Tuesday, April 05, 2016

More reflections and criticisms of clemency work past, present and future

I reprinted here over the weekend a lovely and positive report by Lisa Rich about all the activity emerging from the White House last week on the important topic of clemency.  Thanks to Mark Osler, I have now learned that Thursday's extended "White House Briefing on Life After Clemency" can be watched in full via YouTube here. Here is how the event is described:

Building on the President's efforts to make our criminal justice system more fair by granting clemency to men and women sentenced under outdated sentencing rules, the briefing brings together academics, advocates and Administration officials seeking to remove obstacles to successful reentry. The briefing provides a collaborative environment to discuss and share ideas on the President's clemency initiative and ways to improve paths to reentry.

Critically, not everyone is having warm feelings about the work of Prez Obama and his administration's work to date in this arena.  In particular, Mark Osler followed up his participation in the White House briefing with this New York Times op-ed headlined "Obama’s Clemency Problem." Here are excerpts:

In the spring of 2014, the Obama administration announced an initiative to consider granting clemency to thousands of federal prisoners serving what Mr. Obama called “unjust” sentences for low-level drug crimes.  Federal prisoners were notified of the project, and more than 30,000 responded by submitting surveys to begin the process.

Despite the relatively high number of commutations that Mr. Obama has now granted, there are still more than 9,000 pending commutation cases, many of the sort singled out in the 2014 initiative as potentially worthy. So why has the president acted on so few?  Typically, a reluctance to exercise the pardon power is a result of political timidity.  But in this case, the Obama administration already took the political risk two years ago when it announced the clemency initiative.

The problem here is that too many cases can’t be adequately considered by the president because of a sluggish and often intransigent review process.  Clemency petitions undergo no fewer than seven levels of review, four of them within the Department of Justice.  Within the Justice Department, clemency petitions run not only through the Office of the Pardon Attorney but also through the office of the deputy attorney general.

When the pardon attorney, Deborah Leff, resigned in January, she complained in her letter of resignation that meritorious clemency cases had been thwarted by those above her. She noted in particular that some of her own recommendations had been overruled by the deputy attorney general, Sally Quillian Yates.  It is not an incidental fact that Ms. Yates is a career prosecutor.  When the Department of Justice reviews clemency cases, the opinions of prosecutors in the district of conviction are solicited and given considerable weight. But prosecutors are the wrong people for the task of vetting clemency cases.

I was a federal prosecutor for five years.  In that job, deciding someone’s fate is a necessary but difficult emotional commitment.  The prospect of being wrong — and a clemency initiative like Mr. Obama’s can feel like a judgment that prosecutors were wrong — can be a lot to bear.  We should not be surprised if, when it comes to Mr. Obama’s clemency initiative, prosecutors systematically resist what is, in effect, an indictment of their work.

President Obama can and should fix this problem with a simple executive order that places the Office of the Pardon Attorney in the White House, rather than at the bottom of the institutional structure at the Department of Justice.  An empowered pardon attorney (or perhaps a pardon board, as we find in many states) would then report directly to the president.  That would allow an independent but thorough review of clemency petitions free from the influence of career prosecutors.

And while Professor Osler is concerned about the slow and cumbersome process for considering clemency requests, this letter to AG Loretta Lynch authored by Senator Richard Shelby highlights that others are troubled by some of the few offenders who have already received sentence commutations.  Here is how Senator Shelby's letter gets started:

I am writing to you in response to yesterday’s announcement that President Barack Obama granted sentence commutations to 61 individuals. I have strong concerns that 12 of these 61 individuals were convicted of one, if not more, firearm-related offenses. These include:

  • Seven convictions of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime;
  • Four convictions of possession of a firearm by a felon; and
  • Two convictions of use of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense.

In August 2014, the Department of Justice announced its rubric for considering federal inmates for the President’s new initiative for executive clemency. Part of these criteria included: non-violent individuals who would not pose a threat to public safety if released; low-level offenders without significant ties to large-scale criminal organizations, gangs, or cartels; inmates who do not have a significant criminal history; and those who have no history of violence prior to, or during, their current term of imprisonment.

By my count, the President has commuted the sentences of over 200 of these “non-violent” federal inmates, of which 33 were convicted of firearm-related offenses.  I am troubled by the nature of the firearm-related convictions and the fact that some individuals are previously convicted felons who continued to commit crimes.  This announcement clearly demonstrates that the Administration is not following its own selection criteria.  Frankly, I am left wondering why the President and the Justice Department consider individuals who carry guns to drug deals as “non-violent”.

April 5, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, April 04, 2016

Lots of little SCOTUS criminal justice work to start April

April is always an exciting month for me as both a sports fan and a SCOTUS watcher: as a sports fan, I have the certain joys of the start of the MLB baseball season, the Masters, and the start of the "real" season in the NBA and NHL; as a SCOTUS watcher, I have the uncertain joys of anticipating the Justices winding down its current Term by perhaps handing down some big criminal justice opinions or cert grants.  And just as the MLB season is off to something of a cold April start — e.g., it was 39 degrees for the very first pitch yesterday in Pittsbugh, and today's Yankees game has already been postponed — so too is SCOTUS keeping it cool in the criminal justice arena at the start of April.

Specifically, the Justices kicked off one of my favorite months with three little criminal justice developments:

  1. A cert grant in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado to consider "whether a no-impeachment rule constitutionally may bar evidence of racial bias offered to prove a violation of the Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury";

  2. A per curiam opinion in Woods v. Etherton to summarily reverse on AEDPA defenence grounds a decision by the Sixth Circuit in favor of a state habeas petitioner;

  3. A unanimous opinion in Nichols v. US to hold that SORNA did not require a sex offender to update his registration in Kansas once he departed the State for the Phillipines. 

If I did not have to obssess over a number of other matters this morning (including whether I managed to acquire any fantasy baseball sleepers during my draft this past weekend), I might be able to find some sleeper SCOTUS story to discuss within these developments. But absent readers helping me identify something big in these seemingly little developments, I am likely to move on to other bloggy matters (such as continuing to speculate how Justice Scalia's untimely demise has been impacting the Court's work in criminal justice cases).

April 4, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Sunday, April 03, 2016

"Subconstitutional Checks"

The title of this post is the title of this great-looking new paper authored by Shima Baradaran Baughman now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Constitutional checks are an important part of the American justice system.  The Constitution demands structural checks where it provides commensurate power.  The Constitution includes several explicit checks in criminal law. Criminal defendants have the right to counsel, indictment by grand jury, trial by jury, the public or executive elects or appoints prosecutors, legislatures limit actions of police and prosecutors, and courts enforce individual constitutional rights and stop executive misconduct.  However, these checks have rarely functioned as intended by the constitution and criminal law has failed to create — what I call — “subconstitutional checks” to adapt to the changes of the modern criminal state.

Subconstitutional checks are stopgaps formed in the three branches of government to effectuate the rights in the constitution when the system is stalled in dysfunction, when one branch has subjugated the others, or when two or more branches have colluded with one another.  The need for sub constitutional checks is evident in the criminal arena. In the modern criminal state, plea agreements have virtually replaced jury trials, discipline and electoral competition between prosecutors is rare, separation of powers does not serve its purpose because the interests of all branches are often aligned, and individual constitutional rights have little real power to protect defendants from the state.

As a result, the lack of structural constitutional checks in criminal law has lead to constitutional dysfunction.  Though never recognized as such, constitutional dysfunction in criminal law is evidenced by mass incarceration, wrongful convictions, overly harsh legislation, and an inability to stop prosecutor and police misconduct.  This Article sheds light on the lack of constitutional checks by performing an external constitutional critique of the criminal justice system to explore this structural gap in the three branches and concludes that creating subconstitutional checks has the potential of reducing criminal dysfunction and creating a more balanced criminal justice system.

April 3, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

A more positive spin on clemency developments and more positive aspects

LisaRichRegular readers may grow somewhat tired of hearing me kvetch about President Obama being much more willing to talk the talk than walk the walk when it comes to criminal justice reform generally and clemency developments in particular. For that reason (and others), I invited always sunny Lisa Rich to provide for blogging her sunny perspective on clemency events that transpired at the White House last week. Here is what she was kind enough to send my way for posting:

A somewhat sentimental post by Lisa A. Rich, former director of Legislative & Public Affairs at the U.S. Sentencing Commission and current director of the Texas A&M School of Law Residency Externship Program in Public Policy:
Last Week, I had the privilege of joining not only the tireless advocates of the Justice Roundtable and White House staff but over two dozen recipients of clemency spanning four presidencies during the Justice Roundtable and White House Briefings on “Life After Clemency.”
Personally, it was a joy to see all of the people — Nkechi Taifa, Mark Osler, Cynthia Rosenberry, Jesselyn McCurdy, Julie Stewart, Margy Love, and so many others who have been working tirelessly to answer the Obama Adminstration’s call to action on clemency.  I am in awe of the ceaseless dedication these advocates demonstrate every day in their pursuit of hope and justice for those human beings who deserve a chance to be something so much more than a statistic in our cycle of mass incarceration. These advocates and those for whom they do their jobs are the role models I discuss in my classes and they are the ones who inspire me to be better.
But more than my personal connection with those I miss because I am no longer living in D.C., the events over these past three days were important for two reasons.  First, all of us, including the President and White House staff saw and heard what hope is all about.  We heard from clemency recipients about heartache, mistake, and loss being turned into determination, faith, and commitment.  We heard people who genuinely want to make their communities and their lives better, stronger, and happier.  I am delighted that policymakers inside and outside of Washington are taking the opportunity to get to know these people — as people, not numbers, not workload, not files on a desk.
Second, I was pleased that two of my students were in the audience — and in fact had been given the opportunity to be involved in preparing for these events.  As part of Texas A&M School of Law’s new externship program in public policy, these students got to see policymaking in action from start to finish; they got to see firsthand the effects of both good and bad policy decisions.  Their experiences may not seem all that different from the hundreds of law students who go to D.C. and elsewhere each semester to partake in policy but it actually was a defining moment for me and them.  These students are the future policymakers and advocates.  To me, the events of these past three days were not just about hope for those impacted by outdated laws and poor decision making, but hope that the next generation of lawyers, policymakers, and advocates being trained by the brilliant people who participated in these events will learn from our mistakes; that they will engage in sound decision making based on evidence and best practices; that they will carry on the work done so well by so many. As an advocate and a teacher that is what hope is all about.

April 3, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

Thursday, March 31, 2016

A telling, but still unsatisfying, SCOTUS discussion of retroactivity during oral argument in Welch

As previewed in this post, yesterday the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Welch v. United States, which is principally concerned with the retroactive application of last Term's significant ruling in Johnson (authored by Justice Scalia) that the "residual clause" of the federal Armed Career Criminal Act was unconstitutionally vague.  I am deeply interested in this Welch case, not only because I helped with this law professor amicus brief in Welch, but also because I have authored this law review article to explain my view that traditional SCOTUS retroactivity doctrines — so called Teague doctrines — developed with unique concern for the importance of preserving the finality of convictions are not necessarily the best was to examine whether and when a new sentencing rule ought to apply retroactivity.

Helpfully, Rory Little has followed up his terrific Welch oral argument preview post at SCOTUSblog with this spot-on oral argument review post titled "Argument analysis: A likely decision in favor of retroactivity?."  Having read the full argument transcript in Welch (which is available here), I fell well positioned to assert that Rory's analysis is a much better and more enjoyable read, and it includes these essential insights at its start and end:

While it is not possible to describe the intricacies of retroactivity doctrine here — let alone wise if we want to keep our readers awake — it looks like last Term’s decision in Johnson v. United States will be declared to apply retroactively for all purposes, including on first and even successive (assuming they are timely filed) habeas corpus petitions. And as I explained in my preview, that result is likely, although not certain, to result in substantial sentencing reductions for a significant number of convicted federal defendants....

The law of retroactivity presents intellectual conundra that may never be fully settled.  The decision in this case is likely to be simply one more precedent in the wavering doctrinal line.  We will never know what Justice Harlan, or Justice Scalia, thinks of it.  But convicted federal felons whose sentences are reduced by five or more years will not care about the intricacies, while young law professors aspiring to tenure will have new grist for their mills.

Though I am no longer a young law professor, the intricacies of retroactivity doctrines as articulated in Teague and its progeny are a source of frustration and concern for me.  And the Welch oral argument leaves me concerned that the current Justices are going to be content to apply existing Teague doctrines in a quirky manner to a quirky case (as they have recently show they are wont to do in Montgomery v. Louisiana decided a few months ago).  As I suggest in this law review article, applying traditional Teague doctrines in retroactivity cases that involving only sentencing issues necessarily involves banging a square equitable peg into and round Teague doctrinal hole.  And yet, after reading the Welch transcript, it seems the Justices are for now content to just keep banging away.

March 31, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Extraordinany (and extraordinarily timely) issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science

The March 2016 issue of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science has an extraordinary collections of essays by an extraordinary array of legal scholars and sociologists and criminologists under the issue title "The Great Experiment: Realigning Criminal Justice in California and Beyond." Though many of the articles focus on California's unique and uniquely important recent criminal justice reforms experiences, all folks interested in and concerned about sentencing and corrections reform in the United States ought to find the time to read most or all of the articles in this collection.

The special editors of this issue, Charis Kubrin and Carroll Seron, authored this introduction to the collection under the title "The Prospects and Perils of Ending Mass Incarceration in the United States."  Here is an excerpt from that introduction:

This volume of The ANNALS represents the first effort by scholars to systematically and scientifically analyze what Joan Petersilia (2012) has described as “the biggest criminal justice experiment ever conducted in America.”  She went on to note that “most people don’t even realize it’s happening,” a point underscored by Franklin Zimring in the volume’s concluding remarks.  At a historic moment in which imprisonment patterns across the U.S. are shifting for the first time in nearly 40 years, the California case is ripe for in-depth examination.  The political landscape around decarceration is also shifting in ways that do not fit the debate of the last 40 years.  The initiative behind the prison buildup was largely an offshoot of more conservative, law and order political agendas, but as the nation debates a move toward prison downsizing and decarceration, there is support from both the Left and the Right for this fundamental shift in policy (Aviram, this volume; Beckett et al., this volume) — unusual bedfellows at a time of political polarization.  While this political convergence will no doubt be contested, as Joan Petersilia emphasizes in the volume’s preface, it nonetheless represents an important moment to have a systematic, rigorous, and scientific evaluation of California’s experiment and its implications on hand for policy-makers.

March 31, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fair Punishment Project releases first major report: "Juvenile Life Without Parole in Philadelphia: A Time for Hope?"

In this post yesterday I noted the new initiative emerging from Harvard Law School's Charles Hamilton Houston for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute called the Fair Punishment Project (FPP).  Today I received an email concerning the great new work of this great new initiative.  Here is part of this email reporting on this new report from FPP:

As Pennsylvania prepares for hundreds of resentencing hearings, a new report released today by the Fair Punishment Project and Phillips Black highlights Philadelphia’s frequent use of life without parole sentences for juveniles, calling the county an “extreme outlier” in its use of the punishment.  The report urges District Attorney Seth Williams to adopt a new approach to dealing with juveniles in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana, which determined that the court’s prior decision barring mandatory life without parole sentences for youth must be applied retroactively.

The report, Juvenile Life Without Parole in Philadelphia: A Time for Hope?, notes that Philadelphia County is responsible for the highest number of juvenile life without parole sentences in the country.  By way of comparison, Philadelphia County is home to just .5% of all Americans, but at least 9% of all juveniles sentenced to life without parole — or nearly one in 10.

“The latest scientific research show us that juveniles have a tremendous capacity to change their behaviors as they age,” stated Johanna Wald, a spokesperson for the Fair Punishment Project. “It is an injustice, and waste of taxpayer resources, to keep individuals locked up until their death for crimes they committed when they were teenagers. They should have an opportunity to prove they are worthy of a second chance.”

Wald notes that the Supreme Court has set a high bar to justify a life without parole sentence for juveniles. “The court has said that juvenile life without parole sentences should be reserved for exceptional cases that reflect ‘irreparable corruption.’ Given that adolescent brains are not fully developed and the capacity children have to change, the court rightfully assumes that it will be rare for an individual to meet this standard.”...

“Philadelphia has sentenced more juveniles to life without parole than anywhere else in the United States,” said John Mills of Phillips Black. “It is an outlier jurisdiction that, thanks to the court’s ruling, now has the opportunity to right the harsh punishments of the past by providing a thoughtful and measured approach to resentencing.”

March 31, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Harvard Law School launches "Fair Punishment Project"

While I was on the road yesterday, I received an email with some exciting news from my law school alma mater.  Here is the text of the email announcement:

We'd like to introduce you to a brand new initiative brought to you by Harvard Law School's Charles Hamilton Houston for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute called the Fair Punishment Project (FPP).  The Fair Punishment Project will use legal research and educational initiatives to ensure that the U.S. justice system is fair and accountable.  The Project will work to highlight the gross injustices resulting from prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective defense lawyers, and racial bias and exclusion. We are dedicated to illuminating the laws that result in excessive punishment, especially the death penalty and juvenile life without parole.

We'll be releasing our first report in the next day or two, so keep an eye out -- you don't want to miss it.  Future reports will highlight the troubling attributes that outlier death penalty counties have in common, examine America's top 10 deadliest prosecutors, and look deeply into counties that are plagued by prosecutorial misconduct. 

The Charles Hamilton Houston Institute was launched in 2005 by Harvard Law School professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr. The Institute serves as a critical bridge between scholarship, law, policy, and practice to solve the challenges of a multi-racial society.  The Criminal Justice Institute trains Harvard Law School students who will be the next generation of ethical, effective, and passionate defense lawyers.  Led by Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., the Institute leads research of the criminal and juvenile justice systems in order to affect local and national reform.

The Fair Punishment Project will strive to be a valuable resource for anyone and everyone who is interested in bringing about a fair and equitable justice system.  We hope you will visit our website at www.fairpunishment.org to learn more about our work, and that you will join us as we address one of the most critical issues of our time.

And here are titles and links to some of the notable sentencing-related content already up at the FPP website:

March 30, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Prez Obama commutes the sentence of 61 more federal drug offenders

As reported in this Washington Post piece, "President Obama commuted the sentences of 61 inmates Wednesday, part of his ongoing effort to give relief to prisoners who were harshly sentenced in the nation’s war on drugs." Here is more on this notable clemency news:

More than one-third of the inmates were serving life sentences. Obama has granted clemency to 248 federal inmates, including Wednesday's commutations.  White House officials said that Obama will continue granting clemency to inmates who meet certain criteria set out by the Justice Department throughout his last year....  Since the Obama administration launched a high-profile clemency initiative, thousands more inmates have applied.  Another 9,115 clemency petitions from prisoners are still pending....

But sentencing reform advocates said that many more prisoners are disappointed they have not yet heard from the president about their petitions. “Sixty-one grants, with over 10,000 petitions pending, is not an accomplishment to brag about,” said Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and an advocate for inmates petitioning for clemency.  “I know some of those still waiting, men who were grievously over-sentenced, who have reformed themselves, and never had a record of violence.  My heart breaks for them, as their hope for freedom — a hope created by the members of this administration — slips away.”

The White House has argued that broader criminal justice reform is needed beyond the clemency program. “Despite the progress we have made, it is important to remember that clemency is nearly always a tool of last resort that can help specific individuals, but does nothing to make our criminal justice system on the whole more fair and just,” said White House counsel W. Neil Eggleston. “Clemency of individual cases alone cannot fix decades of overly punitive sentencing policies.  So, while we continue to work to resolve as many clemency applications as possible — and make no mistake, we are working hard at this — only broader criminal justice reform can truly bring justice to the many thousands of people behind bars serving unduly harsh and outdated sentences.”

Among those granted clemency on Wednesday was Byron Lamont McDade, who had an unusual advocate in his corner.  The judge who sent McDade to prison for more than two decades for his role in a Washington-area cocaine conspiracy personally pleaded McDade’s case for early release. U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman said McDade’s 27-year punishment was “disproportionate” to his crime, but that he had no choice but to impose the harsh prison term in 2002 because of then-mandatory sentencing guidelines. Over the years, the judge had urged the Bureau of Prisons and the White House to reduce McDade’s sentence to 15 years.  He received no response until now....

On Thursday, the White House will hold an event called Life after Clemency that will include former inmates and their attorneys, along with some prison reform advocates. The president’s senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett, is meeting with advocates, former inmates and family members of prisoners Wednesday at the White House for an event about women and the criminal justice system.

This White House Press release provides basic details on the full list of 61 offenders who today learned that they now have a "prison sentence commuted to expire on July 28, 2016." Many of those listed appear to have been involved in a crack offense, though other drug cases sentenced both before and after Booker can be found in the group.  Notably, this NACDL press release reports that "25 of [these 61 offenders] were applicants whose petitions were supported by Clemency Project 2014."  This White House blog post authored by White House counsel W. Neil Eggleston provides more details and context concerning these grants:

Today, the President announced 61 new grants of commutation to individuals serving years in prison under outdated and unduly harsh sentencing laws.  More than one-third of them were serving life sentences.  To date, the President has now commuted the sentences of 248 individuals more than the previous six Presidents combined. And, in total, he has commuted 92 life sentences.

Underscoring his commitment not just to clemency, but to helping those who earn their freedom make the most of their second chance, the President will meet today with commutation recipients from both his Administration and the previous administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.  During the meeting, the commutation recipients will discuss their firsthand experiences with the reentry process and ways that the process can be strengthened to give every individual the resources he or she needs to transition from prison and lead a fulfilling, productive life. 
 
Building on this conversation, tomorrow the White House will host a briefing titled Life After Clemency with advocates, academics, and Administration officials to discuss and share ideas on the President’s clemency initiative and ways to improve paths to reentry. In addition to officials from the White House and the Department of Justice, experts, academics, and commutation recipients will share their expertise and insights on returning to society after years behind bars.  To watch the briefing live, tune in tomorrow, Thursday, March 31, at 2:00 PM EDT at www.whitehouse.gov/live.

March 30, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Fascinating SCOTUS Sixth Amendment splintering in Luis v. United States

The Supreme Court this morning handed down an opinion this morning that is fascinating based simply on the line-up of Justices: "BREYER, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and GINSBURG and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. KENNEDY, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which ALITO, J., joined. KAGAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion." This line-up ruled for the criminal defendant in Luis v. United States, No. 14-419 (S. Ct. March 30, 2016) (available here), and here is how Justice Breyer's plurality opinion starts:

A federal statute provides that a court may freeze before trial certain assets belonging to a criminal defendant accused of violations of federal health care or banking laws. See 18 U. S. C. §1345. Those assets include: (1) property “obtained as a result of ” the crime, (2) property“traceable” to the crime, and (3) other “property of equivalent value.” §1345(a)(2). In this case, the Government has obtained a court order that freezes assets belonging to the third category of property, namely, property that is untainted by the crime, and that belongs fully to the defendant. That order, the defendant says, prevents her frompaying her lawyer.  She claims that insofar as it does so, it violates her Sixth Amendment “right . . . to have the Assistance of Counsel for [her] defence.” We agree.

March 30, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

"Sentencing Reductions versus Sentencing Equality"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting and timely new paper by Susan Klein now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 was enacted by an odd conglomeration of Democrat and Republican who agreed that federal sentences should be based upon relevant offender and offense characteristics, not including such things as race, gender, geography, ideological bent of the sentencing judge, or citizenship. That goal has become lost and less relevant in today’s world of draconian and mandatory minimum sentencing, especially in the drug trafficking, child pornography, and fraud arenas. Mass incarceration has run rampant. Sentences are so out-of-whack with most basic principles justice that the fact that female offenders may receive slightly lower prison terms than their male counterparts should no longer be the very top of our reform agenda.

This is not to suggest that scholars and the public shouldn’t be concerned with sentencing disparity, especially based on race. However, the disparity between federal and state sentences is so much wider (and occurs so much more frequently) than the disparity among similarly-situated federal offenders that the latter appears less of a significant issue in absolute terms. Whatever reform capital policy-makers and scholars retain should be poured into championing alternatives to criminalization (such as fines, drug treatment, and apologies) and alternatives to long prison terms (such as probation and parole). Reforms must focus on discovering what offenses we could safely decriminalize, and what programs are effective in keeping individuals out of prison in the first place (or in curbing recidivism once incarceration has occurred).

If giving judges more discretion at sentencing means lower average prison terms, this will probably rebound to the benefit of our minority populations as a whole, even if it might mean that in particular cases minority defendants receive slightly higher sentences for the same conduct as their white counterparts. Likewise, if sentencing, parole, and probation decisions based upon “risk assessment” leads to lower overall incarceration rates, we may have to tolerate this even if it generates higher risk numbers for certain minority offenders. Critics of every substantive criminal-law and sentencing reform proposal need to remember the big picture, and not lose sight of the forest of mass incarceration for the trees of unwarranted sentencing disparity.

March 30, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Federal court to hear challenge to "scarlet passport" provision of International Megan’s Law

ImagesAs reported in this Wall Street Journal article, a constitutional challenge to a contoversial aspect of a law passed by Congress last month is schedule for a federal court hearing today in California. The article is headined "Law Creating Passport Mark for Sex Offenders Faces First Challenge: Lawsuit targets ‘unique identifier’ for passports of those convicted of sex crimes involving minors," and here are excerpts:

A new federal law requiring the State Department to mark the passports of certain convicted sex offenders is expected to face its first test in federal court on Wednesday. A group of convicted sex offenders has asked a federal judge in Oakland, Calif., to block the measure pending the outcome of a February lawsuit they filed that challenges the law’s constitutionality.

The law, International Megan’s Law to Prevent Demand for Child Sex Trafficking, mandates the State Department to add a “unique identifier” to passports of Americans convicted of sex crimes involving minors and that U.S. officials to alert foreign governments when those Americans travel abroad.

The judge, Phyllis J. Hamilton, is scheduled to hear arguments on Wednesday on whether to suspend implementation of the passport mark and the notification requirement. The lawsuit’s plaintiffs say the law violates the U.S. Constitution by forcing people convicted of sex offenses to bear the equivalent of a “proverbial Scarlet Letter” on their passports. The First Amendment limits what the government can compel people to divulge. The complaint asks a federal judge to strike down the law as unconstitutional.

“For the first time in the history of this nation, the United States Government will publicly stigmatize a disfavored minority group using a document foundational to citizenship,” says the lawsuit, filed on Feb. 8 in federal district court in Oakland, Calif.

The new law codifies a nearly decade-old program called Operation Angel Watch, which U.S. officials said has helped to curb child-sex tourism by alerting countries of sex offenders traveling to them. Supporters say the law will help countries with a lack of resources deal with child predators and encourage foreign governments to reciprocate when sex offenders from their countries try to enter the U.S. “Knowledge is power in terms of protection,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.), who sponsored the bill. Rep. Smith said the passport mark to be created by the State Department will help keep Americans covered by the law from concealing their destination by traveling to a foreign country by way of another to engage in sex tourism.

The law, signed by President Barack Obama on Feb. 7, could cover a wide swath of offenders, including people convicted of misdemeanor offenses such as “sexting” with a minor, according to the lawsuit, which identifies the seven plaintiffs by the pseudonym John Doe.... Rep. Smith said he got the idea for International Megan’s Law during a meeting with a delegation of Thai officials about human-trafficking. He asked them what they would do if the U.S. alerted them when a registered offender was traveling to their country and “They said, ‘Well, we wouldn’t give them a visa,’ ” Mr. Smith recalled....

Janice Bellucci, a lawyer who represents the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, said she found few precedents for the passport identifier in her research. Among them: The Nazis confiscated Jewish passports and marked them with a “J,” and the internal passports in the Soviet Union singled out Jews by listing their ethnicity as Jewish, while other citizens were identified by their place of birth, she said.

Mr. Smith rejected the lawsuit’s comparisons and said California Reform Sex Offender Laws, a group Ms. Bellucci is president of, and others have long sought to weaken sex-offender laws. “U.S. law denies passports to delinquent taxpayers, deadbeat parents and drug smugglers,” the congressman wrote in a recent op-ed published in the Washington Post. “The law’s passport provision, however, does not go this far.”

International Megan’s Law doesn’t allow for offenders who states have deemed rehabilitated, or who have had their records expunged to have the passport mark removed, according to Ms. Bellucci. Nor does it exempt those who were minors at the time of their offense.

Nicole Pittman, director of the Impact Justice Center on Youth Registration Reform, an Oakland, Calif., group pushing to eliminate the practice of placing children on sex-offender registries, said about 200,000 of the roughly 850,000 people registered as sex offenders in the U.S. were under the age of 18 when they were convicted or adjudicated in juvenile court. “This is supposed to protect kids and we’re actually hurting them,” Ms. Pittman said of International Megan’s Law. “We have kids going on the registry for sending nude pictures of themselves.”

March 30, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Oklahoma creates Death Penalty Review Commission full of prominent folks .... which will likely achieve ....?

Though I generally think of myself as an optimist, this notable news item out of Oklahoma, headlined "Oklahoma Bipartisan Death Penalty Review Commission formed, supported," triggers the cynical little voice in my head that comes out when I hear about the creation of a blue-ribbon commission in the sentencing arena.  (For those curious about aesthetic backstories, this Wikipedia entry highlights why we color expert panels blue instead of, say, having pink-ribbon commissions.)  Before I go cynical, here are the details of the latest governmental gathering of note:

A group of prominent Oklahomans joined together Monday (March 28) to form a blue-ribbon, bipartisan Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission.  The Commission will conduct what a press statement called “the first-ever independent, objective and thorough review of the state’s entire capital punishment system.”...

“Oklahoma has an opportunity to lead the nation by being the first state to conduct extensive research on its entire death penalty process, beginning with an arrest that could lead to an execution,” said former Gov. Brad Henry, of Henry-Adams Companies, LLC, one of the group’s co-chairs.“The Commission includes distinguished Oklahomans with differing views and perspectives on capital punishment who are donating their time to work together on a research-driven review,” he said.

Joining Gov. Henry as co-chairs are Reta Strubhar, a judge on the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals (1993-2004) and an Assistant District Attorney of Canadian County (1982-1984); and Andy Lester, of the Spencer Fane law firm and a former U.S. Magistrate Judge for Western District of Oklahoma who served on President Ronald Reagan’s Transition team for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (1980-1981).

Members of the Commission have experience in a variety of aspects of the capital punishment system, including victim advocacy, policymaking, prosecution, defense, and judging. They also include leading lawyers, business leaders, and scholars.  In addition to the co-chairs, the members are Robert H. Alexander, Jr., of The Law Office of Robert H. Alexander, Jr.; Howard Barnett, President of OSU-Tulsa; Dean Andrew Coats, Dean Emeritus of OU College of Law; Dean Valerie Couch, Oklahoma City University School of Law; Maria Kolar, Assistant Professor of OU College of Law; Rob Nigh, Chief Public Defender, Tulsa County; Christy Sheppard, a victims’ advocate; Kris Steele, Director of The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM) and former Speaker of the House; and Gena Timberman, founder of The Luksi Group.

“Our goal is to provide a resource for Oklahomans to allow them to make informed judgments about our state’s capital punishment system that, we hope, will benefit both Oklahoma and the country as a whole,” said Henry.

Though I have long been a fan of any "research-driven review" of any sentencing system, I am not optimistic based on my own experiences in Ohio that this kind of death penalty review commission will be able to achieve all that much other than producing a lengthy report that will be embraced or rejected by political leaders based entirely on their already established views on the death penalty.  This cynical prediction is based on how an array of ABA reports on state death penalty systems and how a recent Ohio Death Penalty Task Force report was received.

Critically, I do not mean to be asserting that this Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission is unimportant or sure to inconsequential.  But I do mean to assert that basic political dynamics rather than refined policy analysis defines and often limits the possibilities for reforming the administration of the death penalty.

March 29, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, March 28, 2016

"Time, Death, and Retribution"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Chad Flanders now available via SSRN. To call this article timely and just dead on is both accurate and punny. Here is the abstract:

The heart of a Lackey claim is that when a death row inmate is kept waiting too long for his execution, this delay can amount to cruel and unusual punishment — either because they delay is itself cruel and unusual, or because the execution on top of the delay is.  All Lackey claims brought by death row inmates have failed, but not for want of trying.  The usual complaint against Lackey claims is that those who, by their own appeals, delay their execution date cannot turn around and use that delay as an argument against their death sentences.  I agree with other scholars that this argument is incorrect.  However, even if it is true that prisoner choice cannot make an otherwise unconstitutional sentence constitutional, Lackey claims can — and should — fail if the courts adopt a certain theory of retribution, what I call “intrinsic desert retribution”.  Examining that type of retribution, distinguishing it from other retributive theories, and showing how intrinsic desert retribution can refute most Lackey claims, is one of this article’s major contributions. In doing so, it breaks with most of the scholarly literature, which tends to be sympathetic to Lackey claims.

But the fact that Lackey claims may survive given a certain theory of retribution does not make that theory something the state may permissibly pursue.  And this is the second major contribution of the article: to make the case that retribution may in fact not be a permissible state purpose.  In short, Lackey claims do not fail because they are too strong — they fail because they are not strong enough.  The Supreme Court has traditionally held that the state may permissibly put someone to death because of retribution.  But the Court has also said, in other contexts, that the state may not pursue certain aims.  The state cannot promote religion, for one; nor can it adopt policies based solely on “animus” against a certain class of persons.  My article suggests that when the state adopts retribution as a goal in capital punishment, and pursues that goal even after years of delay, then retribution starts to look more and more like something that, while it may be morally right, cannot be a goal the state can legitimately pursue.

March 28, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Effective previews via SCOTUSblog before an exciting upcoming SCOTUS week for sentencing fans

This coming week brings two interesting Supreme Court cases about sentencing issues via Betterman v. Montana, to be argued on Monday, March 28, and Welch v. United States, to be argued on Wednesday, March 30.  I will likely have plenty to say about both cases after the oral arguments; helpfully, two great pre-argument previews done by Rory Little over at SCOTUSblog provides an opportunity to gear up for this year's SCOTUS sentencing March madness.  Here are links to, and the start of, these SCOTUSblog previews:

Argument preview: A “clean” constitutional question – does the speedy trial right apply to sentencing?

The Sixth Amendment provides various rights for “all criminal prosecutions.”  Among those listed is “the right to a speedy and public trial.” Next Monday, March 28, in Betterman v. Montana, the Court will consider whether the “speedy” part of the right applies to a criminal defendant’s sentencing that happened about fourteen months after he was convicted by guilty plea.  The briefing in the case is very good, and Betterman is represented by an experienced appellate advocate (Fred Rowley, making his first Supreme Court argument), as well as the UCLA Supreme Court Clinic.  Montana’s solicitor general, Dale Schowengerdt, will argue for the state, and Assistant to the U.S. Solicitor General Ginger Anders will argue on behalf of the United States as an amicus in support of Montana.

Argument preview: Complex retroactivity questions arising from Justice Scalia’s void-for-vagueness decision last Term

It seems increasingly clear that the current Supreme Court Term will have to be headlined “Justice Scalia is sorely missed.” Next Wednesday, March 30, the Court will hear argument in yet another criminal case in which the unexpected passing of Antonin Scalia on February 13 will leave an unanswered “hole” in the Court’s deliberations. Last June, Justice Scalia wrote the opinion in Johnson v. United States, in which, after an eight-year campaign originating in Justice Scalia dissents, a majority declared the “residual clause” of a federal repeat-offender statute unconstitutionally vague. The question quickly arose whether that ruling should be applied to federal cases on collateral review, even though they were “final” before Johnson was decided. That is, should Johnson apply “retroactively”? To answer that question, the Court chose (from among others) the petition in Welch v. United States. (On a tangential note, some courts of appeals have differed on the question of retroactivity for “initial” versus “successive” collateral review requests; this case will apparently answer for both contexts.)

Interestingly, the federal government has told the Court that it agrees with Gregory Welch that Johnson should be fully retroactive, and that Welch’s case should be remanded for resentencing. Thus, the Court has appointed an experienced amicus, Helgi Walker (a former clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas and partner at Gibson Dunn), to defend the judgment below, and the amicus brief, while likely controversial, is excellent.

March 27, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Federal district judge interprets Nebraska law to preclude placing juve on its public sex offender list

As reported in this local article, a "federal judge has blocked Nebraska from putting a 13-year-old boy who moved here from Minnesota on its public list of sex offenders." Here is more about this notable ruling:

Senior U.S. District Judge Richard G. Kopf said if the boy had done in Nebraska exactly what he did in Minnesota he would not have been required to register as a sex offender "and he would not be stigmatized as such." "It therefore makes no sense to believe that the Nebraska statutes were intended to be more punitive to juveniles adjudicated out of state as compared to juveniles adjudicated in Nebraska," the judge wrote in a 20-page order.

In Nebraska, lawmakers opted to exclude juveniles from the Nebraska Sex Offender Registration Act unless they were prosecuted criminally in adult court, even though it meant losing thousands in federal funding. But the way the law is written made it appear that all sex offenders who move to Nebraska must register.

When the Minnesota boy in this case moved here to live with relatives, the Nebraska State Patrol determined he had to register because of a subsection of the law....

In this case, the boy was 11 when he was adjudicated for criminal sexual conduct in juvenile court in Minnesota. A judge there ordered him to complete probation, counseling and community service, and his name went on a part of that state's predatory offender list that is visible only to police. Even before that, the boy had moved to Nebraska to live with relatives.

In August 2014, the Nebraska probation office notified his family he was required to register under the Nebraska Sex Offender Registry Act or could be prosecuted. That same month, the boy's family filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block the patrol from putting him on Nebraska's registry, which is public.

In Monday's order, Kopf concluded that the boy wasn't required to register in Minnesota because he was adjudicated in a juvenile court, not convicted in adult court, so Nebraska's act doesn't apply. He cited Nebraska Juvenile Code, which specifically says juvenile court adjudications are not to be deemed convictions or subject to civil penalties that normally apply. An adjudication is a juvenile court process through which a judge determines if a juvenile committed a given act.

Kopf's order said it was apparent that the purpose was to identify people guilty of sex offenses and to publish information about them for the protection of the public. "It is equally apparent that the Nebraska Legislature has made a policy determination that information regarding juvenile adjudications is not to be made public, even though this has resulted in the loss of federal funding for non-compliance with (the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act)," he said.

Late Monday afternoon, Omaha attorney Joshua Weir said the boy's grandmother was so excited when he called with the news she had to pull over in a parking lot. "They were very, very relieved," he said. Weir said the boy is a healthy, happy kid now and flourishing in school. "It would've been a tragedy if he would have been branded a sex offender," he said. "That's something that sticks with you for the rest of your life."

The state could choose to appeal the decision within the next 30 days. 

March 22, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Unanimous Supreme Court suggests Second Amendment can preclude state felony prosecution for public weapon possession

I wanted a chance to review closely the Supreme Court's notable Second Amendment work yesterday in Caetano v. Massachusetts, No. 14-10078 (S. Ct. March 21, 2016) (available here), before blogging about what strikes me as a significant constitutional ruling.  But even after doing some more review, I am still scratching my head a bit regarding both the Court's brief per curiam opinion and the lengthy and forceful concurring opinion authored by Justice Alito and joined by Justice Thomas.

Caetano strikes me as significant primarily because the Supreme Court has not ruled on the merits in a Second Amendment case since the 2010 McDonald ruling, and also because both McDonald and its landmark precursor, the 2008 Heller ruling, left so much uncertain about the reach and limits of the Second Amendment.  In addition, the merits of the Caetano case seem significant because it involved (1) possession of a weapon other than a traditional firearm (a stun-gun), and (2) a state criminal conviction affirmed by a state Supreme Court based on possession of this weapon outside the home.  Finally, as the title of this post suggests, it seems significant that not a single Justice dissented from the the Caetano per curiam ruling to vacate the judgment of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts based on the Second Amendment.

But Justice Alito's concurrence, which seems like it might have been initially drafted to serve as an opinion for the full Court, reasonably complained that the Court’s per curiam opinion was "grudging" because it seems open to the possibility that the defendant might still have her felony conviction for possession of a stun-gun outside her home affirmed on some other grounds.  Thus, as the title of this post is meant to indicate, I think the Caetano ruling only suggests a broadened application of the Second Amendment to limit a state felony prosecution.

This Lyle Denniston post at SCOTUSblog captures these themes in its title: "The Second Amendment expands, but maybe not by much."  And here is a telling excerpt from that post:

The Court set aside the state court ruling, and told that tribunal to take another look.  The decision left in doubt whether the conviction in the case would stand, and whether the state could come up with other reasons to support its ban.  It is possible that the state’s highest court will call for new legal briefs or a hearing on what to do about the Boston woman in the case, Jaime Caetano.

Her defense lawyer, Boston public defender Benjamin H. Keehn, said after the ruling Monday that he would seek to have her conviction vacated.  Although she was found guilty of a serious crime (a felony) under the Massachusetts procedure used in her case, she was not given a jail sentence or a fine.  Keehn said he was “not positive” what the Supreme Court ruling meant, and said he was studying whether there had been comparable situations in other cases returned to lower courts without specific instructions.

March 22, 2016 in Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

High-profile NYC cop-killer getting off death row spotlights continued challenges SCOTUS jurisprudence

This new AP article, headline "NY Killer Off Death Row as Definition of Disabled Gets Tweak," reports on a notable capital ruling in a high-profile federal capital case and details how the case taps into broader issues surrounding the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment limits on the application of the death penalty. Here are the details:

Prosecutors say Ronell Wilson is a calculating murderer. Since his imprisonment for killing two New York City police detectives, he has been able to dash off emails, memorize passages from books and seduce a female guard.  But Wilson's lawyers were able to convince a judge that he is a person of such a low intelligence that he can't function in society, and therefore can't legally be put to death.

Wilson, 32, and others like him are at the center of a debate over how to enforce a nearly two-year-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling that adds more specificity to the concept that it is cruel and unusual punishment to execute killers who are intellectually disabled.  It says courts should go beyond mere IQ scores to consider the person's mental or developmental disabilities.  A federal judge in New York who revisited Wilson's case based on the ruling tossed out his death sentence, just three years after finding that Wilson's IQ score was high enough to make him eligible to be executed.

A similar review led a judge in California last November to reduce a death sentence given three decades ago to Donald Griffin, a man who raped and murdered his 12-year-old stepdaughter.  A third appeal based on the ruling, that of a Virginia serial killer with a borderline IQ score, failed. Alfredo Prieto was executed in October.

Legal scholars say similar death row decisions are likely to follow, depending on how the high court's ruling is applied around the country.  "We should see courts more carefully considering whether defendants have an intellectual disability ... that doesn't mean we will," said Robert Dunham, the executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.

Wilson is a case study in the difficulty of determining who fits the court's definition of someone too intellectually limited to qualify for capital punishment....  U.S. District Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis said in his ruling Tuesday that he had no sympathy for Wilson and also doubted most clinicians would consider him disabled.  But he said he had "significant deficits in adaptive functioning" - enough to make him ineligible for the death penalty.  Garaufis imposed a new punishment of life in prison.

March 20, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, March 18, 2016

"How many times should a state be able to try to execute someone without running afoul of the Constitution?"

The question in the title of this post is the first line of this notable new commentary authored by Austin Sarat concerning the work of the Ohio Supreme Court  in Ohio v. Broom (previously discussed here).  Here is more of the commentary:

[T]he Ohio Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that neither the federal nor the state constitution forbids Ohio from trying to execute someone more than once.  While this ruling may set up another opportunity for the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the constitutionality of capital punishment, it nonetheless allows the nightmarish possibility that the state can proceed in a negligent manner in carrying out an execution and, if it fails in the first attempt, to try, try again.  This should shock and trouble those who support capital punishment as well as those who oppose it....

On Sept. 15, 2009, Broom, who had been convicted of kidnapping, rape, and murder, was brought to Ohio's death chamber where he was to be executed by lethal injection.  His executioners repeatedly attempted to insert an intravenous line into Broom's arms and legs.  As they did so, Broom winced and grimaced with pain.  At one point, he covered his face with both hands and appeared to be sobbing, his stomach heaving.

After an hour had passed, Broom tried to help his executioners, turning onto his side, sliding the rubber tubing that served as a tourniquet up his left arm, and alternatively squeezing his fingers together and apart. Even when executioners found what they believed to be a suitable vein, it quickly collapsed as they tried to inject the saline fluid. Broom was once again brought to tears. After more than two hours of executioners sticking Broom's arms and legs with the needle, the prison director decided that the execution team should rest.  The governor of Ohio issued a reprieve stopping the execution....

It is almost certain that the Bromell case now will make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court and that it will offer that court the chance to revisit the unfortunate precedent it set more than 60 years ago [allowing Louisiana to try again after a failed electrocution in the Francis case].

One can only hope that the Court will now insist that if the government is going to carry out executions that there be no room for error. Neither simple human decency nor the 8th Amendment can tolerate a government carrying out a death penalty sentence in a shoddy manner.  If we are going to have a death penalty, we cannot allow death, as the dissenting justice in the Francis case put it, to be carried out on the installment plan.

Prior related post:

March 18, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

"The Emerging Eighth Amendment Consensus Against Life Without Parole Sentences for Nonviolent Offenses"

The title of this post is the title of this article authored by Bidish Sarma and Sophie Cull recently posted on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

As the nation moves away from the policies that built a criminal justice system bent on mass incarceration, it is an appropriate time to reassess a sentencing regime that has doomed thousands of individuals convicted of nonviolent offenses to die in prison.  Over the last thirty years, those policies have resulted in more than 3,000 offenders across the country receiving life sentences without the possibility of parole when they were convicted of a nonviolent crime. While it seems clear to many today that this harsh punishment is inappropriate for offenses that involved no physical harm to other people, the individuals serving these sentences continue to face life and death in prison.  The Eighth Amendment offers these offenders an opportunity to demonstrate the unconstitutionality of their punishment to the Supreme Court — the institution in the best position to redress these excessive sentences of a bygone era.

This Article analyzes the claim that there is a national consensus against life without parole sentences for individuals convicted of non-violent offenses.  First, it defines the problem, exploring how and why some offenders received life without parole sentences for nonviolent crime.  This entails a look at the historical development of a series of harsh sentencing policies that made nonviolent offenses punishable by life without the possibility of parole.  The historical developments are then traced through to current times to explain the seismic shift in how leaders in all three branches of government approach punishing low-level and nonviolent crimes.

This Article situates the punishment in the Eighth Amendment context.  How have the Supreme Court's previous Eighth Amendment rulings framed the relevant constitutional questions?  And how can a change in the way the Court considers the link between the nature of the offense and the challenged punishment create new possibilities?  This Article explores how treating individuals sentenced to life without parole for nonviolent offenses as a discrete category based on the nature of the crimes can alter the Eighth Amendment framework that the Court will use to determine the punishment's constitutionality.  The unfavorable "gross disproportionality" cases that have previously been considered by the Court do not need to govern the claim and, therefore, do not foreclose the possibility that the Constitution itself prohibits these sentences.

After exploring how to understand the constitutional claim in a way that brings the Supreme Court's categorical approach to bear (rather than the gross disproportionality approach), this Article assesses the factors the Court considers in its consensus-based categorical test.  It sets out, and then evaluates, the various indicators of consensus upon which the Court relies: the number of jurisdictions that legislatively authorize a punishment; the number of sentences actually imposed; and the degree of geographic isolation.  It also evaluates the various considerations that assist the Court in making an independent judgment of the punishment.  Ultimately, based on binding Eighth Amendment precedent, sufficient evidence is available now to enable the Court to strike down life without parole sentences for nonviolent offenses.  In other words, there is an emerging consensus that the Court should recognize.

March 16, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Another disconcerting report about the failings of the Obama clemency initiative and Clemency Project 2014

USA-JUSTICE-CLEMENCYRegular readers know that, ever since Prez Obama and his Aministration started talking up efforts to get serious about using clemency powers, I have been regularly expressing concerns about how structurally peculiar and procedurally belabored the new (and now not-so-new) clemency push has been.  Here are just a few of my prior related posts on this front:

Still more reason for concern has now emerged via this new Reuters article headlined "Obama's prisoner clemency plan faltering as cases pile up." Here are excerpts:

In April 2014, the administration of President Barack Obama announced the most ambitious clemency program in 40 years, inviting thousands of jailed drug offenders and other convicts to seek early release and urging lawyers across the country to take on their cases.

Nearly two years later the program is struggling under a deluge of unprocessed cases, sparking concern within the administration and among justice reform advocates over the fate of what was meant to be legacy-defining achievement for Obama.

More than 8,000 cases out of more than 44,000 federal inmates who applied have yet to make it to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for review, lawyers involved in the program told Reuters. That is in addition to about 9,000 cases that are still pending at the DOJ, according to the department's own figures.

Only 187 inmates have had their sentences commuted, far below the thousands expected by justice reform advocates and a tiny fraction of the 2.2 million people behind bars in the United States, which has the world's highest incarceration rate....

A senior DOJ official told Reuters it is calling on the lawyers' group -- Clemency Project 2014 -- to simply hand over the outstanding cases without further vetting, saying it is not working fast enough. So far, the group estimates it has handed over around 200 cases.

But criminal justice experts say the administration itself should bear much of the blame. The idea to tap pro-bono attorneys to help vet the cases originated with the DOJ, and critics say it should have prepared its own staff to handle the large volume of applications. “It’s unfair to criticize the volunteer group that you asked to help,” said Rachel Barkow, a criminal law professor at New York University who has studied clemency in U.S. prisons. She estimates that about 1,500 prisoners should be eligible for commutation, saying the 187 granted so far does not "fulfill the promise of the program."...

The delays have left prisoners like Linda Byrnes, 69, in limbo. “I thought clemency was for people like me,” Byrnes told Reuters through an electronic messaging system from a federal prison in Alderson, West Virginia. Byrnes, who has spent 20 years in prison for distributing marijuana and has two years left on her sentence, was recently diagnosed with mouth cancer and has yet to hear whether she has been assigned a lawyer after submitting her application to Clemency Project in August 2014....

Clemency Project 2014 said it does not comment publicly on the individuals it represents. The group vets the applications, writes the petitions and sends them to the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, which oversees all pardons and sentence commutations and makes recommendations for the president's approval.

So far, 25,000 of 34,000 applications received by Clemency Project have been rejected for failing to meet the basic criteria - no record of violence, no significant ties to a gang or drug cartel, good behavior in prison and completion of at least 10 years of sentence. About 10,000 inmates did not go through the Clemency Project and either applied directly to DOJ or through a paid attorney. "It really would be a sad state of affairs if individuals who had asked for a lawyer weren't considered in time because their petitions never reached the pardon attorney's office," a DOJ official told Reuters on the condition of anonymity.

A large number of mostly unqualified applications, a shortage of lawyers and the complexity of the cases have slowed progress, said Cynthia Roseberry, project manager for Clemency Project 2014. "There are a lot of gray areas," said Roseberry, who estimates it takes 30 days for one lawyer to review one case on average. "We've got to unpack each of these applicants to see specifically what factors affect them... and so that takes a little more time."

This includes finding pre-sentencing reports for each case, determining if the person would have received a shorter sentence under current law and reviewing prison behavior records. Roseberry said the group was unaware of any request from the Justice Department to hand over the pending applications. Roseberry said the group's initially slow pace has picked up in recent months....

Roseberry said about 3,000 applicants still need to be assigned to a lawyer, and that it was not certain whether the group will be able to submit all of the applications it has received before Obama leaves office. The group has more than 570 law firms and 30 law schools contributing to the effort.

Some rejected prisoners and those who have yet to hear a decision say they believe they would have had a better chance if they had sent their clemency petition directly to the government.

Josie Ledezma was sentenced to life for conspiracy to transport cocaine and applied for clemency through Clemency Project 2014. She said she did not hear from them for six months and later learned that her assigned lawyer had shut down her legal practice. In January, nearly one year after applying, she was told Clemency Project 2014 could not help her and encouraged her to apply directly. “I wrote back and asked what was it that made me not qualify, but never got a response,” Ledezma told Reuters through an electronic messaging service for federal prisoners.

March 15, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, March 11, 2016

Pennsylvania struggling with what law applies to nearly 500 juve LWOPers needing resentencing after Montgomery

The local article, headlined "Juvenile lifers will get new sentences, but what law applies?," effectively reviews the many headaches that the SCOTUS rulings in Miller and Montgomery have created for folks in Pennsylvania. Here are excerpts:

In 1990, on Robert Holbrook's 16th birthday, he joined a group of men on a robbery that turned into a killing.  He received the only sentence Pennsylvania law allowed for murder: life without parole. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that mandatory life-without-parole sentences were unconstitutional for those younger than 18.  This January, the court ruled that the ban must be applied retroactively, to people like Holbrook. Since then, Pennsylvania's high courts have vacated dozens of life sentences.

It is now clear that Holbrook — along with about 480 other juvenile lifers across the state, 300 of them from Philadelphia — will receive new sentencing hearings following the Supreme Court's ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana. But a key question remains: What sentencing law applies?

"Nobody has any real answer," said State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, a Montgomery County Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee.  "We're in uncharted territory here," he said, "because we have a situation where the law these juveniles have been sentenced under has now been found to be unconstitutional, and the laws that we adopted as a legislature were adopted after they were sentenced originally" and do not apply to them.

The most straightforward resolution might be new legislation, but it's not so simple.  After the 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, Pennsylvania enacted new sentences for juvenile killers: 25 years to life for those younger than 15, and 35 to life for those 15 to 17.  But that law excluded anyone whose sentence was final before the Miller decision. Greenleaf said there's no changing that.  "The problem is, even if we pass something, it would be ex post facto," or retroactive, he said. "I don't think the legislature can do anything at this point, because it could be unconstitutional what we do."

Marsha Levick, chief counsel at the Juvenile Law Center, said no new law is needed.  Her solution: Resentence juveniles to 20 to 40 years in prison, the punishment for third-degree murder. "Because there is no constitutional sentencing statute that applies to these individuals, we would argue the court should apply the next-harshest sentence," she said. "That's all the court can do.  It can only apply a constitutional sentence."

But Pennsylvania courts have already gone a different route. About two dozen juvenile lifers — all sentenced, but still in the appeals process, when Miller came down - have received new sentences based on judges' discretion. The results have varied wildly.  Pennsylvania's Supreme Court, in the case of Qu'eed Batts — who at age 14 committed a gang-related murder — said the appropriate sentence for individuals such as him would carry a minimum number of years in prison and a maximum of life. So brothers Devon and Jovon Knox, who were convicted in a Pittsburgh carjacking and murder, received new sentences, of 35 years to life and 25 years to life respectively.

But in re-sentencing Ian Seagraves, who committed a brutal murder in Monroe County, a judge told him, "At this point in time, I have the option of life with parole or life without parole." The judge concluded that life without parole was still the appropriate sentence....

Pennsylvania Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm has been inundated with calls and emails from prosecutors and judges trying to figure out how to handle the cases and what sentencing laws apply. "I know some of these D.A.s are going to go back and ask for the highest minimum they can because there's a public safety question here," she said.

She said if courts are guided by the state's new sentencing law created after Miller, 189 offenders out of 480 would be immediately eligible for parole. The average time served among the 480 is 36 years, and the longest is 62 years.  "In some of these cases, you're going to see time served become the new minimum.  Obviously that needs to be very carefully negotiated with the D.A., the defender, and the surviving family members."...

Prosecutors, judges, and defense lawyers across the state, which the Pennsylvania Corrections Department says has more juvenile lifers than any other, have been tangling with this question and coming to disparate conclusions.  One Chester County judge converted the cases on his docket to "time served to life," triggering the immediate possibility of parole.

But Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said there was some consensus among prosecutors: "We believe that the sentencing provision enacted by the legislature for those cases after June 2012 can serve as good guidance."

Bradley Bridge, who's working on the cases for the Defender Association of Philadelphia, said he had been meeting with prosecutors and judges in Philadelphia to set up a structure to resolve the cases, including what sentences could be imposed. To him, one thing is clear: Resentencing juveniles to life is not permissible. "They must be given new sentences that have both a minimum and a maximum," he said. "That is what is required under Pennsylvania law."...

Levick said, one outcome is all but certain: There will be even more legal appeals.

March 11, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Rep Lamar Smith makes case against federal sentencing reform by questioning success of Texas reforms

One recurring theme of many advocates for federal sentencing reform is that state-level reforms, lead notably by Texas, have been successful at reducing incarceration levels without seeing an increase in crime. But at the end of this new Washington Times commentary, headlined "How weak prison terms endanger the innocent: Mandatory minimums keep the guilty behind bars to pay their debt to society," US House Representative Lamar Smith from Texas questions whether Texas reforms have truly been effective. Here are some notable excerpts from the piece:

Congress should be wary of reducing federal prison sentences. Unfortunately, much of the discussion on sentencing laws has focused on the criminals. What about the victims of their crimes? What about the dangers of putting these offenders back out on the streets where many prey again on law-abiding citizens?

The lives and property of innocent Americans are at stake.  Past experience should persuade us not to weaken penalties, which could lead to thousands of dangerous criminals being released into our communities....

Supporters of lower prison sentences also argue that judges need more discretion.  They say that a one-size-fits-all penalty does not allow for consideration of mitigating factors, which might be necessary to determine a fair sentence.

But prior experience with judicial discretion in sentencing counters this claim.  It is exactly the problem of too much discretion in the hands of activist judges that fueled the decades-long crime wave that preceded mandatory minimum sentences.  Furthermore, judicial discretion led to widespread discrepancies in sentences, even when the circumstances were similar.

The minimum sentencing structure ensures that judges apply a uniform penalty based on the crime, not on the judge’s subjective opinion.  Criminals receive equal punishment for equal crimes.  And the removal of hardened criminals from our streets for longer periods of time helps make our neighborhoods safer....

In my home state of Texas, new policies sought to reduce incarceration time and focus resources on treatment and post-release supervision.  Yet almost one-quarter of inmates released have been rearrested and sent back to prison within three years.  Early release programs don’t appear to be working.

Mandatory minimums help keep these individuals behind bars where they belong.  That’s one explanation for why crime rates remain down.  The purpose of criminal law is to punish bad behavior, deter criminal acts and protect the American people.  Releasing prisoners too soon could condemn many Americans to becoming victims of violence.  This can be avoided if prisoners are not released before their sentences have been served.

March 10, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, March 07, 2016

Notable split Sixth Circuit ruling on (suspect) limits of retroactive guideline reductions

A split Sixth Circuit panel handed down today an interesting little sentencing opinion in US v. Taylor, No. 15-5930 (6th Cir. March 7, 2016) (available here). Actually, the majority opinion is, according to the dissent, more frustrating than interesting beause that opinion held that a district court, when reducing a sentence based on the retroactive reduced drug guideline, lacked any added discretion "to impose a new below-guidelines sentence based on any factor but a departure for substantial assistance."  

Notably, federal prosecutors in this Taylor case agreed with the defendant (and the dissent) that the district court should have authority to take into account during sentence modification additional mitigating factors.  But the district court concluded that it lacked this authority, and the majority opinion on Taylor affirmed this conclusion. Judge Merritt expressed his frustration with this view in a short dissent that includes these points:

The mathematical percentage estimated for “substantial assistance” almost five years ago at the original sentencing is not a scientific fact, just a guess or speculation, and a new reduction upon resentencing that is “comparably less” (using the Guideline language) does not forbid a new sentence which takes into account such intangible factors as defendant’s additional assistance after the original sentence, her rehabilitation, as well as collateral damage to her family and other similar factors.  It does not forbid a reassessment of what has happened in the last five years.  Both the prosecutor and the defendant agreed that the sentence should not be limited to a nineteen percent reduction but have agreed to a thirty-three percent reduction, and there is no indication that Judge Jordan in the court below would not agree that this would be a more just sentence.  He thought only that the law did not give him the authority to impose the lower sentence....

I do not see why we must continue to take away from the sentencing judge the authority to use his or her best judgment in determining the sentence.  For these reasons and also for the policy reasons stated by Justice Stevens in his dissenting opinion in Dillon v. United States, 130 S. Ct. 2683, 2694-2705 (2010), I would remand to the district court for resentencing with the instruction that the district court is not bound by the nineteen percent reduction used years ago.  Times change.  The law has changed.  Our culture is changing its views about how long we should put people behind bars.  There is no good reason I can see that we should not allow the district judge to use his best judgment here and err on the side of mercy while at the same time reducing the government’s costs of incarceration.

March 7, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Lots of Montgomery GVRs in latest SCOTUS order list

I am on a plane this morning on my way to the Alternative Sentencing Key-Stakeholder Summit (ASKS) taking place today and tomorrow at Georgetown University Law Center.  But conveniently, the Supreme Court released this order list just before I had to shut down my computer, and I see it has a lot of cases from a lot of states with variations on this note as part of a GVR:

The motion of petitioner for leave to proceed in forma pauperis and the petition for a writ of certiorari are granted. The judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded to the Court of Criminal Appeals of Alabama for further consideration in light of Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U. S. ___ (2016).

Justice Thomas, with whom Justice Alito joins, concurring in the decision to grant, vacate, and remand in this case: The Court has held the petition in this and many other cases pending the decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U. S. ___ (2016).  In holding this petition and now vacating and remanding the judgment below, the Court has not assessed whether petitioner’s asserted entitlement to retroactive relief “is properly presented in the case.” Id., at ___ (slip op., at 13).  On remand, courts should understand that the Court’s disposition of this petition does not reflect any view regarding petitioner’s entitlement to relief.  The Court’s disposition does not, for example, address whether an adequate and independent state ground bars relief, whether petitioner forfeited or waived any entitlement to relief (by, for example, entering into a plea agreement waiving any entitlement to relief), or whether petitioner’s sentence actually qualifies as a mandatory life without parole sentence.

I also see a notable split per curiam summary reversal finding a due process Brady problem in a Louisiana capital case. I will discuss that merits ruling and any others of criminal justice interest that may still today come down from SCOTUS in future posts.

March 7, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Updating Delaware's struggles with the post-Hurst hydra

Download (1)As regular readers know, in this post not long after the Supreme Court in Hurst v. Florida declared Florida's death penalty procedures violative of the Sixth Amendment, I coined the term term "post-Hurst hydra" to describe what I expected to be multi-headed, snake-like litigation developing in various courts as judges sort ought what Hurst must mean for past, present and future capital cases.  And in this post about a month ago, I reported on the notable decision in Delaware to put all pending capital murder trials and executions on hold until the state Supreme Court resolved the constitutionality of the state's death penalty law in the wake of Hurst.  

Now, thanks to this local article headlined "Public defenders: Death penalty unconstitutional," we can all read about the arguments from Delaware capital defense attorneys that the post-Hurst hydra must devour the state's existing capital sentencing scheme. Here are the basics from this press account:

Three assistant public defenders have argued to the Delaware Supreme Court that the death penalty law is unconstitutional -- and therefore needs to be fixed by lawmakers.  The attorneys from the Office of Defense Services filed a written argument Monday explaining why they believe Delaware's capital punishment policy violates the U.S. Constitution, especially in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that deemed Florida's similar scheme unconstitutional.

"The Delaware statute contains a number of unconstitutional provisions that cannot be exercised by this court in an effort to salvage the statute," the 58-page argument said.  "Because these multiple constitutional problems require Delaware’s death penalty scheme to be substantially restructured, that task is for the legislature, not the courts."...

Attorneys from the Office of Defense Services said in their argument that it is "crystal-clear that the judge is the independent and paramount capital sentencer" in Delaware.  They went on to argue that Delaware is violating the Sixth Amendment by requiring a judge to make findings regarding aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and their relative weight, before a death sentence can be imposed.

"As the opinion in Hurst makes clear, any fact-finding that is a necessary precursor to a death sentence, rather than one of imprisonment, must be performed by a jury," the argument said.  "The highest courts and legislatures of several states have likewise acknowledged that the Supreme Court’s Sixth Amendment jurisprudence requires the jury to determine the presence of aggravating and mitigating circumstances, as well as the weight of each."

The attorneys went on to say that the practice of allowing juries to be non-unanimous is also unconstitutional.  "There is a nationwide consensus against non-unanimous jury verdicts in capital cases," the attorneys wrote.  "No existing state statute currently permits a non-unanimous determination of aggravating factors, and only two, in Alabama and Delaware, permit a jury’s sentencing determination to be less than unanimous.  That only two states permit non-unanimous jury verdicts in capital cases weighs heavily against its constitutionality."

The full brief referenced above can be accessed at this link.

Prior related post:

March 2, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Has DOJ decided not to appeal Judge Weinstein's recent notable decision in US v. RV to give no prison time to child porn downloaded?

The question in the title of this post is a follow-up to my speculations here about the post-Booker challenges that face federal prosecutors when a district judge gives a very leinent sentence that they dislike.  Specifically, after blogging about US District Judge Jack Weinstein's decision in US v. RV to give a waaaaaaaay-below-guideline sentence in a child porn downloading case, I suggested the Justice Department would struggle with the decision whether to appeal this lenient sentencing ruling to the Second Circuit because of the Second Cicuit's significant 2010 Dorvee ruling which stressed the "irrationality" of the child porn guidelines.

When I posted about US v. RV, my pal Bill Otis seemed to think my appellate speculations here were waaaaaaaay off the mark.  Over in this lengthy post at Crime & Consequences, Bill Otis asserted that my speculation revealed that I know "almost nothing about the workings of US Attorneys' Offices."   Bill went further even in this post, stating repeatedly that he would eagerly "bet $500 here and now that Weirstein [sic] is again going to get reversed in the Second Circuit, again without garnering a single vote."

I did not take up Bill's bet for a number of reasons: (1) I wanted to read Judge Weinstein's 90+ page sentencing opinion in full before speculating on the fate of the decision in RV, (2) based on what Judge Weinstein wrote, I might be inclined to participate in an amicus effort in the Second Circuit if/when DOJ appealed, and (3) I find it a bit unsavory (and perhaps unethical) to make big cash bets on the fate of a real legal case, especially in an area of law I hope to infuence.  But now, as the title of this post hints, I think it may turn out that a lot of us should have taken Bill's bet because it seems, based on my limited research skills, that DOJ has decided not to appeal Judge Weinstein's sentencing decision in RV.

Because I am bad at researching appellate dockets, and also because the process for when and how the Justice Department makes appellate decisions is quite opaque in various ways, I do not yet want to crow about being right here that DOJ did not want to appeal this decision and risk its affirmance by the Second Circuit.  But I am hoping, perhaps with the help of readers, I can soon confirm that the Second Circuit will not be reversing RV because federal prosecutors have decided not to appeal the decision. (Needless to say, I am somewhat excited about the possibility of demonstrating that I now actually do know a lot more than Bill Otis "about the workings of US Attorneys' Offices" even though I have never worked in such an office and Bill spent most of his professional life in these offices.)  If it does turn out true that DOJ has decided not to appeal in US v. RV, I think this discretionary prosecutorial decision is itself a very interesting and important bit of evidence concerning how post-Booker reasonableness review works (and doesn't work) to iron out sentencing disparties in CP downloading cases and many others.

Prior related posts about recent notable CP cases from the EDNY:

March 1, 2016 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Via 6-2 vote, SCOTUS upholds broader interpretation of child-porn mandatory minimum provision

The first official SCOTUS opinion handed down without Justice Scalia as a member of the Supreme Court in three decades just happened to be an intriguing little sentencing opinion: Lockhart v. US, No. 14-8358 (S. Ct. March 1, 2016) (available here). Justice Sotomayor wrote the opinion for the Court on behalf of six Justices, and it begins this way:

Defendants convicted of possessing child pornography in violation of 18 U. S. C. §2252(a)(4) are subject to a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence and an increased maximum sentence if they have “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.” §2252(b)(2).

The question before us is whether the phrase “involving a minor or ward” modifies all items in the list of predicate crimes (“aggravated sexual abuse,” “sexual abuse,” and “abusive sexual conduct”) or only the one item that immediately precedes it (“abusive sexual conduct”).  Below, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit joined several other Courts of Appeals in holding that it modifies only “abusive sexual conduct.”  The Eighth Circuit has reached the contrary result.  We granted certiorari to resolve that split.  575 U. S. ___ (2015).  We affirm the Second Circuit’s holding that the phrase “involving a minor or ward” in §2252(b)(2) modifies only “abusive sexual conduct.”

Justice Kagan, joined by Justice Breyer, writes an extended dissent that kicks off with pop-culture references sure to be highlighted by many in social media:

Imagine a friend told you that she hoped to meet “an actor, director, or producer involved with the new Star Wars movie.” You would know immediately that she wanted to meet an actor from the Star Wars cast — not an actor in, for example, the latest Zoolander.  Suppose a real estate agent promised to find a client “a house, condo, or apartment in New York.”  Wouldn’t the potential buyer be annoyed if the agent sent him information about condos in Maryland or California?  And consider a law imposing a penalty for the “violation of any statute, rule, or regulation relating to insider trading.”  Surely a person would have cause to protest if punished under that provision for violating a traffic statute.  The reason in all three cases is the same: Everyone understands that the modifying phrase — “involved with the new Star Wars movie,” “in New York,” “relating to insider trading” — applies to each term in the preceding list, not just the last.

That ordinary understanding of how English works, in speech and writing alike, should decide this case.  Avondale Lockhart is subject to a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for possessing child pornography if, but only if, he has a prior state-law conviction for “aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward.” 18 U. S. C. §2252(b)(2).  The Court today, relying on what is called the “rule of the last antecedent,” reads the phrase “involving a minor or ward” as modifying only the final term in that three-item list.  But properly read, the modifier applies to each of the terms — just as in the examples above.  That normal construction finds support in uncommonly clear-cut legislative history, which states in so many words that the three predicate crimes all involve abuse of children.  And if any doubt remained, the rule of lenity would command the same result: Lockhart’s prior conviction for sexual abuse of an adult does not trigger §2252(b)(2)’s mandatory minimum penalty.  I respectfully dissent.

I am going to resist the urge to speculate concerning which opinion Justice Scalia might have been likely to join were he still alive today, especially given that the late, great Justice was a fan of ordinary understanding and the rule of lenity, but not a fan of legislative history, in the interpretation of federal criminal statute.  I am also going to resist blogging a lot more about this case unless something jumps out as distinctly blogworthy when I have a chance to review the opinions more closely in the days ahead.

March 1, 2016 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Monday, February 29, 2016

"Can you think of another constitutional right that can be suspended based upon a misdemeanor violation of a State law?"

The question in the title of this post is the question I have been asking again and again since the US Supreme Court decided in Heller and McDonald that the Second Amendment secured an individual right to keep and bare arms that was to be enforced in a manner comparable to other rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights. It also happened to be the question that Justice Clarence Thomas asked the federal government during oral argument today in Voisine v. United States

As highlighted by a whole bunch of press coverage spotlighted here at How Appealing, it is notable simply that Justice Thomas spoke up at oral argument after having been silent in that setting for a decade.  But I trust regular readers will not be surprised to hear that I am excited that Justice Thomas decided he had to speak up to ask what I think is the very hard question about the meaning and reach of the Second Amendment that lacks a very good answer if Heller and McDonald are serious about the need to treat the Second Amendment seriously like all other rights enumerated in the US Constitution's Bill of Rights.

Not only did Justice Thomas ask this important question toward the tail end of oral argument in Voisine, he followed up with a First Amendment analogy that I find pretty compelling:

JUSTICE THOMAS:  [L]et's say that a publisher is reckless about the use of children, and what could be considered indecent [placement in an ad] and that that triggers a violation of, say, a hypothetical law against the use of children in these ads, and let's say it's a misdemeanor violation.  Could you suspend that publisher's right to ever publish again?

MS. EISENSTEIN: Your Honor, I don't think you could suspend the right to ever publish again, but I think that you could limit, for example, the manner and means by which publisher...

JUSTICE THOMAS: So how is that different from suspending your Second Amendment right?

Critically, even though I do not believe the government here had any satisfactory answers for Justice Thomas's tough Second Amendment questions, the Justice was not even making his arguments as forcefully as he could have in the context of the federal criminal prosecution at issue in Voisine.  Critically, Voisine is not a case in which someone previously convicted of a state "reckless" misdemeanor is now seeking a legal declaration that he has Second Amendment rights.  Rather, Stephen Voisine is a schnook who was subject to a federal felony prosecution (and as much as 10 years in federal prison) simply for possessing a rifle (while apparently hunting a bald eagle!?!?) because a number of years earlier he pleaded guilty to a Maine domestic violence misdemeanor. 

For the record, I am not a big fan of Maine schnooks who in the past were involved in a domestic incident and years later go out hunting bald eagles.  But I am even less of a fan of the creation of new jurisprudential doctrines that would allow the federal government to bring a felony prosecution of an individual engaged in what might be otherwise constitutionally protected activity simply based on a long-ago misdemeanor violation of a State law.  That is the reality of what is going on in Voisine, and even folks not supportive of Second Amendment rights should be concerned that a case like Voisine could end up casting poor light on other constitutional protections if his conviction gets upheld in this case.

Some prior related posts:

February 29, 2016 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

SCOTUS taking on array of criminal justice cases this week in which Justice Scalia's absence will again be consequential

The Supreme Court this week hears oral argument in a trio of criminal justice cases this week.  Because all three cases strike me as involving relatively quirky/narrow issues, I am not expecting to get any blockbuster rulings from any of them (especially with a now short-staffed Court).  Via SCOTUSblog, here are links to the cases being heard today and tomorrow with the question presented:

Voisine v. United States (1) Whether a misdemeanor crime with the mens rea of recklessness qualifies as a "misdemeanor crime of domestic violence" as defined by 18 U.S.C. §§ 921(a)(33)(A) and 922(g)(9); and (2) whether 18 U.S.C. §§ 921(a)(33)(A) and 922(g)(9) are unconstitutional under the Second, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments and the Ex Post Facto Clause of the United States Constitution.

Williams v. Pennsylvania: (1) Whether the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments are violated where a state supreme court justice declines to recuse himself in a capital case in which he had personally approved the decision to pursue capital punishment against the defendant in his prior capacity as an elected prosecutor and continued to head the prosecutors’ office that defended the death verdict on appeal, and where he had publicly expressed strong support for capital punishment during his judicial election campaign by referencing the number of defendants he had “sent” to death row, including the defendant in the case now before the court; and (2) whether the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments are violated by the participation of a potentially biased jurist on a multimember tribunal deciding a capital case, regardless of whether his vote is ultimately decisive.

Nichols v. United States: (1) Whether 42 U.S.C. § 16913(a) requires a sex offender who resides in a foreign country to update his registration in the jurisdiction where he formerly resided, a question that divides the courts of appeals.

Because Williams involves an Eighth Amendment case and involves the death penalty, I suspect it will get the most press attention and probably even most of my attention after today's oral argument. But, in part because Williams involves an Eighth Amendment case and involves the death penalty, I am already pretty confident which Justices are likely to be more or less sympathetic to the capital defendant's claims on appeal.

In contrast, both Voisine and Nichols involve questions of statutory interpretation of federal crime statutes in politically fraught settings: Voisine involves the mix of domestic violence and guns, Nichols involves the tracking of sex offenders abroad. Both the specific legal issue before the Court and the context in which it arises makes me uncertain how various justices are likely to approach the cases at oral argument and in an eventual ruling. In both cases, though, the defense side likely is quite sorry to see Justice Scalia's chair empty because he was among the most consistent and forceful voices for the rule of lenity and other principles to limit the reach of government powers in the interpretation of federal criminal justice statutes.

February 29, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, February 26, 2016

Could a new group called Public Safety Officials on the Death Penalty really impact discussions of death penalty reform?

The question in the title of this post is prompted in part by this recent piece by Ted Gest at The Crime Report headlined "Justice System Voices Question Capital Punishment."  Here are excerpts:

As support for capital punishment in the United States erodes, one viewpoint not often heard in debates on the issue is that of the people who do the work that leads to executions: officials of the criminal justice system.

A Washington, D.C., organization called The Constitution Project is moving to fill that gap, with a group called Public Safety Officials on the Death Penalty (PSODP), which it describes as "an independent group of current and former law enforcement, prosecutors and corrections officials strongly concerned about the fairness and efficacy of the death penalty in America."...

[T]he new panel of public safety officials is offering its expertise to policymakers in states that are considering whether to continue executions. The group has three co-chairs: former Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley, former Massachusetts corrections commissioner Kathleen Dennehy, and former Southern Pines, N.C., Police Chief Gerald Galloway, who formerly led the North Carolina Chiefs of Police Association. The group says it stands ready to provide information. It does not take a formal stand on whether capital punishment should be abolished, but it is clear that the co-chairs believe that the current system is not operating fairly and efficiently.

Former Police Chief Galloway declares that the capital punishment system is "dysfunctional," noting that it often takes many years to put an accused murder to death, and that more than 150 people have been removed from death rows in various states after being exonerated or having their convictions overturned for legal reasons. Noting that some convicted murders spend decades on death row amid seemingly endless legal appeals, Galloway told The Crime Report, "The system is unfair. It is too expensive. Some innocent people end up on death row, and victims' families wait for justice that never occurs."

Dennehy said her biggest concern was "the possibility of executing an innocent person -- that is too high a price to pay." S he also cited allegations of "botched executions" in Oklahoma and elsewhere, saying that corrections employees who must carry out the sometimes tricky lethal injection process can suffer psychological harm. (Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett died in 2014 more than an hour after he was placed on an execution gurney after an employee had difficulty inserting a needle.)

Earley, who served as Virginia’s attorney general from 1998 until mid-2001, said last year he had changed his views and now opposes capital punishment. "If you believe that the government always ‘gets it right,’ never makes serious mistakes, and is never tainted with corruption, then you can be comfortable supporting the death penalty," he wrote in the University of Richmond Law Review.  “I no longer have such faith in the government and, therefore, cannot and do not support the death penalty."

Some members of the new group favor capital punishment, but the entire panel agreed that, "each of us is ready to explore alternative ways to achieve a more just and effective public safety system.”  Unless the system can be fixed to insure that innocent people are not sent to death row and that the appeals of those who are convicted in capital cases are handled promptly, those found guilty of murder should serve a maximum penalty of life in prison without the possibility of parole, Galloway and Dennehy said.

Members of the new group will offer their expertise to officials in states considering whether to retain the death penalty, Galloway said. "We represent a powerful perspective" he said, referring to their years of experience working in the justice system.

One major state that faces a close public vote on the issue is California, where there may be competing propositions on the November ballot: one to speed executions and another to abolish capital punishment.... As of last year, California had by far the nation's largest death row, housing 743, inmates, and last conducted an execution in 2006. Jeanne Woodford, former California corrections director, is a member of The Constitution Project's new panel.

February 26, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Acknowledging and reflecting on the costs, both economic and emotional, that flow from proper implementation of Miller retroactively

This local article from Florida, headlined "Killer's brain development at issue in re-sentencing," provide a significant and sobering (and ultimately incomplete) account of the challenges many courts in many states are to face as they comply with the SCOTUS mandates in Miller and Montgomery that require the resentencing of any and every teen killer previously given a mandatory LWOP sentence.  Here are the basic details about this local case:

Maddie Clifton's killer will have his brain development reviewed by an expert before his re-sentencing hearing, a judge decided Thursday. Joshua Phillips, now 31, was convicted in the 1998 murder of 8-year-old Maddie and was sentenced to life without parole.  At the time of the murder, Phillips was 14....

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that automatic life without parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional. In 2015, the Supreme Court said that law applies to previous cases and that it is retroactive ....

“We have a duty to re-sentence the man and give him a proper opportunity,” Judge Waddell Wallace said in court Thursday.

Phillips' attorney, Tom Fallis, filed two motions with the court: one for a new sentencing hearing and another to have the court cover the costs of calling new experts to determine the proper sentencing.  Both motions were granted.

Fallis said some of the medical expertise from Phillips' original trial is no longer relevant, because of current research into juvenile psychology. "We're going to need a lot of experts," Fallis said. "This is going to be a very long hearing when it's set, and there will be evidence from what's happened in the last 20 years, what's happened in prison. I suspect there may be experts on prison life and how it affected a 14-year-old' who's now 30 some odd years old' and so the court needs to be educated. And the way you do that is through experts."

The state argued that calling new specialists and expert could be “absurd” and costly, but Wallace agreed to hiring a new expert and said the findings will be essential to the case, because of Phillips' brain development.

Police said Phillips, Maddie's neighbor, stabbed her and clubbed her to death in his San Jose area home. He hid her body under his waterbed in his room. Phillips' mother discovered the body a week later, after a massive search for the missing girl.  Phillips was convicted a year later.

I submitted amicus briefs in both Miller and Montgomery arguing for the Eighth Amendment rules as adopted and applied in those case, and I think it appropriate that this defendant finally have a chance for a discretionary sentencing hearing after he was decades ago mandatorily given an LWOP sentence for a crime committed at age 14.  And, though I am not quite sure this defendant really needs " a lot of experts" funded by the state to proceed with a proper resentencing, I also think it appropriate that the judge in this case recognized the need for giving the defense some additional resources to conduct a sound "Miller" resentencing.

That all said, I also think it appropriate for any and everyone like me who approved of the results in Miller and Montgomery to note and cope with the considerable costs that taxpayers and individuals are now going to have to endure.  Court resources are always finite, both in terms of time and money, and this press story highlights that it seems a significant amount of the limited court resources are now going to have to be devoted to the very challenging task of figuring out what now is a fair and effective sentence for "Maddie Clifton's killer," Joshua Phillips.  Moreover, and not mentioned in this story, I can only begin to imagine the emotional challenges that resentencing in this case will create for any and everyone connected to both the defendant and the victim.   

Though I continue to believe that mandatory juve LWOP sentencing is very wrong, this story is a reminder that it did have the notable virtue of being very easy. 

February 25, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (24)

Former judges and Justice in Washington urge state's current Justices to strike down state's death penalty

This AP article from Washington reports on a notable brief filed in a capital case in the state Supreme Court.  The article is headlined "Dozens of judges ask Washington high court to ban death penalty," and here are excerpts:

Washington state's relationship with the death penalty over the past few decades has been so tenuous that even mass killers, serial killers and a cop killer have escaped it.  Only five people have been executed in the past 35 years. Gov. Jay Inslee, a one-time supporter of capital punishment, has said no executions will take place while he's in office.  And the state prosecutors association has called for a referendum on whether to bother keeping it on the books.

Now, the state's high court, which came within one vote of striking down the death penalty a decade ago, is re-examining it.  Dozens of former Washington judges have taken the unusual step of urging the court to find it unconstitutional this time — including former Justice Faith Ireland, who sided with the narrow majority in upholding capital punishment back in 2006.

Arguments are scheduled for Thursday in the case of Allen Eugene Gregory, who was convicted of raping, robbing and killing Geneine Harshfield, a 43-year-old cocktail waitress who lived near his grandmother, in 1996.

His lawyers are challenging his conviction and sentence, including procedural issues and statements made by a prosecutor during the trial.  But they also insist that the death penalty is arbitrarily applied and that it is not applied proportionally, as the state Constitution requires.  Certain counties — especially Pierce, where Gregory was convicted — have been aggressive about seeking execution, while others have said a death-penalty case would quickly bankrupt them, making the location of the crime a key factor in whether someone might be sentenced to death....

One of the newer justices, Charles Wiggins, has expressed concerns over indications blacks are statistically more likely to be sentenced to death in Washington than whites, while another, Sheryl Gordon McCloud, represented defendants who had been sentenced to death — and criticized the way the death penalty is applied — during her previous career as an appellate lawyer....

In its brief, the Pierce County Prosecutor's Office urged the court to uphold the punishment, which is allowed by the federal government and 32 states.  It argued the court has repeatedly upheld capital punishment, that those rulings should stand, and that Gregory shouldn't be allowed to make his constitutional arguments because he did not properly preserve those issues for appeal.  "Since death penalty abolitionists are unable to convince large numbers of Washingtonians to abolish the death penalty, defendant turns to this court in hopes that he can convince five of the court's members that abolishing the death penalty is reflective of current public opinion," deputy prosecutor Kathleen Proctor wrote.  "Essentially, defendant asks this court to become a legislative entity and to override the desire of the people of this state to have the death penalty as an available sanction for certain homicides."

In joining 55 other ex-judges who signed a brief filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington urging an end to capital punishment, Ireland, who served a single term on the Supreme Court, was particularly concerned about geographical disparities in death sentences — an issue that the majority held was not squarely before the court in 2006.  "We can't call the death penalty anything but arbitrary when it depends on whether you kill someone in a rich county or one that can't afford such a trial," she wrote in an email to The Associated Press.  "That could be fixed in my opinion by having death penalty prosecutions and defenses funded at the state level."

February 25, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

"Why and How the Supreme Court Should End the Death Penalty"

The title of this post is the title of this new article by Kenneth Williams recently posted to SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In a recent opinion dissenting from the Supreme Court’s holding that a certain drug used in carrying out lethal injections is constitutional, Justice Breyer urged the Court to reconsider whether the death penalty is constitutional. Although the Court has so far declined Justice Breyer’s invitation, his dissent has provoked a discussion as to whether the United States should continue to use the death penalty.  The purpose of this article is to contribute to that discussion.

The article begins with a discussion of the reasons that public support for the death penalty has declined during the last 20 years.  Problems in the administration of the death penalty, such as the increasing numbers of exonerations, the continued racial disparities in death sentencing, the continued arbitrary application of the death penalty, and the substandard representation that many defendants receive are identified as the main reasons for this decline.  The author concludes that going forward, the Supreme Court has two options available in addressing these problems: it can continue to try to reform the death penalty to make it fairer or it can abolish the death penalty.  The article discusses some possible reforms that can be attempted but concludes that these reforms are unlikely to have a significant impact in making the death penalty fairer.  Therefore, the author concludes that the only option available to the Court is to completely abolish the death penalty.

The author argues that the doctrinal framework for the Court to abolish the death penalty is already firmly in place.  The Court could choose to abolish the death penalty for one of several reasons.  First, it could find the death penalty violates Equal Protection because of the continued racial disparities in its application.  Second, there are several Eighth Amendment grounds upon with the Court could rely.  For instance, in the past the Court has found that the application of the death penalty to juveniles and mentally retarded offenders violated the Eighth Amendment because of “evolving standards of decency.”  The Court could similarly find that, given the direction of the states in either abolishing the death penalty by statute or in practice and the significant decline in death sentences by juries, that the continued use of the death penalty also violates “evolving standards of decency.”  Finally, the author responds to several likely objections that will be made in the event the Court seriously considers abolishing the death penalty, such as the text of the Constitution and the fear of another Furman type public backlash.

February 24, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, February 22, 2016

Highlighting that, despite lots of talk and a little action, Prez Obama remains a clemency grinch

Over at his blog Pardon Power, political scientist PS Ruckman does a terrific job tracking and placing in historical context the latest date concerning the use of presidential clemency powers.  And these three recent posts highlight effectively that, despite lots of talk from the Obama Administration about a big clemency initiative, the current President the most notable story to date concerning Obama's clemency record is how stingy it is:

As long-time readers know, I have been urging Prez Obama to live up to his hope and change rhetoric in this arena since the day he was inaugurated seven year ago, as highlighted by these two posts from January 20, 2009: Inaugural rhetoric about freedom and liberty in prison nation and Is it too early to start demanding President Obama use his clemency power?.  (The extensive comments to the second of these posts are especially interesting to review with the benefit of seven years of political hindsight.)  In addition, way back in 2010, I authored this law review article titled "Turning Hope-and-Change Talk Into Clemency Action for Nonviolent Drug Offenders," which closed with this recommendation:

President Obama ought to seriously consider creating some form of a "Clemency Commission" headed by a "clemency czar."...  Though a "Clemency Commission" headed by a "clemency czar" could be created and developed in any number of ways, my vision and goals here are meant to be fairly basic.  The idea is for President Obama to create a special expert body, headed by a special designated official, who is primarily tasked with helping federal officials (and perhaps also state officials) improve the functioning, transparency, and public respect for executive clemency.  Though the structure, staffing, and mandates of a Clemency Commission could take many forms, ideally it would include personnel with expertise about the nature of and reasons for occasional miscarriages of justice in the operation of modem criminal justice systems — persons who possess a deep understanding that, in the words of James Iredell, "an inflexible adherence to [severe criminal laws], in every instance, might frequently be the cause of very great injustice.

The Clemency Commission could and should study the modem causes of wrongful conviction, "excessive" sentences, and overzealous prosecutions, and then make formal and public recommendations to the President and other branches about specific cases that might merit clemency relief or systemic reforms that could reduce the risk of miscarriages of justice.  In addition, the Commission could be a clearinghouse for historical and current data on the operation of executive clemency powers in state and federal systems.  It could also serve as a valuable resource for offenders and their families and friends seeking information about who might be a good candidate for receiving clemency relief. Though the creation of a Clemency Commission would be an ambitious endeavor, the effort could pay long-term dividends for both the reality and the perception of justice and fairness in our nation's criminal justice system.

I have reprinted this suggestion here because, though I made the pitch in print more than half a decade ago, it still strikes me as timely and relevant to the on-going discussions about federal criminal justice reform.  Indeed, given this latest data marshalled by PS Ruckman and the seemingly limited success and limited basis for optimism as of February 2016 surrounding "Clemency Project 2014," I think Prez Obama and the rest of the federal criminal justice reform discussion might benefit now more than ever from the creation of some form of a "Clemency Commission" headed by a "clemency czar."  And, especially with US District Judge John Gleeson now only a few weeks away from stepping off the federal bench, there is an obvious candidate for the ideal first clemency czar.

As regular readers (and my students know), I could go on and on and on about this subject and especially about President Obama's unique missed opportunity to create a criminal justice reform legacy in this historically and constitutionally important arena.  But rather than repeat myself, I will just link to just a few of my prior Obama-era posts while starting to wonder in the wake of recent election results whether President Hillary Clinton or President Donald Trump might have the interest and ability to really bring hope and change to a very sorry modern federal clemency history.

Just a few of many recent and older posts concerning the modern ugly realities of federal clemency:

February 22, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

"The Use of Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 35(b)" to reward cooperators after initial sentencing

The quoted portion of the title of this post is the title of this notable new US Sentencing Commission research report and the second part of the title of this post is intended to highlight exactly why the first part of the title of this post is a sentencing story.  The 42-page report is data-rich, and here is the text of this USSC webpage providing background and noting some of the report's key findings:

This report examines sentence reductions for offenders who cooperate with the government in its efforts to investigate or prosecute others.  Offenders can receive credit for their “substantial assistance” in at least two ways; at the time of sentencing (USSG §5K1.1 departure motions) and after sentencing (Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 35(b) motions).  In both instances, the government must make a motion for a lower sentence.

This publication discusses the history and current use of Fed. R. Crim. P. 35(b).  It also presents data on the number of Rule 35(b) reductions and the jurisdictions where they are granted; the effects of Rule 35(b) reductions on sentences; and the offense and demographic characteristics of offenders who receive such reductions.  The report also compares the circumstances of offenders receiving Rule 35(b) reductions with those who received USSG §5K1.1 departures. 

Key Findings

A review of the 10,811 cases in which Rule 35(b) reductions were granted over the past six years suggests the following conclusions:

  • Rule 35(b) sentencing reductions are used relatively rarely, but a few districts make frequent use of Rule 35(b) sentencing reductions.  There is no clear data-based explanation for these differences, as these districts vary substantially from one another in overall case load, offense mix, and demographic composition.

  • Most offenders receiving a Rule 35(b) reduction were originally sentenced within the guideline range.  This suggests that courts are rarely departing or varying for reasons other than substantial assistance with this group of offenders.

  • Most offenders receiving a Rule 35(b) reduction were convicted of a drug trafficking offense that carries a mandatory minimum penalty.

  • Rule 35(b) sentencing reductions generally provide less benefit than do § 5K1.1 substantial assistance departures.  This general statement holds true whether the Rule 35(b) sentencing reduction is compared to the §5K1.1 substantial assistance departure in terms of the ultimate sentence length or by the extent of the reduction from the original sentence.  The relatively high number of Rule 35(b) offenders who are convicted of drug and firearms offenses, though, as well as the relatively high number of those subject to mandatory minimum penalties, suggests that these offenders may receive a lower reduction because they are more serious offenders.

  • Although Rule 35(b) sentencing reductions are usually less beneficial to offenders than are §5K1.1 substantial assistance departures, offenders who receive both a §5K1.1 departure and a Rule 35(b) sentencing reduction receive the largest overall reduction in their sentences, regardless of how that reduction is measured.

  • Offenders sentenced in jurisdictions that primarily use Rule 35(b) sentencing reductions overall receive less of a benefit for their substantial assistance than do offenders in jurisdictions that rely primarily on §5K1.1 departures or a combination of Rule 35(b) reductions and §5K1.1 departures.

February 22, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Compassionate release consensus and dissensus at US Sentencing Commission public hearing

As detailed in this press report, headlined "Prison-Release Program Debated in Hearing," there were both common and diverse perspectives at the US Sentencing Commission hearing yesterday concerning the federal system's approach to compassionate release:

The compassionate release system for federal prisons is "broken," a series of government witnesses, advocates and stakeholders told the U.S. Sentencing Commission at a public hearing Wednesday.  But while the panels of witnesses generally agreed the program is in need of a fix, they proposed starkly different solutions and laid the blame at the feet of a number of different organizations and agencies.

The compassionate release program is meant to release elderly inmates, those with terminal illnesses and others who meet certain conditions, though as the witnesses at Wednesday's hearing said, the program does not necessarily cover all of the inmates in federal prison it is meant to.

Wednesday's public hearing in a small conference room in the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building in downtown Washington, D.C., was meant to evaluate a proposed set of changes to the compassionate release program, including lowering the age at which an inmate can be considered for release, reducing the amount of their prison term they must serve before qualifying for release, and adding more circumstances that would allow an inmate to go free early.  

The current program allows the director of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to motion for the early release of inmates deemed not a danger to their communities who are least 70 years old and have served at least 30 years of their sentence, or those who have "extraordinary and compelling reasons."  Under the current rule "extraordinary and compelling reasons" are limited to debilitating or terminal physical or mental illnesses or a death in the inmate's family that would leave a minor without care.

The proposed amendment to the program expands these circumstances further and would allow the BOP director to motion for the release of a prisoner who is 65 or older and has served at least 10 years or 75 percent of their sentence, regardless of their medical condition.  

The 10 year requirement drew some criticism from the witnesses, especially Michael Horowitz, inspector general for the U.S. Department of Justice, who suggested the 10-year requirement might have unintended consequences.  Horowitz estimated the requirement that inmates serve at least 10 years of their sentence before being considered for compassionate release cuts out half of the inmates who could benefit from the program.  This includes elderly inmates sentenced to relatively short times in prison, who are arguably the safest prisoners to release into the community, Horowitz said.

The commission seemed to agree with Horowitz and his suggestion to simply eliminate the 10-year requirement and keep the guidelines requiring inmates serve at least 75 percent of their given sentences.  "Where's the science behind the 10 years?" Judge Charles Breyer, vice chair of the commission, asked.  "I don't see it, I'm unaware of it, but is there something that the Justice Department or the Bureau of Prisons have figured out that 10 years?  Because it looks to me that all they're saying is we want to make sure that somebody receives an adequate punishment."

The involvement of the BOP director was another point of contention at Wednesday's hearing, as witnesses offered competing views of who should be in the driver's seat of the compassionate release program.  Jonathan Wroblewski, principal deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department, told the six-member sentencing commission that the BOP is in charge of the compassionate release program, and suggested the commission and courts take on an advisory role....

Margaret Love, a non-voting member of the Practitioners Advisory Group, stood in stark contrast to Wroblewski's executive-centric policy proposal, arguing that Congress intended the U.S. Sentencing Commission to lead the program, with the courts taking a major role and the BOP being relegated to the "gate-keeping" role of applying the guidelines to specific cases....  She urged the commission to develop a clear policy to lead the BOP and suggested an addition to the proposed amendment that would require the BOP director to make a motion for release of an inmate under the compassionate release program if they meet all qualifications, instead of the voluntary system in place now.

This agenda from the USSC hearing yesterday now has links to all the witnesses' written testimony.

February 18, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Rounding up diverse perspectives on Justice Scalia's diverse criminal justice work and the impact of his loss

Though there is already far too much old and new media discussion of Justice Scalia's legacy and the debate over his replacement to be consumed, I am going to try to make an effort to note and link here SCOTUS/Scalia stories with a particular focus on criminal justice issues. Here are the headline from some of what I have seen around the web recently that seem worth a peek:

February 16, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Texas prisons are filling up with the old and the ill — at enormous expense"

The title of this post is the sub-headline of this lengthy new Texas Observer article. Here are excerpts:

Benito Alonzo is a short, 140-pound 80-year-old. His quiet-spoken manner, drooping jowls and gray hair, trimmed in a buzz, give him the appearance of a benevolent grandfather, and indeed, he is a grandfather.  In thick-framed black eyeglasses, he bears a resemblance to the defanged and aging Henry Kissinger.  But Alonzo is neither a celebrity nor a statesman. He’s a convict who has lately grown infirm.  He says he’s been diagnosed with prostate cancer and he’s afflicted with Hepatitis C. For several years he’s been prescribed a drug called Lactulose, which Dr. Owen Murray, chief of medical affairs for the Texas penal system, says “we use for people whose livers are at the end of their lives.”...

Alonzo has been waiting since at least March for the start of a 12-week course of a new liver drug that might keep him alive for years to come. He’s been told that the treatment will cost $94,500.  Were he back on the streets, Medicare would pick up the tab.  But because federal courts have ruled that states must guarantee the safety and health of their inmates, Texas will have to pay.  Alonzo frets that because of the expense, prison bureaucrats will stall the treatment until it’s too late.

The state of Texas operates 109 prisons holding about 148,000 inmates.  Some 27,000 of them are, like Alonzo, over the age of 50.  They account for about 18 percent of the prison population, and are the fastest-growing demographic group among prisoners.  By most estimates, they are also the most expensive to keep under lock and key. According to TDCJ spokesman Robert Hurst, the average cost of housing Texas inmates is about $20,000 a year, but medical and end-of-life expenses hike that figure to some $30,000 for elderly inmates.  In other jurisdictions, the cost is even higher.  A 2012 report from the ACLU calculates the average national expense for keeping a prisoner at $34,000 per year — and twice that much, $68,000, for inmates older than 50.

Both demographic factors and get-tough sentencing have transformed what were once mere penal institutions into hospitals, assisted living centers and nursing homes, too.  The University of Texas Medical Branch operates a freestanding hospital in Galveston for TDCJ, which also contracts with UTMB and the Texas Tech medical school to send prisoners to 146 community hospitals.  Texas prisons now boast of “respiratory isolation rooms,” “brace and limb services” and hospice facilities in which 90 Texas inmates were eased into eternity last year.  More than 300 inmates in Texas prisons use wheelchairs, Dr. Murray says....

Alonzo’s life has been one of alternating spans of heroin addiction and confinement. He served three separate stints in prison — for theft, burglary and heroin possession — from 1958 to 1974. After his parole in 1974, allegedly under the influence of two of his brothers, Pedro and Adolfo, he delivered a pair of pistols to a warden’s trustee who then smuggled them into Huntsville’s Walls Unit. San Antonio gangster Fred Carrasco used those guns in an 11-day hostage-taking and stand-off that culminated in a shootout. Alonzo is serving a life sentence for his connection to the incident....

The state of Texas does have a process for releasing old and infirm prisoners on humanitarian parole, but the record is underwhelming.  A bureaucracy dating to 1987, the Texas Correctional office on offenders with Medical or Mental Impairments, usually named by the clunky acronym TCOOMMI, was assigned to process medically recommended intensive supervision, or MRIS, paroles.  MRIS is a way to move inmates rendered harmless by their frailty or age back into the civilian world.

TCOOMMI reports to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles on an inmate’s health status, leaving the final parole decision to the board.  In a February 2015 biennial report, TCOOMMI reported that of the 1,133 MRIS applications that had been submitted in fiscal year 2014, 318 had been found sufficiently meritorious for presentation to the parole board. Of those, the board had granted 67 releases — a mere 6 percent approval rate.

In a 2012 statement, TDCJ admitted that “the Parole Board’s approval rates of MRIS cases remain low.” But the board’s performance hasn’t shown signs of improvement. In the 2015 fiscal year, 445 prisoners older than 60 filed for medical paroles — but only 24 paroles were granted, all of them on the basis of infirmity, none on the basis of age. The roadblock is a provision of the law allowing the parole board to conclude that a prisoner constitutes a threat despite what doctors say....

Benito Alonzo would today have a hard time exacting any revenge or harming anybody, and whether he lives or dies is of little concern except to a coterie of kin and perhaps in the circles of the Mexican Mafia. If he dies in prison, as we must currently expect, though he’d prefer to be interred in San Antonio, his corpse will be eligible for a casket and a grave at public expense, in the prison cemetery, of course.

February 16, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, February 15, 2016

US Sentencing Commission to conduct hearing on compassionate release and conditions of supervision

As reported in this official notice, the US Sentencing Commission is scheduled to conduct a public hearing the morning of Wednesday, February 17, 2016.  This hearing agenda suggests that the main focus of the hearing is so-called "Compassionate Release" and that all of the leading and most important voices in this space will be speaking to the USSC.  

Some prior related posts:

February 15, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, February 14, 2016

In (sentencing) memorium: why I am already missing Justice Scalia

InmemoriamslateJustice Antonin Scalia was nominated to be a Justice just a few months after I graduated from high school, and I have never really known a Supreme Court without his voice and views being integral to the Court's work.  And Justice Scalia earned a unique and enduring place in my professional heart with his work for the Court in Blakely v. Washington.  In this 2004 Slate commentary stressing how consequential the ruling was for sentencing law and policy, I called Justice Scalia's opinion in Blakely "majestic and mysterious, historic and hysterical, stunning and stupefying," and "a great read [that] often seems more intent on teasing the dissenters than on clearly defining defendants' Sixth Amendment rights."

I could (and likely will in some future law review pages) wax even more potetic about the Blakely opinion and about how his work in the Apprendi and Booker lines of cases are likely to long persist as the most critical and consequential constitutional rulings in the modern history of sentencing jurisprudence.  But in this post, I am eager to take a few moments to note and link some highlights in the remarkable corpus of significant sentencing opinions authored by Justice Scalia during his three decades on the high court:

Mistretta v. United States, 488 U.S. 361 (1989) (dissenting)

Stanford v. Kentucky, 492 U.S. 361 (1989) (for the Court)

Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957 (1991) (for the Court and concurring)

Callins v. Collins, 510 U.S. 1141 (1994) (concurring)

Almendarez-Torres v. United States, 523 U.S. 224 (1998) (dissenting)

Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000) (concurring)

Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002) (concurring)

Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296 (2004) (for the Court)

Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015) (for the Court)

By keeping this list focused only on sentencing cases, I have left off many of Justice Scalia's hugely consequential opinions on lots of other criminal law matters (see, e.g., Crawford and Heller). And, I suspect that some readers think fondly (or perhaps not so fondly) of other Scalia sentencing opinions no listed above. But even this abridged list highlights how profoundly significant Justice Scalia was in shaping modern sentencing jurisprudence.

Prior related post:

February 14, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, February 12, 2016

Pennsylvania, thanks to Montgomery, now forced to struggle through Miller retroactivity

This local article, headlined "Pa. courts scramble to catch up to juvenile-lifers decision," reports on how the Keystone state is starting to deal with all its now unconstitutional mandatory juve LWOP sentences. Here is how it gets started:

Recently, Earl Rice Jr., an inmate at Graterford Prison, got unexpected news from a relative: A judge had unceremoniously changed his sentence from life without parole to life with parole. Chester County Court Judge James MacElree later explained: "That's what the Supreme Court of the United States said I had to do. I have no discretion whatsoever."

He was referencing the recent opinion in Montgomery v. Louisiana, which made retroactive the court's 2012 decision that automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional. "If I'm wrong," he said, "an appeals court can figure it out."

It's one of many sometimes-conflicting ways that judges, public defenders, prosecutors, and prison officials are interpreting the ruling and scrambling to catch up to it. And Rice is facing one of the mind-numbing consequences: a life-with-parole sentence in a state that doesn't allow parole in life sentences.

It's an unprecedented challenge. The ruling affects nearly 500 juvenile lifers in Pennsylvania, about 300 of them from Philadelphia. The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office expects individual resentencing hearings will be required.

To buy time to accomplish that, the district attorney wrote a letter to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District, asking it to dismiss — or at least stay — each of 218 federal petitions filed by juvenile lifers from Philadelphia. Those cases, seeking relief following the 2012 decision, Miller v. Alabama, had been in limbo until Montgomery could be decided. Now, it's likely a single judge will be appointed to oversee the process, according to the letter.

Bradley Bridge of the Defender Association of Philadelphia said he hopes to resolve a "significant number" of cases by agreement between the defendants and prosecutors.  He said agreements are most likely for inmates who have been in prison the longest, like Joe Ligon, who has served 63 years for crimes committed when he was 15.  "If it's not a significant number, it's going to be complicated, messy, and really unwieldy," he said. "To have 300 hearings . . . we simply don't have the resources."  Bridge and others have organized a series of training sessions for lawyers on presenting mitigating evidence; the first was so popular, they had to turn people away.

February 12, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Based on Johnson, split Fifth Circuit panel finds another simlar provision of federal law is unconstitutionally vague

A helpful reader alerted me to a notable new split ruling handed down by the Fifth Circuit yesterday in US v. Gonzalez-Longoria, No. 15-40041 (5th Cir. Feb. 10, 2016) (available here). Here is how the majority opinion gets started:

In this appeal, we address for the first time whether 18 U.S.C. § 16’s statutory definition of “crime of violence” is unconstitutionally vague.  We consider this question in the light of the Supreme Court’s recent holding that a similar provision of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) is unconstitutionally vague.  Johnson v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 2551 (2015).  In Johnson, the Court held that the ACCA violated the constitutional prohibition against vague criminal statutes by defining “violent felony” as any crime that “is burglary, arson, or extortion, involves the use of explosives, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B).  Section 16 contains a similar definition: a “crime of violence” is “any other offense that is a felony and that, by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense.”  The Seventh and Ninth Circuits have both held that this language is sufficiently similar to the ACCA’s language to suffer the same unconstitutional fate.  United States v. Vivas-Ceja, 808 F.3d 719, 720 (7th Cir. 2015); Dimaya v. Lynch, 803 F.3d 1110 (9th Cir. 2015). We agree, and accordingly hold § 16 unconstitutional.

And here is how the dissent gets started and sums up its differing analysis of Johnson's impact here:

It is the uncertainty that charms one. A mist makes things wonderful.” Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Perhaps true for Oscar Wilde, but not in the criminal law, where too much uncertainty denies defendants fair notice and permits arbitrary enforcement of the laws. See Kolender v. Lawson, 461 U.S. 352, 357-58 (1983)....

In summary, we should not strike Congressional law, 18 U.S.C. § 16(b), because, first, the concerns raised by the Court in Johnson with respect to ACCA’s residual clause are less implicated by Section 16(b); second, because Leocal is precedent only the Supreme Court should adjust; and, third, because Section 16(b) does not involve the interplay of interpretative method and statutory text causing the double indeterminacy that was the due process muddle rejected in Johnson.  Gonzalez-Longoria was on sufficient notice that his prior crime of Assault Causing Bodily Injury with Prior Conviction of Family Violence is one society condemns as violent because it involves a substantial risk that, in the course of its commission, force will be used against another.  I dissent.

February 11, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Paul Cassell, the former federal judge who sentenced Weldon Angelos to 55 years, writes directly to Prez Obama to support his clemency petition

As reported in this Washington Post article, headlined "Former federal judge to President Obama: Free the man I sentenced to 55 years in prison," former US District Judge (and now Prof) Paul Cassell has now written directly to the President to urge him to "swiftly commute his sentence." Regular readers likely know a lot about the story of Weldon Angelos, whom I once helped represent as he pursued collateral appeals, and the Post article provides some of the details and context behind his current push for clemency:

Calling the sentence “one of the most troubling that I ever faced in my five years on the federal bench,” Paul G. Cassell, now a professor at the University of Utah’s law school, said the mandatory minimum sentence he was required to impose on Angelos was one of the chief reasons he chose to step down as a judge.

“I write you as the judge who sentenced Weldon Angelos to a 55-year mandatory minimum prison term for non-violent drug offenses,” Cassell wrote to Obama. “It appears to me that Mr. Angelos meets all of the criteria for a commuted sentence.” Cassell was appointed to the bench in 2002 by former President George W. Bush.

In December, Obama granted clemency to 95 drug offenders as part of his continuing effort to give relief to drug offenders who were harshly sentenced in the nation’s war on drugs. But Angelos, who is behind bars at the Federal Correctional Institution at Mendota, was not on the president’s list. The president has commuted the sentences of 184 federal inmates, more individuals than the past five presidents combined. But sentencing reform advocates say that hundreds — and potentially thousands — of inmates who meet the Obama administration’s criteria for clemency, including Angelos, are still behind bars....

Angelos, the son of a Greek immigrant and the 36-year-old father of three, is one of the nation’s most famous nonviolent drug offenders and a symbol of the severe mandatory sentences. His case has been widely championed, including by Utah’s Republican Sen. Mike Lee, former FBI Director Bill Sessions, the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums and conservative billionaire Charles Koch. “Judge Cassell’s letter articulates well the grave injustice involved in Weldon’s prison sentence,” said Mark Holden, general counsel and senior vice president of Koch Industries,” who has urged attention to the Angelos case.

Like many inmates, Angelos has missed being with his children as they grew up. His 18-year-old son, Anthony, was six when he was sent to prison. His son, Jesse, was 4. His 13-year-old daughter, Meranda, was an infant. In an interview, Angelos said he had hoped the president would grant him clemency in time for him to see Anthony graduate from high school in June.

Angelos was sentenced to 55 years without the possibility of parole after he sold marijuana to a police informant three times in 2002, each time charging $350. Prosecutors alleged that Angelos, the founder of Utah hip-hop label Extravagant, was a gang member and a drug dealer. Angelos denied the allegations and declined a plea bargain offered by prosecutors. Angelos never used or pulled a gun, but the informant later testified in court that he saw one in Angelos’s car during the first buy. He said that during the second buy, Angelos was wearing an ankle holster holding a firearm. Officers later searched his home and found a gun.

The sentence Angelos received as a nonviolent first-time offender fell under a law called 924(c). Federal drug laws require 5- to 30-year mandatory minimum sentences for possessing, brandishing or discharging a gun during a drug-trafficking crime. For each subsequent gun conviction, there is a mandatory sentence of 25 years that must be served consecutively. This is often referred to as “gun stacking,” which is why Angelos received 55 years without parole. He received five years for the gun in the car; 25 years for the second gun charge, having one in an ankle strap; and another 25 years for a third firearms charge, the gun police found in his home. He got one day for the marijuana.

In 2004, when Cassell sentenced Angelos, he wrote a lengthy opinion, comparing Angelos’s sentence (738 months) with the guideline sentences for the kingpin of three major drug trafficking rings that caused three deaths (465 months), a three-time aircraft hijacker (405 months), a second-degree murderer of three victims (235 months) and the rapist of three 10-year-olds (188 months).

Related prior posts providing some Angelos case history:

February 10, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Examples of "over-punishment", Gun policy and sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Senator Tom Cotton forcefully (and somewhat thoughtfully) makes his case against the current version of SRCA 2015

23992166449_9ff10a5a94As reported previously in this post and now again via this new piece from The Hill, a number of Senators are in the midst of a robust conversation about the merits of and concerns about the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (which I have called SRCA 2015 since its introduction last fall).  Of particular note and importance (and as noted in this prior post), Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton seems to be taking a leading role raising concerns about the current version of the SRCA, and I am now pleased and impressed that Senator Cotton has provide a thorough articulation of his concerns through this new Medium commentary titled "The Current Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is Dangerous for America," and also through this extended speech delivered yesterday on the Senate Floor.

The Medium commentary, which is relatively short, does not do much more than emphasizethe anti-federal-sentencing-reform points already forcefully and repeatedly expressed by the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys and Bill Otis and others who have been consistent opponents of any changes to the current federal sentencing status quo.  But the Senate floor speech is much, much longer and, in my view, in spots much, much more thoughtful in discussing the SRCA and his own perspectives about federal sentencing reform.  I highly recommend all persons following federal sentencing reform to read Senator Cotton's lengthy floor speech in full, and here are some of the (many) passages that has led me to describe it as forceful (and somewhat thoughtful):

Today, I want to discuss the Sentencing Reform & Corrections Act that has been voted out of the Judiciary Committee. There is much debate about the wisdom of this bill.  That is, like most bills we discuss in this chamber, a judgment call. But there cannot be debate over the facts of this bill. We have to be very clear on what this bill, by its own text, is designed to do....

By its text, the bill will not just apply to so-called "non-violent offenders," but to thousands of violent felons and armed career criminals who have used firearms in the course of their drug felonies or crimes of violence.

By its text, the bill will reduce sentences not for those convicted of simple possession, but for major drug traffickers, ones who deal in hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of heroin or thousands of pounds of marijuana.  And let's be clear: drug trafficking is not "non-violent," as the bill's proponents often claim.  It's an industry that's built on an entire edifice of violence, stretching from the narcoterrorists of South America to the drug-deal enforcers on our city streets. If you think dealing drugs on a street corner while armed with a gun is a "non-violent" offense, you probably live in a rich suburb or a gated community....

It's been reported that the bill's sponsors are preparing to release a revised bill, one that would address some of these many shortcomings.  Regarding this news, I first want to thank the sponsors for acknowledging that the bill as passed by committee does in fact apply to serious drug traffickers and other violent felons.  I look forward to evaluating the new legislative text, and I hope it addresses these problems....

The [US Sentencing] Commission first reduced sentencing guidelines in 2007.  It did so again in 2010. And again in 2014. That is three major systemic sentencing reductions in the span of seven years. The result?  46,000 federal convicts will walk from jail early.  Wendell Callahan was one among that 46,000.  There will be many more like him. And while we pray — against all odds — that none of them go on to commit a triple-murder like Wendell Callahan did, or any other heinous crime, I'm afraid our prayers will go unanswered, at least in part.

The Sentencing Commission is an independent judicial agency that provides uniform sentencing guidance to judges. Congress didn't have a hand in those sentencing reductions.  But with the Sentencing Reform & Corrections Act, the Senate would impose a fourth major sentencing reduction within eight years — one that is deeper and broader than the reductions imposed by the Sentencing Commission.

This is badly misguided.  The Senate would be launching a massive social experiment in criminal leniency without knowing the full consequences of the first three reductions imposed by the Sentencing Commissions.  This experiment threatens to undo the historic drops in crime we have seen over the past 25 years....

The Senate, and the American people, need to consider any change to our sentencing laws with full information.  We need to know if this sentencing-leniency bill will return us closer to the days of the `70s and `80s when our cities were besieged by the drug trade, and whole communities were being rotted out as a result.  We need to debate sentencing changes with all the data available to us.  We need to do this with eyes wide open.

That is why today — together with Senators Hatch, Sessions, and Perdue — I am introducing the Criminal Consequences of Early Release Act.  This is a simple, but very needed bill.  It will require the federal government to report on the recidivism rates of the 46,000 federal inmates to be released early under the Sentencing Commission's reductions.  And it will require the same reporting for any prisoners released early under any future reductions passed by Congress.

The report required by this bill will make clear how many crimes are being committed by released felons.  It will make clear what types of crimes — from drug trafficking to assault to robbery to murder — are being committed by these felons. And it will make clear in which states these crimes are occurring.

Currently, this type of data is extremely hard to compile.  It is not reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and any information we do have comes through anecdotes and sporadic media reports.  Full information on the criminal consequences of early release must be published in detail.  Before voting on any bill to reduce sentences, the members of this chamber need to understand fully the criminal consequences of prior sentence reductions....

I want to be clear.  To those who support the Sentencing Reform & Corrections Act, we are not in full disagreement. Like you, I oppose jail for first-time drug users with no prior record.  It's vanishingly rare for such offenders to be prosecuted and jailed in the federal system.  But it remains true that the better option for them — particularly if they are addicts — would be drug treatment.  Like you, I believe that our prisons should not be an anarchic jungle that is a danger to both prisoners and corrections officers.  Like you, I believe that those prisoners who will someday complete their sentences and re-enter society should be given the chance to rehabilitate and redeem themselves while in prison so that they do not recommit crimes once they are released.  Like you, I do believe that there exists the possibility of an unjust sentence, one that is so out of proportion that it shocks the conscience.

So I suggest, let's work on that bill.  Let's work on a bill that identifies and addresses all first-time drug possession inmates in the federal system, but keeps drug traffickers and other violent offenders in prison to finish their sentences.  Let's improve prison conditions and give prisoners a shot at redemption and a better life.  And, if you wish, let's work on a bill to speed the consideration of commutation applications.

If we want to undo unjust sentences, we can help the president use his constitutional power of pardon and commutation as a precise scalpel to identify and remedy those rare cases of manifestly unjust sentences.  But what we should not do is use the blunt instrument of releasing thousands of violent felons and major drug traffickers.  The president has the constitutional power to remedy unjust sentences.  But you know what power he doesn't have?  The power to bring back to life the victims murdered by prisoners who are released early or sentenced inadequately.

There are a number of statements in the parts of this speech quoted above with which I could take serious issue. In particular, Congress always has authority to block any and every formal decision by the US Sentencing Commission, and the crack-guideline reductions of 2010 were essentially mandated by Congress in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. Consequenlty, it is not accurate for Senator Cotton to assert that "Congress didn't have a hand in those sentencing reductions" to drug sentences promulgated by the USSC in recent years. More generally, to assert in blanket terms that "drug trafficking is not 'non-violent'," is no better than asserting in blanket terms that "drug trafficking is non-violent." Some federal drug-traffickers in some settings are extremely violent in doing business. But I have not heard of much violence taking place in all the stores now selling a whole lot of marijuana in Colorado and other states, and I surmise that the ability to purchase this drug in a safe environment is one reason marijuana sales seem to keep going up and up in a number of states.

But, critically, even though Senator Cotton sometimes favors rhetoric over reality in this speech, the basic themes and many particulars he stresses are an important and valuable contribution to the broader debate over federal sentencing reforms. In particular, Senator Cotton is 100% right that our national data on the recidivism rates and realities of federal offenders — not only with respect to those who get sentence reductions, but also for the entire released offender population — leave a lot to be desired and raise more questions than answers. (Indeed, as some readers likely know well, the very term "recidivism" is subject to various definitions in various settings.) I could not agree more with Senator Cotton's statement that the "Senate, and the American people, need to consider any change to our sentencing laws with full information." Indeed, I have long thought that many of our worst federal sentencing laws enacted in prior decades — e.g., the 100-1 crack/powder disparity, some of our most severe gun possession mandatory minimums — were passed largely based on misinformation about their reach and likely impact.

In addition, I think Senator Cotton merits praise for urging his colleagues to "improve prison conditions and give prisoners a shot at redemption and a better life," and especially for suggesting "work on a bill to speed the consideration of commutation applications" in order to "help the president use his constitutional power of pardon and commutation as a precise scalpel to identify and remedy those rare cases of manifestly unjust sentences." As long-time readers know, many sentencing reform advocates (myself included) have been advocating for Presidents of both parties to make much broader and more constitent use of the "constitutional power of pardon and commutation." I think it is both quite heartening and significant that now the Senate's most vocal opponent of proposed sentencing reforms is sincerely calling for President Obama (and future presidents) to use the clemency power to remedy any and all federal sentences that appear to the President to be "manifestly unjust."

February 10, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Is California conducting an "unprecedented experiment in mass forgiveness"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the headline of this lengthy new Washington Post article, which suggests the Golden State has become a unique criminal justice laboratory.  Here are excerpts:

[Jose] Gonzalez is among thousands of felons benefiting from a grand experiment, an act of mass forgiveness unprecedented in U.S. history.  In California, once a national innovator in draconian policies to get tough on crime, voters and lawmakers are now innovating in the opposite direction, adopting laws that have released tens of thousands of inmates and are preventing even more from going to prison in the first place.

The most famous is a landmark ballot measure called Proposition 47, which in 2014 made California the first state in the nation to make possession of any drug — including cocaine and heroin — a misdemeanor.  More astonishing is the state’s decision to show leniency toward violent offenders, including murderers like Gonzalez.

For example, the state has ordered parole hearings for longtime inmates convicted of committing violent crimes before they turned 23, requiring authorities to consider anew whether immaturity at the time of the inmates’ offense argues for their release.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has approved parole for roughly 2,300 lifers convicted of murder and about 450 lifers sentenced for lesser offenses — a revolution in a state that released only two lifers during former governor Gray Davis’s entire four-year term.  And more reforms could be in store. Last month, Brown unveiled a ballot measure that, if approved by voters in November, would grant early release to nonviolent felons who complete rehab programs and demonstrate good behavior.

Progressives across the nation have applauded California’s U-turn. “There is a gathering sense that the public is considerably less punitive than people had thought,” said Joe Margulies, a professor of law and government at Cornell University.

But with crime in some of California’s largest cities ticking up after years of sustained decline, many law enforcement leaders and victims’ advocates say the state has gone too far. “Our hope was folks getting out of prisons are going to come out and be model citizens,” said Christine Ward, executive director of the Crime Victims Action Alliance. “Unfortunately, we’re not seeing that.”...

So far, 250 inmates have been released under the Youth Offender Parole law, most of them violent offenders.  As many as 16,000 more remain eligible.  Meanwhile, a study by Stanford Law School found that Proposition 47 had unlocked the cell doors of nearly 4,500 prisoners since taking effect in late 2014.

Sheriffs, police chiefs and prosecutors speculate that Prop 47 has contributed to a recent rise in crime and homelessness in major California cities, arguing that the law eliminated a useful billy club: the threat of a felony conviction to steer addicts into treatment.  “It’s a vicious cycle,” said Kirk Albanese, deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.  “You’ve got an addiction, we are not holding you accountable, and you’re back into the cycle of using. How do you support that habit?  Stealing.  Our burglaries are up, car theft is up, break-ins are up — they are all up.”

Hilary Chittick, a veteran judge for the Superior Court of Fresno County, said Prop 47 has “decimated” her ability to force addicts into treatment. “The public had a house with a leaky roof and bad pipes,” she said. “So they blew up the house.”

Prop 47 supporters acknowledge the problem and say efforts are underway to address it.  More drug courts, for instance, are opening their doors to misdemeanants as well as felons, said Prop 47 co-author Lenore Anderson, executive director of the advocacy group Californians for Safety and Justice. “If you think that you need a stick in order to mandate treatment, that option is available with a misdemeanor,” Anderson said.  But Prop 47 supporters reject the notion that the ballot measure contributed to localized spikes in crime.  Early reports indicate that recidivism among inmates released under the full range of reforms has been low....

In general, more than half of inmates released from California prisons — 54 percent — return to prison within three years. Among lifers paroled under Brown, the Los Angeles Times found, fewer than 2 percent have committed new crimes.  Among the 2,100 inmates released after the softening of the state’s three-strikes law, only about 6 percent have returned to prison. Michael Romano, director and co-founder of the Stanford Law School Three Strikes Project, attributes the success of this cohort in part to extensive rehab, but also to a kind of forgiveness psychology.

Because I do not live in California, it is hard for me to judge whether the state is genuinely engaged in "mass forgiveness" when passing laws designed to reduce its prison population and the severity of its sentncing laws. But there is little doubt that all sorts of significant criminal justice reforms are now playing out in California, and it will be quite valuable and important for criminal justice advoates and researchers to watch and study crime and punishment developments in the state in the months and years to come.

February 9, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, February 07, 2016

"Restitution and the Excessive Fines Clause"

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

Restitution is a component of many criminal sentences.  There is little agreement, however, upon whether and how the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution limits restitution orders in criminal cases.  Courts have long been divided over whether the Excessive Fines Clause applies to restitution orders at all, whether to apply the “grossly disproportional” test to restitution orders or some other causation-based test, and how to measure gross disproportionality in the restitution context.

First, the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment should be read as a limit on restitution orders in criminal cases.  The Eighth Amendment applies because these monetary payments are partially punitive.  And, although restitution payments are not made to the sovereign, the concept of “fines” for purposes of the Excessive Fines Clause is properly understood to encompass payments to third parties that result from government-initiated action.

Second, the same “grossly disproportional” test that has been applied to criminal fines and forfeitures should apply to restitution orders as well.  Indeed, all monetary sanctions should be pooled together for purposes of a single Excessive Fines Clause proportionality analysis.  The constitutionally-relevant question should be whether an offender’s total monetary sanction is grossly disproportional to the gravity of the offense.  Although causation between the offense conduct and the victim’s loss is generally a statutory requirement of restitution orders, it is not a constitutional one. The causation requirement furthers restitution’s remedial purpose; it is not relevant to the Eighth Amendment’s excessiveness inquiry, which functions to limit the punitive severity of monetary sanctions.

Lastly, the question of gross disproportionality is largely an exercise of judgment that should be left to the judiciary. Some courts have inappropriately wholly relied on analyzing whether the monetary sanction was authorized by the legislature in assessing the constitutionality of the penalty.  This approach inappropriately collapses the constitutional inquiry into the statutory one. Although the statutory restitution or fine range may be a useful input in the constitutional analysis, it cannot be the sole component.  In the end, the judiciary's independent judgment must be trusted to weigh proportionality and detect unconstitutionally excessive monetary sanctions.

February 7, 2016 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3)

A useful reminder that, even after Montgomery, SCOTUS will continue to be asked to address juve LWOP

BuzzFeed News reporter Chris Geidner has this effective new piece discussing the reality that SCOTUS is sure to be presented in the years ahead with Eighth Amendment challenges to any and every LWOP sentence given to a juvenile offender.  The piece is headlined "An Uncertain Path Ahead For Juvenile Sentencing Cases Still Before The Supreme Court," and here are excerpts:

Cortez Davis is serving life in prison under Michigan’s felony murder statute for a killing that occurred when he was 16 years old.  Davis was not the gunman, the trial judge in his case found, but was a participant in a robbery when the fatal shooting took place.  Nonetheless, under the Michigan law, because he was a key participant in the underlying felony, he was charged with felony murder. Davis was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole — the mandatory sentence in the mid-1990s.

More than a year ago, lawyers for Davis asked the Supreme Court to take up their client’s challenge to a lower court decision that upheld that sentence.  Now, following a recent Supreme Court decision, his challenge and several others are likely to be sent back to lower courts — a move that could, depending on what state courts do next, put off even further the chance people like Davis have to reduce or end sentences the court has repeatedly thrown into question in recent years.

The petitions ask the justices to address how and under what circumstances states can sentence juveniles to life without parole, including in a handful of cases in which the convictions are for felony murder.  Over the past decade, the court has taken up several cases addressing juvenile justice issues.  The court ended the eligibility of juveniles for the death penalty in 2005, and has since, in a series of rulings, narrowed the eligibility of juveniles for life sentences.

Last week, the court handed down yet another significant ruling on juvenile sentencing — this one in the case of Henry Montgomery — that deals with complicated legal issues, but has major consequences.  The court, in an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, held that the 2012 ban on sentences of mandatory juvenile life in prison without the possibility of parole applied not just going forward, but also to those sentenced in the past like Montgomery. Montgomery is in jail for a killing he committed at 17 in 1963....

Far from a narrow procedural ruling, Kennedy explained that the 2012 ruling — Miller v. Alabama — was a substantive one, and, in its wake, “it will be the rare juvenile offender who can receive that same sentence.”  While Montgomery’s case was pending, however, the court left several related cases like Davis’s one — all of which ask the court to go further down this path — waiting for action from the justices.

Most expect the justices now to send those cases back to lower courts to consider how the Montgomery decision affects their respective cases.  During that period, how state courts interpret the Supreme Court’s ruling could vary widely. How rare is the “rare juvenile” that Kennedy writes about whose crime reflects “irreparable corruption”? How do states make that determination?...

On Jan. 25, Kennedy detailed the court’s decision that Louisiana had to give retroactive effect to the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in the Miller.  In the wake of that decision, it’s likely that the justices will send Davis’s case back to the Michigan Supreme Court to reconsider it.  As Kennedy suggested in the Montgomery decision, Michigan either could re-sentence Davis — considering whether his crime reflects “permanent incorrigibility” — or make him eligible for parole consideration.

If Davis is re-sentenced instead of being granted a chance at parole, however, and if he is sentenced to life again, then he likely would go back to the U.S. Supreme Court — asking the court, again, to hear his case on the felony murder question.  (As is already being seen in Montgomery’s case, state officials in Louisiana have told the state’s supreme court that their aim is to re-sentence those with mandatory life without parole sentences, rather than give them the possibility of parole.)

February 7, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

DOJ announces appointment of new Acting Pardon Attorney

This DOJ press release reports that the "Justice Department announced today that Robert A. Zauzmer will become the new Acting Pardon Attorney effective immediately."  Here is more about this important new person in an important new DOJ position:

Zauzmer, the Chief of Appeals in the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, has been a key player in the department’s implementation of both the 2013 Smart on Crime initiative and the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s retroactive sentence reductions.

“Bob’s long-standing commitment to criminal justice reform and his knack for devising and implementing the department’s sentencing reduction policies made him a natural choice to serve as Pardon Attorney,” said Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates. “Bob also shares my unwavering dedication to the president’s clemency initiative. Given his experience and dedication, I am confident that Bob will hit the ground running.”

“As someone who has been part of the criminal justice system for more than 25 years, I have long been troubled by the imposition of disproportionately lengthy sentences, even as long as life imprisonment, that were imposed on low-level drug offenders on the basis of laws and policies that have since been changed,” said Zauzmer. “I have dedicated much of the past decade to assisting in the efforts to right some of those unfairly long sentences, and it is my profound honor to aid the president in using his clemency power to continue to restore the sense of proportionality and fairness that is at the heart of our justice system.”

As part of his efforts on behalf of the department, Zauzmer has testified multiple times before the U.S. Sentencing Commission on sentencing guideline issues, including the retroactive application of reductions in drug sentences. He also trained federal prosecutors nationwide on how to apply retroactivity in a way that provides relief to all eligible inmates in the most efficient manner possible. From 2012 to 2014, Zauzmer served as a member of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee (AGAC), working closely with Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and Deputy Attorney General Yates at a time that they served as chair and vice-chair, respectively, of the AGAC....

In December 2013, President Obama directed the department to prioritize applications for clemency from inmates who were sentenced under outdated policies and would have received a lesser sentence under current policies and laws. Since the clemency initiative was announced in April 2014, the president has granted 187 commutations, more than the last five presidents combined.

UPDATE: This new NPR piece, headlined "New Pardon Chief In Obama Justice Department Inherits A Huge Backlog," has some interesting quotes from the new Acting Pardon Attorney:

Robert Zauzmer, 55, has worked since 1990 at the U.S. attorney's office in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Justice Department leaders said Zauzmer represented a "natural choice" for the pardon job, in part because of his experience training prosecutors all over the country in how to evaluate prisoners' requests for early release.  "There were many occasions over the years where I saw these sentences of 20, 30 years, life imprisonment imposed on low-level offenders based on mandatory sentencing laws that troubled me," Zauzmer told NPR in an interview this week.

"Prosecutors are very knowledgeable about these cases and about the laws and about the need to do justice," he added.  "They are passionate about this, and they are dedicated to doing the right thing and correcting any erroneous sentences that need to be corrected, and I am equally passionate about it."

His first task?  Making sure that thousands of prisoner petitions are reviewed and worthy candidates are forwarded to the White House for action before the end of the Obama presidency, whether the applications come from trained lawyers or from inmates themselves.  "We're going to consider every petition," he said.  Zauzmer declined to offer a deadline but said stacks of petitions are "not going to be left on my table."

"I need to make sure that every system is in place that's necessary to review every case and make sure everybody gets a fair shake," Zauzmer said.  "There's a lot to do, but we have an excellent staff there, and I'm going to give it everything I have."...

But in the interview, the new acting pardon attorney cast some doubt on the idea of a mass clemency. "So I don't think we will ever get to a point where we will say, let's just take this basket of people and do mass clemency," Zauzmer said.  "We will look at these cases individually to make sure that we're not creating an undue risk to public safety, and that requires an individual assessment."

And Zauzmer pointed out that he is quite familiar with those case-by-case looks. He said the White House had already shortened the prison terms of six inmates from his district in Pennsylvania, including the case of David Padilla, who had been serving life behind bars.  "He was a classic example of someone who committed crimes, did bad things, admits it, has served almost 20 years in prison and should not be serving a life sentence," he said. "A life sentence does not possibly match the kind of criminal conduct that he was involved in."

February 3, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Second Circuit panel laments the "Statement of Reasons" form used by sentencing judges

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss the interesting sentencing opinion handed down by the Second Circuit yesterday in US v. Pruitt, No. 14‐1921 (2d Cir. Feb. 1, 2016) (available here).  Authored by District Judge John Gleeson sitting by designation, here is how the Pruitt opinion gets started:

Kaylon Pruitt appeals from the May 29, 2014 judgment of conviction entered against him in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (Suddaby, J.).  Pruitt was sentenced principally to a 46‐month term of imprisonment on his plea of guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g).  He contends that the district court committed procedural error during his sentencing by failing to explain the reasons for the sentence, as required by 18 U.S.C. § 3553(c).

We affirm but write to suggest to the United States Sentencing Commission and the Judicial Conference of the United States that the Statement of Reasons form included within the statutorily‐required form for the entry of criminal judgments ‐‐ Form AO 245B ‐‐ be amended to bring it into conformity with § 3553(c) and Supreme Court precedent.  Specifically, a check‐a‐box section of the form, which was checked by the district court in this case, invites sentencing judges to impose a sentence within the applicable Guidelines range simply because the judge finds no reason to depart.   Because that both undermines the statutory obligation to state the reasons for every sentence and unlawfully presumes the reasonableness of the advisory Guidelines range, the form should be amended.

In a final notable footnote, the Pruitt opinion takes a notable shot at the US Sentencing Commission:

The form as a whole seems designed to encourage judges to sentence within the range.  A path of least resistance is clearly marked, and it is consistent with the Commission’s overall approach to sentencing in the post‐Booker era.  In United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), the Supreme Court held that the mandatory guidelines system was incompatible with the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury, and it accordingly severed the provision of the Act that made the Guidelines mandatory.  The Sentencing Commission has since repeatedly asked Congress to enact legislation requiring sentencing courts to give greater weight to the Guidelines range than Booker and its progeny permit.  The specific proposals include laws that would require sentencing judges give “substantial weight” to the advisory Guidelines range and require appellate courts to accord a presumption of reasonableness to within‐range sentences.  Thus, the objectionable part of Statement of Reasons form may reflect the law as the Commission wants it to be.

February 2, 2016 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)