Friday, August 31, 2012
Drawing process lessons from high-profile sentencing after college killing in VirginiaThe 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.
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.
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.
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.
Thursday, June 14, 2012
"Scores in N.C. are legally 'innocent,' yet still imprisoned" due to federal gun laws
The 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:
- "Ravi found guilty on 24 of 35 charges in webcam case"
- "Ravi media tour carries risks at sentencing, experts say"
- Dharun Ravi, Rutgers student convicted in webcam spying, seeking probation sentence
- New Jersey prosecutors request (some but not max) prison time for Dharun Ravi's webcam crimes
- Does six months in prison for Dharun Ravi seem about right in Rutgers webcam case?
- Dharun Ravi sentenced to only 30 days in jail in NJ webcam 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
The 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:
- Profiling the top lock-up state in the top incarceration nation
- Continued great reporting on the toughest state in incarceration nation
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.
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:
- Very different case provides a very different (sentencing) perspective on Florida gun laws
- Another obvious mandatory sentencing injustice in Florida "warning shot" case
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.
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 (33) | 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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.”
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.