Thursday, December 22, 2016

Florida Supreme Court brings back to life some older death sentences

As reported in this local article, headlined "Florida Supreme Court: Death penalty cases finalized before 2002 will stand," it now appears that there is a little bit of life left in some old Florida death sentences.  Here are the basics: 

Some of the nearly 400 prisoners waiting on Florida's death row will not be allowed a re-sentencing under new death penalty laws, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The 6-1 ruling in a death sentence appeal by Mark James Asay says that death row inmates are not entitled to a re-sentencing unless their case was finalized after the 2002 ruling in Ring vs. Arizona, which required juries to find aggravating factors to impose the death penalty.

The court also lifted a stay on Asay's execution, previously scheduled for March of this year. It appears executions could commence soon.

Florida's death penalty has been under siege for the past year. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the state's death penalty scheme unconstitutional in Hurst vs. Florida, prompting the Legislature to re-write sentencing laws.  Then, in October, the Florida Supreme Court found that the Hurst ruling required a unanimous vote by the jury to sentence someone to death, rather than a majority or supermajority required under old and existing laws. It was not clear until Thursday's ruling whether these changes entitled people already on death row to a re-sentencing hearing.

The lengthy Florida Supreme Court in Asay v. Florida is available at this link. Here is the key concluding paragraph from the majority opinion:

After weighing all three of the above factors, we conclude that Hurst should not be applied retroactively to Asay’s case, in which the death sentence became final before the issuance of Ring. We limit our holding to this context because the balance of factors may change significantly for cases decided after the United States Supreme Court decided Ring. When considering the three factors of the Stovall/Linkletter test together, we conclude that they weigh against applying Hurst retroactively to all death case litigation in Florida. Accordingly, we deny Asay relief.

There can be little doubt that this ruling will be appealed to the US Supreme Court, though there can and should be much doubt about whether SCOTUS will take up the issue.

UPDATE: A helpful tweeter made sure I did not miss this additional ruling from the Florida Supreme Court that reaches this companion conclusion for cases in which a death sentence was imposed after 2002:

After weighing all of the considerations essential to a faithful Witt analysis, we conclude that Hurst should be applied retroactively to Mosley.  The purpose of the holdings in Hurst v. Florida and Hurst is to prevent a violation of the fundamental and critically important right to a trial by jury. See Hurst, 202 So. 3d at 50-51, 55.

December 22, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Split Ohio Supreme Court concludes Graham violated by term-of-years juve sentence that exceeds life expectancy

The holiday season is often a time that brings some interesting sentencing ruling, and this year the jurisprudential present under my tree comes from my own Ohio Supreme Court in Ohio v. Moore, No. 2016-Ohio-8288 (Ohio S. Ct. Dec. 22, 2016) (available here). Here is how the lengthy majority opinion in Moore gets started and concludes:

We decide in this case whether the United States Supreme Court’s holding in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 130 S.Ct. 2011, 176 L.Ed.2d 825 (2010), prohibiting the imposition of sentences of life imprisonment without parole on juvenile nonhomicide offenders also prohibits the imposition of a term-of-years prison sentence that exceeds the offender’s life expectancy on a juvenile nonhomicide offender. We hold that pursuant to Graham, a term-of-years prison sentence that exceeds a defendant’s life expectancy violates the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution when it is imposed on a juvenile nonhomicide offender.

We hold in this case that Graham’s categorical prohibition of sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for juveniles who commit nonhomicide crimes applies to juvenile nonhomicide offenders who are sentenced to term-of-years sentences that exceed their life expectancies. The court of appeals abused its discretion in failing to grant Moore’s application for reconsideration. The 112-year sentence the trial court imposed on Moore violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments. We reverse the judgment of the court of appeals and vacate Moore’s sentence, and we remand the cause to the trial court for resentencing in conformity with Graham.

Interestingly, Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor appears to have been the key swing vote here on a court that split 4-3, and her lengthy concurring opinion concludes this way:

Graham is one of the most momentous decisions in American juvenile law. Given its significance, the stated intention of the sentencing judge in this case, the de facto life sentence he imposed, and the curtness with which the court of appeals denied Moore’s application to reconsider his sentence in light of Graham, I conclude that the appellate court abused its discretion in refusing to consider Moore’s claim. The court was not bound to accept his arguments, but it was bound to consider them more thoughtfully after allowing the application for delayed reconsideration.

I concur fully in the majority opinion, which addresses the significant constitutional question that is properly before us and which holds that the court of appeals abused its discretion in failing to recognize that extraordinary circumstances were presented by Moore’s application, i.e., the unconstitutional imposition of a lengthy term-of-years sentence on a juvenile offender.

December 22, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, December 19, 2016

Judicial panel concludes judge committed no misconduct in the sentencing of Brock Turner

This new local article, headlined "Panel clears judge of bias in sentencing of Brock Turner," provides a notable postscript to what became a national sentencing story earlier this year. Here are the basics:

A commission cleared Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky Monday of misconduct in his light sentencing of a former Stanford student who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman outside a college party.

The Commission on Judicial Performance had received thousands of complaints and petitions that Persky — who on June 2 sentenced Brock Allen Turner to six months in county jail, three years’ probation and lifetime registration as a sex offender — was biased in his sentencing decision. The district attorney’s office had asked for six years in state prison, while the defense had requested four months in county jail with up to five years probation.

“Neither the judge’s statements about the impact of prison and the defendant’s future dangerousness — factors that the judge was required to address on the record — nor any other remarks made by Judge Persky at the sentencing hearing constitute clear and convincing evidence of judicial bias,” the panel concluded unanimously.  Based in San Francisco, the panel include six public members, two lawyers, and three judicial officers.

The 12-page panel decision is available at this link, and here is a key paragraph from its introductory section:

The commission has concluded that there is not clear and convincing evidence of bias, abuse of authority, or other basis to conclude that Judge Persky engaged injudicial misconduct warranting discipline.  First, the sentence was within the parameters set by law and was therefore within the judge’s discretion.  Second, the judge performed a multi-factor balancing assessment prescribed by law that took into account both the victim and the defendant.  Third, the judge’s sentence was consistent with the recommendation in the probation report, the purpose of which is to fairly and completely evaluate various factors and provide the judge with a recommended sentence. Fourth, comparison to other cases handled by Judge Persky that were publicly identified does not support a finding of bias.  The judge did not preside over the plea or sentencing in one of the cases. In each of the four other cases, Judge Persky’s sentencing decision was either the result of a negotiated agreement between the prosecution and the defense, aligned with the recommendation of the probation department, or both.  Fifth, the judge’s contacts with Stanford University are insufficient to require disclosure or disqualification. 

Some (of many) prior related posts on the Brock Turner case:

December 19, 2016 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Prez Obama grants another large bunch of commutations as well as a big batch of pardons

Big pre-holiday news on the federal clemency front is reported in this new White House blog posting: "President Obama Grants 153 Commutations and 78 Pardons to Individuals Deserving of a Second Chance." Here are the details as reported by White House Counsel Neil Eggleston:

Today, President Obama granted clemency to 231 deserving individuals — the most individual acts of clemency granted in a single day by any president in this nation’s history. With today’s 153 commutations, the President has now commuted the sentences of 1,176 individuals, including 395 life sentences. The President also granted pardons to 78 individuals, bringing his total number of pardons to 148. Today’s acts of clemency — and the mercy the President has shown his 1,324 clemency recipients — exemplify his belief that America is a nation of second chances.

The 231 individuals granted clemency today have all demonstrated that they are ready to make use — or have already made use — of a second chance. While each clemency recipient’s story is unique, the common thread of rehabilitation underlies all of them. For the pardon recipient, it is the story of an individual who has led a productive and law-abiding post-conviction life, including by contributing to the community in a meaningful way. For the commutation recipient, it is the story of an individual who has made the most of his or her time in prison, by participating in educational courses, vocational training, and drug treatment. These are the stories that demonstrate the successes that can be achieved — by both individuals and society — in a nation of second chances.

Today’s grants signify the President’s continued commitment to exercising his clemency authority through the remainder of his time in office. In 2016 alone, the President has granted clemency to more than 1,000 deserving individuals. The President continues to review clemency applications on an individualized basis to determine whether a particular applicant has demonstrated a readiness to make use of his or her second chance, and I expect that the President will issue more grants of both commutations and pardons before he leaves office. The mercy that the President has shown his 1,324 clemency recipients is remarkable, but we must remember that clemency is a tool of last resort and that only Congress can achieve the broader reforms needed to ensure over the long run that our criminal justice system operates more fairly and effectively in the service of public safety.

This news is sure to bring holiday cheer to all those advocating for Prez Obama to go big on this front before he heads home.  These grants now have me thinking Obama may end his time in office with more than 2000 clemency grants.

Some recent (post-Election Day) posts on Prez Obama and clemency:

December 19, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Anyone eager to predict how many last-month clemencies Prez Obama will grant?

NA-CM807_CLEMEN_9U_20161217145706The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy new Wall Street Journal article headlined "Barack Obama Weighs Final Requests for Clemency: President has cut short the sentences of 1,023 inmates, more than the previous 11 presidents combined." Here are excerpts:

Barack Obama, who has granted clemency more often than any president since Lyndon B. Johnson, is expected to perform more acts of mercy during his final weeks in office....

Mr. Obama’s critics, including the incoming attorney general, say his use of clemency for a large class of convicts has been a disturbing power grab. But supporters say a law that reduced drug penalties six years ago created severe injustices for those sentenced before it. They also note that Mr. Obama has granted clemency for a relatively small percentage of the large number of people who have sought it.

These trends are a centerpiece of Mr. Obama’s legacy on criminal justice reform. Legislation that would have further reduced sentences for less-serious drug offenders foundered in this fall’s highly charged political climate. But as with other parts of the president’s agenda that were snubbed by Congress—including immigration, gun control and climate policies — Mr. Obama has turned to his executive authority in the absence of more sweeping and durable legislative action. “He’s essentially rejuvenated clemency as a presidential power,” said White House Counsel Neil Eggleston. “But he has never seen it as a replacement for criminal justice reform.”...

Mr. Trump’s pick for attorney general, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has described Mr. Obama’s clemency record as an “alarming abuse of the pardon power.” The former prosecutor views the rollback of tough drug sentences as a threat to public safety. Mr. Obama, a former constitutional law professor, sees long, mandatory sentences as damaging excesses from the war on drugs, particularly in the African-American community.

In 2016, Mr. Obama has cut short the sentences of 839 inmates, the most commutations ever granted in a single year, according to the Justice Department, with more possibly on the way. That brings his total to 1,023, or more than the previous 11 presidents combined. Adding Mr. Obama’s 70 pardons, which go further than commutations by wiping out convictions and restoring civil liberties, puts his clemency record just behind Mr. Johnson’s 1,187 grants.

Civil-rights advocates are demanding a more sweeping review that would dent the prison population much faster than the current case-by-case analysis. “We do not know whether the next president will support clemency efforts or criminal justice reform,’ says a late November appeal to President Obama from dozens of groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Sentencing Project, JustLeadershipUSA and the Brennan Center for Justice. “But we do know that until Jan. 20, you alone have the power to deliver both mercy and justice to those who deserve it.”...

Mr. Obama has received more requests for clemency than any other president, in part because of efforts to encourage inmates to petition for one if they were sentenced before a 2010 law that reduced the disparity between sentences for crack and cocaine offenses. Mr. Sessions spearheaded that legislation, which lightened penalties for crack users, but he opposes applying it to inmates retroactively. So does the nation’s largest police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, which endorsed Mr. Trump.

But in one indicator that Mr. Obama is more cautious than some critics suggest, he has granted 3% of nearly 35,000 requests; only George W. Bush granted a smaller percentage, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center. Obama also has offered fewer pardons than any president in the past century, though more are expected before he leaves office.

I am tempted to predict that Prez Obama will grant at least a few hundred more prison commutations and also a few hundred pardons before leaving the Oval Office on January 20, 2017.  This is a nothing but a blind guess and I have absolutely no insider knowledge here.  What I do have is a deep disappointment that Prez Obama did not make any apparent effort to change the structure of the modern federal clemency process, which so many commentators (myself included) have rightly criticized as dysfunctional.

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Some recent (post-Election Day) posts on Prez Obama and clemency:

UPDATE:  In the comments to this post and also in an email to me, sentencing and clemency guru Mark Osler expressed justified frustration over the fact that the WSJ article and its chart fail to give respect to the large number of clemencies that Prez Gerald Ford granted in response to offenses related to evasion of the draft during the Vietnam war. (This Fusion article from May provides an effective review of this oft-forgotten clemency story and its continued relevance in a drug war era.)  Mark sent me this update comment of criticism, along with the additional chart here produced by Pardon Power papa P.S. Ruckman.

Complains Prof Osler: "No, Obama has NOT 'granted clemency more often than any president since Lyndon B. Johnson.'   And the chart the WSJ used (and you reprinted) is wrong.  Neither include the Ford clemency grants. That matters, too --- the streamlined Ford process outside of DOJ, which was successful, was the one Obama rejected in favor of the bureaucracy-laden CP14."

December 18, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Post-Hurst hydra chews up all death sentences in Delaware via new retroactivity ruling

6a00d83451574769e201b8d1a7e505970c-320wiRegularly readers know I use the term "post-Hurst hydra" to describe the aftermath litigation in various courts in various states as judges sort ought what Supreme Court ruling in Hurst v. Florida must mean for past, present and future capital cases. Today the post-Hurst hydra took another big bite out the the death penalty in the First State as reported in this AP article:

A Delaware Supreme Court ruling earlier this year declaring the state's death penalty law unconstitutional is retroactive, meaning an inmate convicted of killing a police officer must be resentenced to life in prison, the justices said in a follow-up decision Thursday.

The ruling came in an appeal by Derrick Powell, who was convicted of killing Georgetown police Officer Chad Spicer in 2009, but it likely means that 11 other former death-row inmates also will be spared from execution.

In August, a majority of the justices said Delaware's death penalty law was unconstitutional because it allowed judges too much discretion in sentencing and did not require that a jury find unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant deserves execution.

That ruling came after the U.S. Supreme Court said Florida's death sentencing law, which also gave judges the final say, was unconstitutional. Alabama is the only other state that allows judges to override jury decisions on whether an offender should get life in prison or the death penalty.

In its 15-page decision Thursday, the Delaware court said its August ruling invalidating the state's death penalty law was a "watershed procedural ruling" that must be applied retroactively.

The full opinion in Powell v. Delaware is available at this link.

December 15, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

SCOTUS adds a few more criminal cases to its current merits docket

Via this post at SCOTUSblog, I see that the Supreme Court today added a handful of cases to its docket.  Here is the SCOTUSblog description of the criminal cases in the bunch:

Two of the cases that the justices agreed to review today, Turner v. United States and Overton v. United States, arise out of the brutal 1984 murder of Catherine Fuller, a District of Columbia mother.  The petitioners in the case are a group of D.C. men who were convicted of the crime, based in large part on testimony from alleged eyewitnesses. Decades later, a reporter learned that defense attorneys had not received a statement suggesting that someone else had committed the crime; additional discovery then revealed that prosecutors had failed to turn over other evidence that could have aided the defendants.  The men sought to vacate their convictions, but were unsuccessful in the lower courts.

Today the Supreme Court agreed to review both cases.  Overton had asked the court to weigh in on the standard that the lower court used to evaluate his claim that prosecutors had not complied with their obligations under Brady v. Maryland, which requires the government to turn over information that could exonerate the defendant.  Turner and his co-defendants had asked the court to consider whether, when determining the significance of suppressed evidence, courts can consider information that comes to light after trial.  But the court today announced that it would review a more straightforward question in both cases: whether the men’s convictions must be set aside under Brady....

In Lee v. United States, the justices return to a familiar topic: the case of a non-citizen who gets into trouble with the law and then receives poor legal advice, jeopardizing his stay in the United States.  The petitioner in the case, Jae Lee, is a Tennessee man who came to the U.S. from South Korea in 1982 and eventually became a successful restauranteur. In 2009, he was charged with possession of ecstasy with intent to distribute.  After seeing the evidence against Lee, Lee’s attorney recommended that Lee plead guilty, so that he would receive a shorter sentence.  But, and despite Lee’s attorney’s assurances to the contrary, a guilty plea would result in Lee’s permanent and mandatory deportation.

Lee then sought to vacate his conviction, arguing that he had been deprived of his constitutional right to have adequate assistance from his attorney.  The government agreed that Lee could satisfy the first prong of the test to determine whether an attorney’s representation violated the Constitution: The attorney had indeed provided deficient advice when he told Lee that a guilty plea would not expose him to deportation.  But the lower courts ruled that Lee could not show, as required by the second prong of the test, that he was prejudiced by that bad advice, because the evidence of his guilt was so overwhelming that he would have been convicted and deported anyway.  That is the question that the court agreed to review today.

Today’s cases will likely be argued in late winter or early spring. The justices’ next regularly scheduled conference is January 6.

December 14, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Federal District Judge says federal death penalty "operates in an arbitrary manner" but still rejects broadside constitutional challenge

United States District Judge Geoffrey Crawford issued a lengthy opinion today in the long-running federal capital case of US v. Fell, No. 5:01-cr-12-01 (D. Vt. Dec. 13, 2016).  A helpful reader sent me the full 57-page opinion, which I have uploaded below and which gets started this way:

In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Glossip v. Gross, 135 S. Ct. 2726.  The case concerned challenges under the Eighth Amendment to execution by lethal injection of four defendants sentenced to die by state courts in Oklahoma.

Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Ginsburg, issued a dissent calling "for full briefing on a more basic question: whether the death penalty violates the Constitution."  Id. at 2755.  The dissent identified a series of systemic shortcomings in the administration of the death penalty in the United States, especially as it is applied by the states.  It divided these into four categories: "(1) serious unreliability, (2) arbitrariness in application, (3) unconscionably long delays that undermine the death penalty's penological purpose [and] (4) most places in the United States have abandoned its use." Id. at 2756.

In response, Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas wrote two strongly worded concurring opinions which defended the death penalty as the legitimate exercise of democratic authority.  Both justices pointed to the shocking cruelty of the crimes which led to the death sentences in these and other death penalty cases.  Both questioned the authority of the judiciary to interpose its own philosophical concerns about the death penalty.  And both identified utilitarian purposes such as deterrence which may justify executions.

The dissent and concurring opinions in Glossip offer a particularly vivid account of the long-running dispute over the constitutionality of the death penalty within the Supreme Court.   A federal trial judge is without authority to rewrite the law so as to overrule the majority position at the Supreme Court.  The current state of the law is that the death penalty is a constitutional punishment for murder committed by adults not disqualified for reasons of intellectual disability who have received a trial which meets the standards set by Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976) and Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002).  Changing forty years of decisional law raises questions that can only be settled by the Supreme Court itself.

But a trial court has its own contribution to make to the debate.  The court can hold a hearing and permit witnesses to testify.  In Glossip, Justice Breyer raised a series of questions about whether the death penalty is imposed fairly or in an incurably arbitrary manner.  The questions he raised are troubling.  They are essentially empirical. They require consideration of what has actually happened in the United States since the restoration of the death penalty following the Gregg decision.

Over the course of two weeks last summer this court sought to develop a factual record based on live testimony and supporting exhibits sufficient to answer the question of whether the constitutional requirements for a death penalty statute set out in Gregg have been met in practice.  As the court's findings indicate, the Federal Death Penalty Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 3591, et seq. ("FDPA"), falls short of the standard required in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972), and in Gregg for identifying defendants who meet objective criteria for imposition of the death penalty. Like the state statutes enacted after Furman, the FDPA operates in an arbitrary manner in which chance and bias play leading roles.

The trial court's obligation does not end with a review of the facts.  The court is required to address the legal issues raised by the parties.  That resolution may be no more than an acknowledgment that the law has been settled on a particular question.  Alternatively, the new factual record may require a fresh look at the manner in which existing principles are applied to a factual record which continues to develop.  The court has sought to undertake this new look in a manner consistent with existing authority which comes principally from the Supreme Court.

To get right to the point, the court has sought to follow the method expressed in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002) in considering the proportionality of the death penalty.  The court has also considered the separate argument that application of the death penalty has become arbitrary.

The disproportionality challenge falls short because of the absence of proof of a national consensus to abolish the death penalty.  As the law stands now, proof of consensus is a prerequisite for finding the death penalty unconstitutional as applied to particular crimes or particular types of defendants.  By assessing public opinion, especially as it is expressed through legislation in the states, the Supreme Court finds a basis for determining evolving standards of decency for the nation as a whole.  If the requirement of consensus applies to the limited challenges brought in cases like Atkins, then it must also apply to the claim of disproportionality which the defense levels against the imposition of the death penalty in all cases.

The court has also considered the problem of arbitrary application of the death penalty to small numbers of defendants whose crimes are indistinguishable from the far greater number who receive life sentences.  The court has followed existing law in declining to rule that "arbitrariness" is an independent constitutional violation.

Download Fell order denying Motion to Strike 12-13-16

December 13, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, December 12, 2016

Clemency recipients join chorus urging Prez Obama to go big on clemencies before he goes home

This new Business Insider article, headlined "Prisoners set free by President Obama are urging him to expand his clemency program before he leaves office," reports on the latest interesting pitch to Prez Obama concerning his clemency work.  Here are the basics:

The day Ramona Brant walked out of prison after serving 21 years of what was supposed to be a life sentence, she felt an overwhelming mixture of emotions — elation and gratitude for her freedom, and sadness for the inmates she was leaving behind. Many of them had stories like hers. They had in one way or another gotten involved in selling drugs, often through boyfriends or husbands who would eventually testify against them in conspiracy trials. L

ike Brant, many were there to serve decades, or even life sentences without the possibility of parole. “I was not comfortable being free knowing that there were so many people who weren’t free to experience the same opportunities that I was experiencing,” Brant told Business Insider. “I’m not saying I want to go back to prison — what I’m saying is my heart is still with my sisters that I left behind, and my brothers.”

Brant was granted a sentence commutation by President Obama last February, as part of an unprecedented clemency initiative that has now reduced more than 1,000 federal inmates’ sentences. She is one of more than 40 clemency recipients who signed an open letter sent to the president on Monday pleading for mercy for nonviolent drug offenders serving lengthy sentences who have demonstrated clear conduct in prison. “We ask for your immediate intervention for thousands more prisoners who will continue to suffer needlessly unless a broader clemency plan is implemented,” the letter said.

“We have remained largely silent in appreciation of your compassion to many suffering under draconian sentencing laws passed during the crack hysteria of the late 1980s and 1990s. But with only six weeks of your presidency left, we must speak out.”

The letter, also signed by dozens of clemency advocates and former inmates, recommends the president adopt a broad amnesty program in place of the current case-by-case review of inmates’ petitions. It suggests that all nonviolent drug offenders with clear conduct have their sentences reduced to five, 10, or 15 years for first-, second-, and third-time offenders, respectively. It also specifically asks that clemency be granted to female inmates, who the letter argues are more likely than men to be serving lengthy sentences because of drugs their partners or spouses sold, and who make up less than 10% of the inmates to whom Obama has granted clemency....

The Office of the Pardon Attorney, which reviews clemency applications and recommends them to the president, the White House, and the Department of Justice did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s requests for comment on the letter....

Although Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates has previously said “every single drug petition” received before Aug. 31 will be reviewed by the Obama administration, activists and clemency advocates have been urging the president for months to quicken the pace of approvals.

Last month’s presidential election, too, has only added to the pressure. President-elect Donald Trump, who has previously called the inmates released by Obama “bad dudes,” has not expressed interest in continuing his clemency initiative. Nor has Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, who supports harsh drug laws and mandatory minimum sentencing.

It is estimated that at least 2,000 federal prisoners serving nonviolent drug offenses were eligible for sentence reductions under the requirements laid out under Obama’s program, which stipulate that inmates have served at least 10 years of their sentences. Even more could be eligible should the Obama administration consider inmates who have served less than a decade, as it has already done in some cases.

Some recent (post-Election Day) posts on Prez Obama and clemency:

December 12, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

With only two dissenters, SCOTUS refuses to hear Ohio death row defendant's arguments against a second execution attempt

I am somewhat surprised to see Rommell Broom's case, recently discussed here and here, on the cert denied list on this morning's Supreme Court order list.  Interestingly, this denial of cert came with two dissenters: Justice Breyer and Justice Kagan. And Justice Breyer mentioned the Broom case and others is a broader three-page dissent from the denial of cert in another capital case at the end of the order list.  Here are excerpts from that dissent:

Henry Sireci, the petitioner, was tried, convicted ofmurder, and first sentenced to death in 1976. He has lived in prison under threat of execution for 40 years. When he was first sentenced to death, the Berlin Wall stood firmly in place. Saigon had just fallen. Few Americans knew of the personal computer or the Internet. And over half of all Americans now alive had not yet been born....

Forty years is more time than an average person could expect to live his entire life when America constitutionally forbade the “inflict[ion]” of “cruel and unusual punishments.” Amdt. 8; see 5 Dictionary of American History 104 (S. Kutler ed., 3d ed. 2003).  This Court, speaking of a period of four weeks, not 40 years, once said that a prisoner’s uncertainty before execution is “one of the most horrible feelings to which he can be subjected.” In re Medley, 134 U. S. 160, 172 (1890).  I should hope that this kind of delay would arise only on the rarest of occasions.  But in the ever diminishing universe of actual executions, I fear that delays of this kind have become more common....

<P> Nor is this case the only case during the last few months in which the Court has received, but then rejected, a petition to review an execution taking place in what I would consider especially cruel and unusual circumstances.  On September 15, 2009, the State of Ohio attempted to execute Romell Broom by lethal injection.  State v. Broom, 146 Ohio St. 3d 60, 61–62, 2016-Ohio-1028, 51 N. E. 3d 620, 623.  Medical team members tried for over two hours to find a useable vein, repeatedly injecting him with needlesand striking bone in the process, all causing “a great deal of pain.” Id., at 62, 51 N. E. 2d, at 624.  The State now wishes to try to execute Broom once again. Given its first failure, does its second attempt amount to a “cruel and unusual” punishment?  See In re Kemmler, 136 U. S. 436, 447 (1890) (“Punishments are cruel when they involve . . . a lingering death”). I would have heard Broom’s claim.

As I and other Justices have previously pointed out, individuals who are executed are not the “worst of the worst,” but, rather, are individuals chosen at random, on the basis, perhaps of geography, perhaps of the views of individual prosecutors, or still worse on the basis of race. See Glossip v. Gross, 576 U. S., ___, ___–___ (2015) (BREYER, J., joined by GINSBURG, J., dissenting) (slip op., at 9–17)...  Cf. Smith v. Alabama, 580 U. S. ___, (Dec. 8, 2016) (judge overrode jury’s recommendation of a life sentence) (this Court, by an equally divided vote, denied a stay of execution).

I have elsewhere described these matters at greater length, and I have explained why the time has come for this Court to reconsider the constitutionality of the death penalty. Glossip, supra, at ___ (dissenting opinion); see also Knight v. Florida, 528 U. S. 990, 993 (1999) (opiniondissenting from denial of certiorari); Valle v. Florida, 564 U. S. 1067 (2011) (opinion dissenting from denial of stay); Boyer v. Davis, 578 U. S. ___, ___ (2016) (opinion dissenting from denial of certiorari); Conner v. Sellers, 579 U. S. ___ (2016) (opinion dissenting from denial of certiorari and denial of stay).  Cases such as the ones discussed here provide additional evidence that it is important for us to do so. See Lackey v. Texas, 514 U. S. 1045 (1995) (Stevens, J., memorandum respecting denial of certiorari). I would grant this petition for certiorari, as I would in Broom v. Ohio, No. 16–5580, and Smith, and include this question.

December 12, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, December 10, 2016

U.S. Supreme Court adds federal drug-offense forfeiture case to its docket

As reported here at SCOTUSblog, on Friday afternoon "the justices issued orders from [their] private conference, adding one new case to their merits docket for the term."  That new case concerns a criminal justice/sentencing issue, forfeiture, that has been a focal point of concerns for reform activists across the political spectrum.  Here are the details from SCOTUSblog about the forfeiture case now before the Justices on the merits:

They agreed to review the case of Terry Honeycutt, who worked as a salaried employee at a hardware store owned by his brother, Tony.  The two brothers were charged with federal drug crimes for the store’s sale of an iodine-based water disinfectant -- which can also be used to make methamphetamines.  Tony pleaded guilty and forfeited $200,000 to account for the proceeds of the illegal sales.  After Terry went to trial and was convicted, the government argued that he should have to forfeit the rest of the proceeds, approximately $70,000.

Terry countered that he should not have to forfeit the remaining proceeds because he did not own the store and therefore did not receive them.  The district court agreed, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit reversed. It ruled that Terry could be held independently liable for the store’s proceeds from the sales even if the funds never actually reached him.

The federal government acknowledged that the courts of appeals are divided on the question presented by Terry’s appeal. It nonetheless urged the justices to deny review, explaining that the split among the circuits is “lopsided and recent.”  And in any event, it contended, Terry’s case is not a good one in which to consider that question, because he would also be liable for the forfeiture under the conflicting rule adopted by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Despite the government’s objections, the justices granted certiorari [and] Honeycutt v. United States will likely be argued in the spring, with a decision by the end of June.

December 10, 2016 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 09, 2016

After split tied SCOTUS stay vote, Alabama completes last scheduled execution of 2016

As reported in this AP piece, the final scheduled execution in the United States in 2016 had a number of noteworthy events and elements for those who support and those who oppose capital punishment.  The AP article is headlined "Alabama inmate coughs, heaves 13 minutes into execution," though I think the SCOTUS action that proceeded the actual execution should be of particular interest for law geeks.  Here are some of the details:

A man who killed an Alabama convenience store clerk more than two decades ago was put to death Thursday night, an execution that required two consciousness tests as the inmate heaved and coughed 13 minutes into the lethal injection. Ronald Bert Smith Jr., 45, was pronounced dead at 11:05 p.m., about 30 minutes after the procedure began at the state prison in southwest Alabama. Smith was convicted of capital murder in the Nov. 8, 1994, fatal shooting of Huntsville store clerk Casey Wilson. A jury voted 7-5 to recommend a sentence of

life imprisonment, but a judge overrode that recommendation and sentenced Smith to death. Smith heaved and coughed repeatedly, clenching his fists and raising his head at the beginning of the execution. A prison guard performed two consciousness checks before the final two lethal drugs were administered.

In a consciousness test, a prison officer says the inmate's name, brushes his eyelashes and then pinches his left arm. During the first one, Smith moved his arm. He slightly raised his right arm again after the second consciousness test. The meaning of those movements will likely be debated. One of Smith's attorneys whispered to another attorney, "He's reacting," and pointed out the inmate's repeated movements. The state prison commissioner said he did not see any reaction to the consciousness tests....

Alabama uses the sedative midazolam as the first drug in a three-drug lethal injection combination. Smith and other inmates argued in a court case that the drug was an unreliable sedative and could cause them to feel pain, citing its use in problematic executions. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the use of the drug....

Wilson was pistol-whipped and then shot in the head during the robbery, court documents show. Surveillance video showed Smith entering the store and recovering spent shell casings from the bathroom where Wilson was shot, according to the record. In overriding the jury's recommendation at the 1995 trial, a judge likened the slaying to an execution, saying Wilson had already been pistol-whipped into submission and Smith ignored his pleas for mercy. Wilson had a newborn infant at the time of his death. "The trial court described Smith's acts as 'an execution style slaying.' Tonight, justice was finally served," Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said in a statement after the execution.

U.S. Supreme Court justices twice paused the execution as Smith's attorneys argued for a delay, saying a judge shouldn't have been able to impose the death penalty when a jury recommended he receive life imprisonment. Four liberal justices said they would have halted the execution, but five were needed to do so.

Smith's attorneys had urged the nation's highest court to block the planned execution to review the judge's override. Smith's lawyers argued a January decision that struck down Florida's death penalty structure because it gave too much power to judges raises legal questions about Alabama's process. In Alabama, a jury can recommend a sentence of life without parole, but a judge can override that recommendation to impose a death sentence. Alabama is the only state that allows judicial override, they argued. "Alabama is alone among the states in allowing a judge to sentence someone to death based on judicial fact finding contrary to a jury's verdict," attorneys for Smith wrote Wednesday.

Lawyers for the state argued in a court filing Tuesday that the sentence was legally sound, and that it is appropriate for judges to make the sentencing decision....

Alabama has been attempting to resume executions after a lull caused by a shortage of execution drugs and litigation over the drugs used. The state executed Christopher Eugene Brooks in January for the 1993 rape and beating death of a woman. It was the state's first execution since 2013. Judges stayed two other executions that had been scheduled this year.

December 9, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

At 11th hour, more advocacy for Prez Obama to make big 11th-hour clemency push

As regular readers may recall, and as I cannot help but highlight these days, I was aggressively calling for Prez Obama to make significant use of his clemency power from literally his first day in office.  This January 20, 2009 post was titled "Is it too early to start demanding President Obama use his clemency power?" and in 2010 I authored this article in the New England Journal on Criminal and Civil Confinement under the title "Turning Hope-and-Change Talk Into Clemency Action for Nonviolent Drug Offenders."

I suppose I should be happy that, with Prez Obama on his way out the door, a lot of other folks are now finally joining this call for action with some urgency.  This New York Times editorial, headlined "President Obama’s Last Chance to Show Mercy," is today's example of the clemency chorus now growing. Here are excerpts:

The Constitution gives presidents nearly unlimited authority to grant pardons and commute sentences — decisions that no future administration can reverse. Unfortunately, for most of his presidency, Barack Obama treated mercy as an afterthought. Even as thousands of men and women endured outrageously long sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses as a result of the nation’s misguided drug war, Mr. Obama granted relief to only a tiny handful.

In the last two years, however, Mr. Obama has changed course. In 2014 he directed the Justice Department to systematically review cases of people serving out sentences that would be far shorter had they been convicted under new, more lenient sentencing laws.

While that clemency process has moved far too slowly — beset by both administrative obstacles and bureaucratic resistance — grants have been accelerating throughout 2016. Mr. Obama has now shortened or ended the sentences of more than 1,000 prisoners, and he will most likely be the first president since Lyndon Johnson to leave office with a smaller federal prison population than he inherited.

There are thousands more people deserving of release, but their prospects under the next administration don’t look good. President-elect Donald Trump ran on a “law and order” platform that sounded a lot like the punitive approach that led to exploding prison populations in the first place. His choice for attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, has fiercely opposed criminal sentencing reform and called Mr. Obama’s grants of clemency an abuse of power. In other words, for many federal inmates, their last hope lies in Mr. Obama’s hands.

Up to now, the president has reviewed clemency requests on a case-by-case basis. With only weeks left in office, Mr. Obama should consider a bolder approach: blanket commutations for those inmates still serving time under an old law that punished possession or sale of crack cocaine far more harshly than powder cocaine — a meaningless distinction that sent disproportionate numbers of young black and Latino men to prison for decades....

The idea of blanket commutations is being pushed by a coalition of criminal-justice reform advocates, including former judges and prosecutors, who urged the president in a letter last week to use his clemency power aggressively while he still can.  The group called for the release of thousands more nonviolent offenders in low-risk categories, including elderly inmates, who are the least likely of all to commit new crimes, and those with convictions for drugs other than crack.  The coalition argues that it is possible to make these grants in the short time remaining, if the administration is committed to getting it done.

Mr. Trump may well dismantle a lot of Mr. Obama’s legacy, but he can’t touch grants of clemency.  Mr. Obama has taken important steps toward unwinding the decades-long imprisonment binge.  With much of that progress now at risk, he has only a few weeks left to ensure a measure of justice and mercy for thousands of people.

December 7, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Oklahoma's top criminal court gives significant effect to Miller's limits on juve LWOP sentences

As reported in this local article, headlined "Resentencings ordered in two high-profile Oklahoma murder cases," the top criminal court in Oklahoma issues two big ruling about juve LWOP sentencing late last week. Here are the basics:

Oklahoma's youngest murderers can no longer be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole unless they are found to be "irreparably corrupt and permanently incorrigible."  A divided Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals established the new restrictions in rulings made Friday in two high-profile murder cases.

The first ruling involved a murderer who was 16 at the time.  The second involved a murderer who was 17 at the time. Both must be resentenced, the appeals court ruled.  In both cases, the appeals court concluded the punishment of life without parole "is constitutionally infirm" because jurors were not presented evidence involving "important youth-related considerations."...

The appeals court came up with a new instruction to be given to juries in future murder cases involving a defendant who was under age 18 at the time of the crime.  Jurors will be told "no person who committed a crime as a juvenile may be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole unless you find beyond a reasonable doubt the defendant is irreparably corrupt and permanently incorrigible."

A murderer sentenced to a life term, with a chance at parole, is eligible for consideration under current law after spending 38 years and three months in prison.

I received an email about these rulings from The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, and here is part of that email (with links to the decisions):

On Friday, Oklahoma’s highest criminal court applied Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana to discretionary juvenile life without parole, affording an opportunity for resentencing to more than 45 people in Oklahoma sentenced to die in prison for crimes committed as children.

In two decisions, the court affirmed United States Supreme Court limitations on sentencing children to life in prison. These decisions should dramatically limit, if not prevent, the imposition of life sentences for children in Oklahoma going forward....

Oklahoma has joined a growing number of states that apply Miller and Montgomery to sentences of juvenile life without parole where the judge had discretion whether or not to impose life without parole, including Connecticut, Georgia, and South Carolina.

The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals also required a finding of “irreparable corruption and permanent incorrigibility” beyond a reasonable doubt before life without parole can be imposed on children, consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Montgomery that life without parole is unconstitutional when imposed on the vast majority of children.

December 7, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 05, 2016

Is Georgia really "rushing" to execute a defendant convicted of murder in 1990?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new New York Times commentary authored by Norman Fletcher, who "served on the Supreme Court of Georgia for over 15 years and was its chief justice from 2001 to 2005."  The NY Times gave this commentary the headline "Georgia’s Dangerous Rush to Execution," but the first sentence of the commentary states: "Tomorrow, the State of Georgia intends to execute William Sallie, who was convicted of killing a man in 1990." Though there could be many problems with Georgia's capital system, conducting an execution 26 years after a capital conviction does not seem to me like a "rush job." That lingo aside, here is what former Justice Fletcher goes on to explain in his commentary:

I served as a justice on the Supreme Court of Georgia for over 15 years. During that time I participated in dozens of death-penalty cases and affirmed many of them. That experience, though, exposed me to some of the significant flaws in the system — not just the injustice of the death penalty itself, but specific problems with the way capital cases are handled. Mr. Sallie’s case is a prime example.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Georgia’s system, and one of the reasons the state carries out so many executions, is that it often fails to provide people with lawyers. Mr. Sallie, for example, missed a filing deadline for a federal review of his case by eight days, in part because he didn’t have a lawyer at the time to help him. And this isn’t just a delay tactic; he has several strong claims about constitutional failings during his trial that, if proved, could require the reversal of his conviction. As things stand, he will be executed without review.

Fundamental fairness, due process and the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment require the courts to provide an attorney throughout the entire legal process to review a death sentence. Virtually every capital-punishment state has this safeguard. Georgia is an outlier.

I saw this firsthand as the presiding justice on the State Supreme Court in 1999, in an appeal of a post-conviction hearing for a man named Exzavious Gibson, who was 17 at the time of his crime. It was a critical proceeding, where a lawyer should have raised important details about whether he received adequate representation during his trial — except that, ironically, no volunteer attorney was available. Mr. Gibson, who was poor and apparently, from the records, intellectually disabled and afflicted by acute mental health problems, was forced to represent himself.

That sham of a proceeding is one of the most deplorable vignettes in Georgia’s legal history. But a majority of my fellow justices were less moved, and the court decided, 4-3, that people with death-penalty convictions have no right to counsel at that critical post-conviction stage — a ruling still in force today.

As a result, a door that would have been open to Mr. Sallie in almost any other state was closed to him in Georgia. If it were open, he would be able to present the facts about his trial, which appear to show serious problems with juror bias.

Mr. Sallie’s lawyers amassed volumes of public records and witness statements showing that one of the jurors, despite having a known bias, apparently misled the trial judge and the parties in order to join the jury. (She omitted vital, likely disqualifying information, including striking similarities between her traumatic history of divorce and interstate child custody fights and the domestic strife at the center of Mr. Sallie’s case.) In 2012, after his conviction, she bragged to an investigator that she had persuaded the jury, which was evenly divided between life and death, to vote unanimously for death.

The problem is not just Georgia. The United States Supreme Court has not ruled that the Constitution guarantees a right to an attorney during the critical post-conviction review stage in state courts. Georgia continues to deny counsel — and denies a man like William Sallie the opportunity to defend his life.

December 5, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Anyone interested in SCOTUS speculating after Ohio repeat execution case again left in limbo?

The question in the title of this post emerges from the latest SCOTUS order list here, which does not mention in any way Broom v. Ohio.  This accounting of Broom from SCOTUSblog's most recent Relist Watch will remind readers why I am paying (too?) much attention to this case:

16-5580

Issues: (1) Whether the first attempt to execute the petitioner was cruel and unusual under the Eighth and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution and if so, whether the appropriate remedy is to bar any further execution attempt on the petitioner; (2) whether a second attempt to execute the petitioner will be a cruel and unusual punishment and a denial of due process in violation of the Eighth and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution; and (3) whether a second attempt to execute the petitioner will violate double jeopardy protections under the Fifth and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution.

(relisted after the November 4, November 10 and November 22 conferences)

For the first few relists in early November, I was speculating that the Justices were waiting for one or more of them (e.g., Justices Breyer and Ginsberg and ____) to complete a dissent from the denial of certiorari.  But now that this unique (and not-so-complicated) case has been in front of SCOTUS for well over a month, I am starting to think the Justices are inclined to hold on to this case until a replacement for Justice Scalia is named; once that new possible Justice is named, the current Justices can and will all have a better sense of whether and how the new Justice might break a possible 4-4 tie in this case.

Before urging readers to check out all the prior posts linked below (and others), I cannot help but flag a phrase in this post from Sept 2009 when Ohio first tried to move forward with a second execution attempt: "it is hard to predict if and when and how the US Supreme Court will be brought into this fray."  It is perhaps worth recalling that this phrase was written when Justices Scalia, Souter and Stevens were all on SCOTUS.  Now, a (lucky?) seven years later, we have Justices Kagan and Sotomayor and an open seat.

Related posts (most from 2009) on botched Broom execution attempt and its aftermath:

December 5, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Shining spotlight on ugly dark racial realities of New York State's prison and parole systems

The New York Times has an important new series of articles examining biases in New York State's prison and parole systems. Here are links to and key passages from the first two articles:

"The Scourge of Racial Bias in New York State’s Prisons"

A review by The New York Times of tens of thousands of disciplinary cases against inmates in 2015, hundreds of pages of internal reports and three years of parole decisions found that racial disparities were embedded in the prison experience in New York.

In most prisons, blacks and Latinos were disciplined at higher rates than whites — in some cases twice as often, the analysis found.  They were also sent to solitary confinement more frequently and for longer durations.  At Clinton, a prison near the Canadian border where only one of the 998 guards is African-American, black inmates were nearly four times as likely to be sent to isolation as whites, and they were held there for an average of 125 days, compared with 90 days for whites.

A greater share of black inmates are in prison for violent offenses, and minority inmates are disproportionately younger, factors that could explain why an inmate would be more likely to break prison rules, state officials said. But even after accounting for these elements, the disparities in discipline persisted, The Times found.

The disparities were often greatest for infractions that gave discretion to officers, like disobeying a direct order.  In these cases, the officer has a high degree of latitude to determine whether a rule is broken and does not need to produce physical evidence.  The disparities were often smaller, according to the Times analysis, for violations that required physical evidence, like possession of contraband.

"For Blacks Facing Parole in New York State, Signs of a Broken System"

An analysis by The New York Times of thousands of parole decisions from the past several years found that fewer than one in six black or Hispanic men was released at his first hearing, compared with one in four white men.

It is a disparity that is particularly striking not for the most violent criminals, like rapists and murderers, but for small-time offenders who commit property crimes like stealing a television from a house or shoplifting from Duane Reade — precisely the people many states are now working to keep out of prison in the first place.

Since 2006, white inmates serving two to four years for a single count of third-degree burglary have been released after an average of 803 days, while black inmates served an average of 883 days for the same crime.

December 5, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Second Circuit hints that sentence reduction might well be justified whenever guideline range is increased "significantly by a loss enhancement"

I am grateful to Harry Sandick for alerting me to this seemingly little (and easily overlooked) opinion handed down by a unanimous Second Circuit panel late last week.  Stephanie Teplin and Harry Sandick discuss the case in this thoughtful blog posting, and here are key passages from their coverage:

In United States v. Algahaim, No. 15-2024(L), the Second Circuit (Newman, Winters, Cabranes) upheld the conviction of two defendants for misconduct involving the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”), but remanded to the district court for consideration of a below-Guidelines sentence.  The Court, in an opinion by Judge Newman, held that the outsize effect of the loss amount enhancement on the defendant’s base offense level — a sentencing scheme for fraud that is “unknown to other sentencing systems” — required the district court to reconsider whether a non-Guidelines sentence was warranted....

Judge Newman acknowledged that it was within the Sentencing Commission’s authority to construct a sentencing scheme that “use[s] loss amount as the predominant determination of the adjusted offense level for monetary offenses.”  However, he observed that “the Commission could have approached monetary offenses quite differently.  For example, it could have started the Guidelines calculation for fraud offenses by selecting a base level that realistically reflected the seriousness of a typical fraud offense and then permitted adjustments up or down to reflect especially large or small amounts of loss.”

The “unusualness” of the Guidelines system, the Court held, can be considered by a sentencing judge under Kimbrough v. United States.  “Where the Commission has assigned a rather low base offense level to a crime and then increased it significantly by a loss enhancement, that combination of circumstances entitles a sentencing judge to consider a non-Guidelines sentence.”  The Court did not hold that the sentences were in error, but remanded for the district court’s reconsideration of the sentences....

Judge Newman has long been a skeptic of the Guidelines approach to sentencing.  In this short opinion, he cites the pre-Booker decision in United States v. Lauersen, 348 F.2d 329 (2d Cir. 2003), an opinion he authored at a time when the Guidelines were mandatory, except for downward departures.  Lauersen held that where the cumulative impact of overlapping Guidelines enhancements (in that case, for loss amount and for defrauding a financial institution of more than $1 million) resulted in an overly long sentence, the district court could downwardly depart.... 

In Algahaim, Judge Newman carries this concept forward to the more open-ended sentencing regime given to us by Booker, Gall and Kimbrough.  Many judges have stated that the Guidelines are not helpful in white-collar cases and that their emphasis on loss can lead to results that are “patently unreasonable.”  E.g., United States v. Adelson, 441 F. Supp. 2d 506, 509 (S.D.N.Y. 2006) (Rakoff, J.).  Practitioners have also advocated for shorter sentences in cases involving relatively low loss amounts or where the defendant had no prior record.  See ABA Criminal Justice Section, “A Report on Behalf of the ABA Criminal Justice Section Task Force on the Reform of Federal Sentencing for Economic Crimes” (November 10, 2014) (last visited December 1, 2016).  To the extent that district judges needed any further encouragement, Judge Newman’s decision lets district judges know that a Guidelines sentence need not be imposed where the “significant effect of the loss enhancement” leads to an unduly long sentence.

Because Judge Jon O. Newman was my very first boss as a lawyer (I served as his law clerk from 1993-94 starting just months after my graduation from law school), I am always partial to his opinions and especially as to his opinions about sentencing issues. And, as regular readers know, I am always partial to judicial opinions that thoughtfully explain whether and when the federal sentencing guidelines should or should not be followed. And so, perhaps my partiality is going to bubble over when I assert that Judge Newman is being especially astute and shrewd in his pro-discretion sentencing work in United States v. Algahaim, in part because the particulars of the loss enhancement in Algahaim are actually not all that major.

Specifically, in Algahaim, the two defendants who were appealing their convictions and sentences were subject to offense-level increases for loss of "only" 10 and 12 points  under USSG § 2B1.1(b)(1).  Though such loss enhancements certainly appear significant when added to a base offense level of 6, in many other fraud cases the loss enhancement under 2B1.1(b) can commonly add 16 or 20 or 24 or even up to 30 points.  Despite those realities, the Second Circuit in Algahaim has now called just a 10-level loss enhancement in a fraud case "significant" and also has said this enhancement is alone large enough to merit serious consideration of a below-guideline sentence.  For that reason, I would now expect lots of astute and shrewd future white-collar defendants throughout New York and elsewhere to be citing to Algahaim to bolster arguments for below-guideline sentences whenever the guideline range is moved up a lot by loss calculations.

December 4, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Will more than just a handful of condemned murderers be impacted by latest SCOTUS review of capital punishment disability limits?

Washington_terry1The question in the title of this post is my indirect effort to get a quantitative notion of the import and impact of the Texas case, Moore v. Texas, being heard by the US Supreme Court this morning.  The folks at SCOTUSblog have this helpful round-up of some recent previews and commentaries on this case:

Today, the court will hear oral argument in Moore v. Texas, which asks whether Texas can rely on an outdated standard in determining whether a defendant’s intellectual disability precludes him from being executed. Amy Howe previewed the case for this blog. Another preview comes from Karen Ojeda and Nicholas Halliburton for Cornell University Law School’s Legal Information Institute.

Additional coverage of Moore comes from Nina Totenberg at NPR, who notes that “the state’s test is based on what the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals called ‘a consensus of Texas citizens,’ that not all those who meet the ‘social services definition’ of ‘retardation’ should be exempt from the death penalty,” and from Steven Mazie in The Economist. In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Carol and Jordan Steiker argue that rather than “relying on the same approach to intellectual disability that Texas uses in every other context (such as placement in special education or eligibility for disability benefits),” the state appeals “court sought to redefine the condition in the capital context so that only offenders who meet crude stereotypes about intellectual disability are shielded from execution.”

Efforts by Texas to execute intellectually disabled murderers strike very close to home for me because I was actively involved in representing and trying to prevent the execution of Terry Washington back in 1996-97 when there was not yet a constitutional restriction on application of the death penalty for those with certain intellectual disabilities.  I got involved in the Washington case pro bono during my last few months as an associate at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in NYC.  I had the opportunity to help author a cert petition to SCOTUS and a clemency petition to then-Texas-Gov. George W. Bush in which we asserted on Terry's behalf that the ineffectiveness of trial counsel and his intellectually disabilities (which were then called mental retardation) justified sparing him from the ultimate punishment of death.

Terry Washington was sentenced to death for the stabbing murder of a co-worker at a restaurant in College Station, Texas.  As the case was litigated through the federal habeas courts in Texas, there was no real dispute over Terry's mental disabilities because considerable evidence from his childhood indicated diminished mental capacities and in two IQ tests after his initial sentencing to death Terry scored 58 and 69.  But Terry's case was tried in the 1980s when it was not considered ineffective for counsel to fail to investigate and present mitigating mental health and family background evidence.  In the words of the Fifth Circuit rejecting a final habeas appeal in 1996, counsel made "a reasonable strategic decision not to investigate Washington's mental health by retaining a mental health expert or to present evidence of Washington's mental health and family background at the punishment stage of trial." Washington v. Johnson, 90 F.3d 945 (5th Cir. July 25, 1996) (available here).

I cannot help but think of Terry Washington today because I recall drafting sections of the cert petition and clemency petition making the case for a categorical ban on the execution of persons with (as called then) mental retardation.  Unfortunately for Terry, the Supreme Court would not embrace the constitutional position we pushed on his behalf until 2002 when it ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment bars the execution of individuals who are intellectually disabled.  (According to this DPIC accounting, 44 persons with intellectual disabilities were executed between 1976 and the SCOTUS Atkins ruling in 2002.)  Based on the medical records and supporting evidence, I now believe that Terry would have indisputably been shielded from execution by Atkins even though Texas has been trying its best since Atkins to limit the number of condemned murderers who get shielded from execution by its holding.

Returning to the Moore case now before SCOTUS (with the Terry Washington case still on my mind), I sincerely wonder how many persons on death row in Texas or in other states are currently in the doctrinal/proof gray area that the Moore case occupies.  My sense is that most defendants with obvious disabilities have had their sentences reduced based on Atkins, and this DPIC accounting hints that maybe as many as 100 condemned murderers have gotten off of death rows in many states thanks to Atkins.  But in Moore it seems like evidence of disability is sufficiently equivocal and the legal standards sufficiently opaque that SCOTUS has to clean up some post-Atkins doctrinal mess.  For Bobby James Moore, this is obviously now a matter of life and death.  But can we know how many other of the roughly 2500 persons now under serious sentences of death nationwide will be potentially impacted by the Moore decision?

November 29, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Monday, November 28, 2016

Guest posting from Prof Carissa Hessick on SCOTUS argument: "Beckles and the Continued Complexity of Post-Booker Federal Sentencing"

Image (1)I am pleased to be able to reprint this original commentary concerning today's SCOTUS oral argument from LawProf Carissa Hessick:

Earlier today the Supreme Court heard argument in Beckles v. United States.  Beckles raises two questions: (1) whether the now-advisory Federal Sentencing Guidelines are subject to vagueness challenges under the Due Process Clause, and (2) whether, assuming the Guidelines are subject to vagueness challenge, a ruling that a Guideline is unconstitutionally vague is retroactive under the Teague framework.  The Beckles case and today’s argument illustrate how complicated federal sentencing has become since the Supreme Court decided to treat the Federal Sentencing Guidelines as advisory in Booker v. United States.

In the decade since Booker was decided, the Supreme Court has clarified that, although the Federal Sentencing Guidelines are no longer mandatory, they are also not entirely voluntary.  Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben did a fantastic job in his argument explaining the middle path that the Court has carved for the Guidelines since Booker.  He not only described the anchoring effect of the Guidelines, but he also noted that the Court has adopted procedural mechanisms “designed to reinforce the primacy of the Guidelines.”  The current advisory system, according to Dreeben, “injects law into the sentencing process.”

As the Beckles argument illustrates, the middle path that the Court has carved is complicated.  The Court continues to struggle with how to regulate an advisory system in light of the fact that the purely discretionary system that the Federal Sentencing Guidelines replaced was essentially unregulated.  Indeed, counsel for Beckles spent much of her argument fending off questions by various Justices about how a Guideline could be unconstitutionally vague if a purely discretionary system is permissible under the Constitution. Justices Alito, Breyer, Kennedy, and Chief Justice Roberts all asked questions to this effect.  Notably, later questions by Justice Breyer and the Chief Justice appeared to accept that a purely discretionary system might be subject to different rules than an advisory system.

The complexity of the middle path was on full display in today’s argument in part because the United States relied on the complexity of that path to take what Justice Kennedy and a court-appointed amicus characterized as inconsistent positions.  The United States argued that the advisory Guidelines are subject to vagueness challenges because of the important role that they continue to play in the post-Booker world.  But the government argued that the advisory status of the Guidelines should prevent the Court from making any vagueness ruling retroactive.  The government distinguished this case from a recent juvenile life-without-parole case, saying that juvenile LWOP cases require a particular finding in order for a defendant to be eligible for a life-without-parole sentence.  In contrast, according to the government, the Guidelines affect only the likelihood that a defendant will receive a particular sentence.  The government relied on the distinction between likelihood of a sentence and eligibility for a sentence as the reason it took different positions on the vagueness question and the retroactivity question. And while Justice Sotomayor pressed the government on this distinction, none of the attorneys or the Justices mentioned an important fact about this case: When Beckles was sentenced in a Florida district court, the prevailing law in the Eleventh Circuit actually required such a finding. (Because of the amount of time taken up by questions about vagueness, petitioner’s counsel addressed the likelihood/eligibility argument only in the single minute she had remaining for rebuttal. The argument was made in an amicus that Doug and I co-authored with Leah Litman, which is available here.)

Other odd aspects of the Court’s post-Booker jurisprudence were also on display during the Beckles argument.  Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito both raised the question whether the Court’s recent decisions about the quasi-legal status of the advisory Guidelines should endure in the face of changing sentencing patterns in the district courts.  And Justice Breyer, who has often served as a champion for the U.S. Sentencing Commission, raised the possibility that the courts should be more indulgent of vague sentencing guidelines than vague statutes because the Commission is in a better position than Congress to refine the law.

Perhaps because this area of the law is so complex, both Justice Ginsburg and Justice Kennedy appeared to cast about for an easy way to dispose of this case.  At one point Justice Ginsburg said as much: “I thought . . . that if we decide the first issue, . . . the case is over.  But -- so I was thinking, well, we could decide that issue and not reach either vagueness or retroactivity.”  Much to his credit, Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben discouraged the Court from taking that path, even though it would have meant a victory for the Government.  Dreeben noted that there are many cases that raise the vagueness and the retroactivity questions that are currently pending in the lower courts.  And he made an institutional appeal to the Justices to resolve the retroactivity issue even if they could decide this case based on some commentary in the Guidelines.  I admire Dreeben for making this appeal to the Justices.  But I don’t think that his appeal went far enough. There are a number of defendants in the Eleventh Circuit who have viable vagueness claims that are not claiming retroactivity.  Because the Eleventh Circuit refused to recognize any vagueness challenges to the Guidelines, the Court should also rule on the vagueness issue even if it determines that its ruling will not be retroactive.

Although I was not at the argument this morning, it is hard to read the transcript of the Beckles argument and think that the defendant is likely to prevail. Only Justice Sotomayor seemed to be asking friendly questions of petitioner’s counsel, and only she seemed to resist the Government’s likelihood/eligibility argument.

But even if Beckles does not prevail, we may see another vagueness challenge to the Guidelines in the not-so-distant future.  For one thing, Dreeben made clear in today’s argument that the Government has not taken a position on retroactivity for pre-Booker mandatory sentences.  So if Beckles loses on the retroactivity question, then the courts of appeals will have to decide retroactivity in those pre-Booker cases, and if the courts split on that question, the Supreme Court may need to take another case.  For another, the Court has granted cert in another statutory vagueness case, Lynch v. Dimaya.  The statute at issue in Dimaya, 18 U.S.C. § 16(b), has been incorporated into a Guideline, U.S.S.G. § 2L1.2(b)(1)(C).  So if the Court decides that § 16(b) is unconstitutionally vague in Dimaya, and if the Court does not answer the vagueness question in Beckles, then the Court may need to take another Guidelines vagueness case.

November 28, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Many SCOTUS Justices seems disinclined to find vagueness problems with sentencing guidelines given backdrop of unguided sentencing discretion

I have only just gotten started reading the transcript of the oral argument in Beckles v. United States (which is available here), and the first set of big questions suggests some Justices are not drawn to a basic sentencing vagueness claim.  Consider these passages from early in the transcript, which I have tweaked stylistically for improved exposition:

JUSTICE ALITO: Let me ask you a more fundamental question. And I don't want to unduly shock the attorneys who are here from the Sentencing Commission, but imagine there were no sentencing guidelines.  So you have a criminal provision that says that a person who's convicted of this offense may be imprisoned for not more than 20 years.  That's all it says.  Now, is that unconstitutionally vague?

MS. BERGMANN: No, Your Honor.

JUSTICE ALITO: Well, that seems to be a lot vaguer than what we have here. So how do you -- how do you reconcile those two propositions?

MS. BERGMANN: Well, Your Honor, we submit that arbitrary determinant sentencing such as with a vague guideline is not the same as an indeterminate sentencing scheme such as the Court described.  Our position is that the use of a vague guideline, in fact, is worse than indeterminate sentencing because it systematically injects arbitrariness into the entire sentencing process.

JUSTICE BREYER: And there is more arbitrariness because of this guideline than there was before the Guidelines were passed? Is there any evidence of that? I have a lot of evidence it wasn't.

MS. BERGMANN: Well, I think, Your Honor, it's especially so here because --

JUSTICE BREYER:  Especially so.  Is it so at all? There was a system before the Guidelines exactly as Justice Alito said.  Moreover, that system is existing today side by side with the Guidelines in any case in which the judge decides not to use the Guidelines.  So I don't get it. I really don't. And you can be brief here, because it's really the government that has to answer this question for me.  I don't understand where they're coming from on this, and you don't have to answer more than briefly, but I do have exactly the same question that Justice Alito had....

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Well, if the indeterminate sentencing is all right, it would seem to me that even the vaguest guideline would be an improvement and so difficult to argue that it's too vague to be applied....

JUSTICE KENNEDY: Well, but your argument applies to State systems as well, and you're telling us that the more specific a legislature or an agency tries to make guidance for the judge, the more chance there is for vagueness....  Your argument is sweeping.  And you're saying the more specific guidance you give, the more dangers there is of unconstitutionality.  That's very difficult to accept.

These statements notwithstanding, the extraordinary presentation by Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben (who has long been my all-time favorite SCOTUS advocate) may have helped move at least some of the Justices to better appreciate how the career offender guidelines could be deemed unconstitutionally vague in the wake of the Johnson ACCA ruling back in summer 2015.

November 28, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15)

Will Prez Obama break out of his "clemency rut" and really go bold his last few weeks in the Oval Office?

Now that Prez Obama has granted commutations to more than 1000 federal prisoners (basics here), I suppose I should stop complaining that he has only "talked the talk" about significant sentencing reform.  Having granted now a record number of commutations to federal defendants sentenced to decades of imprisonment for mostly nonviolent drug offenses, Prez Obama can and should retire to the golf course with some justified satisfaction that he has created a new clemency legacy over his final few years as Prez.

That said, a few basic numbers about the reality of federal drug prosecutions in the Obama era should temper any profound praise for Prez Obama here.  Specifically, Prez Obama was in charge from Jan 2009 to Aug 2010 when the old 100-1 crack/powder ratio was still in place.  During that period, using this US Sentencing Commission data as a guide, well over 5000 federal defendants were sentenced under the old crack laws while Prez Obama and his appointees were leading the Justice Department.  So, during just Prez Obama's first 1.5 years in office, federal prosecutors sent five times as many drug offenders to federal prison under the old crack laws than Prez Obama has now commuted.  Moreover, given that the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 only reduced the crack/powder unfairness, it is worth also noting that over another 20,000 federal defendants have been prosecuted and sentence under still-disparate/unfair crack sentencing laws from Aug 2010 to Nov 2016 (though crack prosecutions, as this USSC data shows, have declined considerably from 2010 to 2015). 

I bring all this up because I will not consider Prez Obama to be a bold and courageous executive leader in the clemency arena unless and until he grants relief to more folks than just over-sentenced nonviolent drug offenders.  Helpfully, this new Wall Street Journal commentary authored by Charles Renfrew and James Reynolds provides some distinct clemency fodder for Prez Obama to consider.  The piece is headlined "Obama Should Pardon This Iowa Kosher-Food Executive: Prosecutors overstepped, interfered with the process of bankruptcy and then solicited false testimony."  Because I have been an advocate for a reduced sentence for Sholom Rubashkin, whose 27-year federal prison sentence has long seemed grossly unfair and unjustified to me, I will not here make the clemency case for him in particular.  But this WSJ commentary serves as a useful reminder that there are certainly hundreds — and likely thousands and perhaps tens of thousands — of federal prisoners currently serving excessive federal prison sentences who were involved in criminal activity other than nonviolent drug offenses.

Candidly, I am not optimistic that Prez Obama will use his last seven weeks to get out of the notable "clemency rut" of his Administration's own creation.  I say this because I surmise that (1) (1) everyone involved in the Obama Administration's clemency push has been focused almost exclusively on low-level drug prisoners sentenced to a decade or longer, and (2) even the limited group of low-level drug offenders being actively considered still presents tens of thousands of clemency petitions to review.  Meanwhile, I suspect and fear, reasonable clemency requests from thousands of other potentially worthy applications are seemingly being rejected out-of-hand or being left for the next Prez to deal with.

I hope Prez Obama proves me wrong in the next seven weeks by granting clemency to some other types of folks seeing executive relief (both in the form of commutations and pardons).  But on most criminal justice reform issues, Prez Obama has left me deeply disappointed a lot more than he has pleasantly surprised me.

November 28, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Interesting and exciting sentencing week as SCOTUS gets back to work

For sentencing fans who pay special attention to the Supreme Court, November has been not all that interesting so far. But after a series of arguments on civil cases earlier in the month, the last few days of SCOTUS argument this November has all sort of intriguing issues for sentencing fans. Here are the basics and links to previews from SCOTUSblog of the exciting week to come:

Monday Nov 28: Beckles v. United States:

Issue: (1) Whether Johnson v. United States applies retroactively to collateral cases challenging federal sentences enhanced under the residual clause in United States Sentencing Guidelines (U.S.S.G.) § 4B1.2(a)(2) (defining “crime of violence”); (2) whether Johnson's constitutional holding applies to the residual clause in U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(2), thereby rendering challenges to sentences enhanced under it cognizable on collateral review; and (3) whether mere possession of a sawed-off shotgun, an offense listed as a “crime of violence” only in commentary to U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2, remains a “crime of violence” after Johnson.

Argument preview: Court to tackle constitutionality of residual clause in sentencing guidelines 

 

Tuesday Nov 29: Moore v. Texas:

Issue: Whether it violates the Eighth Amendment and this Court’s decisions in Hall v. Florida and Atkins v. Virginia to prohibit the use of current medical standards on intellectual disability, and require the use of outdated medical standards, in determining whether an individual may be executed.

Argument preview: Court returns, again, to the death penalty and the intellectually disabled

 

Wednesday Nov 30: Jennings v. Rodriguez:

Issue: (1) Whether aliens seeking admission to the United States who are subject to mandatory detention under 8 U.S.C. § 1225(b) must be afforded bond hearings, with the possibility of release into the United States, if detention lasts six months; (2) whether criminal or terrorist aliens who are subject to mandatory detention under Section 1226(c) must be afforded bond hearings, with the possibility of release, if detention lasts six months; and (3) whether, in bond hearings for aliens detained for six months under Sections 1225(b), 1226(c), or 1226(a), the alien is entitled to release unless the government demonstrates by clear and convincing evidence that the alien is a flight risk or a danger to the community, whether the length of the alien’s detention must be weighed in favor of release, and whether new bond hearings must be afforded automatically every six months.

Argument preview: The constitutionality of immigrant detention

November 27, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Terrific content and context for Prez Obama's clemency work at Pardon Power

DebLong-time readers know that the blog Pardon Power is a must-read for anyone who cares about clemency policies and practices.  Of particular importance and value, P.S. Ruckman's work at  Pardon Power consistently provides needed theoretical and historical context for better understanding recent clemency activities rather than falling prey to the the modern media tendency to follow and obsess over the latest "shiny object" of clemency.  Great examples of why Pardon Power is a must-read these days as we move into the twilight of the Obama era are these recent posts of note over the holiday weekend:

Obama's 1,000th Commutation: Hold the Fireworks.

Obama Could (Should) Go EPIC.

Obama's Legacy: Institutional Change v. An "Example"

Turkey "Pardons." Why?

Obama: Breaking Records in a Broken System

Though I recommend highly all these posts, the last of the bunch has the most far-reaching and trenchant analysis. Here is how that piece starts and ends:

It seems more than likely that, before he leaves office, President Obama will break Woodrow Wilson's record for commutations of sentence.  It is, however, more than a little amazing (if not highly informative) to compare the use of federal executive clemency in the two administrations.

By the time he left the White House, Wilson had granted 1,087 presidential pardons (as well as 226 respites and 148 remissions). Obama, however, has granted a mere 70 pardons, the lowest number granted by any president serving at least one full term since John Adams.  It doesn't seem likely that Obama will pass out 1,000 plus pardons between now and the end of the term.  But there appears to be little concern about it on any front. So, it is what it is.

Consequently, clemency, for Obama, has meant — for the most part — commutations of sentence, almost exclusively for those convicted of drug offenses.  And these grants have — for the most part — been granted late in his second term.  Indeed, the Obama administration already features the largest 4th-year clemency surge of any administration in history....

The federal prison population has boomed since Wilson's day.  The Obama administration has been receiving record numbers of clemency applications, for years. On top of that, thousands remain in prison who were sentenced under drug laws which have been undone.  The merciless neglect of the current clemency system needs to tanked.  The process needs to be removed from career prosecutors in the DOJ who are unable / unwilling to process clemency applications in a timely fashion, with an eye toward mercy.  The broken system has famously lacked transparency (since 1932) and, today, it even exempts itself FOIA law.

It is time to create a permanent clemency board / commission (a device often used in the states) in the Executive Office of the President of the United States.  It is time for mercy to emerge once again as a regular feature of criminal justice.  It's not just about numbers.  It is about balance, fairness.  It is about rehabilitation and restoration.  It's about presidents using a power that was given to them ... to use ... not to abuse, or neglect.

November 26, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

So many marijuana reform developments and questions, with so many more on 2017 horizon

Though I blogged a bit in this space about marijuana reform right around the election (see here and here), over the last few weeks I have been content to cover this issues just over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform.  But this new post about this new article about the thousands of Californians getting sentencing relief thanks to the state's passage of a major marijuana legalization proposition, Prop 64, reminded me that I should be reminding readers about the close links between marijuana reform in particular and sentencing reform in general.  

The first post linked below tells the sentencing reform story, and some other postings from my other blog tell a whole lot of other interesting and dynamic stories about the current state and possible future of marijuana reform in the United States:

November 26, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Prez Obama grants 79 move commutations, taking his total over 1000 for his administration

Download (22)As reported in this new Washington Post article, headlined "Obama grants 79 more commutations to federal inmates, pushing the total past 1,000," the outgoing President has decided to make some clemency news before turning torward Turkey Day festivities. Here are the basics from the start of this article:

President Obama granted commutations to another 79 federal drug offenders Tuesday, pushing the number of inmates he has granted clemency past 1,000.

Obama’s historic number of commutations was announced as administration officials are moving quickly to rule on all the pending clemency applications from inmates before the end of the year. The Trump administration is not expected to keep in place Obama’s initiative to provide relief to nonviolent drug offenders.

“The President’s gracious act of mercy today with his latest round of commutations is encouraging,” said Brittany Byrd, a Texas attorney who has represented several inmates who have received clemency since Obama’s initiative began in 2014. “He is taking historic steps under his groundbreaking clemency initiative to show the power of mercy and belief in redemption. Three hundred and forty two men and women were set to die in prison. The President literally saved their lives.”

The White House and the Justice Department were criticized by sentencing reform advocates earlier this year for moving too slowly in granting commutations to inmates serving harsh sentences who met the criteria for clemency. The administration has greatly picked up the pace, but advocates still want them to move faster before time runs out.

“At the risk of sounding ungrateful, we say, “thanks, but please hurry,” said Kevin Ring, vice president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “We know there are thousands more who received outdated and excessive mandatory sentences and we think they all deserve to have their petitions considered before the president leaves office. Petitioners are starting to get anxious because they know the president is, in prison parlance, a short-timer.”

On a press call this afternoon (which is available here), Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates delivered remarks that included these sentiments:

As of this morning, President Obama has granted clemency to over 1,000 men and women who were incarcerated under outdated sentencing laws.

The number 1,000 is significant, but it’s important to remember that this is more than a statistic. There are 1,000 lives behind that number, 1,000 people who had been sentenced under unnecessarily harsh and outdated sentencing laws that sent them to prison for 20, 30, 40 years, even life, for nonviolent drug offenses. It's part of my job to review the petitions for each of these individuals, and I've been struck by the common threads woven through many of them — lack of access to education or real economic opportunity, absence of parents, drug addiction, hopelessness.  But in these petitions I've also seen something else — remarkable introspection, a real sense of responsibility for their conduct, and a dogged determination not to repeat the mistakes of the past and to ensure that they, and especially their children, chart another path.

The President has given these 1,000 individuals that opportunity. And while we are a nation of laws, and those who violate those laws must be held accountable, we are also a nation of second chances.  The mission of the Justice Department not only supports but demands that we do everything in our power to ensure that our criminal justice system operates fairly. In this case, that means reducing disproportionate sentences imposed under out-of-date laws. And we are privileged to serve a President who has not only taken on this responsibility himself, but who has given us the chance to fulfill our core charge to seek justice....

And a lot of work has gone into the clemency initiative to get us to this historic announcement today. Since the initiative was announced in 2014, thousands of petitions have been submitted and reviewed by the hard working attorneys in the Office of the Pardon Attorney, my office, the Office of the Deputy Attorney General, and the White House to identify nonviolent drug offenders whose sentences would be significantly lower if they were sentenced today.  While we are proud of the progress we’ve made so far, as I have said before, our work is still not done.  We will continue to make recommendations on clemency applications until the end of the Administration, fulfilling the goals we set more than two and a half years ago when we launched the clemency initiative.

November 22, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

"Advocates Look To Obama For 'Unprecedented' Action On Federal Prison Sentences"

The title of this post is the headline of this astute new BuzzFeed News article that flags some issues and raises various questions that I have been thinking a lot about ever since last Wednesday around 2am. Here are highlights:

In recent months, President Obama has stepped up the pace of federal clemency — issuing three large batches of commutations in the month before the presidential election. The White House has regularly pushed those numbers as evidence that Obama has done more than his predecessors to address unfairness he has criticized in criminal sentencing.

But now that he is due to be replaced by Donald Trump, who ran in part by saying he would be a “law and order” president, leading advocates of the clemency process say it is the time for Obama to step up and do more. “[I]f President Obama believes these sentences are unjust, it is his constitutional responsibility to fix them,” Rachel Barkow, a member of the United States Sentencing Commission and NYU law professor, told BuzzFeed News this week....

To that end, the group, co-founded by Van Jones, will be in Washington this week, holding a series of events — including a vigil in front of the White House on Monday evening — urging Obama to take “unprecedented” action on clemency in the coming months.

Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, acknowledged that time is short. “I think there will be — and should be — a sense of urgency,” he said on Friday. “I think the clearest thing is to find efficiencies — find ways to look at more people over these last weeks in a way that’s consistent and effective, in terms of evaluation. And that means, probably, looking at categories of people and identifying them specifically.”

Specifically, he pointed to “people who did not get the benefit of the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010” — which addressed cocaine-to-crack sentencing disparities in federal law, but was not retroactive. As such, Osler explained, many people “were stuck with a life sentence or the 10-year mandatory [minimum]” who could not receive that sentence today....

There has, though, been an election — one that likely will reflect at least somewhat different values on criminal justice issues, Osler acknowledged. “It’s fair to say that those people within this administration are very aware that the amount of care that they give to criminal law — and the excesses of criminal law — probably won’t be reflected in the next administration,” he said. Nonetheless, Osler said that Obama’s two elections more than suffice as a rationale for why Obama should continue pressing forward with the Clemency Project in his final months in office. “He’s the elected president until January 20, 2017,” he said. “I don’t think you sit back and don’t make full use of every day that you have.”

Barkow put it in similarly broad terms — but with a historical context. “Clemency is critical to an effective federal criminal justice system,” Barkow noted, pointing out that Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federal Papers about the important role clemency plays in the American system. “The President has only a couple months to reach everyone. The fate of these people and their loved ones rests in his hands, and one of his lasting legacies can be to reaffirm Hamilton’s view that both ‘humanity and good policy’ require the broad use of the pardon power.”

In addition to my adoration for Rachel Barkow's always-timely Hamilton reference (and how it made me think of one of my favorite songs), I especially like Mark Osler's discussion of both the challenges and justifications for Prez Obama going bold on clemency over the next two months. For reasons I have explained in this Veterans Day post, I would especially love to see Prez Obama go bold in granting clemency for any and all veterans serving distinctly long federal sentences or still burdened by a federal conviction long after any public safety rationales for continued punishment have been extinguished.

Sing along with me Prez Obama and fellow clemency fans (with apologies to Lin-Manuel Miranda):

Prez Washington:

I wanna talk about [clemency righting]
I want to warn against partisan fighting
Pick up a pen, start writing
I wanna talk about what I have learned
The hard-won wisdom I have earned...
The people will hear from me
One last time
And if we get this right
We’re gonna teach ‘em how to say Goodbye
You and I—

Sec. Hamilton:

Mr. President, they will say you’re weak

Prez Washington:

No, they will see we’re strong

Sec. Hamilton:

Your position is so unique

Prez Washington:

So I’ll use it to move them along

Sec. Hamilton:

Why do you have to say goodbye?

Prez Washington:

If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on
It outlives me when I’m gone
Like the scripture says:
“Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
And no one shall make them afraid.”
They’ll be safe in the nation we’ve made
I wanna sit under my own vine and fig tree
A moment alone in the shade
At home in this nation we’ve made
One last time

November 15, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, November 11, 2016

How many veterans are among Prez Obama's 944 federal prison commutations? How many more veterans are clemency worthy?

Veterans-day-20131The question in the title of this post are inspired by today's national holiday, Veterans Day.  Here are some general data thoughts/realities as part of an effort to try to answer these questions:

1.  According to these latest BJS statistics, we can reasonably estimate that at least 5% of the current federal prison population are veterans.  The BJS report starts by noting that "In 2011–12, an estimated 181,500 veterans (8% of all inmates in state and federal prison and local jail excluding military-operated facilities) were serving time in correctional facilities."  But a variety of demographic realities would suggest that veterans are probably underrepresented among the types of prisoners serving time in federal prison. 

2. So, to answer my first question based on this working estimate of at least 5%, we should expect that nearly 50 of the 944 federal prisoner commutations by Prez Obama have been to veterans.  But this is really a statistical guess because there could be direct or indirect reasons why veteran status made a candidate more likely to garner Prez Obama's attention or why the pool of long-sentenced drug offenders now only getting clemency these days are less likely to include veterans. 

3. And, to answer my second question based on this working estimate of at least 5%, we should expect that nearly 10,000 veterans make up of current federal Bureau of Prisons population which totals over 191,000.  If we were to entertain the supposition that only 1 out of every 100 current veteran federal prisoners are likely to be good candidates for clemency, that would still mean 100 current federal prisoners would now be commutation-worthy.  (And, if we want to think about all veterans with a federal conviction who might seek or merit a pardon, there could well be thousands of good veteran clemency candidate worth thinking about on this Veterans Day.)  

Though the day is still young, I am not expecting that Prez Obama will celebrate his last Veterans Day in the Oval Office by making a special effort to grant commutations or pardons to a special list of veterans.  But Prez-Elect Trump, who made taking care of the vets a consistent campaign theme, perhaps might be encouraged by sentencing reform advocates to plan to celebrate his future Veterans Days in the Oval Office by looking to use his clemency powers in this kind of special and distinctive way.  After all, a key slogan for this day is to "honor ALL who served," not just those who stayed out of trouble after serving.

Some very old prior related posts: 

November 11, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, November 10, 2016

"Revitalizing the Clemency Process"

The title of this post is the title of this recent lengthy article authored by Paul Larkin which is available via SSRN (and which I hope someone can now put on the required reading list for the Trump transition team).  Here is the abstract:

St. Anselm once asked how a perfectly just God could also be merciful, since perfect justice and almighty grace could not seemingly coexist.  Fortunately, the criminal justice system does not need to answer that question, one that has proven inscrutable for theologians and philosophers, because its assumptions do not apply to our system.  An earthly judicial system will never be able to administer justice perfectly and cannot disburse mercy even approaching the quality of the divine.  But the clemency power can try to achieve as much of an accommodation between those two goals as any human institution can.  Unfortunately, however, our recent span of presidents, attuned more to political than humanitarian considerations and fearing the electoral wrath of the voters for mistaken judgments, have largely abandoned their ability to grant clemency in order to husband their political capital for pedestrian undertakings.  Far worse, others have succumbed to the dark side of “the Force,” have used their power shamefully, and have left a stain on clemency that we have yet to remove.

We now have reached a point where that taint can be eliminated.  There is a consensus that the clemency process can and should be reformed.  The problem lies not in the power itself, but in the process by which cases are brought to the President for his review and maybe in the people we have elected to make those decisions.  The Office of the Pardon Attorney should be transferred from the Department of Justice to the Executive Office of the President, and the President should select someone to fill that position.  That revision to the clemency process should help us see a return of the necessary role that clemency can play in a system that strives to be both just and merciful.

November 10, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Sentencing reform's (uncertain?) future after huge election wins for Republicans, the death penalty, marijuana reform and state sentencing reforms

It is now official that Republican have retained control of both houses of Congress, and it seems now a near certainty that Donald Trump will soon officially be our nation's President Elect.  What that might mean for the future of federal sentencing reform will be the subject of a lot of future posts.  For now, I just want to wrap up the story of dynamic state ballot initiatives in the states by spotlighting that they showcase a pretty consistent national criminal justice reform message for all local, state and national officials.

1.  The death penalty still has deep and broad support in traditionally conservative states like Nebraska and Oklahoma, and clearly still has majority support even in a deep blue state like California.

2.  Non-capital sentencing reform has deep and broad support in a deep blue states like California and can find majority in a traditionally conservative state like Oklahoma.

3.  Medical marijuana reform has deep and broad support seemingly everywhere after winning this year in Arkansas and Florida and Montana and North Dakota.

4.  Recreational marijuana reform has seemingly significant support in blue states after winning this year in California and Massachusetts and Nevada and probably Maine, but in the red state in Arizona it could not garner a majority this year.

November 9, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Should and will SCOTUS take up Rommell Broom's constitutional claim that Ohio cannot try again to execute him after botched first attempt?

SCOTUSblog recently posted here its list of "Petitions to Watch" from the Supreme Court's scheduled conference of November 10, 2016, and all five cases on the list involve criminal justice issues. But the last of the listed petitions concerns a remarkable Ohio capital case that has been previously discussed on this blog, and is described this way:

Broom v. Ohio, No. 16-5580

Issues: (1) Whether the first attempt to execute the petitioner was cruel and unusual under the Eighth and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution and if so, whether the appropriate remedy is to bar any further execution attempt on the petitioner; (2) whether a second attempt to execute the petitioner will be a cruel and unusual punishment and a denial of due process in violation of the Eighth and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution; and (3) whether a second attempt to execute the petitioner will violate double jeopardy protections under the Fifth and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution.

I could discuss at great length not only why this case is so jurisprudentially interesting, but also why either a grant or a denial of cert at this stage of the litigation could prove quite interesting and controversial.  Rather than go off on such matters, however, I will be content for now to link to some of my prior posts on this this case:

November 8, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, November 07, 2016

Split Fourth Circuit panel concludes Virginia’s geriatric release program insufficient to save juve LWOP sentences from violating Graham

A Fourth Circuit panel today handed down a lengthy split decision today in LeBlanc v. Mathena, No. 15-7151 (4th Cir. Nov. 7, 2016) (available here), concerning the application of the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment Graham ruling in Virginia.  Here is how the majority opinion by Judge Wynn gets started:

Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 74 (2010), held that “the Eighth Amendment forbids the sentence of life without parole” for juvenile offenders convicted of nonhomicide offenses. Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that States must provide juvenile nonhomicide offenders sentenced to life imprisonment with “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Id. at 75.

Nearly a decade before the Supreme Court decided Graham, Respondent, the Commonwealth of Virginia, sentenced Petitioner Dennis LeBlanc to life imprisonment without parole for a nonhomicide offense he committed at the age of sixteen. In light of Graham, Petitioner sought postconviction relief from his sentence in Virginia state courts. The state courts denied Petitioner relief, holding that Virginia’s geriatric release program — which was adopted more than fifteen years before the Supreme Court decided Graham and will allow Petitioner to seek release beginning at the age of sixty — provides the “meaningful opportunity” for release that Graham requires.

Mindful of the deference we must accord to state court decisions denying state prisoners postconviction relief, we nonetheless conclude that Petitioner’s state court adjudication constituted an unreasonable application of Graham.  Most significantly, Virginia courts unreasonably ignored the plain language of the procedures governing review of petitions for geriatric release, which authorize the State Parole Board to deny geriatric release for any reason, without considering a juvenile offender’s maturity and rehabilitation.  In light of the lack of governing standards, it was objectively unreasonable for the state courts to conclude that geriatric release affords Petitioner with the “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation” Graham demands. Id.  Accordingly, Petitioner is entitled to relief from his unconstitutional sentence.

Judge Niemeyer issued a lengthy dissent that gets started this way:

In affirming the grant of Dennis LeBlanc’s habeas petition brought under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, the majority holds that the Virginia Supreme Court concluded unreasonably that Virginia’s geriatric release program provided a meaningful opportunity for release to juveniles and therefore satisfied the requirements of Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010).  Graham forbids sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole for nonhomicide crimes.  In reaching its conclusion, the majority relies simply on its expressed disagreement with the Virginia Supreme Court’s decision in Angel v. Commonwealth, 704 S.E.2d 386 (Va. 2011), and effectively overrules it.  The Virginia court’s opinion, however, is demonstrably every bit as reasonable as the majority’s opinion in this case and should be given deference under § 2254(d)(1).

Especially because the "swing" vote on this panel came from a district judge sitting by designation, I think there is a decent chance this case might get further consideration by the Fourth Circuit sitting en banc. I also would expect Virginia to seek Supreme Court review if it does not seek or secure en banc review.

November 7, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Do we need to worry seriously about voter confusion in the states in which the future of the death penalty is on ballot?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent article from Governing headlined "As Voters Decide Death Penalty's Fate, Ballots Confuse Some: This year's proposals aren't as simple as marking whether you're for or against capital punishment."  Here are excerpts:

The death penalty is legal in 30 states, but a growing number have repealed it in the last decade.  Depending on the election, California and Nebraska could be next.  While voters in those two states decide whether to do away with capital punishment, voters in Oklahoma — where botched executions have led to a temporary moratorium — could strengthen their state's ability to carry it out....

[But] like the issue of capital punishment, this year's ballot measures on the topic are complicated.

In Nebraska, the state legislature overrode their governor to repeal the death penalty in 2015, but the law never went into effect because opponents gathered enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot.  If voters ultimately uphold the law, it would be the first state under GOP control to ban capital punishment since 1973.

But first, voters will have to figure out which side they stand on — something that could be difficult for many.  The ballot measure gives voters two options: "repeal" or "retain." People who choose "repeal," as confusing as it may be, won't be voting to repeal the death penalty — they'll be voting to repeal the legislature's repeal of the death penalty and thus keep the option of executions available.

Nebraska GOP Gov. Pete Ricketts is campaigning in favor of capital punishment and has contributed about $400,000 to the effort.  In his veto letter to state lawmakers last year, he said their vote on a death penalty ban “tests the true meaning of representative government.”  Though a bipartisan majority of legislators overrode his veto, Ricketts may be correct that the public is with him: An August poll found that about 58 percent of likely voters in Nebraska are in favor of the death penalty.

In California, the ballot features two conflicting propositions — one that would repeal the death penalty and another that would keep it.  If both measures earn a majority of votes, whichever gets more will go into effect.  Most polls suggest the pro-death penalty measure will pass.

And in Oklahoma, the legality of capital punishment isn't up for a vote. Instead, voters will decide whether to add a section to the constitution that affirms the state’s authority to carry out executions, regardless of which method is used.  After several botched executions, the state halted any future ones until further notice. Oklahoma's ballot measure would also exempt the death penalty — but not specific methods of execution — from being invalidated by courts as cruel and unusual punishment.  "It takes away the debate on whether or not we should have capital punishment," said state Rep. John Paul Jordan in an interview with The Oklahoman.  "It allows us to direct our attention as a Legislature towards how we implement it and how we do it in the most humane way possible.”

Critics of the Oklahoma ballot question say the constitutional amendment is unnecessary, undermines the authority of the courts and could invite expensive lawsuits.  Several civil rights experts have raised concerns that the measure would strip citizens of their constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.  Nevertheless, a July poll found that more than 70 percent of likely voters supported the constitutional amendment.

Although polling in all three states suggest that a majority of voters support the death penalty, there's evidence that the framing of the question makes a major difference in how people respond. I n Oklahoma, when likely voters were asked if they supported the death penalty, three-quarters said yes.  But when given the option of eliminating the death penalty and replacing it with a life sentence without parole, along with other financial penalties, a slight majority favored a ban on the death penalty.

November 6, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, November 04, 2016

Another week and another big batch of clemencies from Prez Obama

As this new USA Today article highlights, "President Obama's decision to grant 72 more commutations Friday — just before getting on Air Force One for a two-city campaign tour of North Carolina — shows how far he's gone in his efforts to "reinvigorate" the pardon process." Here is more:

Just a year ago, it might have been unthinkable for a president to use his constitutional power to shorten sentences so close to an election, regardless of who's on the ballot. "Commutations a week before an election? That's a wow factor of 10!" said P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political scientist who has studied, among other things, the timing of presidential clemency.

Obama has now granted 170 commutations in just the past eight days, bringing the total for his presidency to 944. It's the largest number of commutations in any single year in history, and represents an exceptional "surge" in the president's clemency power in his last year.

"What President Obama has done for commutations is unprecedented in the modern era." White House Counsel Neil Eggleston said in a statement. "The president is committed to reinvigorating the clemency authority, demonstrating that our nation is a nation of second chances, where mistakes from the past will not deprive deserving individuals of the opportunity to rejoin society and contribute to their families and communities."

Most of Obama's pardons have been through his clemency initiative, which seeks to reduce the long mandatory-minimum sentences meted out under sentencing guidelines from the late 1980s through the 2000s....

The frequency with which Obama is now granting commutations has encouraged some advocates who had been urging the president to "vastly increase the pace" of the effort. "The Obama administration has said it was committed to ever more grants, and it seems quite clear that the president’s actions are matching his words," said Cynthia Roseberry, the manager for Clemency Project 2014, a coalition of lawyers working on commutation cases to present to the president....

Of the 72 commutations granted Friday, 17 were for inmates serving life sentences.

November 4, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

"If guilt is proven, should juries always convict?"

The title of this post is the headline of this very interesting new article appearing in my own local Columbus Dispatch.  Here is the context and commentary that follows the headline:

No one denied that Edwin Sobony II savagely beat his wife’s heroin supplier with a baseball bat when the man visited the couple’s Hamilton Township home in December. Sobony admitted to investigators that he did it after repeatedly begging the man to stay away.  At his trial in September on charges of felonious assault, his defense attorney told jurors that Sobony’s actions were “felonious as hell.”

Yet the attorney, Sam Shamansky, encouraged the jury to acquit his client anyway. “He assaulted him with this bat,” Shamansky said, holding the weapon aloft during his closing argument.  “And you say to yourself, ‘You know what, that’s OK. That’s what I would have done.’ Because no one can challenge that opinion. You can go back in that jury room and believe that and vote for it and nobody can touch you. That’s the beauty of the system. It prevents these kinds of prosecutions from ruining lives.”

Shamansky also told jurors that they could acquit by finding that Sobony acted in defense of himself and his family. But he acknowledged last week that, in case they rejected the self-defense claim, he was trying to persuade them that they could employ what is known as jury nullification to find his client not guilty.

Jury nullification occurs when jurors acquit a defendant, despite the prosecution proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt, because they believe the law is unjust or has been unjustly imposed.  It appeared to happen last week in Oregon, where a jury acquitted seven defendants who had armed themselves and occupied a national wildlife refuge during a 41-day standoff with federal authorities.

Shamansky’s arguments on behalf of Sobony didn’t work. The jury deliberated for less than three hours before finding the mail carrier guilty of one count of felonious assault. Sobony, 38, is scheduled to be sentenced Wednesday by Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Charles Schneider.

Not everyone agrees that nullifying a law is an appropriate option for juries. Ric Simmons, a professor of law at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, said jurors take an oath to follow the law and return a conviction if the prosecution meets its burden of proof. “In my view, jurors are under a legal obligation to follow the law,” he said.

However, jurors can’t be punished for their decisions, regardless of their reasoning, and their verdicts can’t be appealed. “So jury nullification exists, and we can’t do anything about it,” said Simmons, a former prosecutor.

Others say jury nullification is a time-honored tradition in the United States and was seen by the Founding Fathers as a check on abuse or overreach by the government. It was used by pre-Civil War juries to acquit those charged with violating the Fugitive Slave Act. More recently, it’s been used to acquit those charged with what juries consider antiquated drug-possession laws.

“Jury nullification has played a huge role in the development of our laws,” said Clay S. Conrad, author of “Jury Nullification: The Evolution of a Doctrine.” “For instance, it’s why we have a range of charges for murder, from manslaughter to capital murder. Juries didn’t want everyone to get the death penalty.”

Conrad, a lawyer based in Houston, said police, prosecutors and judges shouldn’t be the only ones allowed to use discretion in how they apply the law. “If a jury believes the prosecution’s idea of justice is wrong, they should have every right to reflect that with their verdict,” he said. “I think the problem we have with getting more juries to nullify in cases where it is appropriate is because so many people are unwilling to challenge authority.”

The leading advocacy group for jury nullification is the Fully Informed Jury Association, a nonprofit organization founded in 1989 in Montana. The group works to educate the public about jury nullification and says that juries should be informed about it as part of jury instructions. “We’re trying to overcome a lack of information, but it’s more than that,” said Kirsten Tynan, the group’s executive director. “Jurors are almost always going to be misinformed. They’re told by the court that they must follow the law as it’s given to them. “We have to educate people that what they’re being told isn’t necessarily true.”

I got into a bit of a verbal fight with my friend and colleague Professor Ric Simmons about this issue just earlier this week (and thus I love seeing him quoted on this front).  Readers may not be too surprised to hear that I am generally a fan and supporter of jury nullification.  Indeed, I generally believe that juries should be instructed about their power and right to nullify, though I also believe that prosecutors should be able to explain to jurors why they think broad use of nullification powers could have an array of potentially harmful societal consequences.

In this setting and in many others dealing with jury trial rights and procedures, I suspect views are often influenced by one's broader perspectives on the operation of present (and future?) criminal justice systems (both personally and professionally).  I have long viewed US criminal justice systems as bloated and inefficient, and thus I have always been inclined to embrace the jury's role as a critical "democratic" check on the criminal justice work of legislative and executive branches. (The late Justice Scalia's writings in cases like Blakely and other jury-respecting rulings have reinforced and enhanced these perspectives in recent years.) My colleague Professor Simmons obviously takes a different view, and I suspect he will not be surprised to know that I believe his views are at least somewhat influenced by his own professional history before he became an academic.

November 4, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Supreme Court (surprisingly?) grants last-minute stay of Alabama execution

As reported in this Washington Post article, the "Supreme Court stayed the execution Thursday night of an Alabama inmate who had been scheduled to die by lethal injection." Here is more about this interesting development and its context:

This marked the seventh time that Thomas D. Arthur — who was convicted of murder and is the second-oldest inmate on Alabama’s death row — had faced an execution date that was called off, according to the office of Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange. Arthur’s execution was scheduled for Thursday evening, but the uncertainty stretched into the night as officials in Alabama waited for the Supreme Court to consider his appeals.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — the Supreme Court justice assigned to the 11th Circuit, which includes Alabama — said in an order shortly before 10:30 p.m. that he was halting the execution until he or the other justices issued another order. Thomas referred the case to the full court, and shortly before midnight, the justices issued an order granting Arthur’s stay request. The order included a statement from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. explaining that while he did not believe this case merited a review from the Supreme Court, he had decided to vote for a stay anyway as a courtesy to his colleagues.

Roberts wrote that four of the other justices had voted in favor of staying the execution. “To afford them the opportunity to more fully consider the suitability of this case for review, including these circumstances, I vote to grant the stay as a courtesy,” he wrote. Roberts said Thomas and Justice Samuel Alito would have rejected the request; he did not explain why an eighth justice was not involved in the vote.

According to the court’s order, Arthur’s stay request would remain granted until the justices decide whether to consider the case. If they decide against it, the stay will be terminated. “We are greatly relieved by the Supreme Court’s decision granting a stay and now hope for the opportunity to present the merits of Mr. Arthur’s claims to the Court,” Suhana S. Han, an attorney for Arthur, said in a statement.

Arthur, 74, was sentenced to death for the 1982 killing of Troy Wicker, described in court records as the husband of a woman with whom Arthur had an affair. According to a summary of the case from the Alabama Supreme Court, Arthur was serving a life sentence for fatally shooting a relative of his common-law wife and, while on work release, had an affair with Wicker’s wife before killing Wicker. After three trials, Arthur was sentenced to death. One of his executions was called off after another inmate confessed to the killing, though a judge ultimately dismissed that inmate’s claim.

In appeals filed Thursday, Arthur’s attorneys argued that Alabama’s “deficient lethal injection protocol” would have had “torturous effects,” pointing to the state’s planned use of the sedative midazolam, which has been used in at least three executions that went awry. Last year, the Supreme Court upheld Oklahoma’s execution protocol in a case that hinged in part on that sedative.

Arthur’s court filings also argued that the state should execute him by firing squad, arguing that “execution by firing squad, if implemented properly, would result in a substantially lesser risk of harm” than the proposed lethal injection method. Strange’s office, in its response, noted that under Alabama state law, the Department of Corrections is only allowed to carry out executions by injection and electrocution.

Strange criticized the justices for their action late Thursday. “With all due respect to the Supreme Court, tonight’s order undermines the rule of law,” Strange said in a statement. “While I agree with Chief Justice Roberts that ‘This case does not merit the Court’s review,’ in my view, there is no ‘courtesy’ in voting to deny justice to the victims of a notorious and cold-blooded killer.”...

There have been 17 executions in the United States so far this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, and the country is on pace to have its fewest executions in a quarter-century. Arthur’s was one of four executions scheduled through the end of 2016, according to the center.

November 4, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Death row defendants come up just short in big circuit panel rulings about lethal injection protocols

Though I am saddened that the lovable baseball club from Cleveland came up just short against a lovable baseball club from Chicago very early this morning, there are some death row defendants and lawyers who I suspect are much more troubled by a much more serious legal matter in which their arguments to federal circuit panels came up just short yesterday.   Specifically, two court panels, one in the Sixth Circuit and one in the Eleventh Circuit, yesterday handed down two split 2-1 rulings against death row defendants in Ohio and Alabama.  Here are links to the rulingsand the start of the majority opinions:

Phillips v. DeWine, No. 15-3238 (6th Cir. Nov. 2, 2016) (available here):

In this appeal, a group of inmates sentenced to death in Ohio challenge the constitutionality of the State’s newly enacted statutory scheme concerning the confidentiality of information related to lethal injection. The district court dismissed some of their claims for a lack of standing and the remainder for failure to state a claim. For the reasons stated below, we AFFIRM.

Arthur v. Alabama DOC, No. 16-15549 (11th Cir. Nov. 2, 2016) (available here):

It has been 34 years since Thomas Arthur brutally murdered Troy Wicker. During 1982 to 1992, Thomas Arthur was thrice tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for Wicker’s murder.  After his third death sentence in 1992, Arthur for the next 24 years has pursued, unsuccessfully, dozens of direct and post-conviction appeals in both state and federal courts.

In addition, starting nine years ago in 2007 and on three separate occasions, Arthur has filed civil lawsuits under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 challenging the drug protocol to be used in his execution.  This is Arthur’s third such § 1983 case, and this current § 1983 case was filed in 2011.  For the last five years Arthur has pursued this § 1983 case with the benefit of lengthy discovery. The district court held a two-day trial and entered two comprehensive orders denying Arthur § 1983 relief.  Those orders are the focus of the instant appeal.

After thorough review, we conclude substantial evidence supported the district court’s fact findings and, thus, Arthur has shown no clear error in them.  Further, Arthur has shown no error in the district court’s conclusions of law, inter alia, that: (1) Arthur failed to carry his burden to show compounded pentobarbital is a feasible, readily implemented, and available drug to the Alabama Department of Corrections (“ADOC”) for use in executions; (2) Alabama’s consciousness assessment protocol does not violate the Eighth Amendment or the Equal Protection Clause; and (3) Arthur’s belated firing-squad claim lacks merit.

November 3, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

"Judicial Sentencing Error and the Constitution"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Reid Weisbord and George Thomas now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Much recent scholarship has sharply criticized the pervasive phenomenon of wrongful convictions, but the literature has overlooked an important related injustice: inaccuracy in criminal sentencing. This Article provides the first comprehensive scholarly treatment of judicial sentencing error, which has become widespread in the modern era of both ad hoc revision to criminal codes and increasingly complex criminal sentencing systems that often lack internal coherence or sensible statutory organization.

Although nearly always the product of human error, the problem of judicial sentencing error is more aptly characterized as systemic because sentencing judges often face ever-changing, overlapping statutory requirements contained in separate parts of the criminal code. We identify both the source and harmful consequences of judicial sentencing error, and then examine constitutional principles implicated by the untimely correction of an erroneous sentence.

Focusing particularly on a defendant’s interest in finality, we argue that the constitutional guarantees of substantive due process and protection against double jeopardy under the Fifth Amendment should be construed to limit the time to correct an erroneously lenient sentence, with the Double Jeopardy Clause supplying the more potent limiting principle and objective legal standard. We conclude that — by according respect for principles of finality in criminal sentencing — the law could create an effective institutional incentive for the State to ascertain the correctness of sentencing orders at or near the time of punishment, thereby preventing the harm and injustice that occur when the defendant’s reasonable expectation of finality has been frustrated for the legitimate but not indomitable sake of accuracy.

November 2, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Is California's parole reform initiative, Prop 57, among the most important and consequential sentencing ballot issues?

The question in the title of this post is prompted in large part by this recent Los Angeles Times article headlined "Why Gov. Jerry Brown is staking so much on overhauling prison parole." Here are excerpts (with my emphasis added for later commentary):

Few California voters likely know much, if anything, about the state Board of Parole Hearings — from the qualifications of the 12 commissioners to their success in opening the prison gates for only those who can safely return to the streets.  And yet Gov. Jerry Brown’s sweeping overhaul of prison parole, Proposition 57, is squarely a question of whether those parole officials should be given additional latitude to offer early release to potentially thousands of prisoners over the next few years. “I feel very strongly that this is the correct move,” Brown told The Times in a recent interview. “I’m just saying, let’s have a rational process.”

Prosecutors, though, contend the governor’s proposal goes too far after several years of trimming down California’s prison population to only the most hardened criminals. They believe the parole board, whose members are gubernatorial appointees, already is swinging too far away from being tough on crime. “They are recommending release of people we never would have expected would have occurred so soon,” said Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey. “I’m concerned about people who really haven’t served a significant amount of time.”

In some ways, Proposition 57 is a proxy for a larger battle over prison sentences.  There are sharp disagreements between Brown and many district attorneys over the legacy of California’s decades-long push for new and longer mandatory sentences, a system in which flexibility is often limited to which crimes a prosecutor seeks to pursue in court.  The warring sides have painted the Nov. 8 ballot measure in the starkest of terms, a choice for voters between redemption and real danger.  “We’re dealing with deep belief systems,” Brown said.

Proposition 57 would make three significant changes to the state’s criminal justice framework. It would require a judge’s approval before most juvenile defendants could be tried in an adult court — reversing a law approved by California voters in 2000.  Critics believe prosecutors have wrongly moved too many juveniles into the adult legal system, missing chances for rehabilitation.

What’s most in dispute are two other Proposition 57 provisions, either of which could result in adult prisoners serving less time than their maximum sentences. Brown tacked those two provisions onto the juvenile justice measure in January.  One would allow an expansion of good-behavior credits awarded by prison officials; the other gives new power to the state parole board to allow early release of prisoners whose primary sentences were not for “violent” crimes.

In an interview last week, the governor argued that his ballot measure would add a dose of deliberative thought to a process too often driven by elected district attorneys playing to the white-hot politics of sensational crimes. “Do you want the hurly burly of candidates, running for office, being the decision makers in the face of horrible headlines?” Brown asked. “Or would you rather have a quiet parole board, not now but 10 years later, deciding what's right?”

The governor’s plan, which amends the state constitution, would only allow parole after a prisoner’s primary sentence had been served — applying only to the months or years tacked on for additional crimes or enhancements.  And like the current system, a governor could override any parole board decision to release a prisoner.

Critics, though, think the parole board is already too eager to approve releases. Greg Totten, district attorney of Ventura County, said he believes parole board members are judged by how many prisoners they release.  “We don't have confidence that the parole board will consider our concerns about public safety or the crime victims' concerns,” Totten said.  “Those hearings have become much more adversarial than they originally were.”  Totten and other prosecutors warn that an influx of new requests for early release would overload parole board commissioners and send too many cases to their deputy commissioners, state civil servants whose decisions are made outside of public hearings.

Prosecutors and Brown have sparred mightily over the assertion that Proposition 57 would only expand parole opportunities for “nonviolent” felons, a term used prominently in the ballot measure’s official title and summary. In truth, the description only means that new parole opportunities wouldn’t apply to prisoners sentenced for one of 23 defined violent crimes in California’s penal code. That list includes crimes most voters would expect to see there, such as murder, sexual abuse of a child and kidnapping.  But in many ways, the list is porous.  Not all rape crimes, for example, are designated as “violent.” Prosecutors insist prisoners serving time for as many as 125 serious and dangerous crimes would be eligible for parole under Brown’s ballot measure.  Not surprisingly, the campaign opposing Proposition 57 is replete with images of felons who prosecutors allege could be released if the measure becomes law....

Brown, whose effort is supported by probation officers and leads in most every recent statewide public poll, suggests two overarching motivations. One is the specter of potential federal court-ordered prison releases, less likely now that massive prison overcrowding has abated after efforts to reduce penalties for less serious crimes and divert low-level offenders to county jails.  Still, the governor insists that Proposition 57 is a more thoughtful way to reduce the prison population than what could some day be chosen by federal judges.

The other, to hear him tell it, is an effort to undo some of what he did in the 1970s in pushing California toward more fixed, inflexible sentences for a variety of crimes. Brown said he now believes that many convicted felons are best judged not at the time of sentencing, but once they have had a chance to change their lives. “It allows flexibility,” the governor said. “I think this case is irrefutable to anyone with an open mind.”

The sentences I have highlighted above provide some account for why I think the Prop 57 vote is potentially so important, and not just in California. If California voters strongly support this parole reform initiative (and do so, perhaps, will also supporting the preservation of the death penalty in the state), elected official in California and perhaps other states may start to feel ever more comfortable that significant non-capital sentencing reforms have significant public support even during a period in which a number of prominent folks are talking a lot about an uptick in crime.  It also strikes me as quite significant that Gov Brown is still talking about the impact of the Supreme Court's Plata ruling about California prison overcrowding and justifying his reform efforts on these terms.

I have previously highlighted in this post why I think an Oklahoma ballot initiative on sentencing reform is similarly worth watching very closely. (That post from September was titled "Why Oklahoma is having arguably the most important vote in Campaign 2016 for those concerned about criminal justice reforms.") I expect that next week's post-election coverage of criminal justice issues will focus particularly on the results of big death penalty and marijuana reform votes. But I believe folks distinctly concerned about modern mass incarceration should be sure to examine and reflect upon the outcomes of these two non-capital, non-marijuana reform ballot initiatives in California and Oklahoma.

November 1, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Monday, October 31, 2016

Terrifically timed Northwestern JCLC symposium to ask "The Death Penalty's Numbered Days?"

Sent_yearI am so very fortunate and pleased and excited that at the end of next week — and less than 100 hours after the most significant and consequential elections for the future of the American death penalty — I am going to have a chance to participate in this amazing symposium being put on by Notherwestern Law's Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.  The title given to the event is "The Death Penalty's Numbered Days?", and this symposium page provides the schedule of panels and speakers.  Here is how the web coverage introduced the event while also providing this quote from a notable recent SCOTUS dissent:

The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, with the significant support of the Irving Gordon Symposia Fund, is proud to announce the upcoming symposium, entitled "The Death Penalty's Numbered Days?"  Since the 1970's, the existence and implementation of the death penalty has changed and evolved, as has the way the legal system and its various actors view and talk about the issue.  This symposium, which includes a diverse group of some of the foremost scholars on the death penalty, will explore recent developments and attempt to provide a prognosis on the future application of the death penalty in the United States.  Attendees will be eligible for up to 5 CLE credits, and no registration is necessary.  Please direct any questions to our Symposium Director, Erica Stern, who can be reached at ebstern@nlaw.northwestern.edu.

Friday, November 11, 2016, 9:00 a.m. - 5: 00 p.m.

Thorne Auditorium, Northwestern University School of Law, 375 E. Chicago Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611

“Nearly 40 years ago, this Court upheld the death penalty under statutes that, in the Court's view, contained safeguards sufficient to ensure that the penalty would be applied reliably and not arbitrarily. . . . The circumstances and the evidence of the death penalty's application have changed radically since then. Given those changes, I believe that it is now time to reopen the question.” ~ Justice Stephen Breyer, Dissenting Glossip v. Gross, 135 S. Ct. 2726, 2755 (2015).

Though I am not yet sure about exactly what I will have say at this event, one theme I will be eager to stress in my comments is my strong belief that modern "evidence" concerning "the death penalty's application" actually suggests that this punishment is being imposed much more reliably and much less arbitrarily since President William J. Clinton left office.

As this DPIC chart and data reveal, during the William J. Clinton years (from 1993 to 2001), the United States averaged over 280 death sentences annually nationwide.  Over the course of the next eight years (the George W. Bush years), the annual number of death sentences imposed throughout the United States declined by about 50% down to around 140 death sentences per year.  And, over the last eight years (the Barack H. Obama years), we have seen yet another 50% reduction in annual death sentences imposed as we approach a BHO-term average of around 70 death sentences per year.  The year 2015 hit a remarkable historic low of only 49 total death sentences imposed nationwide, and I believe 2016 is going to see a similar or even smaller number of total death sentence once the year's accounting gets completed.

For a bunch of reasons I hope to explain at this symposium, Justice Breyer's sincere concerns about death sentences being often imposed arbitrarily and unreliably seem to me to have been especially trenchant when he was first appointed to SCOTUS.  At that time, states throughout our nation were imposing, on average, five or six death sentences every week.  Fast forward more than two decades, and the evidence of death sentencing reveals that, circa 2016, states throughout the nation are now imposing less than a single death sentence every week.  I strongly believe our death sentencing systems have become much, much more reliable and much less arbitrary as we have gotten much, much more careful about how gets subject to capital prosecution and about who ultimately gets sent to death row.

October 31, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Miller/Montgomery GVR produces some separate opinion SCOTUS sparring

At the end of this morning's (otherwise uneventful) SCOTUS order list are a pair of separate opinions in Tatum v. Arizona, No. 15-8850, discussing the decision by the full Court to issue this order: "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 Appeals of Arizona, Division Two for further consideration in light of Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U. S. ___ (2016)."

Justice Sotomayor authored this lengthy concurrence which makes this point at the outset:

The petitioners in these cases were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed before they turned 18. A grant, vacate, and remand of these cases in light of Montgomerypermits the lower courts to consider whether these petitioners’ sentences comply with the substantive rule governing the imposition of a sentence of life without parole on a juvenile offender.

JUSTICE ALITO questions this course, noting that the judges in these cases considered petitioners’ youth during sentencing. As Montgomery made clear, however, “[e]ven if a court considers a child’s age before sentencing him or her to a lifetime in prison, that sentence still violates theEighth Amendment for a child whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity.” Id., at ___–___ (slip op.,at 16–17) (internal quotation marks omitted).

On the record before us, none of the sentencing judges addressed the question Miller and Montgomery require a sentencer to ask: whether the petitioner was among the very “rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.” 577 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 17).

Justice Alito's shorter dissent, to which Justice Sotomayor is responding, was joined by Justice Thomas. It starts this way:

The Court grants review and vacates and remands in this and four other cases in which defendants convicted of committing murders while under the age of 18 were sentenced to life without parole.  The Court grants this relief so that the Arizona courts can reconsider their decisions in light of Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U. S. ___ (2016), which we decided last Term.  I expect that the Arizona courts will be as puzzled by this directive as I am.

In Montgomery, the Court held that Miller v. Alabama, 567 U. S. ___ (2012), is retroactive. 577 U. S., at ___ (slip. op., at 20).  That holding has no bearing whatsoever on the decisions that the Court now vacates.  The Arizona cases at issue here were decided after Miller, and in each case the court expressly assumed that Miller was applicable to the sentence that had been imposed.  Therefore, if the Court is taken at its word — that is, it simply wants the Arizona courts to take Montgomery into account — there is nothing for those courts to do.

It is possible that what the majority wants is for the lower courts to reconsider the application of Miller to the cases at issue, but if that is the Court’s aim, it is misusing the GVR vehicle.  We do not GVR so that a lower court can reconsider the application of a precedent that it has already considered.

UPDATE: After having a chance to review these opinion, I think it now fair to assert that the GVRs here are really based on the substantive expansion of Miller's Eighth Amendment rule in Montgomery.  That reality, in turn, allows me to point to my recent  commentary, titled "Montgomery's Messy Trifecta," and say simply "I told ya"!

October 31, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Saturday, October 29, 2016

"Constitutional Liberty and the Progression of Punishment"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Robert Smith and Zoe Robinson now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment has long been interpreted by scholars and judges to provide very limited protections for criminal defendants.  This understanding of the Eighth Amendment claims that the prohibition is operationalized mostly to prevent torturous methods of punishment or halt the isolated use of a punishment practice that has fallen into long-term disuse.

This Article challenges these assumptions.  It argues that while this limited view of the Eighth Amendment may be accurate as a historical matter, over the past two decades, the Supreme Court has incrementally broadened the scope of the cruel and unusual punishment clause.  The Court’s contemporary Eighth Amendment jurisprudence — with its focus on categorical exemptions and increasingly nuanced measures of determining constitutionally excessive punishments — reflects an overt recognition that the fundamental purpose of the Eighth Amendment is to protect vulnerable citizens uniquely subject to majoritarian retributive excess.

Animating these developments is a conception of constitutional liberty that transcends the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.  Indeed, 2015’s same-sex marriage decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, reflects a similar trajectory in the Court’s substantive due process jurisprudence. Taken together, these doctrinal developments illustrate a concerted move to insert the Court as the independent arbiter of legislative excesses that undermine the basic right to human dignity by virtue of unnecessarily impinging upon individual liberty.  Ultimately, these liberty-driven developments signal new possibilities for the protection of defendant rights in a variety of contemporary contexts, including juvenile life without parole for homicide offenses, life without parole for non-violent drug offenses, the death penalty, certain mandatory minimum sentences and the prolonged use of solitary confinement.

October 29, 2016 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

SCOTUS takes up Booker/mandatory sentencing issue and two sex-offender collateral-consequences cases

I had a spectacular afternoon mostly off-line yesterday: I heard Sandy Levinson talk about his book on the Federalist Papers; I talked with my 1L students about a famous criminal case after an infamous disaster; I spoke at lengthy to a reporter about the prospects for federal criminal justice reform in 2017; I had great happy hours conversations with students, friend and family, followed by a spectacular burger at my favorite local gastropub; and I managed to stay awake for (most of) one of the all-time great modern World Series games.

What I did not manage to do until this morning, however, was remember that SCOTUS yesterday had a conference to consider new cases for its docket.  Helpfully, this SCOTUblog post reports on the five SCOTUS cert grants on the last Friday in October 2016, and three of the cases are sure to be worth sentencing fans' attention.  Here are the three grants as described by Amy Howe from SCOTUSblog, organized by me in order of "importance" for those most obsessed with modern sentencing systems: 

The facts of Dean v. United States read like a “true crime” novel, involving robberies of drug dealers in the Midwest. Levon Dean, the defendant in the case, was convicted under the Hobbs Act, a federal law that makes it a crime to “obstruct, delay, or affect commerce” through a robbery.  The justices today declined to review Dean’s challenge to his Hobbs Act convictions, but they agreed to weigh in on a separate question: the scope of a federal trial court’s discretion to consider the mandatory consecutive sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), which makes it a crime to use or carry a firearm during a crime of violence, in determining a sentence for the felony that serves as the basis for the Section 924(c) conviction.  Dean argued that the district court had the authority to impose a very short sentence — as little as one day — for his Hobbs Act convictions, to take into account the much longer sentence required by Section 924(c), but the lower courts disagreed.

Among the court’s other grants today, Packingham v. North Carolina is the case of Lester Packingham, a North Carolina man who became a registered sex offender after he was convicted, at the age of 21, of taking indecent liberties with a minor.  Six years after Packingham’s conviction, North Carolina enacted a law that made it a felony for registered sex offenders to access a variety of websites, from Facebook to The New York Times and YouTube. Packingham was convicted of violating this law after a police officer saw a Facebook post in which Packingham celebrated, and gave thanks to God for, the dismissal of a traffic ticket.  The justices today agreed to review Packingham’s contention that the law violates the First Amendment.

In Esquivel-Quintana v. Lynch, the justices will make another foray into an area of law known as “crimmigration” — the intersection of immigration and criminal law.  The petitioner in the case, Juan Esquivel-Quintana, was a lawful permanent resident of the United States in 2009, when he was charged with violating a California law that makes it a crime to have sexual relations with someone under the age of 18 when the age difference between the two people involved is more than three years; he had had consensual sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend when he was 20 and 21 years old.  The federal government then sought to remove Esquivel-Quintana from the United States on the ground that his conviction constituted the “aggravated felony” of “sexual abuse of a minor.”  The lower courts agreed with the federal government, but now the Supreme Court will decide.

October 29, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Prez Obama grants sentence commutations to 98 more federal offenders

Chart_102616_commutationsAs reported in this new USA Today article, "President Obama granted 98 more commutations to federal inmates Thursday, bringing the total for this year to 688 — the most commutations ever granted by a president in a single year." Here is more:

In all, he's now shortened the sentences of 872 inmates during his presidency, more than any president since Woodrow Wilson. The actions were part of Obama's extraordinary effort to use his constitutional power to rectify what he sees as unduly harsh sentences imposed during the "War on Drugs." Through a clemency initiative announced in 2014, he's effectively re-sentenced hundreds of non-violent drug dealers to the sentences they would have received under today's more lenient sentencing guidelines....

But while Obama's commutation grants get most of the attention, he's also been quietly denying a record number of commutations at the same time — a function of the unprecedented number of applications submitted through the clemency initiative. On Oct. 6, for example, the White House announced that Obama granted 102 commutations. It wasn't until a week later that the Justice Department updated its clemency statistics to reveal that he had denied 2,917 commutation petitions on Sept. 30.

Some advocates for inmates say there's not enough transparency about why some get clemency while others wait. "We want answers for the families who are still waiting for their clemency," said Jessica Jackson Sloan, national director of the pro-clemency group Cut 50. "There needs to be more communication about why people are being denied."

As of Oct. 7, Obama has granted just 5.5% of commutation applications — still more than many of his predecessors. President George W. Bush granted just 0.1% of commutation applications that reached his desk, but was more generous with full pardons at this point in his presidency.

"While there has been much attention paid to the number of commutations issued by the president, at the core, we must remember that there are personal stories behind these numbers," White House Counsel Neil Eggleston wrote on the White House web site. "These are individuals -- many of whom made mistakes at a young age — who have diligently worked to rehabilitate themselves while incarcerated." Eggleston said 42 of the inmates who had received commutations were serving life sentences.

Sixty-three of the inmates granted presidential mercy on Thursday will still have two years or more to serve on their sentences, part of a recent White House strategy of issuing deferred "term" commutations instead of the more common time-served commutations. The longest of those: David Neighbors, a 34-year-old man from Evansville, Ind., whose 2008 life sentence for cocaine trafficking Obama commuted to 30 years. That means he has up to 22 more years left to serve.

And 42 of the commutations granted Thursday have strings attached. As part of an increasing practice of attaching conditions to his commutations, Obama required inmates with a documented history of drug use to enroll in a residential drug treatment program before being released.

The full statement from White House Counsel Neil Eggleston is available at this link, which is also the source for the graphic reprinted above.

October 27, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Opportunity Agenda produces huge report on "Transforming the System: Criminal Justice Policy Solutions"

Full_pdf_cover_sideThe Opportunity Agenda, which is a project of Tides Center and calls itself a "social justice communication lab," has just released this huge new on-line report (which is also available as a pdf here) under the title "Transforming the System: Criminal Justice Policy Solutions." Here is the main introduction and the headings for links to different sections of this report:

Our criminal justice system must keep all communities safe, foster prevention and rehabilitation, and ensure fair and equal justice. But in too many places, and in too many ways, our system is falling short of that mandate and with devastating consequences. The United States is saddled with an outdated, unfair, and bloated criminal justice system that drains resources and disrupts communities.

People of color, particularly Native American, black, and Latino people, have felt the impact of discrimination within the criminal justice system. Many immigrants experience mandatory detention, racial profiling, and due process violations because of laws and policies that violate their human rights—and the principles of equal justice, fair treatment, and proportionality under our criminal justice system. The good news is that we as a nation are at a unique moment in which there is strong public, bipartisan support for criminal justice reform; we see positive policy developments in many parts of the country; and mass action and social movements for change are growing, including the Movement for Black Lives. More is needed, however, to move from positive trends to transformative, lasting change.

Criminal Justice Policy Solutions
  • Promote Community Safety through Alternatives to Incarceration: Our criminal justice system should ensure that all individuals feel safe and secure in their communities.
  • Create Fair and Effective Policing Practices: To work for all of us, policing practices should ensure equal justice and be supported by evidence.
  • Promote Justice in Pre-Trial Services & Practices: The right to due process is a cornerstone of our commitment to freedom and fairness.
  • Enhance Prosecutorial Integrity: Prosecutors represent the government, and therefore must reflect the highest levels of integrity and ethics in their work.
  • Ensure Fair Trials and Quality Indigent Defense: Every accused person is entitled to a fair trial. Indigent defendants have a constitutional right to competent representation at trial.
  • Encourage Equitable Sentencing: People convicted of crimes should receive fair sentences. These sentences should reflect the severity of the crime and be administered in a fair manner.
  • Ensure Decent Detention Conditions: Decent, rehabilitative prisons are a basic human right and crucial to the successful reintegration of formally incarcerated people.
  • Require Equitable Parole and Probation: Parole and probation practices should be fair and consistent. They should be used as a tool to allow accused persons to safely remain in their communities.
  • Foster Successful Reintegration: Most Americans agree that after completing a criminal sentence, released people should be given an opportunity to successfully reintegrate into their communities.
  • Foster an Environment for Respecting Children's Rights: We must adopt policies that ensure children reach their full potential and are not placed off track for childhood mistakes.
  • Eradicate the Criminalization of Sex, Gender, & Sexuality: We all should have freedom to live without fear of criminalization because of our expressed sex, gender or sexuality.
  • Eliminate the Criminalization of Poverty: Instead of increasing opportunities to succeed, our law too often funnels low-income people into the criminal justice system.
  • Eliminate the Criminalization of Public Health Issues: The criminal justice system is too often used as a cure-all for social problems that are better suited to social services and public health responses.
  • Promote Fairness at the Intersection of Immigration and Criminal Justice: Everyone is entitled to have their human rights respected regardless of immigration status.
  • Public Opinion Report: A New Sensibility: This report is based on a review of about fifty public opinion surveys and polls, most of them conducted between 2014 and June 2016.

I suspect most, if not all, of this report's various sections will be of interest to readers. And I hope it is useful for all to see what is listed as 10 action items under the "Encourage Equitable Sentencing" section. That section starts this way and they has these 10 "Solutions and Actions to Encourage Fair Sentences":

We all want a criminal justice system that treats people fairly, takes a pragmatic and responsible approach, and ultimately, keeps us safe. When we’ve reached the point of deciding to deprive someone of their liberty, we have to be particularly fair and responsible and consider all options. Sentences should consider a range of factors and reflect the severity of the crime. We owe it to ourselves, our justice system, and to those being imprisoned to ensure that our sentencing practices are thoughtful and fair. Nonetheless, the explosion of the American prison population is largely due to sentences that are disproportionate to the severity of crimes. Prisons and jails are filled by many people who pose no threat to their communities. Laws that impose mandatory minimums contribute to mass imprisonment. Sentencing laws should be reformed to require transparency and mandate equitable practices that ensure that sentences are appropriate to the particular circumstances of an offense.

1) Repeal “Truth-in-Sentencing” and “Three-Strikes” Law...

2) Repeal Mandatory Minimums...

3) Use Alternatives to Incarceration...

4) Prohibit Incarceration for Failure to Appear...

5) Revise Sentencing Guidelines...

6) Commit to Cutting Incarceration in Half...

7) Collect Data...

8) Train Judges on Implicit Bias...

9) Appoint Judges from Diverse Backgrounds...

10) Evaluate Ability to Pay

October 26, 2016 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Two interesting reviews of the (in)application of Graham and MIller in two states

In my upper-level sentencing course, we are now discussing the past, present and future of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence placing limits on the imposition of prison terms.  Of course, this discussion now culminates in a review of the Supreme Court's recent work in Graham v. Florida and Miller v. Alabama and their continuing fallout.  Conveniently, just this past weekend, two different newspapers in two different states published these two articles on how that fallout is playing out: 

This passage from the first of these articles highlights some reasons why, even years after Graham and Miller were decided and required resentencing of certain juvenile offenders, most of these offenders are still going to be spending many decades in prison before even having a chance at release:

In striking down these harsh sentences, the Supreme Court “obviously was concerned, No. 1, about locking kids up and throwing away the key,” said Marsha Levick, Philadelphia attorney and co-founder of the Juvenile Law Center. “The court was very clear that it believes kids are truly different.”  Indeed Justice Elena Kagan has written that, “given all that we have said … about children’s diminished culpability, and heightened capacity for change, we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.”

But in Courtroom 12, Circuit Judge John H. Skinner was unmoved.  Despite hundreds of hours of legal work, stacks of documents and a morning of arguments, the judge told Thomas, “I haven’t really changed my mind at all as far as what you should get in this case.”

So Thomas, the youngest child in a tight-knit military family, was sentenced again to 40 years.  This time, there will be a review in front of a judge and chance for release after 15 years, a provision that brings the penalty into compliance with state law.

Scenes like this one in a Jacksonville suburb are playing out around the state and across the country as judges resentencing juvenile offenders continue to issue lengthy sentences that advocates say defy the intent of the Supreme Court.

It will take years for the courts to work through the 58 Duval County homicide cases in which the juveniles’ original sentences have been deemed unconstitutional. Preparing for a resentencing hearing is intensive, and an area where the case law is constantly evolving.

But if the results from some of the earliest resolved Jacksonville cases are any indication, judges will continue to hand down long punishments. In the nine cases in which teens were first sentenced to life for childhood crimes that weren’t murder, seven of the defendants will be 60 or older when they are released.

October 26, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

"Assessing the Impact of Johnson v. United States on the Void-for-Vagueness Doctrine"

The title of this post is the title of this effective and extensive new Casetext essay authored by Carissa Hessick. It starts and ends this way:

Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), held that the so-called “residual clause” of the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) was unconstitutionally vague.  Johnson generated a large amount of litigation in the federal courts.  Less than a year after it was decided, the Supreme Court decided another Johnson case, Welch v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 1257 (2016), which held that the rule in Johnson should be applied retroactively to those defendants whose convictions and sentences have already become final.  The Supreme Court has also agreed to hear two new Johnson cases in the 2016 Term.

Johnson raised important constitutional doubts about federal statutes that employ the so-called “categorical approach” to classifying criminal conduct, as well as doubts about certain Federal Sentencing Guidelines.  This short essay describes Johnson and explores the Johnson-related issues that the Court will hear this Term....

Johnson v. United States is of the most cited U.S. Supreme Court cases from recent Terms.  Johnson obviously affected the large number of defendants who were sentenced under the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act.  It may, however, have a lasting impact on the vagueness doctrine itself.  By questioning the viability of the categorical approach and by clarifying that the doctrine applies also to laws that fix sentences, Johnson has called into doubt the constitutionality of other federal criminal laws and various Federal Sentencing Guidelines.  We will have to await the decisions in Lynch v. Dimaya and Beckles v. United States in order to fully assess the legacy of Johnson.  If the government loses those cases, then we are likely to see a further challenges to laws that fall within the long shadow of Johnson.

October 25, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (0)

Latest USSC data suggest prison savings now exceeding $2 billion from "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactivity

The US Sentencing Commission's website has this new data document titled simply "2014 Drug Guidelines Amendment Retroactivity Data Report." This report, dated October 2016, provides updated "information concerning motions for a reduced sentence pursuant to the retroactive application of Amendment 782. The data in this report reflects all motions decided through September 30, 2016, and for which court documentation was received, coded, and edited at the Commission by October 20, 2016."

The official data in the report indicate that, thanks to the USSC's decision to make Amendment 782, the so-called "drugs -2" guideline amendment, retroactive, now 29,391 federal prisoners have had their federal drug prison sentences reduced by an average of over two years. So, using my typical (conservative) estimate of each extra year of imprisonment for federal drug offenders costing on average $35,000, the USSC's decision to make its "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactive so far appears to be on track to save federal taxpayers around $2.1 billion dollars.

As I have said before and will say again in this context, kudos to the US Sentencing Commission for providing evidence that at least some government bureaucrats inside the Beltway will sometimes vote to reduce the size and taxpayer costs of the federal government. Perhaps more importantly, especially as federal statutory sentencing reforms remained stalled in Congress and as Prez Obama continues to be relatively cautious in his use of his clemency power, this data provide still more evidence that the work of the US Sentencing Commission in particular, and of the federal judiciary in general, remains the most continuously important and consequential force influencing federal prison populations and sentencing outcomes.

October 25, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (27)

"Skewed Justice: Citizens United, Television Advertising, and State Supreme Court Justices’ Decisions in Criminal Cases"

The title of this post is the title of this notable report authored by Joanna Shepherd and Michael S. Kang which I learned about via an email from The American Constitution Society for Law and Policy. Here is the text of that email, which provides a summary of the report's contents:

The explosion in spending on television attack advertisements in state supreme court elections accelerated by the Citizens United decision has made courts less likely to rule in favor of defendants in criminal appeals. That’s according to independent research sponsored by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy (ACS).  State supreme court justices, already the targets of sensationalist ads labeling them “soft on crime,” are under increasing pressure to allow electoral politics to influence their decisions, even when fundamental rights are at stake.

The report, Skewed Justice: Citizens United, Television Advertising, and State Supreme Court Justices’ Decisions in Criminal Cases, is a compilation of data from over 3,000 criminal appeals decided in state supreme courts in 32 states from 2008 to 2013.  Researchers found that the more TV ads aired during state supreme court judicial elections in a state, the less likely justices are to rule in favor of criminal defendants; and justices in states whose bans on corporate and union spending on elections were struck down by Citizens United were less likely to vote in favor of criminal defendants than they were before the Citizens United decision.

“The amount of money spent in state judicial elections has skyrocketed and the results of that spending are clear.  The flood of interest group money set free by Citizens United are endangering what should be impartial judicial decision-making and putting the fundamental constitutional rights of every American at risk,” said ACS President Caroline Fredrickson. “The data show that the television campaign ads this money buys put a thumb on the scale in criminal cases, and undermine the promise of equal justice that is a cornerstone of our democracy.”

Skewed Justice, by Dr. Joanna Shepherd and Dr. Michael S. Kang, both law professors at Emory University, follows the report Justice at Risk: An Empirical Analysis of Campaign Contributions and Judicial Decisions, published by ACS in 2013.  That report, authored by Professor Shepherd, revealed the growing influence of contributions on state supreme court judges. While the majority of media attention is focused on the United States Supreme Court, elected judges at the state level handle more than 90 percent of the United States’ judicial business.  This gives money and advertising huge influence in American democracy.  Beginning in the 1990s, and accelerating in almost every election cycle since, judicial elections have become more competitive and contentious, and campaign spending on these elections has skyrocketed, the research finds. Incumbent judges almost never lost their reelection bids during the 1980s, but by 2000 their loss rates had risen higher than those of congressional and state legislative incumbents. 

UPDATE: A helpful reader realized that this ACS-sponsored study is actually not so new, as it was first released a couple tears ago. I now assume ACS was promoting it anew (and led me to think it was new) because the report is extra-timely during a big elections season.

October 25, 2016 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, October 24, 2016

Is the death penalty in the United States really "nearing Its end"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new New York Times editorial headlined "The Death Penalty, Nearing Its End."  Here is the full text of the editorial:

Although the death penalty is still considered constitutional by the Supreme Court, Americans’ appetite for this barbaric practice diminishes with each passing year.  The signs of capital punishment’s impending demise are all around.

For the first time in nearly half a century, less than half of Americans said they support the death penalty, according to a Pew Research poll released last month.  While that proportion has been going down for years, the loss of majority support is an important marker against state-sanctioned killing.

At the same time, executions and new death sentences are at historic lows, and each year they go lower. In 2015 only 49 new death sentences were handed down, the lowest one-year total since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.

Since there were about 14,000 murders around the country last year, it’s easy to imagine that the small number of newly condemned people shows that the justice system is focusing on the “worst of the worst.”  But that’s wrong. In fact the crimes of the people sentenced to death are no worse than those of many others who escape that fate. Rather, nearly all of last year’s death sentences came from a tiny fraction of counties with three common features: overzealous prosecutors; inadequate public defenders; and a pattern of racial bias and exclusion. This was the key finding of a two-part report recently issued by the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard Law School.

Even in the most death-friendly counties, public support appears to be fading. In two of the worst — Duval County in Florida and Caddo Parish in Louisiana — local prosecutors lost elections at least partly due to voters’ concerns about their stance on the death penalty. In other counties around the country, prosecutors are finding that aggressive advocacy for death sentences isn’t the selling point with the public that it once was.

In some of the biggest states, death-penalty systems are defunct or collapsing. Earlier this month, the Florida Supreme Court struck down a terrible state law that allowed nonunanimous juries to impose death sentences — increasing the likelihood that innocent people and those with intellectual or mental disabilities would be condemned.  A large number of Florida’s 386 death-row inmates could now receive new sentencing trials, or have their sentences thrown out altogether.

In California, which hasn’t executed anyone since 2006 even though more than 740 inmates sit on death row, voters will decide in November whether to eliminate capital punishment for good. A similar ballot initiative in 2012 was narrowly defeated. In 2014, a federal judge ruled that the state’s decades-long delays in capital cases violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. (The decision was overturned by an appeals court on technical grounds the following year.)

While capital punishment is used rarely and only in some places, only a definitive ruling from the Supreme Court will ensure its total elimination. How close is the court to such a ruling? In recent dissenting opinions, three of the justices — Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor — have expressed deep misgivings about the death penalty’s repeated failure to meet the requirements of due process and equal protection. Justice Breyer has said it is “highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment,” and has called for the court to consider whether it is constitutional at all.

The death penalty has escaped abolition before, but there are no longer any excuses: The nation has evolved past it, and it is long past time for the court to send this morally abhorrent practice to its oblivion.

I wonder if anyone who is a strong supporter of capital punishment will write (and get published) a response to this editorial which might be headlined something like "The Death Penalty, Poised for a Big Comeback."  That response might highlight that, according to polls in deep blue California, voters there are seemingly going to provide "majority support" for making more efficient in California "state-sanctioned killing."  That response might highlight that, in swing state Ohio, executive officials have been working extra hard to get the state's machinery of death operative again and have execution dates scheduled for nearly two dozen condemned murderers in 2017 and 2018.  That response might highlight that, in swing state Florida, the state legislature has been quick and eager to retain and revise its death penalty statutes every time a court has found constitutional problems with its application.  That response might highlight that, in deep blue Massachusetts, a federal jury in 2015 wasted little time in deciding that “worst of the worst” capital defendant Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be condemned to die for his crime.  And that response might highlight that, in the most liberal national criminal justice administration of my lifetime, federal prosecutors of the Obama Administration were seemingly eager to pursue capital charges against the Charleston Church shooter Dylann Roof.

I could go on and on (mentioning, inter alia, developments in Alabama, Oklahoma, Nebraska and elsewhere), but my main point here is highlight the critical reality that the description of "death-penalty systems [as] defunct or collapsing" is largely a product of effective litigation by abolitionists and the work of courts, not really a reflection of a sea-change in public opinion or radical changes in the work of most legislatures and prosecutors in key regions of the United States.  The NYTimes editorial board my be right that we may soon see litigation by abolitionists achieve the ultimate success in the courts by having the Justices of the Supreme Court declare the death penalty per se unconstitutional.  But, absent some surprising political and social developments over the next few years, would-be abolitionists ought to be careful about counting chickens too soon.

October 24, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)