Sunday, October 12, 2014

Documenting a notable California legal crusade against sex offender restrictions

This lengthy local article, headlined "Pair seeks repeal of sex-offender laws in California," provides a detailed review of a notable effort to take down via court challenges local sex offender restrictions. The piece merits a full read, and here are a few highlights:

A crusading civil rights attorney and a registered sex offender have partnered in a legal battle that has prompted dozens of California cities to repeal or revise what the pair believe are unconstitutional ordinances restricting the activities of sex offenders.

Since March, Santa Maria attorney Janice Bellucci and Frank Lindsay, a 62-year-old water-treatment specialist from Grover Beach and registered sex offender for 35 years, have filed 18 lawsuits in federal court challenging ordinances in cities from Stockton down to National City.

To date, Bellucci has settled 15 of the lawsuits, while 38 other cities have avoided litigation by agreeing to repeal their ordinances. Six other cities have voluntarily suspended enforcement of their ordinances, while ordinances in another 18 cities are still under review.

“The way I look at it is that I’m protecting the Constitution of the United States as well as the state of California,” said Bellucci, president of California Reform Sex Offender Laws, a nonprofit she launched three years ago as an affiliate to the national Reform Sex Offender Laws organization.

While Bellucci believes she’s fighting for the rights of oppressed sex offenders, others say she’s endangering the state’s youth. “As an elected official and as a mother, I’m concerned about the health and safety of our young people who don’t have a voice,” said Carson Councilwoman Lulu Davis-Holmes. Carson is one city sued by Bellucci that plans to fight the lawsuit. “Our kids did not make the choice to be molested,” Davis-Holmes said. “I personally think we need to do more to protect those who cannot protect themselves,”

Bellucci’s flurry of lawsuits was prompted by a 4th District Court of Appeal’s decision in January that found sex offender ordinances in Orange County and the city of Irvine cannot impose restrictions more stringent than state law, which only restricts sex offenders who are on parole and whose victims were under the age of 14 from visiting public parks without the express permission of their parole agent.

In addition to the suits she filed with Lindsay, Bellucci has filed two lawsuits on her own, challenging ordinances in Canyon Lake and Commerce. Those complaints do not name Lindsay as a plaintiff because ordinances in those cities do not apply to sex offenders whose convictions are as old as Lindsay’s.

In April, the state Supreme Court declined a petition by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office to review the appellate court ruling, leaving it intact. The appellate court ruling, coupled with the spate of litigation initiated by Bellucci, could have a major impact on the lives of California’s 107,913 registered sex offenders, roughly 14 percent of the nation’s 774,600, as cities and counties are forced to either repeal their ordinances or make them uniform with state law.

This companion article, headlined "Sex-crimes convict says registration has ruined his career, endangered his life?," provides a profile of the sex-offender who is the plaintiff in much of the discussed California sex offender litigation.

October 12, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Friday, October 10, 2014

Wyoming Supreme Court joins group deciding SCOTUS Miller ruling is retroactive

As reported in this local article, headlined "Casper man convicted of murder as a teenager now has possibility of parole," the Wyoming Supreme Court had a big ruling yesterday on juve life sentences.  In Wyoming v. Mares, 2014 WY 126 (Wyo. Oct. 9, 2014) (available here), the Court held that Miller v. Alabama announced a substantive rule that is to be applied retroactively under Teague and also that a Wyoming statute enacted last year making juves parole eligible should be applied retroactively. Here is how the unanimous opinion in Mares gets started:

In 1995, Edwin Mares was convicted of felony murder as a juvenile and sentenced to life in prison, which sentence was by operation of law the equivalent of a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.  In 2013, Mr. Mares filed a motion, pursuant to Rule 35 of the Wyoming Rules of Criminal Procedure, to correct an illegal sentence. Through that motion, Mr. Mares contended that his sentence of life without the possibility of parole was unconstitutional in light of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. ___, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 183 L.Ed.2d 407 (2012).  This Court accepted certification of two questions from the district court.  The first question concerns the test to be used in determining the retroactivity of new constitutional rules when a judgment is challenged on collateral review.  The second question is whether Miller applies retroactively under our chosen test.

We conclude that as a result of amendments to Wyoming’s parole statutes in 2013, Mr. Mares’ life sentence was changed from one of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole to one of life with the possibility of parole in twenty-five years.  This change occurred by operation of the amended law, and the sentence Mr. Mares challenged in his Rule 35 motion therefore no longer exists.  We are aware, however, that other collateral challenges to juvenile offender sentences are pending throughout our district courts, and we therefore, in the interests of judicial economy and to avoid conflicting rulings, choose to answer the certified questions.  In response to the first certified question, we hold that the proper rule for determining whether a new constitutional rule applies retroactively to cases on collateral review is the test announced by the Supreme Court in Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 109 S.Ct. 1060, 103 L.Ed.2d 334 (1989).  In response to the second question, we conclude that under a Teague analysis, the rule announced in Miller applies retroactively to cases on collateral review.

October 10, 2014 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Oklahoma has impressive early success with revised earned credit program

This local article, headlined "Most Oklahoma inmates granted early release since March have stayed out of trouble," reports on another positive state criminal justice reform effort. Here are the details:

Santajuan M. Stepney was released from prison in March after serving less than half of a 10-year sentence for possession of marijuana.  By mid-July, he was back in prison, this time sentenced to two years for beating his wife in Canadian County.

Stepney, 31, was among about 1,500 inmates granted an early release by the Corrections Department after they had good-behavior credits restored through the once-obscure Earned Credits program.  The releases in question began in March, according to the agency.

A state lawmaker recently questioned the program, saying restoration of good-behavior credits and early release is in the name of saving money, while Corrections Department officials have defended its expanded use....

Jerry Massie, a spokesman for the Corrections Department, said Stepney and inmate Brian Harvey, who was granted early release in March, are the only members of the group who’ve returned to prison since being set free under the Earned Credits program....

Last week, Rep. Aaron Stiles told The Oklahoman he believes Robert Patton, who was hired as the Corrections Department’s executive director earlier this year, is directing staff to release inmates by restoring the good behavior credits that had been lost due to infractions while behind bars.  Stiles said Patton is doing so to save money as the cash-strapped prison system continues to struggle with tight budgets and overcrowded prisons.

The lawmaker said “several” Corrections Department employees have contacted him about the mass release of inmates with good behavior credits restored.  He said some of the employees, who feared speaking openly, “made recommendations that certain people not be released, but they get overruled by upper level DOC administration.”

“It is all about saving money,” Stiles said last week. “They had 1,800 inmates in county backup. So how do you make room for 1,800 prisoners? Release 1,800 convicts early.”

The Earned Credits program has been around about 20 years, officials say, but it’s never been as widely used as it is now.  Essentially, the program allows inmates to have good-behavior credits restored if they’ve been lost as a result of misconduct. The program does not apply to inmates who are required to serve a minimum amount of their sentence, such as 85 percent crimes like rape, murder, and many sex crimes.

Terri Watkins, a spokeswoman for the Corrections Department, said increased use of the program isn’t all about saving money. She said it’s part of a series of changes made by Patton, and that those changes will continue in the future.

This partial report about early success with a revised corrections program in one state does not, obviously, prove conclusively that significant early releases can be achieved without a huge public safety impact. Nevertheless, given the ugly reality that recidivism rates for released prisoners can often exceed 40%, the folks in Oklahoma must be doing something right if only less than 0.15% of prisoners released early this year have committed a crime requiring requiring being sent back to prison so far.

October 10, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 09, 2014

New survey shows significant and growing support for "eliminating mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent offenders"

As reported via this FAMM news release, which is headlined "New Poll Finds 77% of Americans Support Eliminating Mandatory Minimums for Non-Violent Offenses," there is new polling data suggesting that large and growing percentages of Americans favor mandatory minimum sentencing reform. Here are the basic details:

A new Reason-Rupe Public Opinion Survey finds that 77 percent of Americans support eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses.  That number is up from 71 percent in December 2013, the last time Reason-Rupe polled on the question.  You can find the full survey results here (PDF); mandatory minimums are question 17. 

“Almost three decades have passed since the United States instituted harsh mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses.  During that time, countless lives have been ruined and countless families destroyed.  The American people have noticed, and they want no more of it,” said Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

The poll question Reason-Rupe posed reads as follows: “Would you favor or oppose eliminating mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent offenders so that judges have the ability to make sentencing decisions on a case-by-case basis?”

Seventy-seven percent of respondents said they favored eliminating mandatory minimums, while only 17 percent of respondents said they were opposed.  When Reason-Rupe asked the same question in December 2013, 71 percent of respondents were in favor of eliminating mandatory minimums, and 24 percent were opposed.

October 9, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Rolling Stone laments enduring casualties of drug war's mandatory minimums

ImagesRolling Stone magazine has just published this extensive "special report" titled "The Nation's Shame: The Injustice of Mandatory Minimums." The piece details the stories of seven notable low-level drug defendants serving high-level prison sentences. The piece has this subheading: "For decades, lawyers, scholars, and judges have criticized mandatory drug sentencing as oppressive and ineffective. Yet tens of thousands of nonviolent offenders continue to languish behind bars."  And here is a portion of the lead into the seven cases profiled:

Widely enacted in the Eighties and Nineties amid rising crime and racially coded political fearmongering, mandatory penalties — like minimum sentences triggered by drug weight, automatic sentencing enhancements, and three-strikes laws — have flooded state and federal prisons with nonviolent offenders.  Intended to ensure uniform discipline, these policies simply shifted discretion to prosecutors.  Judges lost latitude to tailor sanctions based on whether someone was a kingpin or courier, for example, while [Professor Mark] Osler says, prosecutors gained "a big hammer.  The easy way of doing things is to threaten people with a lot of time, and then plead them out," he says.  "But easy and justice don't go together very well."...

[T]he drug war is entrenched in decades of prison buildup. Between 1980 and 2010, state incarceration rates for drug crimes multiplied tenfold, while the federal drug prisoner population ballooned by a factor of 20.  Every year, taxpayers shell out $51 billion for drug war spending.  Meanwhile, 2.2 million people — or a quarter of the world's prisoners — crowd a system that exacts its harshest toll on the most vulnerable. Racism undermines the justice process from initial stop to sentence, and 60 percent of those incarcerated are people of color.  Rates of illiteracy, addiction, and mental illness are disproportionately high.

Amid utter congressional deadlock, sentencing reform is the only issue that has cut across partisan bickering to unite such normally irreconcilable voices as Rand Paul, Dick Durbin, Ted Cruz, Elizabeth Warren, Paul Ryan and John Conyers.  Yet the proposed Smarter Sentencing Act, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in January, has since run aground. The bill would halve key mandatory minimums, make relief under the Fair Sentencing Act available to 8,800 federal crack defendants locked up before 2010 and save $4 billion in the process.  More than 260,000 people have been imprisoned under federal drug mandatory minimums, and more will continue to cycle through the system — even as others are granted clemency — as long as reforms remain stalled.  At the state level, reforms without retroactive application strand drug defendants in prison even after the laws that put them there are reassessed as unjust.  The following seven cases epitomize the rigid regimes of the past, and the challenges involved in dismantling them.

October 7, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, October 06, 2014

Reviewing California's debate over lowering sentences through Prop 47

I have noted in a few prior posts some of the details of California's Proposition 47, which seeks to reduce penalties for certain offenders convicted of low-level property and drug crimes.  This new New York Times article, headlined "California Voters to Decide on Sending Fewer Criminals to Prison," discusses the current state of debate over Prop. 47.  Here are excerpts:

Twenty years ago, amid a national panic over crime, California voters adopted the country’s most stringent three-strikes law, sentencing repeat felons to 25 years to life, even if the third offense was a minor theft.  The law epitomized the tough-on-crime policies that produced overflowing prisons and soaring costs.

Now California voters appear poised to scale back the heavy reliance on incarceration they once embraced, with a measure that would transform several lower-level, nonviolent felonies into misdemeanors punishable by brief jail stays, if that, rather than time in a state penitentiary.  The referendum on Nov. 4 is part of a national reappraisal of mass incarceration.

To its advocates — not only liberals and moderates, but also an evangelical conservative businessman who has donated more than $1 million to the campaign, calling it “a moral and ethical issue” — the measure injects a dose of common sense into a justice system gone off the tracks. 

“Law enforcement has been on an incarceration binge for 30 years, and it hasn’t worked,” said George Gascón, the San Francisco district attorney and a former police chief who, bucking most of his counterparts around the state, is the main sponsor along with a former police chief of San Diego. For the large numbers of nonviolent offenders with mental health or substance abuse problems, Mr. Gascón said, “Incarceration doesn’t fix the problem.”

California has already been forced by federal courts to trim its prison population because of inhumane crowding, which it did mainly by sending more offenders to county jails.  Two years ago, in a previous referendum, voters took the worst sting off the three-strikes law, shortening the sentences of those whose third crime was a minor one.

The new initiative would have wider effects, altering penalties for low-level theft and drug-possession crimes that result in felony convictions, and sometimes prison terms, for thousands of nonviolent offenders each year.  Proposition 47, as it is called, would redefine thefts, forgery and other property crimes involving less than $950, and possession for personal use of drugs including heroin and cocaine, as misdemeanors — punishable by at most one year in a county jail, and often by probation and counseling. The changes would apply retroactively, lightening the penalties for thousands already in prison or jails....

The proposals here are modest compared with changes recently taken by other states to curb prison growth.  But Proposition 47 has drawn harsh attack from law enforcement officials, including most district attorneys and the association of police chiefs, which calls it “a dangerous and radical package” that will “endanger Californians.”...

In a poll in September conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California, 62 percent of voters said they supported the initiative, and only 25 percent said they opposed it. Proponents like Mr. Gascón and Darrell Steinberg, the Democratic president pro tem of the State Senate, say this shows that the public is far ahead of timid legislators, necessitating the unusual step of a ballot initiative....

But opinions could change, especially if the two sides mount television campaigns in coming weeks. One of the most outspoken opponents, Shelley Zimmerman, the chief of police in San Diego, has already gone on the offensive.  “Virtually all of law enforcement is opposed,” Chief Zimmerman said.  “It’s virtually a get-out-of-jail-free card” for 10,000 felons, many with violent histories.  She and other opponents have zeroed in on two details: Stealing a gun worth less than $950 and possessing date-rape drugs would no longer be automatic felonies....

So far, supporters of the proposal have a large financial advantage, raising more than $4 million as of last week, half of which had been used to get the measure on the ballot, compared to less than $300,000 for the opponents, with most of that donated by a law enforcement officers’ association.  Large donations in support have come from the Open Society Policy Center, a Washington-based group linked to George Soros; the Atlantic Advocacy Fund, based in New York; Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix; and Sean Parker, the former president of Facebook. 

But the largest single donor is B. Wayne Hughes Jr., a conservative Christian businessman and philanthropist based in Malibu. In one of the most tangible signs yet of growing concern among conservatives about the cost and impact of incarceration, Mr. Hughes has donated $1.255 million....

Even if Proposition 47 passes, California will still lag behind many other states, including some that are politically conservative, in reforms that have achieved prison cuts with no increase in crime, said Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts.  Just looking at the dollar threshold for theft or forgery felonies, he noted, Mississippi recently raised its cutoff to $1,000, and South Carolina to $2,000. “This reform may be modest,” Mr. Gascón acknowledged. “But California led the way early on in draconian sentencing, and now I’m hoping that these reforms, too, will have an impact on the state and the nation.”

Prior related posts:

October 6, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

SCOTUS summarily reverses Ninth Circuit habeas grant on AEDPA deference grounds

Thanks to this post by Kent Scheidegger over at Crime & Consequences, I just saw that the Supreme Court kicked off the first Monday of October with its first reversal of the Ninth Circuit in a criminal case. Here is how the per curiam opinion in Lopez v. Smith, No. 13-346 (S. Ct. Oct. 6, 2014) (available here), gets started:

When a state prisoner seeks federal habeas relief on the ground that a state court, in adjudicating a claim on the merits, misapplied federal law, a federal court may grant relief only if the state court’s decision was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.” 28 U. S. C. §2254(d)(1).  We have emphasized, time and again, that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), 110 Stat. 1214, prohibits the federal courts of appeals from relying on their own precedent to conclude that a particular constitutional principle is “clearly established.”  See, e.g., Marshall v. Rodgers, 569 U.S. __, __ (2013) (per curiam) (slip op. at 6).  Because the Ninth Circuit failed to comply with this rule, we reverse its decision granting habeas relief to respondent Marvin Smith.

After reporting on this SCOTUS development, Kent added this pointed commentary about the general failure of lower federal courts to show adequate AEDPA deference:

There is a broad spectrum of viewpoints on the Supreme Court today, but when there is not a single justice who thinks the court of appeals' decision is correct, when the error is so obvious that it doesn't even require full briefing and argument, and when the same pattern recurs "time and again," there is something gravely wrong with some of our courts of appeals (mostly those divisible by 3).

The continuing violation of this provision by some of the lower federal courts is the largest-scale defiance of federal law since the "massive resistance" campaign in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Except this time federal courts are perpetrators of the violations instead of enforcers of the law.

October 6, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

SCOTUS keeps rejecting important follow-up Graham and Miller issues

The Supreme Court this morning issued this lengthy order list that has 60+ pages listing case after case for which the Justices have denied certiorari review.  Not suprisingly, folks are surprised to discover that all the same-sex marriage cases brought to the court over the summer are on the cert denied list (SCOTUSblog discussion here, AP discussion here).  

Sentencing fans will also be interested to learn about another group of notable state cases on the cert denied list this morning.  A helpful reader provided this account: "For what it’s worth, the US Supreme Court declined to hear at least three virtual LWOP cases (Goins v. Lazaroff, Barnette v. Ohio, and Bunch v. Ohio). They also declined to hear at least two cases on the retroactivity of Miller, including one that was an appeal by a state (Evans v. Ohio and Nebraska v. Mantich)."  

I have long believed it will only be a matter of time before the Justices take up at least a few important follow-up Graham and Miller Eighth Amendment issues. These cert denials suggest that the Justices are content to let the issues continue to be resolved only by lower courts for the foreseeable future.  

October 6, 2014 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Sunday, October 05, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 03, 2014

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

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

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

------

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The Future of Juvenile Appeals in the United States"

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 02, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 29, 2014

Rooting for acquitted conduct petition grant from SCOTUS long conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Mitigating Foul Blows"

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Teacher resentenced to 10 years in notorious Montana rape case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related posts:

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

Friday, September 26, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related post:

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