Conrad said of the two thresholds.  "I can tell you from working both sides of campaigns in direct democracy, it's not easy to be out in the heat and the rain in a multitude of counties. ... I don't think that they or we can take anything for granted."

Conrad said Nebraskans for Public Safety will use the $400,000 to make sure the petition drive is conducted properly and to work statewide to educate people on the issue.  And if the move to stop the law from taking effect is successful, she said, her group will have a good start at working to defeat a vote next year.

Peterson said he expects Nebraskans for the Death Penalty will raise and spend about $900,000 and will file required paperwork June 30 saying how much it has raised so far.

This story suggests that at least a few million dollars are likely to be spent on just the initiative run-up effort in Nebraska, and I have to assume many millions more will get spent on the campaign if (when?) the issue gets on the ballot. And yet, even if Nebraska voters were to bring the death penalty back after the legislature's recent repeal, it seems highly unlikely the vote will significantly increase the chances any formerly condemned murderer gets executed or that any future murderers get sent to death row.

Even if the death penalty is brought back by voter initiative, defense attorneys are sure to continue pursuing extensive (and expensive) litigation in state and federal courts asserting that the eleven folks already on Nebraska's death row cannot now be executed. And even if the death penalty is brought back by voter initiative, prosecutors are sure to continue to struggle to convince Nebraska juries to condemn murderers to death in future cases.

Notably, given that Nebraska has not executed anyone in nearly two decades, and has averaged less than a single death sentence per year over its modern history, symbolism plainly matters a lot more than substantive outcomes as money is raised to fight over the death penalty's future in the Cornhusker State. Whatever position one takes on the death penalty, it is hard not to wonder if the monies to be spent on the developing symbolic capital policy fight could go to much uses for violent crime victims and the state's judicial system.

June 22, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Interesting statement from Justice Sotomayor on Fifth Circuit approach to plain-error sentencing review

As noted in this post today (and this prior post from last week) about recent SCOTUS activity, sentencing fans like me eagerly awaiting big Supreme Court rulings in the Johnson Armed Career Criminal Act case and the Glossip lethal execution drug case have to keep waiting at least a few more days for a decision.  But, truly hard-core sentencing fans got a smidgen of unexpected love from Justice Sonia Sotomayor through this brief statement in Carlton v. US concerning how the Fifth Circuit applies plain-error review.  Here are excerpts which provide the context:

The District Court enhanced petitioner Roy Carlton’s sentence based on a factual inaccuracy introduced into the sentencing record by the Government.  The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit refused to review Carlton’s appellate challenge to the enhancement, relying on Circuit precedent holding that factual errors are never cognizable on plain-error review.  For the reasons that follow, I believe the Fifth Circuit’s precedent is misguided....

The doctrine of plain error follows from the recognition that a “rigid and undeviating judicially declared practice under which courts of review would invariably and under all circumstances decline to consider all questions which had not previously been specifically urged would be out of harmony with . . . the rules of fundamental justice.” United States v. Olano, 507 U.S. 725, 732 (1993) (internal quotation marks omitted). And in all the years since the doctrine arose, we have never suggested that plain-error review should apply differently depending on whether a mistake is characterized as one of fact or one of law.  To the contrary, “[w]e have emphasized that a per se approach to plain-error review is flawed.”  Puckett v. United States, 556 U.S. 129, 142 (2009) (internal quotation marks omitted).  The Fifth Circuit’s wooden rule that factual mistakes cannot constitute plain error runs counter to these teachings....

Given its inconsistency with the governing text and longstanding precedent, it is little wonder that no other court of appeals has adopted the per se rule outlined by the Fifth Circuit in Lopez....  All agree the District Court improperly relied on testimony Anderson never gave.  But in the Fifth Circuit — and only the Fifth Circuit — that mistake cannot be reviewed and possibly corrected.  As a result, Carlton may spend several additional months in jail simply because he was sentenced in Alexandria, Louisiana, instead of Alexandria, Virginia.

For all these reasons, I conclude that Lopez’s categorical rule is unjustified. Nevertheless, I reluctantly agree with the Court’s decision to deny certiorari in this case.  The Solicitor General informs us that the Fifth Circuit is at times inconsistent in its adherence to Lopez.  When that sort of internal division exists, the ordinary course of action is to allow the court of appeals the first opportunity to resolve the disagreement. I hope the Fifth Circuit will use that opportunity to rethink its approach to plain-error review.

June 22, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Notable new study on 56 failed capital cases in North Carolina over past 25 years

CDPL-REPORT_-smaller-image-e1434556853262As detailed in this local article, headlined "Report: NC prosecutors sometimes push for death penalty in flimsy cases," a notable new report about capital prosecutions in the Tar Heel State was released this morning. Here are the basics:

Fending off a capital murder charge can cost falsely accused defendants money, jobs, homes and their health, according to a report released by the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

The center studied 56 cases from 1989 to 2015 in which the death penalty was threatened as a potential punishment, but the charges were either dropped or the person charged was acquitted at trial. The results suggest that prosecutors sometimes use the threat of the state's most severe penalty when their evidence is the weakest, said Gerda Stein, a spokeswoman for the center. "They believe they have the right person," Stein said. "The problem is, they don't have enough evidence."

The center's report suggests the death penalty is used to bully defendants into accepting plea deals or to extract confessions from witnesses.

North Carolina has not executed a criminal defendant since 2006 as lawsuits over the method of execution and the now-repealed Racial Justice Act have kept the state from moving forward. During that time, there have been high-profile exonerations of death row inmates, including the recently pardoned Leon Brown and his half-brother, Henry McCollum.

Less well known are cases like that of Leslie Lincoln, who was accused of her mother's 2002 murder. She was implicated in part by faulty DNA evidence. Ultimately, she was found not guilty at trial, but she struggled with the aftermath of spending three years in jail and another two years on house arrest. She lost her job, savings and home and suffered from anxiety and depression after the acquittal, according to the report....

The center distributed embargoed copies of its report last week. One of those who reviewed a copy was former Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, who says he does not oppose the death penalty but is troubled by its uneven application. "I think one of the points the report stresses is the leverage that comes with trying somebody and potentially pursuing the death penalty," Orr said. "It is sometimes the weakest cases, the ones where you don't have the strong evidence, that there seems to be an inclination to try to move forward with the death penalty."

The report doesn't suggest specific fixes to the issue. The center is one of a number of groups that has argued for the elimination of the death penalty altogether.

Orr said that, if the state is going to continue having capital punishment, it needs to do more to ensure a fair system. Both prosecutors and the defense attorneys for indigent defendants need better funding, he said, and he suggested the state ought to somehow centralize the decision on whether the death penalty is pursued, taking it out of the hands of prosecutors who might use the threat of capital punishment as tactical leverage. "That would make for a fairer, more even-handed, dispassionate decision-making process," he said.

The title of this new report is "On Trial for their Lives: The Hidden Costs of Wrongful Capital Prosecutions in North Carolina," and it can be accessed via this link.  That link also provides this summary of report's main findings about the 56 North Carolina cases it studied:

• The state spent nearly $2.4 million in defense costs alone to pursue these failed cases capitally.  Had the defendants been charged non-capitally, all that money could have been saved.  (This conservative figure does not take into account the additional prosecution and incarceration costs in capital cases.)

• Defendants who were wrongfully prosecuted spent an average of two years in jail before they were acquitted by juries or had their charges dismissed by prosecutors.

• The 56 defendants in the study spent a total of 112 years in jail, despite never being convicted of a crime.

• By the time they were cleared of wrongdoing, many defendants lost their homes, jobs, businesses, and savings accounts, and saw personal relationships destroyed.  They received no compensation after they were cleared of charges.

• Serious errors or misconduct played a role in many cases.  The 56 cases involved instances of witness coercion, hidden evidence, bungled investigations, the use of improper forensic evidence, and highly unreliable witnesses.

June 22, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

SCOTUS rules 5-4 against government in two criminal procedure cases

The Supreme Court, back in action this morning, issued two notable split decisions in favor of individuals asserting rights against local or state criminal justice powers.  Here is an abridged (slightly modified) account of the SCOTUSblog early coverage of these rulings (with links):

The opinion in Kingsley v. Hendrickson is here.

This case arises out of an incident in a Wisconsin jail. Kingsley was waiting for trial on a drug charge when he got into a dispute with jail officers, who handcuffed him, forcibly removed him from his cell, and later used a taser on him. Kingsley then filed a lawsuit, alleging that jail officials had used excessive force. The question before the Court was what standard of review should apply to an excessive force claim by a pretrial detainee.

The Court ruled in favor of Kingsley, holding that courts should apply an objective test – the same Fourth Amendment excessive force test that applies to people who have not been arrested.  Vote is 5-4.  Under Section 1983, a pretrial detainee must show only that the force purposely or knowingly used against him was objectively unreasonable to prevail on an excessive force claim.

Scalia dissents, joined by Chief and Thomas, and Alito dissents as well.

 

The opinion in Los Angeles v. Patel is here.

The question in this case was whether a Los Angeles ordinance that required hotel owners to keep registries of guests, and allowed officers to search them without any suspicion is unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment.  The Court the ordinance facially unconstitutional. Statute is facially unconstitutional because it fails to provide motel owners with an opportunity for pre-compliance review.

Sotomayor is writing. Decision of the Ninth Circuit is affirmed.  This is a strong decision for Fourth Amendment lovers.

June 22, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

"Justice Kennedy practically invites a challenge to solitary confinement"

The title of this post is the headline of this Los Angeles Times article which effectively reviews the remarkable (off-point) concurrence penned by Justice Kennedy in last week's SCOTUS ruling in a Davis v. Ayala.  Here are excerpts:

Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in an unusual separate opinion in a case, wrote that it may be time for judges to limit the use of long-term solitary confinement in prisons.  His comments accompanying a decision issued Thursday marked a rare instance of a Supreme Court justice virtually inviting a constitutional challenge to a prison policy.

“Years on end of near-total isolation exacts a terrible price,” he wrote.  He cited the writings of Charles Dickens and 19th century Supreme Court opinions that recognized “even for prisoners sentenced to death, solitary confinement bears ‘a further terror and a peculiar mark of infamy.’”

Sentencing judges and the high court have largely ignored the issue, Kennedy said, focusing their attention on questions of guilt or innocence or on the constitutionality of the death penalty.  “In a case that presented the issue, the judiciary may be required,” he wrote, “to determine whether workable alternative systems for long-term confinement exist, and, if so, whether a correctional system should be required to adopt them.”

Amy Fettig, an attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said Kennedy's comments came as a welcome surprise.  “It’s a remarkable statement.  The justice is sending a strong signal he is deeply concerned about the overuse and abuse of solitary confinement,” she said.

States such as Virginia and Texas routinely put death-row inmates in solitary confinement, she said.  “They are automatically placed there.  It has nothing to do with their being violent or their level of dangerousness,” she said.  This month, a federal judge in Virginia is weighing a “cruel and unusual punishment” claim brought by inmates on death row there, she noted.

Kennedy usually joins with the court’s conservatives in cases involving crime and punishment, but he has also voiced concern over prison policies that he deems unduly harsh. These include life terms for juveniles and long mandatory prison terms for nonviolent drug crimes. Four years ago, he spoke for a 5-4 majority that condemned overcrowding in California’s prisons and said it resulted in unconstitutionally cruel conditions....

Kennedy's comments drew a short, but sharp retort from Justice Clarence Thomas. “The accommodations in which Ayala is housed are a far sight more spacious than those in which his victims … now rest.  And, given that his victims were all 31 years or age or under, Ayala will soon have had as much or more time to enjoy those accommodations as his victims had time to enjoy this Earth,” Thomas wrote.

June 22, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Despite statutory repeal, capital defenders say they need to keep representing Nebraska condemned

Some of the challenging issues facing Nebraska lawyers in the aftermath of the state's legislative repeal of the death penalty are on display in this notable local article headlined "John Lotter's lawyers argue they must stay on case because death penalty issue isn't settled." Here are the details:

Legal arguments over Nebraska’s death penalty repeal have quickly emerged in a federal court case involving one of the state’s death row inmates.  Two Kansas City attorneys argued this week that John Lotter’s death sentence was negated by the Nebraska Legislature’s May 27 repeal of capital punishment.

But lawyers Rebecca Woodman and Carol Camp said their client remains under threat of execution while a referendum petition drive attempts to overturn the repeal law and Gov. Pete Ricketts pushes for the lethal injections of Lotter and the nine other men on death row.  For that reason, the attorneys asked to remain assigned to Lotter’s case.

“Although Mr. Lotter asserts that the U.S. and Nebraska Constitutions would bar his execution even if the governor and his group were able to repeal the repeal, it is clear the governor will keep attempting to execute him until the courts definitively say he may not. That moment has not yet arrived,” the attorneys stated in a court brief filed in U.S. District Court in Lincoln.

In response, Assistant Nebraska Attorney General James Smith argued that only the Nebraska Board of Pardons has the authority to commute a death sentence under the state’s Constitution. Smith contended lawmakers passed flawed legislation by including intent language that says the repeal should apply to the existing death row inmates. “If the act was an unconstitutional power grab by the Nebraska Legislature, Lotter’s final death sentence remains in effect,” Smith said in his brief....

Lotter, 44, has spent 19 years on death row for a New Year’s Eve 1993 triple homicide near Humboldt. One of the victims was targeted for being transgender, which inspired the film “Boys Don’t Cry.” Lotter lost his previous appeals before state and federal courts. That makes him and Carey Dean Moore — convicted of killing two Omaha cab drivers in 1979 — the top candidates for execution depending on what happens with the repeal law.

As of now, however, Nebraska lacks the means to carry out an execution. Two of the three drugs required in the state’s lethal injection protocol have expired, and federal officials have said they will block the state’s attempt to import at least one of the drugs.

Woodman and Camp, who work with the Death Penalty Litigation Clinic, pointed out that no other state has executed an inmate after repealing the death penalty. To do so “would represent the sort of random, arbitrary, purposeless extinction of human life that the Eighth Amendment forbids,” they said in their brief. The two have asked U.S. District Senior Judge Richard Kopf to allow them to continue to represent Lotter while the status of the death penalty remains uncertain. They indicated Lotter has been pursuing constitutional claims never before litigated that would invalidate his death sentence.

June 20, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, June 19, 2015

Split Eleventh Circuit panel discusses reasonableness review at great length

More than a full decade after the Supreme Court's Booker decision, federal circuit courts and judges continue to struggle with their post-Booker responsibility to review sentences for reasonableness.  That struggle is on full display today in the lengthy Eleventh Circuit panel ruling in US v. Rosales-Bruno, No. 12-15089 (11th Cir. June 19, 2015) (available here). The start of Chief Judge Carnes' opinion for the Court provide a crisp outline of the "sole issue" before the appellate court:

This is the second appeal to come before us involving a sentence imposed on Jesus Rosales-Bruno because of his conviction for illegally reentering the United States in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1326.  In the first appeal we vacated his original sentence after concluding the district court had erred in finding that his prior Florida conviction for false imprisonment qualified as a “crime of violence” conviction for enhancement purposes under United States Sentencing Guidelines § 2L1.2(b)(1)(A)(ii). United States v. Rosales-Bruno, 676 F.3d 1017, 1024 (11th Cir. 2012) (Rosales-Bruno I).  That error had increased Rosales-Bruno’s advisory sentencing guidelines range to 70 to 87 months, and the district court had sentenced him to 87 months imprisonment.

On remand, the district court recalculated Rosales-Bruno’s advisory guidelines range without the crime of violence enhancement, which lowered it to 21 to 27 months imprisonment.  After considering the sentencing factors in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), however, the court varied upward from the guidelines range, again imposing an 87-month prison term.  That sentence was 60 months above the high end of Rosales-Bruno’s revised guidelines range but 33 months below the statutory maximum of 120 months imprisonment.  The sole issue in this appeal is whether that sentence is substantively unreasonable.

Chief Judge Carnes thereafter has a 50-page explanation for why he thinks the sentence is substantively reasonable.  In turn, Judge Wilson need 40 additional pages to provide a contrary view on the reasonableness of this sentence.  The dissent starts this way:

For illegally reentering the United States, a crime with no statutory minimum and a base Guidelines range of 0–6 months, Rosales-Bruno was sentenced to more than 7 years in prison. In imposing this sentence, the district court more than tripled the upper end of the applicable Guidelines range.  The justifications supporting this major variance are insufficient, and this sentence — the product of a clear error in judgment — is “greater than necessary[] to comply with the purposes set forth” in 18 U.S.C. § 3553.  See United States v. Irey, 612 F.3d 1160, 1187, 1189 (11th Cir. 2010) (en banc). Therefore, I dissent.

June 19, 2015 in Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Criminal law geek overload as SCOTUS clears most (but not most consequential) of its criminal docket

As the posts preceding this one reveals, the US Supreme Court this morning largely ruined my plans to spend much of the next 80 hours obssessing over one of my favorite summer sporting events.  They did so by handing down four "meaty" criminal law opinions, all of which appears to include an array of doctrinal and dicta nuances that likley will prove to be blogworthy in the days ahead.  I will collect here all the prior posts (which have links to the opinions) in order to help those keeping score to see that criminal defendants prevailed in two cases and lost in two cases:

From a way-too-quick assessment of these rulings, I sense that Clark is the biggest deal both as a matter of constitutional jurisprudence and as a matter of day-to-day criminal trial practice. But, because the Confrontation Clause has generally been deemed inapplicable in sentencing proceedings, hard-core sentencing fans might find a lot more of interest in the other rulings.

Also noteworthy, as the title of this post highlights, still outstanding from the Justices are the two cases I have been following most closely this term: Glossip concerning execution protocols and Johnson concerning the constitutionality and application of the federal Armed Career Criminal Act. I have long assumed and expect that we would not get a ruling in Glossip until the very end of the month, and I now am thinking there is a good chance we might get Johnson as early as next week.

June 18, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

SCOTUS rules 5-4 for state capital defendant in Brumfield v. Cain, and 5-4 against state capital defendant in Davis v. Ayala

The US Supreme Court has just handed down its opinion in the state capital case of Brumfield v. Cain, No. 13-1433 (S. Ct. June 18, 2015) (available here). Justice Sotomayor wrote the opinion for the Court, which divided 5-4 on the case.  The Court's opinion begins this way:

In Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), this Court recognized that the execution of the intellectually disabled contravenes the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.  After Atkins was decided, petitioner, a Louisiana death-row inmate, requested an opportunity to prove he was intellectually disabled in state court. Without affording him an evidentiary hearing or granting him time or funding to secure expert evidence, the state court rejected petitioner’s claim. That decision, we hold, was “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” 28 U.S.C. §2254(d)(2). Petitioner was therefore entitled to have his Atkins claim considered on the merits in federal court.

Justice Thomas authored a lengthy dissent which ends with a picture and starts this way:

Federal collateral review of state convictions interrupts the enforcement of state criminal laws and undermines the finality of state-court judgments. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) addresses that interference by constraining the ability of federal courts to grant relief to state prisoners. Today, the Court oversteps those limits in a decision that fails to respect the Louisiana state courts and our precedents.  I respectfully dissent.

------

Just a few minutes later, the US Supreme Court handed down its opinion in the state capital case of Davis v. Ayala, No. 13-1428 (S. Ct. June 18, 2015) (available here). Justice Alito wrote the opinion for the Court, which divided 5-4 on the case. The Court's opinion begins this way:

A quarter-century after a California jury convicted Hector Ayala of triple murder and sentenced him to death, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granted Ayala’s application for a writ of habeas corpus and ordered the State to retry or release him. The Ninth Circuit’s decision was based on the procedure used by the trial judge in ruling on Ayala’s objections under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), to some of the prosecution’s peremptory challenges of prospective jurors. The trial judge allowed the prosecutor to explain the basis for those strikes outside the presence of the defense so as not to disclose trial strategy.  On direct appeal, the California Supreme Court found that if this procedure violated any federal constitutional right, the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.  The Ninth Circuit, however, held that the error was harmful.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision was based on the misapplication of basic rules regarding harmless error.  Assuming without deciding that a federal constitutional error occurred, the error was harmless under Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619 (1993), and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), 28 U. S. C. §2254(d).

Justices Kennedy and Thomas wrote interesting off-topic concurrences, which I will discuss in a separate post. More on point is the chief dissent in Ayala authored by Justice Sotomayor, which starts this way:

At Hector Ayala’s trial, the prosecution exercised its peremptory strikes to dismiss all seven of the potential black and Hispanic jurors. In his federal habeas petition, Ayala challenged the state trial court’s failure to permit his attorneys to participate in hearings regarding the legitimacy of the prosecution’s alleged race-neutral reasons for its strikes. See Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 97–98 (1986). The Court assumes that defense counsel’s exclusion from these proceedings violated Ayala’s constitutional rights, but concludes that the Ninth Circuit erred in granting habeas relief because there is insufficient reason to believe that counsel could have convinced the trial court to reject the prosecution’s proffered reasons. I respectfully dissent. Given the strength of Ayala’s prima facie case and the comparative juror analysis his attorneys could have developed if given the opportunity to do so, little doubt exists that counsel’s exclusion from Ayala’s Batson hearings substantially influenced the outcome.

June 18, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Federal district judge declares unconstitutional Minnesota sex offender civil commitment program

As reported in this AP piece, today brought a big (but not entirely unexpected) federal court ruling concerning constitutional challenges to Minnesota's civil commitment program for sex offenders. Here are the basics:

A federal judge has ruled that Minnesota's sex offender treatment program is unconstitutional, but has deferred any immediate action to await further proceedings on a remedy.  U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank largely sided with the more than 700 residents who were civilly committed to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program after they completed their prison sentences.

Their lawyers argued during a nearly six-week bench trial in February and March that the program is unconstitutional because nobody has ever been fully discharged from it, even those thought to be at low risk of committing new crimes. The state says it has improved the program, including moving more patients through treatment and perhaps toward provisional release.

Frank is calling on Minnesota government's top leaders to personally appear in court to help come up with an alternative structure to a sex offender confinement program. Frank listed Gov. Mark Dayton, House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk among those he wants to take part in a remedies phase that will start on Aug. 10. Frank says stakeholders must fashion a suitable remedy to avoid having the entire program be eliminated and resulting in the release of civilly committed offenders currently in secure facilities.

In Wednesday's ruling, the judge lays out more than a dozen conditions for a restructured program, including that less-restrictive alternatives be implemented and new evaluation and discharge procedures be developed. Throughout his 76-page ruling, Frank says elected officials have been reluctant to modify the indefinite confinement of more than 700 sex offenders out of political fear. But Frank says "politics or political pressures cannot trump the fundamental rights" of those in the program. He stressed that the U.S. Constitution "protects individual rights even when they are unpopular."

Gov. Mark Dayton says there won't be immediate changes to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program in response to a federal judge's ruling that it's unconstitutional. In a statement that was released Dayton said, "We will work with the Attorney General to defend Minnesota's law."

Dan Gustafson, the attorney who brought the class action suit on behalf of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program clients said he is not surprised by the judge's ruling. He said that he advised his clients to be patient because the remedies will take time to create and not all of the clients will be getting out.

The full 76-page ruling, in a case that still clearly is nowhere close to finished, is now available at this link.

June 17, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

"The Death Penalty Is Cruel. But So Is Life Without Parole."

Download (4)The title of this post is the headline of this notable new New Republic commentary by Stephen Lurie.  Here are excerpts of a piece that echoes my oft-stated and enduring concern that LWOP punishments should garner a lot more attention from the anti-death penalty crowd:

Prison cells don’t attract many spectators, but executions have always drawn crowds. Paradoxically, the names and identities of death row inmates only come to matter when their execution had been scheduled: from impending death we take a sudden interest in life.

Despite the incongruity, this isn’t all that surprising. Twenty-first century America is still susceptible to the time-honored spectacle of state-sanctioned death, even if much of the attention now scrutinizes, rather than cheers, the practice. Recently, there have been many stories typical of the current fascination with American capital punishment, most notably Ben Crair’s piece in this magazine and Jeffrey Stern’s in The Atlantic. Like other recent examinations of the death penalty, both accounts focus specifically on the act of execution by lethal injection; each covers botched executions and the question of cruel and unusual punishment in the death chamber itself....

For Stern and Crair, as well as many human rights-minded activists and advocates, the death chamber is a potent and useful example of inhumanity. Other, newer abolitionists—like the legislators in Nebraska that voted to abolish the death penalty there last month—focus on the act of execution as well. While the death chamber is itself horrific, abolitionists would be remiss to ignore the more common punishment: the immense cruelty of a prisoner’s long wait for execution. The “death row phenomenon” and associated prison conditions cause significant psychological and physical harm; a so-called “death before dying” is both internationally condemned and domestically pervasive. If the end to capital punishment in the U.S. is based on concern for human beings — whether in a religious or moral sense — the reform movement must be concerned with the prison conditions left when death is not on the table.

Executions of any kind are exceedingly rare, so much so that death row itself appears to be the real punishment for the vast majority of inmates. There are just over 3,000 people awaiting execution in United States prisons. In 2013, the latest year for which the Bureau of Justice Statistics has data, there were 39 executions. That is just more than the 31 inmates who died before their scheduled executions; it is just less than the 44 death row convictions or sentences overturned that year....

Because solitary confinement is the de facto housing for American death row convicts, and because excruciating delays are par for the course, international observers have considered U.S. capital punishment inhumane enough to delegitimize its practice entirely. In his report to the UN General Assembly in 2012, Juan Méndez (the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or Punishment) suggested that the realities of imperfect executions and death row conditions almost unavoidably run afoul of the international prohibition against human mistreatment. “Solitary confinement, in combination with the foreknowledge of death and the uncertainty of whether or when an execution is to take place, contributes to the risk of serious and irreparable mental and physical harm and suffering to the inmate,” Méndez writes. “Solitary confinement used on death row is by definition prolonged and indefinite and thus constitutes cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment or even torture.”...

Nearly every prisoner faces an abrogation of his or her 8th Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment; only a small few face the added cruelty and indignity of a botched execution. What about the pain of a cramped concrete cell, of shackling and restraints, attempts at self-harm, inedible food, existential fear, depression, and deprivation of any human contact? If there is concern is over fair treatment of human beings sentenced to death, it’s unwise, from a strategic standpoint, to continue ignoring the majority of their lives. Campaigns based on claims of cruel and unusual treatment would not rely on staying the execution of a single individual, but rest on the indefinite torture of thousands. That would be powerful.

Moreover, the instances of death penalty abolition that do not consider the background conditions for capital punishment invariably leave immense cruelty in its place. Nebraska’s legislation is typical in this regard: All death sentences become sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (LWOP). The de facto alternative for states that abolish the death penalty, LWOP actually retains many of the worst conditions of confinement described above, as well as still effectively sentencing the prisoner to death. It is in almost every way a death row, and as such is also an internationally condemned practice.

It’s for this reason that some, like Andrew Dilts, an assistant professor of political theory at Loyola Marymount University, refer to current forms of death penalty abolition as “death penalty replacement,” the same result but with the added effect that prisoners lose even more legal protections. As Dilts writes in the new volume Death and Other Penalties: Philosophy in a Time of Mass Incarceration, these alternative sentences appease the “almost fetishistic levels” of concern over execution while it “effectively deflects attention away from the moment of death, even though death is necessarily a part of the sentence.” In addition, whereas “the Court requires strict review of offender qualifications, strict procedural guidelines, extended appeals processes, and additional standards of heightened scrutiny…the same procedural and substantive protections are simply not applied” to life sentences. The result, ultimately, is simply a “dramatic reduction of appellate rights” for inmates that are still condemned to die; it’s a slower death with even less of a chance for redemption. While the conversion of these sentences might lessen some of the specific psychological traumas related to the death row phenomenon, it does not address the expected use of solitary confinement or other inhumane treatment. There is nothing in an execution-focused narrative that would lead to the transformation of these conditions: It might, rather, cement them as appropriate penal policy.

June 16, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, June 15, 2015

Perspectives on Clemency Project 2014 from federal prisoners and an advocate for them

Regular readers know I have given lots of space recently to coverage and criticism of federal clemency efforts.  I am pleased to continue now with a guest post via Beth Curtis, a prisoner advocate who runs the website Life for Pot.  Beth sent this extended commentary my way under the heading "Inspired by the Dialogue between Margaret Colgate Love here and Mark Osler here on Douglas Berman’s Blog Sentencing Law and Policy":

At the launch of Clemency Project 2014 [CP-14], Craig Cesal, a non-violent marijuana offender on the Life for Pot site and his cell mate Samuel Edmonson a non-violent cocaine offender were both talking about and working on petitions for commutation.  Both Craig and Samuel had sentences of life without parole and had nothing to lose.

The two cell mates had a discussion about whether or not they should file their own petitions just in case there were going to be commutations before attorneys from The Clemency Project 2014 could prepare one for them.  Craig argued that the project had said there was no reason for filing on your own, as the criteria was different and it would probably have to be done again.  Samuel on the other hand decided that he should be sure he had a petition in the Pardon Attorney’s office and in February of 2014, he filed a brief petition for commutation that he did himself.

Very early in the process both of these offenders were assigned pro bono attorneys from the same law firm.  Samuel and Craig had initial contacts with their pro bono attorneys, but after that contact they were not contacted again and did not know if any work was being done.  

In March of 2015 Samuel received a commutation for his life sentence from President Barack Obama based on the petition he filed himself.

We were interested in this because there were only three life for pot inmates that we knew of who had been assigned pro bono attorneys and they only had initial contacts.  We contacted inmates and suggested that they begin preparing their own Clemency Petitions and file them, we don’t know if CP-14 will be able to overcome the cumbersome procedure.

In March of 2015 Larry Duke, a 68 year old non-violent marijuana offender with a sentence of life without parole was released.  Larry’s immediate release was pursuant to 18 USC 3582(c)(1)(A)(i).  The “extraordinary and compelling reasons” for the release was Larry’s status as an elderly inmate.  Although Larry is over 65 he is also the healthiest of those on the Life for Pot site.  Larry had a contact from a pro bono attorney through Clemency Project 2014.  We called his attorney who did not know he had been released.

We started getting questions about the process for Reduction in Sentence [RIS] from non-violent marijuana offenders.  They wanted to know if they should file for sentencing relief even though they had filled out a survey to request an attorney through Clemency Project 2014.

These are not legal questions, but questions about procedure and we sought answers from an attorney with CP–14.  It was their considered opinion that the elder inmates should not file for RIS until CP–14 had completed the process as clemency might be held up until the (CR/RIS) was resolved.

Inmates found that BOP facilities were not aware of the elderly, over the age of 65, criteria for applying for RIS.  This remedy has seldom been used and “extraordinary and compelling reasons” were interpreted by the BOP as being almost lifeless chained to a hospital bed.

How much hope should we have for this process?  Was Larry Duke’s release singular, or will this be the beginning of an accelerated process?  We would like to know.

The hope and promise of Clemency Project 2014 is like a breath of air for these nonviolent inmates who will be behind bars till they die if no one exercises compassion, mercy and justice.  We’re listening carefully to the dialogue between Mark Osler and Margaret Love about the hope and promise for relief.

We are in the 18th month since the launch of the project and yet only two inmates have been released through this apparently clogged tunnel to freedom.  Much has been written in support of clemency and its use to address serious facility overcrowding and sentencing disparity.  Information about progress is scant and prisoners, their families and advocates worry about the progress and the will of the Administration.

Lately these public discussions by well-known clemency advocates pondering the most effective way to deal with the over incarceration gives us hope.  Margaret Colgate Love and Mark Osler’s point counter point about it on the blog Sentencing Law and Policy by Douglas Berman gave us insight. I believe these discussions are helpful but not a substitute for more transparency and concrete information given to the inmates, their families and advocates about procedure and progress.  We need to respect these vulnerable non-violent citizens.

It would be an insensitive travesty if this program that was announced with such fanfare and gave such hope to thousands of inmates, their family and friends and advocacy groups did not fulfill the promise of compassion and mercy.  These non-violent incarcerated people are accustomed to broken promises, but this one can be easily fulfilled by a bold administration with the courage of their stated convictions.  For years, nonviolent inmate advocates have felt that bi-partisan support would be the key to this realignment of positions and lead to fiscal responsibility and compassion.  Bipartisan support has arrived and we have the promise, it just needs to be fulfilled.

Some prior related posts:

June 15, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (9)

Sunday, June 14, 2015

"Will Nebraska’s Death Penalty Come Back?"

The title of this post is the headline of this new New York Times editorial. The substance of the editorial makes clear that the NYTimes' answer to the question is "We sure hope not!". Here are excerpts:

In a sensible, humane move last month, Nebraska lawmakers abolished the state’s death penalty by a 30­to­19 vote that crossed party lines and overrode a veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts. These lawmakers aren’t renegades; an April poll by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska found that 58 percent of Nebraskans supported alternatives to the death penalty, like life without parole.

Now comes the counterattack. A new group called Nebraskans for the Death Penalty has started a petition drive, supported by Mr. Ricketts, to put the issue directly before voters in 2016. Last week, they got the support of the Nebraska Sheriffs’ Association, which claimed, as Mr. Ricketts has, that public safety depends on the state’s ability to kill certain inmates.

To put the proposed referendum on the ballot, death penalty supporters have about three months to get signatures from 5 percent of registered voters, or about 58,000 Nebraskans. If they can get 10 percent, state law will put the ban on hold until the voters have a chance to weigh in. Whether the effort succeeds will depend in large part on how much money death penalty supporters can muster; paying people to go door to door asking tens of thousands of voters for their signatures doesn’t come cheap. In addition to supporting the referendum, Mr. Ricketts is insisting that he still has the legal authority to execute the 10 people remaining on Nebraska’s death row, on the grounds that the Legislature cannot alter an existing sentence. Lawmakers, however, say they have eliminated all executions. Whatever the courts may decide on this question, it remains unclear whether the state even has the means to carry out these killings....

[T]he votes of the Nebraska Legislature show that when lawmakers across the political spectrum can have an open, honest and informed debate on the issue, capital punishment is quickly exposed for the immoral, ineffective, arbitrary and costly practice that it is.

Prior related posts:

June 14, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Saturday, June 13, 2015

How many hundreds (or thousands?) of ACCA prisoners could be impacted by a big ruling in Johnson?

The Supreme Court Term is winding down, and we might get a ruling as early as this coming wee in the (re)argued case Johnson v. US concerning the (un)constitutionality of the Armed Career Criminal Act.  As federal sentencing fans should know, there seem to be a real chance that Justice Scalia will convince enough of his colleagues to strike down ACCA as unconstitutionally vague.

Helpfully, Leah Litman has already authored an article, "Residual Impact: Resentencing Implications of Johnson v. United States’ Potential Ruling on ACCA’s Constitutionality", about some of the legal issues that might follow from a big constitutional ruling in Johnson.  But the question in the title of this post is focused on the practical question of just how many current federal prisoners serving ACCA sentences of 15 or more years could seek to benefit from ACCA.  

This helpful new "Quick Facts" report from the US Sentencing Commission indicates that in Fiscal Year 2014 roughly 10% of 5,500 federal firearm offenders were sentenced under ACCA to an average sentence of 188 months in prison.  Assuming that these numbers are typical for firearm sentencing in each of the last dozen years, we can then extrapolate to estimate that there may be as many as 7,000 current federal prisoners serving ACCA sentencing term.

Critically, though, even if the Supreme Court were to declare ACCA's residual clause unconstitutionally vague, that ruling alone would not necessarily impact all (or perhaps even most) of current ACCA prisoners.  Sentencing judges in many (maybe most) cases sentenced under ACCA likely did not rely on the residual clause of the statute to find enough triggering prior offenses to require the application of the severe ACCA sentence.  Among the uncertainties which could flow from a big ACCA ruling in Johnson  is whether other parts of the ACCA statute and prior convictions based on other parts of the ACCA statute are still valid if one ACCA clause is struck down as unconstitutionally vague.

Some related prior posts:

June 13, 2015 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, June 12, 2015

Canvassing the "most likely outcomes" of the SCOTUS case on death penalty drugs

Though I think we are still a few weeks away from getting a ruling (and multiple?) opinions in the SCOTUS case (Glossip v. Gross) considering Oklahoma's lethal injection history and plans, it is certainly not too early to begin speculating about what that Court might end up doing in the case.  Helpfully, this extended new Vox article, headlined "The most likely outcomes of the Supreme Court's death penalty ruling," provides a great overview of what we might expect from the ruling. Here are excerpts, along with six possibilities for Glossip's outcome:

The Supreme Court is considering a legal challenge to Oklahoma's use of lethal injection this month — but chances are the effects of a ruling will be quite limited.

The case follows several botched executions in the past couple of years, particularly that of Clayton Lockett in April 2014.  Lockett's execution, in which experimental drugs were used because of a nationwide shortage of lethal injection drugs, took an excruciating 43 minutes.  It led Oklahoma inmates to file a lawsuit challenging the state's lethal injection protocol, eventually putting all executions in the state on hold once the Supreme Court accepted the challenge.

Specifically, the inmates are contesting the state's use of midazolam, a sedative used as part of a three-drug protocol to execute death row inmates.  Midazolam is supposed to put someone to sleep, allowing the painless application of other drugs that actually kill the inmate.  But Lockett appeared to groan and violently struggle during his execution, suggesting the first drug wasn't adequate — and may violate constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

Several death penalty experts and court watchers told Vox what they think the most likely outcomes of a Supreme Court ruling are. They largely rejected the possibility that the Court would make a sweeping decision against lethal injections or the death penalty in general, since most justices consider the death penalty constitutional.  They instead outlined six possibilities — most of which would have a very narrow effect, and would likely allow lethal injections to continue in the US.  Of course, it's entirely possible that the Court, which tends to be full of surprises, takes another approach, but these are the outcomes that seem most likely.

1) Oklahoma messed up, but midazolam isn't necessarily a problem....

2) Midazolam is constitutional....

3) Midazolam is unconstitutional....

4) Midazolam is unconstitutional as part of a three-drug protocol....

5) Inmates have not proven midazolam leads to cruel and unusual punishment....

6) Send the case back to a lower court

June 12, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, June 08, 2015

"Does failed execution attempt mean Ohio prisoner can avoid death penalty?"

The question in the title of this post is both the headline of this Columbus Dispatch article and the notable novel constitutional question facing the Ohio Supreme Court this week.  Here is the backstory:

Ohio’s unusual pending death-penalty case, involving an inmate the state already tried but failed to execute, will be argued on Tuesday before the Ohio Supreme Court. Attorneys for Romell Broom contend that the state would be guilty of unconstitutional double jeopardy if it tries to execute him a second time. They said in a court filing that the state’s contention that their client didn’t suffer physically during a botched execution on Sept. 15, 2009, “ignores the unnecessary psychological suffering Broom endured during two hours of lawless chaos."

Representatives for Attorney General Mike DeWine counter that what happened on Sept. 15, 2009, wasn’t a failed execution but a breakdown in the lethal-injection process, and a new execution should proceed. They argue that the U.S. Constitution doesn’t promise that executions will be pain-free and that what happened to Broom wasn’t unconstitutional “cruel and usual punishment.”

The attempted execution of Broom, 59, on Sept. 15, 2009, was called off by Gov. Ted Strickland after a prison medical team spent two tense hours unsuccessfully trying to attach IV lines for lethal injection. The execution was rescheduled but never took place because Broom’s public defender attorneys filed numerous appeals.

Broom was convicted and sentenced to death for abducting, raping and stabbing to death 14-year-old Tryna Middleton of Cleveland as she walked home from a football game on Sept. 21, 1984. All evidence in the case, including DNA test results, showed Broom was the girl’s killer.

Thus, the failed execution, and not Broom’s guilt or innocence, will be the focus of oral arguments at 9 a.m. on Tuesday before the Ohio Supreme Court. Broom’s case is unique in Ohio’s modern capital-punishment history, being one of only two known cases nationally in which an execution was halted after it began. The other one was Willie Francis, a 17-year-old killer who died on the second try in Louisiana’s electric chair on May 9, 1947, having survived a botched execution a year earlier.

June 8, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 07, 2015

"Expunging America's Rap Sheet in the Information Age"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Jenny Roberts now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

As the Wall Street Journal recently put it, “America has a rap sheet.”  Today, between 70 and 100 million people in the United States have a criminal arrest or conviction record, and anyone — including employers, landlords, and data collection companies — can easily access these records on line.  At the same time, collateral consequences of even the most minor offenses have increased exponentially, affecting employment, housing, parenting, and just about every other aspect of daily life.  The convergence of mass criminalization, ubiquitous criminal records, and pervasive collateral consequences is a major factor in the criminal justice system’s troubling racial and economic disparities.

States are reacting to the criminal records crisis in different ways, with many focusing on expanding record sealing or expungement laws that currently range widely in the relief offered.  The time has come for a well-tailored response to mass criminalization and collateral consequences in the information age.  Sealing and expungement laws must be part of a multi-faceted approach to alleviating harmful consequences of a criminal record.  The goal of limiting access to and use of relevant criminal records to those with a legitimate need to know is best advanced through focused legislative reform.

This Article describes why well-crafted sealing and expungement laws matter, responds to the major moral and practical arguments against such laws, and situates sealing and expungement as part of a comprehensive scheme for relief from a criminal record. Reforms might include regulating data brokers to ensure that sealed or expunged records are removed from their databases, banning employers from asking about arrests not ending in conviction or expunged convictions in the absence of a statutory mandate to do so, and offering employers who comply with such rules immunity from certain negligent hiring lawsuits.

June 7, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, June 05, 2015

Former Pardon Attorney: "A Modest Proposal to Expedite the Administration's Clemency Initiative"

Love_margaret_02_crop2_MA31053191-0003Regular readers know I have given lots of space this week to coverage and criticism of federal clemency efforts.  I am pleased to continue now with a guest post via former Pardon Attorney Margaret Love, which she sent my way under the title "A Modest Proposal to Expedite the Administration's Clemency Initiative":

Mark Osler’s post in this space on June 4 ("Another View on Clemency Project 2014") recounts his unsuccessful efforts several years ago to persuade the Administration to establish a presidential commission, similar to the one that handled cases of Vietnam draft evaders and deserters during the Ford Administration, to review and recommend clemency relief for the thousands of prisoners serving prison sentences imposed more than a decade ago that are now generally considered far too severe.  He suggests that the reason the Administration chose not to follow this path relates to its doubt that Congress would fund such an effort. Instead, the Justice Department chose to address the problem of excessive sentences by asking a consortium of private organizations to manage it through the volunteer efforts of the private bar.

We will never know whether Professor Osler’s commission idea would have worked, or whether lack of funding was the reason it was rejected.  But it does appear that the structure put in place instead to manage the Administration's clemency initiative has (in his words) “struggled with the overwhelming number of cases (over 30,000) referred to it.”

It did not help that the Administrative Office for U.S. Courts sharply limited the role that Federal Public Defender Organizations could play in the clemency initiative, by declaring that CJA funds could not be spent on clemency representations.  Many, including myself, believe that the sentencing expertise and advocacy of the Federal Defenders is critical to implementing the sort of large scale program of sentence reduction the Administration evidently had in mind.

But there is another approach that might have been taken by the Administration that would have ensured a central role for the Federal Defenders.  This approach, which might still be taken, would make extraordinary sentence reduction the responsibility of the federal courts as well as of the President.  Bringing cases back to court would not require new legislation or new funds, since there is already on the books a judicial sentence reduction authority that could achieve the same result as executive clemency, through court proceedings where CJA appointments are clearly authorized.  And, because a large scale sentence reduction program is already underway in the federal courts, economies of scale are possible.

Specifically, 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i) provides that a court may at any time reduce a sentence upon motion of the Bureau of Prisons for “extraordinary and compelling reasons.” The Sentencing Commission is authorized under 28 U.S.C. § 994(t) to establish policy for courts considering BOP motions under § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i), which it has done under USSG ¶ 1B1.13.  Under this policy guideline, “extraordinary and compelling reasons” that may justify sentence reduction include terminal illness, a physical or medical condition that diminishes a person’s ability to provide self-care in a prison environment, the death or incapacitation of a child’s only caregiver, and any other reason that may be determined to be “extraordinary and compelling” by the Director of BOP. It is noteworthy that several of the organizations represented on the Clemency Project 2014 steering committee are on record with the Sentencing Commission as favoring a more expansive menu of “extraordinary and compelling reasons” warranting sentence reduction, including one that now seems prescient: “the defendant would have received a significantly lower sentence under a subsequent change in applicable law that has not been made retroactive.”

Less than two years ago BOP issued a new policy statement with a list of circumstances in which it may seek a sentence reduction, a list that is evidently not intended to be exhaustive. See Program Statement 5050.46, as amended (August 12, 2013).  Accordingly, there is no reason why BOP could not determine, with or without an amendment to ¶ 1B1.13, that “extraordinary and compelling reasons” exist in any case meeting the criteria set forth by the Deputy Attorney General as warranting a grant of clemency. The coincidence of the standards in the two contexts would be particularly fitting in light of the fact that the judicial sentence reduction authority in § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i) was originally enacted in 1976, at the Justice Department’s instance, to expedite sentence reductions that previously had required a clemency application to be submitted to the President through the Office of the Pardon Attorney.

There are in addition other reasons why it would be appropriate to supplement the clemency initiative with a statutory sentence reduction initiative implemented through the courts, including a general preference for a judicial decision-maker under federal sentencing law and policy, and for a congressionally authorized approach over an extra-legal use of executive power. Most scholars agree that clemency ought always to be a second choice where the law provides a remedy for sentencing unfairness or undue severity, as it does in this case.  See, e.g., Daniel J. Freed & Steven L. Chanenson, Pardon Power and Sentencing Policy, 13 Fed. Sent. Rptr. 119, 124 (2001) (“Wherever a rule can be structured to guide the discretion of judges or administrative agencies in determining – with reasons – whether to mitigate the sentences of similarly situated offenders, we think such a system should ordinarily be accorded priority over one that relies exclusively upon the unstructured, unexplained discretion of a president to grant or deny individual pardons or commutations.”)

Traditionally, the Federal Defenders have played a central role in proceedings involving judicial consideration of sentence reduction under § 3582(c)(2) where guideline ranges have been lowered, even though there is no constitutional right to counsel in such proceedings.  They are key players in the massive effort to reduce sentences now underway under the so-called “Drugs Minus Two” guidelines amendment. There is no reason why the Defenders should not play a similar role in judicial sentence reduction proceedings under § 3582(c)(1).  There does not appear to be any relevant difference between the two types of proceedings as far as the discretionary appointment power in 18 U.S.C. § 3006A(a)(2) is concerned. In the interests of judicial economy, these proceedings might even be combined.

All it would take to make this happen would be a resolve on the part of the Department of Justice to use this statute for the purpose it was originally intended.

Augmenting the Administration’s sentence reduction program through broader use of a judicial sentence reduction mechanism, which the Justice Department’s own Inspector General has repeatedly criticized as underutilized (most recently for aging prisoners), would accomplish the Administration’s goals in reducing unduly severe sentences, while at the same time regularizing sentence reduction through the courts pursuant to statute.  It would put sentence reduction on a sounder long-term footing that is more consistent with the principles of determinate sentencing, be more predictable and accountable as a practical matter, and respond to any concerns about the unaccountable use of executive power.

Many years ago, when I was serving as Pardon Attorney, then-Deputy Attorney General Philip Heymann asked me why we should ask the President to commute the sentence of an elderly prisoner when (he said) "we can do the job ourselves."  Now I would ask the new DAG the same question.

Some prior related posts:

June 5, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Imagining a domestic Marshall Plan to rebuild communities after ending the drug war

For many reasons, it is way too early to say the long national war on drugs is over or even that there has been a significant retrenchment of the war at the federal level.  Nevertheless, given the apprarent waning public support and clearly waning criminal justice resources being devoted to this war, it is not too early to start making plans for how best to frame national, state and local policies and priorities when this war ends.  To that end, I have been talking up in some of my classes and lectures the idea of a "Marshall Plan" afte the drug war, and I was pleased and excited when visiting Harvard Law School a few months ago to leasr that some others were thinking along these lines as well.

In particular, David Harris and Johanna Wald, who help run the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, have robustly embraced the notion of a modern domestic Marshall Plan as evidence by this new op-ed they authored for the Boston Globe. The piece is headlined "Proposing a Houston/Marshall Plan for domestic policy," and here are excerpts:

On June 5, 1947, Secretary of State George Marshall spoke to a crowd of 15,000 at Harvard University’s commencement. In a surprise announcement, he unveiled plans for the United States government to rebuild a Europe devastated by almost a decade of war. In simple straightforward language, he declared that this massive effort — which came to be known as the Marshall Plan — “is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos...” The Marshall Plan is largely credited with restoring confidence and hope along with local economies in Europe. It remains a testament to the power of American fortitude and ingenuity.

Sixty-eight years later, Marshall’s words carry a surprisingly potent punch — albeit in response to a very different kind of “war”; one that we have been waging for decades against our own communities of color. During the past year, the curtain has been pulled back, revealing the maze of punishment, fear, and surveillance that traps so many individuals, particularly young men, living in these communities. They attend underresourced schools that expect them to fail and drop out. Police function as a hostile, occupying force, frequently hunting them down, and subjecting them to humiliating arrests and stop-and-frisk practices. They even lack recreational outlets....

Make no mistake about it. These communities did not simply “evolve.” They exist in their current state because of very deliberate educational, transportation, housing, and economic policy choices. These include investing in highways over subways, creating policies that transfer good jobs to areas beyond the reach of public transportation, redlining practices that keep families of color from moving into higher opportunity neighborhoods, and allocating scarce education dollars on surveillance and police rather than on libraries and laboratories. Each choice closes off one more exit out of the maze, and keeps residents stumbling into dead ends.

“The remedy lies in breaking the vicious circle,” stated George Marshall in the speech. Indeed. We propose to create a new Houston/Marshall Plan (named after civil rights giants Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall), focused on helping communities restore themselves after decades of intentional disinvestment.  This new Houston/Marshall Plan will advance strategies, innovations, and solutions designed by those living and working in these neighborhoods.  It is their voices that have been routinely ignored or silenced in public policy discussions.  It will promote public health perspectives that favor recreational, day care and health centers, diversion programs that allow mothers to stay with their children, treatment for addictions, and job training instead of more police, more prosecutions, and more prisons.  It will highlight promising models for building affordable housing units near these jobs, and for creating school cultures that expect students to succeed instead of treating them like criminals-in-waiting.  For those who decry the costs of this rebuilding, we point to the economic and public safety benefits that all of us will reap from investments in communities and lives too long neglected.

June 5, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Professor Mark Osler's informed perspective on recent federal clemency developments

09fbbcfProfessor Mark Osler is rightly considered one of the most informed and effective sentencing reform advocates, especially in the arena of clemency.  Thus I was very pleased when he wrote to me as a follow-up to my recent posts about recent federal clemency developments and provided some lengthy reflections he has titled "Another View of Clemency Project 2014."  Here are Mark's informed and important insights: 

In the fall of 2012, I gathered together four students, a passel of handwritten letters pleading for help, and a bunch of Margaret Colgate Love articles and created the nation's first clinic focused on federal commutations. The project has turned out to be wonderful as a teaching model; my students get to learn the core legal skill of building a narrative and advocating for a client in a process relatively free of procedural snares. It also has propelled me into the simmering debate over the Obama administration's clemency policy.

Of course, for most of the Obama presidency it wouldn't be very accurate to call the way clemency was handled as a "policy." For the most part, it appears, they simply lopped over the failed guidelines and rules of his predecessor rather than work to revive this key Constitutional power. This failure represents a troubling lack of focus in a president who (1) has properly decried the disparate incarceration of black men through the War on Drugs, and (2) came to politics as a Constitutional Law professor.

At the same time I was starting my clemency clinic, I also began to advocate for a vigorous, short-term project to use the pardon power to help those prisoners serving long sentences under mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines on crack cocaine that were amended in 2010, but not made retroactive. With Nkechi Taifa and others, I met four times with administration officials and urged them to follow the example of President Ford, who granted clemency to nearly 15,000 Vietnam-era draft evaders and deserters in just one year. Ford did this by convening a special commission outside of the Justice Department, and that commission left behind a remarkable report full of good advice. I even left a copy of the Ford Presidential Clemency Commission Report with those Obama advisors after a meeting in the Vice President's imposing office in the Eisenhower Building.

The Obama administration did not take our advice, but they did announce a very different short-term commutation initiative -- the Clemency Project 2014, which put in the hands of five non-profit groups the shepherding of worthwhile cases towards clemency. My hunch -- and it is only a hunch -- is that this course was chosen because the administration did not think that it could get the money needed to fund a Ford-style Clemency Board through the House of Representatives. The recent Marino Amendment (which seeks to bar the use of funds for the Clemency Project 2014 or for augmenting the Pardon Attorney's office) passed by the House on June 3rd shows that there was a sound basis for that fear.

As has been well-documented, the Clemency Project 2014 has struggled with the overwhelming number of cases (over 30,000) referred to it. If there is blame in that, I should share it. Though I am not affiliated with any of the five groups in charge, I have taken an active role in training pro bono lawyers for Clemency Project 2014, have tried to rally other law schools to the cause, and have taken on several cases myself. Obviously, the structure of this project is not the one I proposed, but it is the one that we have, and through the end of the Obama administration probably represents the best chance for a historic use of the pardon power by this President. It is unlikely that this administration will suddenly — in the next year and a half — repair its relationship with the House to the point where new funding for clemency reform can be found. The toxic dynamic that probably skunked my proposal is still at work.

Professor Berman has suggested that wealthy clemency proponents like the Kochs could go far in re-making the process if they were to invest their money in reform. I think he is right. There are two areas where those resources could be used efficiently. The first is by investing in the debate over who should be the next president. Sadly, we only talk about clemency in the political realm when it goes wrong (i.e. in the last days of Bill Clinton's presidency or Haley Barbour's governorship). We should be actively asking candidates what they would do with clemency when they are running for office, and urging them towards reform. Rachel Barkow and I have, for example, argued that the next administration should shift permanently to a process centered on a review board outside of the Department of Justice, and others have promoted similar ideas. The "Supernova Federal Clemency Institute" research group Professor Berman proposes is worthwhile — but probably most worthwhile (especially with Koch backing) if it is focused on the 2016 election and the first days of a new presidency.

Beyond that advocacy, it would be wise to devote private-funding resources to the Clemency Project 2014 itself, in two ways. First, the project has a devoted and talented but threadbare staff, and that has a cost. There are few resources available to CP14 to screen cases before sending them out to lawyers, for example, and that is a problem that can be solved with money and more bodies. Second, it would help to have full-time lawyers working as advocates on these cases as specialists, as they would be much more efficient than the pro-bono generalists who often have to learn federal sentencing law from scratch. In collaboration with NYU's Center on the Administration of Criminal Law and others, I am working to do exactly that. The more money we raise, the more lawyers can be hired. But... it has to happen fast. The window is closing, and the election season is already upon us.

Some prior related posts:

June 4, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Spotlighting significant back-end impact of Prop 47 sentencing reform in California

This notable recent Los Angeles Times article, headlined "Under Prop. 47, former felons find themselves shedding a stifling label," details a significant (and perhaps unexpected) back-end effect of the sentencing reform California voters put in place the last election cycle. Here are excerpts:

Proposition 47, an initiative that reduced drug possession and several other nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors ... has prompted the release of more than 3,700 inmates from state prison.

Opponents of the measure said it would make California's streets more dangerous by releasing criminals and would strip away much of the incentive that got people into drug treatment — keeping a felony off their record.  But another part of the law that drew less attention allows people who have already served their time to ask a court to reduce years-old convictions from felonies to misdemeanors.

Thousands of people ... have taken advantage. Since the measure passed, judges in Los Angeles County have received more than 6,660 applications to reduce old felonies to misdemeanors.  Los Angeles County estimates that as many as 300,000 applications could be filed in cases stretching back decades.  (A spokeswoman for the court said officials are not tracking the outcomes of the applications.)

Alhambra Police Chief Mark Yokoyama, president of the California Peace Officers' Assn., which lobbied against the measure, said he's not opposed to people with an old felony or two getting reductions if they've turned their lives around.  He likes that they have that option, he said, but he thinks only a small sliver of the population with felony records falls into that category.

Christine Ward, executive director of Crime Victims Action Alliance, another opponent of the law, said reducing old felonies undermines accountability for offenders. "In our state right now," she said, "we're really minimizing criminal behavior."

But others say the law helps people who are now law-abiding eliminate the barriers of a felony record.  For [some], being labeled a felon affected [doing their] job.  For others, it held them back from getting work or housing. Some say it prevented them from getting custody of their grandchildren.  And many agreed the stigma of a "felon" label felt stifling....

From a back office in the Compton courthouse, Deputy Public Defender Carole Telfer runs a one-stop shop for people looking to reduce their felonies under the ballot measure.  Light pink memo notes — all scribbled with phone numbers and nearly identical "Call re: Prop 47" messages — explode from a green shoe box on her desk.  Nearby, there's a brown accordion folder filled with prisoners' handwritten letters....

Even people who aren't eligible for early release under Prop. 47 are grateful, Telfer said, calling it one of the most rewarding assignments in her 35-year career as a public defender.

After the measure passed, Telfer began with the cases of people still behind bars on charges eligible for reduction. But it was often people with decades-old convictions ... who were most anxious to get through the process. They often call to tell her how eager they are to put the felonies — crimes committed by someone who no longer felt like them — behind.

June 3, 2015 in Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Notable application of Padilla by Fifth Circuit even after judicial deportation warning

The Fifth Circuit yesterday in US v. Batamula, No. 12-20630 (5th Cir. June 2, 2015) (available here), engaged in an extended and interesting discussion of a Padilla claim. The opinion's conclusion highlights why Padilla fans will also like this panel ruling:

For these reasons, we conclude that a judge’s statement at the guilty plea proceeding that deportation is “likely” is not dispositive of whether a petitioner whose counsel failed to advise him regarding the immigration consequences of his plea can demonstrate prejudice as a result therefrom.  Batamula thus is not foreclosed from challenging his guilty plea under Padilla solely because the district court notified him that deportation following the service of his sentence is “likely,” and the district court erred in holding to the contrary. The record is currently insufficiently developed for us to apply the fact-intensive, totality of the circumstances prejudice analysis necessary to determine whether Batamula is entitled to relief on his Sixth Amendment claim.  We therefore REVERSE and REMAND for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

June 3, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 01, 2015

Has the approach and administration of Clemency Project 2014 actually made the federal clemency process worse?

Download (10)The depressing question in the title of this post is prompted by this depressing new USA Today article headlined "Obama administration clemency push gets slow start."  I have long tried to avoid being too pessimistic about what has been unfolding on the federal clemency front over the last 18 months, in part because I sincerely believed it would be nearly impossible to make the modern federal clemency process and products even worse. But this USA Today piece has me fearing that my own pessimistic instincts perhaps should now turn even darker (based on the statements and data points I have highlighted below):

A Justice Department push to shorten long drug sentences through President Obama's clemency powers has gotten off to a slow start: Obama has commuted the sentences of just two of the tens of thousands of federal inmates who have applied through the program.  Lawyers involved in the effort say the year-old clemency initiative has been hampered by the complexity of the cases and questions about the eligibility criteria, which may still be too strict to help most of the prison population.

The result is a system that appears even more backlogged than it was before the initiative began.  "The criteria basically suggest that a whole bunch of good citizens who committed one little mistake got significantly more than 10 years in prison, and fortunately that's pretty rare," said Johanna Markind, a former attorney-adviser in the Office of Pardon Attorney who left in March.  "I think they've kind of belatedly realized that people are doing their jobs, and those perfect cases they think are there don't really exist," she said.  "For all the sound and fury about the commutations, the clemency initiative has only come up with a handful of cases that fit" the criteria.

The clemency initiative was intended to help federal inmates who would have received shorter prison terms had they been sentenced today.  That applies mostly to drug offenders after Congress shortened sentences for crack cocaine in 2010.  To be eligible, inmates must have already served 10 years of their sentence.

Last year, a record 6,561 federal prisoners — three times the usual number — filed petitions with the Justice Department's Office of Pardon Attorney, which advises the president on all requests for clemency.  Under the constitution, the president has the absolute power to grant pardons and commute sentences.

More than 30,000 federal inmates applied for representation through the Clemency Project 2014, a consortium of lawyers who have volunteered to help eligible inmates through the often complicated and time-consuming process of seeking a commutation. But 13 months later, those lawyers have submitted just 31 petitions. And while Obama has used his pardon power to shorten the sentences of 43, most of those cases predate the clemency initiative.  Over six years, Obama has granted just 0.2% of the commutation petitions submitted.

The Justice Department says it expects to recommend more commutations to Obama as it reviews the petitions.  But that could take a while: In its 2016 budget request to Congress, the department said the deluge of clemency applications is too much for the current staff to manage.  "As OPA's existing staff has discovered, expending the substantial resources required simply to manage such a volume of clemency requests significantly decreases those available for analyzing and evaluating the merits of individual applications and preparing the appropriate letters of advice to inform the president," the Justice Department said in its congressional budget justification.

Obama has proposed a 66% budget increase for the Office of Pardon Attorney in 2016, and is seeking twice as many lawyers to process all the paperwork.  And that paperwork can be daunting, requiring an examination of trial transcripts, the pre-sentence report (which is often sealed) and Bureau of Prisons files.

To be eligible under the program, inmates must be low-level offenders with no ties to gangs or cartels.  They must have demonstrated good conduct in prison, have no significant criminal history and no history of violence.  "There are gray areas, What is 'demonstrated good conduct in prison,' for example? Is that a pristine record?" said Cynthia Roseberry, a career public defender who now manages the Clemency Project 2014.

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Without knowing how the Obama administration will apply those vague criteria, it's impossible to know how many could be eligible.  "My hope is that thousands of those will meet the criteria, but I just can't speculate." Roseberry said.  She said she expects the numbers to increase as the Clemency Project continues to screen for likely candidates for commutation.  A Clemency Project screening committee has already notified more than 3,000 inmates it won't be accepting their cases.  Once a case is accepted, it's parceled out to a volunteer attorney such as Mary Davis.

Davis represents Byron McDade, a Washington man sentenced to 27 years for cocaine trafficking even as his co-conspirators — who testified against him — got no more than seven. In 2009, after McDade had served his first seven years, the judge who sentenced him urged Obama to commute his sentence.  "While the Court is powerless to reduce the sentence it was required by then-existing law to impose, the president is not," U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman wrote in another opinion last year,

So Davis assembled a 168-page petition with the help of two West Virginia University law students — Laura Hoffman and Amanda Camplesi — who spent a combined 122 hours on the case, collecting paperwork and visiting McDade at a federal prison in Pennsylvania. Davis said the work was complicated, even as a veteran federal defense attorney specializing in sentencing appeals.  "I know there were attorneys signing up for this who don't do criminal defense work, and I would think it would be extremely difficult," she said.

McDade is an unusual case: Before being convicted in 2002, his only offense was a minor misdemeanor with a $10 fine.  Markind, who worked on commutation cases as a Justice Department lawyer, said the clemency initiative did not relax Obama's "three strikes" policy making anyone with three or more criminal convictions ineligible for clemency. "Criminals with a record do not make the most appealing poster children," she said....

Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis and a former prosecutor ... said the clemency process is already too bureaucratic and too distant from the ultimate decision-maker: the president.  The Clemency Project hopes to cut through the process by helping to provide the Justice Department with better, more complete case files to review.  But that solution has also led to criticism from Capitol Hill, where Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, says that the administration is outsourcing a government responsibility.

"We've failed the same way through different kinds of administrations, and the problem isn't the administration, it's the process," Osler said. "The sad thing is, every president recently has gotten to the end of their term and said, 'Hey, where are all the good clemency cases?' I sure hope that will change, but it's going to be a furious last year as these things start to come in even greater numbers."

It is hard to fault, and I am very disinclined to criticize excessively, all of the well-meaning and dedicated lawyers and administrators operating now in a system taking on Rube-Goldberg-quality with seemingly too many elements, criteria and moving parts.  Still, by now having so many more people applying for clemency, along with so many more lawyers trying to figure out the meaning and importance of so many vague criteria, it is not surprising that the clemency push/project has been most successful in producing a lot more paperwork and so many more questions about what this system is seeking to achieve.

I have long believed that President Obama could and should create an independent commission or task force or working group that would be tasked with making federal clemency reform a priority in a very short period of time.  Notably, as highlighted here, such a proactive approach to policing reform achieved a whole lot in just a matter of months:

On December 18, 2014, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order establishing the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing.  The Task Force Members sought expertise from stakeholders and input from the public as they worked to identify best practices and make recommendations to the President.  The Task Force submitted an initial report to the President on March 2, 2015 and released the final report on May 18, 2015.

Especially in light of all the new troubles and costs that the current approach is generating, I would urge the President to sign an Executive Order ASAP establishing the President's Task Force on 21st Century Clemency.  The Task Force Members could seek expertise from stakeholders and input from the public as they worked to identify best clemency practices and make recommendations to the President no later than December 1, 2015. That would still give Prez Obama a full year to implement an improved clemency process and would leave truly helpful legacy and structure in place from whomever becomes his successor.

Some prior related posts:

June 1, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Via similar 7-2 rulings, SCOTUS narrows reach of federal criminal and deportation statutes in Elonis and Mellouli

Via excerpts and links from this post at How Appealing I can effectively summarize the interesting Supreme Court work on criminal justice issues this morning:

The Court today issued four rulings in argued cases.

1. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court in Mellouli v. Lynch, No. 13-1034. Justice Clarence Thomas issued a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. joined....

4. And Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. delivered the opinion of the Court in Elonis v.United States, No. 13-983. Justice Alito issued an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. And Justice Thomas issued a dissenting opinion....

In early news coverage, The Associated Press has reports headlined "High court throws out conviction for Facebook threats";... "Justices reverse deportation of man over minor drug crime"; ... Richard Wolf of USA Today reports that "Violent threats on Facebook may be OK, justices rule"; ... and "Justices sock it to Justice Department over drug deportations."

As the title of this post suggests, there are considerable similarities between what the Justices did in both Melloni (a low-profile immigration case) and Elonis (a high-profile federal criminal case). In both setting, via a 7-2 vote with Justices Thomas and Alito dissenting, the Court adopted a norrower construction of an applicable federal statute based on concerns that the federal government's (and lower courts') interpretation goes too far (for deportation purposes in Melloni, for criminal prosecution in Elonis).  The rulings and opinions are quite limited in both cases, and Justice Alito's dissent in Elonis fittingly laments this reality at its outset: 

In Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137, 177 (1803), the Court famously proclaimed: “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” Today, the Court announces: It is emphatically the prerogative of this Court to say only what the law is not.

I hope and expect to have more to say about the lengthy opinions in Elonis in future posts, although I suspect that the ruling will ultimately prove more consequental for what it failed to do and say than for what it actually does and says.

June 1, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

"The GOP should turn its attention to prosecutorial misconduct"

The title of this post is the subheadine of this notable new National Review commentary authored by Kevin Williamson.  The provocative main headline for the piece is "When District Attorneys Attack," and here are excerpts:

Prosecutorial misconduct is a plague upon these United States, from the vodka-pickled Democratic political jihadists in Austin to California, where judges complain of an “epidemic” of prosecutorial misconduct abetted by Democratic attorney general Kamala Harris, who is seeking to replace retiring Barbara Boxer in the Senate.

The Democrats have long been acculturated to the climate of corruption that attends government agencies that are largely free of ordinary accountability, where a carefully cultivated lack of transparency shields operatives from scrutiny and normal oversight. Republicans can rouse themselves to action, if only barely, when this involves the federal Internal Revenue Service or Environmental Protection Agency.  But deference to police agencies and prosecutors is so habitual among the members of the law-and-order party that they instinctively look for excuses when presented with obvious examples of police misconduct, and twiddle their thumbs in the 99 percent of cases of prosecutorial misconduct that do not involve a Republican elected official.

But only the Republican party has the credibility and the political capital to take on the difficult and sure-to-be-thankless task of reining in rogue police agencies and abusive prosecutors — and they may as well take a look at our scandalous prisons while they are at it.  Some Republican leaders, notably Texas’s former governor Rick Perry, have been active and energetic partisans of reform, largely under the banner of the excellent Right on Crime campaign.  But this is not really a job for presidents or even governors: This is a job for mayors, city councilmen, district attorneys, sheriffs, and police chiefs.

June 1, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Fascinating fight over fate of offenders on Nebraska's death row after capital repeal

This Fox News piece, headlined "Nebraska AG fighting to block death penalty repeal from reversing death row sentences," highlights the fascinating fight now developing in the Cornhusker state following its formal repeal of its death penalty statutes:

Nebraska's top lawyer is headed to court to prevent the state's sweeping death penalty repeal from reversing sentences of those already on death row -- in the latest flare-up between the legislature and Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts' administration.

The legislature delivered a blow to the governor Wednesday when it voted 30-19 to override Ricketts' veto of legislation that would put an end to capital punishment in Nebraska. With the power play by the state's Republican-dominated legislature, Nebraska becomes the first conservative state in decades to end the death penalty.

But Ricketts' administration is not giving up the fight. While not contesting the ban's impact on future prosecutions, the administration is battling to prevent it from undoing prior death penalty sentences for the 10 inmates currently on death row.

In a written statement, state Attorney General Doug Peterson challenged part of the bill that says the "intent" of the legislature is that any death penalty "imposed but not carried out prior to the effective date of this act" be changed to "life imprisonment." Peterson said: "We believe this stated intent is unconstitutional."

He said that Nebraska's Board of Pardons has exclusive power to change final sentences imposed by courts. "Thus, the Attorney General intends to seek a court decision, at the appropriate time, to definitively resolve the issue of the State's authority to carry out the death sentences previously ordered by Nebraska's courts for the 10 inmates now on death row."

A Ricketts spokesman told FoxNews.com Friday that the governor agrees with the AG's assessment and will pursue the court's legal opinion on the matter as soon as possible....

"My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical tool to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families," Ricketts said in a statement after Wednesday's vote, which broke across party lines and captured the votes necessary to override Ricketts' veto. The legislature had passed the anti-death penalty bill last week, 32-15.

Immediately after the vote, Republican Sen. Beau McCoy, who was against the ban, announced the formation of Nebraskans for Justice to start a petition drive to get reinstatement on the ballot in November.

But this was the third time the legislature voted to repeal capital punishment, which Republicans against it said no longer held to the values of their party, be it morally or fiscally. "The taxpayers have not gotten the bang for their buck on this death penalty for almost 20 years," said Sen. Colby Coash, a Republican and death penalty opponent. "This program is broken. How many years will people stand up and say we need this?"

Other senators said they philosophically support the death penalty, but were convinced legal obstacles would prevent the state from carrying out another execution ever again. The last one in Nebraska was a 1997 electrocution. The state lost its practical ability to execute inmates in December 2013, when one of the three lethal injection drugs required by state law expired. Opponents charged that it was a poorly managed and inefficient government program.

May 31, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)