Friday, August 28, 2015

Massachusetts SJC rules local sex offender restrictions preempted by state law

As reported in this Boston Globe article, "Massachusetts cities and towns cannot broadly restrict where sex offenders can live, the state’s highest court ruled Friday, declaring that measures in place in more than 40 municipalities were in conflict with state law."  Here is more on the ruling: 

The decision came as the Supreme Judicial Court upheld a lower court ruling on a Lynn ordinance that the judges said would have affected 95 percent of the city’s residential properties.  The court decried the measure, which it said conflicted with a 1999 state law that set up a system to keep track of sex offenders in communities.

“Except for the incarceration of persons under the criminal law and the civil commitment of mentally ill or dangerous persons, the days are long since past when whole communities of persons, such Native Americans and Japanese-Americans may be lawfully banished from our midst,” the ruling said.

Timothy Phelan, who sponsored the Lynn ordinance when was City Council president in 2011, called the decision discouraging and disappointing. SJC rules against sex offender zone laws in Mass.  “It seems like the rights of children are taking a back seat to what is politically correct,” Phelan said.

The ordinance placed strict limits on the ability of Level 2 and 3 sex offenders — those deemed by the state to have moderate and high risks of reoffending — from living within 1,000 feet of a park or school.

John Reinstein, the attorney who argued the case on behalf of three registered sex offenders, said the strong language in the ruling is “a shot across the bow to any attempt to provide the authority for broad-based restrictions to cities and towns.” Reinstein began work on the subject while he was legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and continued after his retirement in 2013.

He and his colleagues had urged the court to reject the law on constitutional grounds, arguing that it violated the fundamental rights of sex offenders to move freely within the state and choose where they live.

Friday’s decision instead followed a lower court ruling in deciding that the ordinance violated “home rule” provisions because it is a local measure in conflict with state law. The outcome leaves open the possibility that lawmakers could restore the ability of municipalities to create residency restrictions for sex offenders.

The full unanimous Massachusetts SJC ruling is available at this link.

August 28, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Might Tennessee soon have its machinery of death up and running?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this AP story headlined "Judge upholds Tennessee lethal injection method." Here are the basics:

A Tennessee judge on Wednesday upheld the state's lethal injection process for executing inmates.

Davidson County Chancery Judge Claudia Bonnyman said from the bench that the plaintiffs, 33 death row inmates, didn't prove that the one-drug method led to a painful and lingering death.  She also said the plaintiffs didn't show during a lengthy trial that there have been problems in states where the method has been used. "Plaintiffs were not able to carry their burdens ... on any of their claims," Bonnyman said.

Plaintiffs' attorney Kelley Henry said they plan to appeal.

Attorney General Herbert Slatery said in a statement he hoped the families of victims would be comforted by the ruling.  "The State of Tennessee has worked very hard to make sure the protocol used is reliable and humane, today the Court recognized that," the statement said.  While much of the focus of this case has been on the inmates, we should not forget the victims and the heartache suffered by their families."

Tennessee's protocol calls for the use of pentobarbital mixed to order by a pharmacist, because the only commercial producer of the drug has placed restrictions on its distribution to prevent it from being used in executions.  Tennessee has not executed an inmate for more than five years because of legal challenges and problems in obtaining lethal injection drugs.

Lawmakers moved from a three-drug lethal injection method to a one-drug method and to reinstate the electric chair as a backup.  Both changes brought challenges, and all previously scheduled executions have been put on hold.

This ruling and the planned appeals by the death row defendants suggests that Tennessee might be a good state to watch to see if the Supreme Court's ruling in Glossip can really help states finally get their death penalty machinery back up and running.  In the wake of Glossip and absent any evidence of illicit chicanery by Tennessee officials, any appeals in this case ought to be resolved fairly expeditiously (especially if Tennessee were now set execution dates for some condemned murderers). But, of course, the condemned still have every reason, and surely will seek every opportunity, to continue to extend the lethal injection litigation for as long as possible in both state and federal courts. I have thought that Glossip should speed things along in this state and others, but only time will tell.

August 27, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Nebraska group submits signatures to halt death penalty repeal and set up fascinating 2016 vote

As reported in this new AP article, the "organization campaigning to reinstate Nebraska's death penalty after lawmakers repealed it in May said Wednesday it has collected more than enough signatures to suspend the law before it goes into effect and place it before voters in 2016."  Here is more:

Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, which was heavily financed by Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts and his family, said it had gathered 166,692 signatures from all 93 of the state's counties. Nebraska's unicameral Legislature had voted to repeal capital punishment over the objection of Ricketts, becoming the first traditionally conservative state to do so in 42 years.

The pro-death penalty group needed roughly 57,000 valid signatures from registered voters to force a statewide referendum, and double that number to immediately halt the death penalty repeal going into effect. They appear to have exceeded the 10 percent of registered voters hurdle needed to block repeal pending a November 2016 ballot measure on the issue.

"Nebraskans sent a strong message about crime and punishment in our state by signing this petition in extraordinary numbers," said state treasurer and former attorney general Don Stenberg, a co-chair of the petition drive....

Republican Attorney General Doug Peterson, who supports the death penalty, said in a statement that the signatures are "presumptively valid" until determined otherwise. Stenberg said no one will know the exact number of valid signatures for at least a month, but the state constitution makes clear that petitions go into effect on the day they're submitted.

Even if the law is suspended, Nebraska currently has no way to execute any of the 10 men on death row because its lacks two of the three required lethal injection drugs and has struggled to obtain them legally. The state paid $54,400 in May to order the drugs from a broker in India, but federal authorities have said they can't be legally imported.

Nebraska lawmakers voted by the narrowest possible margin, 30-19, to override Ricketts' veto. Ricketts assailed the Legislature as out of touch with the wishes of most residents. The repeal vote was helped by an unusual coalition of conservative state senators and more traditional death penalty opponents who had fought unsuccessfully for decades to eliminate the punishment. Some conservatives said they opposed it for religious and moral reasons, while others cast it as an inefficient government program that wastes tax money....

Nebraska hasn't executed an inmate since 1997, and has never done so using the state's current three-drug lethal injection protocol.

The announcement of the number of signatures caps an 82-day petition drive backed by Ricketts and his father, TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts. The governor had given $200,000 to Nebraskans for the Death Penalty as of the last filing deadline on July 31, while his father had donated $100,000. The group raised a total of more than $652,000 from 40 individual donors and seven groups classified as businesses, political action committees and other entities.

The largest donation in July came from the conservative, Washington-based Judicial Crisis Network, which gave $200,000. Nebraskans for the Death Penalty relied on a combination of paid and volunteer petition circulators, and was aided by an Arizona-based strategist who specializes in ballot campaigns.

I find these developments fascinating, especially because it highlights that the symbolism of the death penalty seems so much more important to so many folks than the practicalities of the death penalty. Practically speaking, with no executions in nearly 20 years, the legislature's abolition largely made de jure what was already a de facto reality in the state. But that largely symbolic decision obviously troubled a lot of Cornhuskers (and motivated some folks to put some serious money into this issue), and now the issue will be decided by direct democracy rather than by representative democracy.

Because I am a huge fan of direct democracy, and especially because it will be very interesting to follow the Cornhusker capital campaigning (and its funders' capital contributions), I am pleased that this crime-and-punishment issue will now come before the voters in 2016. Sadly, because Nebraska is not likely to become a swing state in the broader presidential scene, I doubt the many wanna-be Prez candidates will feel compelled to weigh in on this "local" issue. But it still seems possible that this vote could make Nebraska a significant focal point in the (never-ending) national debate over death penalty policy and practices.

August 26, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

How did Boston bombing jurors not get informed some victims did not favor death sentence for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev?

As regular readers may recall from this post back in April, Bill and Denise Richard, parents of 8-year-old Martin who was one of three people killed in the April 2013 explosions at the Boston marathon's finish line, wrote this stirring Boston Globe commentary about their hopes for the outcome in the federal criminal case against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  The Richards there expressed disinterest in a death sentence for Tsarnaev because of all the attention and appeals that such a sentence would necessarily bring for the duration of Tsarnaev's life behind bars.  As they explained, in order to be able to "turn the page, end the anguish, and look toward a better future," they were calling upon "the Department of Justice [to take] the death penalty off the table in an exchange for the defendant spending the rest of his life in prison without any possibility of release and waiving all of his rights to appeal."

As regular readers know, federal statutory law gives crime victims an inpedendent right to express their views in federal sentencing proceedings.  For that reason, and especially because the feelings and desires of all victims seems important, relevant and proper evidence for jurors trying to decide on a life/death capital verdict, I took for granted that anti-death-sentence victim views would get relayed in some way to the jurors deciding on the sentence for Tsarnaev.  (Indeed, I had long thought that one of many benefits of the federal Crime Victim Rights Act was to ensure federal court proceedings would regularly incorportate the views and voices of all victims, not just those prosecutors and/or defense attorneys brought forward.)

But this local interview with the first Boston bombing juror to speak publicly suggests that (1) the jurors were unaware of the Richards' perspective on how best to sentence Tsarnaev, and (2) at least one juror might have reached a different verdict if he knew of what the Richards had said.  Here is part of the introduction and transcript of the interview with Kevan Fagan, Juror 83, covering this ground: 

Kevan Fagan, “Juror 83″ in the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, sat down for an interview in our studio with WBUR’s Jack Lepiarz and David Boeri, who both covered the trial. The 23-year-old became the first juror to agree to be named, to have his picture taken and to talk about the trial, though he would not discuss the jury’s deliberations.

Fagan told WBUR that he may not have voted for the death penalty had he known that some bombing victims wanted Tsarnaev to get life in prison. He said he likely would have changed his vote had he been aware of opposition to the death penalty by the parents of 8-year-old Martin Richard, the youngest victim killed in the bombing.

“If I had known that, I probably — I probably would change my vote. But then again, if I knew that I wouldn’t be on the jury either,” he said in the interview. The jurors were ordered to avoid media coverage of the trial.

He is co-authoring a book about his experience titled “Juror 83 — The Tsarnaev Trial: 34 Days That Changed Me” that is expected to be released at the end of September....

DB: What impressed you? Did you find anything persuasive in the defense case?

KF: I think it was a very hard case, and I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know if there have been harder cases to defend. I think they did the best that they could for their client.

DB: You didn’t know at the time that the Richard family and other families had written to the U.S. Attorney and to the Justice Department saying they were opposed to the death penalty?

KF: Oh sure. No, I had no clue about that.

JL: If you had known that, would you have changed your vote?

KF: If I had known that, I probably — I probably would change my vote. But then again, if I knew that I wouldn’t be on the jury either.

DB: What do you mean?

KF: If I went out of my way and disrespected the judge and went against his orders about researching things. That wouldn’t have been very fair or judicious of me.

Because this juror is writing a book about his experience as a juror — and especially because this juror will likely benefit personally from the publicity that provocative interviews will generate — I am a bit suspicious of his suggestion that his sentencing vote would have been different if he had full information about all victim perspectives.  Nevertheless, I now am wondering a lot about (a) whatever legal or strategic or practical issues surrounded decisions to keep jurors unaware of the Richards' (and other victims'?) perspectives on how best to sentence Tsarnaev, and (b) whether this jury unawareness, coupled with this juror's comments about the impact such information could have had, will become a key part of direct and collateral appeals of the Tsarnaev death sentence.

I cannot help but note a particular and particularly sad irony here: the commentary authored by the Richards movingly "urge[d] the Department of Justice to bring the case to a close"; but now this commentary, now combined with its failure to get known to the jury during the sentencing proceedings, seems itself likely to continue to generate legal issues and media attention.  The commentary not only noted, but now adds the reality that, a death sentence for Tsarnaev is all but certain to ensure this case will not be coming to a close for decades. So sad.

A few prior related posts:

August 26, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Despite Glossip, federal judge orders halt to Mississippi's lethal injection plans

I had thought that the Supreme Court's big Glossip Eighth Amendment ruling a couple of month ago could make it at least somewhat easier for states to get their condemned murderers to execution chambers.  But, intriguingly, only two executions have been carried out since Glossip was decided, and the United States thus remains on track in 2015 for the lowest yearly total of executions in a quarter-century.  

Moreover, as reported via this (somewhat confusing) AP article, headlined "Federal judge halts executions in Mississippi," even claims that would seem to have been resolved by Glossip are still disrupting state execution efforts in a least one state.  Here are the basic details:

A federal judge on Tuesday temporarily blocked the state of Mississippi from using two drugs in executions, shutting down the death penalty in the state for now.

U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate issued a temporary restraining order saying Mississippi officials cannot use pentobarbital or midazolam, two drugs used to render prisoners unconscious. Mississippi law requires a three-drug process, with the sedative followed by a paralyzing agent and a drug that stops an inmate's heart.

Jim Craig, a lawyer for two inmates, said Wingate gave the order verbally Tuesday in a phone conference with him and other lawyers. Wingate was supposed to issue a written order, but no written copy was yet available later in the day.

Grace Simmons Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Corrections, wrote in an email that the order bars the state from using any drug to execute a condemned inmate. The state quickly filed notice Tuesday saying it will ask the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal to overturn Wingate's order.

"We are extremely disappointed that the federal court has frustrated the State of Mississippi's lawful duty to enforce its criminal sentence of capital punishment," Attorney General Jim Hood said in a statement. "Just months ago the United States Supreme Court approved Oklahoma's method of lethal injection. Mississippi's method follows that of Oklahoma. We feel strongly that the district court misapplied the law."

Craig expects Wingate to issue a preliminary injunction that could freeze executions until the case is complete. Craig said Wingate told lawyers he would expedite the case.

Mississippi is one of a number of states facing legal challenges to lethal injections. Hood's office asked the state Supreme Court in July to set a Thursday execution for convicted murderer Richard Jordan, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, but the state court never acted.

Prisoners say they face risks of excruciating pain and torture during an execution, and that such pain violates the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The suit says there's no guarantee Mississippi can mix a safe and effective anesthetic to knock out prisoners, and even then, prisoners could remain conscious during execution.

As the case was proceeding, Hood's office told Wingate that Mississippi was abandoning its plans to use pentobarbital and instead would use midazolam to knock out prisoners. Mississippi officials have said they've struggled to buy pentobarbital as death penalty opponents pressured manufacturers to cut off the supply.

August 25, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Ninth Circuit panel set for California's appeal of its (unconstitutional?) death penalty administration

Readers may recall that a little over a year ago, as first reported in this July 2014 post, US District Judge  Cormac Carney ruled in Jones v. Chappell (now Jones v. Davis) that California's administration of capital punishment was unconstitutional.  That ruling was based on the judge's conclusion that California operated a death penalty "system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed [, and which consequently] serves no penological purpose."   This Jones ruling was appealed by the state of California to the Ninth Circuit, and a Ninth Circuit panel is finally scheduled to hear oral argument in the case next week.

As reported in this local article, headlined "3 judges appointed by Democrats will hear California death penalty appeal," a notable troika of circuit judges will be the first to hear California's appeal:

The constitutionality of California’s death penalty system will be reviewed next week by a panel of three Democratic appointees on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.  Judges Susan P. Graber and Johnnie B. Rawlinson, Clinton appointees, and Paul J. Watford, an Obama appointee, were randomly assigned Monday to hear an appeal of a federal judge’s ruling that struck down the state’s death penalty law as unconstitutional.

Graber is a former Oregon Supreme Court justice. After joining the federal appeals court, she was once asked to recuse herself from a death penalty case out of Arizona because her father was killed in a carjacking nearly 40 years earlier. One of the teenagers sentenced to death for her father's killing later had his sentence overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. Graber declined the recusal request in the Arizona case, which also involved a carjacking and killing.

Rawlinson is viewed as one of the most conservative Democratic appointees on the court. A former prosecutor from Las Vegas, Rawlinson was the only member of an 11-judge panel to vote to uphold a felony conviction of Barry Bonds, the former San Francisco Giants baseball player.

Watford, a former federal prosecutor, is viewed as a potential candidate for the U.S. Supreme Court if a seat opens up while President Obama is in office. He is generally described as a moderate.

The three are scheduled to hear arguments in Pasadena on Aug. 31 on last year’s death penalty ruling by U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney, appointed by former President George W. Bush.

As detailed in some prior posts below, a number of factors make Jones an interesting ruling for reasons that go beyond its basic significance of declaring unconstitutional the administration of the state capital punishment system with the most persons serving time on death row.  And, as revealed via this Ninth Circuit webpage, various amici have submitted briefs to the Ninth Circuit urging reversal or affirmance of the Jones decision. 

In the end, I am inclined to assert that the composition of this panel is relatively inconsequential.  Whichever side prevails on appeal, the other side is all-but-certain to appeal to the full en banc Ninth Circuit and/or the Supreme Court.  And, especially in the wake of all the dissents in Glossip, I think there is a reasonable likelihood SCOTUS will eventually take up this case no matter how the Ninth Circuit first deals with it.

Prior related posts:

August 25, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 24, 2015

"Justice Department Administration of the President's Pardon Power: A Case Study in Institutional Conflict of Interest"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Margaret Colgate Love now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The president’s constitutional pardon power has been administered by the attorney general since before the Civil War, but this arrangement has never been adequately explained or justified. On its face it appears rife with conflict of institutional interests: how could the agency responsible for convicting people and putting them in prison also be tasked with forgiving them and setting them free? In spite of these apparently antithetical missions, the Justice Department managed the pardon program in a low-key and reliable manner for well over a century, staffing it with a handful of career lawyers operating on a shoestring budget, and churning out hundreds of favorable clemency recommendations each year for the president’s consideration. While there were occasionally controversial grants there were never scandalous ones, and the president was able to use his power to good effect in wartime and in peace.

It is only in the past two decades that questions have been raised about the integrity and functionality of the pardon process, focusing squarely on the agency and individuals standing as gatekeeper to the president’s power. President Obama’s decision in early 2014 to launch a large-scale clemency initiative, and the Justice Department’s unprecedented decision to rely upon a consortium of private organizations to manage it, make this a propitious time to consider whether the presidency is well-served by an arrangement making officials responsible for prosecuting crime the primary source of clemency advice.

This essay concludes that the culture and mission of the Justice Department have in recent years become determinedly and irreconcilably hostile to the beneficent purposes of the pardon power, and to its regular use by the president. The only way to deal with the institutional conflict that produced and perpetuates this situation is to transfer the pardon program to the president’s direct supervision in the Executive Office of the President. This move will have a variety of benefits, including facilitating the president’s ability to oversee the workings of the criminal justice system, for which he has a special responsibility under the Constitution. More specifically, it will introduce salutary political accountability to federal prosecutions through presidential oversight and potential revision. Finally, it will give the president control for the first time in decades over his own “benign prerogative.”

August 24, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Finally, a bit more (though inadequate and unfair) discussion of sentencing finality issues

I am intrigued to see this potent new New York Times op-ed by civil rights attorney Alec Karakatsanis headlined "President Obama’s Department of Injustice."  But, as explained below (and as hinted in the post title), though this piece does a useful job of highlighting concerns with doctrines and policies that give too much significance to the "finality" of problematic federal prison sentences, I fear this op-ed is itself a problematic version of "shooting the messenger."  Here are excerpts (with some key phrases emphasized for the comments to follow):

Last month, President Obama used his clemency power to reduce the sentences of 46 federal prisoners locked up on drug­-related charges.  But for the last six years, his administration has worked repeatedly behind the scenes to ensure that tens of thousands of poor people — disproportionately minorities — languish in federal prison on sentences declared by the courts, and even the president himself, to be illegal and unjustifiable.

The case of Ezell Gilbert is emblematic of this injustice.  In March 1997, he was sentenced to 24 years and four months in federal prison for possession with the intent to distribute more than 50 grams of crack cocaine.  Because of mandatory sentencing laws, Mr. Gilbert was automatically sentenced to a quarter-century in prison, though even the judge who sentenced him admitted that this was too harsh.

At his sentencing, Mr. Gilbert noted a legal error that improperly increased his sentence by approximately a decade based on a misclassification of one of his prior offenses. In 1999, without a lawyer, he filed a petition seeking his release.  A court ruled against him. Nearly 10 years later, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in another prisoner’s case, confirming that Mr. Gilbert had been right.  A public defender helped him file a new petition for immediate release in light of this new decision.

Mr. Obama’s Justice Department, however, convinced a Florida federal judge that even if Mr. Gilbert’s sentence was illegal, he had to remain in prison because prisoners should not be able to petition more than once for release.  The “finality” of criminal cases was too important, the department argued, to allow prisoners more than one petition, even if a previous one was wrongly denied.

A federal appellate court disagreed, and in June 2010, three judges set Mr. Gilbert free. The judges rejected the administration’s argument as a departure from basic fairness and explained that it simply could not be the law in America that a person had to serve a prison sentence that everyone admitted was illegal.  Mr. Gilbert returned home and stayed out of trouble.

Here’s where it gets interesting. There are many people like Mr. Gilbert in America’s federal prisons — people whose sentences are now obviously illegal. Instead of rushing to ensure that all those thousands of men and women illegally imprisoned at taxpayer expense were set free, the Justice Department said that it did not want a rule that allowed other prisoners like Mr. Gilbert to retroactively challenge their now illegal sentences.  If the “floodgates” were opened, too many others — mostly poor, mostly black — would have to be released.  The Obama administration’s fear of the political ramifications of thousands of poor minority prisoners being released at once around the country, what Justice William J. Brennan Jr. once called “a fear of too much justice,” is the real justification.

In May 2011, the same court, led by a different group of judges, sided with the original judge, saying that the “finality” of sentences was too important a principle to allow prisoners to be released on a second rather than first petition, even if the prison sentence was illegal.  A contrary rule would force the courts to hear the complaints of too many other prisoners. Mr. Gilbert was rearrested and sent back to prison to serve out his illegal sentence.

Judge James Hill, then an 87-­year­old senior judge on the appellate court in Atlanta, wrote a passionate dissent.  Judge Hill, a conservative who served in World War II and was appointed by Richard M. Nixon, called the decision “shocking” and declared that a “judicial system that values finality over justice is morally bankrupt.”  Judge Hill wrote that the result was “urged by a department of the United States that calls itself, without a trace of irony, the Department of Justice.”  Judge Hill concluded: “The government hints that there are many others in Gilbert’s position — sitting in prison serving sentences that were illegally imposed. We used to call such systems ‘gulags.’ Now, apparently, we call them the United States.”

Two years later, the Justice Department used a similar tactic to overturn an entirely different federal appellate court decision that could have freed thousands of prisoners convicted of nonviolent crack cocaine offenses — again, mostly impoverished and mostly black — on the grounds that their sentences were discriminatory and unjustifiable.  The administration again did its work without fanfare in esoteric legal briefs, even as the president publicly called the crack­-cocaine sentencing system “unfair.”

In 2013, several years after sending him back to prison, Mr. Obama granted Mr. Gilbert clemency, and the president has recently won praise for doing the same for several dozen other prisoners of the war on drugs....  

But Mr. Obama must take steps to further undo the damage that he has done.  He should use his clemency power to release all those currently held in a federal prison on an illegal sentence.  And he should appoint a permanent special counsel whose job would be to review new laws and federal court cases on a continuing basis to identify and release other prisoners whose sentences retroactively become clearly unlawful.  That the Department of Justice and Bureau of Prisons have never created such a position is an outrage.  If we fail to demand change now, this moment for justice may be lost.

I very much like this author's suggestion that DOJ and BOP have special counsel who would seek to identify and advocate for the release of those currently held in a federal prison on an illegal sentence. But, as a matter of substance, given that vast majority of federal prisoners sentenced before the 2005 Booker ruling were sentenced in violation of the Sixth Amendment, the author is arguably asserting that it is unjust that any federal prisoner is still serving any pre-Booker guideline sentence (let alone any other sentence impacted by any of the many pro-defendant Supreme Court sentencing rulings of the last decade).

Even more troublesome, as a matter of process, DOJ has not really been "working behind the scenes" or using any novel "tactic... in esoteric legal briefs" in order to keep prisoners behind bars based on illegal sentences.  Rather, DOJ has been just doing its job, namely seeking to faithfully execute the laws duly enacted by Congress and interpretted by the courts.  In the Gilbert case and in the other cases referenced in this op-ed, the real "villian" in these complicated legal stories is not really DOJ, but the text of the AEDPA and the Fair Sentencing Act which DOJ is duty-bound to seek to faithfully apply.  

This op-ed is not entirely off-base for suggesting that DOJ could be more inclined to read federal statutes and court rulings in a more defendant-friendly way.  But, especially in recent years, DOJ under the Obama Administration has actually been pretty willing to help prior-sentenced defendants get an extra day in court.  For example, after a few lower courts ruled that the FSA's lower crack mandatory minimums applied to "pipeline cases," DOJ changes its litigation arguments to a more defendant-friendly position.  In addition, Obama's DOJ has generally endorsed retroactive application of defendant-friendly guideline amendments.  And, most recently, DOJ appears to be taking a pro-defendant stance on the broad retroactivity of the Supeme Court's recent constitutional rulings in Miller concerning juve LWOP sentences and Johnson concerning ACCA sentences.

As regular readers know, I pull few punches when it comes to criticizing the Obama Administration and its Justice Department when making what I view as misguided discretionary decisions concerning the application and enforcement of federal sentencing laws and procedures.  But this op-ed, rather than highlight fundamental problems with laws like AEDPA and court jurisprudence that gives excessive weight to sentence finality, seems problematically eager to suggest a star-chamber deep inside Main Justice has Obama Administration officials twirling their mustashes while devising esoteric tactics for keeping innocent people in prison for as long as possible.  

I do not want to unduly criticize this op-ed because I have long been motivated by the same concerns as the author concerning courts having ample means to remedy problematic prior-imposed prison sentences. But the core problem is not really Obama's DOJ and its litigation positions, but the laws put in place by Congress and interpretted by the courts which largely demand that DOJ take many of its seemingly hard-hearted litigation positions.

Some (of many) prior posts on sentencing finality:

August 18, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

"Can a Federal Prisoner Be Too Old to Jail?"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new National Journal article.  Here are excerpts:

When you're locked in federal prison, how old do you have to be to count as "aging"?

That's the question two federal agencies are grappling over, and the answer they pick will determine how the government spends more than $800 million in public funding for prisons.  And for tens of thousands of federal inmates, it could mean the difference between becoming eligible for a late-life release program and spending their twilight years behind bars.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons is struggling to adjust to an aging prison population, a product, in part, of criminal-justice reforms of the late 1980s that dramatically reduced federal parole and imposed mandatory minimum sentences for some offenses.  In fiscal 2013, the Federal Bureau of Prisons spent nearly 20 percent of its $6.9 billion budget to incarcerate inmates aged 50 and older.  And without a policy intervention, those costs are set to rise: Inmates aged 50 and older make up the fastest-growing segment of the prison population, according to Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz.

To meet those costs, the Bureau of Prisons is requesting a 6.1 percent increase in funding for fiscal 2016, an increase from the bureau's $6.9 billion budget in 2015.  But in a report released in May, the Justice Department Office of the Inspector General suggested the Bureau of Prisons consider an alternative solution: expand a "compassionate-release" program that reduces the term of imprisonment for elderly inmates.

To be eligible for the reduced sentencing program, inmates must have "chronic or serious medical conditions relating to the aging process" that "substantially diminish their ability to function in a correctional facility" for which "conventional treatment promises no substantial improvement," according to a statement from the Bureau of Prisons.  They must also have served more than half of their sentence.  For inmates looking for early release under nonmedical circumstances, the time-served bar is higher: "the greater of 10 years or 75 percent of their term."...

But for any of the above criteria to be considered, the inmate must be aged 65 or older. The Inspector General report did not explicitly call on the Bureau of Prisons to lower the limit in its May report.  Instead, it recommended the bureau reconsider the age bar and noted the potential advantages of setting it at age 50.

The lower threshold would cut incarceration costs and relieve prison overcrowding without significantly increasing recidivism rates, the report said.  The report notes several ways in which prisoners 50 and over differ from the rest of the prison population.  Older inmates cost an average of 8 percent more to confine, but they are also less likely to end up back in prison after release.  While the recidivism rate among all prisoners is 41 percent, for those released after age 50, the rate falls to 15 percent.

According to the Inspector General report, lowering the threshold age from 65 to 50 and instituting a 5 percent release rate for only those inmates in minimum or low-security institutions or medical centers could reduce incarceration costs by approximately $28 million per year.  Federal prisons with the most aging inmates spent "five times more per inmate on medical care" and "14 times more per inmate on medication" than institutions with the fewest aging inmates, the report said.

The 65-or-over bar for the program is relatively new, set in 2013 in an effort to clarify the release program's eligibility criteria following a separate Inspector General report released earlier that year....  For now, it's unclear whether the Bureau of Prisons will lower the minimum age for its compassionate-release program.  In its response to the May Inspector General report, the agency said it would "raise the issue with relevant stakeholders for further discussion."

August 18, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Three months after jury's death verdict, Tsarnaev lawyers move for new penalty trial

As reported in this AP article, headlined "Lawyers ask for new trial outside Boston for marathon bomber," the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's attorneys have now moved in federal district court for a new penalty phase trial based mostly their claim that "due to continuous and unrelenting publicity combined with pervasive connections between jurors and the events surrounding the Boston Marathon Bombing that precluded impartial adjudication in both appearance and fact."  (This last phrase comes from the start of the papers filed yesterday, which can be accessed at this link thanks to The Marshall Project.)  

Here is a partial summary of the filing via the AP piece (including an extra legal twist thanks to the Supreme Court's recent Johnson ruling):

They argued that, because of widespread outrage in Boston after the deadly 2013 attack, jurors in the city couldn't be objective before finding him guilty and recommending a death sentence.  As evidence of "continuous and unrelenting publicity," they provided a long list of public events held in honor of the victims, including a new city holiday and several races.

Widespread media coverage featured stories about survivors, including one "powerfully emotional" moment during the 2015 marathon when amputee Rebekah Gregory ran the last 3.5 miles on a prosthetic leg before falling to her knees at the finish line, crying, the filing said.  Banners posted around the city urged solidarity.  Even on social media, the lawyers wrote, jurors were inundated with posts from relatives and friends.

"Put simply, prejudicial media coverage, events and environment saturated greater Boston, including the social networks of actual trial jurors, and made it an improper venue for the trial of this case," the filing said.

The filing concludes that the atmosphere tainted Tsarnaev's constitutional right to an impartial trial.  It asks that his guilty verdict be overturned and that the court provide a new trial to determine his guilt and his penalty....

The defense tried unsuccessfully during the trial to have it moved elsewhere, warning that too many people had personal ties to the marathon or the attack and that anguish in Boston was too powerful to provide a fair trial.

The filing Monday reiterated that request and added new legal arguments, including that a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling throws many convictions into question.  That ruling centered on the legal definition of a "crime of violence," a distinction that can carry heavier penalties.  The court ruled that part of the federal definition was unconstitutionally vague and struck it down.

In the Tsarnaev case, jurors were told that 15 of his convictions were for crimes of violence, but the trial court didn't explain which part of the definition they met, according to the filing.  Therefore, Tsarnaev should be acquitted for all of those charges, his attorneys wrote.  Tsarnaev was charged with placing and discharging an explosive in public, for example, but his lawyers said "the 'delivery' and 'placement' of an explosive do not involve violent force."

August 18, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, August 17, 2015

US Sentencing Commission releases new data on retroactive application of "drugs -2" guideline amendment

I just noticed on the US Sentencing Commission's website this notable new document titled "2014 Drug Guidelines Amendment Retroactivity Data Report." This part of the report's introduction provides the basic back-story for the data which follow:

On April 30, 2014, the Commission submitted to Congress an amendment to the federal sentencing guidelines that revised the guidelines applicable to drug trafficking offenses by changing how the base offense levels in the drug or chemical quantity tables in sections 2D1.1 and 2D1.11 of the Guidelines Manual incorporate the statutory mandatory minimum penalties for drug trafficking offenses (Amendment 782). Specifically, the amendment reduced by two levels the offense levels assigned to the quantities that trigger the statutory mandatory minimum penalties, resulting in corresponding guideline ranges that include the mandatory minimum penalties, and made conforming changes to section 2D1.1. Amendment 782 became effective on November 1, 2014.

On July 18, 2014, the Commission voted to give retroactive effect to Amendment 782 beginning on the effective date of the amendment. The Commission also voted to require that courts not release any offender whose term of imprisonment was reduced pursuant to retroactive applications of Amendment 782 prior to November 1, 2015.  To effectuate these decisions, the Commission promulgated Amendment 788, which added Amendment 782 to the list of amendments in section 1B1.10 (Reduction in Term of Imprisonment as a Result of an Amended Guideline Range)(Policy Statement) that apply retroactively. Amendment 788 also added a new special instruction to section 1B1.10 requiring that the effective date of all orders reducing a term of imprisonment pursuant to retroactive application of Amendment 782 be November 1, 2015 or later.  Amendment 788 became effective on November 1, 2014.

The data in this report represents information concerning motions for a reduced sentence pursuant to the retroactive application of Amendment 782.  The data in this report reflects all motions decided through July 24, 2015 and for which court documentation was received, coded, and edited at the Commission by August 3, 2015.

The subsequent official data indicate that, thanks to the USSC's decision to make its "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactive, approximately 13,000 federal prisoners have had their federal drug prison sentences reduced by an average of nearly two years.

So, given the (conservative) estimate of each extra year of imprisonment for federal drug offenders costing on average $35,000, the USSC's decision to make its "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactive so far appears to be on track to save federal taxpayers close to one billion dollars.  Kudos to the US Sentencing Commission for providing at least some proof that at least some government bureaucrats inside the Beltway will sometimes vote to reduce the size and costs of the federal government.

August 17, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, August 16, 2015

"Sex Offenders Locked Up on a Hunch"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy New York Times editorial. Here are excerpts:

The essence of the American criminal justice system is reactive, not predictive: You are punished for the crime you committed.  You can’t be punished simply because you might commit one someday.  You certainly can’t be held indefinitely to prevent that possibility.

And yet that is exactly what is happening to about 5,000 people convicted of sex crimes around the country.  This population, which nearly doubled in the last decade, has completed prison sentences but remains held in what is deceptively called civil commitment — the practice of keeping someone locked up in an institution for months, years or even decades for the purpose of preventing possible future offenses.

The authorities have the power to detain people with mental illnesses or disorders who cannot function independently, or who pose a danger to themselves or others.  But since the early 1990s, this power has been used increasingly to imprison one distinct group: sex offenders....

In a decision in June, a federal judge ruled that Minnesota’s civil-commitment law for sex offenders violates the Constitution.  Federal District Judge Donovan Frank said the law imposes “a punitive system that segregates and indefinitely detains a class of potentially dangerous individuals without the safeguards of the criminal justice system.”  For example, local prosecutors — not clinicians or mental health professionals — choose whether to seek continued detention based on a screening test that claims to predict a person’s likelihood of committing another sex offense, though there is no clear evidence such tests are accurate.

Yet based largely on those screening tests, more than 700 Minnesotans who have completed their prison sentences are locked up, at an annual cost of more than $120,000 per person — triple the cost of prison.  This civil commitment rate is by far the highest in the country. Some people have been held for more than 20 years.  During that time, not one person has been released from the program unconditionally.

A central flaw, Judge Frank said, is that Minnesota does not perform reassessments of risk, so the burden lies with the detainees to prove they no longer pose a danger.  On Aug. 12, Judge Frank ordered the state to come up with constitutionally valid reforms by the end of September, or he “may demand a more forceful solution.”

Despite the public perception that all sex offenders are recidivists — a belief that drove these laws in the first place — sexual re­offense rates are in fact lower than those for other crimes (though an unknown number of sex crimes go unreported).  In addition, while some states’ laws make it easier for detainees to earn their way out, 30 states have no civil­-commitment laws at all, and there is no evidence that a state’s sexual­-violence rate is affected by whether it has such a law....

Public safety would be better served if resources were directed toward community supervision and other services for those leaving prison, rather than toward skirting the edges of the Constitution to keep them locked away.

August 16, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (12)

Saturday, August 15, 2015

"The Circuit Split on Johnson Retroactivity"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective new Casetext analysis of the intricate lower-court legal story already emerging in the wake of the Supreme Court's big Johnson Armed Career Criminal Act ruling declaring the residual clause of ACCA void for vagueness.  Authored by Leah Litman, the full piece merits a full read, and here is how it gets started:

In Johnson v. United States, the Supreme Court held that the “residual clause” of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) is unconstitutionally vague.  Defendants therefore can no longer be sentenced under the residual clause to a 15-year mandatory minimum term of imprisonment.  But what about defendants who have already been sentenced under ACCA’s residual clause?  I predicted in April, before Johnson was decided, that determining who can be resentenced in light of Johnson would be fraught with difficulties.  The courts of appeals have begun to sort through this question, and I’ll highlight one such case in this post.

In In re Rivero, the Eleventh Circuit purported to decide an important question that affects who can be resentenced in light of Johnson — namely, whether the Supreme Court has made Johnson retroactive.  Generally, new rules of constitutional law do not apply to convictions that have become final.  But certain “retroactive” rules apply to convictions that have become final; prisoners can raise claims that are based on retroactive rules in post-conviction review — review that occurs after a defendant’s conviction has become final.  If a prisoner has already filed one petition for post-conviction review, he may file a second or successive petition for post-conviction review only if the Supreme Court has made a rule retroactive (as opposed to a court of appeals or district court doing so).

I said that the Eleventh Circuit “purported” to decide whether the Supreme Court has made Johnson retroactive because the Eleventh Circuit’s decision is a bit quirky.  Most importantly, the defendant wasn’t actually sentenced under ACCA — he was sentenced under an analogous provision of the Sentencing Guidelines (the “career-offender Guideline”).  But the Eleventh Circuit “assumed” that Johnson applied to the career-offender Guideline and that the career-offender Guideline was therefore unconstitutional. Working off that assumption, the Eleventh Circuit went out of its way to disagree with the Seventh Circuit on whether the Supreme Court has made Johnson retroactive.

Rivero has thus created a potentially unnecessary circuit split, as well as some uncertainty about who can be resentenced in light of Johnson.  I’ll offer some thoughts on how narrowly or broadly Rivero can be read. (Spoiler: I think it should be read pretty narrowly.)

Some prior related posts:

August 15, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Fourth Circuit reverses district court's conclusion that Eighth Amendment precluded mandatory LWOP for piracy

Thanks to a helpful reader, I saw that the Fourth Circuit today handed down a panel decision in US v. Said, No. 14-4420 (4th Cir. Aug. 13, 2015) (available here), which reverses a district court's prior ruling that the Eighth Amendment precluded the imposition of mandatory LWOP federal sentences on defendants convicted of piracy.  The main opinion in Said ends its Eighth Amendment analysis this way:

Victims of piracy are robbed of their vessels, kidnapped, held hostage, and even tortured and murdered, while pirates are often able to find safe refuge in the territorial waters off Somalia and collect multi-milliondollar ransom payments.  In these circumstances, we agree with the government “that Congress could with reason conclude [that piracy] calls for the strong medicine of a life sentence for those who are apprehended.” See Br. of Appellant 39.

We are satisfied that “the relationship between the gravity of [the defendants’] offenses and the severity of [their proposed] punishment fails to create the threshold inference of gross disproportionality that is required” to satisfy prong one of the Eighth Amendment analysis.  See Cobler, 748 F.3d at 580.  Thus, without moving to prong two, we rule that the district court erred in invalidating § 1651’s mandatory life sentence as to these defendants and is obliged to impose such sentences on remand.

Judge Davis wrote an intriguing little concurring opinion urging Congress to no longer mandate LWOP sentences in all piracy cases because "not all piracy offenses are equal in severity, in heinousness, and in the dire consequences visited on innocent seafarers."  In so doing, Judge Davis dropped this notable footnote:

Indeed, in this case, Mr. Ibrahim, who was “the group’s leader” and who “led the new mission,” ante at 7, would seem to have earned a life sentence.  But he avoided that fate through the magic of “substantial assistance” and the fiction of “acceptance of responsibility,” the coins of the federal prosecutorial realm.  The inference is unavoidable that it is not really those who participate in piracy who receive a life sentence upon conviction (as we imagine Congress might believe), but rather those who are convicted after electing to go to trial.

August 13, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (10)

Connecticut Supreme Court follows legislature's prospective DP repeal with retrospective state consitutional abolition

The Connecticut Supreme Court today finally resolved, via a split vote, what is to become of the other capital murderers on te state's death row in the aftermath of the legislative repeal of death penalty back in 2012. Here is the lengthy paragraph that starts the lengthy marjority opinion in Connecticut v. Santiago, No. SC 17413 (Conn. Aug 13, 2015) (available here):

Although the death penalty has been a fixture of Connecticut’s criminal law since early colonial times, public opinion concerning it has long been divided.  In 2009, growing opposition to capital punishment led the legislature to enact Public Acts 2009, No. 09-107 (P.A. 09-107), which would have repealed the death penalty for all crimes committed on or after the date of enactment but retained the death penalty for capital felonies committed prior to that date.  Then Governor M. Jodi Rell vetoed P.A. 09-107, however, and it did not become law.  Three years later, in 2012, the legislature passed a materially identical act that prospectively repealed the death penalty; see Public Acts 2012, No. 12-5 (P.A. 12-5); and, this time, Governor Dannel P. Malloy signed it into law.  During the public hearings on both P.A. 09-107 and P.A. 12-5, supporters argued that the proposed legislation represented a measured and lawful approach to the issue.  Others raised serious concerns, however, as to whether, following a prospective only repeal, the imposition of the death penalty would violate the state constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.  Perhaps most notably, Chief State’s Attorney Kevin T. Kane, who serves as this state’s chief law enforcement officer and represents the state in the present case, testified before the legislature that such a statute could not pass constitutional muster.  Additionally, the Division of Criminal Justice submitted written testimony, in which it advised the legislature that a prospective only repeal would be a "fiction" and that, "[i]n reality, it would effectively abolish the death penalty for anyone who has not yet been executed because it would be untenable as a matter of constitutional law . . . . [A]ny death penalty that has been imposed and not carried out would effectively be nullified."  In the present appeal, the defendant, Eduardo Santiago, raises similar claims, contending that, following the decision by the elected branches to abolish capital punishment for all crimes committed on or after April 25, 2012, it would be unconstitutionally cruel and unusual to execute offenders who committed capital crimes before that date.  Upon careful consideration ofthe defendant’s claims in light ofthe governing constitutional principles and Connecticut’s unique historical and legal landscape, we are persuaded that, following its prospective abolition, this state’s death penalty no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency and no longer serves any legitimate penological purpose.  For these reasons, execution of those offenders who committed capital felonies prior to April 25, 2012, would violate the state constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Over at Crime & Consequences, Kent has this post in reaction to the Santiago ruling titled "A Broken Promise In Connecticut."

August 13, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23)

Split Eleventh Circuit panel splits from Seventh Circuit approach on Johnson retroactivity

I had an inkling it might not take too long for lower courts to become divided on what the Supreme Court's big Johnson Armed Career Criminal Act ruling, which declared the residual clause of ACCA was void for vagueness, could and should mean for long-ago imposed sentences.  And, sure enough, less than seven weeks after the Johnson ruling, we already have a big circuit split.

As detailed in this post last week, the Seventh Circuit in Price v. US, No. 15-2527 (7th Cir. Aug. 4, 2015) (available here), decided that a defendant serving an ACCA-influenced sentence of 20+ years imposed way back in 2006 could bring a new, successor 2255 motion based on the Johnson ruling.  But, now as flagged effective via this post at the "Southern District of Florida" blog, a divided three-judge panel of the the Eleventh Circuit had a different take on this issue in In re Rivero, No. 15-13089 (11th Cir. Aug. 12, 2015) (available here). Here is a key passage from the marjority opinion in Rivero:

We acknowledge that one of our sister circuits has held that Johnson applies retroactively to decisions on collateral review, but we are unpersuaded by that decision. See Price v. United States, No. 15-2427 (7th Cir. Aug. 4, 2015).  In Price, the Seventh Circuit explained that “[t]here is no escaping the logical conclusion that the [Supreme] Court itself has made Johnson categorically retroactive to cases on collateral review” because “[a] defendant who was sentenced under the residual clause necessarily bears a significant risk of facing a punishment that the law cannot impose upon him.”  Id. at *7.  We disagree.  We can “escap[e] th[at] logical conclusion” because Congress could impose the punishment in Johnson if Congress did so with specific, not vague, language.

Our dissenting colleague assumes that the new rule announced in Johnson also applies to the residual clause of the career offender enhancement in the Sentencing Guidelines, U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(2), but that assumption makes clear that precedents of the Supreme Court do not “necessarily dictate,” In re Anderson, 396 F.3d at 1339 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted), that Rivero may file his second or successive motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence.  See Dissenting Op. at 15 n.2.  The Supreme Court has never held that the Sentencing Guidelines are subject to a vagueness challenge. And four of our sister circuits have held that the Sentencing Guidelines — whether mandatory or advisory — cannot be unconstitutionally vague because they “do not establish the illegality of any conduct” and are “designed to assist and limit the discretion of the sentencing judge.” United States v. Tichenor, 683 F.3d 358, 363–66, 365 n.3 (7th Cir. 2012); see also United States v. Smith, 73 F.3d 1414, 1418 (6th Cir. 1996); United States v. Pearson, 910 F.2d 221, 223 (5th Cir. 1990); United States v. Wivell, 893 F.2d 156, 159–160 (8th Cir. 1990).  But the absence of Supreme Court precedent provides an alternative ground for why we must deny Rivero’s application for leave to file a second or successive motion.

Especially because the Justice Department appears to be supporting Johnson retroactivity, I suspect we may end up with more circuits lining up behind Price than behind Rivero in the weeks ahead. But whatever transpires in other lower courts, it is now already clear that SCOTUS is going to need to take up Johnson's application before too long.

Some prior related posts:

August 13, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Thanks to prior commutation, Missouri marijuana lifer now to get paroled

As reported in this Huffington Post piece, headlined "Man Who Was Serving Life In Prison For Marijuana To Be Set Free," there has been a notable development in a notable drug sentencing case in Missouri. Here are the details:

Jeff Mizanskey, a 61-year-old Missouri man who was serving life in prison for nonviolent marijuana offenses, will be set free in a matter of days, his attorney confirmed Monday to The Huffington Post. "We were notified today that he will be granted parole and be released within '10 to 25 days,'" lawyer Dan Viets said about the Missouri Department of Corrections' decision. Mizanskey had met with the parole board just last Thursday.

After two decades in prison, Mizanskey became eligible for parole in May when Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) commuted his life sentence, while granting pardons to five other nonviolent offenders who had already completed their punishments. Parole was an option that Mizanskey did not have previously because he had been sentenced as a "prior and persistent drug offender" under Missouri's three strikes law, which was repealed last year.

All three of Mizanskey's offenses involved marijuana. He was given a life sentence after a conviction for attempting to sell about six pounds of pot in a 1993 police sting operation.

A petition seeking clemency for Mizanskey had received nearly 400,000 signatures. "Great news everyone... Jeff is coming home this month!" said a post Monday on the Free Jeff Mizanskey Facebook page. "We want everyone to know how greatful [sic] we are for all the support received throughout this whole ordeal."

Marijuana offenses, mainly involving simple possession, account for roughly half of all drug-related crimes. According to a recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union, 88 percent of the more than 8 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010 were for possession alone. There were more arrests in the U.S. for marijuana possession in 2011 than for all violent crimes combined, according to the FBI's uniform crime report. The ACLU report also found significant racial disparities in the arrest patterns. While black and white Americans use marijuana at about the same rates, blacks were nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana during the years examined.

August 11, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Monday, August 10, 2015

Could USSC's proposed amendment dealing with SCOTUS Johnson ruling be made retroactive (and how many federal prisioners could then get reduced sentences)?

Readers know that I have been making much of the potential practical impact of the Supreme Court's big ruling in Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (June 26, 2015) (available here).  Johnson declared that that a key clause defining violent offenses in the Armed Career Criminal Act violated "the Constitution’s prohibition of vague criminal laws."   I have made much of the Johnson ruling's potental impact in part because its holding is inevitably going to echo for quite some time — in some ways predictable and in some ways unpredictable — through other important parts of federal sentencing law.

Perhaps the biggest early post-Johnson federal sentencing echo emerged late last week when, as reported in this US Sentencing Commission news release, the USSC put forth "proposed changes to the existing guideline definitions of a 'crime of violence' [which are] primarily intended to make the guideline consistent with the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Johnson v. United States, __ U.S. __, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015)."   This recent post provides the basic details of what the USSC is proposing, and all the official details appear in this USSC document.  

I am still working through the potential import and impact of what the USSC is proposing, and the USSC itself stresses that its proposed guideline amendment is not just preliminary.  But, as the question in the title of this post suggests, the import and impact of what the USSC is proposing would be that much bigger and that much more consequential if any USSC post-Johnson amendments were to be made fully retroactive by the Commission to all federal prisoners currently serving long guideline-career-offender-based sentences.

As hard-core federal sentencing practitioners know, sorting through whether, how and for whom guidelines amendments are made retroactive can be a tough slog both legally and practically.  But because many current prisoners potentially impacted any post-Johnson guideline amendments may already be able to bring Johnson-based constitutional challenges to their existing sentences, it might actually prove more efficient and effective for all actors in the federal sentencing system for the USSC to make any of its post-Johnson guideline amendments fully retroactive — rather than to have everyone in the system await court rulings (and inevitable circuit splits?) on just what Johnson means for prisoners now serving long prison sentences based on the existing (constitutionally suspect) guideline definitions of "crime of violence."

Some prior posts on Johnson and its possible impact:

August 10, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Taking stock of what Glossip now means for executions throughout the US

Exec_year (1)The most important practical question in the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling in Glossip upholding Oklahoma's execution protocol — not only for the roughly 3000 murderers currently on death row throughout the United States, but also for all those eager to see death sentences carried out — is whether Glossip will increase the chances and speed with which the condemned get taken to a death chamber for a execution.  This new AP article, headlined "Justices Speak out About Death Penalty, but Executions Go On," speaks somewhat to this reality (while also highlighting that court challenges to death sentences are not going to decline anytime soon).  Here are excerpts:

Wherever their summer travels have taken them, Supreme Court justices probably will weigh in over the next few days on Texas' plans to execute two death row inmates in the week ahead.  If past practice is any guide, the court is much more likely to allow the lethal-injection executions to proceed than to halt them.

Opponents of the death penalty took heart when Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg made the case against capital punishment in late June as arbitrary, prone to mistakes and time-consuming.  Even if death penalty opponents eventually succeed, the timeline for abolition probably will be measured in years, not months.

That's because Breyer, joined by Ginsburg, was writing in dissent in a case involving death row inmates in Oklahoma, and five sitting justices, a majority of the court, believe "it is settled that capital punishment is constitutional," as Justice Samuel Alito wrote in his opinion for the court in that same case.

Texas has scheduled back-to-back executions Wednesday and Thursday for Daniel Lee Lopez and Tracy Lane Beatty.  Lopez was convicted of running over a Texas police officer with his car during a high-speed chase. Lopez' lawyer already has asked the court to stop the execution.  Beatty strangled his 62-year-old mother, then stole her car and drained her bank accounts.  He has an appeal pending in lower courts and could also end up at the Supreme Court.

The justices rarely issue last-minute reprieves to death-row inmates.  Even after Breyer's opinion calling for a re-examination of capital punishment by the Supreme Court, no justice publicly backed a Missouri inmate's plea to halt his execution to allow the court to take up the constitutionality of the death penalty.

Similarly, the three Oklahoma inmates who lost their high court case now face execution in September and October and want the justices to reconsider the decision from June in light of Breyer's dissent. The court almost never does that....

The 18 executions that have taken place so far this year have been carried out in just five states — Texas, Missouri, Georgia, Florida and Oklahoma.  Nine of those were in Texas. Twelve states with the death penalty have not had an execution in more than five years. That list includes California and Pennsylvania, which between them have more than 900 death row inmates....

Geographic disparity was among several defects Breyer and Ginsburg identified in June. Another is the length of time many inmates spend living under a sentence of death, which Breyer had previously suggested also might be a violation of the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  Six of the 18 men who have been executed in 2015 spent at least 20 years on death row, including one who served 31 years before his execution....

Among the questions surrounding the possibility that the Supreme Court would take up the constitutionality of the death penalty is the makeup of the court itself.  With four justices in their late 70s or early 80s, the next president might have the chance to fill several vacancies and could change the court's direction.

"Obviously, the composition of the court matters greatly and the biggest unknown variable about the life of the American death penalty is the presidential election of 2016.  My expected time frame for constitutional abolition varies greatly based on the result," said Jordan Steiker, a University of Texas law professor....

Steiker said he thinks Breyer's dissent will serve as a road map for death penalty lawyers and future justices who may not feel constrained to wait before grappling with executions. "It was invigorating to those who'd like to see constitutional abolition," he said. "The arguments not new, but they had not been marshaled as effectively by a justice until this opinion."

Critically, Glossip does not preclude Eighth Amendment challenges to various execution protocols, it just makes it somewhat harder for these challenges to prevail.  In addition, states continue to face practical challenges in acquiring execution drugs and often have to deal with with state-level execution administration difficulties.  For those reasons, I am not surprised we have not yet seen a significant post-Glossip up-tick in executions.  

More broadly, unless and until a handful of recently execution-dormant states with sizeable death rows get back in the execution business — states like Alabama, Arizona, California, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania — it remains likely that more condemned murderers on death rows in the US will die of natural causes than will have their capital punishments actually carried out.

August 10, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Teen placed on sex offender registries after encounter with girl claiming to be 17 to be resentenced

According to this new CNN piece, there seems to be a notable new legal development in a notable case of a teen facing extreme sex offender restrictions after a seemingly not-so-extreme sex offense.  The piece is headlined "Judge reconsidering case of teen on sex offender registry," and here are the details:

A 19-year-old Indiana man convicted of a sex offense after a teenaged girl lied about her age on a hookup app may get a new sentence. The judge in the case, Dennis Wiley, did not make a decision Wednesday, but he agreed to consider Zach Anderson's request to be resentenced, meaning that Anderson could potentially be taken off the sex offender registry.

Anderson met the girl on the dating app "Hot Or Not." The 14-year-old girl lied about her age, claiming she was 17, which made having sex with her a crime.  She lived in southern Michigan, close to Anderson's parents' home in Elkhart, Indiana.  Anderson was given a 90-day jail sentence, five years probation and placed on both Indiana's and Michigan's sex offender registry for the next 25 years -- the same registry as child rapists, pedophiles and predators.

Anderson and his lawyer, Scott Grabel, had asked a court in Niles, Michigan, to vacate Anderson's sentence, alleging that prosecutors broke the plea agreement, the defense attorney said.  Grabel, who accuses the prosecution of not staying neutral during the sentencing of Anderson as required under the agreement, described the judge's decision Wednesday as a "significant step."  Wiley is expected to make a further ruling in about a week.

"In the long run, I'm confident we're gonna get this thing fixed," the attorney told CNN. Both the girl's mother and the girl herself had earlier appeared in court, to say they didn't believe Anderson belonged on the sex offender registry....

"Our goal is to get this case resentenced in front of a different judge, because the law mandates if the prosecutor violates their plea agreement, then it should be sent to a different judge for possible resentencing, or if we want to withdraw the plea and go to retrial that may be an option, as well," Grabel told CNN before the court action Wednesday.

Anderson's attorney is also striving to get the entire case dismissed. "I don't certainly speak for the public in general, but the comments I've read nationally think that his whole life shouldn't be ruined by his decision to go on a date and obviously have sexual relations with that person, especially when that person in all honesty misrepresented their true age," Grabel said.

As a registered sex offender, Anderson can't access the Internet, go to a mall or linger near a school or playground. His parents say because he has a 15-year-old brother, he can't even live at home any longer....

Anderson's case has stirred much debate about the one-size-fits-all sex offender laws that treat all offenders the same whether they are serial child predators or teens who've had sex with a girlfriend. His family has started a Facebook page, called "Justice 4 Zach," and has been very vocal about what they call the injustice of the sex offender registry. "He's obviously not a sex offender," Anderson's father told CNN, "I mean when there's a consensual act, to have one person labeled as the offender and the other person as a victim ... It's hard to swallow."

A former judge in a nearby town said the sex offender registry has to be changed. "If we caught every teenager that violated our current law," said former Judge William Buhl, "we'd lock up 30 or 40% of the high school. We're kidding ourselves."

According to The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, there are 850,000 people on the sex offender list and about a quarter of them were juveniles when they were sentenced, but the records are not broken down by the severity of the crimes they committed.

Some recent related posts:

August 6, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (8)

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Gearing up for the Ninth Circuit's consideration of the arbitrariness of California's capital punishment system

Reader may recall that a little over a year ago, as first reported in this July 2014 post, US District Judge  Cormac Carney ruled in Jones v. Chappell (now Jones v. Davis) that California's administration of capital punishment was unconstitutional.  That ruling was based on the judge's conclusion that California operated a death penalty "system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed [, and which consequently] serves no penological purpose."   This Jones ruling was appealed by the state of California to the Ninth Circuit, and the Ninth Circuit is finally scheduled to hear oral argument in the case on the last day of this month.

As detailed in some prior posts below, a number of factors make Jones an interesting ruling that go beyond its basic significance of deeming unconstitutional the state capital system with the most persons serving time on death row.  And, as revealed via this Ninth Circuit webpage, various amici have submitted briefs to the Ninth Circuit urging reversal or affirmance of the Jones decision. 

This preview post now (with perhaps more to follow) was by this new Washington Post piece, headlined "The death penalty is about to go on trial in California. Here’s why it might lose." The piece is authored by Prof Frank Baumgartner, and here are excerpts:

Carney argued that because of the extremely low likelihood of execution and long delays on death row, the system was actually a penalty of life without parole with the remote possibility of death.  His ruling declared that execution after such a long delay serves no retributive or deterrent purpose beyond the long prison term, and is therefore arbitrary and unconstitutional.  As Carney wrote in his California decision, no rational jury or legislature would design a system that functions as the system actually works.  But, he argued, we must evaluate the system we do have, not the one we might prefer to have....

Supporters of the death penalty argue that Carney overstepped with his sweeping decision throwing out the entire California death penalty.  Oral arguments in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will begin at the end of this month.  California certainly was at the low end of the distribution of “efficiency” in carrying out its death sentences....  Out of more than 900 death sentences, the state has carried out just 13 executions.  It stands as one of the few states, along with Pennsylvania, that has large numbers of death sentences that result in very few executions.

Prior related posts:

August 5, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Seventh Circuit authorizes successive 2255 attack on ACCA sentence based on Johnson

A helpful reader altered me to a significant post-Johnson ruling today by the Seventh Circuit in Price v. US, No. 15-2527 (7th Cir. Aug. 4, 2015) (available here).  Price, which some ACCA prisoners may come to consider priceless, authorizes a defendant serving an ACCA-influenced sentence of 20+ years imposed way back in 2006 to bring a new, successor 2255 motion based on the Johnson ruling.  Here are a few key passages from this notable ruling: 

Price now asks this court to authorize the district court to entertain a successive collateral attack, 28 U.S.C. § 2244(b)(3), in which he proposes to assert a claim under Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015).  Johnson holds that the imposition of an enhanced sentence under the residual clause of ACCA violates due process because the clause is too vague to provide adequate notice. Id. at 2557.  We invited the government to respond, and it has done so. We now conclude, consistently with the government’s position, that Johnson announces a new substantive rule of constitutional law that the Supreme Court has categorically made retroactive to final convictions....

Johnson, we conclude, announced a new substantive rule.  In deciding that the residual clause is unconstitutionally vague, the Supreme Court prohibited “a certain category of punishment for a class of defendants because of their status.”  Saffle, 494 U.S. at 494.  A defendant who was sentenced under the residual clause necessarily bears a significant risk of facing “a punishment that the law cannot impose upon him.”  Summerlin, 542 U.S. at 352.  There is no escaping the logical conclusion that the Court itself has made Johnson categorically retroactive to cases on collateral review.  Because Price has made a prima facie showing that he may be entitled to sentencing relief under Johnson, we GRANT Price’s application and AUTHORIZE the district court to consider a successive collateral attack presenting this claim.

We add a cautionary note in closing.  Our review of Price’s substantive claim is necessarily preliminary, and as we just noted, our holding is limited to the conclusion that Price has made a prima facie showing of a tenable claim under Johnson.  The district court will have the opportunity to examine the claim in more detail as the case proceeds. That court is authorized under § 2244(b)(4) to dismiss any claim that it concludes upon closer examination does not satisfy the criteria for authorization.  The judge is likely to be familiar with the case (or to become familiar easily) because § 2255 motions must be filed in the applicant’s sentencing court, which has access to the criminal record and familiarity with the case.  Our conclusions are tentative largely because of the strict time constraints under which we must review these applications. Tyler, 533 U.S. at 664 (“It is unlikely that a court of appeals could make such a determination in the allotted time [30 days] if it had to do more than simply rely on Supreme Court holdings.”).  For example, we do not know whether Price has other qualifying convictions that were not considered at sentencing because, at that time, the three on which the court relied were sufficient.  If he is successful in vacating his sentence under Johnson, the parties will be free to argue this and any other pertinent questions on resentencing.

August 4, 2015 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, August 03, 2015

Split Fourth Circuit panel finds no means for federal prisoner to challenge collaterally wrongful LWOP

A Fourth Circuit panel on Friday issued a very intricate and thoughtful set of opinions in US v. Surratt, No. 14-6851 (4th Cir. July 31, 2015) (available here). The start of the majority opinion provides this effective overview of the issues in Surratt:

In 2005, after pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine, Raymond Surratt was sentenced to life imprisonment.  We affirmed his conviction and sentence on appeal, and Surratt’s motion to vacate his conviction and sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 was likewise denied. Neither Surratt’s direct appeal nor his § 2255 motion questioned the legality of his mandatory life sentence.

Several years later, Surratt returned to this Court and asked for permission to file a second or successive § 2255 motion.  Surratt’s request was premised on United States v. Simmons, 649 F.3d 237 (4th Cir. 2011) (en banc), which in turn overruled our prior decision in United States v. Harp, 406 F.3d 242 (4th Cir. 2005).  Had Surratt been sentenced after Simmons, he would have faced a lower mandatory minimum sentence than the mandatory life term that he actually received.  Surratt maintained that this difference entitled him to be resentenced.  But Congress set out certain conditions that must be met before a successive motion may be permitted, and Surratt did not meet those required conditions.  See 28 U.S.C. § 2255(h). We therefore denied him permission to file a successive motion. See In re Surratt, No. 12-283 (4th Cir. Sept. 13, 2012), ECF No. 6.

In the district court, Surratt had simultaneously filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 seeking the same Simmons-based relief.  As a federal prisoner, however, Surratt cannot challenge his conviction and sentence under § 2241 unless 28 U.S.C. § 2255(e) -- also called the “savings clause” -- applies.  The district court concluded that § 2255(e) did not in fact confer jurisdiction to consider Surratt’s claim in a § 2241 petition, so it denied Surratt’s petition.

Surratt now appeals from the judgment of the district court.  We are not unsympathetic to his claim; like the dissent, we recognize the gravity of a life sentence.  However, Congress has the power to define the scope of the writ of habeas corpus, and Congress has exercised that power here to narrowly limit the circumstances in which a § 2241 petition may be brought. Surratt’s petition does not present one of the permitted circumstances. Accordingly, we agree that the district court lacked jurisdiction under § 2255(e) to consider Surratt’s § 2241 petition and affirm the judgment below.

The end of the dissenting opinion in Surratt provides this alternative perspective on the case and its disposition by the majority:

I do not doubt that the majority is sympathetic to Surratt. In the end, I suppose we just have fundamentally different views on the role of habeas corpus, as well as the role of the judiciary in granting the writ.  I see it as our solemn responsibility to guard against a morbid encroachment upon that which is so precious our Framers ensured its continued vitality in our Constitution.  Instead we guard the Great Writ itself, and so closely that Surratt must spend the rest of his life in prison -- against the will of the government and the district court.  Our abdication of this responsibility begs the question: quis custodiet ipsos custodies?  Who will guard the guards themselves?

It is within our power to do more than simply leave Surratt to the mercy of the executive branch.  To hope for the right outcome in another’s hands perhaps is noble.  But only when we actually do the right thing can we be just.  I lament that today we are not the latter. Neither the plain language of our habeas statutes, our precedent, nor the Constitution demands that Surratt die in prison.  I must dissent.

August 3, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Notable recent state criminal justice reforms highlighted by Pew

The Pew Charitable Trusts has done a lot of important criminal justice reform work at the state level in recent years.  These notable recent Pew discussions of state reforms provide an effective review of encouraging reform developments from a state-level perspective:

August 1, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Data on sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Latest reform news means still more waiting for those eager for federal sentencing reform

This new NPR piece, headlined "Despite High Expectations, Sentencing Reform Proposals Still On Ice," confirms my persistent fear that a long and uncertain slog remeains in Congress before anyone should expect to see a major sentencing reform bill on Prez Obama's desk for signature. Here is why:

Advocates and inmates working to overhaul the criminal justice system will have to wait at least a little longer for congressional action.

The Republican leader of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Charles Grassley, said he won't hold a public event on sentencing reform proposals until after the August recess, as language is still being drafted by a bipartisan working group. And in the U.S. House, lawmakers and their aides will spend at least the next five weeks making adjustments to a sweeping bill sponsored by 40 Democrats and Republicans, sources told NPR Friday....

Earlier this week, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a member of the GOP leadership team, suggested that a hearing and markup on proposals could be imminent. "This seems to be another area where there's a lot of common ground, where a lot needs to be done, and I'm reassured by the bipartisan support we've seen, an optimism that we can get something important done," Cornyn said Tuesday.

But multiple sources from Capitol Hill, the executive branch and the advocacy community said concrete language on sentencing and criminal justice overhauls is still being hotly debated behind closed doors in both the Senate and the House. The Obama administration, including Deputy U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates, has been pressing to relax mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes....

The principles on the table now in the Senate would not eliminate all mandatory minimums, and, in fact, some Republicans are pressing to create new ones, for other crimes. Another key issue is how the bill will come to define crimes of "violence," which could exclude thousands of prisoners from taking advantage of the legislative changes.

And in the House, a massive bill called the SAFE Justice Act, co-sponsored by Reps. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., got a boost this month when House leaders confirmed it would get time on the floor this year. But what the bill will look like by then is an open question, after the Justice Department and some police groups expressed concerns about its scope. Lawmakers are working to tweak the language over the next couple of months.

Congressional sources say they're moving carefully, to avoid falling into the same traps as they did in debate over the landmark 1994 crime bill, which imposed tough mandatory criminal penalties on defendants, incentivized states to build more jails and prisons, and barred inmates from being awarded grants to pursue education. All of those issues are now being rethought, more than two decades later.

As each week passes without consensus building around any specific reform proposal in the House or Senate, I am growing ever more worried that the considerable eagerness for enacting major reforms may, at least in the short term, continune to stall or ultimately prevent getting a even minor reforms into law.  (For the record, I already think this dynamic undercut the prospects of enacting, many months ago, less-controversial-but-consequential aspects of the Smarter Sentencing Act.)  I sincerely hope I am wrong to see the same forces that brought down the SSA at work here creating a growing risk that the "sentencing reform best" ends up becoming a problematic enemy of the "sentencing reform good enough to get actually enacted."

August 1, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Thursday, July 30, 2015

"Miller v. Alabama as a Watershed Procedural Rule: The Case for Retroactivity"

The title of this post is the title of this timely piece available via SSRN and authored by Beth Caldwell. Here is the abstract:

Three years ago, in Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to life without parole (LWOP) under mandatory sentencing schemes amounts to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.  Over the past few years, courts have reached conflicting conclusions regarding whether the rule the Supreme Court pronounced in Miller applies retroactively to the cases of over 2,100 prisoners whose convictions were final when the case was decided.  The Supreme Court granted certiorari in Montgomery v. Louisiana and is now poised to decide whether Miller must apply retroactively. The issue has primarily been framed as a question of whether the Miller rule is substantive, and therefore retroactive, or procedural, and therefore not retroactive. Ten state supreme courts have concluded that Miller is retroactive because it created a new substantive rule.  The four states that have determined Miller is not retroactive have done so on the basis that its rule is procedural, rather than substantive.  However, Miller’s rule is not clearly substantive or procedural.

This Essay presents an alternative argument for concluding that Miller is retroactive — one that has been marginalized in the discourse thus far but was just relied upon by the Connecticut Supreme Court in Casiano v. Commissioner.  I argue that even if the Supreme Court were to determine that Miller announced a new procedural rule, it should still apply retroactively because of its groundbreaking nature.  The Miller decision has sparked a transformation in juvenile sentencing across the country.  Directly in response to Miller, eight states have passed legislation expressly outlawing LWOP sentences for juveniles.  Nine other states have created new resentencing or parole procedures that go far beyond the requirements of Miller to offer juvenile offenders more meaningful opportunities for release at younger ages.  Given the widespread changes the opinion has inspired, it should be categorized as a watershed rule and should apply retroactively. 

July 30, 2015 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Will Senator Grassley's (still-developing) sentencing reform bill make it to the President's desk in 2015?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new National Journal article providing the latest news on the on-going Senate discussions of a new sentencing reform bill spearheaded by Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Grassley.  The piece is (misleadingly?) headlined "Chuck Grassley's Closer Than Ever to Giving in on Mandatory-Minimum Reform," and here are excerpts:

Grassley could be just days away from unveiling a major bipartisan justice-reform package that would seek to reduce recidivism and give inmates the chance to reduce their sentences with good behavior. The bill also will offer changes to the way judges dole out mandatory minimums.

Grassley has moved on the issue of mandatory minimums.  While a bipartisan group of senators is still working on the final bill, it's clear that the Republican from Iowa has come a long way.  "The points of negotiation are the ones you would expect, about in what areas mandatory minimums should be adjusted and to where they should be adjusted," says Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a key negotiator for justice reform in the Senate.

Unlike four months ago, today it is understood that any justice-reform package will include provisions that give judges more flexibility on sentencing.  Behind the scenes, Grassley has fought to ensure that the provisions in the bill are not just rehashes of the Smarter Sentencing Act he was opposed to, but changes in mandatory minimums are coming. "It's not as far as I would like, but we are getting somewhere," Sen. Patrick Leahy, a sponsor of the Smarter Sentencing Act, told National Journal.

On mandatory minimums, Grassley insisted earlier this year that senators negotiate from scratch.  "It was a long process, and he came in insisting on a different approach and we said, 'All right, let's take your approach and see how close we can come to our goal.' And he has worked in good faith with us and we're close," says Minority Whip Dick Durbin.

At this point, senators on both sides of the aisle report negotiations are closer than they have ever been. Senators have agreed that high-risk offenders, who are considered dangerous either because they deployed a weapon in a crime or have a history of violence, won't be eligible for the so-called safety valve.  A narrow subset of nonviolent drug offenders will be.

"What we are trying to do is to make sure that those who are guilty of drug offenses do not have other aggravating factors such as using a gun, violence, or gang activity.  We are working through the language very carefully on that," Durbin said. "How do we get the gang leaders and the brains of the gang separated from the rank and file?"

Many of the so-called back-end reforms that focus on giving prisoners a better chance of success after incarceration are borrowed from Republican Sen. John Cornyn and Sen. Whitehouse's Corrections Act....  The proposals in the Corrections Act focus on giving inmates the opportunity to get jobs and exhibit a propensity for success.  Some low-level offenders can even work their way up to qualifying to serve the final weeks and months of their sentence supervised in the community.

Even once the new bill is introduced, however, there will still be changes made to it.  And any legislation that makes it to the floor of the U.S. Senate will likely undergo a vigorous amendment process.

Other senators who have worked on criminal-justice reform before already see the upcoming legislation as an opportunity to advance their own causes.  Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, has introduced a bill to grant local law enforcement agencies $500,000,000 for body cameras over a five-year period. Scott says that arming agencies with cameras will help stem tensions between police and the communities they patrol.  The floor may be another place for senators to add more stringent reductions in mandatory minimums.

Though Senator Grassley has been promising that "his" bill will be ready for prime time before the Senate takes its August recess, I remain fearful that the press of other legislative activities (as well as enduring opposition from the tough-and-tougher crowd) may prevent any significant federal sentencing reform from getting done before the end of the year.  I hope my pessimism in this area is proven wrong; but given that we have already had more than two years of "momentum" and bipartisan talk of federal sentencing reform while no bill has even made it out of one congressional chamber, I am not going to count any sentencing reform chickens until they are doing the chicken dance on a desk in the Oval Office.

July 30, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Based on Alleyne, Michigan Supreme Court declares its state guidelines unconstitutional and now advisory

As reported in this local press article, "the Michigan Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the state’s sentencing guidelines that mandate prison terms are unconstitutional, and that judges should use them only in an advisory capacity." Here are excerpts from the state of the majority opinion in Michigan v. Lockridge, No. 149073 (Mich. July 29, 2015) (available here):

This case presents the question whether the Michigan sentencing guidelines violate a defendant’s Sixth Amendment fundamental right to a jury trial.  We conclude that the rule from Apprendi v New Jersey, 530 US 466; 120 S Ct 2348; 147 L Ed 2d 435 (2000), as extended by Alleyne v United States, 570 US ___; 133 S Ct 2151; 186 L Ed 2d 314 (2013), applies to Michigan’s sentencing guidelines and renders them constitutionally deficient. That deficiency is the extent to which the guidelines require judicial fact-finding beyond facts admitted by the defendant or found by the jury to score offense variables (OVs) that mandatorily increase the floor of the guidelines minimum sentence range, i.e. the “mandatory minimum” sentence under Alleyne.

To remedy the constitutional violation, we sever MCL 769.34(2) to the extent that it makes the sentencing guidelines range as scored on the basis of facts beyond those admitted by the defendant or found by the jury beyond a reasonable doubt mandatory.  We also strike down the requirement in MCL 769.34(3) that a sentencing court that departs from the applicable guidelines range must articulate a substantial and compelling reason for that departure.

Consistently with the remedy imposed by the United States Supreme Court in United States v Booker, 543 US 220, 233; 125 S Ct 738; 160 L Ed 2d 621 (2005), we hold that a guidelines minimum sentence range calculated in violation of Apprendi and Alleyne is advisory only and that sentences that depart from that threshold are to be reviewed by appellate courts for reasonableness.  Booker, 543 US at 264.  To preserve as much as possible the legislative intent in enacting the guidelines, however, we hold that a sentencing court must determine the applicable guidelines range and take it into account when imposing a sentence. Id.

Two of the seven Michigan Supreme Court Justices dissented from the majority opinion, and a lengthy dissent authored by Justice Markman ends this way:

I conclude that under the Sixth Amendment a criminal defendant is not entitled to a jury determination of facts necessary to establish his or her minimum parole eligibility date. Under Michigan’s sentencing system, the jury has the authority to render a defendant subject to the statutory maximum punishment, and the judge has no influence over this authority or any authority to usurp it.  The judge’s exercise of judgment in establishing a parole eligibility date does not infringe the authority of the jury and does not violate the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution.  Furthermore, Michigan’s indeterminate sentencing guidelines do not produce “mandatory minimum” criminal sentences, and because Alleyne only applies to facts that increase “mandatory minimum” sentences, Alleyne is inapplicable to our state’s guidelines.  Therefore, I conclude that Michigan’s sentencing system does not offend the Sixth Amendment and would therefore affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

July 29, 2015 in Blakely in the States, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

More talk that all the talk about federal sentencing reform is about to produce some action

As July winds down and as more opponents of sentencing reform have become more vocal, I was coming to believe that all the talk (and more talk) of bipartisan efforts to finalize a federal sentencing reform bill was going to end up as another example of inside-the-Beltway sound and fury signifying nothing.  But this new New York Times article, headlined "Push to Scale Back Sentencing Laws Gains Momentum," has me wanting to believe that optimism is still more justified than cynicism on this sentencing reform front. Here are excerpts:

For several years, a handful of lawmakers in Congress have tried to scale back tough sentencing laws that have bloated federal prisons and the cost of running them.  But broad­based political will to change those laws remained elusive.

Now, with a push from President Obama, and perhaps even more significantly a nod from Speaker John A. Boehner, Congress seems poised to revise four decades of federal policy that greatly expanded the number of Americans — to roughly 750 per 100,000 — now incarcerated, by far the highest of any Western nation.

Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who has long resisted changes to federal sentencing laws, said he expected to have a bipartisan bill ready before the August recess.  “It will be a bill that can have broad conservative support,” said Mr. Grassley, who as recently as this year praised the virtues of mandatory minimums on the Senate floor....

Of the 2.2 million men and women behind bars, only about 207,600 are in the federal system, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  But because the federal system has grown at the fastest rate of any in the country, many on the left and the right say they believe it exemplifies the excesses of America’s punitive turn. “If we can show leadership at the federal level,” Mr. Durbin said,  “I think it will encourage other states to open this issue up for debate.  The notion that we can create a bipartisan force for this really has value.”...

The dynamic is similar to the fight this year over changes to the Patriot Act when younger, more libertarian members — again supported by Mr. Boehner and Mr. Obama — worked with Democrats to change the law and eventually even won over a reluctant Mr. Grassley.

July 28, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Federal authorities grant parole to spy Jonathan Pollard after 30 years in prison

As reported in this new New York Times story, headlined "Jonathan Pollard, Spy for Israel, to Be Released on Parole in November," a high-profile defendant who committed his crimes before the federal system abolished parole has now benefited from the reality that life sentences in the past frequently just meant a long period before parole eligibility. Here are the details:

Jonathan J. Pollard, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1985 for passing classified documents to the Israeli government, will be released on parole in November after 30 years in prison, a government panel decided on Tuesday. Mr. Pollard’s lawyers announced the decision of the United States Parole Commission on Tuesday afternoon, and officials at the Department of Justice confirmed that Mr. Pollard had been granted parole.

Mr. Pollard, 60, had been scheduled for mandatory parole in November, but could have been kept in prison for years longer if the United States government had objected to his release, citing concerns about an ongoing threat to national security.

Last week, officials for the Department of Justice signaled that they would not object to Mr. Pollard’s release if the United States Parole Commission determined that he should leave the prison in North Carolina where he is being held. “The Department of Justice has always maintained that Jonathan Pollard should serve his full sentence for the serious crimes he committed, which in this case is a 30-­year sentence, as mandated by statute, ending Nov. 21, 2015,” Marc Raimondi, a spokesman for the department, said in a statement....

White House officials have denied that Mr. Pollard’s imminent release — something that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and others in the country have demanded for years — is an attempt to placate the Israelis in the wake of the Iran deal. “Mr. Pollard’s status will be determined by the United States Parole Commission according to standard procedures,” Alistair Baskey, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said last week. “There is absolutely zero linkage between Mr. Pollard’s status and foreign policy considerations.”

July 28, 2015 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Saturday, July 25, 2015

"Federalism and Retroactivity in State Post-Conviction Proceedings"

The title of this post is the title of this notable article authored by Stephen R. McAllister appearing in the latest issue of The Green Bag. Here are excerpts from the introduction:

This article builds on an amicus brief I drafted for Kansas in Danforth v. Minnesota several years ago, and considers whether the federal retroactivity doctrines are binding on the states when it comes to the states’ own post-conviction proceedings.  The article does not take issue with the well-settled propositions that Supreme Court decisions issued before state criminal cases become “final” are binding on the states and their courts, and that the federal courts will apply Teague retroactivity principles in federal habeas proceedings.

My conclusion is that there is no federal constitutional bar to the states developing their own retroactivity doctrines for state postconviction proceedings, whether those doctrines are broader or stricter than a federal habeas counterpart such as Teague.  So long as state legislatures and state courts make that decision as a matter of state law, there is no federal constitutional principle at stake, and no federal interests are harmed.  That said, Montgomery v. Louisiana does not seem a proper case in which to decide the issue.

July 25, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, July 24, 2015

Looking ahead to SCOTUS 2015 Term's sentencing cases on its criminal docket

Over at SCOTUSblog, Rory Little has this terrific new post highlighting that 11 of the 35 cases already on the Supreme Court's docket for its next Term involve criminal law cases. Here is an except from the start of this post, along with the description of a few of the coming SCOTUS cases that have at least one sentencing fan especially revved up:

Eleven of the cases in which review has already been granted for the next Term are criminal-law or related (under my generous standards).  The Eighth Amendment portends to be a particular focus: four cases involve the death penalty, and a fifth involves juvenile life without parole.  The other interesting note is that, so far, not a single case granted for next Term involves the Fourth Amendment.  I can’t recall a prior Term where that was true at the end of the prior Term.

 Finally, five of the eleven cases in which review has been granted are from state supreme courts, suggesting that at least some of the Justices realize that waiting for a criminal case to come to them via a later federal habeas petition can obscure the legal question presented, due to the highly deferential standards now embodied in the federal habeas statute, 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (the 1996 AEDPA amendments).

Here are brief descriptions of the criminal-law questions presented in the cases granted so far:

1. Hurst v. Florida:  Whether Florida’s death sentencing scheme, which permits a judge to find aggravating factors to impose death (and which does not require a jury to determine mental disability or to be unanimous in their findings or sentence) violates the Sixth Amendment or the Eighth Amendment in light of Ring v. Arizona.  (Florida Supreme Court)...

3. Montgomery v. Louisiana:  Whether Miller v. Alabama, which prohibits mandatory life without parole for juveniles convicted of homicide, applies retroactively. (Louisiana Supreme Court)

4 & 5.  Kansas v. Carr (along with another case with the same caption but a different case number) and Kansas v. Gleason:  (1) Whether the Eighth Amendment requires that a capital-sentencing jury be affirmatively instructed that mitigating circumstances “need not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” as the Kansas Supreme Court ruled; and (2) whether the trial court’s decision not to sever co-defendants for sentencing in a capital case violates an Eighth Amendment right to “individualized sentencing.”  (Kansas Supreme Court)....

8. Lockhart v. United States:  Whether 18 U.S.C. § 2252(b)(2), requires a mandatory minimum ten-year prison term for a defendant convicted of possessing child pornography if he “has a prior conviction … under the laws of any State relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward,” is triggered by a prior conviction under a state law relating to “aggravated sexual abuse” or “sexual abuse,” even though the conviction did not “involv[e] a minor or ward.” (Second Circuit)

July 24, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Do gubernatorial moratoria on executions impact securing of death sentences?

The question in the title of this post is raised by the start of the capital phase of the death penalty trial of Aurora theater shooter James Holmes and is discussed in this interesting Los Angeles Times article.  The article is headlined "Death penalty is sought against James Holmes, but governor stands in the way," and here are excerpts:

When the jury found James E. Holmes guilty, Marcus Weaver cried. For his friend Rebecca Wingo, who died beside him in the Aurora, Colo., multiplex. For the dozens of victims in the 2012 rampage during a midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises." For the families of the dead and wounded. Then he cautioned that last week's verdict "is just a stepping stone" on the path to justice.

The next step, Weaver hoped, would be the death penalty. But even if the jury decides to sentence Holmes to death in the penalty phase of his trial, which begins Wednesday, there are some questions about whether the sentence will be imposed. In the time since the Aurora shooting case got underway, Gov. John Hickenlooper has made it his policy that no one in Colorado will be executed as long as he is in office....

Juries across the U.S. continue to hand down death sentences, and prosecutors continue to seek them. But the effective moratorium in Colorado — no capital punishment can be carried out unless the governor signs the death warrant — is part of a political retreat that is gaining momentum. The number of U.S. executions has dropped dramatically since 1999, along with the number of death sentences handed down by juries.

Governors in four states, including Hickenlooper, have declared that they will not sign death warrants during their terms, citing the uneven way the punishment is carried out. This year, for the first time since these policies were adopted in Oregon, Colorado, Washington and Pennsylvania, major capital trials are taking place in two of those states that are testing juries' willingness to carry out the ultimate punishment. "What's the role of these reprieves? I don't think there's an independent effect, but it's part of an overall drift away from the death penalty," said Michael Radelet, a University of Colorado sociology professor who has studied the punishment for 35 years.

Although a gubernatorial moratorium will undoubtedly spur debate about a critically important issue, death penalty critics worry that the policies ultimately could end up changing nothing. Once the governors leave office, their replacements could decide to go back to signing death warrants. Anyone whose execution was on hold could again be sent to the death chamber....

In Washington state, 15 months after Gov. Jay Inslee imposed a death penalty moratorium, a Seattle jury in May refused to sentence Joseph McEnroe to death for killing six of his then-girlfriend's relatives on Christmas Eve 2007. The victims spanned three generations of Michele Anderson's family, including a 5-year-old girl and her 3-year-old brother. Anderson, also charged in the killings, goes on trial in September.

The Holmes case is the first death penalty trial in Colorado since Hickenlooper announced in 2013 that he would grant an "indefinite reprieve" to Nathan Dunlap, who killed four people at a suburban Denver Chuck E. Cheese's pizza restaurant in 1993 and was sentenced to death three years later.

The reprieve was granted as Dunlap's execution date neared and will last as long as the Democrat remains in office. Hickenlooper, who campaigned in 2010 as a death penalty supporter, has since said he is against capital punishment.

The political pushback was swift. Moments after the governor announced Dunlap's reprieve from the rotunda of the Capitol in Denver, Arapahoe County Dist. Atty. George Brauchler denounced Hickenlooper from the Capitol steps. Brauchler called Dunlap's execution "a no-brainer," according to the Denver Post, and said the governor refused "to make any hard decision today.... This is inaction. This is shrugging. This is not justice."

Brauchler is the same district attorney who said he would seek the death penalty against Holmes. He also turned down Holmes' offer to plead guilty in exchange for life in prison without a chance of parole, and he is leading the prosecution case against the gunman.

Still, a sitting governor's ability to veto a death penalty appears to be absolute in Colorado. And though many argue that such moratoriums are political posturing with no lasting effect, others say such gubernatorial declarations are a force for change.

"I think it's impactful when the governor of your state says your state should never be involved in killing anyone," said Craig Silverman, a former Denver chief deputy district attorney. "However, in the Holmes case we have jurors who are all death qualified, meaning they have committed to following Colorado law, which includes capital punishment, but we have a governor who is not."

July 22, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

DAG Yates: "our thinking has evolved on [drug sentencing], it’s time that our legislation evolved as well."

Download (6)I have noticed lots of good crime and punishment reporting at BuzzFeed lately, and this new lengthy piece discussing an interview with US Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates is the lastest must-read. It is headlined "Justice Department: You Don’t Need Mandatory Prison Sentences To Put The Right Drug Criminals In Jail," and here are excerpts:

The central argument against the sweeping changes to the war on drugs proposed by the Obama administration and others goes like this: If you take away stringent mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, prosecutors can no longer use the fear of prison to flip drug criminals. If they can’t flip drug criminals, they can’t go after more powerful and dangerous drug criminals. And if they can’t go after those criminals, they can’t hope to make a dent in the illegal drug trade.

This was the governing principle of the prosecutors fighting the war on drugs for decades. Just a year or so ago, under the direction of former Attorney General Eric Holder, prosecutors changed the way they charged some drug criminals, avoiding charges carrying mandatory minimums when possible. Some prosecutors worried they’d lose their ability to net the biggest fish.

Sally Quinlan Yates, a career federal prosecutor now leading Obama administration efforts to reduce or eliminate mandatory minimum drug sentences on Capitol Hill, says the old system was all wrong, and she can prove it. “There were some out there who were saying, and I understand this, ‘We’ll never get another defendant to cooperate with us, they’re not going to plead guilty, they’re not going to cooperate with us. We’ve lost our leverage, we won’t be able to work our way up the ladder,’” Yates, the deputy attorney general, told BuzzFeed News. “But that’s turned out just not to be true. In fact, the rate of guilty pleas has stayed exactly the same as it was prior to our new mandatory minimum policy and in fact the rate of cooperation is the same or has gone up slightly.”

Yates has been saying for years that mandatory minimums — which don’t apply in the vast majority of cases federal prosecutors coerce cooperation from all the time — aren’t necessary to put high-level drug offenders behind bars. Now she’s overseeing the process by which prosecutors move away from mandatory minimums, and she’s one of the leading advocates in the administration push to eliminate mandatory minimums altogether in most cases.

It’s a fundamental change to the way prosecutors think about their work when it comes to drug cases. Getting convictions without relying on mandatory minimums is a key legacy of Holder’s term as Attorney General, and now it’s a central part of Yates’ argument to lawmakers that it’s time to change the nation’s sentencing laws.

As real momentum builds on Capitol Hill to rewrite sentencing laws with the goal of refocusing prosecution and lowering the prison population — an issue of prime importance President Obama in the final months of his presidency — Yates is among the top administration aides helping the process along on Capitol Hill. She meets regularly with the members of the Senate in both parties attempting to hash out a bipartisan criminal justice compromise they can pass before the end of the year.

As that effort continues, Yates will continue to be among the most prominent administration faces pushing the Obama team position. On Wednesday, she’ll speak at a bipartisan criminal justice policy summit that organizers hope will solidify momentum and help keep the ball rolling in Congress.

Yates has drawn the praise of advocacy groups who say she’s able to connect with Republicans in a way the Justice Department often wasn’t able to when Holder was in charge, due in part to GOP rhetoric that cast Holder as the biggest villain in the Obama administration. Criminal justice is a top policy goal for Holder’s successor, Loretta Lynch, and Yates also works closely with top department officials to help push unilateral changes to prosecution procedure set down by first by Holder and now by Lynch. She also spends a lot of time talking to working prosecutors, the group that has expressed the greatest skepticism toward the sweeping changes pushed by criminal justice advocates and the administration.

“People get used to doing things a certain way. You ask folks to do something differently, there’s naturally some discomfort with that among certain prosecutors, I think,” she said. “So change is hard.” Yates knows how to speak their language. On paper, she is basically the prototypical tough-as-nails federal prosecutor....

Changes implemented by Holder as part of his smart on crime iniative — which guided prosecutors away from throwing the book at low-level nonviolent drug offenses — led to a reduction in prosecutions.  Yates is now in charge of implementing the new approach. She says most prosecutors welcome the changes, but Obama’s recent round of clemencies for nonviolent offenders sentenced under the old rules put into perspective how much of a culture change is still under way at the Justice Department.

“There are cases now that I see when I review clemency petitions and I see cases that were charged under different statutes, different laws at the time, and different policies [at the Justice Department] that certainly trouble me from a fairness perspective,” she said. “The prosecutors who were involved, they were following the department policies that were in place at the time. And so I’m not suggesting they were doing anything improper or unethical. But our thinking has evolved on this. And it’s time that our legislation evolved as well.”

Yates says prosecutors are open to changes, and she’s got the statistics to keep pushing those who are still skeptical. In the end she thinks the Justice Department will be continue to make the changes it can to the way the war on drugs is fought even if Congress can’t.

For Yates, the movement is a personal one. “At the risk of sounding really corny now, I’m a career prosecutor. I’ve been doing this for a very long time. And I believe in holding people responsible when they violate the law,” she said. “But our sole responsibility is to seek justice. And sometimes that means a very lengthy sentence, for people how are dangerous and from which society must be protected. But it always means seeking a proportional sentence. And that’s what this sentencing reform is really about.”

UPDATE: The speech that DAG Yates delivered today on these topics is available at this link. I will likely highlight a few notable passages in a later post.

July 22, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Eighth Circuit rejects "safe sex" special condition of supervised release

Thanks to a number of kind readers, I received lots of notice of an Eighth Circuit opinion today that understandably has already received lots of attention.  These excerpts from US v. Harris, No. 14-2269 (8th Cir. July 21, 2015) (available here), highlights why: 

At sentencing, the district court determined that Harris was an armed career criminal under 18 U.S.C. § 924(e), and sentenced him to the statutory minimum of 180 months’ imprisonment. The court, on its own initiative, also imposed a novel special condition of supervised release that “there be no unprotected sex activities without probation office approval during the period of supervised release.”  In a later written order and judgment, the court attempted to modify the special condition to say that Harris “shall use contraceptives before engaging in sexual activity that may otherwise cause pregnancy unless such use would violate his religious scruples or is expressly rejected by his sexual partner.” ...

The district court observed that Harris had fathered ten children out of wedlock with seven different women and declared that Harris’s conduct was “creating a very serious social problem” that was “more serious than a lot of the things that we do deal with on conditions ofsupervised release.”  During the hearing, the court again raised a “social problem of apparently a great deal of unprotected sex.”...

[T]he special condition as pronounced is even broader than the novel restriction on fathering children that the court seemed to contemplate during the hearing.  By restricting “unprotected sex activities,” without limitation, the condition purports to regulate conduct that could not result in pregnancy.  The condition is not even reasonably related to the purposes that motivated the condition.

The special condition also is not reasonably related to the statutory factors set forth in § 3583(d).  As in United States v. Smith, 972 F.2d 960 (8th Cir. 1992), where this court set aside a special condition attempting to regulate a defendant’s fathering of children while on supervised release, the condition here is not related to the nature and circumstances of Harris’s offense.  The court did not find that Harris’s sexual activity was related to his unlawful possession of a firearm.  Nor did the district court explain how restrictions on Harris’s sexual activity would deter Harris from future criminal conduct, protect the public from future crimes by Harris, or assist in Harris’s training, medical care, or correctional treatment.  For similar reasons, the condition impermissibly involves a greater deprivation of liberty than is reasonably necessary to afford adequate deterrence, protect the public from future crimes, and provide the defendant with needed training, care, or treatment. As in Smith, the district court sought to address a perceived social problem that does not have the required nexus to factors that guide sentencing in a federal criminal case.

We conclude that the district court exceeded its authority under § 3583(d) when it imposed the special condition of supervised release at sentencing.

July 21, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

Intriguing federal civil rights case assailing New York sex offender family restrictions

A helpful reader altered me to this fascinating story, headlined "Bronx Dad's Case Tests Restrictions on Sex Offenders," concerning a fascinating federal court case being litigating in New York. Here are the basic details via the press account (with links):

With a name resembling a kindergartner's alphabet primer, the lawsuit ABC v. DEF takes on far more insidious themes -- namely the parental rights of a Bronx man who spent eight years in prison for raping his ex's teenage niece.     

A federal judge issued an order in the case last week that could earn that man unspecified financial compensation from New York state.  Three law professors interviewed by Courthouse News say they have never heard a sex offender case quite like it.

Though the case was unsealed last year, a pseudonym still shields the name of the 50-year-old plaintiff.  The docket meanwhile evinces a powerful support network for his cause, including dozens of family members and friends who wrote to the court on his behalf.  Doe's attorney, Debevoise & Plimpton partner Michael Mukasey, is a former U.S. attorney general.

It's been 10 years since a jury found that Doe committed second-degree rape and other offenses against his ex-wife's niece, who accused him of assaulting her when she lived with the family between the ages of 13 and 14.  The jury acquitted Doe of the first-degree charges, and he is appealing the counts for which he was convicted, maintaining that he is innocent.

While still behind bars, Doe and his wife divorced, and he remarried another woman he had known for 25 years.  They had a child, "M.S.," shortly before Doe successfully completed his sex-offender and substance-abuse rehabilitation programs in the fall of 2012.  Since Doe requires permission to contact anyone under the age of 18, parole officers ordered him away from his new home -- and into a homeless shelter -- when his son turned 1 month old.

A Bronx Family Court already allowed the father of six to have unsupervised visits with his teenage daughter, and social workers saw no danger with his raising a newborn son.

Doe's accuser, now in her mid-20s, complained to a parole officer about his ability to rebuild his life. "Why should he live happy and comfortable when he took something from [me] that [I] can't get back?" she asked them, according to court papers.

After this conversation, a Manhattan bureau chief of New York State's parole division ordered Doe away from his new family in a one-paragraph directive stating that the "victim's perspective is always important." Bureau Chief Joseph Lima officer noted in his decision that Doe's crimes "occurred within the family constellation and in some instances while other family members were present in the residence."

Doe's attorney Mukasey noted in a legal brief that all four of their client's adult children wrote letters to the court on behalf of their father. "He has a close relationship with his five oldest children, who range in age from 14 to 27," the brief states. "Mr. Doe has never been accused of neglecting or abusing any of these children; to the contrary, they speak fondly of their relationship with him and his importance in their lives. Mr. Doe desperately wants to establish an equally loving bond with his one-year-old son, plaintiff M.S."...

Neither Mukasey nor his co-counsel would respond to press inquiries. Their amended complaint sought a court order reuniting the family, plus unspecified monetary damages for deprivation of Doe's rights to due process and intimate association. U.S. District Judge Paul Engelmeyer pushed the case forward to discovery Wednesday, in a 36-page opinion and order.

Since parole officers can impose "several dozens" of conditions on the lives of registered sex offenders, Engelmeyer said their expansive powers must face a check. "In addition to the power to decide whether Doe may have contact with any person under age 18, a parole officer has the authority to grant or deny permission for Doe to own a camera, computer, scanner, or cell phone; possess 'any children's products' or photos of minors; rent a post office box; obtain a driver's license; 'rent, operate or be a passenger in any vehicle'; travel outside of New York City; visit an arcade, bowling alley, beach, or swimming pool; or have visitors at his approved residence," the opinion notes.

Refusing to grant immunity, Engelmeyer wrote "there are sound reasons not to give parole officers discretion, unreviewable in a subsequent court action, over so many aspects of a parolee's life." His ruling allows Doe's claims against six DOCCS officials to advance to discovery. In a phone interview, Georgetown University Law professor Abbe Smith called the decision a "terrific development."

"If you commit a crime, and you're punished, you should be allowed to serve your debt to society and then move on," said Smith, who co-directs the university's Criminal Defense and Prisoner Advocacy Clinic. "[The Bronx father] has a newborn son. I can't imagine on what basis he could be deprived from having contact from his own child."  Smith added that she never heard of a case like this before because, "typically, parole officers have immunity," and the ruling emphasizes that they cannot have "limitless discretion."

David Rudovsky, a Penn Law School professor and founding partner of the Philadelphia-based firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg, LLP, called the case "significant" because it expands upon a Second Circuit case striking down restrictive probation terms involving relationships with close family members.  Unlike that case, however, the ruling in Doe's lawsuit "extended that doctrine to a damages claim against a parole officer," Rudovsky said in an email....

Florida State University professor Wayne Logan, an expert on sex-offender registries, said he had not heard of such a case either....  Smith, the Georgetown professor, said that she felt sympathy for the Doe's victim, but she said that criminal justice must "root for people to rebuild their lives."

"Marriage and making a family, becoming gainfully employed, those are all signs that a person has abandoned their lawless ways," she said.

July 21, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Fascinating new drug guideline resentencing opinion from Judge Jack Weinstein

Judge Jack Weinstein is a justifiably legendary federal judge (whom, I must note, will be turning 94 in a few weeks).  Among the reasons Judge Weinstein is justifiably legendary is his ability to author remarkable (and remarkable long) opinions on an array of federal legal subjects.  Today I learned of his latest such opinion in in US v. Alli-Balogun, 92–CR–1108 (E.D.N.Y July 15, 2015) (available for download below).  Here is how the opinion starts:

The case is a remarkable one.  Though the drug case was nasty, the long-term imprisonment, by today’s standards, was excessive.  Defendant has served 273 months in prison while his wife and children established high status employment in banking and medicine.  See Hr’g Tr., July 15, 2015. Throughout his incarceration, he has maintained close contact with his family. Id. This resentence provides an opportunity to rectify, in modest degree, an unnecessarily harsh sentence imposed in crueler times.

Download Weinstein § 3582(c)(2) OPINION on RESENTENCING

The next 70+ pages goes on to discuss (and break a little new ground) the defendant's motion for a reduction of sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) and his challenge to his his conviction under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. (For the record, the defendant bats .500 in his efforts.)

July 15, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

GOP House members request AG Lynch to provide accounting of Prez Obama's commutations

As reported via this official press release, it would appear that some GOP House members, seemingly concerned with how President Obama is now using his clemency powers, have decided to question Attorney General Loretta Lynch about what her boss is doing.  Here is what the press release explains (along with the full-text of letter, which is also available at this link): 

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and 18 Republican Members of the House Judiciary Committee today pressed for answers about the Obama Administration’s unprecedented clemency program for certain federal drug offenders in a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

Although the Justice Department’s own manual states that commutation of sentence is “an extraordinary remedy that is rarely granted,” the Obama Administration last year announced a clemency program for certain federal drug offenders and asked the defense bar to recruit candidates for executive clemency.  To date, 89 federal offenders have received sentence commutations, with the vast majority of those commutations going to federal drug offenders.

Here some key language from the letter, which I find curious and questionable in a variety of respects (especially the language I have emphasized below):

As Members of the Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Department of Justice, including the functions performed by the Office of the Pardon Attorney, we are deeply concerned that the President continues to use his pardon power to benefit specific classes of offenders, or for political purposes. No one disputes that the President possesses the constitutional authority to grant pardons and commutations. However, as the Department’s own U.S. Attorney’s Manual states, commutation of sentence is “an extraordinary remedy that is rarely granted.”

Additionally, the fact that the Department’s clemency initiative is focused solely on federal drug offenders continues this Administration’s plainly unconstitutional practice of picking and choosing which laws to enforce and which to change. This is not, as the Founders intended, an exercise of the power to provide for “exceptions in favour of unfortunate guilt,” but instead the use of the pardon power to benefit an entire class of offenders who were duly convicted in a court of law – not to mention a blatant usurpation of the lawmaking authority of the Legislative branch.

The parts of the letter I have stressed strike me as curious and suspect because they seem to have little legal or factual foundation (though they track quite closely to comments made a day earlier by Bill Otis at Crime & Consequences):

1.  Legally, there is no clear constitutional or other legal restriction on the President deciding, if he so chooses, to use his "pardon power to benefit specific classes of offenders, or for political purposes."  Indeed, the constitutional history of the pardon power, buttressed by comments in the Federalist Papers (see No. 74 and this Heritage memorandum), suggests that broad clemency power was preserved by the Framers in part to enable the Prez to be able to use this power to benefit specific classes of offenders, or for political purposes, when desired.  To this end, Pardon historian P.S. Ruckman rightly calls out this portion of the letter for "a very special kind of stupidity and ignorance."

2.  Factually, the current Obama clemency/commutation initiative, extending so far to just reduce the extreme prison sentence of 89 of roughly 100,000 current federal drug prisoners, in absolutely no way involves "picking and choosing which laws to enforce and which to change" nor does it somehow amount to a "blatant usurpation of the lawmaking authority of the Legislative branch."   Perhaps these assertion would make some sense if the President did in fact really grant full pardons to 100% (or even 75% or even 51%) of all federal drug prisoners/offenders and thereby wiped out entirely the convictions and sentences of truly an "entire class of offenders who were duly convicted in a court of law." But, so far, President Obama has merely shortened the extreme prison sentences of significantly less than .1% of current federal drug prisoners.

I could go on, but I will stop here by highlighting that this letter shows ways in which the current polarization of DC and the extreme disaffinity of the GOP for the current Prez necessarily impedes on the ability for folks inside the Beltway to move forward effectively with sound, sober and sensible sentence reforms.  Signing this suspect letter are a number of House GOP members who have recently spoken in favor of significant federal sentencing reform to reduce undue reliance on excessive terms of incarceration for federal drug offenders. But when Prez Obama actually does something in service to all the reform talk in Washington, his political opponents (perhaps spurred on by Bill Otis and others who oppose any and all criminal justice reforms) cannot resist the political instinct to complain.

July 15, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

NYU Law creates Clemency Resource Center, a "pop-up, pro-bono law office to submit petitions"

Download (1)I was very excited to learn via a press release that NYU School of Law has just "announced the launch of the Clemency Resource Center (CRC), a pop-up law office within the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law (CACL)."  Via the CACL's website, here is what this important new "pop-up law office" is all about and what it is planning to do:

The CRC will exist for one year, with the sole purpose of preparing and submitting federal clemency petitions at no cost to prisoners.  Beginning with a staff of seven attorneys, the CRC will work closely with Clemency Project 2014, an ongoing initiative designed to identify and find counsel for worthy clemency candidates, and will provide pro bono assistance to federal prisoners who likely would have received shorter sentences had they been sentenced today.

The CRC was co-founded by Rachel Barkow, Segal Family Professor of Regulatory Law and Policy at NYU Law, and Mark Osler, who holds the Robert and Marion Short Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of St. Thomas.  Erin Collins, a former public defender and acting assistant professor at NYU Law, serves as executive director.  Generously funded by Open Society Foundations, the CRC will begin work in August.

The CRC is unique in that it addresses an immediate short-term opportunity.  President Obama has clearly signaled his intent to use the constitutional tool of clemency to address over-incarceration.

Clemency Project 2014 aims to identify all federal inmates who seek help and meet criteria released by the US Department of Justice.  The project relies entirely on the help of pro bono attorneys to review and submit petitions.  “Too many non-violent prisoners are serving unduly harsh prison terms based on repudiated laws and policies.  That means we have quite a bit of work ahead,” said Cynthia Roseberry, project manager for Clemency Project 2014.  “This is an all-hands-on-deck situation and we welcome the support of the Clemency Resource Center.”

“The CRC isn’t a clinic, or a conventional legal aid organization, or an advocacy group. It is a factory of justice,” said Osler, a former federal prosecutor.

CACL has worked on clemency cases and reform of the pardon process since 2013 as part of the Mercy Project, an initiative that pursues commutations for federal prisoners who are serving very long sentences for typically non-violent drug crimes.

“The Clemency Resource Center is the latest step in our efforts to improve criminal justice in the United States and to help correct past miscarriages of justice,” said Barkow, faculty director for CACL.

During its year of operation, the CRC will utilize the talents of CACL student fellows as well as of CACL executive director Deborah Gramiccioni, a former federal prosecutor in New Jersey and at the US Department of Justice in Washington, DC.

I adore the notion of this new Clemency Resource Center as a "factory of justice," and I am pleased to learn that this factory is being backed by Open Society funding and will be focused on churning out (surely top-notch) federal clemency petitions for the next year. That said, I hope that everyone realizes that we desperately need many more factories of justice working on not just federal clemency petitions, but also state clemency petitions and also lots and lots of aggressive state and federal criminal justice reform litigation.

July 14, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Start of big two-day House hearings on criminal justice reform

Images (4)Though President Obama will capture most of the headlines with his emphasis on criminal justice reform in speeches and activities this week, Congress is where the reform action need to take place for there to be real, long-term hope and change.  Consequently, I will be keeping an eye on the the two days of hearings on criminal justice reform taking place before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. This morning's Part I of the hearings can be followed via this webpage, and here is how the hearings are set up there:


  • To share lessons on criminal justice reform from states that have successfully implemented new policies. 
  • To hear from a diverse panel of experts regarding emerging areas of reform at both the state and federal levels, including existing and forthcoming bills before the House and Senate.
  • To broaden the conversation on criminal justice reform.


  • Prison populations have grown precipitously over the past thirty years:
  • From 1940 to 1980: the population remained stable at about 24,000 federal prisoners.
  • 1980-1989: it more than doubled to about 58,000 prisoners.
  • 1990-1999: it more than doubled again to about 134,000 prisoners.
  • 2000-2010: it increased by another 45 percent to about 210,000 prisoners.
  • 2013: we now have more than 219,000 federal prisoners (nearly 40 percent above rated capacity).

 Spending on federal prisons has skyrocketed:

  • From 1998 to 2012, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) budget increased from $3.1 to $6.6 billion–from 15 to 24 percent of the Department of Justice (DOJ) budget. 
  • The 2013 budget request for the BOP totaled $6.9 billion, an increase of $278 million over the FY 2012 budget. 
  • The BOP is now consuming 25 percent of the DOJ budget. 

Criminal justice reform efforts typically fall into one of three categories, each of which will be discussed in the hearings:

  • “Front end” measures address how people end up in prison in the first place and the length of sentences they will receive.  Reform of mandatory minimums, for example, attempts to reduce prison populations and recidivism by allowing judges to impose shorter sentences on nonviolent offenders.
  • “Behind the wall” reforms attempt to change the operations of the prisons themselves.
  • “Back end” changes focus on the circumstances of release from prison, including serving portions of sentences in an alternative custody arrangement and rehabilitation programs.

July 14, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 13, 2015

Prez Obama commutes sentences for 46 federal drug prisoners (with a video message)

Neil Eggleston, Counsel to the President, has this new White House Blog posting titled "President Obama Announces 46 Commutations in Video Address: 'America Is a Nation of Second Chances'." Here is the text of the posting, with links worth following:

As a former Assistant U.S. Attorney and criminal defense attorney, I'm well acquainted with how federal sentencing practices can, in too many instances, lead nonviolent drug offenders to spend decades, if not life, in prison.  Now, don't get me wrong, many people are justly punished for causing harm and perpetuating violence in our communities.  But, in some cases, the punishment required by law far exceeded the offense.

These unduly harsh sentences are one of the reasons the President is committed to using all the tools at his disposal to remedy unfairness in our criminal justice system.  Today, he is continuing this effort by granting clemency to 46 men and women, nearly all of whom would have already served their time and returned to society if they were convicted of the exact same crime today.

In a video released today, the President underscored the responsibility and opportunity that comes with a commutation.

The President also shared his thoughts in a personal letter written to each of the 46 individuals receiving a commutation today.

In taking this step, the President has now issued nearly 90 commutations, the vast majority of them to non-violent offenders sentenced for drug crimes under outdated sentencing rules. 

While I expect the President will issue additional commutations and pardons before the end of his term, it is important to recognize that clemency alone will not fix decades of overly punitive sentencing policies.  Tune in tomorrow as the President shares additional thoughts on how, working together, we can bring greater fairness to our criminal justice system while keeping our communities safe in an address to the NAACP.

A list of the 46 lucky individuals receiving clemency today can be found here. A too quick review of the list suggests that the vast majority of those receiving clemency today were convicted of crack offenses, though I did notice a couple of marijuana offenders in the group. 

July 13, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Seventh Circuit panel affirms as reasonable probation sentence for tax dodging Beanie Babies billionaire

Late Friday, a Seventh Circuit panel rejected the government's claim that a probation sentence given to a high-profile tax cheat was unreasonable.  The lengthy opinion in US v. Warner, No. 14 -1330 (7th Cir. July 10, 2015) (available here), gets started this way:

Defendant H. Ty Warner, the billionaire creator of Beanie Babies, evaded $5.6 million in U.S. taxes by hiding assets in a Swiss bank account.  He pled guilty to one count of tax evasion, made full restitution, and paid a $53.6 million civil penalty.  The Sentencing Guidelines provided a recommended 46- to 57-month term of imprisonment, but the district judge gave Warner a more lenient sentence: two years’ probation with community service, plus a $100,000 fine and costs.  The government claims his sentence is unreasonable because it does not include a term of incarceration.  

In a typical case, we might agree.  But this is not a typical case.  The district judge found Warner’s record of charity and benevolence “overwhelming.”  Indeed, the judge remarked that Warner’s conduct was unprecedented when viewed through the judge’s more-than-three decades on the bench.  In the district court’s opinion, this and other mitigating factors — including the uncharacteristic nature of Warner’s crime, his attempt to disclose his account, his payment of a penalty ten times the size of the tax loss, and the government’s own request for a sentence well below the guidelines range — justified leniency.  District courts enjoy broad discretion to fashion an appropriate, individualized sentence in light of the factors in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).  The court here did not abuse its discretion.  Rather, it fully explained and supported its decision and reached an outcome that is reasonable under the unique circumstances of this case.  We therefore affirm Warner’s sentence.

Though the panel stresses unique factors applying only in this case to support its reasonableness ruling, white-collar practitioners (especially those in the Seventh Circuit) will find a lot of broader interest and potential value in this opinion.

Prior related posts:

July 12, 2015 in Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

The Marshall Project covers parole realities (and life without it)

The Marshall Project has a series of notable new piece about modern parole realities, and this lead one carries the headline "Life Without Parole: Inside the secretive world of parole boards, where your freedom may depend on politics and whim." Here is an excerpt:

America's prisons hold tens of thousands of people ... primarily confined not by the verdicts of a judge or a jury but by the inaction of a parole board. Michigan is one of 26 states where parole boards are vested with almost unlimited power to decide who gets out of prison when, and why.

With more than 1.5 million people behind bars, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and the financial costs are staggering. As politicians from both parties seek alternatives to mass imprisonment, the parole process has emerged as a major obstacle.

A months-long Marshall Project investigation reveals that, in many states, parole boards are so deeply cautious about releasing prisoners who could come back to haunt them that they release only a small fraction of those eligible — and almost none who have committed violent offenses, even those who pose little danger and whom a judge clearly intended to go free.

A recent revision of the Model Penal Code, an influential document written by legal scholars, declared parole boards "failed institutions."

"No one has documented an example in contemporary practice, or from any historical era, of a parole-release system that has performed reasonably well in discharging its goals," a draft of the document says....

Parole boards are vested with almost unlimited discretion to make decisions on almost any basis. Hearsay, rumor and instinct are all fair game.  In New Mexico, the law directs the board to take into account "the inmate's culture, language, values, mores, judgments, communicative ability and other unique qualities."

The boards' sensitivity to politics stems in part from the heavy presence of politicians in the ranks of board members.  At least 18 states have one or more former elected officials on the board.  In 44 states, the board is wholly appointed by the governor, and the well-paid positions can become gifts for former aides and political allies.

While some state laws require basic qualifications, these statutes are often vaguely worded, with language that is easily sidestepped. Many states have no minimum requirements at all. And unlike politicians, who are bound by open records and disclosure laws and are accountable to their constituents, parole boards often operate behind closed doors. Their decisions are largely unreviewable by courts — or anyone else.

"Not only are they closed, they're paranoid closed," said Janet Barton, the former operations manager of Missouri's parole board. "Closed to the extreme."  Few others in the criminal justice system wield so much power with so few professional requirements and so little accountability.

Here are the other pieces in the series so far:

July 12, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Would a Prez Hillary Clinton lead to the judicial abolition of the death penalty in the US?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new opinion piece by Scott Lemieux headlined "How a President Hillary Clinton could help end the death penalty." The whole piece is worth a full read, and here are excerpts:

Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a separate dissent [in the Supreme Court's recent Glossip ruling] concluded: "I believe it highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment." Breyer's dissent is important, leading some to even conclude that the Supreme Court might actually rule that way in the near future. But this probably won't happen unless a Democratic president replaces one of the Republican-appointed justices on the court, which is another reason the Supreme Court will be a top issue in the 2016 presidential race.

A majority of the Supreme Court has never held that the death penalty is categorically unconstitutional — indeed, there have never been more than two justices at any one time who supported this view. In the 1972 case Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court suspended executions, but three of the five justices in the majority held that the death penalty would be constitutional if applied fairly. Only two justices — William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall — held that the death penalty was always unconstitutional, a position they held for the rest of their tenures.

Two other justices, Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens, wrote opinions shortly before their retirement suggesting that the death penalty might be unconstitutional. But otherwise every justice has supported the compromise the court reached in 1976: The death penalty is constitutional if applied in a more fair and rational manner. It is possible that Breyer's opinion will be seen as a fraying of this compromise and a crucial step towards a ruling that the death penalty is unconstitutional. But if so, it is likely to be a process that plays out over a fairly long period.

At Slate, Robert J. Smith gives the most optimistic reading of Breyer's dissent from the perspective of death penalty opponents, suggesting that there might be five votes on the current court to abolish the death penalty. His argument is superficially persuasive ...[but] fails to withstand scrutiny.... Glossip itself provides powerful evidence against this possibility. Among other things, Justice Samuel Alito's majority opinion represents a sort of obscene gesture to death penalty opponents: "If you use legal methods to prevent states from carrying out a particular form of execution, it therefore has the right to carry out less humane ones." This is nothing less than a justification for torture. It is very hard to imagine someone who opposes the death penalty in principle joining this opinion, which is exactly what Kennedy did.

It is thus vanishingly unlikely that this court will hold the death penalty unconstitutional. The interesting question is what might happen should a justice nominated by a Democrat become the median vote of the court. In a recent paper, the University of Maryland legal scholar Mark Graber suggests that we are about to see a much more polarized Supreme Court that, rather than hewing towards centrist opinions, swings well to the left or right depending on who has the fifth vote.

The death penalty is one area where this may be most evident. Unless popular opinion shifts strongly in favor of the death penalty, Breyer's opinion may very well reflect the default position of Democratic nominees, even the most conservative ones. If President Hillary Clinton can replace one of the Republican nominees on the court, we could ultimately see a decision declaring that the death penalty violates the Eight Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments.

But there's a dark side to the polarized court from the perspective of death penalty opponents. If President Scott Walker or Marco Rubio replaces Justice Ginsburg and/or Breyer, states might aggressively expand the death penalty to encompass homicides committed by minors or the sexual assault of children — and these laws would likely be upheld.

Breyer's dissent does not reflect a court that is going to rule the death penalty unconstitutional in the short term. But it does suggest that it is a medium-term possibility — and that the stakes of future presidential elections are about to get even higher, with control of the median vote of the Supreme Court accruing a greater policy impact than it's ever had.

Prior related post:

July 11, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Friday, July 10, 2015

Pennsylvania Attorney General calls Governor's execution moratorium an "egregious violation" of the state constitution

As reported in this local article, headlined "Kane asks court to end Wolf's death-penalty ban," the top lawyer and prosecutor in Pennsylvania does not think much of her Governor's decision earlier this year to declare a moratorium on executions. Here are the details on the latest chapter concerning the continuing constitutional commotion over capital punishment in the Keystone state:

Calling Gov. Wolf's moratorium on the death penalty "an egregious violation" of the state constitution, Pennsylvania's top prosecutor is asking its Supreme Court to clear the path for the state's first execution in more than a decade.

In a filing Wednesday, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane asked the court to allow the execution of Hubert L. Michael Jr., who confessed to murdering a York County teenager two decades ago. Kane argued that it is "blatantly unconstitutional" for Wolf to stay all death sentences, and that allowing Wolf's moratorium to stand would effectively grant him the authority to ignore any laws with which he does not agree.

"In this case, it would allow him to negate a death sentence authorized by the General Assembly, imposed by a jury, and subjected to exhaustive judicial review . . . based on nothing more than personal disapproval and personal public policy beliefs," said the 25-page brief, filed by the attorney general and two of her top deputies. It added: "The governor must execute laws, not sabotage them."...

Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan said the governor had no immediate comment but would soon be "responding to the filing." Wolf in February imposed a moratorium on executions until he receives the report of a task force studying the future of capital punishment, unleashing a new round of praise and criticism. At the time, 183 men and women were on death row, confined to their cells 23 hours a day. Michael, of Lemoyne, Cumberland County, was awaiting execution for the 1993 kidnapping of Krista Eng, 16. His death warrant has been signed four times. Another convict spared by Wolf's moratorium is Terrance Williams, 48, a former star quarterback at Germantown High School sentenced to death for the 1984 murder of Amos Norwood, a 56-year-old Germantown church volunteer. He was to be executed in March.

Kane's brief asked the high court for "extraordinary relief," arguing Wolf only has constitutional power to issue reprieves of specific sentences - not an entire class of sentences - and under certain circumstances can grant a commutation or pardon. Reprieves, she argued, are meant to be temporary - usually to allow inmates to pursue legal remedies. When Wolf announced his moratorium, he wrote that he would lift it after seeing the report's recommendations and after "all concerns are addressed satisfactorily."

"What constitutes the point at which 'all concerns are addressed satisfactorily?' What are the concerns? Who is going to determine whether and when they are satisfactorily addressed?" said the filing, signed by Lawrence M. Cherba, who heads the office's criminal division, and Amy Zapp, who oversees the appeals section. "In law and in reality, the governor . . . seeks to replace judicial review of capital sentencing with his own review based on his own personal standard of satisfaction, namely an infallible judicial process that can never be attained," it argued. "Such a roadblock to death-sentence executions is impermissible."

Some prior related posts:

July 10, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, July 09, 2015

A few (quickie) direct appeal Johnson remands in Sixth and Ninth Circuits

Regular readers know I am (too?) eagerly anticipating all the lower court litigation that seems sure to unfold in the weeks and months ahead in the wake of the Supreme Court's big ruling in Johnson v. United States, No. 13-7120 (S. Ct. June 26, 2015) (available here), that a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violated "the Constitution’s prohibition of vague criminal laws."   And now, thanks to some helpful readers and Westlaw, I can report on the first few of what might be called "Johnson sightings" in the circuit courts.

Specifically, in these two unpublished opinions handed down earlier this week, the Sixth and Ninth Circuits relied on Johnson to remand sentencing claims to district courts: US v. Darden, No. 14-5537 (6th Cir. July 6, 2015) (available here); US v. McGregor, No. 13-10384 (9th Cir. July 7, 2015) (available here).  The Darden ruling is the more notable of these two remands because the defendant was not appealing application of ACCA but rather the issue was "whether one of Darden’s previous convictions qualifies as a 'crime of violence”' under the residual clause of § 4B1.2(a)(2)" of the US Sentencing Guidelines. Here is how the Sixth Circuit panel quickly justified a remand:

In Johnson v. United States, No. 13-7120 (U.S. June 26, 2015) (slip op. at 10, 15), the Supreme Court held that the identically worded residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act is void for vagueness.  Compare U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(2) with 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(ii).  We have previously interpreted both residual clauses identically, see United States v. Ford, 560 F.3d 420, 421 (6th Cir. 2009); United States v. Houston, 187 F.3d 593, 594–95 (6th Cir. 1999), and Darden deserves the same relief as Johnson: the vacating of his sentence.  Indeed, after Johnson, the Supreme Court vacated the sentences of offenders who were sentenced under the Guidelines’ residual clause.  United States v. Maldonado, 581 F. App’x 19, 22–23 (2d Cir. 2014), vacated, 576 U.S. __ (2015); Beckles v. United States, 579 F. App’x 833, 833–34 (11th Cir. 2014), vacated, 576 U.S. __ (2015). The same relief is appropriate here.

Critically, the vacating of these sentences on appeal does not entail the certainty of a win for the defendant upon return to the district court. But it does highlight that Johnson is likely, at the very least, to get many defendants still pressing related sentencing claims on direct appeal the important first opportunity to get back in front of the district court for a new round of proceedings.

Some prior posts on Johnson and its possible impact:

July 9, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Federal habeas ruling decides Virginia's geriatric release does not permit juve LWOP

A helpful reader alerted me to a notable federal habeas decision handed down last week by a federal district court in Virginia. In LeBanc v. Mathena, No. 2:12cv340 (ED Va July 1, 2015) (available here), the federal judge rejected the claim embraced by the Supreme Court of Virginia’s decision that the state's geriatric release provisions allowed the sentencing juveniles to life without parole sentences without violating the Supreme Court's Graham ruling. The LeBlanc decision has a number of powerful passages, and here are some key portions of the 32-page ruling:

Virginia Code § 53.1-40.01 governs the possible release of geriatric prisoners, and provides for the opportunity of conditional releaseto prisoners who have reachedthe age ofsixty or older and have served at least ten years of their sentence, or who have reached the age of sixty-five or older and have served at least five years of their sentence.  The Supreme Court of Virginia concluded that in light ofthis provision, Virginia's sentencing scheme can be construed as being in compliance with Graham.  The Virginia Supreme Court held that the possibility of geriatric release provides a "meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation."...

This theory of compliance is a misapplication of the governing legal principle of Graham—that children are different and warrant special consideration in sentencing....  By relying on a geriatric release provision — a provision that by its very name was designed to be invoked by and on behalf of the elderly — in an attempt to salvage unconstitutional sentences, the Supreme Court of Virginia and the state trial court missed the heart of Graham — that children are, and must be recognized by sentencing courts as, distinguishable from adult criminals....

If it can be said that Virginia's sentencing scheme treats children differently than adults, it would be because, tragically, the scheme treats children worse.  Under Virginia's current sentencing policies, prisoners are serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole for nonhomicide offenses that they committed as children.  Like any other prisoner in Virginia, regardless of their age at the time of the offense, if these prisoners live to see the age ofsixty or sixty-five, they may apply for geriatric release.  This treats children worse than adults....

The Supreme Court has recognized that nonhomicide juvenile offenders serving life sentences must be given "the opportunity to achieve maturity ofjudgment and self-recognition of human worth and potential."  Graham, 560 U.S. at 79.  The distant and minute chance at geriatric release at a time when the offender has no realistic opportunity to truly reenter society or have any meaningful life outside of prison deprives the offender of hope.  Without hope, these juvenile offenders are being discarded in cages and left to abject despair rather than with any meaningful reason to develop their human worth.  This result falls far short of the hallmarks of compassion, mercy and fairness rooted in this nation's commitment to justice.”

July 8, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sixth Circuit holds Ohio condemned must have his Atkins claim properly considered

As reported in this local AP piece, headlined "Death row inmate wins appeal in Warren murder case," a Sixth Circuit panel yesterday issued a notable federal capital habeas rulin in Williams v. Mitchell, Nos. 03-3626/12-4269 (6th Cir. July 7, 2015) (available here). Here are the basics via the press report: 

A Warren man on death row for the brutal beating of an elderly couple may get his chance to escape the death penalty. An appeals court ruled that Andre Williams can continue to appeal his sentence claiming he was mentally disabled at the time of the 1988 crime.

George Melnick was killed and his wife Katherine was blinded in the attack.

The U.S. 6th District Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that state courts failed to properly apply federal law governing claims of mental disability in capital punishment cases. The federal court said a lower court ruled improperly when it refused to recognize evidence of the 48-year-old Williams’ disabilities dating to when he was a teenager.

July 8, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 06, 2015

Has any post-Johnson ACCA (or career offender) prisoner litigation now gotten started?

The question in the title of this post is my post-holiday follow-up thought in light of my prior posts here and here and here concerning the uncertain (but surely significant) fall-out from the Supreme Court's big ruling in Johnson v. United States, No. 13-7120 (S. Ct. June 26, 2015) (available here), that a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violated "the Constitution’s prohibition of vague criminal laws." Summarizing prior postings, I feel confident that, thanks to Johnson, there are now (1) many hundreds — perhaps many thousands — of current federal prisoners serving lengthy ACCA statutorily-mandated prison terms that are constitutionally suspect, and (2) many thousands — perhaps many tens of thousands — of current federal prisoners serving lengthy career-offender guideline-recommended prison terms that are now subject to a new kind of legal challenge.  This post seeks to know if any of these hundreds or thousands of federal prisoners have filed new Johnson-based challenges to their sentences yet.

Among the many reasons I am eager to follow this litigation closely and ASAP is because I see so much doctrinal and practical uncertainty, both substantively and procedurally, as to how this litigation may and should play out.   Indeed, uncertainty about the impact of Johnson is the only thing I am certain about, especially in light of some recent (conflicting?) analysis of post-Johnson litigation issues I have seen.  Consider, for example, the divergent analysis of post-Johsnon issues in this piece by Gray Proctor titled "Retroactivity and the Uncertain Application of Johnson v. United States: Is the Rule ‘Constitutional’ on Post-Conviction Review?" and in this blog post by Steven Sady titled simply "Johnson: Remembrance Of Illegal Sentences Past."

Long story short, there is sure to be a long litigation story behind every prisoner's effort to use Johsnon to shorten his lengthy prison term.  Especially for the sake of those prisoners whose current sentences are now the hardest to justify, both legally and practically, I hope these long litigation stories are getting started ASAP.

Some prior posts on Johnson and its possible impact:

July 6, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (7)

"Dividing Crime, Multiplying Punishments"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting article by John Stinneford which was recently updated on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

When the government wants to impose exceptionally harsh punishment on a criminal defendant, one of the ways it accomplishes this goal is to divide the defendant’s single course of conduct into multiple offenses that give rise to multiple punishments. The Supreme Court has rendered the Double Jeopardy Clause, the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, and the rule of lenity incapable of handling this problem by emptying them of substantive content and transforming them into mere instruments for effectuation of legislative will.

This Article demonstrates that all three doctrines originally reflected a substantive legal preference for life and liberty, and a systemic bias against overpunishment.  A punishment was deemed excessive under the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause if it was greater than an offender’s retributive desert, as measured against longstanding punishment practice.  Prior to the twentieth century, if prosecutors proposed a novel unit of prosecution for a given crime, judges asked two questions: (1) Does this unit of prosecution give the government the opportunity to bring multiple charges based on a single course of conduct?; and (2) If so, would the bringing of multiple charges create an arbitrary relationship between the offender’s culpability and his cumulative punishment, measured in light of prior punishment practice?  If the answer to both questions was yes, judges would declare the punishment invalid under the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, the Double Jeopardy Clause, or the rule of strict construction of penal statutes (the forerunner to today’s rule of lenity).  By recovering this methodology for addressing prosecutorial efforts to divide crime and multiply punishments, we can ameliorate our current mass incarceration crisis and make the American criminal justice system more just. 

July 6, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)