Thursday, January 29, 2015
George Toca now a free man ... and SCOTUS now lacks a live Miller retroactivity case
This local article from Louisiana, headlined "George Toca, La. inmate at center of debate on juvenile life sentences, to go free," reports on a remarkable turn of events in a case that was supposed to serve as the means for the Supreme Court to address the retroactivity of its Eighth Amendment Miller ruling. Here are the details:
A state prisoner from New Orleans who recently landed at the center of national legal debate about mandatory life sentences for youthful offenders won his freedom Thursday after 31 years in prison. Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office agreed to vacate his murder conviction.
George Toca, 47, is set to go free after pleading guilty instead to two counts of attempted armed robbery and one count of manslaughter from a 1984 stickup that ended with his best friend, Eric Batiste, fatally shot outside a convenience store on South Broad Street in Broadmoor.
Toca’s release almost certainly means the U.S. Supreme Court will scrap a scheduled hearing this spring on whether its 2012 decision in a case known as Miller v. Alabama, barring mandatory life sentences for juvenile convicts, is retroactive. The high court in November took up Toca’s case, above others, to settle an issue that affects about 1,000 convicts in Louisiana and three other states that have refused to apply the court’s ruling to older juvenile lifers.
A spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office said the DA will join in a motion with Toca’s attorneys to withdraw the Supreme Court case.
Toca, appearing briefly in court Thursday morning, pleaded guilty to the manslaughter count under an “Alford” plea, meaning he did not admit guilt but conceded that strong evidence could have led to his conviction. He returned to Angola State Penitentiary for processing, with his release expected late Thursday or Friday.
Newly elected Criminal District Court Judge Byron Williams granted the joint motion in a case that the Innocence Project New Orleans had pursued on Toca’s behalf for more than a decade. DA’s Office spokesman Christopher Bowman credited a warming relationship with Innocence Project attorneys, along with Toca’s productive years behind bars, for the decision to let him go free on the reduced charges.
Bowman called it “a just outcome,” also citing the vehemence of Batiste’s family in urging Toca’s release and the fact he will remain on parole for another 30 years under the deal. “In light of all those facts, the district attorney believed he was no longer a public safety risk,” Bowman said. “The District Attorney’s Office ... is not afraid to take a look at older cases.”...
Bowman insisted that the DA’s decision to come to a deal on Toca’s release was unrelated to the pending U.S. Supreme Court case, in which Cannizzaro’s office had been gearing up to argue against the retroactive application of Miller v. Alabama.
The high court didn’t ban states from sentencing some young killers to life without parole. But the 5-4 majority opinion insisted that courts must first weigh a defendant’s youth, adding that “we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.” The court said “youth matters for purposes of meting out the law’s most serious punishments,” citing “children’s diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change” when compared with adults.
In legal filings, Cannizzaro’s office argued that it would be a fool’s errand to force local judges, years or decades later, to discern a long-ago juvenile’s capacity for change. Advocates for juvenile lifers argued that the task would be made easier because judges can review an inmate’s record while behind bars. And they saw Toca’s case as a promising bellwether for what the high court justices might do....
According to the state, 272 Louisiana inmates had been sentenced as juveniles to life without the possibility of parole as of April 2013 — the bulk of them, like Toca, having been sentenced before the U.S. Supreme Court decision. State Supreme Courts in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota also have found that Miller v. Alabama does not apply retroactively, setting up the fight at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Toca’s vacated conviction and release will leave the issue unresolved for now, said Cara Drinan, an associate professor of law at Catholic University of America. Still, she expects the Supreme Court to take up the retroactivity question relatively soon in some other case, now that it has signaled its interest in settling the issue. “For George Toca, this is a victory and a great thing,” Drinan said. “For those of us looking at the bigger issue, and for the hundreds of people waiting for a resolution, we’ll have to wait.”
With overwhelming public support, Japanese Justice Minister continues with capital punishment
As reported in this news article, "Japan is to continue applying the death penalty after over 80 percent of the country's population expressed their support for the measure, media Thursday cited Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa as saying." Here is more:
A recent government survey revealed that 80.3 percent of respondents backed the death penalty, while 9.7 percent felt that it should be abolished. Kamikawa termed the results as positive and said strict and careful measures would continue in this regard.
She said there was no intention of revising the current policy in the short term, despite having hinted at times the possibility of introducing life sentences for capital crimes. "Most people believe it is unavoidable for those who committed extremely malicious crimes to face (execution)," Kamikawa said, according to the Asahi daily newspaper.
Kamikawa also made a reference to the global trend against the death penalty and the petition by activists for Japan to end capital punishment. "It is a problem associated with what country Japan should be, and it is (the Japanese people's) business," she said.
Eleven convicts have been executed since the current government took office in December 2012. Japan, along with the US, is the only developed and democratic country that still imposes the death penalty.
I tend also to include India on a list of "developed and democratic country that still imposes the death penalty," but maybe some would dispute characterizing India as developed.
Wednesday, January 28, 2015
Notable political debate over adding LWOP to punishments in Canada
The lengthy press article from Canada, headlined "Tories to table life in prison without parole, shifting legal landscape," spotlights an interesting debate over LWOP sentences up north. Here are excerpts:
The Conservative government is developing legislation that would mean some murderers will have no hope of release from prison. The new penalty would apply to several categories of those convicted of first-degree murder: killers of police and jail guards, anyone who kills during a sexual assault, kidnapping or act of terrorism and for especially brutal murders. The current penalty for first-degree murder is an automatic life sentence with the first chance for a parole review after 25 years, and the supervision of parole authorities for life.
The planned legislation has yet to be approved by cabinet, a source said. The departments of Public Safety and Justice, which are working together on the new bill, were told to speed up their work after a man shot two Mounties in St. Albert, Alta., on Jan. 17, killing one. The bill is expected to be introduced within a couple of weeks of a new terrorism bill coming on Friday, the source said....
A spokesperson for Justice Minister Peter MacKay declined to comment directly on the categories outlined by The Globe, but quoted the Throne Speech of October, 2013, saying: “Canadians do not understand why the most dangerous criminals would ever be released from prison. We are currently reviewing options to ensure that a life sentence actually means life.”...
The United States is one of the last democracies with the death penalty, and all states but Alaska have the penalty of “life without parole.” The U.S. Supreme Court says life without parole shares some characteristics with the death penalty in that it alters an offender’s life by a “forfeiture that is irrevocable.” Prisoner advocates have dubbed it “the other death penalty,” and “death by incarceration.”
Since Canada abolished the death penalty in 1976, the homicide rate has fallen from 3.08 victims for every 100,000 people to 1.44, its lowest rate since 1966. “It is so patently a sentence that reeks of vengeance that it’s hard to have a sensible political debate,” Archie Kaiser, a specialist in criminal law at Dalhousie’s Schulich School of Law in Halifax, said of life without parole. Vengeance is “really something we have cast aside in Canada, at least since we removed the death penalty.”
Gary Clewley, a defence lawyer in Toronto whose clients are mostly police officers, said the law professor “confuses vengeance with legitimate public indignation. You can’t compare a trial and appellate process at great public expense where people are guaranteed legal counsel and a trial of their peers to a lynch mob.”...
Until now, the Conservative government has taken an incremental approach to life penalties. In 2011, it removed the “faint-hope clause,” which allowed those convicted of murder to apply to a jury after 15 years for the right to an early parole hearing. Also in 2011, it allowed judges to add together the periods of parole eligibility for multiple murders. Two Canadians have been sentenced under the provision, including Justin Bourque, 24, sentenced to life with no eligibility for 75 years in the shooting deaths of three Mounties in New Brunswick last spring....
The cost could be enormous: Canada has 1,115 offenders who were sentenced to life for first-degree murder, of whom 203 have been released on parole; the average cost to keep a man in maximum security is $148,000, compared with $35,000 on parole, figures from Correctional Service Canada show. Forty years in jail would cost nearly $6-million for one person in maximum-security, and $6-billion for 1,000.
As of 2006, lifers on parole had killed 58 people. That category includes those such as Robert Bruce Moyes, sentenced to life as an armed bank robber, who, while on parole killed seven people in Abbotsford, B.C., in 1996. In recent years, the website of Correctional Service Canada has described those serving life sentences as “the most likely to succeed on parole.” A spokesperson said on Monday the agency could not identify, for privacy reasons, the last first-degree murderer released on parole who killed again, nor how many have done so since 1976.
Monday, January 26, 2015
"The Unconvincing Case Against Private Prisons"
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing recent article by Malcolm M Feeley just now appearing on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
In 2009, the Israeli High Court of Justice held that private prisons are unconstitutional. This was more than a domestic constitutional issue. The court anchored its decision in a carefully reasoned opinion arguing that the state has a monopoly on the administration of punishment, and thus private prisons violate basic principles of modern democratic governance. This position was immediately elaborated upon by a number of leading legal philosophers, and the expanded argument has reverberated among legal philosophers, global constitutionalists, and public officials around the world. Private prisons are a global phenomenon, and this argument now stands as the definitive principled statement opposing them.
In this Article, I argue that the state monopoly theory against privatization is fundamentally flawed. The Article challenges the historical record and philosophy of the state on which the theory is based, and then explores two other issues the theory wholly ignores: private custodial arrangements in other settings that are widely regarded as acceptable if not exemplary and third-party state arrangements that are universally hailed as exemplary.
The Article presents first-of-its-kind empirical data on private prisons in Australia, discusses the implications of readily available information on juvenile facilities, and explores interstate compacts on prisoner transfers. The Article maintains that the state monopoly theory erroneously asserts that privatization is inconsistent with the modern state, and concludes with a call for policymakers and judges to imbue their future privatization decisions with local knowledge and time-honored pragmatism.
Sunday, January 04, 2015
"Switzerland has too many criminals and too few prisons"
The title of this post is from the first sentence of this recent AP article headlined "Switzerland mulls plan to export prisoners." Here is more about a notable European nation having a problem all to common in the US:
Now the Justice Ministry is reportedly considering a proposal to export convicts to neighboring France and Germany. Swiss prisons chief Thomas Freytag told public broadcaster SRF in a program aired late Friday that the country's correctional facilities are at more than 100 percent capacity.
Prisons in the French-speaking cantons (states) of western Switzerland are said to be particularly overcrowded. It's unclear when the Justice Ministry would decide on the plan, and whether France or Germany would be prepared to let Swiss inmates do their time there.
Left out of this brief story is the basic fact that Switzerland, at recent count, has less than 7,000 prisoners in the whole country and an incarceration rate that is only about 1/8th of the incarceration rate in the United States. For comparison, consider that the US state of Virginia has a state-wide population that is a little lower than Switzerland's, but it has more than 30,000 prisoners (and that count excludes a few thousand federal prisoners coming from Virginia).
Wednesday, December 03, 2014
Praise for Texas justice embracing "Right on Crime" from across the pond
This new BBC article, headlined "Why Texas is closing prisons in favour of rehab," provides a notable example of the rest of the world taking note (and praising) the "right on crime" movement. The piece is authored by a Danny Kruger, a former speechwriter for UK's prime minister David Cameron, and here are excerpts:
Coming from London to spend a couple of days in Texas last month, I was struck most of all by how generous and straightforward everyone was. Talking to all sorts of different people about crime and punishment, the same impression came across: We expect people to do the right thing and support them when they do. When they don't we punish them, but then we welcome them back and expect good behaviour again. It's not naive, it's just clear.
For years that straightforward moral outlook translated into a tough criminal justice system. As in the rest of the US, the economic dislocations of the 1970s, compounded by the crack epidemic in the 1980s, led to a series of laws and penal policies which saw the prison population skyrocket. Texas, for instance, has half the population of the UK but twice its number of prisoners.
Then something happened in 2007, when Texas Republican Congressman Jerry Madden was appointed chairman of the House Corrections Committee with the now famous words by his party leader: "Don't build new prisons. They cost too much." The impulse to what has become the Right on Crime initiative was fiscal conservatism — the strong sense that the taxpayer was paying way too much money to fight a losing war against drugs, mental ill-health and petty criminality.
What Madden found was that too many low-level offenders were spending too long in prison, and not reforming. On the contrary, they were getting worse inside and not getting the help they needed on release. The only response until then, from Democrat as well as Republican legislators, was to build more prisons. Indeed, Mr Madden's analysis suggested that a further 17,000 prisoners were coming down the pipe towards them, requiring an extra $500m (£320m) for new prisons.
But he and his party didn't want to spend more money building new prisons. So they thought of something else — rehab. Consistent with the straightforward Texan manner, the Congressional Republicans did not attempt to tackle what in Britain are known as "the causes of crime" — the socio-economic factors that make people more disposed to offend. Instead, they focused on the individual criminal, and his or her personal choices. Here, they believe, moral clarity and generosity are what's needed.
Though fiscal conservatism may have got the ball rolling, what I saw in Texas — spending time in court and speaking to offenders, prison guards, non-profit staff and volunteers — goes way beyond the desire to save money. The Prison Entrepreneurship Programme, for instance, matches prisoners with businesspeople and settles them in a residential community on release. Its guiding values are Christian and its staff's motives seem to be love and hope for their "brothers", who in turn support the next batch of prisoners leaving jail.
The statutory system is not unloving either. Judge Robert Francis's drugs court in Dallas is a well-funded welfare programme all of its own — though it is unlike any welfare programme most of the 250 ex-offenders who attend it have ever seen. Clean and tidy, it is staffed by around 30 professionals who are intensely committed to seeing their clients stay clean and out of jail, even if that means sending them back to prison for short periods, as Judge Francis regularly does when required....
Immediate, comprehensible and proportionate sanctions are given for bad behaviour, plus accountability to a kind leader and supportive community. This is the magic sauce of Right on Crime.
Far from having to build new jails for the 17,000 expected new inmates, Jerry Madden and his colleagues have succeeded in closing three prisons. I visited one by the Trinity River in Dallas, now ready for sale and redevelopment. They spent less than half the $500 million earmarked for prison building on rehab initiatives and crime is falling faster than elsewhere.
This, then, ticks all the boxes - it cuts crime, saves money and demonstrates love and compassion towards some of the most excluded members of society. It is, in a sense, what conservatives in America and Britain dream of — a realistic vision of a smaller state, where individuals are accountable for their actions and communities take responsibility for themselves and their neighbours. It is a more positive version of the anti-politics — anti-Washington, anti-Westminster — tide that seems to be sweeping the West.
December 3, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Monday, October 27, 2014
Prosecutors in South Africa indicate they plan to appeal Pistorius outcome
As reported in this article, headlined "South Africa prosecutors to appeal against Pistorius sentence," it appears that the Blade Runner is not done running from serious legal difficulties. Here are the bascis:
South Africa’s state prosecutor plans to appeal against Oscar Pistorius’s culpable homicide conviction and five-year prison sentence for shooting his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, it said on Monday.
Nathi Mncube, spokesman for the National Prosecuting Authority, said the NPA expected to file papers in the next few days. Until the papers were filed, it would not announce the grounds for appeal, it said.
But Pistorius’s conviction for culpable homicide has drawn criticism from some legal commentators. After the athlete, a double-amputee who starred at the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics, was sentenced last week, there was more controversy when lawyers said he could serve as little as 10 months, or a sixth of the five-year term.
In South Africa, an appeal can only be made on a matter of law, “where we think . . . the judge made an error in interpretation and in the manner in which she applied the law to the facts”, Mr Mncube said.
Pistorius had been charged with premeditated murder after shooting Steenkamp, a 29-year-old model and law graduate, four times through the locked toilet door in a bathroom at his home in the early hours of Valentine’s Day last year. But Judge Thokozile Masipa ruled that the prosecution failed to show Pistorius had intent to kill, while saying there was “no basis on which this court could make inferences of why the accused would want to kill the deceased”. Instead, she appeared to believe Pistorius’s version of events, despite describing the 27-year-old as a “poor” and “evasive” witness.
Thursday, October 23, 2014
"How Changes in American Culture Triggered Hyper-Incarceration: Variations on the Tazian View"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Christopher Slobogin now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
American imprisonment rates are far higher than the rates in virtually every Western country, even after taking into account differing rates of crime. The late Professor Andrew Taslitz suggested that at least one explanation for this puzzle is the relative lack of “populist, deliberative democracy” in the United States.
This article, written for a symposium honoring Professor Taslitz, examines that thesis from a comparative perspective, looking in particular at how differences between American and European attitudes toward populism, capitalism, religiosity, racial attitudes and proceduralism may have led to increased incarceration rates. It also tries to explain another puzzle that has received little attention: why these cultural differences, which have existed for some time, only had an impact on incarceration rates after the 1960s.
Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Graphic representation of female prisoners around the world
I just tripped across this interesting piece and infographic published last month via Forbes. The piece is headlined "Nearly A Third Of All Female Prisoners Worldwide Are Incarcerated In The United States," and here is the text that goes along with the infographic:
According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, nearly a third of all female prisoners worldwide are incarcerated in the United States of America. There are 201,200 women in US prisons, representing 8.8 percent of the total American prison population.
China comes a very distant second to the United States with 84,600 female prisoners in total or 5.1% of the overall Chinese prison population. Russia is in third position -- 59,000 of its prisoners are women and this comes to 7.8 percent of the total.
Across the world, 625,000 women and children are being held in penal institutions with the female prison population growing on all five continents.
Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Bladerunner Oscar Pistorius sentenced to five years in prison for killing girlfriend
As reported in this lengthy CNN piece, "Oscar Pistorius' fall from grace culminated Tuesday with a five-year sentence in the shooting death of his girlfriend." Here is more:
The sentence was imposed for the charge of culpable homicide, which in South Africa means a person was killed unintentionally, but unlawfully. Under South African law, he will have to serve at least one-sixth of his sentence -- 10 months -- before he can ask to be placed under correctional supervision, usually house arrest, instead....
During his trial, the double-amputee sprinter often sobbed at the mention of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp's name. He insisted that he mistook her for an intruder when he shot her through a toilet door on Valentine's Day 2013. But there was very little visible reaction from Pistorius as the sentence was read out in the Pretoria court.
Speaking to CNN's Robyn Curnow in the last few weeks before his sentencing, Pistorius told her that he would respect and accept the decision of the court and that he was not afraid of imprisonment. He said he hoped to contribute while in prison by teaching people how to read or start a gym or running club. "Oscar will embrace this opportunity to pay back to society," his uncle, Arnold Pistorius, told reporters. "As an uncle, I hope Oscar will start his own healing process as he walks down the path of restoration. As a family, we are ready to support and guide Oscar as he serves his sentence."
The Steenkamp family's lawyer, Dup De Bruyn, said in a statement: "The family is satisfied. They are glad that it is over and are satisfied that justice has been done."
The prosecution had asked for a minimum prison sentence of 10 years for Pistorius. After the ruling Tuesday, South Africa's National Prosecuting Authority said it had not yet decided whether to appeal Judge Thokozile Masipa's verdict that he is not guilty of murder. Pistorius' defense had called for a sentence of house arrest and community service. There was no immediate reaction from the defense team on the sentencing. Both sides now have a 14-day period in which they can choose to lodge any appeal, according to CNN legal analyst Kelly Phelps....
Giving her reasoning Tuesday, Masipa emphasized that the decision on sentencing would be "mine and mine alone." She pointed out that sentencing is not an exact science but relies on an assessment of elements, including the nature and seriousness of the crime, the personal circumstances of the accused and the interests of society.
She said she would also take into account the factors in sentencing of retribution, deterrence and rehabilitation. In any case, she said, "sentencing is about achieving the right balance."
In her final remarks, Masipa dismissed evidence given by probation officer Annette Vergeer that prison would not be able to accommodate Pistorius' disability, saying her testimony was based on outdated information and sketchy. She said Pistorius would not present the prison system with an "insurmountable challenge."
The judge added that she felt that Pistorius' vulnerability had been overemphasized in the evidence given and that his excellent coping strategies -- shown in his ability to compete with able-bodied athletes -- had been overlooked. He would be able to continue treatment for physical problems and mental health issues while in prison, she said.
In terms of the seriousness of the offense, Masipa said Pistorius had shown gross negligence in shooting into a small toilet cubicle, knowing there was someone inside who could not escape. He also knew how to handle firearms, she said, adding that these were "very aggravating" factors.
On the other hand, mitigating factors include that Pistorius is a first offender and remorseful, Masipa said. She also mentioned his contribution to society in giving his time and money to charities and inspiring others with disabilities to believe they could succeed.
Perhaps seeking to preempt criticism from those who'd like to see either a tougher or more lenient sentence, Masipa pointed out that the purpose of the court is to serve the public interest, not make itself popular. She also indicated that her sentence wasn't affected by Pistorius' fame. "It would be a sad day for this country if the impression was to be created that there was one law for the poor and disadvantaged and another for the rich and famous," she said.
The judge also highlighted the loss suffered by Steenkamp's family, which has had a negative effect on her father's health. Steenkamp was young, vivacious and full of life at the time of her death, she said. "The loss of life cannot be reversed. Nothing I say or do today can reverse what happened," she said.
Previous related post:
October 21, 2014 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
Monday, October 13, 2014
"Will Oscar Pistorius serve any prison time for killing Reeva Steenkamp?"
The question in the title of this post is the first line of this AP article headlined "Factors that may affect if Pistorius spends time in prison." Because I know very little about South African sentencing law and procedure, I found this AP article quite informative, and here are excerpts:
Judge Thokozile Masipa began hearing testimony Monday before deciding what sentence the double-amputee Olympic athlete should serve. Pistorius was acquitted of murder in Steenkamp's shooting death but convicted of a lesser charge of culpable homicide, or killing Steenkamp through negligence. It has a wide range of possible sentences in South Africa, from a fine and no prison time to as much as 15 years in jail....
Judge Masipa will hear testimony from a small number of witnesses called by the defence and then prosecution before deciding on Pistorius' sentence. The defence began presenting witness testimony on Monday, arguing why the judge should be lenient. Prosecutors could call Steenkamp's family members to show that Pistorius should be sent to prison for years because of the suffering he has caused....
Pistorius' lawyers cited what they say is his remorse and previous good character as reasons for a lenient sentence. Defence lawyers began by calling a psychologist who has counselled the athlete since he killed Steenkamp. Dr. Lore Hartzenberg testified that Pistorius was a "broken man" wracked with grief following the shooting, and had lost his reputation, his friends and his career. The defence hopes her testimony -- which focused on what she said was Pistorius' emotional pain following an accidental killing -- will help persuade Masipa that Pistorius is remorseful, has suffered already and shouldn't be sent to prison because he needs ongoing therapy.
Prosecutor Gerrie Nel countered that Pistorius was "still alive" and Steenkamp wasn't and that should be considered....
Pistorius' work with charities before the Feb. 14, 2013 shooting was listed extensively by his agent, Peet van Zyl, who was also called by the defence. Van Zyl's testimony was designed to paint the Paralympic champion as a generally good person who had no previous criminal record. He also said that Pistorius had lost all his athletics endorsements because of the court case and had already been punished financially.
A social worker from South Africa's department of correctional services was the only one of the three defence witnesses who testified on the first day of the hearing to suggest a sentence. Joel Maringa said three years of "correctional supervision" would be appropriate, where Pistorius would be partly under house arrest and have to do community service, but would also be able to train and attend athletics meets.
Nel fiercely criticized that suggestion, saying it was "shockingly inappropriate" after Pistorius killed someone. The prosecution, which sought a murder conviction, has insisted that Pistorius should go to prison because of the level of negligence he displayed when he fired four hollow-point bullets through a toilet cubicle door in his home and into a small space without checking who was inside.
Masipa's options are wide-ranging: She could order a fine and a suspended prison sentence, meaning the 27-year-old Pistorius spends no time in jail unless he offends again. But she could also sentence him to up to 15 years in prison. In between those two scenarios, Masipa could order he be put under house arrest for a period. Pistorius could apply for parole after serving half of any prison sentence.
Wednesday, October 08, 2014
Criticizing the tenure of AG Eric Holder based on the death penalty as a human rights issue
This extended New Republic commentary authored by Mugambi Jouet, somewhat inaccurately titled "What Eric Holder — and Most Americans — Don't Understand About the Death Penalty," takes shots at Holder's specific record on the death penalty:
Attorney General Eric Holder's recent resignation announcement prompted a flurry of assessments on his six years of service under President Obama. He let Wall Street off too easy. He was a hero to the poor. He compromised civil liberties in the name of national security—and defended civil rights better than any attorney general before him. But the debate over Holder’s record has overlooked one of the most important aspects of his legacy. Holder has been profoundly at odds with the rest of the Western world on one of the most significant human rights issues of our time: the death penalty.
All Western democracies except America have abolished capital punishment and consider it an inherent human rights violation. America further stands out as one of the countries that execute the most people. Thirty-nine prisoners were executed by the United States in 2013. While that figure marked a continuing decline in the annual number of U.S. executions, it still placed America fifth worldwide, right behind several authoritarian regimes: China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.
No federal prisoner has been executed since 2003, yet Holder’s decisions could ultimately lead this de facto moratorium to end, as he authorized federal prosecutors to pursue capital punishment in several dozen cases. "Even though I am personally opposed to the death penalty, as Attorney General I have to enforce federal law," Holder has argued. Prosecutors actually have the discretion not to pursue the death penalty at all — at the risk of losing popularity — since enforcing the law does not require pursuing capital punishment as opposed to incarceration....
Holder notably approved the decision to seek the death penalty in the federal trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is accused of perpetrating the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013 — and whom a majority of Americans want to be executed. Nevertheless, the state of Massachusetts has abolished the death penalty and only 33 percent of Boston residents support executing Tsarnaev as opposed to sentencing him to life in prison without parole. However, Holder’s decisions supporting capital punishment have hardly been limited to terrorism cases. For example, he authorized the recent decision to seek the death penalty for Jessie Con-Ui, a Pennsylvania prisoner accused of murdering a federal correctional officer....
The death penalty is rarely framed as a human rights issue in America, unlike in other Western democracies. That's partly because the principle of human rights plays a very limited role overall in the legal and political debate in the U.S., where "human rights" commonly evoke foreign problems like abuses in Third World dictatorships — not problems at home.
The situation is different on the other side of the Atlantic, where the European Court of Human Rights tackles a broad range of problems facing European states, from freedom of speech to labor rights, discrimination, and criminal justice reform. National human rights commissions also exist in multiple countries, including Australia, Denmark, France, Germany, and New Zealand. These bodies focus mostly or exclusively on monitoring domestic compliance with human rights standards. On the other hand, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, an arm of the U.S. Congress, focuses on the human rights records of foreign countries.
The relative absence of human rights as a principle in modern America is remarkable given how U.S. leaders actively promoted the concept in its infancy. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt invoked “human rights” in his “Four Freedoms Speech” of 1941. Eleanor Roosevelt was among the architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. As the human rights movement progressed in later decades, Martin Luther King said in 1968 that “we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights.”
Even though Holder regards King as one of his models — and despite his proposals to make the U.S. penal system less punitive and discriminatory — the nation’s first black attorney general hardly put human rights at the center of his agenda.
The death penalty is far from the only human right issue where America stands apart from other Western democracies. America effectively has the world’s top incarceration rate, with 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners. America is likewise virtually alone worldwide in authorizing life imprisonment for juveniles. Its reliance on extremely lengthy periods of solitary confinement has been denounced by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture. The extreme punishments regularly meted to U.S. prisoners are generally considered flagrant human rights violations in other Western countries. Nevertheless, Holder argued that America has “the greatest justice system the world has ever known.”
By the same token, no other modern Western democracy has gone as far as America in disregarding international human rights standards as part of anti-terrorism measures. This trend has been epitomized by indefinite detention at Guantanamo and the torture of alleged terrorists under the Bush administration. These practices have sharply divided U.S. public opinion but only a segment of Americans have depicted them as “human rights” abuses....
[T]he limited weight of human rights in the U.S. legal and political debate is not without consequences. Human rights are a far stronger basis to oppose practices like the death penalty or torture than the administrative arguments frequently invoked in America. The human rights argument against such practices is largely based on the premise that they violate human dignity....
Holder's narrow focus on problems with the administration of capital punishment suggests that he is among the many U.S. public officials and reformers who believe they have no duty to assess the “moral” issues regarding the death penalty. Whether this stance is justified or not, it seems quite exceptionally American in the modern Western world. Most contemporary European, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealander jurists probably would disagree with the notion that it is not their duty to assess whether executions violate human dignity.
Martin Luther King, who considered the death penalty an affront to human dignity, argued that “a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” Perhaps Eric Holder — and his boss, Barack Obama — would have been willing to argue that the death penalty is dehumanizing if they did not fear losing popularity.
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Reviewing how death is different (but still being used) in Japan
This new piece from The Economist, headlined "The death penalty in Japan: Hanging tough," discusses the on-going debate over capital punishment in the Land of the Rising Sun. Here are excerpts:
It is one of the anomalies of Japan’s approach to the death penalty that a stricken conscience can bring the system grinding to a halt. At least two Japanese justice ministers have refused to sign execution orders, most recently Seiken Sugiura, a devout Buddhist who oversaw a 15-month moratorium from 2005 to 2006. But Japan’s new justice minister, Midori Matsushima, seems unburdened by such doubts.
Ms Matsushima, who took office this month, has swatted away demands to review the system. Japan is one of 22 nations and the only developed country — apart from America, where it is falling out of favour — that retains capital punishment. “I don’t think it deserves any immediate reform,” she said last week: in her view the gallows are needed “to punish certain very serious crimes”.
Calls for a review have grown since the release earlier this year of Iwao Hakamada, a 78-year-old who spent 45 years of his life in a toilet-sized cell awaiting execution. A Japanese court said the police evidence that put him behind bars in 1966 was probably fabricated. Mr Hakamada, dubbed the world’s longest-serving death-row prisoner, is awaiting a fresh verdict later this year. Prosecutors have lodged an appeal against his retrial.
Opponents are hoping that the state’s stubborn fight to wheel another elderly man back to the gallows (he is severely ill and suffers from advanced dementia) may trigger debate and a backlash. But critics face an uphill struggle. Japan’s media largely steers clear of the topic. Ms Matsushima points to public support of over 85% on carefully-worded surveys put out by the cabinet: respondents reply to whether execution is “unavoidable if the circumstance demands it”.
Mr Hakamada would not be the first elderly or infirm inmate to be hanged in Japan. On Christmas day in 2006, Fujinami Yoshio, aged 75, was brought to the gallows in the Tokyo Detention Centre in a wheelchair. Even the openly abolitionist Keiko Chiba, who was justice minister from 2009 to 2010, failed to make a dent in the system. In July 2010 she signed and attended two executions in a bid, she said, to start a public discussion that quickly petered out.
Thursday, September 18, 2014
Long-incarcerated mass murderer given right to end his life in Belgium
A helpful reader alerted me to this fascinating article from overseas headlined "Serial murderer and rapist, 50, given right to die under controversial Belgian euthanasia laws." Here are excerpts:
A serial murderer and rapist has been given the right to end his life under controversial Belgian euthanasia laws, it has emerged. Frank Van Den Bleeken, 50, has been behind bars for 30 years and has no hope of release because of his intensely violent urges. Now judges in Brussels have agreed that Van Den Bleeken can commit suicide with the help of medics.
Jos Vander Velpen, the prisoner’s lawyer, said: ‘Over recent years, he has been seen by several doctors and psychologists and their conclusion is that he is suffering, and suffering unbearably.’
It will be the first time that a Belgian legal ruling about euthanasia which specifically applies to a serving prisoner has been handed down. It was rubber stamped by the country’s Justice Ministry, which is ultimately responsible for everyone serving time in jail.
In all cases, patients must be conscious and have presented a ‘voluntary, considered and repeated’ request to die. Mr Vander Velpen said his client met all such conditions, and for the past four years had felt he ‘couldn’t stand to live like this any longer and could no longer accept the pain’.
Van Den Bleeken will be transferred from his prison in Bruges to a hospital, where he will be euthanised. Like every other country in the Union, Belgium does not have a death penalty, and technically doctors will only be helping Van Den Bleeken die.
Van Den Bleeken himself said in recent TV documentary: ‘If people commit a sexual crime, help them to deal with it. Just locking them up helps no one — neither the individual, society or the victims. ‘I am a human being, and regardless of what I’ve done, I remain a human being. So, yes, give me euthanasia.’
Despite being a mainly Roman Catholic country, Belgium has always been at the forefront of liberalising euthanasia laws. It made euthanasia legal in 2002, making it only the second country in the world to do so after Holland. Last year alone, Belgium euthanised a record 1,807 people.
Van Den Bleeken has only left prison once in the past three decades — to attend his mother’s funeral. A Belgian justice ministry spokesman said Van Den Bleeken would be euthanised ‘shortly’ at this own request.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the decision to grant Van Den Bleeken a right to die, as evidenced by this companion commentary piece headlined "Why should our sister's killer be allowed to die with dignity when our suffering goes on?". Here is an excerpt of that piece providing some more context:
Van Den Bleeken is the first serving prisoner to be granted the right to die because of psychological torment. Another Belgian inmate was euthanised last year but he suffered from an incurable physical illness. But, as a direct result of the ruling, 15 other Belgian prisoners have already applied for euthanasia, even though the death penalty was abolished in 1996.
The case has renewed controversy about state-sanctioned suicide and raised serious ethical concerns. But it also calls into question the very nature of punishment and whether murderers and rapists should “suffer” for their heinous crimes or get treatment and rehabilitation.
Medics warn that euthanasia must not become an alternative to treatment while prison reformers insist it must not become a back-door return to the death penalty.
The country’s leading euthanasia advocate is also opposed to Van Den Bleeken’s death. Professor Wim Distelmans, chairman of the Belgian Board of Control for Euthanasia ... said: “It is wrong to allow him to end his life like this.” But Nikhil Roy, Director of Programmes at Penal Reform International, said: “While people are in prison it is the responsibility of the prison authorities to provide adequate care and opportunities for rehabilitation. This case highlights the lack of adequate therapy for prisoners and the fact that mental health issues are widespread in prisons around the world.”
September 18, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
Thursday, August 07, 2014
Greek priest helps poor inmates buy their way out of Greek prisons
This new AP article, headlined "In Greek crisis, priest roams prisons to buy inmates their freedom," reports on what might be viewed as a remarkable "alternative sentencing" program in Greece and the noble role played by a clergy to make the system a bit less economically unfair. Here are the details:
In Greek justice, money talks ...: Some inmates jailed for minor offences are allowed to buy their freedom — at an average rate of five euros per day.
With the rich at a clear advantage, Greek Orthodox priest Gervasios Raptopoulos has devoted his life to paying off the prison terms of penniless inmates.
The soft-spoken 83-year-old with a long white beard and black robes has helped more than 15,000 convicts secure their freedom over nearly four decades, according to records kept by his charity. The Greek rules apply only to people convicted of offences that carry a maximum five-year sentence, such as petty fraud, bodily harm, weapons possession, illegal logging, resisting arrest and minor drugs offences.
His work, however, is getting harder. Gervasios, 83, has seen his charity's funds, which all come from private donations, plummet in Greece's financial crisis. And there has been a sharp rise in inmates who can't afford to pay their way out of prison. "Where people would offer 100 euros ($135), they now give 50 ($67). But that doesn't stop us," he told The Associated Press in an interview.
The crisis, which has worsened already hellish prison conditions, makes his efforts even more pressing. "Our society rejects inmates and pushes them into the margins," he said. "People often say: 'It serves them right.'"
While behind bars, inmates also need money to buy necessities such as toilet paper and soap when the often meagre supplies provided by prison run out. Gervasios helps them, too, either with cash or handouts.
Greece has a prison population of about 13,000 — far above capacity — forcing authorities to cram inmates into police holding cells as they wait for a place in jail. Gervasios' charity allocates up to 500 euros ($675) for each prisoner they help, but the amount needed varies. Sometimes a small sum goes a long way. "Once, we gave a man 8.5 euros, which was what he lacked to gain his freedom," he said....
Many prisoners released by his efforts in Greece are foreigners. If they die in prison, the charity pays for their bodies to be taken home. Since launching the charity in 1978, Father Gervasios has received several state awards, including one of the highest civilian honors granted by the government. The Justice Ministry, responsible for Greece's prisons, is unstinting in its praise.
"For decades now, Father Gervasios Raptopoulos has carried out exceptional work, offering human warmth and solidarity to prisoners," said Marinos Skandamis, the ministry's secretary-general. It is inmates and prison staff who are the most grateful. "We would send him papers concerning prisoners who could be freed with a cash payment, and details on what they were in prison for," said Costas Kapandais, a former governor at Greece's Komotini and Diavata prisons. "He didn't turn down a single request."
Thursday, June 05, 2014
Will Canada's courts continue to strike down mandatory minimums as unconstitutional?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this interesting recent commentary in a Canadian paper sent my way by a helpful reader. The piece by Lisa Kerr is headlined, "Mandatory minimums for drug crimes have no future in Canada: As the B.C. Court of Appeal prepares to hear the first major challenge to mandatory minimums, there’s reason to think the policy will be rightly short-lived." Here are excerpts:
This week, the B.C. Court of Appeal hears the first major challenge to the latest symptom of a punitive plague: mandatory incarceration for a drug crime. The defendant, 25-year-old Joseph Lloyd, lives in the downtown eastside of Vancouver, where he struggles with addiction and regularly interacts with the court system. In the past, local judges could use their expertise to craft an individualized punishment for people like Lloyd. Community supervision, drug programming, or specific amounts of jail time could target his specific circumstances.
New legislation compels judges to impose a minimum one-year prison term on all individuals who meet a handful of criteria. Judges can no longer consider whether it is in the public interest to incarcerate someone like Lloyd, or for how long. They can no longer consider whether a person will lose housing or employment. While one year in a chaotic jail is unlikely to help a struggling individual to recover stability, that is a judge’s only option unless the law is struck down.
In the United States, the removal of discretion from sentencing judges is the central cause of its famously high rate of incarceration. There are nine million prisoners in the world. Over two million of them are in the U.S....
The arrival of mandatory sentences does not herald the “Americanization” of Canadian crime policy. The deep principles of our criminal justice system cannot be dismantled overnight. Our prosecutors are not a bloodthirsty lot — they are largely anonymous and professional public servants. Unlike many of their American counterparts, Canadian prosecutors are not subject to elections and public scrutiny. They are better positioned to pursue a broad notion of the public interest, rather than just long prison sentences.
Canadian judges are also likely to resist interference by politicians who are detached from the daily reality of human misery faced in criminal courts. And they have the tools to do so. While Canada and the U.S. have identical language in the constitutional prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment,” the prohibition has been interpreted very differently in the courts.
In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a life sentence for a third offence of stealing golf clubs. In 1987, the Canadian Supreme Court struck down the only previous attempt at automatic incarceration for drug crime: a seven-year term for drug trafficking. So far, mandatory sentences for non-violent drug offences are unconstitutional in this country.
Canadian institutions are likely to resist this untimely American policy transplant. There is no collapse of faith in our courts, there is no crime wave, and there is no Southern Strategy. Joseph Lloyd should encounter a court system that is free to encounter him.
Friday, May 23, 2014
"Treating Prisoners With Dignity Can Reduce Crime"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable new National Journal commentary authored by Nicholas Turner and John Wetzel. The piece's subheadline is "In Europe, prisoners work for real wages and even cook for themselves. And when they leave prison, they don't come back." And here are excerpts:
It sounds like the first line of a joke: "Three state corrections teams and some experts who are old hands at visiting prisons go to meet their warden counterparts in Germany and the Netherlands in mid-January to see what they could learn."
But it's a true story — and what high-level delegations from Colorado, Georgia, and Pennsylvania learned through the Vera Institute of Justice's European-American Prison Project is no laughing matter. What we learned, in fact, has serious and timely boots-on-the-ground implications....
For those of us who visited Germany and The Netherlands, the approach to sentencing and the prison philosophy we saw astonished and inspired us. Not only are far fewer people imprisoned, but even those who have committed serious violent crimes serve far shorter sentences.
In these European countries, prisons are organized around the belief that, since virtually all prisoners will return to their communities, it is better to approach their incarceration with conditions as close to "normal" as possible — with the addition of treatment, behavioral interventions, skills training, and needed education — and to remove them from communities for the shortest possible time so that institutional life does not become their norm.
Inmates live in rooms and sleep in beds, not on concrete or steel slabs with thin padding. Inmates have privacy — correctional officers knock before entering — they wear their own clothes, and can decorate their space as they wish. They cook their own meals, are paid for work that they do, and have opportunities to visit family, learn skills, and gain education. Inmates are required to save money to ensure that they are not penniless upon release. There are different expectations for their corrections officers — who are drawn primarily from the ranks of lawyers, social workers, and mental health professionals — to be part of a "therapeutic culture" between staff and offenders, and consequently receive more training and higher pay. There is little to no violence — including in communal kitchens where there are knives and other "dangerous" implements. And their maximum time in any kind of punitive solitary is eight hours.
Prison policies grounded in the belief that prisoners should be treated with dignity were startlingly effective — and have eminently pragmatic implications here at home. The adverse social and economic outcomes for former prisoners in the U.S. are severe — and they are concentrated in communities that are already struggling mightily. With 95 percent of our nation's incarcerated individuals eventually returning home from prison — and 40 percent going right back to prison within three years — we would do well to heed the strategies used in these nations to teach prisoners how to be good and productive citizens that can rebuild their communities....
Are there challenges to wholesale reform? Of course. Money. Infrastructure. Strains of racial division borne of our history and heterogeneity. And, cultural differences especially as relates to violence may mean that some European practices may not translate smoothly to the U.S. Yet we are at a moment of potential for significant shifts. It will require legislation and policy change, including rethinking sentencing for lower offenses and reducing the time for those who must be in prison. But the notion that we should strive to create an environment within our prisons conducive to our goal — to return good citizens to our communities — is a challenge we can and must meet.
Tuesday, May 13, 2014
Corruption nets former Israeli prime minister a six-year prison sentence
As reported here via CNN, Israel's former "Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was sentenced Tuesday to six years in prison for taking bribes while mayor of Jerusalem." Here are more details concerning this high-profile crime and punishment from the promised land:
Olmert was also fined 1 million shekels (about $289,000), Israeli state radio IB reported.
Olmert was convicted in March of receiving about $161,000 in bribes related to a controversial Jerusalem housing project called Holyland. The judge acquitted Olmert on a third count of bribery. The developer of Holyland, Hillel Cherney, had been previously convicted of bribing Olmert and other high-level officials in exchange for Holyland approvals.
Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem from 1993 to 2003. Olmert, an attorney who in 1973 became the youngest person ever elected to Israel's parliament, the Knesset, served as prime minister from 2006 to 2009. He announced his resignation shortly after police recommended corruption charges against him.
In August 2012, he was convicted of breach of trust and acquitted on two corruption-related charges after a trial that lasted nearly three years. He was given a 3-month suspended jail sentenced and fined about $19,000 in that case....
Prosecutors accused him of double-billing government agencies for travel, taking cash from an American businessman in exchange for official favors and acting on behalf of his former law partner's clients.
Friday, May 09, 2014
"Legal Institutions and Social Values: Theory and Evidence from Plea Bargaining Regimes"
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new empirical paper by Yehonatan Givati now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
How do social values shape legal institutions across countries? To address this question I focus on one important legal institution -- the use of plea bargaining in criminal cases. I develop a model in which the optimal scope of plea bargaining depends on social values. Specifically, a lower social emphasis on ensuring that innocent individuals are not punished, and a greater social emphasis on ensuring that guilty individuals are punished, lead to a greater use of plea bargaining. Using unique cross-country data on social preferences for punishing the innocent versus letting the guilty go free, as well as an original coding of plea bargaining regimes across countries, I obtain results that are consistent with the model.
Sunday, April 13, 2014
Is SCOTUS now no longer all that interested in criminal justice issues?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this chart concerning the make-up of the Supreme Court's merits docket this Term from the latest Stat Pack put together by the folks at SCOUTSblog. The chart highlights that nearly 75% of the merits docket this Term involves civil cases. In addition, this SCOTUSblog list of cert grants for October 2014 reveals that only one of nine grants for the next Term involves a criminal law issue (and that issue, as noted here, seems stunningly minor).
When Justices Alito and Sotomayor first joined the Court, it seemed as though they brought some extra interest and extra attention to the criminal justice part of the SCOTUS docket. But of late it seems as though the Court is more eager to avoid rather than take up some important criminal justice matters.
Notably, there are any number of big lurking criminal justice issues relating to the Second (right to carry), Fourth (GPS tracking), Sixth (applications of Apprendi and Booker) and Eighth Amendments (applications of Graham and Miller). I have an inkling that some of these matters will end up on the October 2014 docket, but this post perhaps highlights that I have a hankering for some more major criminal cases to be on the docket.