Friday, September 21, 2018

Why is the Sessions' DOJ now taking death penalty off the table for Donald Fell after so much cost and agony for victims?

The question in the title of this post emerges from this notable federal capital news, headlined "Accused killer Donald Fell to take plea deal, avoid death penalty," emerging from Vermont in a long-running multiple murder case.  Here are the basics:

Nearly 20 years after he allegedly kidnapped and murdered a Vermont grandmother, accused killer Donald Fell is changing his plea and will avoid the death penalty.

Terry King, 53, was arriving for work at the Rutland Price Chopper in 2000 when police say Donald Fell and Robert Lee carjacked her, drove her to New York and killed her on the side of the road.

Fell was convicted and sentenced to death in 2005.  But his federal conviction was overturned due to juror misconduct and a new death penalty trial was set to begin.

But now there is a plea deal that takes the death penalty off the table. Court documents show Fell will plead guilty to four federal crimes, including carjacking and kidnapping with death resulting. In exchange, he will spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.  A judge must still accept the agreement.

Fell's alleged accomplice, Robert Lee, never stood trial. He killed himself in prison. Fell and Lee were accused of two other murders that night. Police say before kidnapping Terry King, the men murdered Fell's mother, Debra, and her friend, Charles Conway in Rutland. But those killings took a back seat to King's murder because the feds were charging the men in that case since they brought King across state lines. The feds also had the death penalty to bargain with. The state of Vermont does not have a death penalty.

As highlighted via prior posts below, Fell's legal team has been making an aggressive case against his continued capital prosecution.  But I sincerely doubt federal prosecutors found any of their claims compelling or really worried that federal judges would.  So I am inclined to assume that federal prosecutors just concluded, presumably with the blessing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, that throwing more federal taxpayer dollars after the pursuit of federal death sentence was just not a good investment of limited resources (perhaps especially because the feds have not executed anyone in over 15 years).

That all said, I still find this decision especially striking because the victims here are vocally against this plea resolution.  This local article, headlined "Victim's family says justice not served with Fell plea deal," explains the family's reaction while also suggesting federal prosecutors had to work had to talk them into being content with this resolution:

The family of Terry King says justice is not being served. That's their response to news a plea deal has been reached with King's accused killer, Donald Fell. The deal means Fell will avoid the death penalty. "I mean they beat her to death. Beat her to death while she prayed for her life. And yet he is allowed to live? What justice is that?" demanded Barbara Tuttle, Terry King's sister.

Tuttle is talking about Donald Fell, the man accused of the brutal murder of Terry King. The North Clarendon grandmother was kidnapped on her way to work back in 2000. "It is a total embarrassment for the U.S. government as far as I am concerned, a total embarrassment," Tuttle said. And King's sister says she speaks for the entire family....

"If you are going to have the death penalty, then enforce it. If you are not going to use it, then why is the law there? Why all these appeals over and over and over again? Eighteen years of this," Tuttle said.

Tuttle says her family has known a plea deal was in the works for several weeks. Under the deal, Fell will plead guilty to four federal crimes including carjacking and kidnapping with death resulting.  Tuttle says her family was convinced by prosecutors it was the best way to go to avoid another lengthy trial and appeal process.  "I would just as soon go to court all over again if I knew that he would come out with the death penalty.  And it was actually be enforced and we wouldn't have to go through 18 more years of appeals," she said. "It is ridiculous."

Tuttle says at least she won't have to keep being reminded of the case once Fell is sentenced to life without parole. She hopes if any good can come of the story, maybe it can lead to changes in the system. "They are always talking about criminal justice reform. Let me tell you, this is a perfect example of why our system is broken," she said....

It is important to note that a federal judge still needs to approve this deal. The case goes back to court Sept. 28.

I doubt the family member speaking here would be content with abolition of the death penalty as a way to fix this part of a broken capital criminal justice system. But I find it so telling that the "tough-and-tougher" federal administration that Prez Trump advocates and that AG Sessions seeks to implement ultimately gave up here on what should not be a uniquely hard capital prosecution.  Another notable data point to support the view that the long-running litigation war against the death penalty is ever closer to a complete victory.

Prior related posts:

September 21, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

So much great content and commentary at "The Appeal"

I noted in this post a few months ago a "renamed, revamped, and relaunched criminal justice publication: The Appeal" with a commitment to "focus on the most significant drivers of mass incarceration, which occur at the state and local level."  The Appeal is now in the a habit of producing so much good original content, I cannot keep up with it all, and so I thought it worthwhile here to highlight just some of the content over just the last few weeks that should be of interest to sentencing fans:

"The Incalculable Costs Of Mass Incarceration" by John Pfaff

"Texas D.A. Who Sent Woman To Prison For Five Years For Voting Made Her Own Election Mistake" by Steven Yoder

Podcast on "Justice In America Episode 9: How Democrats And Republicans Created Mass Incarceration" by Josie Duffy Rice and Clint Smith

"Safe Injection Sites Are On The Way. But Will Prosecutions Follow?" by Maura Ewing

"In New York, Most Parolees Can Now Vote — But Many County Websites Say They Can’t" by Emma Whitford

"A New Power For Prosecutors Is On The Horizon — Reducing Harsh Sentences" by Kyle Barry 

September 21, 2018 in Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 20, 2018

"Will Bill Cosby’s Trip From America’s Dad to Sex Offender End in Prison?"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy New York Times review of the high-profile sentencing set to take place at the start of next week. The article includes some original analysis of Pennsylvania sentencing outcomes, and here are some excepts that should be of interest to sentencing fans:

When Bill Cosby arrives at the Montgomery County Courthouse next week to be sentenced for sexual assault, he will find out whether prison is the final stop on his descent from beloved entertainer to disgraced felon. But the judge making that decision, Steven T. O’Neill, will confront his own personal pressures, weighty expectations and knotty legal challenges. Chief among them: What to do with an 81-year-old sex offender who could become one of the most famous Americans ever to enter a cell?

At a time when the country is finally reckoning with a culture of predatory sexual abuse by powerful men, Judge O’Neill is likely to survey a courtroom in Norristown, Pa., that is filled with many of the dozens of women who say Mr. Cosby drugged and assaulted not just Andrea Constand, but them, too. A large number of these women expect a long prison sentence, one that will put an exclamation mark on the first major conviction of the #MeToo era.

“My wound was greatly healed by the guilty verdict in the spring,” said Lili Bernard, an actress who says that Mr. Cosby drugged and raped her in the early 1990s. “But to see him in handcuffs, that would be like, ‘Wow.’ We, the victims, deserve that.”

Prosecutors have said they will push for the maximum 30-year prison term: 10 years on each of three counts of aggravated indecent assault. But Mr. Cosby’s lawyers are sure to fight that, depicting him as a frail old man with failing vision, incapable of assaulting another woman or surviving a long sentence.

And Judge O’Neill will have to consider state guidelines that recommend, but do not mandate, appropriate sentence ranges. A New York Times analysis of Pennsylvania court data for the past five years found that offenders convicted of crimes similar to Mr. Cosby’s often did not receive the maximum penalty, but were more typically given sentences of two to five years....

Mr. Cosby’s spokesman, Andrew Wyatt, confirmed that Mr. Cosby would appeal his conviction, but declined to specify on what grounds.... Mr. Wyatt said Mr. Cosby would ask to remain free on bail, post-sentencing, while he pursues his appeal, a process that could take years. If Judge O’Neill were to allow that, he would surely face criticism from the many female accusers looking to find closure in the case.

“We will all feel very let down by that,” said Victoria Valentino, a former model for Playboy who says Mr. Cosby drugged and raped her in Los Angeles in 1969....

Testimony concerning prior alleged crimes is only allowed in Pennsylvania, as in other states, if, among other conditions, it demonstrates a signature pattern of abuse. But its inclusion is extremely rare, and Judge O’Neill never explained why he allowed the five additional women to testify in the trial this year after allowing only one additional accuser to speak at Mr. Cosby’s first trial in 2017. That ended in a mistrial after the jury failed to reach a verdict. “The No. 1 issue is definitely that big change, of letting in those additional complainants in the case,” said Shan Wu, a former sex-crimes prosecutor in Washington. “I am sure that Cosby’s team are licking their chops.”

Experts say judges are often more lenient about bail in cases where the appeal issues are viewed as strong. “When someone has a legitimate issue,” said Brian Jacobs, a former federal prosecutor in New York who has studied the topic, “and there’s an argument that certain evidence should not have been allowed that could reduce the chance of a conviction at retrial, then there is an interest in allowing that person to stay out on bail.”

Mr. Cosby, who has denied sexually abusing any of the women, is currently free on $1 million bail, though he is confined to his suburban Philadelphia home and has to wear a GPS monitoring device. After Mr. Cosby’s conviction, prosecutors had immediately asked for his bail to be revoked, but Judge O’Neill said he did not view Mr. Cosby as a flight risk, one of the criteria weighed in such a decision. Legal experts said it was generally uncommon in Pennsylvania for offenders to be allowed to remain free on bail, pending appeal, after a judge had sentenced them to incarceration.

Mr. Cosby was convicted on these three counts: penetration with lack of consent, penetration of the victim while she was unconscious, and penetration after administering an intoxicant. The New York Times reviewed state sentencing data for 121 cases over the past five years in which the most serious conviction was for at least one of those three counts. Mr. Cosby is far older than all of the others convicted. Their median age was 36, though in a few cases, the offender was in his late 60s.

A vast majority of the offenders also received fewer than 10 years, with a median sentence of two to five. But there were several cases in which judges gave maximum sentences of 20 years or more to offenders who had been convicted on multiple counts of aggravated indecent assault, or a single count in tandem with other, lesser crimes.

In some of those cases, the judge eschewed a common practice of making multiple sentences concurrent and instead ruled that they be served consecutively. In another case, the person qualified for a more severe sentence because he was viewed as a repeat offender under Pennsylvania’s sex offender laws.

Mr. Cosby had never before been convicted of a crime, and his team is expected to argue that his three counts should be merged into a single count, a decision that would mean that he would face a prison term of no more than 10 years.

Prosecutors have asked that an unspecified number of women who have accused Mr. Cosby of sexually assaulting them be allowed to testify at the sentencing hearing, a move that one of Mr. Cosby’s lawyers, Joseph P. Greene Jr., is trying to block. But Ms. Constand will certainly be allowed to speak at the hearing, as will Mr. Cosby, if he so chooses. The person being sentenced usually has the last word.

Mr. Jacobs, the former federal prosecutor, said that even if none of the other women were allowed to speak, he had to believe that the number of accusers who say Mr. Cosby preyed on them for decades would be an important factor in Judge O’Neill’s thinking. One purpose of sentencing in such a high-profile case can be to send a message that might deter others, he said. “The judge would have to be conscious of the fact that this is one of the earliest sentences in the Me Too era,” Mr. Jacobs said.

Judge O’Neill declined to comment for this article. But Dennis McAndrews, a Pennsylvania lawyer who has known the judge since they attended Villanova University School of Law together, said he did not expect Judge O’Neill to have any problem navigating the maze of factors in this sentencing. “He has been a judge for 14 years,” Mr. McAndrews said, “and in terms of experience and temperament, he has got all the tools necessary to assimilate and synthesize every piece of information that will come before him.”

Prior related posts:

September 20, 2018 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

An impressive overview of the SCOTUS criminal docket on the eve of a new Term

Rory Little has this terrific lengthy post over at SCOTUSblog under the heading "Criminal cases in the October 2018 term: A law professor’s dream." The post provides a detailed review of a handful of the criminal cases on tap for the start for the coming Supreme Court Term as well as a brief review of all the other. Here is how the post begins:

Applying a broad definition, 13 of the 38 cases in which the Supreme Court has granted review for the upcoming October 2018 term raise criminal law and related issues.  (A few more will be granted in the “long conference” order list to be released September 27.)  This is about average: Between a quarter to a third of cases decided by the court every year are criminal-law-related. But this term the docket feels a bit special: As I explained to the American Bar Association in my “Annual Review of the Supreme Court’s Term, Criminal Cases” last month, October Term 2018 might be described as a criminal law professor’s dream.

September 19, 2018 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Opportunities for law students and recent law grads interested in prisoners’ rights

Sharon Dolovich, Professor of Law and Director of the Prison Law & Policy Program at the UCLA School of Law asked me to post the following.  It is my pleasure to do so:

Below are two announcements for law students and recent law grads interested in prisoners’ rights:

  1. About 18 months ago, the UCLA Prison Law and Policy Program launched Prison Law JD, a listserv for current law students and young lawyers interested in prisoners’ rights. The list is currently used to share job and fellowship announcements and other information of interest, and we are in the midst of creating mechanisms to allow members to connect to one another directly over issues of mutual interest.  The ultimate aim is to forge a community among the next generation of prisoners’ rights advocates. If you know any law students or young lawyers who might want to join Prison Law JD, please invite them to contact me at dolovich@law.ucla.edu

  2. The National Prisoners’ Advocates Conference will take place at University of Denver College of Law Oct 5-6, 2018.  The day before, Thursday Oct 4, Prison Law JD will be hosting a pre-conference program. If you know anyone you think might like to participate in either part of this program, whether in person or remotely, please share this information with them.

From 3:30-5:15pm, there will be a panel discussion geared toward law students and recently graduated lawyers interested in doing this work. The panel will feature Sarah Grady of Loevy and Loevy on the nuts and bolts of prisoner litigation, Deb Golden of the Human Rights Defense Center on the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), and Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center on non-obvious routes to doing prisoners' rights work.

For those unable to attend in person, this panel will be broadcast at the link below:

Starting out as a Prisoners’ Rights Lawyer: What You Need to Know, 10/4/2018 (Thu)

https://du-denverlaw.hosted.panopto.com/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=4a5ba04a-1669-4c85-929b-a95f0112fd67

Live stream from classroom starts at 3:20pm and ends at 5:30pm.

At 5:45pm, there will be a working group strategy session to think about how to build out the Prison Law JD community and best support the next generation of prisoners’ rights lawyers. Those who can’t be there in person are welcome to participate remotely. Here’s the call-in info:

Zoom Conference Call in Number and Meeting ID Number (Meeting Starts at 5:45 pm and Ends at 8:00 pm MDT)

Telephone: Dial(for higher quality, dial a number based on your current location):    US: +1 646 558 8656  or +1 669 900 6833

    Meeting ID: 568 249 890     International numbers available: https://zoom.us/u/aewKZAGStV

Any questions? Please contact Sharon Dolovich at dolovich@law.ucla.edu

September 19, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The latest argument for "overhauling the [DEA], or even getting rid of it entirely."

Leo Beletsky and Jeremiah Goulka has this new New York Times commentary under the headline "The Federal Agency That Fuels the Opioid Crisis: The Drug Enforcement Administration has proved itself incompetent for decades."  Here is how it starts and ends:

Every day, nearly 200 people across the country die from drug overdoses.  Opioids have been the primary driver of this calamity: first as prescription painkillers, then heroin and, more recently, illicitly manufactured fentanyl.  The death toll has risen steadily over the past two decades.

The Drug Enforcement Administration, the agency that most directly oversees access to opioids, deserves much of the blame for these deaths.  Because of its incompetence, the opioid crisis has gone from bad to worse.  The solution: overhauling the agency, or even getting rid of it entirely.

The problem begins with poor design.  A brainchild of Richard Nixon’s “war on drugs,” the agency sought to cut off supplies of drugs on the black market, here and abroad. But in passing the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, Congress also gave the agency broad authority over how prescription opioids and other controlled substances were classified, produced and distributed.  The agency was supposed to curb problematic drug use, but failed to do so because its tactics were never informed by public health or addiction science.

Despite the investment of hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars and the earnest efforts of thousands of employees, the D.E.A.’s track record is abysmal. The agency has been unable to balance legitimate access to and control of prescription drugs.  The widespread over-reliance on opioids, along with benzodiazepines, amphetamines and other scheduled medications, has created a booming black market.

The agency’s enforcement strategies, and the support it has lent to local and state police departments, have also fueled abusive police tactics including dangerous no-knock-raids and ethnic profiling of drivers.  It has eroded civil liberties through the expansion of warrantless surveillance, and overseen arbitrary seizures of billions of dollars of private property without any clear connection to drug-related crimes.  These actions have disproportionately targeted people of color, contributing to disparities in mass incarceration, confiscated property, and collective trauma....

We urgently need to rethink how our nation regulates drugs.  What should our goals be?  How can we design institutions and performance metrics to achieve them?

The answers lie at the local and state levels.  In Rhode Island, opioid overdoses are declining because people behind bars have access to effective treatment. Massachusetts has deployed drop-in centers offering treatment, naloxone and other services.  San Francisco and Seattle are planning to open safe consumption spaces which show tremendous promise as a tool to reduce overdose deaths and other drug-related harm.  But the D.E.A. and its institutional parent, the Justice Department, stand in the way of some of these experiments.

We ought to reinvent the Drug Enforcement Administration. Considering its lack of public health and health care orientation, the agency’s regulatory authority over the pharmaceutical supply could be transferred to a strengthened and independent Food and Drug Administration, while the regulation of medical and pharmacy practice can be ceded to the states.  Parts of the D.E.A.’s law enforcement mandate should be transferred to the F.B.I., delegated back to the local or state, or eliminated.  A significant portion of the D.E.A.’s budget should be reinvested in lifesaving measures like access to high-quality treatment.

The Drug Enforcement Administration has had over 40 years to win the war on drugs.  Instead its tactics have fueled the opioid crisis.  To finally make a dent in this national emergency, we need to rethink the agency from the bottom up.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the suggestion to consider abolishing DEA is not novel. A quick google search turned up these other recent like-minded commentary (among others):

September 18, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Previewing the two capital punishment administration cases before SCOTUS this fall

Garrett Epps has this lengthy new commentary at The Atlantic under the headline "The Machinery of Death Is Back on the Docket: Two Supreme Court cases this fall pose hard questions about the death penalty." Here are some excerpts:

Madison v. Alabamato be argued on October 2, asks whether states can execute demented murderers who no longer remember their crimes; Bucklew v. Precythe asks when, if ever, a prisoner’s individual physical condition makes execution by lethal injection “cruel and unusual.”...

[Vernon] Madison’s legal team — led by Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative—argues that “No penological justification or retributive value can be found in executing a severely impaired and incompetent prisoner.” 

Alabama’s response is that the goals of capital punishment — retribution for the wrong and sending a warning to possible future offenders—are served as long as Madison knows why he is being executed, even if he doesn’t remember committing the acts. Madison’s particular condition may have been verified by doctors, the state argues, but dementia has many causes. Future claims of dementia and memory loss will be too easy to fake.

The high court has already held that states may not execute the mentally ill or the intellectually disabled; the leap to the demented would seem inevitable. But Justice Anthony Kennedy, the force behind these limits, has left the court, and death jurisprudence, as of the first Monday of next month, will likely be more volatile than usual.

In November, the court will take up the case of Russell Bucklew, whom the state of Missouri seeks to execute for the 1996 murder of Michael Sanders.... Bucklew doesn’t contest his guilt, nor does he claim that Missouri’s lethal-injection protocol is in itself “cruel and unusual.” His is what lawyers call an “as applied” challenge. What that means is this: Though lethal injection may pass muster for most executions, he argues, in his individual case, because of his unusual physical condition, the injection will cause him intense and intolerable pain.

He suffers from a rare medical condition call cavernous hemangioma. The condition has given rise to multiple blood-filled tumors in his head and mouth. These make it difficult to breathe and are prone to bloody rupture. He must sleep sitting up to avoid choking on his own blood. Being strapped flat to a gurney will subject him to suffocation, he argues. In addition, since his blood vessels are affected, he says, those administering the drugs will probably have to use a lengthy and painful procedure called a “cutdown” before the drugs can be administered, prolonging the agony....

Bucklew did offer an alternative already provided in Missouri law — a gas chamber filled with nitrogen gas, which would render him unconscious and then dead without the agony of suffocation.  The Eighth Circuit said that he did not prove the gas chamber would be better.  The court below had heard from two expert witnesses — one who described the agony of lethal injection and another who stated that gas would kill him more quickly.  A trial court could compare the two descriptions and reach its own conclusion about relative agony.  Not good enough, said the appeals court; Bucklew was required to provide one expert who would offer “comparative testimony” — in effect, a single witness to say that one method is less cruel than another....

The Bucklew case, however it is resolved, shows how fully the court has become enmeshed in the sordid details of official killing. As the population of death row ages, issues of age-related disease and dementia will become more important in assessing individual death warrants, and the court will be the last stop for those challenged.

The court seems likely to be hostile to prisoners’ claims, however.  In recent years, when the high court stepped in to halt executions, Justice Anthony Kennedy was usually the deciding vote. Kennedy will almost certainly be replaced by Brett Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh is formally an unknown on the issue. His conservatism in general, however, is orthodox, and conservative orthodoxy is hostile to new claims that executions are “cruel and unusual.”

September 18, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

"From Punishment to Public Health: Embracing Evidence-Based Solutions to End the Overdose Crisis"

The title of this post is the title of this exciting event taking place at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law in Columbus, Ohio at the end of next week. OSU's newly established Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) is co-hosting this two-day gathering, and here is the conference description from the full conference agenda:

This conference aims to explore the impact of criminal justice laws and policies in compounding drug use harms, including overdose deaths, and offer an alternative framework for addressing problematic drug use and drug-related fatalities that is rooted in evidence, compassion, and the principles of harm reduction.

The country is in the middle of a tragic increase in drug overdose deaths and Ohio is at the epicenter of the overdose crisis. According to new preliminary estimates for 2017 from the Center for Disease Control, the country has suffered a record 72,000 overdose deaths, with Ohio’s rate of overdose deaths increasing by more than 17%.  In 2016, Ohio ranked second in the nation in drug overdose death rates (at 39.1 per 100,000) and third in the nation in total number of deaths (4,329).  Ohio is losing nearly 12 citizens each day to a drug overdose.

Responses to the overdose crisis across the nation and within the state have been mixed.  There has been a renewed emphasis on treatment, expanded access to the overdose antidote naloxone, and the passage of Good Samaritan laws that offer protection to those calling for help during an overdose. Health officials in Ohio are even engaging in serious discussions of previously-taboo harm reduction interventions, such as drug checking strips.  Nonetheless, use of the criminal justice system continues to dominate local, state, and federal responses to increasing rates of opioid use and overdose. Ohio, for instance, charges more people with manslaughter for delivery of a controlled substance resulting in death than any other state except one.  Local and state elected officials have proposed legislation that would increase penalties for fentanyl, create a specific drug-induced homicide offense, and refuse medical assistance after a third overdose.  Resources for supply side interventions are dwarfing those dedicated to evidence-based interventions like community-based naloxone or syringe exchange.

In this conference hosted by the Drug Policy Alliance, Ohio State University Moritz College of Law Drug Enforcement and Policy Center, Harm Reduction Ohio, and ACLU-Ohio along with partners Harm Reduction Coalition, The Ohio Alliance for Innovation in Population Health and the Ohio State College of Public Health, we will explore why a public health approach to problematic drug use and overdose is critical to reducing needless deaths and other harms and why punitive measures can be counterproductive and destructive. Local, national, and international expert panelists will articulate why and how we can reverse course in our response to the overdose crisis by embracing and applying evidence and the principles of harm reduction rather than principles of punishment.  In so doing, panelists will also dispel common myths about what is effective and what is not based on research, science, and experience.

More details about and registration for this event are available here and here.

September 18, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 17, 2018

SCOTUS preview guest post: "Strange Bedfellows at the Supreme Court"

Guest-postsI am very grateful that Wayne Logan, the Gary & Sallyn Pajcic Professor of Law at Florida State University and the author of Knowledge as Power: Criminal Registration and Community Notification Laws in America (Stanford Univ. Press, 2009), reached out to offer me an original commentary on a case to be heard by the Supreme Court next month.  Here it is:

Herman Gundy, convicted of providing cocaine to a young girl and raping her, is a decidedly unlikely emissary in conservatives’ campaign to dismantle the administrative state.  In Gundy v. United States, to be argued the first week of the Supreme Court’s coming term, the Justices will address whether Congress violated the “non-delegation doctrine” when it directed the U.S. Attorney General to decide whether the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) should apply to individuals convicted before its 2006 enactment.  Gundy, whose rape conviction was in 2005, has a dog in the fight because the attorney general made SORNA retroactive, and Gundy was convicted of a felony under SORNA after he traveled interstate in 2012 without informing authorities.

The Court’s decision to hear Gundy’s case came as a major surprise.  The Justices have not invalidated a congressional delegation in over eighty years and all eleven federal appellate courts addressing the issue have concluded that the delegation was proper.  At least four Justices, the number needed to grant certiorari, however, thought the issue worth considering, clearing the way for a potential major assault on the modern administrative state, which is shaped by countless congressional delegations of authority to agencies.

If this occurs, it would be ironic.  Conservatives usually tout people like Gundy as poster boys for tough-on-crime policies, such as SORNA, which was enacted by a Republication Congress, signed into law by Republican President George W. Bush, and made retroactive by his attorney general (Alberto Gonzales).  Meanwhile, liberals, often fans of the administrative state, in areas such as environmental protection and workplace safety, tend to voice concern over such heavy-handed criminal justice initiatives.

On the merits, Gundy appears to have a strong claim.  For a delegation to be proper, Congress must provide an “intelligible principle” to guide the delegated decision, which as Chief Justice John Marshall stated in 1825 should merely “fill up the details” of a law’s application.  With SORNA, Congress simply directed the attorney general to decide the retroactivity question — hardly a detail, as it affected half a million people and has required significant federal prosecutorial resources.

Whether SORNA should apply retroactively is the kind of basic policy question that democratically accountable members of Congress should decide.  But they punted, for obvious political reasons.  The House and Senate could not agree on retroactivity and, when states later provided the attorney general input on SORNA’s possible retroactivity to their own registries, many vigorously objected to retroactivity.

Regardless of whether registration and notification actually promote public safety, which research has cast doubt upon, federal policy on the issue has long been marked by overreach.  Since 1994, when Congress first began threatening states with loss of federal funds unless they followed its directives, federal involvement has rightly been viewed as both foisting unfunded mandates upon states and a ham-fisted effort to policy-make in an area of undisputed state prerogative: criminal justice policy.

When Gundy is argued and decided Justice Neil Gorsuch will likely play a key role.  As a member of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, then-Judge Gorsuch wrote a lengthy dissent from his colleagues’ refusal to reconsider en banc their decision that the SORNA delegation was proper.  Gorsuch advocated a requirement of heightened guidance in criminal justice delegations, justified by the unique “intrusions on personal liberty” and stigma of convictions.  There is considerable appeal to Justice Gorsuch’s view, which the Court itself suggested in 1991.  Moreover, unlike other policy areas, such as environmental quality and drug safety, criminal justice typically does not require scientific or technical expertise, lessening the practical need for delegations in the first instance.

Ultimately, the Court might conclude, with justification, that the SORNA delegation was invalid because it lacked any “intelligible principle.”  On the other extreme, as Justice Thomas might well urge, the Court could outlaw delegations altogether.  Chief Justice Roberts, in a dissent joined by Justice Alito, recently condemned the “vast power” of the administrative state, and Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh has signaled similar antipathy.  Meanwhile, it is hard to say how the Court’s liberals will vote, given the conflicting interests at work.  Time will tell how the dynamic in Gundy plays out but the uncertainty itself provides yet more evidence of the high stakes involved in filling the Court’s current vacancy.  

September 17, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

"What Should the Senate Do With Brett Kavanaugh?"

The title of this post is the title of this new Politico piece which has answers/comments from a number of legal academics.  This topic is one surely to roil the legal world this coming week, and the Politico piece sets up why:

In a dramatic turn, Christine Blasey Ford, a professor at Palo Alto University, is accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were in high school in suburban Maryland.  He has categorically denied the allegation, and Republicans are indicating they intend to move ahead with a confirmation vote scheduled for later this week.  Democrats, along with several GOP senators — Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee — are calling for a pause while the Senate investigates Ford’s story.

I find useful the comment from Ilya Somin to frame some of the criminal law and punishment issues now taking shape as the future of the Supreme Court unfolds.  Here is part of his answer to the question above:

The Judiciary Committee should investigate the matter, and potentially hold additional hearings, and if necessary delay voting on the nomination, as recently suggested by GOP Senator Jeff Flake.  Given that the alleged events in question occurred over 35 years ago, when Kavanaugh was 17 and the accuser 15, getting at the truth may be very difficult, or even impossible.  But the committee should at least try.

What should the standard of proof be?  A Supreme Court confirmation hearing is very different from a criminal trial, where guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Denying a person a lifetime position of vast power on the nation’s highest court is not the same thing as taking away his or her liberty.  It is reasonable to set a lower threshold for the former than the latter.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to put nominees in the position of having to definitively prove that accusations leveled against them are false.  If that becomes the norm, virtually any nomination could be derailed by unsubstantiated accusations concerning alleged wrongdoing that occurred decades ago.  I would thus tentatively suggest that the right standard is that of preponderance of evidence.  If the evidence indicates that it is more likely than not that a Supreme Court nominee is guilty of serious wrongdoing, that should be sufficient to reject the nomination.

There is some merit to the idea that we should discount accusations about long-ago events that occurred when the perpetrator was a minor.  But whether such issues can be ignored completely depends on the seriousness of the charge and the importance of the position for which the person is being considered.  Sexual assault is a serious crime and a seat on the Supreme Court is a position of vast power.

The situation may change radically if other women come forward with plausible accusations of sexual assault or harassment.  Regardless, fair-minded observers should keep an open mind and should encourage the Senate to conduct as unbiased an investigation as possible.  Sadly, that may be too much to expect in this era of poisonous partisan bias.

September 17, 2018 in Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Making the case for a bill to end juve LWOP in the federal system

Marc Levin and Jody Kent Lavy have this new commentary in The Hill under the headline "Sentencing reform is critical for youth in the justice system." Here are excerpts:

As states across the country move to right-size their prison systems, managing to reduce incarceration, costs and crime, it is important to consider reform at the federal level as well.  And when it comes to reforming our sentencing laws, there seems no better place to start than with the most vulnerable among us: our children.  The United States is the only country known to impose life without the possibility of parole on people under the age of 18.

Congressman Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) took the lead on reform by introducing HR 6011, which would end life-without-parole and de facto life sentences for children in the federal criminal justice system.  Westermanhas been joined by a bipartisan team of co-sponsors — Karen Bass (D-Calif.), Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.) and Lynn Jenkins (R-Kansas) — but other members of Congress must also show their support in this policy rooted in redemption, rehabilitation, and second chances....

Imposing excessive sentences on children ignores what adolescent development research has documented.  And in just the last five years, conservative states like North Dakota, Utah, and Westerman’s native Arkansas have led the way in banning life-without-parole for children.  The Arkansas legislation, now titled Act 539, affects more than 100 people in the state and received broad bipartisan support in the legislature.  Nineteen other states and the District of Columbia prohibit youth from being sentenced to a life in prison with absolutely no hope of re-entering as a productive member of society and no goal to work toward.

Should it pass, HR 6011 would ensure that children sentenced in the federal system have the opportunity to petition a judge to review their sentence after they have served 20 years in prison.  They would then be afforded counsel at each of their review hearings — a maximum of three — where the judge would consider, among other factors, their demonstrated maturity, rehabilitation, and fitness to re-enter society. In other words, this bill does not guarantee release for anyone, but would ensure that children prosecuted and convicted of serious crimes in the federal system are afforded an opportunity to demonstrate whether they are deserving of a second chance.  HR 6011 holds children accountable while providing a reason to pursue self-betterment.  It gives hope to those who would otherwise be staring down a hopeless life sentence without the possibility of a second chance....

We hope other members of Congress will join Congressman Westerman’s bipartisan efforts to create a more fair and just system for our children who are convicted of serious crimes in the federal system.  Mercy is justice, too, and no one is more deserving of our mercy and the opportunity for a second chance than our children.

September 16, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, September 15, 2018

"A Reparative Approach to Parole-Release Decisions"

The title of this post is the title of this paper authored by Kristen Bell recently posted to SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Scholars have argued for enhanced procedural protections at parole hearings, but for the most part without a focus on what substantive criteria ought to guide parole-release decisions.  I undertake this normative project, first describing the approach to parole-release decision criteria from the perspective of four standard theories of punishment: retributive theory, deterrence theory, rehabilitation theory, and communicative theory.  I argue that each of the respective criteria flowing from these theories of punishment is morally objectionable on two grounds: failure to respect the agency of prisoners, and failure to take seriously the limits of our knowledge.  After setting forth these theories and the objections to which they are subject, I turn to draw lessons from how California’s parole-release system functions in practice.

Drawing on both the theoretical and practical perspectives on parole-release criteria, I argue in favor of a fundamental change.  I propose a “reparative approach” that builds on aspects of restorative justice and takes seriously respect for the moral agency of prisoners, victims, and the broader political community.  On this approach, people directly affected by the crime join with others at the outset of a prisoner’s sentence to deliberate and decide upon reasonably achievable criteria that the prisoner would need to meet in order to be released.  At the end of the prisoner’s judicially prescribed period of incarceration, the release decision would then be a ministerial determination of whether the prisoner has in fact met the criteria that were decided upon at the outset.  I leave for future work the question of whether and how such a policy could be implemented in the context of the contemporary American criminal justice system.

September 15, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, September 14, 2018

Reported sentencing details in Paul Manafort's plea deal to wrap up his various federal prosecutions

Politico has this extended article with some of the details of the plea deal completed today between the federal government and Paul Manafort.  Here are excerpts with an emphasis, of course, on sentencing particulars:

President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort has agreed to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller under a plea agreement revealed Friday. Manafort appeared in a Washington, D.C., courtroom Friday morning, looking relaxed in a suit and purple tie, to formally announce the deal.

The deal dismisses deadlocked charges against Manafort from an earlier trial, but only after "successful cooperation” with Mueller’s probe into Russian election interference and whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Moscow on its efforts. Later, U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson said Manafort is agreeing to "cooperate fully and truthfully" with the investigation.

The agreement also calls for a 10-year cap on how long Manafort will be sent to prison, and for Manafort to serve time from his separate Virginia and Washington cases concurrently.  But it will not release Manafort from jail, where he has been held since Mueller's team added witness tampering charges during the run-up to the longtime lobbyist's trial.

Manafort addressed Jackson in a soft voice, saying “I do” and “I understand” as she asked him whether he understood what rights he’s giving up. “Has anybody forced you, coerced you or threatened you in any way?” she asked later. “No,” Manafort replied, in a barely audible voice. A deputy marshal stood directly behind Manafort, a reminder that he remains in custody.

Legal experts quickly spun the deal as a win for all the parties involved. Manafort gets a potentially shorter sentence and lessens his legal bills. Trump avoids several weeks of bad headlines ahead of the midterm elections about his corrupt former campaign aide. And Mueller — faced with Trump's constant claims that his probe is a witch hunt — gets to show yet again that his charges are not fabricated and can now divert resources to other elements of his Russia probe....

Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani insisted the president and his lawyers were not concerned about Manafort cutting a deal. "Once again an investigation has concluded with a plea having nothing to do with President Trump or the Trump campaign," he said in a statement Friday. "The reason: the President did nothing wrong."

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders echoed those remarks in her own statement. "This had absolutely nothing to do with the President or his victorious 2016 Presidential campaign," she said. "It is totally unrelated.”

Prosecutors signaled the pending deal Friday morning, filing a new slimmed-down set of charges against Manafort, reining in the felony counts pending against him in D.C. from seven to just two: conspiracy against the U.S. and conspiracy to obstruct justice....

Last month, a jury in Alexandria, Virginia, convicted Manafort on eight felony charges in a tax-and-bank-fraud case also prosecuted by Mueller’s team. The jury deadlocked on 10 other counts, but a verdict form said the jurors were split, 11-1, in favor of conviction on those charges.

Many Trump aides and advisers have said they believe the president is likely to grant Manafort a pardon on all the charges, which Trump has suggested amounted to prosecutorial overkill aimed at persuading Manafort to implicate Trump in wrongdoing in connection with the ongoing Russian investigation.

The charges filed Friday morning came in a criminal information replacing the current indictment in the Washington-based case against Manafort.  The new charges mean that prosecutors have agreed to drop five counts, including money laundering, failing to register as a foreign agent and making false statements. Manafort admitted to those allegations as part of the umbrella conspiracy-against-the-U.S. charge, but the individual charges and the potential prison time they carry are being dismissed.

Weissmann said Manafort is admitting to all of the bank-fraud charges from the Virginia case. While that means Manafort won’t face another trial over those federal charges, the admission could be critical to the issue of follow-up state charges, since bank fraud can typically be charged at the state and federal level.

Without seeing this plea agreement, it is unclear to me whether Manafort now has his sentencing exposure capped at 10 years for all of his convictions or just for those related to the second round of DC charges to which he today pleaded guilty.   I presume the latter, since I am not sure a DC-based plea deal could bind the sentencing discretion of the Virginia-based judge who will be sentencing Manafort on the charges which resulted in jury convictions last month.  The plea agreement could include, however, a representation by federal prosecutors that they will not seek a sentence longer than 10 years in the other part of the case (though I doubt it does).

Of course, the sentencing particulars could become academic if (when?) Prez Trump were to grant Manafort a pardon (which he could do at any time).  As of this writing, I am inclined to predict that Prez Trump will commute Manafort's sentence to reduce how long he spends in prison (rather than grant a full pardon), and do so sometime after the mid-term elections.  We might call this the "Libby treatment" as this is how Prez George Bush used his clemency powers to help our Scotter Libby after his perjury conviction but before he was sent to the federal penitentiary.  (And if Prez Trump was clever and savvy in this arena, he could and would include a commutation for Manafort within a list of dozens or hundreds of other commutations of "regular" offenders.)

September 14, 2018 in Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Marijuana, mandatory minimums and jury nullification, oh my: split Ninth Circuit affirms panel federal convictions, though remands to address DOJ spending rider

A big, long and split decision by a panel of the Ninth Circuit yesterday in US v. Lynch, No. 10-50219 (9th Cir, Sept. 13, 2018) (available here), prompted the weak "Wizard of Oz" reference in the title of this post.  There is so much of interest in Lynch for sentencing fans and others, I cannot cover it all in this post. The majority's introduction provides a sense of the case's coverage:

Charles Lynch ran a marijuana dispensary in Morro Bay, California, in violation of federal law.  He was convicted of conspiracy to manufacture, possess, and distribute marijuana, as well as other charges related to his ownership of the dispensary.  In this appeal, Lynch contends that the district court made various errors regarding Lynch’s defense of entrapment by estoppel, improperly warned jurors against nullification, and allowed the prosecutors to introduce various evidence tying Lynch to the dispensary’s activities, while excluding allegedly exculpatory evidence offered by Lynch.  However, Lynch suffered no wrongful impairment of his entrapment by estoppel defense, the anti-nullification warning was not coercive, and the district court’s evidentiary rulings were correct in light of the purposes for which the evidence was tendered.  A remand for resentencing is required, though, on the government’s cross-appeal of the district court’s refusal to apply a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, which unavoidably applies to Lynch.

Following the filing of this appeal and after the submission of the government’s brief, the United States Congress enacted an appropriations provision, which this court has interpreted to prohibit the federal prosecution of persons for activities compliant with state medical marijuana laws. Lynch contends that this provision therefore prohibits the United States from continuing to defend Lynch’s conviction.  We need not reach the question of whether the provision operates to annul a properly obtained conviction, however, because a genuine dispute exists as to whether Lynch’s activities were actually legal under California state law. Remand will permit the district court to make findings regarding whether Lynch complied with state law.

Judge Watford dissented from the panel majority in Lynch, and his dissent starts this way:

I would reverse and remand for a new trial. In my view, the district court went too far in trying to dissuade the jury from engaging in nullification.  The court’s actions violated Charles Lynch’s constitutional right to trial by jury, and the government can’t show that this error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

By its very nature, a case of this sort touches a sensitive nerve from a federalism standpoint.  At the time of Lynch’s trial in 2008, the citizens of California had legalized the sale and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes; the federal government nonetheless sought to prosecute a California citizen for conduct that arguably was authorized under state law. Because federal law takes precedence under the Supremacy Clause, the government could certainly bring such a prosecution, notwithstanding the resulting intrusion upon state sovereignty interests.  See Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1, 29 (2005).  But the Framers of the Constitution included two provisions that act as a check on the national government’s exercise of power in this realm: one stating that “[t]he Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury”; the other requiring that “such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed.” U.S. Const., Art. III, § 2, cl. 3.  The Sixth Amendment further mandates that in all criminal prosecutions the accused shall enjoy the right to trial “by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.”  Thus, to send Lynch to prison, the government had to persuade a jury composed of his fellow Californians to convict.

One of the fundamental attributes of trial by jury in our legal system is the power of the jury to engage in nullification — to return a verdict of not guilty “in the teeth of both law and facts.” Horning v. District of Columbia, 254 U.S. 135, 138 (1920).  The jury’s power to nullify has ancient roots, dating back to pre-colonial England.  See Thomas Andrew Green, Verdict According to Conscience: Perspectives on the English Criminal Trial Jury, 1200–1800, at 236–49 (1985) (discussing Bushell’s Case, 124 Eng. Rep. 1006 (C.P. 1670)).  It became a well-established fixture of jury trials in colonial America, perhaps most famously in the case of John Peter Zenger, a publisher in New York acquitted of charges of seditious libel.  See Albert W. Alschuler & Andrew G. Deiss, A Brief History of the Criminal Jury in the United States, 61 U. Chi. L. Rev. 867, 871–74 (1994).  From ratification of the Constitution to the present, the right to trial by jury has been regarded as “essential for preventing miscarriages of justice,” Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145, 158 (1968), in part because the jury’s power to nullify allows it to act as “the conscience of the community,” Jeffrey Abramson, We, the Jury: The Jury System and the Ideal of Democracy 87 (1994).

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

September 14, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Various federal, state and local perspectives on the latest fronts in the latest battles of the never-ending drug war

As noted in this prior post, the new Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law has a lot of programming and resources already assembled on the interesting and intricate drug sentencing and prison reform initiative headed for the November 2018 ballot here in Ohio called the "Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Amendment" or just Issue 1.  In particular today, Thursday, September 13 at 12noon, starts a series five public panels about Issue 1 under the title Ballot Insights (and DEPC has also created a Resources Page for Issue 1 and Commentary Page on Issue 1).  I find Issue 1 fascinating because the players involved and perspectives shared on drug enforcement and drug policy amidst a state-wide direct democracy campaign is already proving remarkable (e.g., Ohio judges have been very vocal so far fiercely opposing Issue 1's drug sentencing reforms). 

Meanwhile, this week also brought an interesting local perspective (mostly from Ohio) on another front of the drug war in the form of this very lengthy piece by Jack Shuler in The New Republic titled "Overdose and Punishment." The sub title of the piece highlights its themes: "When Chad Baker died from a lethal combination of cocaine and heroin, prosecutors charged Tommy Kosto, his friend and fellow drug user, with killing him — a tactic from the Reagan-era war on drugs that is gaining popularity around the country and making today's opioid crisis even worse."

Providing yet another perspective on these matters is Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who yesterday delivered this speech to the National Narcotics Officers' Association’s Coalition Drug Enforcement Forum.  Those who regularly read the AG's speeches will find a lot in this latest speech familiar, but I still though it useful to reprint some of his discussion of the drug war "surge" now on-going at the federal level:

[I]n the districts where drug deaths are the highest, we are now vigorously prosecuting synthetic opioid trafficking cases, even when the amount is small. It’s called Operation Synthetic Opioid Surge — or S.O.S.

We are in a desperate fight to curtail the availability and spread of this killer drug. Synthetic opioids are so strong that there is no such thing as a small case. Three milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal. That’s equivalent to a pinch of salt. Depending on the purity, you could fit more than 1,000 fatal doses of fentanyl in a teaspoon.

I want to be clear about this: we are not focusing on users, but on those supplying them with deadly drugs.

In Manatee County, Florida, in partnership with the Sheriff, we tried this strategy and it worked. This past January, they had half the number of overdose deaths as the previous January. The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office went from responding to 11 overdose calls a day to an average of one a day. Those are promising results. We want to replicate those results in the places that have been hardest hit.

And so I have also sent 10 more prosecutors to help implement this strategy in ten districts where drug deaths are especially high. And that is in addition to the 12 prosecutors I sent to prosecute opioid fraud in drug “hot spot districts.” To help them do that, I have begun a new data analytics program at the Department called the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit to use data to find opioid-related health care fraud....

I have also sent more than 300 new federal prosecutors to our U.S. Attorneys offices across America. This is the largest surge in prosecutors in decades. You can be sure drugs, gangs, and related violence will be a priority for them.

September 13, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

As Booker enters its adolescence, do we really know much of substance about substantive reasonableness review?

The question in the title of this post is prompted in part by a couple of recent reasonableness rulings from the Sixth and Tenth Circuits that seemed noteworthy: in US v. Heard, No. 17-3062 (6th Cir. Sept. 11, 2018) (available here), a split Sixth Circuit panel upholds an above-guideline sentences over a spirited dissent in firearm cases; in US v. Staples, No. 17-2068 (10th Cir. Aug 27, 2018)  (available here), a unanimous Tenth Circuit panel reverses a below-guideline sentences in a fraud case.  These decisions reflect one feature of nearly all criminal appeals, namely that the government wins and the defendant loses.  But I was inspired to pose the question in the title of this post because these these decisions also reinforce my sense that, even 13 years into the post-Booker world, there is still very little jurisprudential substance to substantive reasonableness review.  These decisions represent data points, but not much more.

In this post some months ago, I provided a string cite of commentary  documenting the mess that reasonableness review has become in the circuits.   I will provide this list again in part because it support my belief that federal sentencing law and practice would benefit significantly from the Supreme Court's further engagement with reasonableness review.  See, e.g.,  Carrie Leonetti, De Facto Mandatory: A Quantitative Assessment Of Reasonableness Review After Booker, 66 DePaul L. Rev. 51 (2016) (lamenting disparate circuit approaches to reasonableness review creating a “patchwork of guideline sentencing in which defendants’ sentences are dictated more by the happenstance of geography than by the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence”); Note, More Than a Formality: The Case for Meaningful Substantive Reasonableness Review, 127 Harv. L. Rev. 951 (2014) (discussing a “number of notable circuit splits” concerning reasonableness review); D. Michael Fisher, Still in Balance? Federal District Court Discretion and Appellate Review Six Years After Booker, 49 Duq. L. Rev. 641, 649-61 (2011) (noting that “the courts of appeals have differed over how to apply the [reasonableness] standard” and “have split on several important legal questions”).

As long-time readers know, I used to regularly report on circuit reasonableness rulings in the years after Booker and the follow up cases of RitaGall and Kimbrough.  But now I barely notice these cases and rarely report on them, because there seems to me little significance in individual data points absent broader jurisprudential developments.  But maybe I am missing something, and thus the question here posed.

September 12, 2018 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in the Circuits, Gall reasonableness case, Kimbrough reasonableness case, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Florida felony disenfranchisement ugliness getting a lot more scrutiny thanks to John Oliver

John-oliver-discusses-felony-disThis local article, headlined "This HBO comedian ridiculed Florida’s clemency process. Rick Scott takes it seriously," reports on notable developments in Florida thanks in part to a low-profile issue getting some high-profile attention.  Here are excerpts:

For only the third time this year — but this time under a withering national media glare — Florida’s highest elected officials sat in judgment Tuesday of people whose mistakes cost them the right to vote.

During a five-hour hearing, 90 felons made their case to Florida Gov. Rick Scott and three members of the Cabinet, asking to have their rights restored. It was a packed house in the Cabinet room of the state Capitol, as Tuesday’s hearing drew reporters and cameras from, among other outlets, NPR, The Huffington Post and The Guardian. The hearings typically attract one or two members of the Tallahassee press corps.

Only two days before, Florida’s restoration of rights process was skewered on national TV by John Oliver of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight.” He devoted a 13-minute segment to the Florida clemency system, calling it “absolutely insane” and mocking Scott for creating “the disenfranchisement capital of America.”

Under a policy struck down by a federal judge that remains in effect while Scott and the state appeal, anyone with a felony conviction in Florida must wait five years before petitioning the state to regain the right to vote, serve on a jury or possess a firearm.

Florida has an estimated 1.5 million felons who have been permanently stripped of the right to vote, far more than any other state. To get their rights restored, they must formally apply to make an appeal before Scott and the Cabinet, which is now composed of Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis....

Voters will have a chance to overhaul the restoration system before Scott and the three Cabinet members are scheduled to hold their next clemency hearing on Dec. 5. A month before then, on Nov. 6, voters will decide on Amendment 4 that would restore the right to vote to most felons after they complete their sentences, if 60 percent of voters approve....

The five-year waiting period was implemented by Scott, Bondi, Putnam and another Cabinet member after their election in 2010. A statewide petition drive collected nearly 1 million signatures to get Amendment 4 before voters this fall.

Scott, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate against Democrat Bill Nelson, supports the existing system. With his approval, the state is now appealing U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker’s decision to strike down the rights restoration system as arbitrary and unconstitutional.

Amendment 4 does not distinguish between violent and non-violent felons, but people convicted of murder and sex crimes would not be eligible to regain their rights if it passes. A political committee that supports the amendment, Floridians for a Fair Democracy based in Clearwater, spent $3.579 million in the week ending Aug. 31, with nearly all of the money spent on a “media buy,” which likely means TV advertising. The group has raised $14.4 million so far with large contributions from a number of wealthy out-of-state individuals and from the American Civil Liberties Union.

The permanent elimination of civil rights to felons has been in effect in the state for more than a century, under Republican and Democratic governors, and was lifted only during the four-year term of Charlie Crist, from 2007 to 2011, when 155,315 offenders who were released had their rights restored. Under Scott, only about 4,350 offenders have had their rights restored.

The full John Oliver segment, which is gets especially interested toward the end, is available at this link.

Some (of many) prior related posts:

September 12, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Kelley Ashby Paul, Senator Rand Paul's spouse, makes the Kentucky case for criminal justice reform

Long-time readers know I have been singing the praises of Senator Rand Paul since he began making the case for consequential federal sentencing reforms more than half a decade ago.  Now I am pleased to see that Senator Paul's spouse, Kelley Ashby Paul, is adding her voice to the call for reform through this new op-ed headlined "Kelley Paul: We must focus on recovery, not incarceration."  Here are excerpts:

As a community, as a state and as a nation, we must speak out in favor of expanded rehabilitation opportunities for those struggling with addiction. Because of the Hope Center’s expansion, even more women ... will have the tools to overcome addiction and begin a new path forward in life.

It is recovery, not incarceration, which allows people to become productive members of society — citizens with jobs and families who can contribute and make our communities better places to work, grow and live. It is recovery, not incarceration, which brings hope and peace into the lives of thousands of Americans and their families struggling with addiction.

The Hope Center expansion comes on the heels of the enactment of the first ever Dignity Bill in the nation, right here in Kentucky.  Because of Sen. Julie Raque Adams’ sponsorship of the bill, and the tenacity of women leaders on both sides of the aisle, pregnant women accused of minor, non-violent crimes now have the option to enter into a recovery program. They can get the treatment they need, instead of languishing behind bars because they are unable to make bail.

Criminal-justice reform is something my husband, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, has been fighting for since he arrived in Washington. He is a lead co-sponsor of bipartisan bail reform legislation with Sen. Kamala Harris, and with the recent introduction of the First Step Act, a major bipartisan prison reform bill that includes expanded treatment opportunities, I am hopeful we can continue our efforts to fix a broken system.  I am proud to assure the people of this commonwealth that my family will do everything we can to ensure that the First Step Act will get a vote.

Criminal-justice reform goes hand in hand with reducing homelessness, alcoholism and drug addiction.  We have learned that locking people up who are in need of treatment is not the answer.

The U.S. is the most heavily incarcerated country in the developed world, and many of those incarcerated have suffered a trauma, such as sexual or physical abuse, which led to addiction, and ultimately led them to our justice system. Instead of treating these individuals, we toss them behind bars, where their problems only get worse.  This cycle of failure results in staggering financial costs to the taxpayer, but more importantly a devastating cost to families and children.

I suspect that most folks in the Commonwealth of Kentucky are in support of the kinds of criminal justice reforms here promoted by Kelley Paul, and the state's Governor has been an outspoken reform advocate. But when it comes to getting votes on significant federal criminal justice bills, the most important person from Kentucky is Senate Majority Leader Mitchell McConnell Jr. He decides whether any bill gets a full Senate vote and he has not allowed a floor vote on any significant criminal justice reform bill during his leadership. I hope that changes soon, and maybe Kelley Paul can have more influence on this front than seemingly her spouse has so far.

September 12, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

A terrific partial unpacking of "Johnson v. United States: Three years out"

I noted in posts here and here last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Senators Orrin Hatch and Tom Cotton are talking up the need for reform to the Armed Career Criminal Act in response to the Supreme Court's 2015 ruling in Johnson v. US.   I just now noticed that Andrew Hamm has this lengthy follow-up post at SCOTUSblog under the title "Johnson v. United States: Three years out."  I recommend that post in full, and here is a flavor:

After the decision in Johnson, individuals sentenced under ACCA’s now-defunct residual clause filed petitions for collateral review, a procedure that allows prisoners, within certain constraints, to ask a court to amend their sentences.  Additional follow-on litigation to Johnson has involved questions about other aspects of ACCA’s “violent felony” definition, as in next term’s United States v. Stitt, as well as vagueness challenges to definitions of “violent felony” in other statutes, as in last term’s Sessions v. Dimaya.

But even as these and other challenges play out in the courts, Johnson’s real-world consequences in the three years since the case was decided raise other questions about recidivism, re-entry and policy.  For example, have people sentenced as career offenders and released early after Johnson gone on to commit more crimes?  If some have, are certain, less vague sentence enhancements — as Sessions has recommended and as new legislation introduced by two Republican senators would impose — the proper “fix” to Johnson?  This post looks at some of the different factors at play....

Earlier this month, two Republican senators, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, introduced the Restoring the Armed Career Criminal Act to, as they wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, “fix the law that was struck down.” In their press releases announcing the proposed legislation, Hatch and Cotton mentioned victims in their states whom Sessions also discussed.  According to a one-pager about the legislation, the act “would do away with the concepts of ‘violent felony’ and ‘serious drug offense’ and replace them with a single category of ‘serious felony.’ A serious felony would be any crime punishable by 10 years or more.”

Brian Colas, Cotton’s general counsel, and Baron-Evans agree that this new legislation would avoid the vagueness problems of the original ACCA residual clause.  They disagree on how broadly the law would sweep.  Whereas Colas points to the fact the crimes must be punishable by 10 years or more, which he takes as a proxy for the high seriousness of an offense, Baron-Evans worries about the many people regularly sentenced to less than 10 years but for whom 10 years or more would represent a statutory maximum.

Raghavan suggests that subjecting drug offenders to the same sentencing enhancement as violent offenders may not be warranted based on recidivism rates. In its 2016 report on people sentenced as career offenders, the Sentencing Commission split individuals into three categories: career offenders with only drug-trafficking offenses, those with only violent offenses, and those with mixed offenses.  People sentenced as career offenders with only drug-trafficking offenses had a lower recidivism rate than those in the other categories. Among those who did recidivate, those with only drug-trafficking offenses “tended to take longer to do so” than those in the other categories. Additionally, “offenders in the other two pathways who were rearrested were more likely to have been rearrested for another violent offense” than offenders with only drug-trafficking offenses.

The next step for the legislation is the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Colas estimates that it will take six to eight months for this legislation to get through the committee. He notes that the act will be absorbed into a “broader fight” for criminal justice reform in Congress. 

This post provides a clear and balanced review of data and the state of the debate over one proposed ACCA fix in the wake of Johnson.  But I call the post only a "partial unpacking" of the post-Johnson landscape because it does not address whether and how federal ACCA charging practices have changed after Johnson and/or whether it might be especially sound to just give judges more sentencing discretion in response to an array of ACCA problems.

The reason Johnson in particular, and ACCA in general, is so consequential and the subject of so much litigation is because ACCA's intricate and vague rules about predicate offenses turn a regulatory crime (possessing a firearm as a felon) with normally only a 10-year maximum sentence into a mega-crime with a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence.  Rather than dicker excessively over the particulars of the rules for qualifying predicates in future ACCA debates, it might make a lot more sentence to just raise the normal maximum to, say, 15 years and also lower the ACCA minimum to, say, 5 years.  By so doing, persons with priors that might or might not qualify for ACCA treatment still could be sentenced under (advisory) guidelines in the 5-to-15-year range without a need to litigate all the particulars of all the priors.  Just a thought for would-be staffers looking forward to "six to eight months" of ACCA debates.

Prior related posts:

September 11, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

I do not think Prez Trump meant this tweet as a compliment to the Attorneys General, but it kinda is

President Donald Trump was tweeting up a storm yet again this morning, and this particular tweet struck me as especially ironic (and thus blogworthy):

The irony, of course, is that Prez Trump obviously means this tweet to be a criticism of current Attorney General Jeff Sessions (and likely also of former Attorney General Eric Holder).  And yet, as is so often heard from Attorneys General and others in the Justice Department, a commitment to the rule of law should often mean that the Department of Justice is to operate largely the same way no matter which person or party is formally at the helm.  In other words, from a different speaker at a different time, this statement really could be an extraordinary compliment to officials within the Justice Department.

Of course, as sentencing fans know, it is not actually accurate at all that the Justice Department is being run now just like it was run under former AG Holder.  Current AG Sessions was fairly quick to rescind any number of Holder-era guidance memos and policies on topics ranging from private prisons to charging and sentencing directions to marijuana enforcement.  And, of course, AG Sessions is reportedly trying to prevent significant sentencing and prison reforms in Congress, while former AG Holder supported various reforms (though not sufficiently, in my view). 

So, like so much this current Prez says, this tweet is wrong is more ways that the Prez even realizes. 

September 11, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, September 10, 2018

Events and resources covering Ohio sentencing and prison reform ballot initiative known now as Issue 1

Depc_testA few months ago, I flagged here the interesting and intricate drug sentencing and prison reform initiative headed for the November 2018 ballot here in Ohio.  Originally called the "Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Amendment," the initiative now is just known within Ohio as Issue 1.   With early voting in Ohio now just a month away and Election Day 2018 not much more than 50 days away, the new Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law has a lot of Issue 1 programming about to begin and has a lot of resources already assembled on its website.

This Thursday, September 13 at 12noon, starts a series five public panels under the title Ballot Insights.  Registration for these panels is available at this link, where you can also find more details on scheduled speakers and on which aspects of the Issue 1 will be the focus for particular panels (e.g., a first panel in October is focused on the Issue 1 provisions expanding "earned time credit" for Ohio prisoners to reduce their sentences through rehabilitative programming; a second panel in October looks at how to ensure any increased funding for drug treatment is utilized effectively). 

I have the pleasure of moderating the first Issue 1 panel this coming Thursday, which is titled simply "Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Amendment: Step in the Right Direction."  This panel will include a leading proponent of Issue 1 (Steven JohnsonGrove of the Ohio Justice & Policy Center), a leading opponent of Issue 1 (Louis Tobin of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association), and a leading Ohio criminal justice reform expert (Daniel Dew of The Buckeye Institute).  The bios of the presenters are detailed at this link.

In addition to all the panels, DEPC has also created a Resources Page for Issue 1, which includes links to the ballot language, position statements from various groups and select media coverage.  DEPC is also building out a Commentary Page on Issue 1 for publishing original commentary that the Center has solicited. (A pair of public health scholars submitted this first commentary for publication on the DEPC site.)

 Prior related posts:

September 10, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Another effective examination of ups and down of federal clemency (and the persistence of hope) in modern times

Against the backdrop of almost complete disuse of the federal clemency power (especially the power to commute prison sentences) which had become a modern norm, the clemency activity over the last few years of the Obama Administration and at the start of the Trump Administration have been encouraging.  But this effective extended review of recent developments, with a focus on the case of "Life for Pot" defendant John Knock, highlights that for many downs rather than ups define the reality of all the buzz around clemency.  The article's full headline highlights its themes: "The Prisoners Left Behind: How Barack Obama’s clemency operation failed thousands of drug offenders, some serving long sentences for cannabis crimes, and left them at the mercy of Donald Trump’s whims."  Here is an excerpt:

Knock is one of more than 1,500 drug offenders set to die in federal prison under 1980s-era drug sentencing laws, despite a critical shift in drug punishments since then. Dozens of those lifers are marijuana offenders like him. With no other recourse, Knock had turned to clemency as his best chance at freedom.  Obama’s program was well intentioned but hobbled by poor planning.  Trump has commuted the sentence of just one drug offender so far, but that’s enough to give some inmates a shred of hope.

But those hopes were misplaced. Although President Obama’s program did grant more than 1,700 commutations — more than any other president — clemency experts say bureaucracy and poor planning stifled the program’s ability to free many more. Out of the 13,000 people denied between 2014 and 2017, thousands appeared to be worthy candidates—at least on paper, according to a 2017 analysis by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.... 

But in fact, the commission found that only 3 percent of drug offenders who appeared to meet all of the DOJ’s criteria actually received clemency. Conversely, only 5 percent of the people who did receive clemency appeared to meet all of the criteria. Without much transparency in the review process, several critics now compare it to a “lottery system.” 

“It felt like a lottery, in the sense that if you say you need six criteria to be considered, people are going to take you at your face value,” said Courtney Oliva, executive director of NYU’s Center on the Administration of Criminal Law.  Thousands of other petitions got no response at all. On Obama’s final day in office, 11,000 pending petitions rolled over into President Donald Trump’s administration, leaving thousands of cases still languishing in limbo as inmates looked to another president for mercy....

[I]n early June the president did commute the life sentence of Alice Johnson, who had served twenty years in prison for her role in a large cocaine distribution ring. Before Trump, President Obama had denied Johnson’s requests for clemency three times. 

Trump’s move came at the request of a celebrity, Kim Kardashian West, who visited the White House again this week to discuss criminal justice reform.  Kardashian also said this week she has a second candidate for clemency in mind, a man named Chris Young who is serving a life sentence for cannabis and cocaine convictions.  He was thirty years old when he was sent to prison almost a decade ago. Two days after granting Johnson’s clemency, Trump said he was considering other pardons from a list of 3,000 names. But despite his decision for Alice Johnson, some still doubt the possibility of a wholesale initiative like Obama’s. 

“I think there’s a lot of uncertainty as to what it means because I don’t trust this administration,” said Courtney Oliva. “Assuming we have a normal president again someday, you’re going to want a system that’s not path-dependent on Kim Kardashian.”  But to John Knock and his family, the latest clemency approval has ushered in a surge of optimism.  “How do I feel? Hopeful,” Knock wrote in a letter, days after Johnson’s release. “Obama had seven layers of bureaucracy one had to pass through.  Trump has one.” 

“It’s disruptive to the way the system has always worked,” Knock’s sister Beth Curtis said. “If it is done directly through the White House, and the White House considers petitions that had been carefully vetted by people in the criminal justice community, that’s a very positive thing.”... 

“I still have hope,” Knock said.  Knock’s name is among the several that have been sent directly to senior advisor Jared Kushner, according to Curtis, and Knock’s was sent by “a man who knew John in high school who is a friend of Mike Pence.”

September 10, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, September 08, 2018

"The Power of Prosecutors"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Jeffrey Bellin now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

One of the predominant themes in the criminal justice literature is that prosecutors, not legislators, judges, or police, dominate the justice system.  Over 75 years ago, Attorney General Robert Jackson famously proclaimed that the “prosecutor has more control over life, liberty, and reputation than any other person in America.”  In one of the most cited law review articles of all time, Bill Stuntz added that prosecutors, not judges, police, or legislators, “are the criminal justice system’s real lawmakers.”  And an unchallenged modern consensus holds that prosecutors “rule the criminal justice system.”

This Article applies a critical lens to longstanding claims of prosecutorial preeminence.  It reveals a curious echo chamber enabled by a puzzling lack of dissent.  With few voices challenging ever-more-strident prosecutor-dominance rhetoric, academic claims became uncritical, imprecise, and ultimately incorrect.

An unchallenged consensus that “prosecutors are the criminal justice system” and that the “institution of the prosecutor has more power than any other in the criminal justice system,” has real consequences for criminal justice discourse.  Portraying prosecutors as the system’s iron-fisted rulers obscures the complex interplay that actually determines criminal justice outcomes.  The overheated rhetoric of prosecutorial preeminence fosters a superficial understanding of the criminal justice system, overlooks the powerful forces that can and do constrain prosecutors, and diverts attention from the most promising sources of reform (legislators, judges, and police) to the least (prosecutors).

September 8, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, September 07, 2018

US House passes broad rewrite of the federal definition of "crime of violence" without any hearings

While a number of seemingly popular federal sentencing reform bills and marijuana reform bills have waited years for a vote in one or another chamber of Congress, the "Community Safety and Security Act of 2018," H.R. 6691, was passed through the US House of Representatives this morning barely a week after its introduction.  This new Reason piece provides some details under a full headline that captures the essentials: "House Passes Bill to Reclassify Dozens of Offenses as 'Crimes of Violence': Opponents say the bill, rushed to the floor without a hearing, would dangerously expand what's considered an 'aggravated offense'":

Republicans in the House passed a bill this morning that would reclassify dozens of federal crimes as "crimes of violence," making them deportable offenses under immigration law. Criminal justice advocacy groups say the bill, rushed to the floor without a single hearing, is unnecessary, is overbroad, and will intensify the problem of overcriminalization.

The Community Safety and Security Act of 2018, H.R. 6691, passed the House by a largely party-line vote of 247–152. Among the crimes that it would make violent offenses are burglary, fleeing, and coercion through fraud.

"Groups on the right and the left are deeply concerned about the bad policy in this bill and the unfair process through which it came to the floor," Holly Harris, the executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, said in a statement to Reason. "At a time when we have bipartisan support for criminal justice reforms that will safely reduce incarceration and better prioritize public safety, passing a bill that does just the opposite makes no sense at all."

In April, the Supreme Court ruled in Sessions v. Dimaya that the definition of a "crime of violence" used for federal immigration law — conviction under which can lead to deportation proceedings — was unconstitutionally vague. House Republicans crafted the bill, they say, in response to the Supreme Court's recommendations in that case. But the criminal justice reform advocacy group FAMM warned that the bill "would label seemingly nonviolent offenses such as burglary of an unoccupied home and fleeing as violent offenses."...

The bill was also opposed by the House Liberty Caucus, which released a statement saying that the legislation "expands unconstitutional federal crimes and provides grossly disproportionate consequences for nonviolent offenses."...

Rep. Karen Handel (R-Ga.) claims the bill is urgently needed to keep, as its name suggests, communities safe from violent crime.  "We don't have the privilege to squabble over hypotheticals that have no bearing on the application of this law," Handel said on the House floor.  "I can assure my colleagues this bill is not overly broad. It's not a dangerous overexpansion. Instead, it's a carefully crafted response to the Supreme Court's recommendations."

Democrats and criminal justice groups also objected to the speed at which the bill sailed to the House floor.  It was introduced just a week ago and did not have a single hearing or markup prior to today's vote. The House Liberty Caucus calls the process "farcical."

In a tweet, Jason Pye, the vice president of legislative affairs at the libertarian-leaning group FreedomWorks, writes: "In my view, this bill is mostly politics.  I agree that Dimaya requires a fix, but this bill has flaws that could have, and should have, been worked out in committee markup.  It's shameful that this bill was handled this way."

Especially because the definition of "crime of violence" under federal law matters in lots of arenas beyond immigration, I am hopeful that the Senate will take a more careful and deliberative approach to this issue than has the House. I am also amazed at how quickly complicate legislation can be moved through part of the legislative process when there is a political will to do so (even when it is unclear whose political will is in operation).

September 7, 2018 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Noting the uptick in federal gun prosecutions

This Courthouse News Service piece, headlined "Trump Administration Steps Up Prosecution of Gun Crimes," reports on and contextualizes this recent TRAC data report titled "Weapons Prosecutions Continue to Climb in 2018." Here are excerpts from the press piece:

Though Donald Trump ran on a pro-gun, Second Amendment platform, a recent study from Syracuse University shows the administration has stepped up prosecutions of weapons offenses, bringing 8,403 such cases in the first 10 months of fiscal year 2018, a 22.5 percent increase from the previous year.

TRAC Reports, a data-gathering organization at Syracuse University, also reported last week that that nation’s 94 U.S. Attorney’s Offices have prosecuted 41.3 percent more weapons cases than they did 5 years ago, under the Obama Administration.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions told the National District Attorneys Association in July 2017: “I want to see a substantial increase in gun crime prosecutions. I believe, as we partner together and hammer criminals who carry firearms during crimes or criminals that possess firearms after being convicted of a felony, the effect will be to reduce violent crime.”

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms handles the lion’s share of prosecutions, the TRAC study said: 64 percent of the prosecutions were recommended by BATF....

In addition to prosecuting people who use guns during crimes, Sessions said prosecutors also are targeting people who are prohibited from owning firearms, such as felons, and guns that are illegal in themselves, such as those with serial numbers scratched off....

However, David Kennedy, director of the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College, said the focus on prosecuting federal firearms offenses to too simplistic, because U.S. Attorney’s Offices do too little on their own to deter crime. Most gun crimes are first handled by state and federal law enforcement, Kennedy said, and federal attorneys prosecute the cases they choose to adopt, which is a fraction of the larger pool of gun-related offenses.

“What goes to federal and what doesn’t is effectively completely unpredictable on the street,” Kennedy told Courthouse News. “So if you’re somebody walking around in the community and you’re thinking whether or not to carry a gun or whether to commit a gun crime, you may not even know that the federal policy has changed. If you’re not aware that the U.S. attorney is taking more of these cases, it’s not going to affect your behavior.”

By the time charges are leveled and the accused is standing in a federal courtroom, it’s too late for them to change their behavior, Kennedy said. He said one unintended consequence of focusing on firearm prosecutions is that young, urban black men are overwhelmingly targeted by prosecutors, which makes the communities in which they live more distrustful of police and law enforcement.

Instead of focusing on gun prosecution, Kennedy said, it would be more effective if law enforcement seeks to identify the people most likely to commit violent crime and engage in outreach. He cited Oakland, California’s Operation Ceasefire, which identified the less-than 1 percent of Oakland residents who were associated with two-thirds of the city’s gun violence and provided them with coaching, social services, jobs and other assistance.

September 6, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Gun policy and sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

The (complicated) Florida constitutional ballot initiative, Amendment 11, seeking to allow retroactive sentencing changes

Download (20)My twitter feed lately has included links to "Yes on 11," which is a reference to the ballot initiative coming before voters in Florida that seeks to, according to the campaign, repeal "three obsolete or outdated provisions of Florida’s constitution."  One of those provisions concerns sentencing reform, and here is more from the campaign website:

Florida's Constitution Revision Commission added Amendment 11 to the ballot by a vote of 36-1, the largest margin of any measure added to the ballot by the CRC this year.

WHAT DOES AMENDMENT 11 ACTUALLY DO?

There's no denying that Amendment 11 is confusing. It contains several provisions, the ballot summary is full of legalese, and it even appears contradictory in places. Here's a brief summary of Amendment 11 that will hopefully clear up any confusion.

Amendment 11 does three things, each related to some obsolete or outdated provision of Florida's constitution. Here they are:

1. AMENDMENT 11 AMENDS FLORIDA'S "SAVINGS CLAUSE" TO ALLOW RETROACTIVE APPLICATION OF CHANGES TO CRIMINAL STATUTES, INCLUDING REDUCTIONS OF CRIMINAL SENTENCES.

In 1885, delegates to the Florida constitutional convention added a provision to Florida's constitution that said whatever the sentence is at the time a crime occurs is the only sentence that matters, no matter what happens in the future.

Even if the legislature reduces the sentence for a crime later, courts can't go back and change it for anyone who's already been convicted. Florida is the only state in the country with this provision in its constitution.

Amendment 11 would give the legislature the authority to apply sentencing reforms retroactively, or reduce sentences for those who were convicted under old laws.

For examples of who would benefit from this change, click here.

2. AMENDMENT 11 REPEALS THE "ALIEN LAND LAW."...

3. AMENDMENT 11 REPEALS OBSOLETE LANGUAGE ABOUT A HIGH-SPEED RAIL SYSTEM....

WHAT DO THESE THINGS HAVE TO DO WITH EACH OTHER?

That's a good question! On the surface, a provision about criminal statutes, another about property rights, and another about an obsolete high-speed rail system don't really have much in common. So why are they all grouped together on the ballot? All three provisions are obsolete, outdated, or both....

These provisions were grouped together because none is controversial. No member of the public and no organization opposed any of the proposals in Amendment 11 at any public meeting of the Constitution Revision Commission. To avoid making an already long ballot even longer, the CRC grouped these uncontroversial proposals together....

Every element in Amendment 11 is exclusively a constitutional issue. Unlike some of the other amendments on the ballot, nothing in Amendment 11 is a policy issue that could be settled in the legislature.

Amendment 11 is a "cleanup" amendment. In 1998, Florida voters approved a similar amendment that bundled eight technical revisions to the constitution. Like those in Amendment 11, those provisions were not controversial.

Writing three different amendments for these proposals would make an already lengthy ballot unnecessarily longer. Bundling the repeal of outdated and obsolete provisions makes the voting process more convenient and allows voters to spend more time on the issues that have generated more controversy. The proposals in Amendment 11 are bipartisan, and passed by a vote of 36-1 in the Constitution Revision Commission.

Regular readers know my affinity for allowing retroactive sentencing changes, so I am all in on Amendment 11 (if only I was a Florida voter).

September 6, 2018 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice launches "Smart Justice 50-State Blueprints"

As detailed in this ACLU press release, titled "Smart Justice Blueprints Launch With 24 State Reports And Interactive Web Tool, Remaining 27 To Be Rolled Out In Coming Months," the folks at the ACLU have an interesting new set of state-focused national resources advocating for criminal justice reform. Here are portions of the press release:

The American Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign for Smart Justice today unveiled the Smart Justice 50-State Blueprints, a comprehensive, state-by-state analysis of how states can transform their criminal justice system and cut incarceration in half.

The Smart Justice 50-State Blueprints are the first-ever analysis of their kind and will serve as tools for activists, advocates, and policymakers to push for transformational change to the criminal justice system.  They are the result of a multi-year partnership between the ACLU, its state affiliates, and the Urban Institute to develop actionable policy options for each state that capture the nuance of local laws and sentencing practices.

The 51 reports — covering all 50 states and the District of Columbia — will be released in multiple phases, beginning with an initial rollout of 24 state reports.  The reports are all viewable on an interactive website that allows users to visualize the reductions in jail and prison population that would result from the policy decisions that states pursue.  The interactive feature is here.

Each blueprint includes an overview of the state’s incarcerated populations, including analysis on who is being sent to jail and prison and the racial disparities that are present, what drives people into the system, how long people spend behind bars, and why people are imprisoned for so long.  The blueprints offer a calculation on the impact of certain reforms by 2025 on racial disparities in the prison population, fiscal costs, and overall prison population.  They also show precisely how a 50 percent decarceration goal could be achieved.

While more than 2 million people are behind bars in the United States, only about 10 percent are in federal prisons. Approximately 90 percent of the people incarcerated in the United States are held in local jails and in state prisons.  “Mass incarceration is a nationwide problem, but one that is rooted in the states and must be fixed by the states,” said Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice.  “We hope that the Smart Justice 50-State Blueprints provide necessary guideposts for activists and policymakers as they pursue local solutions that will address the stark racial disparities in our criminal justice system and dramatically reduce their jail and prison populations.  Some of the reforms contained in the blueprints are readily achievable, while others are going to require audacious change. But all are needed to prioritize people over prisons.”

The state reports provide a snapshot of how reformers cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach to ending mass incarceration.  For example, in Louisiana, because more than one in three people admitted to prison in 2016 were convicted of property offenses and 30 percent of all admissions were for drug offenses, one road that Louisianans could take for reducing their prison population would be reclassifying drug and many property offenses as misdemeanors rather than felonies.

In Pennsylvania, the number of people entering prison for parole violations grew by 56 percent between 2006 and 2016, suggesting that the state’s decarceration strategy should include the improvement of parole and release policies and the implementation of reforms that would drive down the number of people sent to prison due to supervision violations.

Finally, in Michigan, 16 percent of prison admissions are for drug offenses, and a majority of the people (74 percent) imprisoned in Michigan are serving time for offenses involving violence. Thus, to reduce significantly the prison population in Michigan, policymakers must focus more heavily on transforming the way the criminal justice system responds to offenses like robbery and assault, which lead to sentences that have become harsher and longer over the past decade.

The website and the reports were created by utilizing a forecasting tool developed by the Urban Institute, which can be viewed here.

September 5, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Can Kimme bring "REAL systemic change" to the clemency process? She is with all the right folks at the White House.

After Kim Kardashian West talked Prez Donald Trump to commute the life sentence of a drug offenders (basics here), I am inclined to call her a leading force in modern criminal justice reform. And now, as detailed in this CNN piece, headlined "Kim Kardashian at White House for clemency review session," she is back at the White House preaching the need for systemic reform:

Kim Kardashian West arrived at the White House on Wednesday to discuss sentencing reform and clemency issues with White House officials, two White House officials told CNN. The reality TV star and entrepreneur was not expected to meet with President Donald Trump, one White House official said, though the plans could change.

Kardashian West, who successfully lobbied Trump earlier this summer to commute the sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, a nonviolent drug offender serving a life sentence, returned to the White House on Wednesday for a listening session on clemency issues with White House officials, including the President's son-in-law Jared Kushner.

"Today at the White House, members of the administration are hosting a listening session about the clemency process. The discussion is mainly focused on ways to improve that process to ensure deserving cases receive a fair review," deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley said in a statement.

Kardashian West was just one of several prison reform advocates and legal activists at the White House for the listening session on Wednesday, including Van Jones, a CNN political commentator and former adviser to President Barack Obama; Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society; Mark Holden, the general counsel of Koch Industries and Jessica Jackson Sloan, a human rights attorney and prison reform advocate.

Other attendees include Rachel Barkow, Brittany Barnett, Alex Gudich, Shon Hopwood, Paul Larkin, Mark Osler and Kevin Sharp, a former federal judge....

Trump's exercise of that clemency power has so far been on a case-by-case basis and frequently animated by personal loyalty or personal advocacy efforts. The White House is now seeking to create a regular review process for clemency review.

Kardashian West has signaled in recent days that she is taking up another case, appearing on the podcast "Wrongful Conviction" to say that she is now working on the case of Chris Young, who is serving a life sentence related to a drug case due to a mandatory minimum prison sentence.

This report is very encouraging, as is this tweet from Ms. West:

A few of many recent related posts about recent Trumpian clemency activity:

September 5, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Decarceration Strategies: How 5 States Achieved Substantial Prison Population Reductions"

The title of this post is the title of this new 50-page report by The Sentencing Project. Here is the start of its executive summary:

From 1980 until its peak in 2009, the total federal and state prison population of the United States climbed from about 330,000 to more than 1.6 million — a nearly 400% increase  — while the total general population of the country grew by only 36%, and the crime rate fell by 42%.  The catalyst of this prison expansion was policy changes that prioritized “getting tough” on crime. 

The national prison population began a gradual descent after 2009, lessening by nearly 113,000 (6%) from 2009 through 2016.  Several factors contributed to this decline: ongoing decreases in crime rates leading to fewer felony convictions; scaling back “war on drugs” policies; increased interest in evidence-based approaches to sentencing and reentry; and growing concerns about the fiscal cost of corrections and its impact on other state priorities.  The state of California alone was responsible for 36% of the overall population decline, a function of a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling declaring its overcrowded prison system to be unconstitutional and subsequent legislative responses to reduce the use of state incarceration.

Despite the decline, the overall pace of change is quite modest.  A recent analysis documents that at the rate of change from 2009 to 2016 it will take 75 years to reduce the prison population by half.  And while 42 states have experienced declines from their peak prison populations, 20 of these declines are less than 5%, while 8 states are still experiencing rising populations.

To aid policymakers and criminal justice officials in achieving substantial prison population reductions, this report examines the experience of five states – Connecticut, Michigan, Mississippi, Rhode Island, and South Carolina — that have achieved prison population reductions of 14-25%.  This produced a cumulative total of 23,646 fewer people in prison with no adverse effects on public safety. (While a handful of other states have also experienced significant population reductions — including California, New York, and New Jersey —  these have been examined in other publications, and so are not addressed here.

The five states highlighted in this report are geographically and politically diverse and have all enacted a range of shifts in policy and practice to produce these outcomes.  All five were engaged in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative process, spearheaded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Council on State Governments, which was designed to work with stakeholders to respond to the driving forces of prison expansion in each state and to develop strategies for change in policy and practice.

This report seeks to inform stakeholders in other states of the range of policy options available to them for significantly reducing their prison population.  While we provide some assessment of the political environment which contributed to these changes, we do not go into great detail in this area since stakeholders will need to make their own determinations of strategy based on the particularities of their state.  We note, though, that the leaders of reform varied among states, and emerged among governors, legislators, criminal justice officials, and advocacy organizations, often benefiting from media coverage and editorial support.

The prison population reductions in these five states were achieved through data-driven policy reforms that pursued bipartisan consensus.  Changes were advanced in the areas of risk and needs assessment, community supervision, alternatives to incarceration, sentencing and sanctions, prison release mechanisms, prisoner reentry and community reintegration.

Five key strategies and practices that were employed in these states are summarized below, followed by extensive reviews for each of the five states.

September 5, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Federal district court finds Louisiana LWOP sentence for low-level recidivist unconstitutionally excessive under Eighth Amendment (and local DA will not appeal to Fifth Circuit)

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss this local press report, headlined "Judge orders release or resentencing of St. Tammany man serving life for burglary," discussing a notable ruling from the federal district court in New Orleans.  Here are the basics:

When he went before a judge in 2010, Patrick Matthews was a 22-year-old father of two who had a criminal record but had never spent a day in prison. But to the office of former north shore District Attorney Walter Reed, he was a hardened criminal who deserved a life sentence as a habitual offender for the crime of simple burglary. Matthews received that sentence with no chance at parole in a state where “life means life.”

Eight years later, Reed is a convicted federal felon, though his case is on appeal. The Legislature has changed the law so that no one could receive a sentence like Matthews’ today, but Matthews himself, now 31, remains behind bars at a prison in St. Gabriel.

On Wednesday, however, U.S. District Judge Nannette Jolivette Brown said Matthews’ life sentence violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment. She ordered him to be resentenced to a lesser term or released within 120 days.

Current 22nd Judicial District Attorney Warren Montgomery’s office is not appealing Brown’s decision, although prosecutors could still seek to keep him in prison for several years more. Attorney Justin Harrell said his client’s family is ecstatic. “At least there’ll be an end to it, as opposed to that indefinite life sentence,” Harrell said.

Although the federal court ruling hinged on the specific facts of Matthews’ case, it is in line with a larger shift in the past decade away from Louisiana’s strict mandatory minimum sentences. In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union estimated that 429 people in Louisiana were serving sentences of life without possibility of parole for nonviolent offenses — more than in any other state. Criminal justice reform advocates like the ACLU singled out Matthews as an egregious example of the state’s penchant for sending people away for life for nonviolent offenses.

The Legislature changed the habitual offender law in 2017 to make it less strict. However, those changes did not affect sentences already in place. With his appeals in state court exhausted, Matthews had only the federal courts to ask for mercy.

Brown agreed to adopt the recommendation of Magistrate Judge Janis van Meerveld, who acknowledged that it was rare for the federal courts to weigh in on a state sentence. However, Meerveld said, Matthews presented an unusual case.... Meerveld said she had “no hesitation in finding that a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a youthful, drug-addicted offender guilty of nothing more than two clusters of minor, nonviolent property crimes crosses the line from merely harsh to grossly disproportionate.”

Prosecutors under both Reed's and Montgomery’s administrations consistently opposed Matthews’ appeals, but lately their stance has changed. In a short brief filed in July, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Caplan replied to a question from the judge as to whether the sentence was grossly disproportionate. “It appears that way,” he said.

As this press account reveals, US District Judge Nannette Jolivette Brown granted relief on "Matthews' excessive sentence claim" on the basis of the recommendation of US Magistrate Judge Janis van Meerveld.  Judge van Meerveld wrote an extended opinion explaining her recommendation in Matthews v. Cain, No. 2:15-cv-00430-NJB (E.D. La. Aug. 13, 2018), and that opinion can be downloaded below (and merits a full read).  Here are some key passages therein (emphasis in original):

Of course, the mere fact that a sentence is harsh does not mean that it is disproportionate.  Nevertheless, the undersigned has no hesitation in finding that a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a youthful, drug-addicted offender guilty of nothing more than two clusters of minor, nonviolent property crimes crosses the line from merely harsh to grossly disproportionate.  As one scholar has noted: “[T]here is no uglier disproportionality than a man, guilty of a minor crime, banished to a cage for the remainder of his life.”  Craig S. Lerner, Who’s Really Sentenced to Life Without Parole?: Searching for the “Ugly Disproportionalities” in the American Criminal Justice System, 2015 Wis. L. Rev. 789, 793 (2015) (footnote omitted)....

[A]at the time Matthews was sentenced, Louisiana law punished a wide swath of fourth offenders identically, regardless of the nature of their criminal histories.  Accordingly, a fourth offender with a history of nonviolent property crimes, such as Matthews, was treated no differently than a fourth offender with a history of violent crimes and/or serious sex offenses. However, the impropriety of equating such disparate offenders was so apparent that the state has now abandoned that practice.  In fact, as Matthews noted and the respondent did not dispute, an individual with Matthews’ criminal history would not even be eligible for a life sentence as a habitual offender under current Louisiana law.

The undersigned therefore finds that an interjurisdictional comparative analysis likewise supports a conclusion that Matthews’ sentence is unconstitutionally excessive.  It must be noted that this conclusion neither calls into question the general constitutionality of Louisiana’s habitual offender law nor impugns the state’s decision to employ a harsher recidivist sentencing structure than those employed by the vast majority of its sister states.  Rather, it is simply a recognition that even among the minority of states that vigorously punish recidivism, a sentence of life imprisonment without parole for a young, drug-addicted, nonviolent, sporadic burglar who had never been sentenced to a single day in prison for his prior offenses is such an anomaly as to be unconstitutional.

Download Matthews v. Cain excessiveness opinion

September 4, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, September 03, 2018

"Giving Guidance to the Guidelines"

The title of this post is the title of this paper by Jelani Jefferson Exum recently posted to SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Throughout the country, we are seeing sentencing reform efforts reshape the way resources are being used to control crime and punish offenders.  Fueled mostly by the practical challenges of overcrowded prisons and mounting costs, lawmakers have been willing to amend existing law in order to reduce incarceration for low-level, nonviolent offenders. This same effort at being “smart on crime” has been embraced by the federal government as well.  While most of these changes are in the form of changes to mandatory minimum laws, the use of evidence-based sentencing practices, and a focus on diversion and re-entry programs, the role that the actual sentencers -- the judges -- play in the process should not be ignored. Any reform of federal sentencing necessarily requires reforming the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines to incorporate those changes.  However, now that the sentencing guidelines are advisory, judges can follow their own policy rationales in deciding what sentences are reasonable for each offender before them.  Therefore, though Congress may have made certain changes to sentencing law, and the Attorney General may have shifted law enforcement and punishment priorities, when it comes to individual sentencing decisions, judges are free to follow their own vision of sentencing reform.

While judicial sentencing discretion has its benefits when it comes to individualizing sentences, unfortunately, judges often do not have enough relevant information to adequately determine what amount and type of punishment is appropriate to achieve punishment goals.  However, my interviews with federal district judges indicate that many judges are very open to receiving such information.  Thus, federal sentencing reform efforts should include the development of a way to effectively deliver information about sentencing goals and purposes to district judges.  The Guidelines could be used to accomplish this task, but that would require allowing the needs of judges to give guidance to the Guidelines.

September 3, 2018 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, September 02, 2018

After 40+ years as a senator, Orrin Hatch now expresses concerns about acquitted conduct to promote Judge Kavanaugh's elevation

I am always pleased when politicians show a willingness to "evolve" on various issues, especially when they evolve toward a position that I embrace.  So I am quite pleased to see this lengthy new SCOTUSblog commentary by Senator Orrin Hatch under the headline "Judge Kavanaugh’s fight for stronger jury rights," which assails "basing prison sentences on conduct for which a defendant has been acquitted by a jury." I recommend the piece in full, and these particular passages justify both praise and follow-up questions:

Kavanaugh’s decisions have spanned the full spectrum of cases and controversies, including those that impinge on the liberty of some of the most overlooked individuals in America — criminal defendants.  One example, especially important to me, is his objection to basing prison sentences on conduct for which a defendant has been acquitted by a jury.  It’s a practice as outrageous as it sounds....

Every single circuit court has found it “reasonable” for a judge to enhance a sentence based on acquitted conduct. This follows the Supreme Court’s 1997 decision in United States v. Watts, which upheld the use of acquitted conduct against a double jeopardy challenge because “a jury’s verdict of acquittal does not prevent the sentencing court from considering conduct underlying the acquitted charge, so long as that conduct has been proved by a preponderance of the evidence.”  The court thought that statutory sentencing ranges would keep sentences proportional to the convicted offenses. But the broad ranges embraced by our criminal code make it easy to separate crime from its punishment....

In the current system, a judge can inflate a defendant’s sentence for a convicted crime to make up for the jury’s decision to acquit him of a separate charge.  Judges should not wield that kind of veto.

​I’m troubled by the consequences this has on the venerated role of juries in criminal justice.  Beyond these policy problems, which are in my purview as a legislator, are constitutional concerns, which have rankled Kavanaugh’s judicial sensibilities. His understanding of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments has caused him to question why “many key facts used to calculate the sentence are still being determined by a judge under a preponderance of the evidence standard, not by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.”...

I find it remarkable that Kavanaugh, despite his open campaign against the use of acquitted conduct at sentencing, has rebuffed the easy temptation of judicial activism. In the 2015 case United States v. Bell, he agreed that current precedent prevented the D.C. Circuit from reviewing the issue. The only appropriate action, he said, was for sentencing judges to think twice before choosing to consider acquitted conduct.  Only a few months ago, he again wrote separately in an acquitted-conduct case to reaffirm that precedent tied his hands, dissenting in part in United States v. Brown. But he didn’t abandon his drumbeat for change through the proper channels. He concluded, “If th[e] system seems unsound — and there are good reasons to be concerned about the use of acquitted conduct at sentencing, both as a matter of appearance and as a matter of fairness — Congress and the Supreme Court may fix it, as may individual district judges in individual cases.”...

​The Supreme Court’s evolving jurisprudence on the appropriate roles of judge and jury as factfinders for the purpose of sentencing has dovetailed with my own reconsideration of the use of acquitted conduct at sentencing. In the past, I have been supportive of considering all relevant conduct at sentencing, including acquitted conduct.  But Kavanaugh and others have convinced me that this practice must end — as a matter of fundamental fairness if not of constitutional law.  I plan to soon introduce the Acquitted Conduct Sentencing Reform Act, which will stop judges from punishing defendants for crimes for which a jury found them “not guilty.”  The contours of civilization require fairness in our criminal justice system, and the Constitution demands that American men and women hold prosecutors and judges accountable. The role of the jury is central to the Constitution’s protection of individual rights, and it is time for Congress to restore power to the people.

​Sure, it would be much easier to let circuit judges reverse sentences that were based on acquitted conduct. Introducing a bill, as I plan to do, can be tedious and hard work. I’m happy to take on the task for an important issue like this, but meanwhile, defendants are serving time for crimes they didn’t do.  It’s frustrating to me, and it’s frustrating to Kavanaugh. But he has prudently declined to step outside of his constitutional role. Time and time again, he has respected precedent and affirmed the repugnant power of sentencing judges to consider acquitted conduct.  However, Kavanaugh has wisely used his judicial platform to shed light on troubling law that shackles the rights of criminal defendants. His legal acumen, compassion, and respect for the judicial role assure me, and should assure you, that he will be an excellent, fair, and faithful justice.

I could not be more thrilled to hear a prominent experienced Senator calling acquitted conduct sentencing "outrageous" and asserting that "this practice must end."  I am also over the moon to hear that Senator Hatch is soon to introduce the "Acquitted Conduct Sentencing Reform Act," and I sincerely hope some folks have the sense to try to role it into the on-going federal prison and sentencing reform bills working their way through Congress. 

But I have to ask, as follow-up question number one for Senator Hatch, what took you so long?  The ugliness of acquitted conduct sentencing has been on full display since the 1997 Watts decision and your commentary here also references the 2014 dissent from certorari by Justice Antonin Scalia in an acquitted conduct case.  And Judge Kavanaugh has been calling for the barring of acquitted conduct guideline enhancements for nearly a decade.  Moreover, Senator Hatch, you served a chair of the Judiciary Committee at the time Watts was decided and also when Blakely was decided and Booker was before SCOTUS.  For those of use who have long railed against acquitted conduct sentencing, it sure would have been nice to have an ally like you, Senator Hatch, much sooner than a few months before your retirement after more than four decades in charge of helping to make the rules for the federal sentencing system.

That all said, my biggest follow-up question is for every other member of Congress: Are you willing to sign on ASAP to the "Acquitted Conduct Sentencing Reform Act" and commit to making its passage a fitting going-away present for Senator Hatch.  Because I agree with Senator Hatch that acquitted conduct sentencing is "outrageous" and is a practice that "must end," I hope all members of Congress join in on the Senator Hatch acquitted conduct (r)evolution.

A few prior posts with thoughts on sentencing jurisprudence in a post-Justice Kennedy Court:

Previous related posts on the acquitted conduct stressed by Senator Hatch:

September 2, 2018 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

"Prosecuting in the Shadow of the Jury"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Anna Offit available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

This article offers an unprecedented empirical window into prosecutorial discretion drawing on long-term participatory research between 2013 and 2017.  The central finding is that jurors play a vital role in federal prosecutors’ decision-making, professional identities, and formulations of justice.  This is because even the remote possibility of lay scrutiny creates an opening for prosecutors to make common sense assessments of (1) the evidence in their cases, (2) the character of witnesses, defendants and victims, and (3) their own moral and professional character as public servants.

By facilitating explicit consideration of the fairness of their cases from a public vantage point, I argue that imagined jurors serve as an ethical resource for prosecutors.  Part I reviews contemporary legal and interdisciplinary research on the declining number of jury trials and prosecutorial discretion in the United States.  Part II describes the ethnographic research method deployed in this case study, noting its unique capacity to document off the record decision-making practices.  Part III presents the empirical findings of this study with attention to how hypothetical jurors inform prosecutors' evaluations of their cases, evidence, investigations, and plea agreement discussions.  Part IV considers several explanations for hypothetical jurors' perceived relevance to prosecutors' work beyond their instrumental and strategic value.  Part V concludes that the U.S. Attorney’s Office that is the subject of this study models the democratizing potential of lay decision-makers, even in hypothetical form.  This finding contributes a novel rationale for fortifying the U.S. jury system and a novel perspective to the study of prosecutorial ethics.

September 2, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, September 01, 2018

Could Gov Jerry Brown really be tempted to commute all of California's death row on his way out of office?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent Fox News article headlined with a similar question, "Will Jerry Brown commute sentences of every death row inmate in one of his last acts as California governor?". Here are excerpts:

[A]s Jerry Brown’s tenure as governor of California draws to a close in January, capital punishment supporters have raised the specter that he could commute many, if not all, of the sentences.

On March 28, California’s Supreme Court issued an administrative order making it possible for Brown to commute the sentences or grant clemency.

Michele Hanisee, president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys in Los Angeles County, told the Orange County Register earlier this week that this removes any impediment Brown may have faced. Before that, a governor had to get the approval of the majority of the state Supreme Court in the case of an inmate with two or more felony convictions. “They basically have green-lighted the governor to grant clemency to anyone…and said they won’t interfere,” she said.

California has the largest death row population in the country, but only 13 have been executed since capital punishment was reintroduced to the state in 1978, with the last one occurring in 2006. Appeals that drag out for many years are common. Last year, there were 400 death penalty appeals pending.

Despite its liberal reputation, more than half of California’s residents have expressed support for the death penalty, striking down referenda calling for it to end.

Brown, a former Jesuit seminarian who as a young man demonstrated against capital punishment, made his opposition to it clear during his political campaigns, but also said he’d respect the law regarding it while serving as attorney general and governor.

Asked if the governor was considering commuting death sentences, a spokesperson for Brown told Fox News: “A request for commutation is a serious matter, and every applicant is carefully and diligently vetted. The Governor issued commutations earlier this month… California inmates can petition to have their sentence reduced or eliminated by applying for a commutation of sentence. To be clear, no individuals on death row have received commutations.”...

Kent Scheidegger, an attorney who argued for Proposition 66 – a measure to speed up executions – said that anything is possible as far as Brown and California politics, but he believed the governor would not commute death sentences. “Despite his personal opinion, he said he’d enforce the death penalty,” said Scheidegger, who is legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in California. Scheidegger expressed concern about the state high court’s order appearing to give Brown more sway over commuting death sentences, telling Fox News: “That’s worrisome.”

Since executions rarely have been carried out in California and elsewhere, some have called the death penalty symbolic, and pointless. Scheidegger said he disagrees. “It’s important because there are some crimes for which anything less is simply not justice.”

September 1, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

"State Legislatures and Solving the Eighth Amendment Ratchet Puzzle"

The title of this post is the title of this paper recently posts to SSRN and authored by Jeffrey Omar Usman. Here is its abstract:

The United States Supreme Court’s evolving standards of decency jurisprudence has come to be understood as having forged an irreversible one-way ratchet moving only toward greater leniency.  The seemingly irreversible ratchet emerges both from practical challenges for state legislatures in pursuing stricter sanctions under the evolving standards of decency framework of analysis and an underlying assumption that moral evolution in criminal justice only moves towards lesser not greater sanctions.

This Article offers a challenge to the latter assumption, the view that moral evolution can only be towards lesser not greater sanctions being imposed. This Article also attempts to provide a solution to the practical problem of the Eight Amendment ratchet puzzle, rendering reversible the seemingly irreversible ratchet.  In doing so, the Article sets forth two critical mechanisms — contingent legislation and the active use of resolutions — which if utilized by state legislatures will enable them to more effectively engage in a constitutional dialogue with the United States Supreme Court in defining societal evolving standards of decency.

September 1, 2018 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, August 31, 2018

"Judging Risk"

The title of this post is the title of this article authored by Brandon Garrett and John Monahan now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Risk assessment plays an increasingly pervasive role in criminal justice in the United States at all stages of the process — from policing, to pre-trial, sentencing, corrections, and parole.  As efforts to reduce mass incarceration have led to adoption of risk-assessment tools, critics have begun to ask whether various instruments in use are valid and whether they might reinforce rather than reduce bias in the criminal justice system.  Such work has largely neglected how decisionmakers use risk assessment in practice.  In this Article, we explore the judging of risk assessment.  We study why decisionmakers so often fail to consistently use quantitative risk assessment tools.

We present the results of a novel set of studies of both judicial decisionmaking and attitudes towards risk assessment.  We studied Virginia because it was the first state to incorporate risk assessment in sentencing guidelines.  Virginia has been hailed as a national model for doing so.  In analyzing sentencing data in Virginia, we find that judicial use of risk assessment is highly variable.  Second, in the first comprehensive survey of its kind, we find judicial attitudes towards risk assessment in sentencing practice quite divided.  Even if, in theory, an instrument can better sort offenders in less need of jail or prison, in practice, decisionmakers may not use it as intended.

Still more fundamentally, in criminal justice, unlike in other areas of the law, one typically does not have detailed regulations concerning the use of risk assessment, specifying the content of assessment criteria, the peer review process, and standards for judicial review.  We make recommendations for how to better convey risk assessment information to judges and other decisionmakers, but also how to structure that decisionmaking based on common assumptions and goals.  We argue that judges and lawmakers must revisit the use of risk assessment in practice.  We conclude by setting out a roadmap for use of risk information in criminal justice.  Unless judges and lawmakers regulate the judging of risk assessment, the risk revolution in criminal justice will not succeed in addressing mass-incarceration.

August 31, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, August 30, 2018

"Criminal Justice Reform Is on the Midterm Ballot"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new New Republic piece by Matt Ford with the subheadline "Andrew Gillum wants to fix his state's broken carceral system.  He's not alone among Democratic nominees for governor." Here are excerpts:  

In his victory speech, Gillum highlighted an issue that’s received short shrift from Florida policymakers in recent years. “Beneath my name is also a desire by the majority of people in this state to see real criminal-justice reform take hold,” he told a crowd of supporters at his Tuesday night victory rally. “The kind of criminal-justice reform which allows people who make a mistake to be able to redeem themselves from that mistake, return to society, have their right to vote, but also have their right to work.”

The message could apply anywhere in the United States. But it carries greater resonance in Florida, which ranks among the most carceral states in the union. While crime has plummeted nationwide since the early 1990s, Florida’s prison population hasn’t seen significant declines. Instead, the number of people serving more than ten years in prison tripled between 1996 and 2017. Lawmakers abolished parole for most crimes by 1993, which requires the state to keep many prisoners behind bars who don’t pose a danger to society. Even today, the state has shirked the broader reform-oriented trend on both the left and the right.

Gillum has campaigned on a platform that could change that. His campaign’s official site touts measures similar to those adopted in some Democratic-led states, like reducing the number of crimes that carry mandatory-minimum sentences and reforming the cash-bail system, which disproportionately harms lower-income Americans. Others are more bold: Gillum went further than his primary opponents and called for the full legalization, rather than just decriminalization, of marijuana. Though he told reporters he is not an opponent of the death penalty, Gillum said he would suspend executions to address concerns about racial disparities....

Other Democratic gubernatorial candidates have also called for sweeping criminal-justice in their states. Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, who would be the first black woman governor ever elected in America, grounds her approach in the experience of her brother Walter, who has bipolar disorder and developed a drug addiction. Instead of receiving treatment, he and tens of thousands of other Americans with major mental illnesses are regularly churned through the criminal justice system for committing crimes of survival like petty theft. Abrams’s platform focuses on improving alternatives to incarceration and bolstering reentry programs to improve the transition back into society.

Maryland’s Ben Jealous, a former president of the NAACP, would go even further. His platform calls for the full legalization of marijuana, the abolition of cash-bail programs, shifting the state’s parole powers away from the governor’s office and toward independent experts, and expunging criminal records for certain crimes to aid reentry and employment efforts. Among his more significant proposals is a state program to investigate prisoners’ claims of innocence. A commission dedicated to that task in North Carolina secured eight exonerations in its first nine years of existence.

A constant fear among reformers is that the political winds could turn back toward tough-on-crime policies after years of favorable weather. It’s unclear whether that will be a problem in Gillum’s contest against DeSantis. Many GOP elected officials have thrown their weight behind criminal-justice reform to varying degrees in recent years, though it’s unclear if DeSantis counts himself among them. His threadbare campaign issues page doesn’t discuss the issue and his campaign staff hasn’t provided details on the matter to local media outlets. Like Trump, though, he has run as a law-and-order candidate, and seems more likely to emulate the president’s attack on Gillum as a supposed enabler of crime.

In addition to being glad to see this emphasis on some candidates' emphasis on criminal justice reform, the headline of this piece could also be used to describe the significant array of criminal-justice-related ballot initiatives coming before voters this fall. The article does mention that Florida voters will consider a constitutional amendment to eliminate felon disenfranchisement for most former offenders. In addition, Michigan and North Dakota voters will consider full marijuana legalization and Missouri and Utah voters will be considering medical marijuana initiatives. And in my own Ohio, as noted in this prior post, an interesting and intricate drug sentencing and prison reform initiative is on the November 2018 ballot. (Plug: The Drug Enforcement and Policy Center, has this planned series of events to provide a venue for informed discussion of the 2018 Ohio Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment, and Rehabilitation Amendment.)

August 30, 2018 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Is Jeff Sessions' opposition to modest sentencing reforms going to cost him his job as Attorney General?

The question in the title of this post — which I would answer "I hope so" — is prompted by this Politico article fully headlined "Trump personally lobbying GOP senators to flip on Sessions: Opposition to the attorney general's firing, long seen as a red line by lawmakers, has softened in recent days."  Here is an excerpt from the piece of note to sentencing fans:

The president, who has spent a year and a half fulminating against his attorney general in public, finally got traction on Capitol Hill thanks to the growing frustration of a handful of GOP senators with their former colleague – most importantly, Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, who have been irritated by Sessions’ opposition to a criminal justice reform bill they support, according to interviews with more than a half-dozen congressional GOP aides, Trump advisers, and Republicans close to the White House....

Over the past week, Trump has belittled Sessions in conversations with several Republican senators, including Graham, and the idea of dismissing him no longer provokes the political anxiety it once did.

Along with Graham and Grassley, Sessions has also alienated presidential son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, the chief White House proponent of the Graham-Grassley approach on criminal justice reform, as well as his wife, Ivanka Trump.

After a meeting last week that included Trump, Sessions and Kushner, the White House and McConnell delayed action on the issue until after the midterms. Grassley and other backers of the effort left the meeting hopeful for progress at that point. But Sessions’ office put out a sharply negative statement that suggested the president had come out against any sentencing reform in the legislation.

Holly Harris, a longtime Kentucky GOP strategist pushing for a reform deal from the helm of the nonprofit Justice Action Network, blasted Sessions for an “absolute mischaracterization” of the White Houses stance on the issue. “DOJ is making so many enemies in so many places now that I actually think it’s going to help our legislation. I think they’ve gone way too far,” Harris said, describing Sessions’ actions on the issue as “off the rails.”

The criminal justice issue has been an ongoing sore point between Sessions and Grassley. The House passed a narrower bill in May that doesn’t include changes to sentencing requirements — something Sessions strongly opposes but that Grassley and others, including Graham, have insisted on adding.

When Sessions spoke out against a broader criminal justice bill that the Judiciary Committee passed in February, Grassley publicly dressed him down. “Look at how hard it was for me to get him through committee in the United States Senate,” the senator said then. “And look at, when the president was going to fire him, I went to his defense.”

No longer. Though Grassley had previously said he could not schedule hearing time to confirm a new attorney general, he changed his tune last week. “I do have time for hearings on nominees that the president might send up here that I didn’t have last year,” Grassley said last week.

Prior related post:

UPDATE: This new Bloomberg piece suggests AG Sessions will be in his job at least for the next few month: "Trump Says He’ll Keep Sessions Until November Despite ‘Illegal’ Probe"

August 30, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Texas jury hands down 15-year prison term after convicting police officer of murder for shooting unarmed teen

As reported by CNN here under the headline "Ex-officer sentenced to 15 years in Texas teen's shooting death," a Texas jury that handed down a notable murder conviction yesterday followed up today with a notable sentencing determination. Here are some details:

A former Texas police officer was sentenced to 15 years in prison Wednesday for the shooting death of an unarmed black teen last year in the Dallas suburbs.

A jury convicted former Balch Springs Officer Roy Oliver, 38, of murder on Tuesday for killing 15-year-old Jordan Edwards.  Jurors returned to court Wednesday for his sentencing, where prosecutors sought at least 60 years, while the defense argued for 20 years or less.

Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson called Oliver a "killer in blue" who violated his oath to protect citizens.  Her colleague, Michael Snipes, made the reference to Mr. Hyde, the violent side of Dr. Jekyll in Robert Louis Stevenson's novella.  Defense attorney Bob Gill argued that his client, who fired into a vehicle carrying Edwards had to decide quickly how best to protect his partner.

The rare guilty verdict in the trial of a police officer stunned relatives, prompting gasps and sobs in the courtroom. Most police-involved shooting deaths, such as Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana, have ended in acquittals or no charges despite national protests condemning police brutality.  "We don't want another parent to have to go through what this family has had to deal with," Jordan's family attorney, Daryl Washington, said on Tuesday.  "This case is not just about Jordan. It's about Tamir Rice, it's about Walter Scott, it's about Alton Sterling, it's about every African-American... who have been killed and who have not gotten justice."...

Convictions such as Oliver's are still a rarity mostly because when an officer says the person flashed a gun or made a sudden move, jurors tend to side with them, said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.  "At the end of day, officers in their badge and uniform enjoy the benefit of the doubt," Clarke said last year....

Few police officers face trial in shooting deaths, and even fewer are convicted.  In December, former South Carolina officer Michael Slager was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison in the 2015 shooting death of Walter Scott. Slager's 2016 state murder trial ended in a mistrial.

August 29, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

A thorough review of Judge Kavanaugh's criminal case work on the DC CIrcuit

Over at SCOTUSblog, Rory Little has this lengthy post providing a detailed review of Judge Brett Kavanuagh's work in criminal cases over a dozen years on the DC Circuit.  The post should be read in full by all criminal justice fans, and here are some excerpts that highlight the post's themes, along with a few parts likely to be of particular interest to sentencing fans: 

When one also considers that federal appellate judges must follow Supreme Court precedent rather than write or consider it anew, an analysis of Kavanaugh’s relatively sparse work in criminal cases over the past 12 years yields few definitive data points....

In criminal cases, Kavanaugh’s body of work is relatively straightforward and unexciting. He does not often disagree with, and never insults, his colleagues. His opinions are careful and seek to follow precedent; they take few if any legal or stylistic risks.  Meanwhile, Kavanaugh sometimes rules for defendants, occasionally in surprising ways....

Kavanaugh has a particular interest in federal sentencing and the Sentencing Guidelines: It has been said that one’s first love may be the strongest. The first published writing on criminal law by Kavanaugh that I found was a January 2007 concurrence in U.S. v. Henry, in which Kavanaugh joined Garland and Judge Karen Henderson in the reversal of a defendant’s sentence in light of the Supreme Court’s United States v. Booker decision. (Booker was an unusual case in which a five-justice majority ruled that the mandatory federal Sentencing Guidelines structure, just like that of some states, violated the Constitution’s jury trial guarantee – but then a different five-to-four majority ruled that as a remedy, the federal guidelines statute should be construed as discretionary rather than mandatory.) Kavanaugh’s opinion is quite scholarly, noting the “tensions” in Booker’s constitutional analysis.

Kavanaugh went on to manifest concerns about the nuances of federal criminal sentencing in at least eight later writings. Of particular note, he expressed misgivings in Henry, and then again in 2008 (United States v. Settles), and then a third time recently in an en banc concurrence, “about the use of acquitted conduct at sentencing,” which he wrote “seems a dubious infringement of the rights to due process and to a jury trial.”...

Many of Kavanaugh’s rulings can be labeled “pro-defense”: Although some court-observers fear that Kavanaugh’s confirmation could drive the Supreme Court further to “the right,” I found at least eight D.C. Circuit decisions — in addition to the Nwoye “battered women syndrome” case mentioned above — in which Kavanaugh wrote to join a “pro-defendant” ruling....

Although Kavanaugh cannot overall be described as a criminal-law “liberal,” one might call him a “Kennedy-esque” moderate. In sum, Kavanaugh’s writings in traditional criminal-law cases seem unlikely to draw critical fire from any political direction.

Some prior related posts:

August 29, 2018 in Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Maryland top court issues lengthy split opinions on application of Eighth Amendment limits on juve life sentences

The Maryland Court of Appeals handed down today a very lengthy opinion addressing the application of Eighth Amendment limits on lengthy juvenile sentences.  The opinion in Carter v. Maryland, Nos. 54 (Md. Aug. 29, 2018) (available here), gets started this way:

It has been said that “mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution; justice without mercy is cruelty.” A sentence of life in prison without parole may be just for certain adult offenders, but the Eighth Amendment’s proscription against cruel and unusual punishments precludes that sentence for a juvenile offender unless the defendant is an incorrigible murderer. Although there need not be a guarantee of release on parole, a sentence imposed on a juvenile offender must provide “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”  In this opinion, we consider three cases involving crimes that were committed when each Petitioner was a juvenile.

None of the sentences imposed in these cases was explicitly “life without parole.” In two cases, the Petitioners were sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. In the third case, the Petitioner was sentenced to 100 years incarceration and will not be eligible for parole until he has served approximately 50 years in custody. Each Petitioner asserts that he is effectively serving a sentence of life without parole, because the laws governing parole in Maryland do not provide him with a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”  They have each filed a motion to correct an illegal sentence.

With respect to the two Petitioners serving life sentences, we hold that their sentences are legal as the laws governing parole of inmates serving life sentences in Maryland, including the parole statute, regulations, and a recent executive order adopted by the Governor, on their face allow a juvenile offender serving a life sentence a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”  We express no opinion as to whether those laws have been, or will be, carried out legally, as that issue is not before us and may be litigated in the future.  With respect to the Petitioner who is serving a 100-year sentence, we hold that the sentence is effectively a sentence of life without parole violative of the Eighth Amendment and that the Petitioner is entitled to be re-sentenced to a legal sentence.

August 29, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

California becomes first state to completely do away with money bail

Though bail is not technically a sentencing issue, the nationwide debate over bail practices has lots of echoes into sentencing and is certainly an important element of wider criminal justice reform movements. Consequently, it seems worth noting this news via the Los Angeles Times under the headline "California Gov. Jerry Brown signs overhaul of bail system, saying now 'rich and poor alike are treated fairly'." Here are some of the details:

California Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday signed a landmark bill to overhaul the state’s money-bail system, replacing it with one that grants judges greater power to decide who should remain incarcerated ahead of trial.

The two-year effort fulfills a pledge made by Brown last year when he stalled negotiations over the ambitious legislation, saying he would continue to work with lawmakers and the state’s top Supreme Court justice on the right approach to change the system. The new law puts California at the forefront of a national push to stop courts from imposing a heavy financial burden on defendants before they have faced a jury. “Today, California reforms its bail system so that rich and poor alike are treated fairly,” he said in a statement.

Senate Bill 10 would virtually eliminate the payment of money as a condition of release. Under last-minute changes, judges would have greater power to decide which people are a danger to the community and should be held without any possibility of release in a practice known as “preventive detention.”

Top state officials, judges, probation officers and other proponents of the efforts lauded the new law. Co-authors Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) and Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda) called it a transformative day for criminal justice, and a shift away from a pretrial system based on wealth to one focused on public safety.

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who helped craft the legislation through the formation of a judicial task force that spent a year studying the issue, described a three-branch solution to address a money-bail system that “was outdated, unsafe and unfair.”...

But the historic passage of the bill has been bittersweet for lawmakers, as opponents — including some of the bill’s most ardent former supporters — argued the final version of the legislation would allow judges to incarcerate more people based on subjective criteria, and did not include enough oversight over risk-assessment tools found to be biased against communities of color.

“No one should be in jail because they are too poor to afford bail, but neither should they be torn apart from their family because of unjust preventative detention,” said a statement from American Civil Liberties Union directors Abdi Soltani in Northern California, Hector Villagra in Southern California and Norma Chávez Peterson, representing San Diego and Imperial counties....

Under SB 10, counties would have to establish their own pretrial services agencies, which would use “risk-assessment tools,” or analysis, to evaluate people arrested to determine whether, and under what conditions, they should be released. Only people charged with certain low-level, nonviolent misdemeanors — a list of charges that can be further narrowed by county — would be eligible for automatic release within 12 hours of being booked into jail.

All others arrested would have to undergo the risk analysis, a system that would sort defendants based on criminal history and other criteria into low-, medium- or high-risk categories. Courts would be required to release low-level defendants without assigning bail, pending a hearing. Pretrial services offices would decide whether to hold or release medium-risk offenders. Judges would have control over all prisoners in the system.

The new law, which will go into effect on Oct. 1, 2019, is expected to decimate the bail industry. Whether it will lead to higher incarceration rates is unknown because courts don’t track the data that would make such an analysis possible, lawmakers have said. But the law will require courts to collect and report incarceration rates and undergo in 2023 an independent review of the legislation’s impact on the criminal justice system.

Still, in the days before its passage, some criminal-justice-reform groups that once supported the bill worked to kill it, landing on the same side as a bail industry that has worked to sink the bill from the beginning. This week, a delegation of criminal-justice-reform advocates from across the state sent a veto letter to Brown.

The bill “sets up a system that allows judges nearly unlimited discretion to order people accused of crimes, but not convicted and presumptively innocent, to be held in jail with no recourse until their case is resolved,” the letter stated.

August 29, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

"Right at Home: Modeling Sub-Federal Resistance as Criminal Justice Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Trevor George Gardner now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Over the past two decades, state and local governments have crippled the federal war on marijuana as well as a series of federal initiatives designed to enforce federal immigration law through city and county police departments.  This Article characterizes these and similar events as sub-federal government resistance in service of criminal justice reform.  In keeping with recent sub-federal criminal reform movements, it prescribes a process model of reform consisting of four stages: enforcement abstinence, enforcement nullification, mimicry, and enforcement abolition.

The state and local governments that pass through each of these stages can frustrate the enforcement of federal criminal law while also challenging widely-held assumptions regarding the value of criminal surveillance and criminal sanction.  In promoting sub-federal government empowerment within the framework of criminal federalism, this Article breaks from conventional theories in the criminal law literature regarding the legal and policy strategies most likely to deliver fundamental change in American criminal justice.

August 28, 2018 in Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Deputy AG Rosenstein suggests more federal prosecutions are key to battling opioid crisis ... but that really hasn't been working

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has this notable New York Times opinion piece under the headlined "Fight Drug Abuse, Don’t Subsidize It."  Here are is how it starts and ends:

Almost 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2016, a shocking 54 percent increase since 2012.  Dangerous opioids such as heroin and fentanyl contributed to two-thirds of the deaths.  This killer knows no geographic, socioeconomic or age limits.  It strikes city dwellers and Midwestern farmers, Hollywood celebrities and homeless veterans, grandparents and teenagers.

Remarkably, law enforcement efforts actually declined while deaths were on the rise.  Federal drug prosecutions fell by 23 percent from 2011 to 2016, and the median drug sentence doled out to drug traffickers decreased by 20 percent from 2009 to 2016.  The Trump administration is working to reverse those trends.  Prosecutions of drug traffickers are on the rise, and the surge in overdose deaths is slowing.

Unfortunately, some cities and counties are considering sponsoring centers where drug users can abuse dangerous illegal drugs with government help.  Advocates euphemistically call them “safe injection sites,” but they are very dangerous and would only make the opioid crisis worse.

These centers would be modeled on those operating in Canada and some European countries. They invite visitors to use heroin, fentanyl and other deadly drugs without fear of arrest.  The policy is “B.Y.O.D.” — bring your own drugs — but staff members help people abuse drugs by providing needles and stand ready to resuscitate addicts who overdose....

That is not the way to end the opioid crisis. Americans struggling with addiction need treatment and reduced access to deadly drugs.  They do not need a taxpayer-sponsored haven to shoot up.

To end the drug crisis, we should educate everyone about the dangers of opioid drugs, help drug users get treatment and aggressively prosecute criminals who supply the deadly poison.  Under the leadership of President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Department of Justice is delivering results.  Many federal, state and local agencies are working with us to combat opioid addiction.  Cities and counties should join us and fight drug abuse, not subsidize it.

I am disinclined to take up here the debate over safe injection sites, which could merit a volume.  I will be content here to point to this recent report from Europe indicating "evaluation studies have found an overall positive impact on the communities where these facilities are located," as well as this new meta-research indicating that "Medically Supervised Injection Centres ... had a significant favourable result in relation to drug-related crime and a significant unfavourable result in relation to problematic heroin use or injection." At Vox, German Lopez covers these research matters in this recent article headlined "Safe injection sites were thought to reduce drug overdoses. The research isn’t so clear."

I am inclined to take issue with how DAG Rosenstein seems to make a case for more federal prosecutions to address overdose deaths and the opioid crisis.  Though he laments that "federal drug prosecutions fell by 23 percent from 2011 to 2016, and the median drug sentence doled out to drug traffickers decreased by 20 percent from 2009 to 2016," DAG Rosenstein leaves out the fact that declines in marijuana and crack prosecutions and the impact of fairer crack guidelines account for these realities (see USSC quick facts data on marijuana and crack).  Meanwhile, as this USSC report explains, in "fiscal year 2016, there were 2,763 heroin trafficking offenders [sentenced in federal court, meaning the] number of heroin offenders has increased by 29.4% since fiscal year 2012."  In other words, though overall federal drug prosecutions have gone down through 2016, federal prosecution of heroin has been going up significantly this period when overdose deaths from dangerous opioids were also surging. 

In addition, there is a basis to question the statement that prosecutions of drug traffickers are now on the rise, as this data from TRAC suggests that FY 2017 and 2018 has seen record low numbers of federal drug trafficking prosecutions.  And to assert that the "surge in overdose deaths is slowing" is not all that reassuring given the new preliminary report of 72,000 overdose deaths in 2017 compared to 64,000 in 2016 (though I suppose it is correct to say the "surge" is slowing given that this 8,000-person increase in deaths is less than the 11,000 increase from 2015 to 2016).  Especially at a time of crisis, I sincerely want to believe that, as DAG Rosenstein asserts, the "Department of Justice is delivering results."  But the data I can find does not seem to support this claim.

August 28, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, August 27, 2018

"Capital and punishment: Resource scarcity increases endorsement of the death penalty"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior authored by Keelah Williams, Ashley Votruba, Steven Neuberg, and Michael Saks. Here is its abstract:

Faced with punishing severe offenders, why do some prefer imprisonment whereas others impose death?  Previous research exploring death penalty attitudes has primarily focused on individual and cultural factors.  Adopting a functional perspective, we propose that environmental features may also shape our punishment strategies.  Individuals are attuned to the availability of resources within their environments.  Due to heightened concerns with the costliness of repeated offending, we hypothesize that individuals tend towards elimination-focused punishments during times of perceived scarcity.

Using global and United States data sets (studies 1 and 2), we find that indicators of resource scarcity predict the presence of capital punishment.  In two experiments (studies 3 and 4), we find that activating concerns about scarcity causes people to increase their endorsement for capital punishment, and this effect is statistically mediated by a reduced willingness to risk repeated offenses.  Perceived resource scarcity shapes our punishment preferences, with important policy implications.

August 27, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

A notable (and curious?) call for criminal justice reform that serves as another sign of new political times

The passing of John McCain this weekend led me to review some of my long ago postings in the blog topic archive labelled Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues.  The main theme I kept returning to is how little discussion there was of criminal justice issues during that election cycle.  Here are links to a few of the 2008 posts on that theme: 

Other posts in that archive that might still be considered notable a decade later include Rudy Giuliani doing robocalls accusing Senator Obama of being soft on crime and Is Senator Clinton to the right of Justice Scalia on sentencing issues?.  (This last post has me thinking again about the fact that Hillary Clinton's criminal justice history makes her seem much more like a member of the "tough and tougher" crowd than many (most?) members of the current GOP.   Hillary Clinton in 2007 (in)famously opposed making retroactive the first small crack guideline amendments passed by the US Sentencing Commission, most of the GOP seemingly now supports making the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act fully retroactive.)

Of course, circa 2018, there is a heck of a lot more talk about criminal justice reform from an array of political candidates in all parties.  And I noticed this morning this interesting (and somewhat curious) commentary by Beto O'Rourke, a Texas congressman taking on Ted Cruz for election to the US Senate, under the headline "O’Rourke: Texas should lead the way on true criminal justice reform." I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

On Wednesday, I toured the Harris County Jail with Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and met men from this community who have made a mistake from which they may or may not recover. Men who don’t have the resources to post bail.  Some of whom got arrested on purpose to get the treatment and care they need, care they won’t be able to afford or access on the outside.  In fact, the Harris County Jail is the largest provider of mental health services in our state, a state that is the least insured in the nation. Of the 10,000 inmates in the Harris County Jail, one quarter of them are being prescribed at least one psychotropic medication.  The jail has more people receiving psychiatric treatment every day than the nine state mental hospitals in Texas combined.

But beyond those who need health care, there are many more languishing behind bars for nonviolent crimes — sixty percent yet to even be convicted. Unable to work, to pay taxes, to raise their kids, to contribute to our society, to realize their full potential.  And it’s happening at the average cost of $87 per person, per day, and more than $400 per person, per day for prisoners requiring medication or medical treatment.  That tab is ultimately picked up by the taxpayers of Harris County.

The jail I visited is not an outlier.  Rather, it is part of the world’s largest prison population.  One that is disproportionately comprised of people of color, though we know that people of all races use illegal drugs at roughly the same rate. Many have called this the New Jim Crow, and for good reason.  One in four black children have had a parent in the criminal justice system, compared to just four percent of white children. That rate is nearly two times what it was in the 1980s.  And it begins with a school-to-prison pipeline that starts as early as kindergarten, where a black child is four to five times as likely to be suspended or expelled as a white child.

Following my visit, I am more convinced than ever that Texas can and must take the lead in building a criminal justice system that is more fair and that urgently puts our country closer to the words written above the highest court in our land: equal justice under law.  This is how I propose we do it.

First, we should eliminate private, for-profit prisons from our justice system.  Locking someone up is a power that should be reserved for our government, not outsourced to corporations that have the perverse incentive of getting more people behind bars so that there are more profits for their shareholders.

Second, we need to end the failed war on drugs that has long been a war on people, waged on some people over other people.  Who is going to be the last man — more likely than not a black man — to languish behind bars for possessing or using marijuana when it is legal in more than half of the states in this country?  We should end the federal prohibition on marijuana and expunge the records of those who were locked away for possessing it, ensuring that they can get work, finish their education, contribute to their full potential and to the greatness of this country.

Third, we must stop using mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent drug offenses — a practice that costs taxpayers dearly and destroys lives in the process by locking up people who could safely re-enter society. And we replace this practice with policies that begin treating addiction like the public health concern it is.

Fourth, we can end the current use of bail bonds that punish people for being poor.  This is a tactic that wastes resources on incarcerating those who are not a threat to anyone, not a flight risk, not likely to be repeat offenders. In the Harris County Jail, it’s estimated that 500 to 600 of the inmates at any given time fit this description — in for misdemeanors but without the resources to post bail as I did more than twenty years ago.

Finally, we should provide meaningful reentry to help cut down on recidivism for those who committed non-violent crimes. That starts with strong rehabilitation services, counseling and access to preventative health care. It continues by banning the box on job applications so those formerly incarcerated can work and pay taxes, returning drivers licenses so they can get to that place of employment, allowing them to apply for loans that can unlock skills trainings, and ensuring their constitutional right to participate in civic life by voting is protected....

Giving low-level offenders a second chance no matter the color of their skin or the economic status they hold can create opportunity for all of us. It will help build a future that is more just, more fair, and more prosperous for every single person in this state and this country. It is time for Texas to lead the way.

I call this commentary "curious: because O'Rourke is talking about his experience touring a local jail while running for federal office, and he makes no mention of current federal proposals like the FIRST STEP Act. Senator Ted Cruz has been resistant to some federal sentencing reforms proposed even by the GOP, and I would think candidate O'Rourke could and should seek to clearly distinguish his position from that of his opponent. Moveover, as students of modern criminal justice know, it is a bit curious to call for "Texas to lead the way" in criminal justice reform because, to a large extent, Texas already has starting the the mid 2000s when the state turned away from building more prisons and invested in more alternatives to incarceration.

Curious particulars notwithstanding, it is still heartening that our modern political times have evolved to the point that prominent candidates in the Lone Star State are eager to talk at length about improving Texas justice (even when a candidate is seeking a federal office).

August 27, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Lots of notable pieces in August 2018 issue of Criminology & Public Policy

I just saw the contents of the August 2018 issue of the journal Criminology & Public Policy, and now I have at least half-dozen new pieces to add to my reading list. The issue has collections of pieces on timely topics such as "Risk Assessment And Juvenile Justice" and "Victim Compensation And White -Collar Crime" and "Downsizing Our Prisons And Jails" and "Prison Length Of Stay And Recidivism." Here are just a few of the article on these topics that seem worth checking out:

August 27, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Is it too early to start a new US Attorney General short list (or wish list)?

I think it is extremely unlikely that Prez Donald Trump will fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions before the mid-term elections in November, which are still more than 10 weeks away.  Nevertheless, as detailed in this Bloomberg piece headlined "Key Republicans Give Trump a Path to Fire Sessions After the Election," some key Senators are seemingly trying to make it easier for Prez Trump to consider replacing AG Sessions after the election:

Donald Trump, who’s long threatened to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions, may have received a crucial go-ahead signal from two Republican senators with a key condition attached: wait until after the November elections.

Confronted with the criminal convictions this week of his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his former personal attorney Michael Cohen, the president has only reaffirmed his open resentment that Sessions recused himself from what’s become a wide-ranging investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

The pivotal message on Thursday came from Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who oscillates between criticizing many of the president’s policies and defending a president who sometimes invites him to go golfing at a Trump-branded resort.  “The president’s entitled to an attorney general he has faith in, somebody that’s qualified for the job, and I think there will come a time, sooner rather than later, where it will be time to have a new face and a fresh voice at the Department of Justice,” Graham told reporters.

But he added that forcing out Sessions before November “would create havoc” with efforts to confirm Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, as well as with the midterm elections on Nov. 6 that will determine whether Republicans keep control of Congress.

Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the Judiciary Committee’s chairman, also changed his position on Thursday, saying in an interview that he’d be able to make time for hearings for a new attorney general after saying in the past that the panel was too busy to tackle that explosive possibility.

It wasn’t clear, though, whether the senators’ comments were intended to endorse a move on Sessions later, or to coax Trump out of taking precipitous action now.  And some senior Republican senators strongly rejected Graham’s seemingly impromptu fire-him-later idea.

Notably, Prez Trump this morning tweeted out Senator Graham's staement this way:

@LindseyGrahamSC “Every President deserves an Attorney General they have confidence in. I believe every President has a right to their Cabinet, these are not lifetime appointments. You serve at the pleasure of the President.”

I still think, for now, it is mostly a parlor game to imagine who Prez Trump might seek to replace AG Sessions.  But this game surely shapes my own rooting interest as a supporter of federal criminal justice and marijuana reforms.  If, say, Senator Tom Cotton were to be Prez Trump's pick to replace AG Sessions, I would be content with the status quo.  But if, say, Senator Cory Gardner were to be of interest to the President, then I would start rooting for AG Sessions to start packing up his office.  Of course, a perhaps more plausible pick might be someone like Senator Ted Cruz (especially if he were to lose his re-elction bid in November, which seems unlikely but possible).  And one has to wonder whether anyone could be confirmed by a divided Senate either in a lame-duck period or soon thereafter. 

Just for fun, I would be interested in hearing readers' creative possibilities for the next Attorney General, and I will start the game by throwing out two names just for kicks: Brian Sandoval and Dabney Friedrich.  I have no idea if either would have any interest in a position that is challenging even under the best circumstances, but I think both have just the right combination of experience, independence and "confirm-ability" to make them plausible possibilities.

Please play along, dear readers, in the AG short-list game.

August 25, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

"Explaining Misperceptions of Crime"

The title of this post is the title of this paper I saw earlier this summer via SSRN which I have been meaning to post.  The paper is authored by Jane Esberg and Jonathan Mummolo and here is its abstract:

Promoting public safety is a central mandate of government.  But despite decades of dramatic improvements, most Americans believe crime is rising — a mysterious pattern that may pervert the criminal justice policymaking process.  What explains this disconnect?  We test five plausible explanations: survey mismeasurement, extrapolation from local crime conditions, lack of exposure to facts, partisan cues and the racialization of crime. 

Cross-referencing over a decade of crime records with geolocated polling data and original survey experiments, we show individuals readily update beliefs when presented with accurate crime statistics, but this effect is attenuated when statistics are embedded in a typical crime news article, and confidence in perceptions is diminished when a copartisan elite undermines official statistics.  We conclude Americans misperceive crime because of the frequency and manner of encounters with relevant statistics.  Our results suggest widespread misperceptions are likely to persist barring foundational changes in Americans’ information consumption habits, or elite assistance.

August 25, 2018 in National and State Crime Data, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Summonsing Criminal Desistance: Convicted Felons' Perspectives on Jury Service"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting paper authored by James Binnall recently posted to SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

This exploratory study is the first to examine how convicted felons view the jury process and their role in that process.  Data derived from interviews with former and prospective felon-jurors in Maine, the only US jurisdiction that does not restrict a convicted felon’s opportunity to serve as a juror, reveal that participants displayed an idealized view of jury service, stressing a commitment to serve conscientiously.  Additionally, inclusion in the jury process affirmed their transitions from “offenders” to “non-offenders.”  In response, participants exhibited a sense of particularized self-worth, emphasizing that negative experiences with the criminal justice system make one a more effective juror.  In sum, this study suggests that among convicted felons, inclusion in the jury process may prompt conformity with the “ideal juror” role, facilitate prosocial identity shifts by mitigating the “felon” label, and help former offenders to find personal value.

August 25, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)