Thursday, August 01, 2013

Cleveland kidnapper Castro gets LWOP sentence plus 1000 years as plea deal provided

I had the honor this morning of watching the first part of the state sentencing proceeding for Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro in a remote studio waiting to be a boxed pundit on CNN.  Consequestly, I will link here and quote below part of CNN's extensive coverage of the sentencing chapter of this high-profile case:

Kidnapping victim Michelle Knight told her captor, Ariel Castro, during his sentencing hearing, "You took 11 years of my life away. ... I spent 11 years in hell. Now, your hell is just beginning."

"I can forgive you, but I will never forget," she said in her statement to Castro, calling him a hypocrite. "Nobody should go through what I went through," she said tearfully. She called another victim, Gina DeJesus, her "teammate" saying the woman saved her when she was "dying from his abuse." Knight said she "will overcome what happened" but Castro "will face hell for eternity."

During Ariel Castro's sentencing hearing, prosecutor Anna Faraglia said that Castro "tormented (his victims) by allowing them to watch their vigils ... and even had the audacity to attend them."  She further said that Castro would talk to his victims' parents as if he were distraught by their disappearances when "they were right underneath his roof."

Tim McGinty, Cuyahoga County prosecutor, stressed there's no backing to the claim that Ariel Castro suffered from mental illness. "He is responsible," he said, likening him to murderers John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy. "He has no excuse."  When asked what Castro would do if he could go back and do things differently, the kidnapper responded that he'd do it all over again, McGinty said. "He doesn't believe he did anything wrong," McGinty said. "There is no remorse."

Defense attorney Craig Weintraub then told the judge that he felt some of the testimony presented was inappropriate because "these were really private matters," the sentence had been agreed upon prior to the hearing and Castro waived his right to challenge the facts of the case. Judge Michael Russo responded that he felt the testimony and evidence was necessary to help him guide his decision on whether to accept the sentence.

Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro, speaking at his sentencing hearing, said, "I'm not a violent person.  I simply kept them there so they couldn't leave."  He was referring to the three women he held captive for about a decade.   Castro said he knew what he did was wrong, but he argued that the "accusations that I would come home and beat them" are "totally wrong."

"I'm not a monster. I'm just sick. I have an addiction. Just like an alcoholic has an addiction."...

Describing himself as a "very emotional person," Ariel Castro said during his sentencing hearing that "these people are trying to paint me as a monster and I'm not a monster. I'm sick."

"I believe I am addicted to porn to the point that it makes me impulsive and I lost it," he said, adding he's "not trying to make excuses."

Ariel Castro took issue with the aggravated murder charge related to the allegation that his abuse terminated the pregnancy of one of his victims, saying there was no evidence the incident occurred. Judge Michael Russo reminded him that he pleaded guilty, and Castro said he did so only to save his victims further psychological trauma....

Judge Michael Russo has already sentenced kidnapper Ariel Castro to hundreds of years in prison, mostly in eight- to 10-year consecutive blocks.  Russo said Castro "will never be released from incarceration during the period of his remaining natural life for any reason."

"A person can only die in prison once," Judge Michael Russo told Ariel Castro Thursday in handing down a sentence of life in prison plus 1,000 years.  The judge called the sentence "commensurate with the harm you've done." Russo, noting that Castro treated his victims as "slaves," said consecutive sentences rendered in his case must be "imposed" to protect the public and "to punish you."...

"There is no place in this city, there is no place in this country, there is no place in this world for those who enslave others," Judge Michael Russo told kidnapper Ariel Castro. The court in Cuyahoga County is seizing the property of Ariel Castro and imposing a fine of $100,000 on him, in addition to his massive sentence.

Related prior posts:

August 1, 2013 in Offense Characteristics, State Sentencing Guidelines, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, July 26, 2013

Kansas Gov calling special legislative session to deal with Allenye problems

A helpful reader alerted me to this local Kansas article reporting on the latest ripple from the Supreme Court's work last month in Alleyne.  The piece is headlined, "Brownback calls for special legislative session to address questions on ‘Hard 50’ law," and here are the details:

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has called for a special legislative session starting Sept. 3 to address legal questions about the state's so-called "Hard 50" sentencing law.  State Attorney General Derek Schmidt had asked for a special session because of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down a similar federal sentencing law.

“The ‘Hard 50’ sentence is a vital public safety tool that has been in place for more than 10 years,” Brownback said in a statement released today. “The sudden absence of the ‘Hard 50’ sentence poses a real and present danger to the public safety of all Kansans.”

Republican leaders of the Kansas Senate quickly issued a statement supporting the call for a special session. “I appreciate the assessment of the situation by the Governor and the Attorney General, and support their decision,” Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican said in the statement. “After learning about the circumstances of the pending cases, and recognizing the critical time element involved with the appeals process, it’s clear we must act. The Senate will respond quickly and efficiently to protect public safety.”

Under the Kansas statute, people convicted of premeditated murder can be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for 50 years if the trial judge finds certain aggravating factors. Otherwise, those defendants are typically given a sentence of 25 years to life.

The U.S. Supreme Court, however, issued a ruling in June saying that when statutes like the Hard 50 law call for enhanced penalties, the facts that justify the more severe sentence must be decided by the jury, not a judge. Days after the Supreme Court issued that ruling, it remanded a Kansas case back to the state supreme court to be reconsidered....

“While returning to Topeka for a special session is often a last resort, crafting legislation to keep our constituents safe from violent offenders is the proper response to the Alleyne Decision," Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, a Hutchinson Republican, said, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Alleyne v. United States. "Legislative action should be taken in a reasonable period of time and in a bipartisan manner.”

During a news conference Thursday, Schmidt said there were potentially dozens of other cases in Kansas that could be affected by the ruling. One of those involved a murder-for-hire scheme in which the victim was shot execution-style in the back of the head in front of her child. It was a case of mistaken identity, Schmidt said, and the victim was not the intended target.

July 26, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Echoes of Alleyne showing something's the matter in Kansas "hard 50" Sentencing

This new local article, headlined "Supreme Court ruling threatens to invalidate Kansas hard 50 sentences," reports on one of the potential state echoes of the Supreme Court's Sixth Amendment ruling in Allenye last month.  Here are the essential details:

A U.S. Supreme Court decision that prompted the Kansas Attorney General’s Office to drop plans to seek a hard 50 sentence against convicted wife-killer Brett Seacat could invalidate the hard 50 sentence given to Scott Roeder, who was convicted of murdering abortion doctor George Tiller.

The ruling also may force prosecutors to abandon plans to seek hard 50 sentences in some other cases, including the case of a Wichita man who was convicted last week of stomping his girlfriend to death with steel-toed boots. It could prevent the state from seeking a hard 50 for a man convicted last month of strangling a Wichita woman in 2011 while on parole for murdering a woman in Lawrence more than two decades earlier.

District Attorney Marc Bennett said the ruling, known as the Alleyne decision, could have an impact on any hard 50 case in Kansas that is on appeal, and could change the way prosecutors deal with first-degree murder cases in the future. “Clearly it will be an issue that we will have to address,” he said.

Defense lawyer Richard Ney was more blunt in his assessment of the ruling. “The hard 50 is dead as far as it exists in Kansas right now,” he said. “For cases that are not final, and Roeder would be one of them, I think they’re certainly in question.”

If the state wants to keep its hard 50 sentencing law, Ney said, the Kansas Legislature will probably have to adopt a sentencing system that includes a separate penalty phase in any first-degree murder trial where prosecutors seek a 50-year minimum sentence.

When the state enacted a hard 40 sentencing law in 1990 – the precursor to today’s hard 50 law – it used such a system where the jury that found a defendant guilty of first-degree murder would sit at a separate penalty phase and determine whether to impose a hard 40 sentence. The state later turned the decision of whether to impose hard 50 sentences over to judges....

In releasing the Alleyne decision, the Supreme Court sent a similar case – Astorga v. Kansas – back to Leavenworth County District Court for resentencing. Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt cited both cases in his decision to abandon efforts to seek a hard 50 sentence in the Seacat case.

“Upon thorough review of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Alleyne, the state does not believe the procedural and factual posture of this case allow for the application of (the hard 50 law) in its current form. Therefore, the state is no longer seeking the imposition of a mandatory term of imprisonment of 50 years,” he wrote in a court filing.

As it now stands, Kansas’ hard 50 law says a judge must weigh aggravating and mitigating factors before deciding whether to grant a prosecutor’s request to impose a hard 50 sentence. The law lists several aggravating factors that include a prior conviction for a crime that caused death or great bodily harm, the commission of an act that creates a great risk of death to more than one person, and the commission of a crime in an especially heinous, atrocious or cruel manner.

The law also lists mitigating factors that may include a defendant’s age, a defendant’s lack of criminal history and the fact that a defendant was a minor participant in the crime for which he or she was convicted.

If a judge rules that one or more aggravating factors exist, and decides that the existence of such factors is not outweighed by any mitigating circumstances, the law says the defendant shall be sentenced to life without parole for a minimum of 50 years.

The folks behind the Kansas Defenders blog have been all over the impact of Alleyne in the Sunflower State via a number of notable new posts here and here and here.

Prior related post on Alleyne ruling:

July 13, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 23, 2013

NACDL rolls out state-by-state "excessive sentencing" proportionality litigation resource

ImagesCA6ZGXG7I am extraordinarily proud and excited to report that, as detailed via a new NACDL news release, that the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is now offering, "as a resource for its members and as a service to the public, a collection of individual downloadable documents that summarize for each U.S. state the key doctrines and leading court rulings setting forth constitutional and statutory limits on lengthy imprisonment terms and other extreme (non-capital) sentences."

This resource has been given the name Excessive Sentencing: NACDL’s Proportionality Litigation Project its main page can be accessed via this link.  Here is a bit more from the NACDL press release about the resource (and also my role therein):

Development of this new resource was inspired in part by the Supreme Court’s recent landmark constitutional decisions in Graham v. Florida, 130 S. Ct. 2011 (May 17, 2010), and Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 245 (June 25, 2012), which pronounced new Eighth Amendment limits on when and how states can impose life without parole prison terms on juvenile offenders.  The state profiles and related materials provide a detailed snapshot of existing proportionality doctrines and jurisprudence as of fall 2012.  They are intended as a resource for practitioners in all phases of the criminal justice system, for sentencing and appellate courts, for policymakers and advocates concerned with the high economic and human costs of excessively long terms of imprisonment, and for defendants facing or serving extreme prison terms.

The primary academic supervisor of this resource is Professor Douglas A. Berman of The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.... Professor Berman intends to update these materials regularly as developments in the law warrant and new information becomes available.

On the project’s landing page –- which can be accessed here -- there is a free, nearly 90-minute sentencing skills webinar featuring Professor Berman and Stephen Hardwick, an assistant public defender in Columbus, Ohio....

In addition, the project landing page has this additional account of what this resource now provides and hopes to help achieve:

The state profiles and related materials, which were prepared by recent law school graduates under the supervision of Professor Douglas A. Berman, provide a detailed snapshot of existing proportionality doctrines and jurisprudence as of fall 2012. Unsurprisingly in the wake of Graham and Miller, there has been a significant increase in state-level litigation concerning lengthy prison terms, especially for juvenile offenders. The expectation is to have Professor Berman, in conjunction with the pro bono efforts other lawyers and aided especially by NACDL members and others who utilize this resource, revise and update these profiles regularly.

The profiles and charts are intended as a resource for practitioners in all phases of the criminal justice system, for sentencing and appellate courts, for policymakers and advocates concerned with the high economic and human costs of excessively long terms of imprisonment, and for defendants facing or serving extreme prison terms.  The Supreme Court has repeatedly stressed that the Eighth Amendment’s “scope is not static [but] must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society,” Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 101 (1958); state-level doctrinal and jurisprudential developments have thus always had heightened federal constitutional significance in this area of law.  Moreover, state policy-makers and state jurists have long understood that the Eighth Amendment sets only a minimum constitutional floor limiting only the most extreme punishment policies and practices: state lawmakers and judges can and should feel not merely free, but institutionally obliged, to consider developing their own distinct legal limits on unduly harsh sentencing terms based on distinct state-level requirements and needs.  The profiles posted here demonstrate that, even though there is some notable convergence in state-level proportionality doctrines, there are also some important variations and innovations concerning how states seek to protect its citizens from extreme or excessive criminal punishments.

I plan to discuss this web resource and the broader NACDL projectin a series of posts over the next few weeks and months.  For now, I just hope everyone will take a look at what we have posted (and perhaps begin commenting on what other materials might be usefully assembled and linked in this space).

May 23, 2013 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Graham and Sullivan Eighth Amendment cases, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Corrupt state supreme court judge and sister facing state sentencing in PA

As reported in this local article, headlined "Former Pennsylvania Justice Orie Melvin, sister face sentencing today," a high-profile corruption case in the Keystone State has finally reached the sentencing stage. Here are the basics:

Former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin and her sister and former court aide Janine Orie will be sentenced today by Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lester Nauhaus.

Prosecutors, in briefs filed before the court last month, are seeking incarceration for Ms. Orie Melvin and for her sister, who were convicted in February of misusing state-paid employees in Ms. Orie Melvin's campaign for a seat on the high court in 2003 and 2009. The sisters were found guilty of theft of services, conspiracy and misapplication of government funds. Janine Orie was also convicted of tampering with evidence and solicitation.

In their briefs, Ms. Orie Melvin's defense attorneys asked for probation, citing her dedication to public service, charitable work and her devotion to her family and the hardship incarceration would bring upon her family, including her six children and elderly father.

The sisters were charged with misapplication of government funds, theft of services and conspiracy for using the justice's former Superior Court staff and the legislative staff of a third sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, to run campaigns for the Supreme Court in 2003 and 2009. Among the allegations were that staffers wrote speeches, drove Ms. Orie Melvin to campaign events and worked the polls....

At the time of the verdict, Matt Mabon, the jury foreman, explained that the jury couldn't reach a decision on the official oppression count, which was connected to the employment of Lisa Sasinoski, chief law clerk for the justice who was a witness. Because there were competing versions of whether she was fired or resigned, jurors couldn't reach a decision, he said.

Ms. Orie Melvin voluntarily stopped hearing cases before the high court when she was indicted a year ago, just hours before the court issued an order suspending her to "preserve the integrity" of the system. That same day, the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board issued a recommendation that she be suspended with pay pending resolution of the criminal case, but in August, the Court of Judicial Discipline ruled that Justice Orie Melvin should not be paid during her suspension. Her salary at the time was $195,309.

Justice Orie Melvin fought unsuccessfully to have the charges against her dismissed, claiming that the Supreme Court itself should have jurisdiction over the allegations and not the criminal courts. A month after the verdict, on March 25, Ms. Orie Melvin announced, in a letter to Gov. Tom Corbett, that she would resign May 1 "with deep regret and a broken heart."...

Jane Orie is serving a 21/2- to 10-year prison term for using her staff for her own and Ms. Orie Melvin's campaigns and for forging documents to cover it up. She was found guilty in March 2012 of 14 of 24 counts against her, including ethics violations, theft of services, tampering with evidence and forgery.

Assistant district attorney Lawrence Claus is seeking consecutive sentences of incarceration in the aggravated range for Ms. Orie Melvin. The standard range is probation to 30 months, versus 48 months in the aggravated range. For Janine Orie, the standard range is probation to 27 months and up to 45 months in the aggravated range.

Related post:

UPDATE:  I am very pleased to see from this local article, headlined "Orie Melvin must write apology letters to Pennsylvania judges on photos of herself," that the sentence for the former judge includes a serious shaming sanction.  Here are the awesome basics, about which I will blog more in a future post:

Disgraced former Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice Joan Orie Melvin was sentenced today to house arrest followed by probation and ordered to send handwritten apologies on photographs of herself to every judge in the Commonwealth.

Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge Lester Nauhaus sentenced Orie Melvin to three years' house arrest with two years' probation to follow.

A jury found Orie Melvin and her sister Janine Orie guilty on Feb. 21 of using judicial staff, as well as the staffers of another sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, to work on the campaigns in 2003 and 2009 for the Pennsylvania high court.

Orie Melvin, 56, was found guilty on six of seven counts against her, including conspiracy, theft of services and misapplication of government funds. She resigned from the Supreme Court in March.

She must serve in a soup kitchen three times a week and can otherwise only leave her house for church.

Judge Nauhaus also ordered that an official county photographer take a photograph of Orie Melvin, on copies of which she must apologize to each of Pennsylvania's judges. She must pay for the cost. He ordered a deputy to handcuff her and the photo was taken of her in handcuffs.

Her sentence also includes $55,000 in fines, a prohibition on using the title "justice" during her term and handwriting apologies to former members of her campaign staff and that of her sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, whom she made engage in illegal work.

May 7, 2013 in Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, April 26, 2013

Current NRA president vocally supporting (liberal? conservative?) mandatory minimum sentencing reform in Oregon

David Keene, a former chairman of the American Conservative Union who is now serving as president of the National Rifle Association, has this notable new commentary piece in the Salem Statesman Journal promoting sentencing reform in the Beaver State. Here are excerpts:

If you are an Oregon conservative, I hope you’re asking the same question the state’s bipartisan Commission on Public Safety asked: “Are taxpayers getting the most from the money we spend on public safety?”  Oregon has been a leader in effective corrections policy and boasts one of the lowest recidivism rates in the nation.

But the state is trending in the wrong direction when it comes to corrections spending, and much of the growth is due to mandatory minimum sentences that violate conservative principles.

Oregon criminal justice agencies predict that the state’s prison population will grow significantly over the next 10 years, and that the growth will be composed mostly of nonviolent offenders. The expected inmate surge is projected to cost Oregon taxpayers $600 million, on top of the biennial corrections budget of $1.3 billion.

The time is ripe for comprehensive criminal justice reform — not only supported by Oregon conservatives, but led by Oregon conservatives.

We believe all government spending programs need to be put to the cost-benefit test, and criminal justice is no exception.  Oregon has done a good job with this in the past but is slipping, by locking up more offenders who could be held accountable with shorter sentences followed by more effective, less expensive local supervision programs....

As conservatives, we also believe that a key to protecting our freedom is maintaining the separation of powers between the branches of government.  Such protection is lost when so-called “mandatory minimum” sentences force the judicial branch to impose broad-brush responses to nuanced problems.  Mandatory minimums were adopted in response to the abuses of a few judges decades ago, but have proven a blunt, costly and constitutionally problematic one-size-fits-all solution begging for reform.

The commission’s recommendations make modest prospective changes to mandatory minimums under Measures 11 and 57.  These measures have given prosecutors unchecked power to determine sentences by way of charging decisions, regardless of the facts of the case, or the individual’s history and likelihood of re-offending.

The reform package now before the Legislature would restore the constitutional role of the courts for three of the 22 offenses covered by Measure 11. Judges could still impose the stiffest penalties where necessary, but would regain discretion in sentencing appropriate offenders to shorter prison terms or less expensive, more intensive community supervision.

These sensible reforms will restore some checks and balances between prosecutors and the courts, allow prison resources to be focused on serious violent offenders and let taxpayers know that their public safety dollars are being spent more wisely.

April 26, 2013 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Monday, April 22, 2013

Law and Contemporary Problems devotes March 2013 issue to sentencing reform around the world

Lcp1I am so very pleased to see that available on line here is the full March 2013 issue of the journal Law and Contemporary Problems, which is devoted to providing a "Global Perspective on Sentencing Reforms." The issue has a dozen articles, some of which are focused on state sentencing reforms, some of which are focused on federal sentencing reforms, and some of which are focused on sentencing reforms in the UK and Germany and elsewhere.  And all of the article look like must reads for sentencing geeks like me.  The Foreward to the Issue is authored by by Professor Oren Gazal-Ayal of the University of Haifa, and here are excerpts from the start and end of this introduction:

The articles published in this issue of Law and Contemporary Problems examine the effects of different sentencing reforms across the world.  While the effects of sentencing reforms in the United States have been studied extensively, this is the first symposium that examines the effects of sentencing guidelines and alternative policies in a number of western legal systems from a comparative perspective. This issue focuses on how different sentencing policies affect prison population rates, sentence disparity, and the balance of power between the judiciary and prosecutors, while also assessing how sentencing policies respond to temporary punitive surges and moral panics.

The effects of sentencing guidelines are highly contested and debated among scholars. As a result, there are a number of outstanding questions regarding the actual effects of such guidelines.  For instance, do sentencing guidelines transfer sentencing powers from the judiciary to prosecutors?  Should the guidelines bear some of the responsibility for the surge in prison population in the United States?  Has the lack of guidelines helped Germany constrain its prison population?  Do sentencing guidelines help mitigate the effects of punitive surge, or, on the other hand, do they facilitate the punitive effect of moral panics? Do guidelines effect racial and ethnic disparity in sentencing?  And how should guidelines be structured?...

The articles in this issue are the out come of a conference on sentencing reform that was held at the University of Haifa, Faculty of Law in February 2011.  The conference and this issue address the effects of sentencing reforms from a global perspective, relying mainly on empirical research.  The result is, as in most such attempts, incomplete. But we did come closer to answering some of the pressing questions — though only to find out that many new questions hide behind the answers to the old ones.  It seems that sentencing, a topic that has been the focus of academic debate for centuries, will continue to attract this much needed attention for centuries to come.

April 22, 2013 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Recommended reading, Sentencing around the world, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 18, 2013

"Justice Reinvestment in Action: The Delaware Model"

The title of this post is the title of this recently released policy brief from the Vera Institute of Justice.  This posting by Alison Shames of Vera provides a preview of the context and content of this report, and here are excerpts:

To date, more than a dozen states have participated in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative and worked with the Vera Institute of Justice, the Council of State Governments, or The Pew Charitable Trusts to analyze their state-specific data, identify the drivers of their corrections populations, and develop policies that aim to reduce spending and generate savings.  Once the policies are passed into law, these jurisdictions continue to receive technical assistance to help with implementation and ensure that the changes and investments achieve their projected outcomes.

What this means in practice is described in Vera’s new report, Justice Reinvestment in Action: The Delaware Model.  In 2012, after a year of analysis and consensus-building, Delaware Governor Jack Markell signed SB 226, introducing a sea change to the way the state justice agencies conduct business.  At every step in the process — pretrial, sentencing, prison, and supervision — SB 226 requires enhanced decision making based not only on professional judgment but also data analysis and empirically based risk and needs assessment instruments.  If implemented correctly, up to $27.3 million could be available for reinvestment over the next five years.

Continued and increased support for the Justice Reinvestment Initiative — in the form of technical assistance and seed funding — is critical to making these methods available to additional jurisdictions and ensuring that the states realize their projected savings and enhance public safety.  The future of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative looks bright, with President Obama including $85 million for this effort in his proposed 2014 budget, an increase of $79 million over last year's appropriation.

Implementing evidence-based practices and enabling justice agencies to integrate data analysis into their operations in an ongoing and sustainable way is hard work that takes time, patience, up-front investment, and strong leadership.  The Justice Reinvestment Initiative builds and develops the leadership and contributes to the initial investment. Delaware is just one of a dozen success stories.  The hard work continues.

Some older and more recent related posts:

April 18, 2013 in Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Sixth Circuit panel grants habeas relief to Tennessee defendant sentenced in violation of Blakely

Sadly, I no longer get ample opportunities to blog about Blakely Sixth Amendment sentencing issue these days -- though I suppose this could change if (and when?) the Supreme Court give these issues a new boost via a big ruling in Alleyne in the near future.  Joyfully, this morning brings a little Blakely-era nostalgia via the Sixth Circuit's habeas grant in Lovins v. Parker, No. 11-5545 (6th Cir. Mar. 28, 2013) (available here).   This extended decision gets started this way:

After a Tennessee state court jury convicted petitioner Derry Lovins of second-degree murder, the state trial court judge made additional factual findings and enhanced Lovins’s sentence from twenty to twenty-three years based on those findings.  In this petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, Lovins raises various claims of trial error and argues that the threeyear sentence enhancement was unconstitutional under the rule of Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296 (2004), because the sentence was enhanced based on facts that were not found by a jury.  The history of Lovins’s requests for relief in state court is byzantine, but the legal principles are not.  Lovins’s direct appeal was not final until almost three years after the Blakely decision, and therefore Blakely applies to his case under the clearly-established retroactivity rules of Griffith v. Kentucky, 479 U.S. 314 (1987), and Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989).  For this reason, and because the procedural default doctrine does not bar our review of the merits of Lovins’s Blakely claim, we REVERSE the district court’s denial of relief, and we conditionally GRANT a writ of habeas corpus on the Blakely sentencing claim only.  We AFFIRM the district court’s denial of relief on all of Lovins’s other claims.

March 28, 2013 in Blakely in Appellate Courts, Blakely in the States, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

New York Times editorial urges "Shrinking Prisons, Saving Billions"

While on the road, I missed this notable New York Times editorial from this past weekend.  Here are excerpts:

The mandatory sentencing craze that gripped the country four decades ago drove up the state prison population sevenfold — from under 200,000 in the early 1970s to about 1.4 million today — and pushed costs beyond $50 billion a year.  Until recently, it seemed that the numbers would keep growing. But thanks to reforms in more than half the states, the prison census has edged down slightly — by just under 2 percent — since 2009.  A new analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts shows that the decline would have been considerably larger had the other states not been pulling in the opposite direction.

Over the last five years, 29 states have managed to cut their imprisonment rates, 10 of them by double-digit percentages.  California, which has been ordered by the Supreme Court to ease extreme prison crowding, led the way with a 17 percent drop, mainly by reducing parole and probation revocations and shifting custody of low-level offenders to counties.  Other states reduced prison terms for low-level offenses; diverted some offenders to community supervision; and strengthened parole programs, so that fewer offenders landed back in jail for technical violations like missed appointments or failed drug tests.

Even law-and-order states like Texas, which cut its imprisonment rate by 7 percent, have discovered that they can shrink the prison population without threatening public safety. Investing heavily in drug treatment and community supervision, Texas has avoided nearly $2 billion in spending on new prisons, while the crime rate has dropped to levels unseen since the 1960s.  But even as the national prison population has declined, 20 other states — including Arizona, Arkansas, Pennsylvania and West Virginia — keep sending more people to prison than need to be there....

States that lag in reducing their prison populations should swiftly embrace these kinds of reforms.

March 26, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, March 25, 2013

New report assails Massachusetts sentencing and corrections policies and practices

CostofPrisonJPGThumb.ashxThis lengthy article from the Boston Globe discusses a big new forthcoming report highlighing failings in the sentencing and punishment systems in Massachusetts.  The article is headlined "Report slams state for lack of corrections reform: Crime down, prison costs up as study urges shorter sentences, focus on parole," and it gets started this way:

Despite steeply declining violent crime rates, the percentage of Massachusetts residents behind bars has tripled since the early 1980s, as the Commonwealth has clung to tough-on-crime laws that many other states have abandoned as ineffective, according to a study being released this week.

The 40-page report — endorsed by a coalition of prominent former prosecutors, defense attorneys, and justice officials — slams the state for focusing too much on prolonged incarceration, through measures such as mandatory minimum sentences, and for paying too little attention to successfully integrating prisoners back into society.

This is not just a social justice issue, the coalition argues, but a serious budgetary problem. The report estimated that policies that have led to more Draconian sentences and fewer paroles have extended prison stays by a third since 1990, costing the state an extra $150 million a year.

“It’s an odd set of numbers: crime going down while prison populations are still going up,” said Greg Torres, president of MassINC, the nonpartisan research group that commissioned the study. “What the report shows is that it’s a problem with the corrections systems front and back doors — sentencing and release.”

The study says Massachusetts, with its rising prison population, is heading in the opposite direction of several more traditionally law-and-order states — many of which have changed sentencing requirements, closed prisons, and cut costs. While other states have seen drops in incarceration in conjunction with falling crime rates, Massachusetts has seen the opposite.

In addition to the longer prison stays, Torres said, a reduction in post-release supervision has left Massachusetts with a recidivism rate higher than many other states, which in turn has sent more offenders back to prison. New data in the report show that six of every 10 inmates released from state and county prisons commit new crimes within six years. If the recidivism rate was cut by 5 percent, the report says, Massachusetts could cut $150 million from its more than $1 billion corrections budget.

Released in partnership with the newly formed grouping of law-enforcement officials, which is called Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, and Community Resources for Justice, a social justice nonprofit group, the report issues include a moratorium on the expansion of state prisons, reexamining sentencing guidelines, and expanding prerelease programs. “In the last 10 years we’ve learned a lot about what doesn’t work,” said John Larivee, chief executive of Community Resources for Justice and coauthor of the report.

One key to changing the state’s corrections system, the report’s authors stress, is building bipartisan consensus so neither side can later be accused of being soft on crime. “There’s more bipartisan common ground than you might expect,” said Wayne Budd, a Republican who is one of the reform coalition’s three co-chairmen.

In addition to Budd, the coalition is led by Kevin M. Burke, former state secretary of public safety, and Max D. Stern, president of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

UPDATE:  The full 40-page report, which is titled "Crime, Cost, and Consequences: Is it Time to Get Smart on Crime?," is now available via this link.

March 25, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Notable debate in Wisconsin over new state child porn sentencing law

Regular readers are quite familiar with (and perhaps even tired of) the long-running debates over federal child pornography sentencing laws. But, as detailed in this local article from Wisconsin, headlined "New law limits judges' power in child pornography cases," similar issues and debates arise in states sentencing systems, too.  Here are excerpts from the article, which strikes all the usual themes concerning the impact of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions:

A new law intended to toughen punishment for those convicted of viewing child pornography is drawing criticism from court officials. 

In April 2012, state lawmakers passed into law a mandatory, minimum three-year prison sentence for the felony offense.  Under a clause in the old law, judges had the discretion to order lesser penalties depending on the circumstances of the case.

Rep. Mark Honadel, R-South Milwaukee, who sponsored the mandatory penalty, testified that judges were letting too many offenders stay out of prison. “Sentences of less than 3 years were meant to be issued sparingly but became the standard,” Honadel said.

State Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, said the law was conceived as a way to provide consistent sentences for all offenders who commit the same crime.  “Prior to this, sentences were all over the map. In a judicial sense, this probably wasn’t the best way to operate,” Thiesfeldt said. “Anytime you can establish standards of fairness, that’s a good thing.”...

Fond du Lac County Circuit Court Judge Peter Grimm, who has worn the hat of a public defender and district attorney before his election to the bench 22 years ago, says judges need discretion in sentencing to ensure the punishment fits the circumstances of the crime and the criminal.  “These mandatory minimum sentences fly in the face of current judicial training in which judges are trained to use evidence-based sentences designed to let judges make the best decision based on the facts of the case,” said Grimm. “Judges should not be locked into a minimum sentence because the legislature wants to be tough on crime.”

Dodge County District Attorney Kurt Klomberg has mixed feelings concerning the new law. “The law does take discretion away from the judges.  The judge is no longer able to go below the minimum (sentence) even in the face of strong mitigating evidence,” Klomberg said.  “The prosecutor now has greater power in the sentencing process as the decision on the charge will be a decision on the minimum allowable sentence after conviction.”

Klomberg also recognizes that the new law could impact settlement in cases involving child pornography.   “The defendants in these cases are often willing to plead to the charges in hopes of convincing the judge to go below the minimum,” Klomberg said.  “Under the new law, there is no possibility, and it may result in more trials.”

Defense attorney and former Fond du Lac County District Attorney Michael O’Rourke disagrees with a one-size-fits-all approach.   “Each case and each defendant are different and judges should have the ability to fashion a sentence that is good for both the community and aids defendants in rehabilitation,” O’Rourke said

The former prosecutor says judges need discretion in sentencing to ensure the penalty doesn’t outweigh the crime.   “The retired 63-year-old with no previous record who went to an adult porn site and was browsing and clicked onto a site that includes child pornography and then looks at a couple of pictures is different than the person who may already have a record, or who is actively seeking child porn,” O’Rourke said.  “Some peer-to-peer sites will download thousands of images in seconds onto a computer and the individual has seen none of them.  A judge should have the discretion to consider that.”

Wisconsin’s new child pornography law offers one exception to the minimum sentence, Thiesfeldt said.  Several cases involving teens trading inappropriate pictures by cell phone prompted lawmakers to include a clause in which a judge can issue lesser penalties if the offender is no more than four years older than the child depicted.

March 12, 2013 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Monday, March 04, 2013

A notable first echo from Ohio's notable new early release law

This local AP article, headlined "Five should be freed, state prisons chief says," reaffirms my belief that Ohio is now a dynamic and important "state to watch" concerning modern sentencing law and practices. Here are the interesting details from this latest story in the important Buckeye chapter of modern sentencing reform:

Ohio’s prison chief has recommended the release of five inmates who have served 80 percent of their time. The recommendations, if approved, would mark the first use of a 2011 law meant to help reduce the state’s inmate population and save the state money.

Director Gary Mohr of the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction cited several reasons, including good behavior, for his recommendations in letters to judges, who have the final say. He also considered information from prison employees who are go-betweens with the prisons, the courts and the inmates.

The five inmates — two women and three men — are serving time mostly for low-level felonies, although one was convicted of aggravated vehicular homicide.

Prisons spokeswoman JoEllen Smith said the 80 percent release option encourages inmates to act responsibly in prison “and is significant in our effort to better communicate with courts and assist the eligible, suitable offenders in having a successful transition back into our communities.”

The 2011 law aims to save the state millions of dollars by shrinking the number of inmates and reducing the number of offenders who might return to prison as repeat offenders. By several measures, the law and other efforts are working.

Ohio’s prison population remains under 50,000 inmates, a level not seen since 2007. Also, the state reported on Feb. 22 that the number of inmates returning to Ohio prisons upon release has hit a new low, a trend officials attribute to a focus on keeping inmates in the community and the involvement of groups that work with inmates before their release.

Other factors Mohr considered in making his recommendations included little or no rule-breaking during incarceration; a history of participating in prison programs; and development of a plan for dealing with the release.

Inmate Mary Clinkscales of Summit County, sentenced to a seven-year prison term in 2007 for possession of drugs, is a prime candidate for release because of her activities in prison, according to a Feb. 15 letter from a go-between, called a justice reinvestment officer.

Clinkscales had just one rule infraction while imprisoned — wearing shorts that were not part of her state-issued clothing — said Suzanne Brooks, the agency’s Cleveland-area justice reinvestment officer.

Clinkscales has attended literacy, anger-management and family-values skills classes, worked on community service projects making hats and scarves and is not a gang member, Brooks said. All these factors, plus no previous prison sentence, make her a suitable candidate for release, Brooks said.

I am tempted at this point to jokingly suggest that it would make sense to expect that someone named "Clickscales" would at some point get sent to prison for a drug offense. But this new story about prison officials actually actively advocating for the early release of a few prisoners is too serious and important to make the basis of jokes about surnames. And speaking of serious and important, the five prisoners likely to get released first via this Ohio early release program ought to seriously understand how very important it will be for other prisoners and so many others throughout Ohio for them to fulfil the faith that Ohio's prison chief has in them.

There are lots of potential reactions and commentary justified by this story and the operationalization of the 2011 Ohio law meant to help reduce the state's inmate population and save the state money. For now, I want to focus on an important political reality in this Ohio "smart on crime" development: both houses of the Ohio General Assembly and the executive branch of Ohio were all in firm Republican control when Ohio enacted the broad-based sentencing reform that is now enabling at least five offenders to likely obtain early release from their prison sentences. For this reason (and others), I think prison reform is right now much better understood, at least at the state level, as a matter of avoiding the (budget) red rather than a matter of political debate among the blue and red sides of the aisle.

March 4, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 28, 2013

You be the prosecutor: what state sentence should be sought for Joan Orie Melvin and her sister?

OriesRegular readers know that, often on the eve of a high-profile or unique sentencing proceeding, I urge folks to imagine being the judge and to propose a just and effective sentence for the defendant.  (See, e.g., prior "you be the judge" posts involving a rouge federal judge, a Ponzi schemer, the "Spam King", and an NBA star.)   Earlier this month, however, I generated a notable sentencing debate by changing the script via this post in which I encouraged folks to imagine being a federal prosecutor tasked with recommending a federal sentence for Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife after it was clear that they intend to plead guilty to political corruption charges stemming from their misuse of campaign finance monies.  (See "You be the prosecutor: what federal sentence should be sought for Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife?".)

As the title of this post reveals, I think it valuable to encourage readers again to think as a prosecutor about sentencing recommendations for political corruption.  But, as explained via this local story, "Judge sets May 7 sentencing for Joan Orie Melvin," the high-profile upcoming sentencing I have in mind is in state court and concerns a prominent state jurist and her sister after a trial conviction on multiple charges:

Allegheny County Judge Lester Nauhaus has scheduled suspended Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin's sentencing for May 7, the judge's staff said Wednesday.

A jury on Feb. 21 found Melvin, 56, of Marshall guilty on six criminal charges dealing with her misuse of state-paid employees to campaign for a seat on the high court in 2003 and 2009. The jury deadlocked on a seventh charge of official oppression.

The jury also convicted her sister and former staffer, Janine Orie, 58, of McCandless on six related charges.  Information on her sentencing date wasn't available.  A third sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, 51, of McCandless is serving 2 1⁄2 years to 10 years in state prison on similar charges.

Obviously, the exact specifics of the crimes and the political positions of Jesse Jackson Jr. and Joan Orie Melvin are quite different.  Nevertheless, the underlying criminal behavior is arguably similar, as is the basic background of the offenders in relevant respects (e.g., both convicted defendants came from prominent political families, had a record of electorial success, and have considerable parental responsibilities).  Of course, Jackson Jr. and his wife are due to be sentenced in the federal no-parole system in which judges must impose exact sentences subject only to a 15% reduction for good prison behavior, whereas Melvin and her sister are to be sentenced in the Pennsylvania with-parole system in which judges general impose sentences in term of broad ranges.  Further, the Jacksons pleaded guilty and have expressed remorse, whereas Melvin and his sister both execised their trial rights and were found guilty on nearly all charges by a jury.

Differencea aside, I am eager to hear what readers think state prosecutors ought to be recommending as a sentence for Joan Orie Melvin and her sister.  Do you think they merit a longer or shorter sentence that what the Jacksons are facing?  Do you think the fact that state sentencing in Pennsylvania involves possibility of parole should lead to state prosecutor to urge for a much longer sentence in the Melvin case than federal prosecutors are urging in the Jackson case?  Do you disagree with my general notion that these crimes are in some ways comparable given that they were prosecuted in different jurisdictions (even though, I think, the feds could have prosecuted both cases)?

I raise these points not only because I see high-profile, white-collar sentences as provide a great setting for debating sentencing issues, but also because I think efforts to compare the sentencing treatment of seemingly similar defendants can often distract from the task of seeking to impose the most just and effective sentence for a singular defendant.  Ergo my interest in reader views on both the upcoming sentencing in this high-profile state political corruption case and how it should be compared to the upcoming sentencing of the Jacksons in federal court.

Recent related posts:

February 28, 2013 in Celebrity sentencings, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, State Sentencing Guidelines, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Missouri dealing with pipeline sentencing issues after state changes to crack law

Federal sentencing practioners are well aware of the multi-year legal debate over the application of the new crack sentencing rules in the Fair Sentencing Act to pending cases.  That legal debate culminated in the Supreme Court's Dorsey ruling last tear, and lower federal courts are still sorting through the consequences.  Now I see from this local article, headlined "Crack cocaine sentencing law at crossroads in St. Louis case," that the Missouri now has the same kind of issue percolating as a matter of state sentencing law. Here is how this lengthy piece get started:

Two grams of crack cocaine could cost Jackie Murphy a lot more time in prison than many other defendants with identical drug cases awaiting trial.  That’s because Murphy, of St. Louis, was charged before the Missouri legislature acted last summer to bring the penalties for possessing crack cocaine more in line with those for possessing powder cocaine.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce’s office has taken the stance that the new legislation was not intended to apply to cases that were pending at the time — only to charges going forward.  That means that Murphy, if convicted, could face five to 15 years in prison for his alleged possession in January 2009 of two to eight grams of crack cocaine, under the Class B felony of trafficking.  Someone accused of the same conduct after August 2012 would face far less: one day to seven years for the lesser charge of possession, a Class C felony.

It’s a dichotomy that Murphy’s public defender, Richard Kroeger, is calling “utterly wrong” in a motion arguing for a dismissal of the charges.  He’s asking St. Louis Circuit Judge John Riley to follow the reasoning of the U.S. Supreme Court, which in June settled the same debate on the federal level.  It was about two Illinois men whose cases were charged but not yet adjudicated when the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 was enacted.  The high court said the new law did apply to federal cases in the “pipeline.”

Joyce’s office opposes the motion, arguing that state law is clear and that the federal cases are a different matter.  The office declined to make anyone available this week to answer questions about it.  Riley is expected to issue a ruling as early as next week. 

Those who advocated for the legislation here are watching carefully, saying this could be the test case for how the new law is applied across the state. It was unclear how many pending cases might be affected, but lawyers said “a number” were on hold pending the outcome.

Under the old Missouri law, trafficking more than 150 grams but less than 450 grams of powder cocaine was treated the same as trafficking at least two grams but less than eight grams of crack.

According to a 2011 report from the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit advocate on criminal justice policies, Missouri’s 75-to-1 ratio for weight-based penalties on crack versus powder cocaine was the highest disparity in the nation.  It was adopted in 1989, according to the report, after a significant increase in cocaine-related deaths and at the tail end of a nationwide crack epidemic.  The old federal law had a 100-to-1 disparity.  Illinois, with no difference, was not mentioned in the report.

The Washington-based organization, and other advocates for equalizing crack and powder cocaine sentencing, argue that the old laws in Missouri and elsewhere are discriminatory because the heaviest penalties fell on minority and poor offenders, who have tended to choose crack.  And in the last decade or so, lawmakers have begun to agree. Missouri is one of five states, among 13 with disparities, that have since moved either to close the gap or eliminate it, according to the organization.

Nicole Porter, director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project, said she was not aware of any legislation that included provisions to be applied retroactively, or specified whether it would apply to pending cases.  Silence on the issue in the 2010 federal revision produced two years of uncertainty, until the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in the consolidated cases of Dorsey v. United States and Hill v. United States.  Porter added that Murphy’s case was the first she’d heard of on the state level that asks the courts how the pipeline cases should be handled. “That litigation that is going on in Missouri is really new territory,” she said.

February 16, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

New Sentencing Project report on 2012 state statutory sentencing developments

I just received an e-mail promoting a notable new report just released by The Sentencing Project.  Here is the full text of the e-mail, signed by Marc Mauer, which includes a link to the report:

I am pleased to share with you a new report from The Sentencing Project, The State of Sentencing 2012: Developments in Policy and Practice, by Nicole D. Porter.  The report highlights reforms in 24 states that demonstrate a continued trend to reform sentencing policies and scale back the use of imprisonment without compromising public safety.  The report provides an overview of recent policy reforms in the areas of sentencing, probation and parole, collateral consequences, and juvenile justice.  Highlights include:

  • Mandatory minimums:  Seven states — Alabama, California, Missouri, Massachusetts, Kanas, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania — revised mandatory penalties for certain offenses,  including crack cocaine offenses and drug offense enhancements.
  • Death penalty: Connecticut abolished the death penalty, becoming the 17th state to do so.
  • Parole and probation reforms:  Seven states — Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Missouri, and Pennsylvania — expanded the use of earned time for eligible prisoners and limited the use of incarceration for probation and parole violations.
  • Juvenile life without parole:  Three states — California, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania — authorized sentencing relief for certain individuals sentenced to juvenile life without parole.
I hope you find this publication useful in your work.  The full report, which includes a comprehensive chart on criminal justice reform legislation, details on sentencing, probation and parole, collateral consequences of conviction, juvenile justice and policy recommendations, can be found online here.  I’d encourage you to be in touch with Nicole D. Porter, Director of Advocacy, at nporter@sentencingproject.org to discuss how we can support your efforts in the area of state policy reform.

January 29, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

More notable talk of more notable sentencing reforms (and a sentencing commission) in Texas

For many years and for many reasons, Texas has been among the most interesting and dynamic modern sentencing reform states.  And this new article from the Austin American-Statesman, headlined "Prison reform outlook improves with business group’s involvement," details why the past, present and future of sentencing in the Lone Star State merits close attention from all sentencing fans. Here are snippets from this new article:

Now, with an influential business lobby group and a leading conservative organization leading the charge, some legislative leaders are wondering whether this year’s 140 days of lawmaking could rival the 2007 session.  That year, lawmakers approved a historic $240 million initiative to provide addiction treatment and rehabilitation programs for convicts rather than building new prisons, a gamble that has since paid off — and become a national model.

This year, just two weeks into the legislative session, there are active discussions about expanding a variety of community-based corrections programs with state funds, changing state laws to rehabilitate low-level drug offenders in programs rather than in expensive state prisons, and even to ease laws that limit ex-convicts’ employment.

“The Legislature this year has an opportunity to take the next step,” said Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation.  Levin helped bring in the support of the Texas Association of Business to push the smarter-on-crime agenda.   “The current system is a drag on our vitality as a state. The more people we can get into less costly treatment and rehabilitation programs that are successful, the better off we’ll be,” he said.

Bill Hammond, a former legislator who is president of the Texas Association of Business, agrees: “The current system costs too much. We’re looking at this from a business standpoint, that some changes are good public policy.”  Even state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who is an architect of many of the previous reforms, says he is hopeful that meaningful reforms could be in the offing, thanks to an unexpected new ally....

Proposals sparking the most discussion so far include:

• Allowing more low-level offenders caught with small amounts of certain drugs to be sentenced to local rehabilitation and treatment programs instead of prison, and letting shoplifters and other petty criminals serve their sentences under community-based supervision. ...

• Making prostitution a misdemeanor offense, rather than a low-level felony. The change could eventually remove several hundred women from state lockups and place them in local rehab programs that have been highly successful elsewhere. The difference in cost: $15,500 a year for a state cell vs. $4,300 for a bunk in a community program.

• Creating a new commission of judges, prosecutors and other officials to review sentencing practices across the state.  The panel was recommended by a recent government-efficiency report by the Legislature Budget Board.  If adopted, it would be the first time the state’s criminal laws have been reviewed for streamlining since 1993....

• Allowing dozens of terminally ill and bedridden offenders to be more easily paroled, a move that could save the state millions of dollars in prison medical costs.  At $700 million a year, the medical tab is one of the fastest-growing items in the state budget. The 10 sickest convicts in 2011 cost taxpayers nearly $2 million....

Crime victims and police groups that have campaigned to increase criminal penalties say they will be watching for any changes that might be too soft on crime.  But some acknowledge that discussion of successful, less costly alternatives to prison is timely. “As long as public safety remains the most important priority, I’m sure there’s room for improvement,” said Kat Peterson, a Dallas resident who been a frequent fixture at legislative hearings over the past decade — both as a onetime victim of violent crime and an advocate for her cousin who is serving a long sentence in a state prison.  “Even a good system can be reformed to make it better.”

I often look to Grits for Breakfast when I want to know more about the latest comingsand goings on Texas criminal justice issues, and Grits had had these recent notable posts on this front:

January 23, 2013 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Talk in Vermont of requiring judges to consider directly costs of sentence

This local article, headlined "Sentencing in Vt: Factor in cost?," reports on an interesting sentencing debate now taking place in the Green Mountain State.  Here are highlights:

As part of an effort to curb rising corrections budgets, the Senate is contemplating legislation that would require Vermont judges to consider the cost of a sentence before handing down jail time.  Sen. Dick Sears, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said it would be up to individual judges to decide whether to allow the information to influence their sentencing decisions.  But with the annual cost of incarcerating an inmate in Vermont at $45,000, Sears said judges at least ought to be aware of the financial consequences of their decisions.

“I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t lock somebody up for 20 years,” Sears said Tuesday. “But if we do, it’s going to cost us $650,000, in today’s dollars, and we need people in the system to be asking themselves: Is that a good investment?”

Requiring judges to consider the cost of their sentences is the most controversial provision in a bill that seeks broader reforms to the sentencing process. The bill would provide judges information about the average sentences for certain crimes — a measure aimed at remedying the disparity in sentencing across county lines. The bill also would institute a risk assessment for offenders, before sentencing, as a means of helping judges evaluate the merits of various options.

Bram Kranichfeld, the new executive director of the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, said cost should have no bearing on sentencing.  “You can end up with unfair results, you can end up with arbitrary results, if a judge is required in every case to take cost into account,” Kranichfeld said.

He said state’s attorneys support efforts to track the costs of various sentencing options, and to come up with metrics that might help determine how “successful” various sentences are.  But he said issues of cost should be used to shape policy, not to influence the length of a sentence in a specific case.

“If a judge was otherwise going to give someone life in prison for a horrible crime, would it be appropriate to give them less than that solely because of the cost?” Kranichfeld said. “On lower-level cases, it’s the same sort of issue. Would it be appropriate for a judge to give someone 20 days in jail if he or she thought 30 days in jail was appropriate and equitable, simply because the 10 extra days is going to cost more?”

Sears said the issue of price shouldn’t play a role in sentencing for violent crimes.
“But it maybe should have some impact on some crimes that are nonviolent in nature, which is an area we’ve been working over the past eight years trying to lower recidivism,” Sears said.  “OK, I can put this baggy-pant kid in jail for awhile and it’s going to cost me $75,000, or I can put him in drug treatment and it’ll cost me $10,000. If he’s been breaking into cars and stealing stuff, you need a punishment. But with such limited resources now, maybe cost ought to be a factor in what you want to do with him.”...

Defender General Matt Valerio, who oversees a public defense system that represents the vast majority of defendants in criminal cases, said lawyers in his office have in the past sought to use cost as a factor in sentencing.  In every case, Valerio said, they have “roundly been … shot down.”

Valerio said cost should be a factor in sentencing, especially in instances when courts are weighing retribution versus rehabilitation.  “If you feel like you want to take out society’s anger with a situation on a person, rather than getting them a rehabilitative sentence, then we ought to know what that’s going to cost so you know how much you’re going to spend for society to impose its punishment,” he said.

January 23, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Post-modern sentencing reforms: restricting judicial discretion to be harsh

The story of "modern" sentencing reforms in the 1980s and 1990s was mostly about legislatures enacting sentencing statutes and guidelines that greatly limited judicial discretion to be lenient in response to relatively serious offenses.  But, as this local story from California highlights, what I will call "post-modern" sentencing reforms now involve legislatures enacting sentencing statutes and guidelines that greatly limit judicial discretion at sentencing to be harsh in response to relatively less serious offenses.  The story from California is headlined "State's prison overhaul changes sentencing structures but leaves judges with little discretion," and it starts this way:

Since the overhaul of California's state prisons in October 2011, nearly 90 people convicted of felony crimes were sent to Santa Cruz County Jail instead of prison under the new sentencing guidelines established by AB 109.

With prison realignment, state officials have carved out a number of types of felony crimes that no longer carry the option of a prison sentence. Instead, offenders convicted of these crimes serve their time locally, be it in county jails or through alternative programs such as drug treatment programs and electronic monitoring.  It's also meant more people are getting placed on probation.

The new structure gives judges limited discretion when it comes to sentencing, said Judge John Salazar, presiding judge of Santa Cruz County Superior Court.  When it comes to sentencing for crimes designated as jail-eligible, judges have the discretion to impose two types of sentences to County Jail.  Previously, felony offenders were more likely sent to prison.

Judges may commit the offender to County Jail, or they can impose what's called a split sentence, with a portion served in jail and the rest on mandatory supervision.  Eighty-eight people who would have been sentenced to prison before realignment now have been given County Jail sentences, said Jim Hart, the county's chief deputy of corrections.

Crimes that now carry potential jail, not prison sentences, are typically those considered "triple nons" -- nonviolent, nonserious and nonregisterable sex offenses.  These include many drug offenses and property crimes.  Before AB 109, these offenders would have been sent to prison.

How the actual jail portion of a sentence is served is left up to the jail staff to decide. Although judges can recommend or authorize certain types of alternative incarceration programs, Salazar said.  Once a person is handed a jail sentence, it is the jail staff that determines if and whether that individual can serve it in a way other than being locked up in jail 24 hours a day.

As noted in prior posts here and here, the latest sentencing reforms in Ohio have also restricted judicial discretion to send certain offenders to prison (and, not surprisingly, it is now prosecutors rather than defense attorneys complaining about these new restrictions on judicial sentencing discretion).  Similarly, a number of other states also dealing with overcrowded and costly prisons have likewise created new sentencing structures to urge or require sentencing judges to look at alternatives to prison.

This new story from California highlights one especially notable (and not always recognized) aspect of these post-modern reforms: in addition to restricting judicial discretion, these reforms have often shifted on-the-ground discretion from both judges and prosecutors now to corrections officials and thsoe who create and operate prison alternatives.  Whether this kind of shift will be good for justice and public safety in the long run will be important to watch in the years and decades to come.

October 28, 2012 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Friday, October 12, 2012

NPR piece spotlights Ohio success with sentencing reforms and reducing recidivism

I am very pleased to see that my state is getting well-deserved national attention for its recent success with sentencing and corrections reforms.  Specifically, NPR's Talk of the Nation had this lengthy segment earlier this week on Ohio's reforms under the heading "Programs Keep Inmates From Returning To Prison." Here is how the NPR site sets up the discussion:

States pay tens of thousands of dollars a year to house each inmate. Some states are rethinking the way they spend that money. In Ohio, sentencing reform, increased support for former inmates, and rehabilitation and education programs for current prisoners have helped keep prisoners from returning.

October 12, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 11, 2012

You be the sentencing judge: what is a fitting sentence for abusive "Super Glue" mom?

This AP article, headlined "Mom Who Glued Toddler's Hands Faces Sentencing," reports an on-going sentencing proceeding in Texas state court. The story prompts the challenge in the title of this post and my broader interest in readers' sentencing instincts in response to a high-profile case of child abuse:

A mother who admitted to beating her 2-year-old daughter and gluing the child's hands faces anything from probation to a life in prison for her crimes.

Elizabeth Escalona's sentencing hearing will continue Thursday, a day after she pleaded for leniency, saying she was no longer the "monster" who committed the attack.  "I will never forgive myself for what I did to my own daughter," said Elizabeth Escalona, who pleaded guilty in July to felony injury to a child.

Police say Escalona lost her temper last year with Jocelyn Cedillo over potty training problems.  Escalona beat and kicked Jocelyn before sticking her hands to an apartment wall using an adhesive commonly known as Super Glue.  The child was hospitalized for days.

Judge Larry Mitchell has a wide range in choosing Escalona's sentence: Anything from probation to life in prison is possible.  Prosecutors are asking for a 45-year sentence.

Defense attorney Angie N'Duka asked Escalona what she thought of photos that prosecutors presented earlier this week showing her daughter's injuries.  "Only a monster does that," Escalona responded. N'Duka then asked Escalona whether she thought she was a monster. "When that happened, I was," Escalona replied.

Escalona asked Mitchell for an opportunity to show she had changed, adding that she would accept any sentence as fair. "I want everybody to know I'm not a monster," Escalona said. "I love my kids." Escalona admitted to hitting and kicking her daughter but said she didn't recall why she did it.

Prosecutors have portrayed Escalona as an unfit mother with a history of violence.  They have played recordings in which Escalona as a teenager threatened to kill her mother.  They said she was a former gang member who started smoking marijuana at age 11.

Jocelyn suffered bleeding in her brain, a fractured rib, multiple bruises and bite marks, and was in a coma for a couple of days. Some skin had been torn off her hands, where doctors also found glue residue and white paint chips from the apartment wall, witnesses testified.

Escalona's family has acknowledged their dismay and anger following the attack, but both her mother and sister asked the judge for leniency.  "I wanted an explanation," said Margaret Escalona, her sister. "I wanted to know what happened.  I wanted to beat my sister up."

Ofelia Escalona, Elizabeth's mother, said her daughter hit her as a child, but she also said Elizabeth was abused growing up.  Both Ofelia and Margaret Escalona argued that Elizabeth needed more help and not prison.  "Her being taken away won't help any," Margaret Escalona said.

Counselor Melanie Davis testified Wednesday that she believes from the conversations she has had with Elizabeth Escalona that the mother loves her five children, one of whom was born after the attack.  Davis said she has been counseling Escalona since June, nine months after her arrest.

I find this story interesting for many reasons: (1) despite modern structured sentencing reforms, here a sentencing judge still has unfettered discretion to impose a sentence anywhere from probation to life in prison; (2) though not asking for life, prosecutors' request for a 45-year prison term suggests they state think defendant should not be locked up until she is very old (and no longer able to have more kids); (3) the only man mentioned in this story is the sentencing judge (though I am inclined to assume at least one of the prosecutors is a man); (4) Texas has a procedure for jury sentencing, and it is interesting to speculate whether we think a fitting sentence would be more likely to emerge from a multi-member jury deliberating about these matters rather than from a single sentencing judge.

October 11, 2012 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

New alliance of Florida business and tax groups talking up incarceration alternatives

Sja_logo_newAs reported in this local article, headlined "Smart Justice: Reducing Recidivism Reduces Taxpayer Costs" a notable group of Florida groups are coming together as "The Florida Smart Justice Alliance" to work on sentencing reform issues in the Sunshine State. Here are the details:

A coalition of tax watchdogs and business lobbying outfits is working toward legislation aimed at reducing criminal recidivism and thus saving taxpayer dollars.

The Florida Smart Justice Alliance, which includes Associated Industries of Florida and Florida TaxWatch, says it is seeking alternatives to incarceration that would be more effective and eventually cut some of the $2.1 billion a year price tag on the incarceration of around 100,000 inmates.

The group has already started meeting with judges, sheriffs and others in the criminal justice pipeline as it prepares for a Dec. 12-14 summit in Orlando.  The goal of the summit will be to reach consensus on providing assistance in an institutional rehab program -- a program that could be offered to the state Legislature.

“Maybe in the short-run penny wise, but in the long-term it is pound foolish not to give people the treatment and rehab that is available,” AIF President Tom Feeney said Tuesday during a media conference at the Florida Press Center in Tallahassee.  “One of the things I like that the Alliance is doing -- I’m not an expert in any of these matters -- is that they are studying what works and what doesn’t work in 49 other states and in fact around the free world.”

Mark Flynn, president and chief executive officer of Florida Smart Justice Association, said one proposal to establish a trio of assistance institutions across the state for nonviolent drug offenders could save Florida $20 million through reducing the cost of incarceration and the risk of those individuals returning to prison.  “Our goal is to identify productive alternatives to incarceration on the front end and better transitioning efforts for those prisoners who are being released back into their communities,” Flynn said.

A big hurdle may be the governor’s office. Last April, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a carefully crafted bill by Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff that was intended to help people in prison deal with their drug addiction.

The bill (HB 177), backed 40-0 by the Senate and 112-4 in the House, would have offered modest reform by moving a small group of drug-addicted inmates into a treatment program once they serve half their time. They would still have been in custody but not behind bars. Scott said the effort would have broken the state law that requires a prisoner to serve 85 percent of his or her sentence.

“Justice to victims of crime is not served when a criminal is permitted to be released early from a sentence imposed by the courts,” Scott wrote in his veto message. “This bill would permit criminals to be released after serving 50 percent of their sentences, thus creating an unwarranted exception to the rule that inmates serve 85 percent of their imposed sentences.”

There are many notable aspects of the development of this new alliance in Florida, which is yet another manifestation of the ways in which new political coalitions are forming due to the huge the costs of mass incarceration in an era of tight budgets. And I cannot help but find remarkable and telling that the first person quoted in this local story is Tom Feeney, whom I assume is the same person with that name who, when serving in Congress, sponsored the so-called Feeney Amendment to the 2003 PROTECT ACT which sought to limit drastically judicial departure authority under the guidelines (way back in the pre-Booker days).

October 3, 2012 in State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Ohio reducing prison population, but judges still unhappy with sentencing reforms

This new AP article, headlined "Fewer Ohio inmates, but judges want law fixed," highlights that sentencing judges dislike limits on their discretion even when these limits require lower sentences. Here are excerpts:

A law that has helped Ohio reduce its inmate population is being criticized as too restrictive by judges seeking more leeway in sentencing.

Enacted a year ago this Sunday, the law aims to save the state millions of dollars by shrinking the number of inmates and also by reducing the number of offenders who might to return to prison as repeat offenders. One result of the change is that Ohio’s inmate population has remained under 50,000 since January, levels not seen since 2007.

Ohio is also one of several states making significant progress reducing the number of repeat offenders, according to a national report released last week. Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Oregon, Texas and Vermont all saw the number of repeat offenders drop between 2005 and 2007, according to the study by Washington-based Council of State Governments’ Justice Center.

One way Ohio has lowered its inmate population over the past year is by prohibiting judges from sentencing first-time offenders to prison if the cases fall into a series of categories, such as convictions involving low-level felonies or if the crime was not a violent offense.

But judges aren’t always happy about that. In some cases, they can’t find local treatment facilities or aren’t aware of them, or they say the offender has a history of skipping out of halfway houses or similar settings. In other cases, judges make it clear they think prison is warranted, despite the law....

Thanks to the law, the number of offenders convicted of property, drug possession and drug trafficking crimes decreased from 37 percent of total admissions to 29 percent of admissions, according to prison records. In addition, the number of offenders admitted each month for failing to pay child support has dropped from 39 per month in 2011 to 31 per month from January through August, records show.

Prisons director Gary Mohr called the first-year results promising but said much remains to be done. “If I believed that we were going to stop at these numbers, I’d be pretty darn disappointed,” Mohr said in an interview last week. “This gives us a sense of hope that we can continue to get a whole lot better.”

Ohio has about 49,500 inmates in 28 prisons built to hold about 39,000 prisoners. A year ago, the state estimated the inmate population would rise to 54,000 in four years without action. The goal is to shrink Ohio’s prison population to about 47,000 inmates by 2015.

This similar local article, headlined "Sentencing reform: Fewer convicts going to prison," provides this additional evidence that folks have varied perspectives on Ohio's recent sentencing reform efforts:

With promises of big taxpayer savings and fears of more strain on local governments, state lawmakers and the governor overhauled Ohio’s sentencing laws last year. The goal was to send fewer nonviolent, low-level felons to prison, and shorten the length of time other prisoners would spend behind bars, and save tens of millions of dollars in the process.

The law took effect a year ago today. As predicted, fewer felons are going to prison and more are being put on probation, both around the state and in Stark County. What those changes mean depends on who you ask:

— “We’re pleased with the results of House Bill 86 thus far and we see those results even increasing as we move forward the next couple of fiscal years,” said Linda Janes, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction chief of staff.

— “We have not seen what I would call earth-shattering changes,” said Stark County Common Pleas Judge Lee Sinclair.

— “I think it’s awful,” said Stark County Common Pleas Judge Frank Forchione, repeating an opinion he has voiced from the bench.

September 30, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Should sentencing juries receive a state's sentencing guidelines?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this interesting story from Virginia, which is headlined "Hampton juror asks judge to lower 128-year prison sentence." Here are excerpts which discuss jury sentencing practices in Old Dominion:

A jury in March recommended that Robert Via Jr. spend the rest of his life in prison. Their decision seemed definitive: 128 years and a day, for an armed home invasion.

But one juror is now saying that because they were forced under the law to render the sentence without guidelines, a judge should shorten the majority of Via's time behind bars. "I believe the jury may have arrived at a different set of verdicts had we more information on Virginia's sentencing requirements and processes," the juror wrote in an Aug. 12 letter to Hampton Circuit Judge Christopher Hutton.

Those concerns highlight a larger issue in the state: Jurors do not get state sentencing guidelines, and judges rarely question jurors' recommendations.

The guidelines, implemented in 1995, were an attempt to level the sentencing field when the state ended parole.... But unlike judges, jurors don't have access to the guidelines and usually sentence above them, research shows....

Virginia is one of six states that allows jurors to recommend sentences after finding someone guilty. In most states, the jury decides guilt or innocence but the sentence is determined by the judge.

In a 2004 study published in the Vanderbilt Law Review, Nancy J. King and Rosevelt L. Noble examined jury sentences in Virginia, Kentucky and Arkansas. The authors found that juror sentences in Virginia were not consistent with those given by judges. "Average sentences after jury trial were more severe than average sentences after bench trial or guilty plea, with many offenses showing significant differences," the authors write.

Jury sentences for defendants convicted of drug offenses averaged from 4.5 years to 14 years longer than sentences by judges, the study found. "In Virginia, the jury lacks both information and power, and is routinely bypassed by defendants who prefer the guideline sentences that they can obtain by exercising their state constitutional right to plead guilty," the authors wrote.

Defense attorneys often warn their clients about the stakes of taking a jury trial because of the sentence disparity. "Any time a defendant requests a trial by jury, you have to factor in the risk of a jury sentencing your client," defense attorney Tim Clancy said. "It's a huge factor in making the decision of whether to have a judge or a jury hear a client's case. It's a huge consideration."...

Criminal cases being tried by juries are rare across the state. Most cases are settled through guilty pleas or bench trials, according to the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission's 2011 annual report. Only 1.5 percent of criminal cases were resolved by jury trials in 2011. Eighty-nine percent of criminal cases were adjudicated by guilty pleas and 10 percent by bench trials....

When a jury decides on a sentence, it is only a recommendation to the judge. In most cases, however, judges will impose what the jury recommends. Defense attorney Ron Smith says that judges rarely go against what the jury wants in a criminal trial....

In 2011, judges modified 19 percent of jury sentences, according to the commission's report. Judges can lower a jury's recommended sentence, but not raise it. Under the law a judge must impose the minimum, but can suspend all or part of the time. They can also decide to give the defendant probation.

September 19, 2012 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Monday, September 17, 2012

Jerry Sandusky's sentencing scheduled for October 9, 2012

This Reuters article reports on the latest scheduling information for what seems likely to be a closely watched, but somewhat unsuspenseful, forthcoming state sentencing in Pennsylvania.  here are the basics:

Convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky will face sentencing immediately after an October 9 hearing to determine if the former Penn State assistant football coach is a sexually violent predator, a judge said on Monday.

The hearing will be held at the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, Judge John Cleland said in an order published online. A sentencing conference will be held October 8.

Sandusky, 68, was convicted in June of 45 counts of child molestation as part of a scandal that shook college football and focused national attention on child sex abuse. He faces up to 373 years in prison for sexually abusing 10 boys over a period of 15 years, including while he was the highly regarded defensive coordinator at powerhouse Pennsylvania State University.

Designating Sandusky a sexually violent predator would put him under stringent reporting requirements if he is put on probation after release from prison. The court will consider the recommendation of the state Sexual Offenders Assessment Board. Normally a determination hearing takes place the same day as sentencing, but the scale of Sandusky's case could mean sentencing would take place later.

Dan Filler, a law professor at Philadelphia's Drexel University, said Cleland had options in sentencing, but the outcome would be the same for Sandusky. Cleland could have the 45 sentences run one after the other or at the same time. He also could impose the maximum or minimum under sentencing guidelines, and take Sandusky's lack of prior convictions into consideration, Filler said.

"In the end, however, judges are very politically sensitive in cases like this. Whatever the guidelines call for, I believe the judge will impose a sentence that is functionally life without hope of parole," he wrote in an email before the hearing date was set.

I will be truly shocked if Sandusky does not get a sentence that ensures he will die in prison. The only real suspense will be how the state judge in this case chooses to structure the sentence and whether, like the federal sentencing judge in the Bernie Madoff case, considers maxing out the sentence in order to try to "send a message" to both the victims and society concerning this kind of offense.

September 17, 2012 in Celebrity sentencings, Scope of Imprisonment, Sex Offender Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Sunday, September 02, 2012

New York claims success with prison shock camps

As detailed in this AP article, New York is citing to evidence of success at reducing its offender recidivism rate through the use of shock incarceration programs.  Here are the details:

New York corrections officials say they have graduated 45,000 inmates from military-style boot camp over the past 25 years and data shows that most don't commit new crimes. Established around the country in the 1980s as an alternative to regular prison, the so-called "shock camps" got mixed reviews and several states dropped them.  New York kept three camps going with a model they say is effective and cutting down the rate of repeat offenses and saving money.

Only prisoners convicted of nonviolent crimes who volunteer and sign contracts go to the camps.  Many drop out or are kicked out before completing the six months of mandatory physical training, manual labor, education and drug counseling, scrutinized by drill instructors.  The prize for completing the course is a shortened sentence....

Some observers say the lower recidivism is predictable because it's a self-selected and motivated group of inmates who prove capable of finishing the program.  They also note that the lower recidivism, far lower in the first year, starts rising after that.  "Our view is that it's somewhat mixed, but there are definitely some positive elements to it," said Jack Beck, who directs the visiting project for the Correctional Association of New York.  "The regimentation is so different from what these individuals will experience on the outside, it's very hard to translate those experiences into something when they return home."

New York has 1,087 inmates at the shock camps, Moriah in the Adirondacks, Lakeview in western New York's Chautauqua County, and Monterey in the Finger Lakes region.  All are minimum-security without fences and set in rural areas.  Before the state shut the Summit camp southwest of Albany in 2011 to save money, there were 1,284 offenders in the shock program.  The system has some 56,000 inmates in 60 correctional facilities, down from a peak 71,600 in 1999.

Revisions in drug sentencing laws and diverting more inmates to treatment programs have reduced the available pool for shock programs.  Initially intended for prisoners up to age 23, they have been opened to inmates up to age 50 with less than three years left on their sentences.

Corrections spokeswoman Linda Foglia said they estimate having saved $1.34 billion because of the shortened incarceration for 45,135 shock graduates, including 3,355 females, over the past 25 years.  Meanwhile, New York data show 7 percent of those who completed the program from 2007 to 2009 returned to prison within one year, compared to 19.9 percent of all inmates released from state prison.  Recidivism data after three years show a 26.4 percent return rate for those who completed shock in 2007, compared with 42 percent for all releases that year....

A 2003 National Institute of Justice research review said boot camps proliferated nationally starting in the late 1980s, with 75 adult programs by 1995.  Five years later, one-third had closed and there was a 30 percent population drop in remaining state programs. While "almost universally successful improving inmates' attitudes and behavior during the course of the program," the review said those changes did not translate to reduced recidivism, with limited exceptions.  Boot camps that lasted longer, like New York's six months, and offered more intensive treatment and post-release supervision, did better.

As this article highlights, slowly but surely we are learning more about what kinds of correctional programs are more likely to reduce recidivism among various offender populations.

September 2, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Friday, August 31, 2012

Drawing process lessons from high-profile sentencing after college killing in Virginia

The high-profile homicide case emerging from the University of Virginia, in which George Huguely was convicted of second-degree murder in the beating death of his former girlfriend Yeardley Love, culminated in a Virginia state sentencing proceeding yesterday.  This extended ABC News report provides considerable sentencing details:

A Virginia judge today sentenced convicted University of Virginia murderer George Huguely V to 23 years in prison for the beating death of his ex-girlfriend Yeardley Love.  He will serve 23 years, plus one concurrent year for the grand larceny conviction, ruled Judge Edward Hogshire of Charlottesville Circuit Court.  He also ordered three years of probation after the 23....

Huguely's attorneys told reporters outside the court that they plan on appealing both the conviction and the sentence. "Our client, Mr. Huguely, remains optimistic," the attorneys said.

In a statment, the Huguely family wrote, "Today is a sad day for our family.  The past twenty-eight months have been the most difficult in our lives.  We love George and will always support him."  They maintained that Love's death was "an accident with a tragic outcome," and said that, "Yeardley will always be in our hearts."

Love's mother and sister, Sharon and Lexie Love, also released a statement in which they thanked prosecutor David Chapman and everyone who helped them through the past two years.  "We find no joy in others' sorrow.  We plan to work diligently through the One Love Foundation to try and prevent this from happening to another family," they wrote....

Huguely's attorneys asked a Virginia judge today to consider reducing the former University of Virginia athlete's sentence to 14 years in prison, from the 26 years recommended by a jury.  The judge cut the recommended sentence by three years.

The prosecution and defense both called multiple witnesses to the stand for the sentencing, including former classmates, Huguely's aunt and a priest.

Rev. Joseph Scordo said he has visited Huguely in jail every Monday for a half-an-hour for the past two years. Scordo described Huguely as "spiritual" and said the two spoke freely about "faith, prayer, life, religion, family, UVA, sports." Scordo said he has never asked Huguely about the night of Love's death, but that Huguely frequently says, "I want the truth. I want the truth to come out. I have a lot of hope in Him, in God."

The prosecution's witnesses painted Huguely as a violent young man who struggled with his temper and alcohol. Huguely's former lacrosse teammate Gavin Gill told the court that he vividly remembered waking up to Huguely on top of him in bed, beating him up after he had left a party the previous night with Love.

The jury recommended 25 years in prison for the second-degree murder conviction and one year for a grand larceny conviction resulting from an allegation that Huguely stole Love's laptop computer.

Huguely's defense attorneys wrote that sentencing guidelines for convictions of second-degree murder and grand larceny "considering Mr. Huguely's negligible criminal record" recommend a sentence of 14 to 23 years.  "Beyond the obviously tragic outcome, there are no facts in this case sufficiently aggravating to warrant a sentence above the low end of the guidelines or a sentence inconsistent with those imposed across the Commonwealth for like offenses," the defense wrote.  Court documents filed on Wednesday by Huguely's defense team include numerous personal accounts from family and friends praising Huguely and asking for leniency

Huguely killed Love, 22, in a drunken rage in May 2010 just weeks before she was to graduate from the University of Virginia.  Both Huguely and Love were star lacrosse players on the university's elite teams.  Huguely faced six charges, including first-degree murder, in Love's death.

Over 10 days in court, jurors listened to testimony from nearly 60 witnesses and saw a video of Huguely's police statement, graphic photos of Love's battered body, and read text and email correspondence between the two.  Though charged with first-degree murder, the judge gave jurors a menu of lesser charges they could from: second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter.

Neither the prosecution nor the defense denied that Huguely was in Love's room the night of her death and was involved in an altercation with her.  They differed on the severity of the encounter and whether Huguely was directly and intentionally responsible for Love's death.

Though I am not well-versed in Virginia sentencing procedures, it is my understanding that the sentencing judge here could not have increase Huguely's sentence above what was recommended by the jury, but rather only had authority to reduce the sentence. And it appears that advisory sentencing guidelines (including, I believe, an evidence-based risk assessment instrument) provided recommendations to the judge (along with arguments from the parties, of course) as to whether and how much he might reduce the sentence below the jury's recommendation.

Without making any judgments on the Huguely sentencing outcome, I have to express great respect and confidence in the Virginia state sentencing process because of all the perspectives that get brought to bear.  The jurors and judge who heard all the trial evidence along with additional sentencing information both have a significant and independent role in the process, and the final sentence is informed not only by arguments from the litigants but also by advisory guidelines reflecting systemic and evidence-based judgments by the Virginia's elected officials and its expert sentencing commission.  At least on paper and as a fair and transparent process, this seems like a pretty darn good sentencing decision-making system all around.

August 31, 2012 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Massachusetts Gov asked to sign mixed sentencing reform bill

As reported in this local article, headlined "While called ‘balanced,’ sentencing bill lacks provisions sought by Gov. Patrick," the governor of Massachusetts now has on his desk a dynamic state sentencing reform bill.   Here are the details:

Advocates on all sides of the crime and sentencing debate continue to speak out about the habitual offender and sentencing reform bill on Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk, urging him to sign it, veto it or send it back to the Legislature with amendments.

In a WBZ-AM radio interview Monday night, Les Gosule, an activist who has pressed for a habitual offender law for about a decade following the rape and murder of his daughter Melissa, said parties disgruntled over issues left unaddressed by the legislation can pursue those initiatives anew in the next session beginning in January.  “I want the pen,” Gosule said, urging Patrick to put his signature on the bill.

Patrick has until Sunday to act on the legislation and proponents and opponents of the bill are mindful that formal legislative sessions end for the year at midnight next Tuesday. Patrick can sign the bill, veto it, or send it back with amendments.  An eleventh hour amendment from Patrick would force lawmakers to either deal immediately with the amendment or risk seeing their work on the bill go for naught....

While the bill last week cleared the House 139-14 and the Senate 31-7, its supporters and opponents since then have raised concerns about it, with some arguing it lacks crime-fighting tools sought by law enforcement and others arguing that it takes discretionary power in sentencing away from judges and would lead to prison overcrowding.

Among other provisions, the bill reduces mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders and eliminates parole eligibility for certain violent offenders upon their third conviction.

While supporters say the bill represents the “balanced” approach Patrick called for, the legislation appears to lack key policies Patrick highlighted in his State of the State speech in January, giving extra weight to the idea that the bill might be returned with amendments....

The lack of judicial discretion in the bill’s habitual offender initiative drew criticism outside the capital Tuesday. “Who has discretionary power? The prosecutor,” said Rev. George Walters-Sleyon, who was joined by other Boston clergy and Boston City Councilor Charles Yancey in front of the Shaw Memorial on Boston Common Tuesday morning.  He said black people and Latinos comprise less than 17 percent of the state’s population but more than 55 percent of those serving time behind bars....

Criticism has also been levied from state prosecutors.  Six of the state’s 11 district attorneys signed onto a letter Friday criticizing the bill for leaving out provisions that would strengthen gun laws, and for including “no supervision” of drug traffickers released into the community.

July 25, 2012 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Kansas prisoners still serving long terms based on now-reformed "old" sentencing laws

This interesting new article from the Wichita Eagle reports on how and why hundreds of offender sentenced before Kansas sentencing reform two decades ago are still serving prison terms that would have been much shorter under the reformed law.  This piece is headlined "Hundreds of ‘old law’ Kansas inmates serving longer sentences," and it begins this way:

Rick Redford will go before the Kansas Prisoner Review Board this month after serving more than 27 years in prison. Had he been sentenced under today’s laws, he probably would have been released years ago.   “Here I am doing 27 years just to see the parole board,” Redford said in a telephone interview from the Norton Correctional Facility.  “Had I been convicted in 1993, I would have been out in 2005 without even seeing a parole board.”

Redford, whose most serious conviction was for aggravated kidnapping, is one of hundreds of Kansas prison inmates serving sentences for crimes committed before July 1, 1993, the day the Kansas Sentencing Guidelines took effect.  Many of these “old law” inmates are serving sentences that would have been much shorter under today’s law.

“I’m on my 26th year right now,” said Sherman Wright, who figures he would have been released after 15 years had he been sentenced under the guidelines as they became law in 1993.  Instead he’s serving a 69-year-to-life sentence on burglary and aggravated robbery convictions that will keep him in prison at least until 2024.

Wright’s sister, Cynthia Crawford, said her brother’s crimes were relatively minor compared with those committed by some of his fellow inmates.  “He never used any kind of a weapon; he never hurt anybody,” she said.  “I don’t understand how they can let him sit in there and rot like that when people keep going in for killing or raping kids and getting right back out.  I know that hurts him to see people come and go, come and go, for crimes that were way past his.”

The 1992 Sentencing Guidelines Act, which was designed to eliminate racial and geographical disparities in sentencing, established a sentencing system based on the type of crime committed and the defendant’s previous criminal history.  The guidelines generally called for shorter sentences for property crimes and longer ones for crimes of violence.

The Kansas Legislature decided to apply the guidelines retroactively to more than 2,000 inmates who were serving time for relatively minor offenses.  But more than 4,000 inmates convicted of more serious crimes were left to serve out their original sentences. Many of those inmates had more than one conviction and were serving multiple sentences consecutively.  Some who had prior convictions saw their sentences doubled or even tripled under what was known as the Habitual Criminal Act.

The sentencing guidelines law in effect created two classes of prison inmates, but the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in 1994 that it did not violate any inmate’s right to equal protection of the law, guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.  Today, about 400 of those “old law” inmates remain behind bars.

June 17, 2012 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, June 15, 2012

"Sensible Sentences for Nonviolent Offenders"

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

The enormous strain prison costs put on state budgets has led some conservatives and liberals to do something sensible together.  Democrats and Republicans in several states are pushing to reform criminal justice policies based on strong evidence that imprisoning nonviolent offenders for ever longer terms adds huge costs with little benefit to public safety.

Texas closed a prison last year, for the first time in its history, after reducing its prison population by steering nonviolent drug offenders to treatment and adopting other policies. South Carolina and Mississippi eased eligibility standards for parole.  South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas and other states have raised the dollar amount that triggers felony property crimes....

Offenders released in 2009 from state prisons served, on average, almost three years behind bars, nine months longer than those released in 1990.  A new study by the Pew Center on the States reports that additional time in prison costs states more than $10 billion. More than half the extra cost was for nonviolent offenders.

The study also found that earlier release for nonviolent offenders would not have jeopardized public safety based on an analysis of arrest and incarceration data from Florida, Maryland and Michigan.  Risk could be further reduced with better prerelease planning and strong community supervision.  After decades of lengthening sentences, state leaders are realizing that it is possible to cut sentences and prison spending without harming the public.

June 15, 2012 in Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack

Thursday, June 14, 2012

"Scores in N.C. are legally 'innocent,' yet still imprisoned" due to federal gun laws

Med-topperThe folks at USA Today have this fascinating and fantastic front-page feature story concerning the many persons currently serving federal prison time for gun possession crimes that are no longer crimes in the wake of an important recent Fourth Circuit ruling.  The headline of this post is drawn from the headline of the USA Today piece, which is today's must-read and includes these excerpts:

A USA TODAY investigation, based on court records and interviews with government officials and attorneys, found more than 60 men who went to prison for violating federal gun possession laws, even though courts have since determined that it was not a federal crime for them to have a gun.  Many of them don't even know they're innocent.

The legal issues underlying their situation are complicated, and are unique to North Carolina. But the bottom line is that each of them went to prison for breaking a law that makes it a federal crime for convicted felons to possess a gun.  The problem is that none of them had criminal records serious enough to make them felons under federal law.

Still, the Justice Department has not attempted to identify the men, has made no effort to notify them, and, in a few cases in which the men have come forward on their own, has argued in court that they should not be released.

Justice Department officials said it is not their job to notify prisoners that they might be incarcerated for something that they now concede is not a crime.  And although they have agreed in court filings that the men are innocent, they said they must still comply with federal laws that put strict limits on when and how people can challenge their convictions in court.

"We can't be outcome driven," said Anne Tompkins, the U.S. attorney in Charlotte. "We've got to make sure we follow the law, and people should want us to do that." She said her office is "looking diligently for ways, within the confines of the law, to recommend relief for defendants who are legally innocent."

These cases are largely unknown outside the courthouses here, but they have raised difficult questions about what, if anything, the government owes to innocent people locked in prisons.   "It's been tough," said Ripley Rand, the U.S. attorney in Greensboro, N.C. "We've spent a lot of time talking about issues of fundamental fairness, and what is justice."

It's also unusual.  Wrongful conviction cases are seldom open-and-shut — usually they depend on DNA or other new evidence that undermines the government's case, but does not always prove someone is innocent.  Yet in the North Carolina gun cases, it turns out, there simply were no federal crimes.

Using state and federal court records, USA TODAY identified 23 other men who had been sent to federal prison for having a firearm despite criminal records too minor to make that a federal crime.  Nine of them remain in prison, serving sentences of up to 10 years; others are still serving federal probation.  The newspaper's review was limited to only a small fraction of cases from one of the three federal court districts in North Carolina.

Federal public defenders have so far identified at least 39 others in additional court districts, and are certain to find more. And prosecutors have already agreed to drop dozens of cases in which prisoners' convictions were not yet final.

Some of the prisoners USA TODAY contacted — and their lawyers — were stunned to find out that they were imprisoned for something that turned out not to be a federal crime. And their lawyers said they were troubled by the idea that innocence alone might not get them out. "If someone is innocent, I would think that would change the government's reaction, and it's sad that it hasn't," said Debra Graves, an assistant federal public defender in Raleigh. "I have trouble figuring out how you rationalize this. These are innocent people. That has to matter at some point."...

Decades ago, Congress made it a federal crime for convicted felons to have a gun. The law proved to be a powerful tool for police and prosecutors to target repeat offenders who managed to escape stiff punishment in state courts. In some cases, federal courts can put people in prison for significantly longer for merely possessing a gun than state courts can for using the gun to shoot at someone.

To make that law work in every state, Congress wrote one national definition of who cannot own a gun: someone who has been convicted of a crime serious enough that he or she could have been sentenced to more than a year in prison.

Figuring out who fits that definition in North Carolina is not as simple as it sounds. In 1993, state lawmakers adopted a unique system called "structured sentencing" that changes the maximum prison term for a crime, based on the record of the person who committed it. People with relatively short criminal records who commit crimes such as distributing cocaine and writing bad checks face no more than a few months in jail; people with more extensive records face much longer sentences.

For years, federal courts in North Carolina said that did not matter. The courts said, in effect: If someone with a long record could have gone to prison for more than a year for the crime, then everyone who committed that crime is a felon, and all of them are legally barred from possessing a gun.

Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit said federal courts (including itself) had been getting the law wrong. Only people who could have actually faced more than a year in prison for their crimes qualify as felons under federal law.

The 4th Circuit's decision came in a little-noticed drug case, United States v. Simmons, but its implications could be dramatic. For one thing, tens of thousands of people in North Carolina have criminal records that no longer make having a gun a federal crime. About half of the felony convictions in North Carolina's state courts over the past decade were for offenses that no longer count as felonies under federal law.

No one yet knows precisely how many people were incorrectly convicted for having a gun, but the number could be significant. Rand, the U.S. attorney in Greensboro, estimated that more than a third of the gun cases his office prosecuted might be in question, either because the defendants didn't commit a federal crime at all by possessing a gun or because their sentences were calculated incorrectly.  "We're going to be addressing this for a while," he said.

The Justice Department and federal courts moved quickly to clean up cases that were pending when the 4th Circuit announced its decision. Prosecutors dropped pending charges against people whose records no longer qualified them as felons; the 4th Circuit reversed convictions in more than 40 cases that were on appeal at the time. Some of the men were given shorter sentences; others were simply let go.

But the next question has proved far harder to answer: What should the government do with the prisoners whose legal cases were already over?

Whether [these legally innocent defendants] can go home depends on federal laws that put strict limits on when and how people who have already been convicted of a crime can come back to court to plead their innocence.

Those laws let prisoners challenge their convictions if they uncover new evidence, or if the U.S. Supreme Court limits the sweep of a criminal law.  But none of the exceptions is a clear fit, meaning that, innocent or not, they may not be able to get into court at all. Federal courts have so far split on whether they can even hear the prisoners' cases.

Habeas corpus — the main legal tool for challenging unlawful detention — is currently ill-suited to such cases, said Nancy King, a Vanderbilt Law School professor who has studied the issue.  Habeas mainly safeguards people's constitutional right to a fair process, she said, and the problem is that "saying, 'I'm innocent' isn't, on its face, that type of constitutional claim." Still, she said, "innocent people should be able to get out of prison."

Prosecutors don't disagree, though most said they are not convinced the law allows it. Rand, the U.S. attorney in Greensboro, said he is "not aware of any procedural mechanism by which they can be afforded relief," though he said lawyers in his office "have not been pounding on the table" to keep the men in jail.

"No one wants anyone to spend time in jail who should not be there," said Thomas Walker, the U.S. attorney in Raleigh.  That's why he said prosecutors were quick to dismiss charges that were pending when the 4th Circuit ruled.  But cases in which convictions are already final "are in a totally different posture and require us to follow the existing statutory habeas law," he said.

But there's also an even more basic question: How would the prisoners even know?... [C]ourts have asked public defenders to seek them out. Those lawyers said the Justice Department should do more to help, because it has better information and more resources, an assertion prosecutors dispute.

"We're doing it with our hands tied," said Eric Placke, a federal public defender in Greensboro.  "I appreciate the compelling considerations they have to deal with.  But I do think in cases of actual innocence that it would be nice, to say the least, if they would be a little more proactive."  Placke and other public defenders said the reviews have been difficult because they often have limited access to records from the men's prior convictions, which has left them to hunt through files in courthouses across the state.

This story is sad, telling and remarkable for so many reasons, and it also seems to present a situation in which I might argue that some kind of habeas relief (or even federal clemency) is constitutionally required under the Fifth and/or Eighth Amendment. 

As a matter of substantive due process and/or cruel and unusual punishment, I do not think the federal government should be constitutionally permitted to keep someone imprisoned for an act that all now seem to agree was not a federal crime.  Though the statutory habeas rules might preclude relief, I think the continuing constitutional violation of on-going imprisonment of an innocent person demands some kind of immediate remedy.  Clemency is often mentioned by the Supreme Court and commentators as the fail-safe in these kinds of cases, and I hope that this important USA Today piece will at the very least make the folks in the executive branch take this constitutional problem even more seriously.

June 14, 2012 in Clemency and Pardons, Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (52) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

NJ prosecutors now say that Ravi should have received five years in webcam spying case

The New York Times has this fascination new report on some "post-game" (but in-court) comments by various players involved in the sentencing of Dharun Ravi, the former Rutgers student convicted of multiple crimes in the high-profile New Jersey webcam spying case.  The article is headlined "Judge Defends Sentence Imposed on Ex-Rutgers Student," and here are excerpts:

A judge on Wednesday offered a spirited defense of the sentence he imposed on Dharun Ravi, the former Rutgers University student convicted of using a webcam to spy on his roommate having sex with another man.  Mr. Ravi was convicted in March of all 15 charges against him, and sentenced last week to 30 days in jail, 300 hours of community service, three years’ probation and $10,000 to be paid to a fund that helps victims of bias crimes....

No matter how “unconscionable” Mr. Ravi’s conduct, Judge Glenn Berman said in a court hearing Wednesday, “I can’t find it in me to remand him to state prison that houses people convicted of offenses such as murder, armed robbery and rape. I don’t believe that that fits this case. I believe that he has to be punished, and he will be.”...

Prosecutors had been visibly angry when Judge Berman declared the sentence last week, and almost immediately appealed it, arguing that the convictions demanded more time behind bars.  But their memo before sentencing had not indicated how much time they wanted Mr. Ravi to serve, only that they did not believe he had to serve the maximum sentence of 10 years that was attached to the most serious charges, of bias intimidation.

On Wednesday, the lead prosecutor elaborated on that, telling Judge Berman that she thought a five-year sentence would have been appropriate.  The statutes governing bias crimes recommend 5 to 10 years in prison, but the presumption is of a seven-year sentence, and the law allows judges to depart from those guidelines if there are mitigating factors or if they believe a heavier sentence would be an injustice.

Mr. Ravi appeared in court to tell the judge that he would report to begin serving his sentence Thursday. That sentence has been on hold pending the appeal from the prosecution, and one from the defense, which has argued that it was denied evidence, including a suicide note, that could have helped Mr. Ravi at his trial.

While Mr. Ravi was not charged with causing Mr. Clementi’s suicide, many defenders argued that he was essentially — and unfairly — convicted of it.  Judge Berman received more than 100 letters and e-mails before sentencing, most of them arguing against a harsh punishment for Mr. Ravi. On Wednesday, he said that his in-box continued to fill up with complaints about the sentence he imposed.

He defended the sentence as the product of great consideration.  “It was anything but spontaneous,” he said.  Judge Berman noted that the punishment was harsher in some ways than what was recommended in a report by the corrections official who did the presentencing interview with Mr. Ravi.  That report recommended against any incarceration or fine.  It also recommended more extensive community service, and that Mr. Ravi tour schools to discuss his experience, and bias crimes.

But the judge, who last week lambasted Mr. Ravi for not once apologizing for what he had done, said he would not be an “appropriate” spokesman against bias, given that he had barely acknowledged any wrongdoing.  Mr. Ravi, 20, issued a statement late Tuesday to offer his first clear apology for his crimes, saying, “I accept responsibility for and regret my thoughtless, insensitive, immature, stupid and childish choices.”

While last week the judge reserved his harshest words for Mr. Ravi, on Wednesday he engaged in a tense exchange with Julia McClure, the first assistant prosecutor for Middlesex County, saying he would not comment on her appeal, but accusing her of “smirking” as he explained his reasoning for the sentencing.  Ms. McClure argued there were no mitigating factors against a harsher sentence for Mr. Ravi; the judge said if that were the case, then she should be recommending the standard seven years, not five.

In reaching his sentence, the judge said he started with the agreement the prosecution had made with Molly Wei, who had viewed the webcam with Mr. Ravi the first night he spied on Mr. Clementi and his boyfriend.  Ms. Wei was spared prosecution in an agreement to testify against Mr. Ravi, agreeing to three years’ probation and 300 hours of community service.

Believing that “consistency breeds fairness,” the judge said he gave Mr. Ravi community service and probation. “It wasn’t my deal; it was the state’s,” he said.  But because Mr. Ravi’s “involvement was more extensive,” he said, he had added to the sentence, ordering Mr. Ravi to undergo counseling in “alternate lifestyles.”  That phrase had angered gay rights advocates who believe it is derogatory; the judge said he took the language from the plea bargains the prosecution offered Mr. Ravi before he went to trial.

In addition, the judge said, because Mr. Ravi had been convicted of tampering with a witness (trying to get Ms. Wei to lie to the police) and with evidence (trying to cover up his Twitter and text messages) he sentenced him to 30 days in jail....

Over all, Judge Berman said the sentence “was fair, it was appropriate, and most of all, it was consistent.”  He argued that the legislature intended prison terms to be attached to bias crimes that were “assaultive or violent in nature,” not invasion of privacy.  “I also know his age,” Judge Berman added, calling it a mitigating factor.  “I believe justice compels me to deviate from the guidelines,” he said.  However, Judge Berman also said, “I admit that people can disagree with me.”

Recent related posts on Ravi case:

May 30, 2012 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Effective op-ed on "Plantations, Prisons and Profits" in Louisiana

26blow-ch-articleInlineThe title of this post is drawn from the headline of this new op-ed in the New York Times by Charles Blow, which gives justified praise to the recent local newspaper series about Louisiana's criminal justice system (which I have spotlighted in prior posts here and here).  Here are excerpts:

“Louisiana is the world’s prison capital.  The state imprisons more of its people, per head, than any of its U.S. counterparts.  First among Americans means first in the world. Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly triple Iran’s, seven times China’s and 10 times Germany’s.”

That paragraph opens a devastating eight-part series published this month by The Times-Picayune of New Orleans about how the state’s largely private prison system profits from high incarceration rates and tough sentencing, and how many with the power to curtail the system actually have a financial incentive to perpetuate it.

The picture that emerges is one of convicts as chattel and a legal system essentially based on human commodification.... [S]ome facts from the series:

  • One in 86 Louisiana adults is in the prison system, which is nearly double the national average.

  • More than 50 percent of Louisiana’s inmates are in local prisons, which is more than any other state.  The next highest state is Kentucky at 33 percent.  The national average is 5 percent.

  • Louisiana leads the nation in the percentage of its prisoners serving life without parole.

  • Louisiana spends less on local inmates than any other state.

  • Nearly two-thirds of Louisiana’s prisoners are nonviolent offenders.  The national average is less than half.

In the early 1990s, the state was under a federal court order to reduce overcrowding, but instead of releasing prisoners or loosening sentencing guidelines, the state incentivized the building of private prisons. But, in what the newspaper called “a uniquely Louisiana twist,” most of the prison entrepreneurs were actually rural sheriffs. They saw a way to make a profit and did. It also was a chance to employ local people, especially failed farmers forced into bankruptcy court by a severe drop in the crop prices.

But in order for the local prisons to remain profitable, the beds, which one prison operator in the series distastefully refers to as “honey holes,” must remain full.  That means that on almost a daily basis, local prison officials are on the phones bartering for prisoners with overcrowded jails in the big cities.

It also means that criminal sentences must remain stiff, which the sheriff’s association has supported. This has meant that Louisiana has some of the stiffest sentencing guidelines in the country.  Writing bad checks in Louisiana can earn you up to 10 years in prison.  In California, by comparison, jail time would be no more than a year.

There is another problem with this unsavory system: prisoners who wind up in these local for-profit jails, where many of the inmates are short-timers, get fewer rehabilitative services than those in state institutions, where many of the prisoners are lifers.  That is because the per-diem per prisoner in local prisons is half that of state prisons. In short, the system is completely backward....

Louisiana is the starkest, most glaring example of how our prison policies have failed.  It showcases how private prisons do not serve the public interest and how the mass incarceration as a form of job creation is an abomination of justice and civility and creates a long-term crisis by trying to create a short-term solution.   As the paper put it: “A prison system that leased its convicts as plantation labor in the 1800s has come full circle and is again a nexus for profit.”

Related recent posts:

May 26, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack

Monday, May 21, 2012

Dharun Ravi sentenced to only 30 days in jail in NJ webcam case

As reported in this ABC News piece, "former Rutgers student Dharun Ravi was sentenced to 30 days in jail by a New Jersey judge today for spying on his roommate's gay tryst."  Here are more about the basics:

"I do not believe he hated Tyler Clementi," Judge Glenn Berman told the court.  "He had no reason to, but I do believe he acted out of colossal insensitivity."... "I heard this jury say, 'guilty' 288 times--24 questions, 12 jurors.  That's the multiplication," Berman said. "I haven't heard you apologize once."

The prosecution, which sought a significant prison term, indicated it will appeal the judge's sentence.

Before the judge's sentencing, Ravi's mother delivered an emotional plea for leniency during which she and her son both broke into tears. At the end of her plea, Ravi's mother threw herself on her son, sobbing and hugging him.

In March, Ravi was found guilty of a bias crime for using a webcam to spy on his gay roommate Tyler Clementi.  The family of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman who committed suicide after his roommate broadcast a gay sexual tryst, bitterly asked the judge today to sentence Ravi to prison time.

Clementi's father, Joseph Clementi, told the judge, "One of Tyler's last actions was to check Ravi's Twitter page" and noted that his son checked his roommate's Twitter page 37 times before leaving the Rutgers campus and driving to the George Washington Bridge where he jumped to his death....

Ravi was convicted of invasion of privacy, bias intimidation, witness tampering and hindering arrest, stemming from his role in activating the webcam to peek at Clementi's date with a man in the dorm room on Sept. 19, 2010.

I think this sentence is a bit light, all things considered, but the many direct and indirect consequences of the prosecution and convictions that Ravi has endured and will continue to face (including potential deportation) arguably is greater punishment than any jail term.  These varied criminal justice consequences ought also help in some small way deter others from similar acts of "colossal insensitivity," though nobody should really expect this case (or any punishment for Ravi) to really impact the tendency of young people to be insensitive sometimes.

I have no idea if NJ state prosecutors have much chance of getting a longer sentence through an appeal; perhaps some local NJ lawyers might report if they do.  Especially in these lean budget times, I do not quite see why an appeal here would be a wise use of limited resources unless prosecutors can identify some legal error in the sentencing process for Ravi.

May 21, 2012 in Celebrity sentencings, Collateral consequences, Offense Characteristics, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Extreme sentence in warning shot case drawing more criticisms of mandatory minimums

I am pleased to see that the extreme mandatory minimum sentence given to Marissa Alexander in Florida is continuing to generate controversy and criticism in the MSM.  This AP article, headlined "Critics hit mandatory-minimum law after woman gets 20 years in prison for firing warning shot," highlights some of the buzz:

Marissa Alexander had never been arrested before she fired a bullet at a wall one day in 2010 to scare off her husband when she felt he was threatening her.  Nobody got hurt, but this month a northeast Florida judge was bound by state law to sentence her to 20 years in prison.... Because she fired a gun while committing a felony, Florida’s mandatory-minimum gun law dictated the 20-year sentence.

Her case in Jacksonville has drawn a fresh round of criticism aimed at mandatory-minimum sentencing laws.  The local NAACP chapter and the district’s African-American congresswoman say blacks more often are incarcerated for long periods because of overzealous prosecutors and judges bound by the wrong-headed statute.  Alexander is black.

It also has added fuel to the controversy over Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which the judge would not allow Alexander to invoke.  State Attorney Angela Corey, who also is overseeing the prosecution of shooter George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case, stands by the handling of Alexander’s case.  Corey says she believes Alexander aimed the gun at the man and his two sons, and the bullet she fired could have ricocheted and hit any of them.

At the May 11 sentencing, Alexander’s relatives begged Circuit Judge James Daniel for leniency but he said the decision was “out of my hands.” “The Legislature has not given me the discretion to do what the family and many others have asked me to do,” he said.

The state’s “10-20-life” law was implemented in 1999 and credited with helping to lower the violent crime rate.  Anyone who shows a gun in the commission of certain felonies gets an automatic 10 years in prison.  Fire the gun, and it’s an automatic 20 years.  Shoot and wound someone, and it’s 25 years to life.

Critics say Alexander’s case underscores the unfair sentences that can result when laws strip judges of discretion.  About two-thirds of the states have mandatory-minimum sentencing laws, mostly for drug crimes, according to a website for the Families Against Mandatory Minimums advocacy group. “We’re not saying she’s not guilty of a crime, we’re not saying that she doesn’t deserve some sort of sanction by the court,” said Greg Newburn, Florida director for the group.  Rather, he said, the judge should have the authority to decide an appropriate sanction after hearing all the unique circumstances of the case....

Victor Crist was a Republican state legislator who crafted the “10-20-life” bill enacted in 1999 in Gov. Jeb Bush’s first term.  He said Alexander’s sentence — if she truly did fire a warning shot and wasn’t trying to kill her husband — is not what lawmakers wanted.  “We were trying to get at the thug who was robbing a liquor store who had a gun in his possession or pulled out the gun and threatened someone or shot someone during the commission of the crime,” said Crist, who served in the state House and Senate for 18 years before being elected Hillsborough County commissioner....

“The irony of the 10-20-life law is the people who actually think they’re innocent of the crime, they roll the dice and take their chances, and they get the really harsh prison sentences,” Newburn said. “Whereas the people who think they are actually guilty of the crime take the plea deal and get out (of prison) well before.  So it certainly isn’t working the way it is intended.”...

Newburn says Alexander’s case is not an isolated incident, and that people ensnared by mandatory-minimum laws cross racial barriers.  In central Florida, a white man named Orville Lee Wollard is nearly two years into a 20-year sentence for firing his gun inside his house to scare his daughter’s boyfriend.  Prosecutors contended that Wollard was shooting at the young man and missed.

He rejected a plea deal that offered probation but no prison time.  Like Alexander, he took his chances at trial and was convicted of aggravated assault with a firearm.  Circuit Judge Donald Jacobsen said he was “duty bound” by the 10-20-life law to impose the harsh sentence. “I would say that, if it wasn’t for the minimum mandatory aspect of this, I would use my discretion and impose some separate sentence, having taken into consideration the circumstances of this event,” Jacobsen said.

Recent related posts:

May 20, 2012 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Continued great reporting on the toughest state in incarceration nation

As noted in this post from this past weekend, the New Orleans Times-Picayune is published a huge eight-part series on the severity of punishment and prison overcrowding in the Bayou state. This series is titled "Louisiana Incarceration: How We Built the World's Prison Capital," and every piece in the series merits a full read. Today's installment is headlined "Prison sentence reform efforts face tough opposition in the Legislature," and here are a few excerpts from the outset:

Even as prison populations have strained the state budget and prompted fiscal conservatives to join liberals in calling for changes, the political calculus in Louisiana has evolved slowly since a series of tough sentencing laws in the 1970s, '80s and '90s bloated the state's inmate counts.

If anything, the balance has remained tilted toward law enforcement. After a prison-building boom in the 1990s, Louisiana sheriffs now house more than half of inmates serving state time -- by far the nation's highest percentage in local prisons. Their financial stake in the prison system means they will lose money if sentences are shortened. They typically house the same drug pushers, burglars and other nonviolent offenders who will be the likely targets of any serious efforts to change the system.

"The three easiest votes for a legislator are against taxes, against gambling and to put someone in jail for the rest of their lives," said state Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, a veteran policymaker who has led the judiciary committees in both the House and Senate.

This lengthy piece goes on to detail how challenging it can be to forge a needed political consensus for any ameliorative sentencing reforms.

May 16, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Another obvious mandatory sentencing injustice in Florida "warning shot" case

As reported in this CNN story, headlined "Florida woman sentenced to 20 years in controversial warning shot case," another high-profile shooting case in Florida has produced a different kind of criminal justice controversy.  Here are the details:

Saying he had no discretion under state law, a judge sentenced a Jacksonville, Florida, woman to 20 years in prison Friday for firing a warning shot in an effort to scare off her abusive husband.

Marissa Alexander unsuccessfully tried to use Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law to derail the prosecution, but a jury in March convicted her of aggravated assault after just 12 minutes of deliberation.

The case, which was prosecuted by the same state attorney who is handling the Trayvon Martin case, has gained the attention of civil rights leaders who say the African-American woman was persecuted because of her race.

After the sentencing, Rep. Corrine Brown confronted State Attorney Angela Corey in the hallway, accusing her of being overzealous, according to video from CNN affiliate WJXT. "There is no justification for 20 years," Brown told Corey during an exchange frequently interrupted by onlookers.  "All the community was asking for was mercy and justice," she said.

Corey said she had offered Alexander a plea bargain that would have resulted in a three-year prison sentence, but Alexander chose to take the case to a jury trial, where a conviction would carry a mandatory sentence under a Florida law known as "10-20-life." The law mandates increased penalties for some felonies, including aggravated assault, in which a gun is carried or used.

Corey said the case deserved to be prosecuted because Alexander fired in the direction of a room where two children were standing. Alexander said she was attempting to flee her husband, Rico Gray, on August 1, 2010, when she picked up a handgun and fired a shot into a wall.  She said her husband had read cell phone text messages that she had written to her ex-husband, got angry and tried to strangle her.

She said she escaped and ran to the garage, intending to drive away.  But, she said, she forgot her keys, so she picked up her gun and went back into the house. She said her husband threatened to kill her, so she fired one shot. "I believe when he threatened to kill me, that's what he was absolutely going to do," she said.  "That's what he intended to do. Had I not discharged my weapon at that point, I would not be here."...

A jury convicted Alexander in March and Judge James Daniel denied her request for a new trial in April.  Daniel handed down the sentence Friday after an emotional sentencing hearing during which Alexander's parents, 11-year-old daughter and pastor spoke on her behalf.

Several people had to be escorted from the courtroom after breaking out singing and chanting about a perceived lack of justice in the case, but Daniel made a point to say that he had no choice under state law. "Under the state's 10-20-life law, a conviction for aggravated assault where a firearm has been discharged carries a minimum and maximum sentence of 20 years without regarding to any extenuating or mitigating circumstances that may be present, such as those in this case," Daniel said.

Brown, the Jacksonville congresswoman, told reporters after the sentencing that the case was a product of "institutional racism."

"She was overcharged by the prosecutor.  Period," Brown said.  "She never should have been charged."  Brown has been more complimentary about Corey's work in the Trayvon Martin case, where her office filed second degree murder charges against neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in the February 26 death of the unarmed African-American teen-ager.

It is sad, very disappointing and ultimately quite harmful that Rep. Corrine Brown is apparently so eager to assert that the injustice in this case reflects "institutional racism" and misuse of prosecutorial discretion.  It seems far more appropriate to complain that the injustice in this case reflects structural flaws in Florida's sentencing laws and mistakes by the state legislature to fail to provide a safety-valve from the application of broad mandatory sentencing provisions.

As the CNN story reveals, the prosecutor apparently had the ability and authority to prevent application of Florida's "10-20-life" sentencing law if Marissa Alexander had been wiling to forgo her constitutional right to trial to have the judicial system consider her self-defense claims.  But after Alexander decided to exercise her trial rights, then her conviction apparently deprived a judge or any other authority the ability and authority to sentence her to anything less than 20 years in prison.  Without knowing more about the case, I am not sure if the three-year term offered in the plea or even a lesser sentence would have been appropriate, but it seem obvious to me that a 20-year term is grossly excessive for Alexander's offense conduct.

Bemoaning this case as a reflection of "institutional racism" brings far more heat than light to this dark (but not uncommon) example of mandatory sentencing injustice.  A focus instead on the problems with letting only prosecutors and not judges decide if a case merits an exception to strict sentencing rules could help this case engender needed structural reforms rather than more racial polarization.  Helpfully, the folks at FAMM are effectively using this case to bring attention to these critical sentencing matters, but I fear that the eagerness of Rep. Corrine Brown to play the race card will eclipse FAMM's efforts to use this kind of case to foster sober and needed sentencing reforms.

Though I am not certain of the sentencing commutation authority of Florida's Governor, this case seems to cry out for executive clemency.  Though involving a very offense environments, I am reminded of the high-profile "border agent" case from a few years ago in which two federal border agents got saddled with a sentences of more than a decade after failed self-defenses claims due mandatory federal gun sentencing provisions.  On his last day in office, as detailed here, President George W. Bush justifably commuted the sentences of these border agents.  I hope Florida's Governor has both the power and the wisdom to use the same means to undue an obvious sentencing injustice in this case.

May 12, 2012 in Clemency and Pardons, Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (34) | TrackBack

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Call for papers/panelists for Valparaiso University Law School drug sentencing conference

I am pleased to be able to fulfill a request to post a "Call for Papers" in conjunction with a timely conference at scheduled for Valparaiso University Law School on November 9, 2012, entitled "Exploding Prison Populations and Drug Offenders: Rethinking State Drug Sentencing." Here is the call:

Frequently, state sentencing approaches to drug offenses fail to distinguish between serious traffickers and low-level violators. For example, in Indiana, a person selling $40 worth of crack cocaine faces the same sentence (i.e., 20 to 50 years in prison) as a major drug dealer. Indiana’s framework presents an extreme example of this phenomenon, but Indiana is not alone in its approach; many other states are experiencing unintended consequences of similar policies.  Long-term sentences for low-level drug offenders have contributed to the exponential growth in many states’ prison populations. Frequently, commentators question whether the expenses of this non-differentiating methodology are warranted in human and other costs.  Among other topics, the conference will examine (1) whether the current system can be justified; (2) the deterrent effect on drug usage of long-term incarceration and widespread imprisonment; and, (3) whether the likelihood of apprehension and conviction affects the market for drugs.  Submissions relating to drug sentencing are welcomed, especially submissions on the following subjects:

  • The costs and benefits to taxpayers of incarcerating low-level drug offenders
  • The impact of drug sentencing laws on minority groups and other affected communities
  • Whether the science of addiction can inform decisions regarding optimal responses to drug use and sales
  • Legislative approaches to the challenges of incarceration for drug offenses

Selected conference papers will be published in a special issue of the Valparaiso University Law Review.  To submit a paper for presentation at the conference, please provide an abstract of you work by email submission no later than Monday, August 27, 2012.  It should be addressed to Melissa Mundt, Associate Director of Academic Services, Valparaiso University Law at Melissa.Mundt AT valpo.edu.

May 5, 2012 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Significant sentencing reform passes (nearly unanimously) in yet another red state

As reported in this local article, headlined "Missouri Legislature passes sentencing, parole guidelines," yet another so-called red state has now enacted a significant piece of sentencing reform legislation. Here are the basics:

During three decades as a St. Louis police officer and FBI agent, Gary Fuhr worked to lock up lawbreakers. As he puts it: "I spent my entire career trying to make sure all our correctional facilities operated at maximum capacity."

But after becoming a member of the state House last year, Fuhr participated in an eye-opening study of who is in state prisons and why. Now, the south St. Louis County Republican is the chief sponsor of a bill designed to keep some nonviolent offenders out of prison by beefing up community supervision alternatives. "It keeps our beds available for the folks who truly need to be locked up," Fuhr said.

The Legislature passed the bill on Wednesday and sent it to Gov. Jay Nixon, who is expected to sign it. The bill is projected to save the state an estimated $168,657 next year and potentially more in future years. The House passed the bill on a vote of 151-0. The Senate approved it 24-3.

While the bill is not as far-reaching as prison-closing measures passed in some states, its overwhelming, bipartisan approval stands out in a legislative session marked by gridlock and election-year politics. It garnered support from prosecutors as well as public defenders, staunch law-and-order legislators as well as social welfare advocates, domestic violence workers as well as civil libertarians....

At the heart of the plan is more intensive community supervision. For example, probation officers could mete out immediate, 48-hour jail stays when an offender violates a rule of supervision, such as failing a drug test. Backers say swift punishment would get the message across better than the current system, in which minor violations pile up, get mired in court backlogs and then result in an offender being shipped to the penitentiary.

The bill had its beginnings in a "State of the Judiciary" speech given in 2010 by Missouri Supreme Court Judge William Ray Price. He told legislators that incarcerating nonviolent offenders — without treating their underlying drug and alcohol problems — was costing billions and wasn't making a dent in crime.

Missouri spends more than $660 million a year to keep 31,130 people behind bars and 73,280 offenders on probation and parole. More than 11,000 employees, or one out of every five people on the state government payroll, work for the Department of Corrections.

Last year, Nixon, a Democrat, and the Legislature's top Republican leaders teamed with court officials to set up a working group to analyze prison data and make recommendations. Crunching the data was the Pew Center on the States and staff from its Public Safety Performance Project, which has done similar work in about 20 states. "The idea is, we can get more public safety at less cost," said Brian Elderbroom, a project manager at the Pew Center.

The most striking finding in Missouri's study: 71 percent of prison admissions resulted from probation or parole violations. And about 43 percent of the incoming prisoners had committed "technical" violations, such as failing to report a move or missing an appointment with a probation officer.

The bill aims to keep those offenders on track while they're on probation so they don't wind up in prison. The state would award points for following the rules, shortening an offender's supervision period by 30 days for every 30 days of compliance. "It motivates them to do the right thing," Fuhr said....

The new system would apply only to people convicted of certain drug offenses and lower-level C and D felonies, such as stealing, bad checks and forgeries. Prosecutors insisted that felonies such as aggravated stalking and sexual assault be excluded. "We're very happy with the bill as it is now," said McCulloch, president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

Some states, such as Kentucky, went too far, McCulloch said, by requiring that the state's prison population be reduced by several thousand people. "The easiest thing is to empty prisons," the prosecutor said. "You just start paroling people. But that hurts public safety. We wanted to make sure we stayed away from that."

May 3, 2012 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Georgia joins ever-growing red states enacting sweeping sentencing reforms

As reported in this Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, headlined "Governor to sign sweeping justice reform bill," the "way Georgia punishes thousands of nonviolent offenders will forever change when Gov. Nathan Deal signs landmark legislation Wednesday."  Here is more:

Deal told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he will also sign an executive order continuing the work of a special council that studied the state's prison system and recommended sweeping changes to control unimpeded growth in prison spending. The reforms in House Bill 1176, to be signed at a ceremony at the Capitol, are projected to save taxpayers $264 million over the next five years....

Years ago, Georgia was among the states leading the nation in tough-on-crime sentencing laws.  But Georgia now joins a host of other states -- including Texas, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina -- that have enacted legislation to address soaring prison spending that was doing little to reform offenders.  The legislation enjoyed extraordinary bipartisan support, with the final version being approved unanimously by both the House and Senate.

The sentencing reform package, which takes effect July 1, is part of a broader criminal justice initiative pushed by Deal.  The Legislature also approved the governor's recommendation to quintuple funding to $10 million for "accountability courts" that require defendants to work, seek treatment and stay sober.

"As we reserve more of our expensive [prison] bed space for truly dangerous criminals [we] free up revenue to deal with those who are not necessarily dangerous but are in many ways in trouble because of various addictions," Deal said.  "Our system is feeding on itself with our recidivism rate being as high as it is.  We have the opportunity now to make a difference in the lives of future generations of Georgians."

Deal said he will ask the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians, comprised of lawmakers, lawyers, judges and other officials, to continue its work and focus on getting inmates ready to be contributing members of society before they leave prison....  The special council is also expected to be called on to address two initiatives the Legislature did not take up this year -- decriminalizing many of the state's traffic offenses and allowing "safety valves" for some mandatory minimum sentences.

Georgia criminalizes minor traffic offenses -- more than 2 million a year -- while most other states treat them as violations with a fine as the penalty, the council said in a November report.... The special council also suggested judges should be allowed to depart from minimum mandatory prison sentences, such as those for drug trafficking.  A number of states, including Connecticut, Florida and Maine, have "safety valves" for various drug and habitual violator offenses.

"In Georgia, it's an issue that's not going to go away," said State Bar of Georgia President Ken Shigley, a member of the special council. "To have a one-size-fits-all sentence for crimes that can be so different in terms of the offense and the offender doesn't always serve the best interests of justice."

Kelly McCutchen, president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, the think tank that strongly supported H.B. 1176, predicted the process will take years.  Safety valves, he said, could help inmates with their transitions back into society.  "As a private citizen, I would feel a whole lot better if maybe we cut a few months off their sentence, put them in a half-way house, provide them some supervision, some training and if they're not ready yet, pull them back into prison."

State Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, who sponsored the sentencing reform bill, said the law reflects a new "smart on crime" approach in Georgia.  "More non-violent offenders will be directed toward drug courts and rehabilitation where that is possible, and that will reserve more prison beds for violent offenders who need to be kept away," he said.  "Public safety is enhanced and taxpayer money is saved."

House Bill 1176, to be signed into law today, would:

  • Create new categories of punishment for drug possession crimes, with less severe penalties for those found with small amounts.
  • Increase the felony threshold for shoplifting from $300 to $500 and for most other theft crimes to $1,500.
  • Create three categories for burglaries, with more severe punishment for break-ins of dwellings by burglars who are armed and cause physical harm to a resident, with the least severe penalties for those who break into unoccupied structures or buildings.
  • Create degrees of forgery offenses, with graduated punishment for the type of offense and amount of money involved.

May 2, 2012 in Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Indiana legislators (over?)reacting to pair of sex offenders earning early prison release

This new AP story, headlined "Early prison release for sex offenders irks lawmakers," provides a telling and notable how sex offenders can get into trouble and prompt a harsh legislative response for, in essence, just being good prisoners.  Here are the details:

Indiana lawmakers are planning changes to the state’s early release law in response to this week’s slated release of two convicted sex offenders who significantly shortened their prison terms by earning college degrees.

Republican Sen. Jim Merritt of Indianapolis said Tuesday the law’s shortcoming is illustrated by the case of Christopher Wheat, a former high school swim coach convicted of having a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old female swim student.

Wheat, 38, is scheduled for release Thursday from the New Castle Correctional Facility after serving less than two years of his eight-year sentence.  Merritt said Wheat “manipulated the system” to cut his sentence to about 20 months by earning two computer science degrees behind bars. “I think he gamed the system.  And we need to make sure nobody does that anymore,” Merritt said.  “We all believe education in prison should be for the rehabilitation of one’s character and preparing them for their life as an ex-offender.”...

Wheat was sentenced to eight years in September 2010 following his conviction on two counts of sexual misconduct with a minor and one count of child solicitation.  His victim was a then-14-year-old student he coached at Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis.

Doug Garrison, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Correction, said Wheat was sentenced to 15 years in prison, with five years suspended and another two years in community corrections, leaving him with an eight-year sentence.  It was cut to four years for good behavior and another two years and three months were removed when he earned an associate degree and a bachelor’s degree. Garrison said Wheat must wear a GPS-monitored ankle bracelet following his release from prison.

Merritt said he’s working with Sen. Randy Head, R-Logansport, to draft legislation for the next General Assembly that would likely include making convicted sex offenders unable to shave time off their sentences by earning degrees in prison.  It might also seek to prevent inmates from using previously accumulated college credits toward their degrees, as Wheat had done....

Merritt said the slated release of another convicted sex offender -- also Thursday from the New Castle prison -- demonstrates that changes are needed to the state’s early release law. Daniel J. Moore, a 53-year-old former New Whiteland Baptist Church pastor, pleaded guilty in March 2010 to child solicitation and sexual misconduct with a minor for a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl who was a church member.  His 10-year sentence was cut to five for good behavior, and he earned associate and bachelor’s degrees in human services, further paring his sentence to about two and a half years.

State Sen. Pat Miller, R-Indianapolis, said she also will push for changes to the early release law “to fix this terrible situation.” “Sexual predators are a menace to our society. The pain they inflict upon their victims lasts a lifetime, and it makes no sense that these violent offenders are being released early from prison,” Miller said in a statement.

May 1, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

"Illinois panel of lawmakers: Don't close prisons, mental facilities"

The title of this post is the headline of this new AP article which highlights some of the challenges, even in lean budget times, of making dramatic cuts to the big government prison-industrial complex supported by taxpayer dollars.  Here are excerpts:

A panel of Illinois lawmakers recommended against closing two prisons and a developmental center Tuesday, a vivid illustration of how difficult it will be for officials to slash state spending this year.

Closing the facilities would save the state tens of millions of dollars at a time when the governor and legislative leaders want to cut billions. But the closures also would eliminate hundreds of jobs, deliver painful blows to downstate communities... Legislators were unwilling to endorse that trade-off.

The Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability voted 7-3 against closing the Tamms "supermax" prison and a women's prison in Dwight, as Gov. Pat Quinn has proposed.... The commission also gave a thumbs-down to closing two Department of Corrections halfway houses and a juvenile prison.

The votes were only advisory. The Democratic governor is still free to close the institutions if he wants.

Rep. Patricia Bellock, a top budget negotiator for House Republicans, rejected all the proposed closures. The amount of money involved may be small, she said, but the impact would be huge. "I don't feel it's minor when you're dealing with people's lives," said Bellock, co-chair of the commission.

Some Democrats on the commission supported closing the major facilities. Republicans generally opposed them.

The Tamms prison is a relatively new facility that houses the state's most dangerous and disruptive prisoners. Human rights advocates criticize it for holding prisoners in solitary confinement, keeping them in their cells 23 hours a day. Quinn says moving those inmates to other prisons and shutting Tamms would save about $26 million a year.

Closing the Dwight prison and moving inmates to a penitentiary in Lincoln would save about $37 million. Shutting the halfway houses and youth camps that the commission rejected Tuesday would cut spending by roughly $27 billion.

May 1, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Ohio sentencing judges complain about lack of discretion to send offenders to prison

In the federal system, sentencing judges often complain about mandatory minimum sentencing provisions that limit their discretion to impose alternatives to incarceration on certain offenders.  In this interesting local article from Ohio, which is headlined "Judges chafe under new sentencing requirements," we hear of sentencing judges complaining about mandatory maximum sentencing provisions that limit their discretion to give prison terms to certain offenders. Here is how the article begins:

John Elder pleaded guilty to six counts of theft, three counts of insurance fraud and three counts of forgery in February. He stole from his church, and defrauded the insurance company he worked for. The prosecutor wanted to send him to prison. Fairfield County Common Pleas Judge Richard Berens agreed. But first, the judge had to jump through another hoop.

Last year the Ohio General Assembly passed a sweeping sentencing reform designed to reduce the prison population and promote community corrections. House Bill 86 requires judges to first consult with the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction if they want to imprison a first-time, non-violent, low-level felony offender like Elder.

It's not often prison time is sought for these offenders, Berens said. But as in Elder's case, it does happen, and many judges feel that the Legislature has impeded on their authority. Elder's sentence is still pending. "The law has only been in effect for six months, so (the offenders) are starting to filter through the system," Berens said. "I've had offenders who brazenly will come into the courtroom and say, 'You, judge, cannot send me to prison.' "

Some officials say the battle about how to treat low-level offenders may itself wind up in court. It will take some time, though, for the affected cases to trickle up to the appellate courts and possibly to the Ohio Supreme Court, said David Diroll, executive director of the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission.

Hancock County Common Pleas Judge Reginald Routson said since the courts have to consult the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction - an arm of the executive branch - H.B. 86 violates the separation of powers and is unconstitutional.

Berens has circulated a four-page letter to the media, legal circles, and even on the court's website criticizing the new law. He said there are cases when a person commits a number of low-level felonies at once, or has a long misdemeanor record, that do warrant prison time. "For example, an offender on any given day could have sexual intercourse with a 14-year-old girl, break into his neighbor's garage and steal tools worth $20,000, buy and sell up to 49 doses of heroin or LSD, and, upon being pursued by law enforcement in his vehicle, commit the offense commonly known as fleeing and eluding," Berens wrote. "... As a result of H.B. 86, at sentencing, a judge could not sentence the offender ... to prison."

April 8, 2012 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Vermont exploring racial disparties in its prison population

Few people likely think first of Vermont when concerned about racial disparties in the operation of criminal justice systems, but this local article from the Green Mountain State highlights that Vermont's legislators are (justifiably) concerned on this front.  The piece is headlined "Vermont bill calls for study of prison population by race," and here are excerpts:

It’s been a vexing puzzle for years, and Vermont lawmakers have decided to take a step at trying to solve it: Why do African-Americans make up 10.3 percent of Vermont’s prison population when they are just 1 percent of residents in the nation’s second-whitest state?

Traffic stops and roadside searches have been studied for years as a possible source of race-based bias among Vermont law enforcement. A new study, contained in a bill given preliminary approval by the House on Tuesday, will look at whether bias enters the picture when defendants are sentenced in court.

“There’s a dramatic disparity between those who are incarcerated and what our census data show,” said Rep. William Lippert. The Hinesburg Democrat chairs the House Judiciary Committee and described the bill to his House colleagues Tuesday. It won preliminary approval on an overwhelming voice vote and was up for final House action Wednesday before moving to the Senate.

The figures are striking: African-Americans make up just 1 percent of the population of a state that is 95.3 percent white, yet they make up 10.3 percent of Vermont inmates. Put another way, a Vermont inmate is more than 10 times as likely as a resident at large to be African-American.

According to the legislative findings at the beginning of the bill, a statistical technique called regression analysis indicated that black men were 1.5 times more likely, and women 2.6 times more likely, to be arrested in Vermont than their white counterparts....

The bill requires that a key part of the study look at prior criminal records of defendants, including prior convictions from out of state. Appel said there is widespread belief — but not enough data to back it up — that African-Americans frequently get into trouble in Vermont when they bring illegal drugs from elsewhere to sell in the state.

“Is it racial profiling, or black men preying on our kids by selling drugs in our communities? It’s long overdue for us to get a handle on what’s driving these disparities,” Appel said. “That’s what this study is designed to answer.”

March 29, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Friday, March 16, 2012

"Ravi found guilty on 24 of 35 charges in webcam case"

The title of this post is the headline of this local report on the high-profile state criminal trial of a Rutgers student that has been taking place in New Jersey.  Here are the basics:

Dharun Ravi has been found guilty of 24 of 35 separate charges by a Superior Court jury here. Following three days of deliberation, the jurors found Ravi guilty of invasion of privacy, bias intimidation, attempted invasion of privacy, tampering with physical evidence, hindering apprehension or prosecution, witness tampering and tampering with physical evidence.

Three of the counts carry a possibility of jail time; they are the bias intimidation charges as well as the hindering apprenhension count.  Sentencing has been scheduled for May 21.

In all, the former Rutgers student was charged with 15 counts for using a webcam to spy on his gay roommate’s encounter with another man in their college dorm room in September of 2010.

Media attention at the Middlesex County Courthouse is intense, with more than 100 news gatherers covering the trial. The 12 jurors with three alternates worked their way through a verdict sheet that asked them to decide Ravi’s guilt on 35 different separate questions regarding the 15 counts.  The charges included invasion of privacy, attempted invasion of privacy, bias intimidation, tampering with physical evidence, hindering apprehension or prosecution, witness tampering and tampering with physical evidence....

On Sept. 19, 2010 Ravi was alleged to have briefly spied on Clementi and a man known only as M.B. for a few seconds with Molly Wei, a dorm mate who was a resident across the hall from Ravi.  Ravi was charged with making a second attempt to spy on them two days later. Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22, 2010.  The trial has drawn national media attention because of discussions it has raised regarding cyber-bullying, misuse of social media and anti-gay bias.

Because New Jersey sentencing law is complicated (thanks in part to Apprendi, which notably came out of New Jersey and involved judicial fact-finding about racial bias to increase a sentence), I have no idea what kinds of sentence(s) Dharun Ravi might be facing.  Because I have seen reports that Ravi might now also need to fear deportation, constitutional gururs can already begin spotting Padilla-related issues along with Apprendi issues in this high-profile case.

Free from even knowing yet what applicable state sentencing law provides, I am very eager to hear from readers about what kind of sentence they think should (or will) be imposed upon Dharun Ravi following these convictions.  I have not followed the case closely enough to have a sense of all the relevant sentencing consideration, but I do sense that the forthcoming sentencing could end up raising a lot of interesting legal and policy issues.  Thus, I suspect this may be just the first post in a series as this case turns toward sentencing.

March 16, 2012 in Collateral consequences, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (37) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

"Reallocating Justice Resources: a Review of 2011 State Sentencing Trends"

The title of this post is the title of this new report from the Vera Institute of Justice, which seeks to review the lessons from 14 states that have responded to the budget crunch by passing research-driven sentencing and corrections reform in 2011. Here is the start of the report's executive summary:

Most states are facing budget crises, and criminal justice agencies are not exempt. With fewer dollars available, they are challenged to increase public safety while coping with smaller budgets. This report distills lessons from 14 states that passed research-driven sentencing and corrections reform in 2011 and is based on interviews with stakeholders and experts, and the experience of technical assistance staff at the Vera Institute of Justice. It is intended to serve as a guide to policy makers and others interested in pursuing evidence-based justice reform in their jurisdiction.

Legislatures throughout the United States enacted sentencing and corrections policy changes in 2011 that were based on data analysis of their prison populations and the growing body of research on practices that can reduce recidivism. Although this emphasis on using evidence to inform practice is not new in criminal justice, legislators are increasingly relying on this science to guide the use of taxpayer dollars more effectively to improve public safety outcomes.

In highlighting important legislative changes enacted in the past year, this report documents a new approach to reform in which bipartisan, multidisciplinary policy groups are using analysis of state population and sentencing data, harnessing the political will emerging from the budget crisis, relying on decades of criminal justice research, and reaching out to key constituencies. The result is legislation that aims to make more targeted use of incarceration and to reinvest the cost savings into community programs geared toward reducing recidivism and victimization.

March 6, 2012 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, March 02, 2012

Alaska Chief Justice assails state's sentencing guidelines rules

As reported in this local article, sentencing and corrections reform is a topic of discussion in debate outside the lower 48.  The article is headlined, "Chief Justice rips state's sentencing guidelines: Juneau-based justice tell Legislature new 'smart justice' strategies are needed."  Here are excerpts:

The chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court told the Alaska Legislature the state’s judges would like to be able to help them reduce prison costs and protect the public, but the Legislature won’t let them.  “Under our state’s presumptive sentencing guidelines, in place since 1978, the judge’s role in sentencing is really quite limited, the range of most sentences is prescribed by law,” Walter “Bud” Carpeneti said.

He addressed a joint session of the House of Representatives and Senate on Wednesday, and told the legislators new studies are showing how recidivism can be reduced and keep people out of prison.  Tough early action when those on probation miss appointments or fail drug tests is just one example, he said....

Most sentences are not decided by judges, he said, but are plea bargains between prosecutors and defense attorneys.  “Judges today are rarely called on to participate in the sentencing process,” Carpeneti said.  “In the vast majority of cases they simply approve or disapprove a sentence,” he said.

While judges technically have the authority to reject a plea agreement that is rarely done. Only about 5 percent of all cases wind up without a plea bargain, he said.  “Open sentencing, where the prosecution and the defense have not agreed on the ultimate sentence in advance is quite rare,” he said.

Even in those cases, the presumptive sentences mandated by the Legislature narrow the judges’ role in the process, he said.  “Sometimes it resembles following an elaborate cookbook more than anything else,” he said.

That’s resulted in too many people in prisons when there might be better options, he said. The state’s prison population is heavily young, male and of color, and results in many people spending their formative years in prison when it would be better to have many of them in their communities.  “Too many of Alaska’s young men, particularly our young men of color, are spending their early adulthoods in our prison system,” he said....

“Today we have scientific corrections research that shows us what intervention strategies work best,” he said.  Because of presumptive sentencing rules, judges can’t use that knowledge to prevent future crimes and reduce prison costs, he said.  What the state needs, he said, is “smart justice.”

March 2, 2012 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, February 27, 2012

Georgia latest "red" state moving forward with "progressive" sentencing reforms

A helpful reader alerted me to this new article appearing in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which provides another notable example of a notable state responding to budget concerns with sentencing reforms long urged by critics of "tough-on-crime" sentencing policies. The piece is headlined "Sweeping criminal justice changes proposed," and here are excerpts:

State legislative leaders on Monday proposed sweeping changes to criminal justice in Georgia, including a plan to reduce prison terms for some offenders and divert others into treatment rather than locking them up.

House Bill 1176 asserts that prison is by far the most expensive way to punish nonviolent offenders and that other methods are both cheaper and more effective. The reform effort would save tens of millions of dollars by reserving prison beds for violent criminals, backers say.  “This initiative represents a significant first step in bringing conservative common sense to our criminal justice system,” said Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, the lead sponsor of the bill.

But the bill did not immediately win the support of Gov. Nathan Deal, who has pledged to lead the state’s effort to reform its criminal justice system.  Deal said the bill failed to include all of the recommendations of a special council appointed to study the state’s approach to criminal sentencing.

Georgia spends more than $1 billion a year on prisons. Maintaining current sentencing laws would require Georgians to spend another $264 million over the next five years for more prison beds, the special council found.

“The governor will need to see changes in the current bill that will bring it back toward the recommendations of the Criminal Justice Reform Council,” said Brian Robinson, Deal’s spokesman. “The process is intended to reduce costs to taxpayers, and it’s his opinion that this bill might actually increase costs.”...

The bill would allow the Department of Corrections to start a pilot program that would identify the lowest-risk nonviolent drug and property offenders headed to prison and allow judges to divert them to community-based supervision programs....

The bill will be considered by a special joint committee of the state House and Senate, instead of following the usual process of being reviewed separately by committees of the two chambers.

We sure know that the state sentencing times have changed when a bill to reduce prison terms for some offenders and divert others into treatment rather than locking them up is praised by a Republican legislator in Georgia as "conservative common sense" while the state's Republican Governor worries that the bill does not go far enough to reduce prison terms and associated costs.

February 27, 2012 in Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 02, 2012

New report from The Sentencing Project on latest state-level sentencing reforms

I received news of this notable new report on state-level sentencing reforms coming from The Sentencing Project.  The report is titled “The State of Sentencing 2011: Developments in Policy and Practice,” is authored by Nicole Porter, and is summarized this way via the e-mail I got yesterday:

The report highlights 55 reforms in 29 states and documents a growing trend to reform sentencing policies and scale back the use of imprisonment without compromising public safety.  The report provides an overview of recent policy reforms in the areas of sentencing, probation and parole, collateral consequences, and juvenile justice.  Highlights include:

Sentence modifications - Four states -- Connecticut, Ohio, Nebraska, and North Dakota -- established sentence modification mechanisms that allow correctional officials to reduce the prison sentences of eligible prisoners;

Drug offense reforms - Four states -- Arkansas, Delaware, Kentucky, and Ohio -- revised penalties for certain drug offenses and authorized alternatives to prison as a sentencing option in specified circumstances.  In addition, Idaho and Florida expanded the eligibility criteria for drug courts in order to expand their impact.

Death penalty - Illinois abolished the death penalty, becoming the sixteenth state to eliminate the sentencing option;

Probation revocation reforms - North Carolina restricted the use of prison as a sentencing option for certain persons who violate the conditions of probation; and

Juvenile offender sentencing reforms - Georgia authorized sentence modifications for certain juvenile defendants with felony offenses by allowing judges to depart from the statutory range when considering the youth’s background.

February 2, 2012 in Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Notable recent state child porn sentencing developments in South Dakota

Thanks to this brief new AP article, which is headlined "South Dakota child pornography convict gets 100-year prison sentence cut about in half," I learned about a fascinating ruling from last year by the South Dakota Supreme Court in South Dakota v. Bruce, 2011 S.D. 14 (SD April 6, 2011) (available here).

Working backwards, here is the latest sentencing news in this notable case:

A 100-year prison sentence handed down to a Pierre man convicted of possessing child pornography has been cut about in half.  The South Dakota Supreme Court last year ruled that the initial sentence for 48-year-old Troy Bruce was excessive and ordered a new sentencing.

KCCR radio reports that Judge Mark Barnett on Tuesday sentenced Bruce to a total of 55 years in prison.  Bruce will be eligible for parole after serving one-fourth of the sentence. He also was given credit for about two years he already has served behind bars.

This report prompted me to wonder if the South Dakota Supreme Court had actually deemed a child porn sentence to be unconstitutional, and the Bruce ruling nearly does.  Here are notable snippets from the majority opinion in Bruce:

Bruce was convicted of possessing one DVD containing fifty-five videos of child pornography.  He received the ten-year maximum sentence on all fifty-five counts.  Forty-five of the sentences were suspended, but the sentences on the remaining ten counts were to be served consecutively resulting in a total sentence of 100 years.  Bruce contends that this sentence was cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment....

When such statutory ranges are established, the legislative intent is that "the more serious commissions of [the] crime . . . deserve sentences at the harsher end of the spectrum.... Imposing the maximum possible term where the circumstances of the crime only justify a sentence at a lower range violates legislative intent to reserve the most severe sanctions for the most serious combinations of the offense and the background of the offender.” Bonner, 1998 S.D. 30, ¶ 25.   Further, we now adopt Justice Konenkamp’s recommendation “that courts look at two additional determinants when assessing the seriousness of a child pornography offense: (1) the specific nature of the material and (2) the extent to which the offender is involved with that material.” Blair, 2006 S.D. 75, ¶ 83....

With respect to the seriousness of this offense, the pornography involved much more than lewd images but less than the worst possible material covered by the statute....

With respect to Bruce’s involvement, he was convicted of possessing the one DVD containing fifty-five images. Although thirty other discs containing child pornography images were found, the court “consider[ed] Counts 1 through 10 as one act” for the purpose of determining parole eligibility. Additionally, there was no evidence that Bruce manufactured or distributed child pornography. Finally, there was no evidence suggesting that Bruce had ever sexually abused a child, had sexual contact with a child, or solicited a child for sexual images. This was a case of simple possession of images.

Bruce’s character and history reflect that he was a divorced forty-eight year old with three children, one who was still a minor. Other than a careless driving offense, Bruce had no prior criminal history. He was a former member of the National Guard and a veteran who had served in Saudi Arabia and Iraq during Operation Desert Storm....

Bruce’s maximum sentences were not reserved for the most serious combination of criminal conduct and background of the offender. We therefore conclude that this is the exceedingly rare case in which Bruce’s sentence was grossly disproportionate to the “particulars of the offense and the offender.” See Bonner, 1998 S.D. 30, ¶ 25. Because Bruce did not present comparative information with which to conduct an intra- and interjurisdictional analysis, we reverse and remand to the circuit court to consider that evidence on resentencing.

A concurring opinion in Bruce adds these notable observations:

In South Dakota, gross disparity in the sentence length for possession of child pornography exists.  For example, in State v. Martin, 2003 S.D. 153, 674 N.W.2d 291, the defendant’s sentence for possession of child pornography was a term of two years in the penitentiary with all but forty-five days in jail suspended subject to additional conditions. In the present case, the aggregate sentence is a term of 100 years in the penitentiary. Yet the facts of the two cases are similar: both involve the possession but not the manufacture or distribution of multiple computer-based images of child pornography. The difference in the length of the sentences for these similar crimes is shocking.

I think it is safe to assert that, not just in South Dakota, but all across this great nation, "gross disparity in the sentence length for possession of child pornography exists."  I have seen and heard of many state (and few federal cases) in which a child porn possession conviction results in only months in prison, and yet a few months ago in Florida (as reported here) Daniel Enrique Guevara Vilca received a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for mere child porn possession!  What a sad and disturbing mess.

February 1, 2012 in Examples of "over-punishment", Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (28) | TrackBack