Saturday, December 03, 2016

Another detailed and depressing report on the harms of bad sentencing in the nation's capital

The Washington Post has run a series of articles under the title Second-Chance City seeking to thoroughly "examine issues related to repeat violent offenders in the District of Columbia." The latest lengthy article in the series, headlined "Second-chance law for young criminals puts violent offenders back on D.C. streets," tells a bunch of sad and sobering stories. It starts this way

Hundreds of criminals sentenced by D.C. judges under an obscure local law crafted to give second chances to young adult offenders have gone on to rob, rape or kill residents of the nation’s capital.

The original intent of the law was to rehabilitate inexperienced criminals under the age of 22.  The District’s Youth Rehabilitation Act allows for shorter sentences for some crimes and an opportunity for offenders to emerge with no criminal record.  But a Washington Post investigation has found a pattern of violent offenders returning rapidly to the streets and committing more crimes.  Hundreds have been sentenced under the act multiple times.

In dozens of cases, D.C. judges were able to hand down Youth Act sentences shorter than those called for under mandatory minimum laws designed to deter armed robberies and other violent crimes.  The criminals have often repaid that leniency by escalating their crimes of violence upon release.

In 2013, four masked men entered the home of a family in Northeast Washington, held them at gunpoint and ransacked the house.  One of the invaders, Shareem Hall, was sentenced under the Youth Act. He was released on probation in 2015.  Almost exactly a year later, Hall and a co-conspirator shot a 22-year-old transgender woman, Deeniquia Dodds, during a robbery in the District, according to charging documents.  It is unclear who pulled the trigger.  Police said the pair were targeting transgender females.  Dodds died nine days later.  “You’re telling me you can come back out on the streets and rob again, hold people hostage again, kill again — because of the Youth Act?” said Joeann Lewis, Dodds’s aunt.

Hall is one of at least 121 defendants sentenced under the Youth Act who have gone on to be charged with murder in the District since 2010, according to The Post’s analysis of available sentencing data and court records.  Four of the slayings, including the killing of Dodds, occurred while the defendants could still have been incarcerated for previous crimes under mandatory minimum sentencing, and 30 of the killings took place while the suspects were on probation.

Youth Act offenders accounted for 1 in 5 suspects arrested on homicide charges in the District since 2010, a period that has seen a recent surge in homicides and growing public concern about repeat violent offenders.  The cycle of violence has been largely shrouded from public view or oversight. D.C. judges do not track the use of the law, which provides a collection of benefits to violent felons that experts say does not exist anywhere else in the country.

After a young adult is convicted of a crime, the Youth Act allows judges to decide whether the offender can benefit from rehabilitation and should receive special treatment.  The law gives felons a chance to have their convictions expunged from the public record if they serve out their sentences or complete their probation.  Because of the way the law was written, Youth Act offenders also can avoid mandatory prison time for certain violent gun crimes.  The Post also found that judges applying the Youth Act generally give lighter sentences across the board.

The law was enacted in 1985 during the mayoral administration of Marion Barry (D), at a time when jails were being filled with young men charged with drug crimes, in an attempt to protect African American youths from the stigma of lengthy prison sentences. “We have a value in this city that youthful offenders should be rehabilitated,” said D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser. “But I don’t think anybody expects leniency for violent criminals.”

The judges declined The Post’s requests for interviews and also declined to comment about specific cases. In a written statement, the judges said they weigh many factors in sentencing, including the ages of offenders and the effect of their crimes on the victims. “In considering whether to sentence a young person under the Youth Act, generally judges are aware that a felony conviction can create lifelong obstacles to becoming a good and productive citizen,” wrote Lynn Leibovitz and Milton Lee, who are, respectively, the presiding judge and deputy presiding judge of the criminal division of the D.C. Superior Court.

December 3, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, December 02, 2016

"The Right to Redemption: Juvenile Dispositions and Sentences"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by my colleague Katherine Hunt Federle and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The punishment of juveniles remains a troubling yet under-theorized aspect of the criminal and juvenile justice systems.  These systems emphasize accountability, victim restoration, and retribution as reasons to punish underage offenders.  In fact, American juvenile systems will remove the most egregious offenders to criminal courts for trial and sentencing.  The United States Supreme Court in recent years, however, has issued a number of opinions emphasizing that the Eighth Amendment requires that the punishment of children must account for their lesser moral culpability, developmental immaturity, and potential for rehabilitation.  State courts also have begun to reconsider their own dispositional and sentencing schemes in light of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence.

The reality of ‘juveniles’ immaturity militates in favor of a right to redemption.  This Article begins by discussing the available data about the number and types of dispositions juveniles receive, waivers to criminal court, and the criminal sentences imposed.  The analysis also considers the collateral consequences for minors who are adjudicated delinquent or who are criminally convicted.  The discussion then turns to the effects of juvenile and criminal court involvement on children and the subsequent impact on life outcomes.  The analysis considers theoretical, jurisprudential, and constitutional implications of juvenile sentencing with a special emphasis on the Supreme Court’s recent decisions.  This Article concludes with the proposal for the contours of a right to redemption and its implications for reform to the current system and suggests strategies for the individual defense lawyer.

December 2, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

When will Prez-Elect Trump start bringing "law and order" to deadly Chicago?

120116-ChicagoMurdersThe question in the title of this post is my first reaction to this lengthy depressing USA Today article's headline, "Chicago hits grim milestone of 700 murders for 2016 and the year's not over." Here are particulars:

Mired in a level of violence not seen in nearly two decades, the nation’s third largest city recorded its 701st murder on Thursday, reaching a stunning milestone before year's end.

Chicago has seen the number of killings increase by about 58% since last year, according to police department data. The city is on pace to record the most murders in a year since 1997, when the police department reported 761 killings. Chicago Police have also reported more than 3,300 shooting incidents in 2016, an increase of about 49% compared to the same time last year.

Early Thursday morning, Chicago Police responded to the latest fatal shooting — a 19-year-old man found dead on the street on the city’s West Side with gunshot wounds to his head and chest. As of Thursday afternoon, no one had been arrested for the shooting of the teen. “The levels of violence we have seen this year in some of our communities is absolutely unacceptable,” CPD Superintendent Eddie Johnson said of a murder rate the city has not seen since the end of crack-cocaine epidemic when a drug war between gangs fueled the rise in murders. “CPD will use every tool available to hold violent offenders accountable and will continue to work strategically to address crime and uphold its commitment to rebuild public trust.”

Johnson has blamed the violence on a combination of increased gang activity and weak gun laws that he says don't dissuade convicted felons from carrying and using weapons.

But anti-violence activists say the killings — the bulk of which are occurring in a few low-income and predominantly African-American neighborhoods on the city’s South and West Sides — also raise concerns that a dark edge has set into young people in some of the communities most impacted by the violence. Andrew Holmes, a longtime Chicago-based anti-violence activist, noted that fatal shootings increasingly appear to have been sparked by fights that started on social media and that too frequently the assailants in the deadly incidents are motivated by smallest of slights.... “It’s more personal and about more than the easy access to guns,” Holmes said. “This is driven so much by self-hatred…and because there is an easy access to guns, the first thing they do is go to the gun to settle a feud.”...

About 47% of Chicago's black men, ages 20 to 24, are unemployed, according to a report published earlier this year by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute. The national unemployment rate for young black men hovers around 31%. “The problems we’re having have everything to do with opportunity,” [community activist Diane] Latiker said. “It’s always been that way. Chicago has long been one of a ‘Tale of Two Cities.’ Nothing has changed.”

The last two months have been particularly grim. Chicago recorded 316 shooting incidents and 77 murders last month, more than doubling the number of slayings the city saw last November. In October, police tallied 353 shooting incidents and 78 murders, 49 more murders than the same month last year. The violence toll reported by the Chicago Police Department includes only killings that police have determined to be criminal acts. Not included in the data are the 11 fatal police-involved shooting incidents in 2016 — including four officer-involved shootings over a 10-day stretch in November.

The surge in violence coincides with the fraying of relations between the department and the city’s African-American residents following the release last year of video showing the police shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. But police officials and community activists downplay the impact that such strained relations is having on the surge in violence.

Social scientists and pollsters suggest that the rise in gun violence in Chicago is having a disproportionate impact on Americans’ perception about crime nationwide. The city has reported over 100 more murders this year than New York City and Los Angeles combined, according to the departments’ data. The murder toll in the two large U.S. cities is about the same as last year.

While the nationwide violent crime rate remains near a 30-year low, nearly 57% of Americans said that crime has gotten worse since 2008, according to a Pew Research Center survey published in November. President-elect Donald Trump on the campaign trail repeatedly spoke out about Chicago’s violence, at one point even comparing the city to a “war-torn country.”

The murder rate for the nation’s 30 largest cities is projected to increase by 13.1% for 2016, according to an analysis published in September by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. But nearly half of the projected increase in murders across the U.S. could be attributed to killings in Chicago, the analysis found. (At midyear, the nation’s biggest cities were cumulatively on pace to record 496 more murders than 2015, with Chicago projected to account for 234 of those killings.) “The ‘national” increase in murders…in other words, may owe more to profound local problems in a few Chicago neighborhoods than national trends,” the Brennan Center report concludes.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced plans to expand the Chicago’s 12,500-member police force by nearly 1,000 officers over the next two years—an effort that includes bolstering the department’s detective ranks. The department has about 300 fewer detectives than it did in 2008. The department has also stepped up traffic enforcement, parole compliance checks and social service intervention for high-risk individuals in some of the city’s most violence-plagued neighborhoods.

Latiker argued that policing efforts alone will have limited effectiveness in solving Chicago’s violence problems. “We can’t lock up our way out of this problem,” Latiker said. “We need police. There’s no question about that. But you can’t take everything in the basket and throw it at police and tell them to take care of it.”

December 2, 2016 in National and State Crime Data, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Prez-Elect Trump says he now has a SCOTUS short list among his not-so-short list of 21

This new Politico article, headlined "Trump: Supreme Court pick coming 'pretty soon'," suggests that SCOTUS fans may not have much longer to wait to see who might be selected to replace the late great Justice Antonin Scalia on the US Supreme Court:

President-elect Donald Trump said Thursday night he had narrowed his choices for a potential Supreme Court nominee to "three or four" candidates and that a decision would be coming "pretty soon."

Appearing on Fox News from Cincinnati, Ohio, where the president-elect held the first leg of his celebratory "thank you" tour Thursday, Trump told host Sean Hannity that an announcement on a potential judicial appointment is not too far off. "We're going to have to appoint very soon.  We're going to have to come up with a name," Trump said. "I'm looking -- I'm down to probably three or four [candidates].  They are terrific people, highly respected, brilliant people and we'll be announcing that pretty soon too."

The president-elect also assured Hannity that his final selections would be constitutional "originalists."  During his presidential campaign Trump unveiled a list of 21 candidates whom he has said were chosen in the mold of Justice Antonin Scalia, who died Feb. 13.

I have outlined at great length what I hope to see from a SCOTUS pick in this prior post titled "Looking for the best "anti-Garland" on Prez-Elect Donald Trump's SCOTUS not-so-short list."  Because I seriously doubt that Prez-Elect Donald Trump and/or his advisers care one whit about any of the matters I care about when it comes to SCOTUS appointments, I am not expecting to be pleased or excited by The Donald's pick.  But I am genuinely pleased and excited to be able to imaging a full and fully-functioning Supreme Court in the not-too-distant future.

A few prior related Trumpian SCOTUS posts:

December 2, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Should I be more troubled by Dylann Storm Roof being allowed to defend himself at his federal capital trial?

Abc_dylann_roof1_wg_150716__16x9_992The question in the title of this post is prompted by this intriguing commentary authored by Chandra Bozelko and headlined "Dylann Roof shouldn’t be allowed to act as his own lawyer." Here are excerpts:

Dylann Roof, the avowed white supremacist accused of killing nine black parishioners at a historic Charleston, South Carolina church last year, is a 22-year-old man with a presumed history of drug use. He did not graduate from high school. He could be sentenced to death if a jury finds him guilty. And yet he is acting as his own lawyer to defend himself against 33 federal charges of murder and hate crimes.

Roof is representing himself in court against the advice of the presiding judge, Richard Gergel. And by doing so, Roof will likely go the way of other self-represented defendants like Joan of Arc, Jesus, Socrates and Ted Bundy: he’s probably going to be convicted and killed.

But what many people don’t understand is that the judge had no choice but to let Roof represent himself. Since the Supreme Court decided Faretta v. California in 1975, the right to represent oneself is absolute regardless of intellect or educational attainment. Requests to relinquish counsel “…must be honored out of that respect for the individual which is the lifeblood of the law.”

Because it’s likely to be little more than a spectacular suicide, the Roof trial should get us to admit that the lifeblood of the law has clots in it. Unprepared defendants shouldn’t be allowed to represent themselves in capital trials; the Supreme Court precedent established in Faretta needs to be overturned or modified in a meaningful way.

I wasn’t as successful as Dylann Roof. In 2007, I tried to represent myself in a criminal trial but was denied, Princeton degree and two years of law school notwithstanding. The judge claimed that, because my request came after jury selection but before the start of the state’s evidence, it was a delay tactic and made my motion untimely. I hadn’t asked for a continuance and was prepared to start right away.

I had a lawyer forced upon me, one who admitted she hadn’t read the police reports and went on to advise the jury that there was no reasonable doubt about my guilt. I ended up being convicted of ten felonies and four misdemeanors and sentenced to five years in prison for identity theft-related crimes, but without a lawyer I might have been sentenced to the maximum on every charge consecutively, which was 185 years in jail. I wasn’t facing the death penalty and the judge assigned to my case still wouldn’t let me represent myself.

Scholars, judges and attorneys have long seen self-represented defendants as calves pulling their own leads to slaughter. Accordingly, they’ve chipped away at Faretta with decisions like the one in my case. Courts look for ways to deny requests for self-representation because they know the unfairness that can ensue. Federal circuit courts are actually split on what constitutes a valid self-representation request. The Supreme Court itself curbed the Faretta right in 2008 in Indiana v. Edwards when it held that defendants can be competent to stand trial yet not competent to represent themselves.

Whether self-representation would hurt every defendant who engaged in it is debatable. The limited evidence we have on the number of self-represented defendants who win is encouraging. But many of those successes come in cases where lethal injection isn’t a possible penalty. Every self-represented person in a capital case has lost.

And yet we still allow defendants like Dylann Roof to act as their own attorneys, despite their obvious inability to do so.... Saying that minimally educated or mentally ill criminal defendants who face lethal penalties must be free from government intrusion in the form of counsel is the same thing as saying suicide is part of individual liberty. While it may be true, it contradicts our country’s alleged respect for life. What is judicially permissible may not be moral....

Removing self-representation as a possibility in capital cases could and should be corrected for with some type of minimum standards for capital defenders.... This denigration of the right to effective assistance of counsel is what makes it easy to allow defendants like Dylann Roof to represent themselves. If appointed counsel won’t do much better, why not let people exercise their rights under Faretta and get themselves killed? Especially when the trial will add glorious sound bites and scenes of an allegedly racist killer getting to cross-examine his African-American victims.

In the name of individual liberties that we’ve already stopped protecting, we will watch Roof’s slow, elaborate, taxpayer-funded self-harm unfold. The trial of the Charleston church shooter places us at a crossroads of Constitution and conscience. If we overturn Faretta v. California and prevent defendants in capital cases from defending themselves while providing them with qualified and paid counsel, we won’t have to choose.

I am tempted to assail many contentions in this commentary, and yet I feel I must give it some respect because it was authored by someone who seemed to have been burned by his own inability to serve as his own attorney. I will just comment that I always look for principles of liberty and personal freedom to guide me when I think I might be "at a crossroads of Constitution and conscience." And principles of liberty and personal freedom lead me to the view that persons who are competent should generally be allowed to represent themselves when on trial for their lives or for any other interest.

A few of many prior related posts on prosecution of Dylann Storm Roof:

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

Thursday, December 01, 2016

US Sentencing Commission getting an early start on possible guideline amendment

Traditionally, the US Sentencing Commission holds a meeting in January to proposed amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines for the year. But via email today I received this notice about the USSC getting off to a quicker start this season:

Please join the United States Sentencing Commission for a public meeting on December 9th at 11:30 a.m. (ET) where commissioners may vote to publish proposed amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines.

Amendments proposed during the meeting will stem from this year’s list of policy priorities. The meeting will be held at the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building, One Columbus Circle NE, in Suite 2-500 (South Lobby). Please note that if you cannot attend in person, it will be broadcast live.

The agenda is as follows:

  • Vote to Adopt August 2016 Meeting Minutes
  • Report from the Chair
  • Possible Vote to Publish Proposed Guideline Amendments and Issues for Comment

December 1, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Lame (duck) Obama Administration announces series of "sweeping" reforms at the Federal Bureau of Prisons

Download (5)I suppose the cliche phrase "better late than never" should keep me calm when I see notable news these days from the Obama Administration concerning criminal justice reform.  But this DOJ press release from yesterday, which carries the heading "Justice Department Announces Reforms at Bureau of Prisons to Reduce Recidivism and Promote Inmate Rehabilitation," prompts frustration rather than calm because it announces reforms that seem so sound and yet so late.  Here are the substantive highlights:

Today, the Department of Justice announced a series of reforms at the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) designed to reduce recidivism and increase the likelihood of inmates’ safe and successful return to the community. These efforts include building a semi-autonomous school district within the federal prison system, reforming federal halfway houses, covering the cost of obtaining state-issued photo IDs for federal inmates prior to their release from custody and providing additional services for female inmates.

“Helping incarcerated individuals prepare for life after prison is not just sound public policy; it is a moral imperative,” said Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch. “These critical reforms will help give federal inmates the tools and assistance they need to successfully return home as productive, law-abiding members of society. By putting returning citizens in a position to make the most of their second chance, we can create stronger communities, safer neighborhoods and brighter futures for all.”

“The sweeping changes that we are announcing today chart a new course for the Bureau of Prisons that will help make our prisons more effective, our communities safer and our families stronger," said Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates. “One of the best ways to prevent crime is by reducing recidivism, and one of the best ways to reduce recidivism is by equipping inmates with the tools they need to successfully reenter society."

Last year, with the department’s support, BOP retained outside consultants to review the agency’s operations and recommend changes designed to reduce the likelihood of inmates re-offending after their release from prison. As part of today’s announcement, the department is launching a new website, www.justice.gov/prison-reform, that compiles current and ongoing reforms at BOP, and includes the final reports from the outside consultants.

The department announced additional details regarding these efforts:

Building a school district within the federal prison system....

Reforming federal halfway houses....

Covering the cost of state-issued IDs prior to inmates’ release....

Enhancing programs for female inmates....

These initiatives are part of the department’s deep commitment to a fair, effective criminal justice system that promotes public safety and prepare inmates for their return to the community, thereby reducing the likelihood that a cycle of crime will continue.  

I think it neither naive nor unfair to assert that seeking to reduce recidivism and promote inmate rehabilitation should be a very top criminal justice priority for any and every Administration as they take over the reins of the Department of Justice and its (very expensive) Federal Bureau of Prisons.  And I see nothing in these "sweeping" BOP reforms that could not have been effectively pioneered eight years ago in the first few months of the Obama Administration rather than only now in the last few (lame duck) months of the Obama Administration.  in other words, though I am pleased to see these late-in-the-day federal prison reform efforts, I cannot help but respond to these new developments with the frustrating feeling that DOJ and BOP during the most of the Obama years were mostly "asleep at the wheel" when it came to critical public safety prison reform priorities.  

Sigh and Grrr.

December 1, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

NC Republican Senator reiterates his commitment to federal statutory sentencing reform

This notable new local story from North Carolina, headlined "Tillis says he may not return if bills like sentencing changes aren’t passed," provides further reinforcement for my generally positive perspective on the prospects for federal statutory sentencing reform in 2017. Here are excerpts:

Sen. Thom Tillis said Wednesday that he may not seek re-election in 2020 unless a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s prison sentencing system is passed. Tillis, R-N.C., has sought to make revamping the nation’s criminal justice system one of his signature issues since arriving in Washington in 2015, leaning on his experience in pushing through North Carolina’s Justice Reinvestment Act when he was state House speaker in 2011.

Tillis said North Carolina showed that such measures could get done, even over doubts that anything less than a tough-on-crime stance would be politically damaging. He told a forum on juvenile justice in Washington that “I don’t run again until 2020, and if we’re not able to get things like this done, I don’t have any intention of coming back.”...

He expressed frustration that the Senate hasn’t been able to move the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, a bipartisan measure that would reduce prison sentences for some nonviolent drug offenses, give judges more discretion with lower-level drug crimes and provide inmates early release opportunities by participating in rehabilitation programs....

Republicans and conservatives – from Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to the Koch brothers – found themselves largely in agreement with Obama, the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union on the need for sweeping changes to reduce prison sentences.

But the Senate bill has been in legislative limbo. Some conservative lawmakers, such as Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, suggested that reducing sentences would lead to dangerous criminals being released. Even a much-heralded compromise in April to ease critics’ concerns failed to get the bill to the Senate floor.

Tillis, who appeared at Wednesday’s forum hosted by The Washington Post with Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said he had a solution for breaking the deadlock. “We need to tell the far-right and the far-left to go away and have people in the center solve the problem,” Tillis told the audience. “It is time to tell the far-left and the far-right to get productive or get out of the way because we need to solve this problem.”

December 1, 2016 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

"The Coming Federalism Battle in the War Over the Death Penalty"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Michael Mannheimer and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

From the founding of the Republic until 2002, it appears that only a single person was ever sentenced to death by the federal government for criminal conduct occurring in a State that did not authorize the death penalty for the same conduct.  However, since 2002, eleven people have been sentenced to death by the federal government for criminal conduct occurring in non-death penalty States.  And in the last twenty-three years, the federal government has sought the death penalty dozens of times in non-death penalty States. Such cases virtually always involve offenses historically thought of as being best dealt with at the state level.  While some federal capital defendants in non-death penalty States have raised constitutional objections in their cases based on federalism principles, these objections have uniformly been rejected at the district court level.  However, no federal courts of appeals has yet addressed these objections.

Currently, thirty-one States authorize capital punishment while nineteen do not.  The category of non-death penalty States includes some of the Nation’s most populous, such as New York, Illinois, and Michigan. In the coming decades, it is likely that other large States, such as California and Pennsylvania, and perhaps even Texas, will abandon the death penalty.  It is also likely that capital punishment will be retained in many States, particularly in the South and West, and at the federal level.  Given these premises, the use of the federal death penalty in non-death States, which is now mostly a side issue in the death penalty debate, may take on more prominence.  As the demand for retribution against the very worst murderers in these States continues, future pro-death penalty Attorneys General will likely bring more of these cases in federal court.  Moreover, Congress may continue to expand federal jurisdiction over murders that have tenuous connections to interstate commerce. In short, we may soon see a federalism battle in the war over the death penalty.

November 30, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making the case that the next Administration needs to demonstrate that "laws are not just for the little people"

Writing here in the National Review under the headline "A Memo for Attorney General Jeff Sessions," former Justice Department officials Robert Delahunty and John Yoo share some interesting advice for the likely next AG.  I recommend the lengthy piece in full, and here is just a taste:

Hillary Clinton’s alleged criminality was a centerpiece of the last election and may well have cost her the presidency. It was not very long ago that crowds at Trump rallies were chanting “Lock her up!” We can think of no earlier presidential contest in which a candidate’s alleged criminal wrongdoing was so central an issue in the voters’ decision-making. This is truly an unprecedented case.

Unless President Obama acts first to pardon Clinton, the task of balancing these considerations will be left to the new president and his attorney general. Our view is that President Trump should offer her a pardon. Just as with President Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon, Clinton’s acceptance of that offer would be widely understood as a tacit admission, if not perhaps of proven criminal guilt, then at least of wrongdoing sufficient to justify prosecution. We think that the matter should rest there.

But even if that were to happen, there are, apparently, more ongoing criminal investigations into the affairs of the Clintons and their inner circle. The investigation that Comey suspended concerned Clinton’s use of a private server to transact governmental business involving classified materials. Media reports have indicated that there are no fewer than five other investigations under way. These include at least one investigation into whether the Clinton Foundation has committed financial crimes or been sullied by influence-peddling.

We believe that those investigations — which were begun under the Obama administration — should be pursued. And if in the end, the findings of those investigations justify bringing criminal charges against the vast network of Clinton helpers and aides, those charges should be brought and tried.... Trump is right to express a desire not to harm the Clintons: The criminal process should never be turned into a political vendetta or even appear to be one. But no one, and certainly not the powerful and politically connected, should be above the law — the Clintons included. Trump’s campaign pledges on that issue resonated with the American public. The law is not just for the little people, and the little people are watching....

Jeff Sessions will take the helm of a Justice Department that has been terribly compromised in other respects. He must act decisively to change its culture. Again, the Clinton “reverse Midas” touch — transforming gold into dross — was at work. Candidate Clinton publicly offered to retain Attorney General Lynch in office if she were elected, even while Lynch at the time was charged with overseeing criminal investigations into the Clinton e-mail and Foundation scandals. By not publicly declining that offer — in effect, a bribe — Lynch tainted the integrity of the investigations as well as the office of attorney general.

President Obama also undermined public confidence in the Justice Department. He maintained that he had learned of Clinton’s private server only when everyone else had. Yet later leaks revealed that he in fact had corresponded numerous times with Clinton through her off-the-record system. Obama also proclaimed Clinton not guilty of wrongdoing even while the investigation into the use of her private server was still open....

These incidents came towards the end of an eight-year period in which the honor of the Justice Department had been badly tarnished. Much of the damage occurred during the five-year stint of former attorney general Eric Holder, the first and only attorney general to be held in contempt of Congress. (Holder’s conduct was so egregious that even most House Democrats declined to vote against the contempt resolution.) Under Holder, the DOJ became thoroughly politicized, taking positions that were, frankly, absurd — on legal issues such as congressional voting representation for the District of Columbia, presidential recess-appointment power, or the War Powers Resolution. Holder’s Justice Department brought cases not on their legal merits but in order to target the administration’s perceived political or ideological opponents....

This election was about the place of law in American public life. The voters were rightly repelled by the performance of public figures, above all Hillary Clinton and her entourage, who acted as if they were above the law. Voters resented President Obama’s chronic refusal to enforce the law — whether in health care or immigration — when he found that it did not suit his political purposes. They seem to have forgiven Donald Trump for his alleged manipulation of the tax code because, even if dodgy, his actions were not illegal.

As president, Donald Trump owes it to his voters and to the American people as a whole to restore the public’s trust in its government. He must repair the contract between the people and its agents that his rival and his predecessor have shattered. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions needs to be a strong and stalwart presence at his right hand as the new president makes this happen.

November 29, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19)

"Why Trump needs to roll back criminal penalties for noncriminal conduct"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable commentary authored by Ronald Lampard, the director of the Criminal Justice Reform Task Force at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Here are excerpts:

Unauthorized use of Smokey the Bear's image could land an offender in prison. So can unauthorized use of the slogan "Give a Hoot, Don't Pollute." While one may think the government would never initiate a criminal prosecution for either of these two "criminal" acts, there have been numerous examples of individuals being prosecuted under federal law for conduct that should not be criminalized.

For example, Eddie Anderson of Idaho took his son camping in the wilderness, searching for arrowheads. They didn't find any, but they were searching on federal land, which is prohibited by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979.  They both faced a felony charge, punishable by up to two years' imprisonment before they pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and were fined $1,500 each and placed on probation for a year.

Some of these criminal offenses are contained in federal statutes, which prescribe an estimated 4,500 crimes, according to a study by retired Louisiana State University law professor John Baker.  To help put that number in perspective, the Constitution mentions three federal crimes by citizens: treason, piracy and counterfeiting.  Around the turn of the 20th century, the number of federal criminal statutes was as low as dozens. Essentially, over the last hundred years, federal statutes carrying criminal penalties have grown at an exponential rate.

The number of criminal statutes — laws passed by both Houses of Congress and signed into law by the president — is dwarfed by the number of regulations carrying criminal penalties. The total number of these regulations is difficult to count, however, it is estimated to number roughly 300,000. Perhaps most disturbingly, these "criminal regulations" are written by unelected bureaucrats, yet still carry the force of law.

In order to stem the explosion of criminal regulations, President-elect Trump can begin the process of removing said regulations.  Trump says in his first 100 days he wants to see two regulations removed for every one regulation created.  Since these regulations were largely written by unelected bureaucrats who work for the executive branch, the Trump administration could start immediately....

Certainly, some of these regulations ought to deter certain conduct. However, this can be accomplished by making the penalty civil or administrative....  As John Malcolm at the Heritage Foundation said, "There is a unique stigma that goes with being branded a criminal. Not only can you lose your liberty and certain civil rights, but you lose your reputation — an intangible yet invaluable commodity … that once damaged can be nearly impossible to repair.  In addition to standard penalties … a series of burdensome collateral consequences that are often imposed by … federal laws can follow an individual for life."

The federal government should proscribe criminal penalties only for conduct that is inherently wrong in order to protect public safety.  Criminal statutes serve a crucial purpose in preserving law and order and establishing the rule of law.  However, preserving law and order need not come at the expense of criminalizing conduct such as nursing a woodpecker back to health or shipping undersized lobsters in plastic bags instead of cardboard boxes.

Trump has a tremendous opportunity to reduce the number of actions criminalized by federal law. Such action would serve all Americans well and would be a great victory for both law and order and individual liberty.

November 29, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, November 28, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 28, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Mapping out the Trumpian new world order with respect to federal sentencing reform

This article from The Hill, headlined "Trump marks change for criminal justice reform," effectively details the uncertain terrain for federal sentencing reform in the wake of this month's historic election. Here are excerpts:

President-elect Donald Trump won’t close the door on criminal justice reform, but the path forward may be complicated by his campaign rhetoric and pick to lead the Department of Justice, advocates say.... Trump’s calls for law and order, his vow to jail immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally and his pick of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as attorney general have also left some criminal justice reform advocates concerned.

“I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t concerned about Sessions as attorney general,” said Danyelle Solomon, who serves as the director of Progress 2050, a Center for American Progress project focused on diversity. “There are a lot of concerns ... that he will be a barrier to data-driven, policy-driven reforms in this space," she said. "I think he creates a challenge."

Sessions voted against the Senate bill to reduce certain mandatory minimum prisons sentences when it came before the Senate Judiciary Committee over a year ago, leaving some worried that he'd be a barrier for reform moving forward. But conservative criminal justice reforms advocates remain optimistic about Sessions, noting he authored the Drug Sentencing Reform Act in 2001 to decrease the amount of powder cocaine and increase the amount of crack cocaine necessary to trigger mandatory minimum sentences.

“Sessions isn’t monolithically opposed to reform, but he does demand a high standard for legislation that’s put in front of him,” said Derek Cohen, deputy director of Right on Crime. With Sessions as attorney general, Cohen said lawmakers might hammer out better legislation that may actually reduce costs and recidivism rates.

Jessica Jackson Sloan, national director and co-founder of #Cut50, argued "there's a really strong conservative pull on this administration" to continue pushing for criminal justice reform. Sloan is expecting reforms to focus more on re-entry, over-criminalization and initiatives in the private sector to get formerly incarcerated people back into the workforce.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said in a statement to The Hill that he’s spoken to ranking member John Conyers (D-Mich.) about getting an early start on reform measures in the new Congress. “I look forward to talking with President-elect Trump and his administration about the problems facing the criminal justice system and our ideas for reform,” he said. "There is bipartisan agreement that many aspects of our criminal justice system need reform."

Goodlatte pointed to successes GOP governors have had in making reforms at the state level. “It is my hope that this will be an issue we can all work on together in 2017,” he said....

Opponents of criminal justice reform, however, argue the door for criminal justice reform was never open to begin with. Bill Otis, an adjunct professor of law at the Georgetown University Law Center, claims reform never really had a chance of passing Congress when President Obama was in office and has even less of a chance under Trump.

The former federal prosecutor said advocates had a leg up with the support of the Obama administration and with that came a forum and resources. “Now all that will disappear,” he said. “Trump ran explicitly as a law-and-order candidate. If he had a good word to say about reducing prison sentences, I didn’t hear it.”

Advocates are refusing to throw in the towel. Last week, the partners of the U.S. Justice Action Network sent a letter to Trump encouraging him to make criminal justice reform a top priority in his first 100 days. “We share your goal of enhancing public safety and encourage you to consider that, just as with energy policy, it requires an all-of-the-above strategy,” they wrote. “That is, just as we recognize those who pose a danger to society must be behind bars, for many others such as addicts and those with mental illness public safety can best be advanced through treatment-based approaches.”

November 28, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

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

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

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

MS. BERGMANN: No, Your Honor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Interesting and exciting sentencing week as SCOTUS gets back to work

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

Monday Nov 28: Beckles v. United States:

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

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

 

Tuesday Nov 29: Moore v. Texas:

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

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

 

Wednesday Nov 30: Jennings v. Rodriguez:

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

Argument preview: The constitutionality of immigrant detention

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

AP report provides confusing non-answer as to "What is the future of U.S. prisons under Trump administration?"

The quoted question in the title of this post comes from the headline of this AP article.  Because there are a number of strange and confusing elements to this AP piece, I am not sure it does even a reasonable job trying to answer the question it poses.  I will explain some of my concerns with this quirky piece after quoting it at length with some highlighting of key phrases and passages:

The population of American prisons is likely to rise for the first time in nearly a decade with President-elect Donald Trump’s promise to detain and deport millions of immigrants who are in the country illegally and his selection of tough-on-crime Sen. Jeff Sessions to the nation’s highest law enforcement post.

If so, one of the prime beneficiaries would be the private companies that operate many of the nation’s prisons. The stock market seems to agree.  A day after the election, CoreCivic Co., formerly Corrections Corporation of America, saw the biggest percentage gain on the New York Stock Exchange with shares climbing 43 percent.  Shares of Geo Group, another private prison company, also jumped 21 percent.

The federal prison population had been trending down for nearly a decade when the Obama administration announced in August that it would phase out its use of some private facilities.  The announcement followed a Justice Department audit saying private facilities have more safety and security problems than government-run lockups.  The policy change did not cover private prisons used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, though federal officials have said they are considering phasing out private contractor immigration facilities.

Trump, however, said during his campaign that the nation’s prison system was a mess and voiced support for private prisons. “I do think we can do a lot of privatizations and private prisons. It seems to work a lot better,” Trump told MSNBC in March, though he didn’t offer any details on what that might mean for the federal prison system.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement holds up to 34,000 immigrants awaiting deportation.  Forty-six of the roughly 180 facilities in which ICE holds those immigrants are privately run, with about 73 percent of detainees held in the private facilities, the agency says.

“Trump was saying during his 100-day plan that mandatory minimums for people re-entering the country would be set at two years -- that’s going to require a longer-term need for beds,” said Michael Kodesch, a senior associate with financial services firm Canaccord Genuity Inc. Immigration detention centers are particularly profitable for private prison companies because they command a higher rate for each inmate bed, he said....

Sessions, Trump’s pick for attorney general, was among a handful of Republican senators blocking a bipartisan bill that would reduce lengthy sentences for low-level drug offenders.  McLaurine Klingler, a spokeswoman for Sessions, said no one on Sessions’ staff was immediately available to talk about his feelings on the DOJ’s use on private prisons.

CoreCivic spokesman Jonathan Burns said the company doesn’t take positions on proposals, legislation or policies that would determine the basis of an individual’s incarceration or detention.  He said the company instead works to “educate lawmakers on the benefits of public-private partnership generally and the solutions CoreCivic provides.”

I likely would need to write a few law review articles to unpack all the hash in this AP report, but the second highlighted passage above reveals a big part of the mess that this article reflects.  Specifically, the AP article suggests that "private companies ... operate many of the nation’s prisons";  But folks at ACLU note here that "for-profit companies are responsible for approximately 6 percent of state prisoners, 16 percent of federal prisoners, and inmates in local jails in Texas, Louisiana, and a handful of other states."  In other words, private companies actually operate a very small percentage of the nation's prisons.

As the AP article hints, Prez-Elect Trump and his administration might want to grow rather than shrink reliance on for-profit companies for incarceration.  (Even if true, it would matter a lot whether Trump would want just the federal system or also state systems to make greater use of private prisons.)  But Trump's comment praising privatization seems based on a (sound?) view that the very best private prisons might function more effectively and efficiently than the very worst public prisons responsible for our current mass incarceration "mess."   So, even if Prez-Elect Trump and his administration were to make a huge commitment to, say, doubling the use of private prisons nationwide, that commitment alone would not itself make it "likely" for the "population of American prisons ... to rise" in the coming years.  (Indeed, given the incarceration reform measures enacted in key states at the same time Trump was elected president, I am inclined to predict that it is more likely we will see some declines in the population of American prisons in the coming years.)

Finally, though it is true AG-designate Jeff Sessions was opposed to federal statutory sentencing reform throughout 2016 while serving as Senator Sessions from Alabama, his departure from the Senate might now make it more likely that some form of federal statutory sentencing reform gets passed by Congress in 2017 or 2018.   This is true not only because Sessions may get replaced in the Senate by someone at least slightly more likely to support federal statutory sentencing reform, but also because opposition to reform by a number of Senators in 2016 was based in part on a desire to preclude Prez Obama from having a legacy criminal justice reform achievement.  Once Prez Obama is out the door and the (toxic?) symbolism of his affinity for sentencing reform is just a recent memory, I think some (modest?) form of federal statutory sentencing reform is likely to make it through Congress before too long.

November 27, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

"Oregon Death Penalty: A Cost Analysis"

The title of this post is the title of this notable research report released earlier this month.  This press release from Lewis & Clark Law School provides helpful background on the report and its findings. Here are excerpts:

A new report by Lewis & Clark Law School and Seattle University offers an unprecedented financial picture of the previously uncalculated cost of capital punishment in Oregon. “Oregon Death Penalty: A Cost Analysis” shows that the costs for aggravated murder cases that result in death sentences range, on average, 3.5 to 4 times more expensive per case when compared to similar non-death penalty cases.

Lewis & Clark Law Professor Aliza Kaplan spearheaded the research effort, fueled by the fact that there was no data to answer questions about the cost of capital punishment in Oregon. Kaplan approached co-author Peter A. Collins, PhD of Seattle University’s Criminal Justice Department, to complement her legal analysis with best-in-class quantitative analysis methods, following his similar 2015 report on death-penalty cost analysis for the state of Washington.

Looking at cost data from the Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC), the Oregon Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Oregon Office Public Defense Services (OPDS) among other sources, the report also examines the role that the lengthiness of death penalty cases plays in their total costs. These cases stretch on for decades due to the constitutional and statutory requirements of appeals and reconsiderations, which increases the net litigation costs for all parties.

The report, which took more than 18 months to compile, also looks at the use of the death penalty in Oregon, which voters did away with in 1964, but reinstated two decades later. Since 1984, 62 individuals have been convicted and sentenced to death. Of those 62, twenty-eight of them are no longer on death row. Just two of these cases have 1 resulted in death (both individuals dropped their appeals and “volunteered” to be executed), four people died of natural causes while in prison, and 22 people, or roughly 79%, have had their sentences reduced.

Offering common ground for policymakers and citizens of Oregon to examine capital punishment, the report is part of a growing trend to bring better data to the work of crafting more sound public policy. For Kaplan, the report is about increasing transparency through better data. “The decision makers, those involved in the criminal justice system, everyone, deserves to know how much we are currently spending on the death penalty, so that when stakeholders, citizens and policy-makers make these decisions, they have as much information as possible to decide what is best for Oregon,” said Kaplan.

According to Dr. Peter Collins, “There are several important takeaways from this research for Oregonians. First, the evidence clearly shows that aggravated murder cases that involve the death penalty are at least three-and-a-half to four-times more expensive than aggravated murder cases that do not involve the death penalty. Second, although the death penalty is not being pursued as frequently as in the past, the average costs when it is have markedly increased. Last, it is ultimately a futile endeavor, as the vast majority of death penalty sentences are decreased to life without parole in post conviction appeals.”

Six law students at Lewis & Clark provided key assistance in producing the report, conducting extensive legal research and field interviews with professionals throughout the criminal justice system. Third-year law student and co-author of the study, Venetia Mayhew, was involved in the project since its first day. “Professor Kaplan provided me with a remarkable opportunity to delve deep into Oregon’s death penalty system and to understand the laborious and costly nature of its processes. I was most struck by the human cost it imposes on all those who participate,” said Venetia Mayhew, JD ’17, who began her work on the analysis in her first year as a Lewis & Clark law student.

November 27, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, November 26, 2016

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

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

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

Obama Could (Should) Go EPIC.

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

Turkey "Pardons." Why?

Obama: Breaking Records in a Broken System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 26, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 25, 2016

New talk in New Jersey of bringing back capital punishment a decade after state abolition

Download (23)The stark pro-capital punishment election results in a number of states, especially in deep blue California, has been a chief reason I now believe that any reports on the death of the death penalty are obviously premature.  Another sign of these capital punishment times comes from this new local article headlined "Two N.J. lawmakers call for return of the death penalty."  Here are the highlights:

Two New Jersey senators want to bring back the death penalty for what they call the "most heinous acts of murder," including terrorism and attacks on police officers. "These are extreme circumstances that are involved," said Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D., Cape May), who, along with Sen. Steve Oroho (R., Sussex), introduced legislation Monday to revive the death penalty.  "But I do believe it's an option that should be there, however seldom used."

The death penalty was abolished in New Jersey in 2007. A state study commission concluded then that it cost more to sentence someone to death than life without parole, that advances in DNA testing had raised doubt about some convictions, and that the death penalty rarely was used. The last execution in New Jersey happened in 1963....  Voters in California, Nebraska, and Oklahoma favored keeping the death penalty when it was put on the ballot this month.

In New Jersey, in addition to fatalities caused by terrorism and the targeting of police officers, Oroho and Van Drew want to make the death penalty an option when a child is killed during a sex crime, multiple people are slain, or an individual already has a previous conviction for murder.

Oroho said he believes the death penalty could dissuade people such as Ahmad Khan Rahami, who is accused of setting off bombs in September in New York City, injuring 29 people, and in Seaside Park, N.J., along the course of a 5K run benefiting injured Marines. A delay in the race start prevented injuries there.  The death penalty could not apply the Rahami case because no one was killed, but Oroho said the attacks illustrated the need for capital punishment. "Many people could have lost their lives," he said.

Former Gov. Jon S. Corzine ended capital punishment in 2007 after the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission — composed of judges, prosecutors, and others whom the Legislature asked to study the issue — advocated a ban, citing factors such as high costs.  Keeping an inmate in New Jersey State Prison's capital-sentence unit cost at least $72,000 per year — $32,000 more than keeping an inmate in the prison's general population, the commission said in its report.  The state Office of the Public Defender also estimated in the report that eliminating the death penalty would save $1.4 million annually.  The office based that figure on 19 death-penalty cases that existed in 2006, and the costs of pretrial preparation and jury selection.

Thomas F. Kelaher, who was part of the commission and Ocean County's prosecutor at the time, had his office try the death penalty on two Bronx men accused of tying up a mother and her adult son, slitting the mother's throat, and shooting both in the back of the head in a Barnegat home in 2000. Kelaher said more than 200 jurors were interviewed — mostly about whether they supported the death penalty — before 14 were selected.  "It took us a long, long time to get to the conclusion of the case, and they never got the death penalty anyway," said Kelaher, who is now mayor of Toms River.  Gregory "Shaft" Buttler and Dwayne Gillispie received life sentences instead.

Had they received the death penalty, Kelaher said, appeals likely would have followed and taken up more time and resources. Kelaher called the process "a waste of time." "It never ends," he said.

West Orange Police Chief James P. Abbott, who also was on the death-penalty commission, said that it could take years for someone to be executed, and that trials and appeals cause families to relive the pain of losing a loved one. "To me," Abbott said, the death penalty is "where it belongs — in our past." The justice system, he said, also is subject to human error, which can put the wrong people behind bars.

Van Drew said concrete evidence would be crucial if the death penalty were to return in New Jersey. "DNA proof would be absolutely necessary in some way," he said. "We have to be absolutely sure that this person is guilty."

Because New Jersey has not executed anyone in over 50 years, I do not think formally making the death penalty legal again in the Garden State would actually increase the chances of an execution by any tangible amount. But I do think, for reasons partially explained in this recent post about new non-capital sentencing reforms passed in California and Oklahoma, that sophisticated and shrewd New Jersey advocates for various criminal justice reforms might consider embracing this symbolic call to bring back the death penalty in order to have a strategic "pace car" for other needed New Jersey reforms.  Specifically, as the article here suggests, the New Jersey lawmakers advocating bringing back the death penalty might be uniquely willing to have DNA access and/or protections against wrongful convictions included in any bill to bring back capital punishment.  Relatedly, this FAQ page about New Jersey corrections suggests as many as 1000 folks are serving life with parole sentences in the state.  Perhaps a death penalty bill that specifies the "worst of the worst" killers who will be subject to capital punishment could also include provisions to make the not-so-worst killers more likely to earn parole.

November 25, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

"Intuitive Jurisprudence: Early Reasoning About the Functions of Punishment"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new research essay from a group of academics connected to the University of Chicago's Department of Psychology.  The piece, authored by Jessica Bregant, Alex Shaw and Katherine Kinzler, has been posted on SSRN with this abstract:

Traditional research on lay beliefs about punishment is often hampered by the complex nature of the question and its implications.  We present a new intuitive jurisprudence approach that utilizes the insights of developmental psychology to shed light on the origins of punishment intuitions, along with the first empirical study to test the approach.

Data from 80 child participants are presented, providing evidence that children expect punishment to serve as a specific deterrent, but finding no evidence that children expect punishment to have a general deterrent or rehabilitative effect.  We also find that children understand punishment in a way that is consistent with the expressive theory of law and with expressive retributivism, and we present evidence that an understanding of the value of punishment to the social contract develops throughout childhood.

Finally, we discuss the application of the intuitive jurisprudence approach to other important legal questions.

November 25, 2016 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thankful for so much for so many reasons ... including all sorts of 2016 sentencing law and policy developments

Reviewing some past Turkey Day posts, I noticed my wise tendency to just express thanks in this space on this day for giving thanks.  For example, this post five years ago started this way: "I have so much to be thankful for on this Thanksgiving 2011, I do not even know where to start. I do know that today is an especially good day to be thankful that most Americans will spend today reflecting on how much they have to be thankful for in this wonderful nation rather than spending so much time complaining about this or that." I now find it funny and fitting that circa 2016 I cannot even remember what folks were spending so much time complaining about on Thanksgiving 2011.

In the wake of a jarring election season and result, I know what most folks are busy complaining about now.  But I remain thankful for so much for so many reasons today, and that includes an array of interesting and dynamic sentencing law and policy developments that transpired over the last year. (I will wait until next month to do a few formal 2016-in-review posts about sentencing developments, but I am eager now to assert that I think everyone who follows sentencing law and policy can and should find something encouraging to be thankful for this holiday season.)

And, speaking of being thankful and 2016 sentencing law and policy developments, I want to remind readers of this Federal Sentencing Reporter call for commentaries.  And, just to stir the pot, I will also link to two prior Turkey Day posts that might generate some engaging discussions:

What SCOTUS sentencing cases are you thankful for?

What SCOTUS sentencing cases are you least thankful for?

November 24, 2016 in On blogging, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

"Four predictions about President Trump’s Supreme Court" ... that seem somewhat iffy

The quoted portion of this post title is the headline of this new Washington Post commentary authored by poly-sci professor Kenneth Moffett.  But as my addition to the title suggests, I am not too sure about all the predictions. Here are some highlights:

One of President-elect Donald Trump’s most important decisions will be choosing a Supreme Court nominee to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia.  And while Trump has not clearly signaled who he will pick, here are four predictions about the next Supreme Court:

1. Trump will appoint a conservative. What kind of conservative isn’t yet clear. ...

Eight potential Trump appointees have more liberal scores than Scalia, while four are more conservative. Regardless of which side they fall on, eight are clustered pretty close to Scalia, indicating that they would likely be justices in his mold....

The chart suggests that it is virtually certain that Trump will nominate a conservative, most likely one whose preferences are closely aligned with Scalia. Of course, if Trump deviates from his announced list of 21 — not an impossibility given his penchant for surprise — then that may be less certain.

2. The court will get back to hearing its normal caseload.

During the 2015 term, the court heard 69 cases, but only has 48 on the docket in 2016....  [When] a new justice will be confirmed, bringing the court back to full strength. When that happens, the court’s docket will return over the next term or two to the average of where it had been in the previous five terms, around 69 cases.

3. The court is not going to undo affirmative action programs — at least not immediately....

4. The court could move to weaken labor unions and expand gun rights. 

For complicated reasons, I am not sure I would make book on most of these predictions.  But on a holiday eve, I will just say I would love to hear others' SCOTUS predictions (especially in the sentencing space).

November 23, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Trump will not pursue charges against Clinton, aide says"

The title of this post is the headline of this new FoxNews piece, which reports these details:

President-elect Donald Trump will not pursue charges against Hillary Clinton relating to the Clinton foundation or the former secretary of state’s use of a private email server, former Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said Tuesday.

In an interview with MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Conway said that while Clinton “has to face the fact that a majority of Americans don’t find her to be honest and trustworthy,” it would be a good thing if Trump can “help her heal.” "I think when the President-elect, who's also the head of your party…tells you before he's even inaugurated he doesn't wish to pursue these charges, it sends a very strong message, tone, and content,” she said.

The move is a significant break from Trump’s campaign rhetoric, which included a warning that if he were president he’d get his attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate her behavior. In the second presidential debate he quipped to Clinton that if he was president: “you’d be in jail.” Cries of “lock her up” were a common feature at Trump’s campaign rallies....

Trump's decision not to pursue charges against Clinton would not prevent congressional Republicans from opening investigations and referring them to the Justice Department for charges. Trump expanded on his decision at a meeting with reporters at the New York Times Tuesday afternoon, telling them "I think it would be very very divisive for the country" to prosecute the Clintons, although he hadn't taken it off the table entirely.

Though I am 99.9% certain nobody will fully understand the full basis for my first two reactions here, I will share them anyway: (1) I am a tiny bit disappointed, and (2) I hope congressional Republicans will at least do some investigation into the deleted emails and/or into pay-to-play with the Clinton Foundation while Hillary Clinton was serving as Secretary of State. 

UPDATE: Kent over at Crime & Consequences has this post on this topic under the title "Amnesty for Hillary."

November 22, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Celebrity sentencings, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (20)

Friday, November 18, 2016

So who is happy or sad about Jeff Sessions for Attorney General?

consider this an open thread.

UPDATE:  I just remembered that Senator Jeff Sessions was long an advocate for equalizing crack and powder cocaine sentences.  Through the FSA enacted in 2010, the notorious 100-1 crack/powder ratio was reduced to roughly 18:1.  I would think it very valuable and very wise for various folks interested in drug sentencing reform to unearth and promotes just what Senator Sessions said in the past on this front.

November 18, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (38)

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

A few (of many, many, many) reasons I am rooting really, really, really hard for Ted Cruz to be our next Attorney General

CruzI am so excited by this developing news that Ted Cruz is perhaps going to be our nation's next Attorney General.  Let me report the basic news and then set out just a few reasons why I think all Americans who are committed to the rule of law — including the most ardent Trump supporters and especially the most ardent Trump haters — should want Prez-Elect Trump to be calling Cruz, rather than, "Lyin' Ted," Attorney General Rafael Edward Cruz:

President-elect Donald Trump is considering nominating Texas Senator Ted Cruz to serve as U.S. attorney general, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Cruz, 45, was at Trump Tower in New York on Tuesday. When approached by reporters on his way out, Cruz said the election was a mandate for change but didn’t say he was under consideration for a job.

Cruz unsuccessfully sought the Republican presidential nomination. He and Trump were at odds during the primary, viciously attacking one another. Trump nicknamed Cruz “Lyin’ Ted.” Cruz didn’t endorse Trump during a speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. In September, relations between the two men seemed to improve when Cruz said he would vote for Trump.

I could likely write a hundred posts explain why everyone interested in criminal justice reform generally, or sentencing reform and marijuana reform in particular, should be much more excited about Ted Cruz as Attorney General than any of the other names that have been floated. For now, I will just start with the three main reasons I am so thrilled:

1. The profoundly personal: Like far too many people, I tend to assume people who have a similar background to me think a lot like me. Ergo, I must admit that my (unhealthy?) "man love" for Ted Cruz may have a lot to do with these aspects of his background (via Wikipedia):

Cruz graduated cum laude from Princeton University in 1992 with a Bachelor of Arts in Public Policy from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.... Cruz's senior thesis at Princeton investigated the separation of powers; its title, Clipping the Wings of Angels, draws its inspiration from a passage attributed to US President James Madison: "If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary." Cruz argued that the drafters of the Constitution intended to protect the rights of their constituents, and that the last two items in the Bill of Rights offer an explicit stop against an all-powerful state.

After graduating from Princeton, Cruz attended Harvard Law School, graduating magna cum laude in 1995 with a Juris Doctor degree. While at Harvard Law, he was a primary editor of the Harvard Law Review...

Cruz married Heidi Nelson in 2001. The couple has two daughters, Caroline and Catherine.... She is currently taking leave from her position as head of the Southwest Region in the Investment Management Division of Goldman, Sachs & Co. and previously worked in the White House for Condoleezza Rice and in New York as an investment banker. Cruz has joked, "I'm Cuban, Irish, and Italian, and yet somehow I ended up Southern Baptist."

As some readers may know, I graduated from the same university and law school as Senator Cruz (two years earlier, so I never met him), and I also was extremely lucky to meet and marry a beautiful blonde woman who is a lot different than me (and smarter than me) and who has blessed me with two daughters.

2. The principled political: I have long been impressed with Cruz's willingness and eagerness to combine political acumen with principled commitments. Though I tend not to be a fan of the tactic of shutting down the government, I am a fan of anyone who will be driven even to the point of serious career risk to make a principled stand based on principled beliefs.  This Cruz character was on display throughout the 2016 campaign: at first, before the voting started, Cruz worked with Donald Trump because he say Trump as a voice for outsiders.  Once the voting started, Cruz treated Trump with respect and also tried to highlight how he was more principled and had more personal character than Trump.  Then, rather than avoid going to the Republican National Convention (as did Gov John Kasich and other establishment types that Trump defeated), Cruz went into the Trumpian lion's den and told all Republicans and all Americans to vote their conscience.

Now that Americans in key states have all voted their conscience and Trump is Prez-Elect, Cruz is not licking his wounds and plotting how to make Trump fail.  Instead, Cruz is apparently willing and perhaps eager to serve all Americans in the Executive Branch after a number of years in which he served only Texans in various ways as a state official and then as a US Senator.  Moreover, this past political history (not to mention his Princeton University senior thesis) would seem to ensure that Cruz would not serve as a Trump toady as Attorney General.  I make this point because I think the last two Presidents first selected (ground-breaking) accomplished lawyers to serve as attorney general (Alberto Gonzales and Eric Holder) who were, in my view, not-very-successful in part because they were perceived to be (and likely were) far too cozy personally and politically with the President.

3. Criminal justice reform:  There are dozens of reasons I think an Attorney General Cruz would be great for adding momentum to the criminal justice reform movement.  I will not try to list all those reasons here and will just instead link to prior posts on this blog highlighting some reasons I sincerely hope I get to talk about Attorney General Cruz on this blog in the coming months and years, with a few posts emphasized that I think everyone MUST read ASAP:

"On Criminal Justice Reform, Ted Cruz Is Smarter Than Hillary Clinton"

Are Senators Mike Lee and Ted Cruz now back on the same page with respect to sentencing reform?

Can Senator Ted Cruz, who says "Smarter Sentencing Act Is Common Sense," get SSA through Congress?

"The Prison Reformer Who Champions Ted Cruz"

Shouldn't true fiscal conservatives question a federal program with 600% recent spending growth?

"Criminal Sentencing Reform: A Conversation among Conservatives"

Spotlighting that nearly all GOP Prez hopefuls are talking up sentencing reform

November 16, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (22)

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Looking for the best "anti-Garland" on Prez-Elect Donald Trump's SCOTUS not-so-short list

Virginia-slimsAs explained in this post eight months ago, I was deeply disappointed that Prez Obama "decided to nominate to the Supreme Court to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, an old white guy who graduated from Harvard Law School and worked for the Justice Department before serving on the DC Circuit, none other than Chief DC Circuit Judge Merrick Garland, another old white guy who graduated from Harvard Law School and worked for the Justice Department before serving on the DC Circuit."  As this sentence was meant to highlight, my disappointment in the selection by Prez Obama was focused on six particular attributes of Judge Garland (and Justice Scalia), and here in rank order is what I disliked from most bothersome to least:

1.  Old: Garland at age 63 was the oldest person nominated to be an associate Justice in over 100 years other than Prez Nixon's nomination of Lewis Powell at age 64.  With all due respect to people who are eager to work well after retirement age, I generally think it better for most jurists after a two decades on the bench to be thinking seriously about retirement, rather than about starting a new job.

2.  Harvard Law SchoolWith all due respect to my alma mater and its rivals Yale and Stanford, only two of the previous 16 nominees to the Supreme Court did not attend at some point HLS or YLS or SLS: John Paul Stevens (Northwestern) and Harriet Miers (SMU). Though I am proudly a product of elite coastal educational institutions, my 20 years teaching at Ohio State (and teaching as a visitor at Colorado and Fordham) has reinforced and deepened my strong belief that a whole lot of elite lawyers and supremely qualified jurists have degrees from law schools other than Harvard, Yale and Stanford.

3.  DC Circuit Judge: Even after Justice Scalia's passing, three of the current Justices had previously served on the DC Circuit (Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Ginsburg and Thomas).  As a close follower of criminal justice jurisprudence (which makes up almost 50% of the SCOTUS docket), there are many reasons I think judicial experience as a DC Circuit Judge is especially bad: (a) the DC Circuit sees very few criminal cases and zero state habeas cases, (b) the DC Circuit is "inside the Beltway" and so judging is always going to be distinctly "politicized" on that court, and (c) the very few criminal cases DC Circuit judges do see are highly unrepresentative of criminal cases throughout the nation.  Among the reasons I have liked the last three appointments to SCOTUS (Justices Alito, Sotomayor and Kagan) is because none of them came up from the DC Circuit; also Justice Sotomayor had been a federal district judge before becoming a circuit judge, and Justice Kagan had never been a judge.  I sincerely believe that the Supreme Court's criminal justice jurisprudence has improved considerably in recent years thanks to the collective work of Justices Alito, Sotomayor and Kagan (and I say this as one of the few fans of the Blakely/Booker cases which predate their arrival). 

4.  Formerly worked for USDOJRegular readers are likely aware of my complaints about the persistent appointment of what I might call "big government" prosecutors/insiders, i.e., people who spent at least some of their formative professional years advocating on behalf of (ever-exanding) government powers.  Here are snippets from the official SCOTUS bios of the last five confirmed SCOTUS appointments to the Supreme Court:  "Special Assistant to the Assistant U.S. Attorney General [and] Assistant Special Prosecutor" (Breyer); "Special Assistant to the Attorney General" (CJ Roberts); "Deputy Assistant Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice [and] U.S. Attorney, District of New Jersey" (Alito); "Assistant District Attorney in the New York County District Attorney's Office" (Sotomayor); "Solicitor General of the United States" (Kagan).  Those eager for courts to check and limit the powers of governments (especially the federal government) need not look past these professional realities to understand why it so often seems that "the little person" asserting rights against some big government rarely prevails before a group of people who, in many, many, many ways, owe their professional success to the increasing size of government with fewer and fewer constitutional restraints. 

5.  MaleAccording to this Wikipedia entry, as of 2016, there have been 161 formal nominations to SCOTUS, and only five have been women (O'Connor, Ginsburg, Meirs, Sotomayor, Kagan).  For those good at math, you should know that this is just over 3% of all appointments (and, disgracefully in my view, a bunch of men bullied Meirs into withdrawing before she even got a hearing and she was replaced by Justice Alito).  As of the 2010 census, women comprised 51% of the US population, and I am so proud that Prez Obama increased the historical number of women appointed to SCOTUS from around 1.8% to 3.1%.  But, especially as the father of two teenage daughters, I am not quite ready to say "you have come a long way, baby." 

6.  White: Of 161 formal SCOTUS nominees, only three have been people of color (T. Marshall, Thomas, Sotomayor).  Given that 72% of the nation identified white as of the 2010 census, I suppose I should just be grateful Prez Obama nominated one person of color to SCOTUS.  But, beyond the fact that now close to 25% of the nation identifies black or Latino, there are lots of other large diverse minority groups in the US, as this official US Census article notes.  For example, as of 2010, Asians were now 5% of the US population, and "grew faster than any other major race group between 2000 and 2010."  In addition, I think a powerful argument might be made, especially given the exclusive federal jurisdiction in Native lands and on many US Islands, that SCOTUS ought to have someone from the 2.5% of the US population that consider themselves at least in part "American Indian and Alaska Native (5.2 million) and Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander (1.2 million)."

So, based on this discussion and my prior criticism of Prez Obama's nomination of Judge Garland, I think my ideal pick to replace Justice Scalia would be (1) young (ideally under 50), (2) an alum of some school other than HLS, YLS or SLS, (3) not a DC Circuit Judge, (4) not a former prosecutor or DOJ employee, (5) a woman, and (6) not white.  For the record, in case anyone cares or thinks my own biases color my judgment, I satisfy only three of these six criteria — as does, quite interestingly, Prez Obama and Prez-Elect Donald Trump and defeated candidate Hillary Clinton (though none us satisfy the same three of these six criteria).

I have not yet had a chance to drill down deeply into all 21 of the lawyers appearing on Prez-Elect Donald Trump's SCOTUS not-so-short list to see who may satisfy the most of my ideal criteria, but I was inspired to do this post by some recent articles from The National Law Journal and the New York Times discussing the diversity on some attributes of some of the persons on the Trump SCOTUS list.  I do not believe there is a woman of color on the Trump list, so I think it may be impossible for any of the 21 to hit all of my key six diversity attributes.  But it is certainly possible (and I am hopeful) that there are more than a few candidates on the list who satisfy five or at least four of these attributes.  And in the wake of Prez -Elect Trump's past criticism of a federal judge based on his ethnicity, I suspect I am not the only one now culling his lists on various distinct diversity grounds.

And, to preempt any complaints that I am worrying way too much about "identity politics," as an academic in a University community that talks a lot about diversity attributes, I could readily devise a long list of other attributes that could also be important to consider if we aspire to have SCOTUS become a more "representative" institution: e.g., personal or professional history (a SCOTUS nominee could be a non-lawyer); religion (e.g., no Mormons or avowed atheists have even been a Justice); military service (who was last veteran on SCOTUS?); socio-economic status (who was last first-generation college SCOTUS nominee?), marital/parenting history (the last two nominees were single), disability, sexual orientation, citizenship or criminal history and on and on.

November 15, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prez Washington:

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

Sec. Hamilton:

Mr. President, they will say you’re weak

Prez Washington:

No, they will see we’re strong

Sec. Hamilton:

Your position is so unique

Prez Washington:

So I’ll use it to move them along

Sec. Hamilton:

Why do you have to say goodbye?

Prez Washington:

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

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

Some sentencing question after Georgia jury verdicts of guiltly on all counts of murder, child cruelty and sexting for Justin Ross Harris

9859581_GA horribly awful (and high-profile and very interesting) state criminal case resulted yesterday in a jury verdict of guilt on all counts.  This new CNN article, headlined ""Jury finds Justin Ross Harris guilty of murder in son's hot car death," provides some details about the case that has prompted some sentencing questions for me.  Here are excerpts (with emphasis added on points that prompt follow-up sentencing questions):

A jury in Georgia on Monday found Justin Ross Harris guilty of murder in the 2014 death of his 22-month-old son, Cooper. Harris, 35, was accused of intentionally locking Cooper inside a hot car for seven hours. On that same day, Harris was sexting with six women, including one minor, according to phone records.

In addition to three counts of murder, Harris was found guilty of two counts of cruelty to children for Cooper's death, and guilty of three counts relating to his electronic exchanges of lewd material with two underage girls.  "This is one of those occasions where actions speak louder than words," Cobb County Assistant District Attorney Chuck Boring said after the verdict. "He has malice in his heart, absolutely."

The trial, which spanned almost five weeks, was moved to the Georgia coastal town of Brunswick from Cobb County, outside Atlanta, after intense pretrial publicity. It was briefly interrupted by Hurricane Matthew. The Glynn County jury of six men and six women deliberated for 21 hours over four days.  Jurors considered the testimony of 70 witnesses and 1,150 pieces of evidence, including the Hyundai Tucson in which Cooper died in a suburban Atlanta parking lot.

Justin Ross Harris waived his right to testify in his own defense. Cobb County prosecutors argued that Harris intentionally locked Cooper inside his car on a hot summer 2014 day because he wanted to be free of his family responsibilities. Harris' lawyers claimed the boy's death was a tragic accident brought about by a lapse in memory. 

It was June 18, 2014, when Harris, then 33, strapped his son into a rear-facing car seat and drove from their Marietta, Georgia, home to Chick-fil-A for breakfast, then to The Home Depot corporate headquarters, where he worked. Instead of dropping Cooper off at day care, testimony revealed Harris left him in the car all day while he was at work.  Sometime after 4 p.m. that day, as Harris drove to a nearby theater to see a movie, he noticed his son was still in the car. He pulled into a shopping center parking lot and pulled Cooper's lifeless body from the SUV. Witnesses said he appeared distraught and was screaming. "'I love my son and all, but we both need escapes.' Those words were uttered 10 minutes before this defendant, with a selfish abandon and malignant heart, did exactly that," said Boring in his closing argument.

The prosecution argued that Harris could see his son sitting in his car seat in the SUV. "If this child was visible in that car that is not a failure in memory systems," Boring argued. "Cooper would have been visible to anyone inside that car.  Flat out."  If Cooper was visible, Boring said, "the defendant is guilty of all counts."  After the verdict, jurors told the prosecution that the evidence weighed heavily in their decision, Boring said.

Digital evidence showed that on the day his son died, Harris exchanged sexual messages and photos with six women, including one minor. State witnesses testified that Harris lived what prosecutors described as a "double life."  To his wife, family, friends and co-workers, Harris was seen as a loving father and husband. But unbeknownst to them, Harris engaged in online sexual communication with multiple women, including two underage girls, had extramarital sexual encounters in public places and paid for sex with a prostitute.

Harris' defense maintained that his sexual behavior had nothing to do with Cooper's death. "The state wants to bury him in this filth and dirt of his own making, so that you will believe he is so immoral, he is so reprehensible that he can do exactly this," said defense attorney H. Maddox Kilgore during his closing argument.  Kilgore argued that Cobb County police investigators focused only on matters that fit the state's theory and ignored all the evidence that pointed to an accident. "You have been misled throughout this trial," Kilgore told jurors.  The defense lawyer continued to maintain his client's innocence after the verdict. He said he plans to appeal the verdict. "When an innocent person is convicted there's been some breakdowns in the system and that's what happened here," Kilgore told reporters outside the courthouse. "From the moment we met Ross Harris we've never, ever once wavered in our absolute belief that he is not guilty of what he's just been convicted of."

The defense's key witness was Harris' ex-wife and Cooper's mother, Leanna Taylor. "Cooper was the sweetest little boy. He had so much life in him. He was everything to me," Taylor recalled, as she seemed to fight through tears. For two days, Taylor told jurors private details of her married life with Harris, saying they had intimacy problems and recounting Harris' struggles with pornography.  Marital struggles aside, Taylor described Harris as a "very involved" parent who loved their son. In her mind, she said, the only possible explanation was that Harris "forgot" Cooper and accidentally left him in the car.  Boring said it did not matter that Taylor declined to speak with the prosecutor's office and testified for the defense. "As far as proving the case we did not need her," he told CNN.

Harris is expected to be sentenced December 5. He could face life without parole, though Boring said the prosecution will speak with the family to determine what kind of sentence to ask for.

Especially for sentencing scholars and advocates like me who worry a lot about about white criminals being treated more leniently than similarly-situated or less culpable minority criminals, I have three follow-up sentencing questions based on this case and its forthcoming sentencing in a Georgia state court:

1.  Should we be troubled that the local prosecutor in this case apparently exercised his discretion not to pursue capital punishment in a case in which the white defendant was apparently guilty of intentionally boiling his 22-month son to death?

2.  Should we be troubled that Georgia sentencing provisions, if I am understanding the law properly based on this "'Truth in Sentencing' in Georgia" documentrequires a mandatory LWOP for an adult offender who commits two armed robberies, but only requires a mandatory 25-life for intentionally boiling a toddler to death?

3.  Should we be troubled that the local prosecutor in this case, who already strikes me as unduly lenient for not even pursuing a capital charge, is now apparently willing (after a jury conviction on all counts) to exercise his discretion to seek a more lenient sentence from the sentencing judge based on the sentencing desires of the (white) wife of the murderer?

November 15, 2016 in Celebrity sentencings, Death Penalty Reforms, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Monday, November 14, 2016

"A comeback for the death penalty?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this CNN commentary authored by Austin Sarat. Here are excerpts:

For supporters of capital punishment the most consequential development was the election of Donald Trump. Trump is such a vocal and enthusiastic supporter of capital punishment that, in December of 2015, he promised members of the New England Police Benevolent Association that he would issue an executive order as president containing the "strong, strong statement" that he wants the death penalty for those found guilty of killing a police officer. "Anybody," Trump said, "killing a policeman, a policewoman, a police officer, anybody killing a police officer: Death penalty is going to happen, okay?"

Trump's election is likely to put on hold any prospect that the Supreme Court will take up Justice Stephen Breyer's recent invitation to his fellow justices to reconsider the constitutionality of capital punishment.

The results of referendum questions on the ballot in California, Nebraska and Oklahoma also brought bad news for abolitionists. Voters in California delivered a double-barreled blow.  They rejected Proposition 62, a measure which would have replaced capital punishment for murder with life in prison without parole.  They also approved by a narrow margin a separate measure intended to speed up executions.  That measure designates special courts to hear challenges to death penalty convictions, limits successive appeals and expands the pool of lawyers who could handle those appeals.

Nebraska voters, by a margin of 61% to 39%, approved reinstating that state's death penalty one year after state legislators voted to abolish it.  In Oklahoma, 66% of voters supported State Question 776 declaring that the death penalty cannot be considered cruel and unusual under the state constitution. It added a provision that "any method of execution shall be allowed, unless prohibited by the United States Constitution."

Despite these electoral victories, the likelihood of a reversal of fortune for capital punishment is remote.  The high costs of capital prosecutions, serious doubts about the reliability of capital convictions, concerns about arbitrariness in death sentencing, and the difficulty of finding reliable methods of execution remain.  These issues have allowed death penalty opponents to build their case state by state, appealing to public officials and offering them a different way to frame opposition to capital punishment.

Over the last decade, that strategy has led to judicial or legislative abolition in New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut, Maryland, Nebraska (a decision reversed by Tuesday's referendum) and Delaware.  Its success can also be seen in the dramatic drop in the number of death sentences handed out across the United States.  They have been cut from 315 in 1996 to 49 in 2015. The number of executions also has declined significantly, going from 98 in 1999 to 28 last year.

These changes have occurred because abolitionists have reframed the way many judges, legislatures, and governors think about capital punishment. The focus of political and legal debates has moved from moral and philosophical abstractions toward a careful consideration of the way the death penalty works in practice. Even after the recent election, public officials can continue to oppose the death penalty by questioning whether its day-to-day practices are compatible with central American values, like due process and equal treatment....

While they did not persuade the citizens of California, Nebraska or Oklahoma, opponents of the death penalty have made substantial progress with the American public. A 2015 national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 71% of Americans believed that there is some risk that an innocent person will be put to death and only 26% thought that there are adequate safeguards in place to make sure that does not happen. That same survey found that 52% of respondents agreed that minorities are more likely than whites to be sentenced to death for similar crimes.

Because of these concerns about the risk of executing the innocent and about racial discrimination in capital sentencing, 42% of the public now opposes the death penalty, the highest such opposition has been since 1972. Last week's electoral results are a reminder that the death penalty continues to have powerful populist and symbolic appeal, but it does not foretell a comeback for capital punishment. Abolitionists will remain on the offensive, and America still seems to be on the road to abolition.

November 14, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Respond to Election 2016 outcomes by writing a commentary for the Federal Sentencing Reporter

1.cover-sourceWearing my hat as an editor of the Federal Sentencing Reporter, I am happy to reproduce a solicitation from the journal below (and I am eager to encourage regular readers to put together their views ASAP for possible publication):

Seeking Commentaries for Federal Sentencing Reporter Special Issue to provide “Advice for the new Congress and new Administration”

Every election cycle presents a notable opportunity for new discussions and debate over the state and future of the federal criminal justice system, especially when the election comes at the close of a two-term presidency.  And after considerable talk before the campaign season of bipartisan agreement over the need for federal sentencing reforms, the 2016 campaign saw the two leading candidates take divergent tacks when discussing crime and punishment.  Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton spoke of the need for “end-to-end reform” of the criminal-justice.  In sharp contrast, GOP candidate (and now President Elect) Donald Trump stressed the themes of "law and order."

With the election of Donald Trump and with both houses of Congress to be under the control of the same party as the President Elect, the incoming Congress and new Administration could seek to move forward swiftly with criminal justice reforms. But what form might new reforms take?  In a short document entitled "Donald Trump's Contract with the American Voter," the President-Elect pledged to work with Congress to establish new mandatory minimum prison terms for certain immigration offenses, to create a task force on violent crime, and to increase funding for federal law enforcement agencies and federal prosecutors.  But beyond these few pledges, it remains quite unclear whether or how the new Trump Administration or the incoming Congress might want to make a criminal justice reform priority.

In light of these developments and related uncertainty, the editors of the Federal Sentencing Reporter have decided to create a special Forum opportunity to invite judges, lawyers and other sentencing practitioners, legal academics and sentencing researchers, to share "Advice for the new Congress and new Administration."  We hope that contributors to this special issue of FSR can help provide both general ideas and specific proposals for how the new Congress and new Administration should approach criminal justice reform issues, especially as they relate to federal sentencing law and policy.

FSR seeks to publish short commentaries — ranging in length from a few paragraphs to a few pages — on any federal crime and punishment topics authored in any reasonable form to provide “Advice for the new Congress and new Administration.” Commentaries could tackle big structural issues (such as whether the time has come to radically change the advisory guideline system), smaller technical issues (such as how to revise statutory mandatory minimum drug sentencing provisions), or any other topic of interest or concern to modern federal sentencing policy and practice.

FSR hopes to publish in its December 2016 and February 2017 issues all proper commentaries submitted before the end of this year.  Submissions must be received no later than November 28 for possible publication in the December issue and not later than December 24 for the February issue.  Submissions should be sent electronically to sentencinglaw @ gmail.com with a clear indication of the author and the author’s professional affiliation.  All judges, lawyers and other sentencing practitioners, legal academics and sentencing researchers, and any others with an informed interest in federal sentencing law, policy and practice are encouraged to submit a commentary.

November 13, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Judicial Challenges to the Collateral Impact of Criminal Convictions: Is True Change in the Offing?"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new essay authored by Nora Demleitner. Here is the abstract:

Judicial opposition to disproportionate sentences and the long-term impact of criminal records is growing, at least in the Eastern District of New York.  With the proliferation and harshness of collateral consequences and the hurdles in overcoming a criminal record, judges have asked for greater proportionality and improved chances for past offenders to get a fresh start.  The combined impact of punitiveness and a criminal record is not only debilitating to the individual but also to their families and communities.  A criminal case against a noncitizen who will be subject to deportation and a decade-long ban on reentry and three different requests for expungement will demonstrate how three federal judges struggled with the long-term effects of the current sentencing and collateral consequences regime.  These cases exemplify both judicial creativity and judicial impotence, as the courts have to call upon the support of other actors within the executive and legislative branches for change, in these individual cases and systemically.

These judicial critics of the current approach argue within an emerging normative framework that is coming to dominate the societal discourse on punishment.  Increasingly some offenders are deemed “worthy” of receiving our assistance in reintegration.  They are generally nonviolent first offenders, those with an unblemished record save for the offense of conviction, those who have been gainfully employed or desperately want to work, and those who have cared for their children.  They present no danger to the community, and their continued punishment may negatively impact them, their surroundings, and ultimately the country.  On the other hand, those labeled violent or sex offenders or terrorists are being considered dangerous, unredeemable, and deserving of the harshness the criminal justice system has brought to bear on them.  The specific categorization of offenses, the definitions of terms, and the categorization of offenders remain fluid, contingent, and subject to constant revision.  Still, these judicial efforts expand on the incipient efforts at full reintegration of some of those with a criminal record. Whether their challenges will resonate with their colleagues and in other branches of government remains to be seen.

November 13, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Hard Bargains: The Coercive Power of Drug Laws in Federal Court"

11_HardBargainsThe title of this post is the title of this soon-to-be released book by Mona Lynch that is now at the very top of my holiday wish/reading list. Here is the publisher's description of the book:

The convergence of tough-on-crime politics, stiffer sentencing laws, and jurisdictional expansion in the 1970s and 1980s increased the powers of federal prosecutors in unprecedented ways.  In Hard Bargains, social psychologist Mona Lynch investigates the increased power of these prosecutors in our age of mass incarceration.  Lynch documents how prosecutors use punitive federal drug laws to coerce guilty pleas and obtain long prison sentences for defendants — particularly those who are African American — and exposes deep injustices in the federal courts.

As a result of the War on Drugs, the number of drug cases prosecuted each year in federal courts has increased fivefold since 1980.  Lynch goes behind the scenes in three federal court districts and finds that federal prosecutors have considerable discretion in adjudicating these cases.  Federal drug laws are wielded differently in each district, but with such force to overwhelm defendants’ ability to assert their rights.  For drug defendants with prior convictions, the stakes are even higher since prosecutors can file charges that incur lengthy prison sentences — including life in prison without parole.

Through extensive field research, Lynch finds that prosecutors frequently use the threat of extremely severe sentences to compel defendants to plead guilty rather than go to trial and risk much harsher punishment.  Lynch also shows that the highly discretionary ways in which federal prosecutors work with law enforcement have led to significant racial disparities in federal courts.  For instance, most federal charges for crack cocaine offenses are brought against African Americans even though whites are more likely to use crack.  In addition, Latinos are increasingly entering the federal system as a result of aggressive immigration crackdowns that also target illicit drugs.

Hard Bargains provides an incisive and revealing look at how legal reforms over the last five decades have shifted excessive authority to federal prosecutors, resulting in the erosion of defendants’ rights and extreme sentences for those convicted.  Lynch proposes a broad overhaul of the federal criminal justice system to restore the balance of power and retreat from the punitive indulgences of the War on Drugs.

November 13, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, November 12, 2016

"How Prosecutors and Defense Attorneys Differ in Their Use of Neuroscience Evidence"

The title of this post is the title of this notable article authored by Deborah Denno now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Much of the public debate surrounding the intersection of neuroscience and criminal law is based on assumptions about how prosecutors and defense attorneys differ in their use of neuroscience evidence.  According to some, the defense’s use of neuroscience evidence will abdicate criminals of all responsibility, while the prosecution’s use of that same evidence will unfairly punish the most vulnerable defendants as unfixable future dangers to society.

This “double-edged sword” view of neuroscience evidence demonstrates the concern that the same information about the defendant can either be mitigating or aggravating depending on who is raising it.  Yet empirical assessments of legal decisions reveal a far more nuanced reality, showing that the public beliefs about the impact of neuroscience on the criminal law can often be wrong.

This Article examines how courts respond to neuroscience evidence in capital cases when the defense presents it to argue that the defendant’s mental state at the time of the crime was below the given legal requisite due to some neurologic or cognitive deficiency.  Relying on data from my “Neuroscience Study” (which consists of all criminal law cases that addressed neuroscience evidence from 1992–2012), I examine thirty-nine capital cases in which the defense attempted to use neuroscience evidence to dismiss or diminish the defendant’s level of intent either at the guilt phase or the penalty phase, along with a corresponding rebuttal or counterargument from the prosecution.  I use a range of case examples to show how courts’ differing perspectives on what constitutes mitigating and aggravating evidence suggests that the “double-edged sword” framework is simplistic and, at times, misleading.

This Article concludes that the lack of consistency and guidance among lower mens rea cases seemingly hinders a more effective application of neuroscience evidence in intent determinations.  To remedy this problem, this Article endorses the “reasonable jurist” framework, which recognizes the value of case-by-case determinations and provides courts with a more realistic lens through which to assess the great variety of neuroscience factors.

November 12, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

A quick take on the Obama sentencing era and its 2016 ending

As I reflect on the emotions and uncertainty resulting from Donald Trump now being our Prez-Elect, my thoughts keep wandering back to this time eight years ago when Barack Obama had just been elected after campaigning on the slogans hope and change.  Due to my intense interest in sentencing reform changes of so many varieties, I was cautiously optimistic that the Obama era might usher in a profound new world order for the operation of federal and state criminal justice systems.  

But now I look back and have to conclude that the Obama sentencing era, generally speaking, was filled with way too much hope and not nearly enough change.  And it strikes me that for a lot of voters this past week who rejected Democratic candidates, the Obama era for them was perceived to be filled with way too much change and not nearly enough hope.

November 12, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, November 11, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some very old prior related posts: 

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

Early thoughts on a day to be full of thoughts about the future of the death penalty

As noted in this prior post, I am so very fortunate and pleased and excited that today I will have a chance to participate in this amazing symposium being put on by Northwestern Law's Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.  The title given to the event is "The Death Penalty's Numbered Days?", and this symposium page provides the schedule of panels and speakers.  

Needless to say, all the election result earlier this week surely has impacted what a lot of folks plan to say at this event, and here are three notable new article highlights aspects of the new capital punishment world order:

In a (too tiny) nutshell, I generally do not expect too much to change jurisprudentially or practically about the death penalty in the next few years unless and until (1) states can find a steady supply of lethal injection drugs (or devise effective alternative methods of execution), and/or (2) Prez-Elect Trump and his appointees start trying to make a potent case to all Americans that much greater use of the death penalty is an essential and important ways to legally respond to the uptick in murders nationwide in the last few years.

November 11, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Reading closely the main criminal justice elements of "Donald Trump’s Contract with the American Voter"

I just had a chance for the first time to review closely this two-page document entitled "Donald Trump's Contract with the American Voter." I did not read this document whenever it was released during the campaign, but now I see these notable promises in the criminal justice arena from page two of this document (with my emphasis added):

I will work with Congress to introduce the following broader legislative measures and fight for their passage within the first 100 days of my Administration:...

End Illegal Immigration Act

Fully-funds the construction of a wall on our southern border with the full understanding that the country of Mexico will be reimbursing the United States for the full cost of such wall; establishes a two-year mandatory minimum federal prison sentence for illegally re-entering the U.S. after a previous deportation, and a five-year mandatory minimum federal prison sentence for illegally re-entering for those with felony convictions, multiple misdemeanor convictions or two or more prior deportations; also reforms visa rules to enhance penalties for overstaying and to ensure open jobs are offered to American workers first.

Restoring Community Safety Act

Reduces surging crime, drugs and violence by creating a task force on violent crime and increasing funding for programs that train and assist local police; increases resources for federal law enforcement agencies and federal prosecutors to dismantle criminal gangs and put violent offenders behind bars.

Because I generally think that mandatory minimum sentencing provisions often do more harm than good, I am troubled to see emphasis on such provisions in the first passage I have quoted. At the same time because I generally think out federal criminal justice system should be much more focused on violent crime and much less focused on nonviolent crime, I am actually a bit encouraged to see an particular emphasis on violent crime in the articulation of priorities in the second passage.

November 10, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Which possible SCOTUS pick from the Trump list should sentencing reformers be rooting for?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by my strong belief that Prez-Elect Trump is very likely to keep his campaign promise to pick a SCOTUS nominee from his list of 21 possibilities released during his campaign.  Ed Whelan has this helpful new post over at Bench Memos that sets out all the 21 names and their current positions as well as a reminder that Trump said this list "is definitive and [that he] will choose only from it in picking future justices of the United States Supreme Court."

As a fan and follower of federal sentencing law and policy, there are three names on the Trump lists that jump out to me immediately:

Senator Mike Lee, R-Utah

William Pryor, Eleventh Circuit

Amul Thapar, Eastern District of Kentucky

For complicated reasons that I do not think can be adequately and effectively explained in this forum, I am cautiously optimistic that the appointment of any of these gentleman could be a relatively positive development for the future of SCOTUS sentencing jurisprudence.  (Critical disclosure: my views here, at least for the two jurists above, are significantly influenced by my own personal and professional interactions. Judge Pryor and I have exchanged emails a few times (both before and since he became a member of the US Sentencing Commission), and Judge Thapar and I have met and spoken more than a few times (and he hired a former student of mine as an intern and also solicited me to write an amicus brief in a fascinating sentencing case a few years ago).)

Sadly, other than this trio, I am unfamiliar with the sentencing views and record of any of the other 18 persons on Prez-Elect Trump's SCOTUS (not-so-)short list. Ergo, I am uncertain about whether to be cautiously optimistic or pessimistic about what any other nomination could mean for the future of SCOTUS sentencing jurisprudence.  I am certain, though, that a whole bunch of journalists and lawyers and advocates are now starting the hard work of investigating (and perhaps formally vetting) every person on the Trump SCOTUS list.

I am hopeful that anyone with any relevant sentencing-related information about these folks will share that information in the comments here or via email/links.  I suspect Prez-Elect Trump will nominate a replacement for Justice Scalia within his first few days as president, and so I do not think it is too early to start gearing up for what should be an interesting and dynamic confirmation process.

November 10, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23)

"Revitalizing the Clemency Process"

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

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

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

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

Did death penalty initiatives make it easier for significant prison reforms to pass in California and Oklahoma?

The sets of death penalty initiatives on state ballots this year received lots of attention, and the pro-death-penalty side received lots of voter support in both "red states" like Nebraska and Oklahoma as well as in the in "blue state" of California.  (And I am very excited, as previewed here, that tomorrow at Northwestern Law I be part of a symposium that will be seeking  to sort out what this means for the future of the death penalty in the US.) But, as Randy Balko notes in this Washington Post piece headlined "Believe it or not, it was a pretty good night for criminal-justice reform," the death penalty outcomes should be looked at in the context of other criminal justice reform measure that also got significant support from voters in both red and blue states. Here are excerpts from his piece with one word highlighted by me for commentary to follow:

The death penalty was on the ballot in three states last night, by way of four separate initiatives. In all of them, the death penalty won.... But it wasn’t just in red states. California voters weighed in on two death penalty initiatives — one to repeal it, and one to speed it up. The former failed, the latter passed.  This is a state that Hillary Clinton won by 28 points. Americans still revere the death penalty....

But there was also a lot of good news last night. Marijuana won in 8 of the 9 states in which it was on the ballot — including outright legalization in California, Massachusetts and Nevada. Those states all went blue in the presidential race, but red states Montana, Florida, Arkansas and North Dakota all legalized medicinal marijuana. The lesson here appears to be that pot has finally transcended the culture wars, but the death penalty hasn’t.  [My other blog, Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform, is where I obsess on this reality.]

There are a couple of other important reform measures that passed.  Ironically, both were in states that strengthened the death penalty.  California voters approved Prop 57, which expands parole (as opposed to prison) and time off for good behavior for nonviolent offenses, and lets judges (instead of prosecutors) determine whether juveniles should be tried in adult courts.  And in Oklahoma, voters approved of a measure to reclassify certain property and drug possession crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.  They also approved a measure that would use the money saved from reclassifying such crimes to fund rehabilitation, mental health treatment and vocational training for inmates. New Mexico voters passed a bail reform measure that, while poorly drafted, at least indicates that there’s an appetite in the electorate for such reforms.

As the question in the title of this post is meant to suggest, I do not think it "ironic"  that the very different states of California and Oklahoma with very different voters acted in the same way here.  Indeed, I think it quite sensible for voters to be eager to, at the same time while voting, express support for tougher sentencing for the very worst criminals (terrible murderers) and for smarter sentencing for the lesser criminals (nonviolent and drug offenders).  I make this point to stress not only that (1) these results make perfect sense to "average" voters at this moment in our national criminal justice discourse, but also that (2) it was practically shrewd for politicians in California and Oklahoma to put prison reforms in front of voters at the same time they were considering death penalty issues.

1. As a matter of political mood, I suspect the "average" voter now is not too troubled by historic problems with the administration of the death penalty, largely because some recent big capital cases involve mass murderer with no concerns about a possible wrongful conviction or terrible defense lawyering.  High-profile capital cases like James Holmes (the Aurora movie theater mass murderer), Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (the Boston Marathon bomber) and Dylann Roof (the Charleston Church mass murderer) have all involved crimes in which guilt seems clear beyond any doubt and in which the defendants have had the benefit of spectacular defense lawyers.

At the same time, while the "average" voter is seemingly not keen on taking the death penalty completely off the table for mass murderers like Holmes, Tsarnaev and Roof, she seems to be growing much more keen on reducing reliance on incarceration for nonviolent and drug offenders.  National discussions of the expense and inefficacy of the drug war and other concerns about modern mass incarceration has, it seems, made prison reform for certain lower-level offenders politically popular even in a red state like Oklahoma.

2. As a matter of practical realities, especially in a state like California in which "tough on crime" prison initiatives have historically garnered vocal support from law enforcement groups and prosecutors and prison unions, I suspect having a death penalty initiative for the "tough-and-tougher" crowd to focus on created a window of opportunity for supporters of prison reforms to dominate the messaging for voters on "lower salience" issues like expanding parole eligibility or reducing some crimes to misdemeanors.  Though I was not in California or Oklahoma to experience their initiative campaigns directly, I know just from reading Crime & Consequences that Kent Schneidegger, a very effective tough-on-crime advocate, was much more focused on Prop 62 and 66 (the capital initiatives in California) than on Prop 57 (the parole initiative that he called "Gov. Brown's Jailbreak Initiative").

November 10, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

"Prison stocks are flying on Trump victory"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new CNBC article, which includes these excerpts:

Private prison stocks soared Wednesday after Republicans won control of Congress and the White House.

Corrections Corporations of America and GEO Group had suffered some of their biggest declines over the last several months. But on Wednesday, both stocks recouped some of those losses.  Corrections Corporation gained 43 percent, while GEO climbed more than 21 percent.

In August, the Department of Justice instructed its Bureau of Prisons to begin phasing out the use of private contractors for federal corrections facilities.  Both stocks tanked on the news, but analysts called the market reaction overblown, and questioned how feasible it would actually be for the federal government to build new housing for displaced prisoners....

The stocks fell particularly far after presidential candidate Hillary Clinton expressed her support for the moves and her intention to build on them. "I'm glad that we're ending private prisons in the federal system," Clinton had said in her first presidential debate with Donald Trump. "I want to see them ended in the state system. You shouldn't have a profit motivation to fill prison cells with young Americans."

Days after Clinton made her remarks, both stocks posted their worst quarters in more than 15 years. Now that Clinton has lost, and Democrats failed to gain control of Congress, it appears investors are more sanguine about the future of the businesses.

November 9, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Could "mens rea" federal statutory reform become a priority for the next GOP Congress and for a Trump Administration?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the fact that nearly all GOP members of Congress who have discussed an interest in federal criminal justice reform, as well as many right-leaning policy advocates and advocacy groups, have urged so-called federal "mens rea" reform.  An articulation of these realities finds effective expression in this September 2015 "Legal Memorandum" authored by John Macolm, the Director of the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation, under the titled "The Pressing Need for Mens Rea Reform."  I blogged this document when it was released 14 months ago, and highlight its abstract and "Key Points":

Abstract

One of the greatest safeguards against overcriminalization — the misuse and overuse of criminal laws and penalties to address societal problems — is ensuring that there is an adequate mens rea requirement in criminal laws.  Sentencing reform addresses how long people should serve once convicted, but mens rea reform addresses those who never should have been convicted in the first place: morally blameless people who unwittingly commit acts that turn out to be crimes and are prosecuted for those offenses rather than having the harms they caused addressed through the civil justice system.  Not only are their lives adversely affected, perhaps irreparably, but the public’s respect for the fairness and integrity of our criminal justice system is diminished.  That is something that should concern everyone.

Key Points

1. Nearly 5,000 federal criminal statutes are scattered throughout the U.S. Code, and an estimated 300,000 or more criminal regulatory offenses are buried in the Code of Federal Regulations.

2 Not even Congress or the Department of Justice knows precisely how many criminal laws and regulations currently exist.  Because many of them lack adequate (or even any) mens rea standards, innocent mistakes or accidents can become crimes.

3. Congress should pass a default mens rea provision that would apply to crimes in which no mens rea has been provided.  If a mens rea requirement is missing from a criminal statute or regulation, a default standard should automatically be inserted, unless Congress makes it clear in the statute itself that it intended to create a strict liability offense.

Notably, as I lamented in this post in January 2016, I have long feared that Democratic opposition toward GOP eagerness for mens rea reform was a problematic impediment to any bipartisan federal statutory sentencing getting to Prez Obama's desk before he left the oval office. But the Election 2016 results mean that the next GOP Congress now need not have to worry too much about opposition to mens rea reform from Democratic members of Congress and also probably that such reform will have the support of our next President.

Of course, very few non-lawyers even understand what the term mens rea means, and I am certain that those who voted for Republican federal elected officials did not have mens rea reform in mind when voting. (Indeed, ironically, mens rea reform would generally make it harder to prosecute the kinds of crimes that has led to Hillary Clinton being investigated by the FBI.) Thus, I doubt anyone other than federal criminal lawyers and think-tank types would even notice if mens rea reform is or isn't part of the agenda of the next Congress and Administration. But I hope it is.

Some recent and older related posts:

November 9, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Effective Marshall Project takes on Election 2016 and criminal justice now and in the future ... UPDATE: and another set of views via Crime & Consequences

The folks at The Marshall Project have four new articles that review and assess what this Election cycle says and suggests about the state and fate of criminal justice issues throughout the United States.  Here are links to these pieces:

UPDATE: For another informed and diverse perspective on criminal justice reform stories, I always check daily Crime & Consequences in addition to The Marshall Project.  Here are some of the early Election 2016 reaction posts from various folks at C&C: 

November 9, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Marijuana, Merrick and millenials: why cautious insider Dems lost another outsider/change election

In my effort to make sense of the various Election 2016 realities, these early stories and data points caught my attention:

1. Popular vote realities in 2012 and 2016

Popular vote totals in 2012: Obama 65,915,795; Romeny 60,933,504; Johnson + Green 1,745,579  (total vote = 128.6 million)

Popular vote in 2016 (as of now): Trump 59,007,205; Clinton 59,132,664; Johnson + Green 5,195,998 (total vote = 123.3 million)

In other words, as of this writing, there were roughly 5 million fewer voters total in 2016 compared to 2012 and also roughly 3.5 million more of those who did vote in 2016 voted for one of the third party candidates.  

2.  Younger voters in 2016

As Nate Silver flagged here: "While the third-party vote wasn’t all that high tonight overall, an exception came among younger voters. According to the national exit poll, 9 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 went for third parties, as did 8 percent of voters ages 30 to 44." And until I see data to the contrary, I would guess that younger voters (especially younger minority voters) comprise a large portion of the roughly 5 million "missing" voters in 2016.

As the title of this post is meant to reveal, I already have my own (self-serving?) theories for why so many fewer folks showed up to vote in 2016 and for why so many younger progressive voters were much more eager to vote for third-party candidates.  Put simply, the tendency this cycle for Democrats (a) to nominate cautious insiders — like HRC for Prez and Ted Strickland for Senate in Ohio — and (b) to make cautious insider moves on a number of major high-salience law and policy issues — like Prez Obama nominating Merrick Garland for SCOTUS and HRC not taking up the populist cause of marijuana reform — led to a whole lot of folks not being excited enough to show up to vote and led to a whole lot of those folks showing up not being excited enough by Democrats to vote for their candidates.

In some prior posts in this space, I have highlighted some reasons why I considered the Merrick Garland nomination to be a big political mistake for Democrats:

And over at my Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform, here were my posts from last night detailing the remarkably large number of folks in a large number of states who rejected suggestions by all sorts of cautious insiders (of both parties) to slow down the rapidly-moving marijuana reform movement:

November 9, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Eager for thoughts on who President-Elect Donald Trump should or will appoint as to SCOTUS and as Attorney General

I have never been a big fan of conventional wisdom, and the 2016 election results reminds me why.  And while I am certain the coming days and weeks will have lots and lots of pundits looking back, I am already eager to look forward by trying to figure out whom President-Elect Donald Trump will be eager to put into the positions that can and will likely have the greatest impact on sentencing law and policy in the coming years.  As the title of this post highlights, who President-Elect Trump will select to serve on the Supreme Court and to serve as Attorney General seem to me to be the most important early decisions he will make that could shape the future of sentencing jurisprudence and doctrine.  

Notably, at least three persons named by Trump as possible SCOTUS nominees have notable sentencing reform interests or history:  Senator Mike Lee, Judge William Pryor, and Judge Amul Thapar.  I am not versed on the sentencing work of others' on Trump's SCOTUS nominee lists, but I am looking forward to learning more about whomever he decides to nominate.  Given his "law and order" campaign themes and the role played by three "tough on crime" former US Attorneys as close advisers, I am expecting Trump will seek to be drawn to an Attorney General who will echo these kinds of sentiments.

Long story short, as a CNN commentator is saying as I write this, the election of Donald Trump creates a "new world order," and I am already starting to think dynamically about who will be constructing this new world and and how it will approach "law and order." 

November 9, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (22)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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