Sunday, August 30, 2015

Gearing up for the Ninth Circuit oral argument concerning California's (capricious?) capital cae review

As I have noted in a few recent posts (linked below), panel oral argument is scheduled for tomorrow, August 31, 2015, in the Ninth Circuit appeal of last year's ruling by US District Judge Cormac Carney in Jones v. Chappell (now Jones v. Davis) that California's administration of capital punishment was unconstitutional.  Unsurprisingly, media both old and new are giving significant attention to this appeal in a case that could possibly preclude any further executions in the state with the largest death row, and here are headlines/titles and links to a melange of recent media coverage I have come across recently:

As I have mentioned in prior posts, Jones was an interesting ruling from the federal district court for various reasons, and a lot of interconnected issues are in play on appeal.  As revealed via this Ninth Circuit webpage, various amici have submitted briefs to the Ninth Circuit urging reversal or affirmance of the Jones decision.  And I believe we can all watch the panel arguments live via this link from the Ninth Circuit tomorrow at 12noon EDT (9am PDT).  

Prior related posts:

August 30, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Following the industries that follows incareration nation (with only limited concerns about sentencing reform)

Today's New York Times has this interesting article authored by David Segal about various corrections-oriented industries and their (limited) worries about the impact of sentencing reform on their bottom lines.  The article is headlined "Prison Vendors See Continued Signs of a Captive Market," and here are a couple excerpts:

[There were] 264 vendors in booths at the Indiana Convention Center for what is essentially a trade show for the prison industry.  It is the shiny, customer­-friendly face of a fairly grim business. The A.C.A. accredits jails and prisons and is also the country’s largest association for the corrections field, with a membership filled with wardens and state and county correctional administrators.

The convention is where those people window­shop.  The United States currently imprisons about 2.2 million people, making it the world’s largest jailer.  Those in charge of this immense population need stuff: food, gas masks, restraints, riot gear, handcuffs, clothing, suicide prevention vests, health care systems, pharmacy systems, commissary services — the list goes on.  These outlays are a small fraction of the roughly $80 billion spent annually on incarceration, though precise sales figures are hard to come by because most companies in this niche market are private.  Two publicly traded players, the private prison operators Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, have a combined market capitalization of almost $5.8 billion. Both companies had booths in Indianapolis.

For prison vendors, this would appear to be a historically awful moment.  Sentencing reform has been gaining momentum as a growing number of diverse voices conclude that the tough­-on-­crime ethos that was born 40 years ago, and that led to a 700 percent increase in the prison population since 1970, went too far....

My goal ambling through the oddly colorful bazaar in Indianapolis for three days was to see what effect — if any — this much discussed change was having on the hard­nosed bottom line.  Was anyone here experiencing a slump, or even bracing for one?  Nobody wants businesses to suffer financially, but if you think the current incarceration system is a calamity, there is no way around it: Bad news for these companies is good news for the country.  And if change was coming, or had already arrived, these vendors would be among the first to know.

I had no idea what I would find.  But a few days before the exhibition doors opened, I spoke on the telephone to a skeptic, a guy who just didn’t believe that the country was really on the verge of a correctional system makeover. “It’s hard for me not to be cynical about it,” said Jack Cowley, a retired warden who lives in Oklahoma. “Think about the size of our system, all the judges and lawyers, putting their kids through college, people that make leg irons, Tasers. Crime is driving the train. It’s like a business that is too big to fail.”...

In Indianapolis this summer, there were the ingratiating smiles that are always part of sales, but nobody seemed giddy. Concern about sentencing reform was in the air, but more than a few vendors seemed to regard the trend as a business opportunity....

[M]any companies are trying to diversify. In 2013, Corrections Corporation of America, the country’s largest private prison company, purchased Correctional Alternatives, which specializes in re­entry programs, like work furloughs and home confinement. “We have continued to look for opportunities in this service area,” a spokesman for C.C.A. wrote in an email. “It aligns with the needs of our government partners, who are increasingly looking to this type of solution.”

August 30, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 28, 2015

Massachusetts SJC rules local sex offender restrictions preempted by state law

As reported in this Boston Globe article, "Massachusetts cities and towns cannot broadly restrict where sex offenders can live, the state’s highest court ruled Friday, declaring that measures in place in more than 40 municipalities were in conflict with state law."  Here is more on the ruling: 

The decision came as the Supreme Judicial Court upheld a lower court ruling on a Lynn ordinance that the judges said would have affected 95 percent of the city’s residential properties.  The court decried the measure, which it said conflicted with a 1999 state law that set up a system to keep track of sex offenders in communities.

“Except for the incarceration of persons under the criminal law and the civil commitment of mentally ill or dangerous persons, the days are long since past when whole communities of persons, such Native Americans and Japanese-Americans may be lawfully banished from our midst,” the ruling said.

Timothy Phelan, who sponsored the Lynn ordinance when was City Council president in 2011, called the decision discouraging and disappointing. SJC rules against sex offender zone laws in Mass.  “It seems like the rights of children are taking a back seat to what is politically correct,” Phelan said.

The ordinance placed strict limits on the ability of Level 2 and 3 sex offenders — those deemed by the state to have moderate and high risks of reoffending — from living within 1,000 feet of a park or school.

John Reinstein, the attorney who argued the case on behalf of three registered sex offenders, said the strong language in the ruling is “a shot across the bow to any attempt to provide the authority for broad-based restrictions to cities and towns.” Reinstein began work on the subject while he was legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and continued after his retirement in 2013.

He and his colleagues had urged the court to reject the law on constitutional grounds, arguing that it violated the fundamental rights of sex offenders to move freely within the state and choose where they live.

Friday’s decision instead followed a lower court ruling in deciding that the ordinance violated “home rule” provisions because it is a local measure in conflict with state law. The outcome leaves open the possibility that lawmakers could restore the ability of municipalities to create residency restrictions for sex offenders.

The full unanimous Massachusetts SJC ruling is available at this link.

August 28, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Despite copious reform talk, big and tough federal drug sentencing system churns on

ChartAs regular readers know, talk of federal sentencing reform, especially drug sentencing reform, has been all the rage in recent years.  And yet, as this new report from the US Sentencing Commission details, in the last fiscal year, the federal criminal justice system still sentenced tens of thousands of drug offenders to hundreds of thousands of years of federal imprisonment.

The new report, titled excitingly "Overview of Federal Criminal Cases, Fiscal Year 2014," actually reports a decline in the overall number of federal criminal case sentences in the last fiscal year.  But this overall decline was driven mostly by a significant decline in immigration cases.  Here are some snippets from the report which highlight some of modern federal sentencing trends:

The number of individual offenders sentenced each year grew steadily after the Commission began reporting sentencing data in 1988, reaching a high of 86,201 individual offenders sentenced in fiscal year 2011.  Since then the number of cases has decreased each year.  In fiscal year 2014, the number of individual offender cases reported to the Commission fell by 4,199 (5.2%) cases from the previous year to 75,836.  Since fiscal year 2011, the number of these cases has declined by 12.0 percent....

Drug cases have traditionally been the most common federal cases.  However, beginning in fiscal year 2009, the number of immigration cases steadily increased, reaching a high of 29,717 such cases in fiscal year 2011.  That year immigration cases were the most common offense in the federal system....  In fiscal year 2014, 24,011 drug cases were reported to the Commission, accounting for 31.7 percent of all cases. Most of these cases involved drug trafficking offenses.  That year there were 22,238 immigration cases, accounting for 29.3 percent of the total federal caseload that year....

Several factors affect the average prison sentence for drug offenders, including statutory mandatory minimum punishments, the quantity of the drugs involved in the case, the prior criminal history of the offender, and whether the offender assisted the government in the investigation of his or her crime and other crimes.

For more than 20 years, crack cocaine offenders have been the most severely punished, however the length of imprisonment imposed in these cases has decreased steadily since 2007.  In fiscal year 2014, the average imprisonment for drug crimes involving crack cocaine was 93 months of imprisonment (with a median sentence of 72 months).  This compares to a high of 129 for these offenders in fiscal year 2007.  Methamphetamine offenders are the next most severely punished drug crimes, with an average length of imprisonment of 88 months (and a median sentence of 70 months).  Marijuana offenders have the lowest average imprisonment at 36 months (with a median sentence of 24 months)....

Mandatory minimum penalties enacted by Congress play a large part in determining the sentence for drug offenders, either outright or through the impact of these statutes on the structure of the guidelines.  In fiscal year 2014, half of all drug offenders were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty, however, this proportion was the lowest it has been since the Commission began reporting data about mandatory minimum penalty application in 1993.  The portion of drug cases carrying a mandatory minimum penalty in fiscal year 2013 was 62.1 percent.  This significant reduction was due, in large part, to a change in the policy of the Department of Justice as to how to charge drug cases.

In fiscal year 2014, powder cocaine offenders and methamphetamine offenders were convicted of an offense that provided for the imposition of a mandatory minimum sentence at the highest rates — 65.4 percent in powder cocaine cases and 61.8 percent in methamphetamine cases.  Mandatory minimum penalties were least common in drug cases involving “other” drugs (mostly prescription drugs) and marijuana, accounting for 4.3 percent and 33.2 percent, respectively, of those cases.

These data highlight that DOJ's new charging policies have a measurable impact of the operation of the federal sentencing system. But that change did not dramatically alter the modern annual pattern of more than 125,000 cumulative years of future federal prison time being imposed on all federal drug defendants. All those years, at a conservative average taxpayer cost of $30,000 per year, means just federal drug sentencing in 2014 served to commit nearly $4,000,000,000 in future federal taxpayer funds to incarcerating those drug defendants sentenced over the last USSC fiscal year.

August 28, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Nebraska group submits signatures to halt death penalty repeal and set up fascinating 2016 vote

As reported in this new AP article, the "organization campaigning to reinstate Nebraska's death penalty after lawmakers repealed it in May said Wednesday it has collected more than enough signatures to suspend the law before it goes into effect and place it before voters in 2016."  Here is more:

Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, which was heavily financed by Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts and his family, said it had gathered 166,692 signatures from all 93 of the state's counties. Nebraska's unicameral Legislature had voted to repeal capital punishment over the objection of Ricketts, becoming the first traditionally conservative state to do so in 42 years.

The pro-death penalty group needed roughly 57,000 valid signatures from registered voters to force a statewide referendum, and double that number to immediately halt the death penalty repeal going into effect. They appear to have exceeded the 10 percent of registered voters hurdle needed to block repeal pending a November 2016 ballot measure on the issue.

"Nebraskans sent a strong message about crime and punishment in our state by signing this petition in extraordinary numbers," said state treasurer and former attorney general Don Stenberg, a co-chair of the petition drive....

Republican Attorney General Doug Peterson, who supports the death penalty, said in a statement that the signatures are "presumptively valid" until determined otherwise. Stenberg said no one will know the exact number of valid signatures for at least a month, but the state constitution makes clear that petitions go into effect on the day they're submitted.

Even if the law is suspended, Nebraska currently has no way to execute any of the 10 men on death row because its lacks two of the three required lethal injection drugs and has struggled to obtain them legally. The state paid $54,400 in May to order the drugs from a broker in India, but federal authorities have said they can't be legally imported.

Nebraska lawmakers voted by the narrowest possible margin, 30-19, to override Ricketts' veto. Ricketts assailed the Legislature as out of touch with the wishes of most residents. The repeal vote was helped by an unusual coalition of conservative state senators and more traditional death penalty opponents who had fought unsuccessfully for decades to eliminate the punishment. Some conservatives said they opposed it for religious and moral reasons, while others cast it as an inefficient government program that wastes tax money....

Nebraska hasn't executed an inmate since 1997, and has never done so using the state's current three-drug lethal injection protocol.

The announcement of the number of signatures caps an 82-day petition drive backed by Ricketts and his father, TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts. The governor had given $200,000 to Nebraskans for the Death Penalty as of the last filing deadline on July 31, while his father had donated $100,000. The group raised a total of more than $652,000 from 40 individual donors and seven groups classified as businesses, political action committees and other entities.

The largest donation in July came from the conservative, Washington-based Judicial Crisis Network, which gave $200,000. Nebraskans for the Death Penalty relied on a combination of paid and volunteer petition circulators, and was aided by an Arizona-based strategist who specializes in ballot campaigns.

I find these developments fascinating, especially because it highlights that the symbolism of the death penalty seems so much more important to so many folks than the practicalities of the death penalty. Practically speaking, with no executions in nearly 20 years, the legislature's abolition largely made de jure what was already a de facto reality in the state. But that largely symbolic decision obviously troubled a lot of Cornhuskers (and motivated some folks to put some serious money into this issue), and now the issue will be decided by direct democracy rather than by representative democracy.

Because I am a huge fan of direct democracy, and especially because it will be very interesting to follow the Cornhusker capital campaigning (and its funders' capital contributions), I am pleased that this crime-and-punishment issue will now come before the voters in 2016. Sadly, because Nebraska is not likely to become a swing state in the broader presidential scene, I doubt the many wanna-be Prez candidates will feel compelled to weigh in on this "local" issue. But it still seems possible that this vote could make Nebraska a significant focal point in the (never-ending) national debate over death penalty policy and practices.

August 26, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Notable talk of crimnal justice reform at GOPAC State Legislative Leaders Summit

My local Columbus Dispatch has this notable article about notable policy message that was delivered to top GOP state lawmakers at a notable conference this week.  The article is headlined "Packing prisons not the answer, lawmakers told," and here are excerpts:

Meeting in a state where more than 50,000 people live in prisons built to hold about 39,000, Republican state lawmakers from across the country were told Tuesday that “tough on crime” must be replaced by a smarter approach to criminal justice.

“Conservatives recognize we have too many criminal laws,” said Patrick Purtill Jr., director of legislative affairs for the Faith and Freedom Coalition, told a room of GOP lawmakers attending the annual GOPAC State Legislative Leaders Summit, held this year in Columbus.

“We’re sending too many people to prison. We’re spending too much money to keep them there for far too long. And we’re doing too little to re-enter them into our communities. It’s becoming increasingly clear that over-criminalization and over-incarceration are making our communities less safe.”

Republicans are leading the country on criminal-justice reform, said David Avella, chairman of GOPAC, a national group that grooms Republican lawmakers and candidates and provides forums for the sharing of conservative policies. “If you want to look at how we heal some of the divisions our country faces right now, this is a winning issue for us,” he told the conference, which runs through Thursday.

The Faith and Freedom Coalition is one of seven organizations stretching across the ideological spectrum that is partnering with the U.S. Justice Action Network to implement laws that reduce prison populations, implement more rational criminal penalties, and do more to help inmates re-enter society.

Ohio, along with Pennsylvania and Michigan, currently are the Action Network’s three target states for criminal justice reform. The group is working with Ohio lawmakers such as Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, and Rep. Barbara Sears, R-Sylvania. “These reforms make us safer. They’re not just cost-saving measures,” said Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network, pointing to Pew Chartable Trusts data that shows states with the biggest drops in prison populations also are seeing some of the greatest decreases in crime rates....

Faber, an attorney and former probation officer, told the [Ohio legislature's] Recodification Committee in June to “ swing for the fences.” He told GOPAC attendees that he knows Republicans have traditionally approached criminal justice with a “tough on crime” attitude. “This isn’t about making sure the bad guys get out earlier,” he said. “But we need room for the really bad guys, and the question is what do we do about the people that aren’t so bad?”

Faber hopes the committee will have recommendations by next summer. “One of the things I hope we do is give judges discretion back,” Faber said. “Another thing we need to look at is making that finer line between what is a felony and what isn’t. I also hope they look at what we need to increase the penalties for to stop that recidivism cycle.”

August 26, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

How did Boston bombing jurors not get informed some victims did not favor death sentence for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev?

As regular readers may recall from this post back in April, Bill and Denise Richard, parents of 8-year-old Martin who was one of three people killed in the April 2013 explosions at the Boston marathon's finish line, wrote this stirring Boston Globe commentary about their hopes for the outcome in the federal criminal case against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  The Richards there expressed disinterest in a death sentence for Tsarnaev because of all the attention and appeals that such a sentence would necessarily bring for the duration of Tsarnaev's life behind bars.  As they explained, in order to be able to "turn the page, end the anguish, and look toward a better future," they were calling upon "the Department of Justice [to take] the death penalty off the table in an exchange for the defendant spending the rest of his life in prison without any possibility of release and waiving all of his rights to appeal."

As regular readers know, federal statutory law gives crime victims an inpedendent right to express their views in federal sentencing proceedings.  For that reason, and especially because the feelings and desires of all victims seems important, relevant and proper evidence for jurors trying to decide on a life/death capital verdict, I took for granted that anti-death-sentence victim views would get relayed in some way to the jurors deciding on the sentence for Tsarnaev.  (Indeed, I had long thought that one of many benefits of the federal Crime Victim Rights Act was to ensure federal court proceedings would regularly incorportate the views and voices of all victims, not just those prosecutors and/or defense attorneys brought forward.)

But this local interview with the first Boston bombing juror to speak publicly suggests that (1) the jurors were unaware of the Richards' perspective on how best to sentence Tsarnaev, and (2) at least one juror might have reached a different verdict if he knew of what the Richards had said.  Here is part of the introduction and transcript of the interview with Kevan Fagan, Juror 83, covering this ground: 

Kevan Fagan, “Juror 83″ in the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, sat down for an interview in our studio with WBUR’s Jack Lepiarz and David Boeri, who both covered the trial. The 23-year-old became the first juror to agree to be named, to have his picture taken and to talk about the trial, though he would not discuss the jury’s deliberations.

Fagan told WBUR that he may not have voted for the death penalty had he known that some bombing victims wanted Tsarnaev to get life in prison. He said he likely would have changed his vote had he been aware of opposition to the death penalty by the parents of 8-year-old Martin Richard, the youngest victim killed in the bombing.

“If I had known that, I probably — I probably would change my vote. But then again, if I knew that I wouldn’t be on the jury either,” he said in the interview. The jurors were ordered to avoid media coverage of the trial.

He is co-authoring a book about his experience titled “Juror 83 — The Tsarnaev Trial: 34 Days That Changed Me” that is expected to be released at the end of September....

DB: What impressed you? Did you find anything persuasive in the defense case?

KF: I think it was a very hard case, and I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know if there have been harder cases to defend. I think they did the best that they could for their client.

DB: You didn’t know at the time that the Richard family and other families had written to the U.S. Attorney and to the Justice Department saying they were opposed to the death penalty?

KF: Oh sure. No, I had no clue about that.

JL: If you had known that, would you have changed your vote?

KF: If I had known that, I probably — I probably would change my vote. But then again, if I knew that I wouldn’t be on the jury either.

DB: What do you mean?

KF: If I went out of my way and disrespected the judge and went against his orders about researching things. That wouldn’t have been very fair or judicious of me.

Because this juror is writing a book about his experience as a juror — and especially because this juror will likely benefit personally from the publicity that provocative interviews will generate — I am a bit suspicious of his suggestion that his sentencing vote would have been different if he had full information about all victim perspectives.  Nevertheless, I now am wondering a lot about (a) whatever legal or strategic or practical issues surrounded decisions to keep jurors unaware of the Richards' (and other victims'?) perspectives on how best to sentence Tsarnaev, and (b) whether this jury unawareness, coupled with this juror's comments about the impact such information could have had, will become a key part of direct and collateral appeals of the Tsarnaev death sentence.

I cannot help but note a particular and particularly sad irony here: the commentary authored by the Richards movingly "urge[d] the Department of Justice to bring the case to a close"; but now this commentary, now combined with its failure to get known to the jury during the sentencing proceedings, seems itself likely to continue to generate legal issues and media attention.  The commentary not only noted, but now adds the reality that, a death sentence for Tsarnaev is all but certain to ensure this case will not be coming to a close for decades. So sad.

A few prior related posts:

August 26, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Clemency 2.0"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Paul Larkin Jr. now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

A trope heard throughout criminal justice circles today is that the system is a dystopia. Although most of the discussion and proposed remedies have centered on sentencing or release, this article focuses on clemency, which has become a controversial subject.  The last few Presidents have rarely exercised their pardon power or have used it for ignoble reasons.  The former withers the clemency power; the latter besmirches it.

President Obama sought to kick start the clemency process through the Clemency Project 2014, which sought to provide relief to the 30,000 crack cocaine offenders unable to take advantage of the prospective-only nature Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.  That initiative, however, is unlikely to jump-start the clemency power since it is quite limited — to drug offenders unable to benefit from the new crack-to-powder sentencing ratio.  But the vast expansion in the size of the federal correctional system, combined with the corresponding increase in the costs of federal corrections, may spur the president to renew his resort to clemency.  If so, the question becomes, How?

The discussion proceeds as follows: Part I traces the history of the clemency process, focusing on the President’s Article II power to grant an offender mercy.  Part II will ask why the clemency power has fallen into desuetude or disdain over the last few decades, and Part III will discuss whether clemency is likely to be reborn in the near future.  Part IV will conclude by recommending that the problem lies not in the power it-self, 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.

August 26, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Despite Glossip, federal judge orders halt to Mississippi's lethal injection plans

I had thought that the Supreme Court's big Glossip Eighth Amendment ruling a couple of month ago could make it at least somewhat easier for states to get their condemned murderers to execution chambers.  But, intriguingly, only two executions have been carried out since Glossip was decided, and the United States thus remains on track in 2015 for the lowest yearly total of executions in a quarter-century.  

Moreover, as reported via this (somewhat confusing) AP article, headlined "Federal judge halts executions in Mississippi," even claims that would seem to have been resolved by Glossip are still disrupting state execution efforts in a least one state.  Here are the basic details:

A federal judge on Tuesday temporarily blocked the state of Mississippi from using two drugs in executions, shutting down the death penalty in the state for now.

U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate issued a temporary restraining order saying Mississippi officials cannot use pentobarbital or midazolam, two drugs used to render prisoners unconscious. Mississippi law requires a three-drug process, with the sedative followed by a paralyzing agent and a drug that stops an inmate's heart.

Jim Craig, a lawyer for two inmates, said Wingate gave the order verbally Tuesday in a phone conference with him and other lawyers. Wingate was supposed to issue a written order, but no written copy was yet available later in the day.

Grace Simmons Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Corrections, wrote in an email that the order bars the state from using any drug to execute a condemned inmate. The state quickly filed notice Tuesday saying it will ask the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal to overturn Wingate's order.

"We are extremely disappointed that the federal court has frustrated the State of Mississippi's lawful duty to enforce its criminal sentence of capital punishment," Attorney General Jim Hood said in a statement. "Just months ago the United States Supreme Court approved Oklahoma's method of lethal injection. Mississippi's method follows that of Oklahoma. We feel strongly that the district court misapplied the law."

Craig expects Wingate to issue a preliminary injunction that could freeze executions until the case is complete. Craig said Wingate told lawyers he would expedite the case.

Mississippi is one of a number of states facing legal challenges to lethal injections. Hood's office asked the state Supreme Court in July to set a Thursday execution for convicted murderer Richard Jordan, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, but the state court never acted.

Prisoners say they face risks of excruciating pain and torture during an execution, and that such pain violates the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The suit says there's no guarantee Mississippi can mix a safe and effective anesthetic to knock out prisoners, and even then, prisoners could remain conscious during execution.

As the case was proceeding, Hood's office told Wingate that Mississippi was abandoning its plans to use pentobarbital and instead would use midazolam to knock out prisoners. Mississippi officials have said they've struggled to buy pentobarbital as death penalty opponents pressured manufacturers to cut off the supply.

August 25, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Ninth Circuit panel set for California's appeal of its (unconstitutional?) death penalty administration

Readers may recall that a little over a year ago, as first reported in this July 2014 post, US District Judge  Cormac Carney ruled in Jones v. Chappell (now Jones v. Davis) that California's administration of capital punishment was unconstitutional.  That ruling was based on the judge's conclusion that California operated a death penalty "system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed [, and which consequently] serves no penological purpose."   This Jones ruling was appealed by the state of California to the Ninth Circuit, and a Ninth Circuit panel is finally scheduled to hear oral argument in the case next week.

As reported in this local article, headlined "3 judges appointed by Democrats will hear California death penalty appeal," a notable troika of circuit judges will be the first to hear California's appeal:

The constitutionality of California’s death penalty system will be reviewed next week by a panel of three Democratic appointees on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.  Judges Susan P. Graber and Johnnie B. Rawlinson, Clinton appointees, and Paul J. Watford, an Obama appointee, were randomly assigned Monday to hear an appeal of a federal judge’s ruling that struck down the state’s death penalty law as unconstitutional.

Graber is a former Oregon Supreme Court justice. After joining the federal appeals court, she was once asked to recuse herself from a death penalty case out of Arizona because her father was killed in a carjacking nearly 40 years earlier. One of the teenagers sentenced to death for her father's killing later had his sentence overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. Graber declined the recusal request in the Arizona case, which also involved a carjacking and killing.

Rawlinson is viewed as one of the most conservative Democratic appointees on the court. A former prosecutor from Las Vegas, Rawlinson was the only member of an 11-judge panel to vote to uphold a felony conviction of Barry Bonds, the former San Francisco Giants baseball player.

Watford, a former federal prosecutor, is viewed as a potential candidate for the U.S. Supreme Court if a seat opens up while President Obama is in office. He is generally described as a moderate.

The three are scheduled to hear arguments in Pasadena on Aug. 31 on last year’s death penalty ruling by U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney, appointed by former President George W. Bush.

As detailed in some prior posts below, a number of factors make Jones an interesting ruling for reasons that go beyond its basic significance of declaring unconstitutional the administration of the state capital punishment system with the most persons serving time on death row.  And, as revealed via this Ninth Circuit webpage, various amici have submitted briefs to the Ninth Circuit urging reversal or affirmance of the Jones decision. 

In the end, I am inclined to assert that the composition of this panel is relatively inconsequential.  Whichever side prevails on appeal, the other side is all-but-certain to appeal to the full en banc Ninth Circuit and/or the Supreme Court.  And, especially in the wake of all the dissents in Glossip, I think there is a reasonable likelihood SCOTUS will eventually take up this case no matter how the Ninth Circuit first deals with it.

Prior related posts:

August 25, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Might Pope Francis seek to (and succeed in getting) more federal sentencing reforms moving along?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new Yahoo Politics piece headlined "Criminal justice reformers await holy ally: Pope Francis." Here are excerpts: 

There’s a long history of religious leaders writing and teaching from inside prisons — from Martin Luther King to Paul the Apostle. But 78-year-old Pope Francis may be the most prominent religious leader to ever advocate for prison reform from the outside.

Last year, Francis called for an end to solitary confinement, the death penalty and life imprisonment. He has knelt down to wash and then kiss the feet of Roman inmates on two of the first Holy Thursdays of his papacy. Visiting a group of Bolivian prisoners recently, the pope told them he sees no difference between them and himself — they are all sinners.

Now Francis is coming to the United States, much to the delight of criminal justice reformers who have waged a growing bipartisan battle to scale back and remake the mammoth U.S. penal system. Reformers hope Francis’ visit to the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia next month as part of his six-day U.S. tour will grab lawmakers’ attention.  A few days before visiting the inner-city prison, the pope will address Congress and could raise the issue of criminal justice reform there as well....

Francis is not the first pontiff to urge mercy and redemption for convicts. Pope Innocent X visited inmates in the late 1600s. Pope John Paul II famously forgave and asked for a pardon for the man who almost killed him in a 1981 assassination attempt, and Pope Benedict visited at least two prisons.  But Francis is unique in how much emphasis he’s put on the issue and how specific he’s been about how societies should treat their prisoners. He’s visited at least four prisons in his short tenure as pope, including one of the most dangerous in Latin America, and responded to hundreds of letters from U.S. prisoners serving life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles.

In a speech to penal-law representatives from around the world in October 2014, the pope laid out his vision for criminal justice reform.  He called for an end to solitary confinement, which he compared to torture, and spoke out against pre-trial detention. (The U.S. sends thousands of people to prison each year because they cannot afford bail.) He spoke out against both the death penalty and life sentences.  (“A life sentence is just a death penalty in disguise,” said Francis.)  And he urged law enforcement to take pity on pregnant, old and young offenders.

The pope also urged countries to more broadly reflect upon the point of imprisonment.  Is it about bringing justice to victims and reforming the offenders?  Or is it simply revenge and a way to “scapegoat” stereotyped people for all social ills?  Addressing prisoners in Italy last year, Francis spoke passionately about how locking people up for years and years without giving them hope for reintegrating into society is wrong.

“Some consider taking a path of punishment, of misdeeds, of sins and just to suffer, suffer, suffer,” he said in a penitentiary in the Italian town of Isernia.  “To cage people … for the mere fact that if he is inside we are safe, this serves nothing. It does not help us.”

It’s unclear if Francis will use his visit with roughly 100 inmates in the Philadelphia prison’s gymnasium to advocate for specific reforms.  And his congressional speech could well focus instead on poverty, the need to care for the environment or welcoming immigrants — all major themes of his ministry.  “What we’re really hoping for are some specific United States statements,” said Karen Clifton, the executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, an anti-death-penalty group. “We do incarcerate per capita more than anyone else in the world. He’s got to bring those facts to life.”

This could lead legislators to think twice about their priorities. “If this good and holy man says this is a concern, I think it affects the conscience of all legislators and especially Catholics,” said Pat Nolan of the American Conservative Union, a leader in the reform movement.

Some prior related posts on Pope Francis and criminal justice reform:

August 25, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Religion, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Federalism in Action: How Conservative States Got Smart on Crime"

Freedomworks-logo_0The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Jason Pye from the conservative group FreedomWorks.  Here is how the relatively short white-paper concludes:

Conservative states have led the way on justice reform over the last decade. By changing the culture of corrections through sentencing reforms that limit mandatory minimum prison terms to the most serious offenders and rely on treatment as an alternative to incarceration, rehabilitative programs for those who do serve time, and continued assistance when offenders reenter society, lawmakers have reduced recidivism, made communities safer, and saved taxpayers money.

The results from conservative states — these laboratories of democracy — are key as members of Congress look for ways to deal with the federal corrections system, which has seen explosive population and cost growth of its own since 1980. This is federalism in action. Through sentencing reforms and a focus on treatment as an alternative to incarceration, the federal government can lessen the cost-burden on taxpayers by using the lessons from the states to get smart on crime.

Conservatives have embraced the justice reform movement, and they should continue to do so. While passed with the best of intentions, the policies of the past have proven unsustainable, both in terms of the fiscal cost and the negative impact on poor and minority communities. The model that conservative states have provided fundamentally changes the nature of the approach. Punishments are, of course, still meted out by courts, but the sentences given offer a means for offenders to alter the direction of their lives.

One such example is a woman named Sarah Gilleland, whose story was told by Gov. Nathan Deal in a joint session of the Georgia General Assembly in January 2012. “Sarah was a drug addict. The drug use that began as recreation resulted in a destructive cocaine and methamphetamine addiction. It took control of her life. At one point, she had no means of transportation, she lost custody of her little girl, she wound up homeless,” Deal explained. “But I mention Sarah tonight because she exemplifies many of the goals we hold for our corrections system.”

“Under the supervision of a drug court, piece-by-piece, she began rebuilding her life. With help, she beat addiction, she won back her daughter, she is now a sponsor helping other women who face the same trials, and because she provides a powerful example of hope and redemption, I have asked her to join us in this chamber tonight,” he said, pointing to Sarah in the gallery of the chamber.

“Sarah was given a shot a better life and she took it. Her story is not the exception, it is playing out all across Georgia as people reclaim their lives through the work of accountability courts.”

“That is why we must focus on transforming our corrections system into a last resort of opportunity—a place where low-level offenders are reclaimed and restored to society as functioning members of the community—working to support their own families and paying taxes,” he added.

Compelling stories such as this are not just told in Georgia, they are also told in other states that have adopted conservative justice reforms that focus on rehabilitation, rather than incarceration. And as more states and the federal government adopt the effort, more prison space will be reserved for the worst offenders in society, while those who have demonstrated a willingness to change their lives become productive citizens.

August 25, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, August 24, 2015

Aurora victims present a "parade of pain" at on-going James Holmes sentencing proceedings

One of many benefits I see in giving crime victims certain rights in the criminal justice system is to ensure their voices are heard and their experiences are memoralized in courtroom proceedings even when those voices and experiences may not directly impact sentencing outcomes. In turn, I think it now worth highlighting the on-going proceedings in a Colorado courtroom that are effectively and potently reported in this CNN piece headlined "A parade of pain at James Holmes sentencing." I recommend reading the whole piece, and here are excerpts:

One by one, the wounded and the grieving are telling a Colorado judge how the Aurora movie theater gunman stripped the normal from their lives. Some are sobbing, some are angry. All are shattered by loss. It is a parade of pain that will not change the sentence for the 27-year-old shooter. James Eagan Holmes will spend the rest of his life behind bars.

But the inevitable outcome didn't stop the grieving grandfather of the gunman's youngest victim from making a suggestion: "I would challenge the murderer to do the right thing for once in this trial and petition the court for execution by firing squad," said Robert Sullivan.

He was the doting grandfather of 6-year-old Veronica Moser-Sullivan, who had innocent, shining brown eyes. Her pregnant mother, Ashley Moser, was shot and paralyzed.

Moser said she was looking forward to being a mother of two, but now she's nobody's mommy. She needs constant nursing care. She said she wished Holmes could be sentenced to life as a quadriplegic, just as she and two other shooting victims are. More than 40 people gave victim impact statements on Monday, and at least 40 more are expected on Tuesday....

[M]any of the victims say they feel cheated, and they appeared to seek comfort in demonizing a defendant who took so much from them. A man whose son was gunned down in the theater referred to Holmes' schizophrenia as "a mental hangnail" and said he was disgusted during the trial by his "smirk." He called Holmes' attorneys "horrible people" and said they "fabricated a defense" to pad their resumes.

Beth Craft, whose brother John Larimer was killed, said, "The defendant may be mentally ill, but he is more evil than anything else."...

The trial, Kathleen Pourciau said, was like watching someone get away with something. It felt out of whack, unbalanced. It didn't feel like justice.

"When justice isn't served, there's a brutal message delivered to the victims," she said. "When the punishment doesn't fit the crime, the message to the victims is that your loss, your pain isn't important. The message was that the state of Colorado values the life of a mass murderer more than the people he murdered.

"How many people do you have to kill to get the death penalty?" Pourciau asked. "Why do you even have a death penalty if you don't use it? What signal does this sentence send to Bonnie Kate and others? We care, but not that much?"

A sentence of 12 life terms topped by hundreds of additional years behind bars is "absurd," she added, "the judicial equivalent of beating a dead horse."

August 24, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15)

"Justice Department Administration of the President's Pardon Power: A Case Study in Institutional Conflict of Interest"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Margaret Colgate Love now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The president’s constitutional pardon power has been administered by the attorney general since before the Civil War, but this arrangement has never been adequately explained or justified. On its face it appears rife with conflict of institutional interests: how could the agency responsible for convicting people and putting them in prison also be tasked with forgiving them and setting them free? In spite of these apparently antithetical missions, the Justice Department managed the pardon program in a low-key and reliable manner for well over a century, staffing it with a handful of career lawyers operating on a shoestring budget, and churning out hundreds of favorable clemency recommendations each year for the president’s consideration. While there were occasionally controversial grants there were never scandalous ones, and the president was able to use his power to good effect in wartime and in peace.

It is only in the past two decades that questions have been raised about the integrity and functionality of the pardon process, focusing squarely on the agency and individuals standing as gatekeeper to the president’s power. President Obama’s decision in early 2014 to launch a large-scale clemency initiative, and the Justice Department’s unprecedented decision to rely upon a consortium of private organizations to manage it, make this a propitious time to consider whether the presidency is well-served by an arrangement making officials responsible for prosecuting crime the primary source of clemency advice.

This essay concludes that the culture and mission of the Justice Department have in recent years become determinedly and irreconcilably hostile to the beneficent purposes of the pardon power, and to its regular use by the president. The only way to deal with the institutional conflict that produced and perpetuates this situation is to transfer the pardon program to the president’s direct supervision in the Executive Office of the President. This move will have a variety of benefits, including facilitating the president’s ability to oversee the workings of the criminal justice system, for which he has a special responsibility under the Constitution. More specifically, it will introduce salutary political accountability to federal prosecutions through presidential oversight and potential revision. Finally, it will give the president control for the first time in decades over his own “benign prerogative.”

August 24, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Might any Prez candidate pledge to put a criminal defense attorney on the Supreme Court?

Article-2228924-15CDB3E3000005DC-474_634x424The question in the title of this post is prompted by this CBS News dispatch from the presidential campaign trail headlined "Chris Christie makes a Supreme Court promise." Here are excerpts from the piece:

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Thursday pledged that if elected president, his first Supreme Court nominee would not be a Harvard Law or Yale Law School graduate.  "I think you can be pretty sure of that fact," he promised radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt.

In an interview with Hewitt, Christie argued that Americans were tired of the "education establishment" and implied that success was not limited to those who hold an Ivy League education.  Five of the current Supreme Court justices are Harvard Law graduates, while three are Yale graduates.  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg received her law degree from Columbia Law School.

The governor mentioned that his ideal U.S. Supreme Court appointees would come from various backgrounds and would know that their rulings affect "real people's" lives every day.  "You need folks who have real life experiences, who have had real struggles, and who have made a difference in their communities in ways that are different than just going to an Ivy League school."

My first reaction to these comments was to find remarkable how similar candidate Christie's comments about selecting judges are to Prez Obama's (often criticized) comments about the importance of judges having "a keen understanding of how the law affects the daily lives of the American people" and having "that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles."

Upon second thought, though, I came to realize that what is really lacking on the Supreme Court are jurists with experience as criminal defense attorneys.  Most notably, the last four appointed Supreme Court Justices all had experience as prosecutors and/or members of the US Department of Justice.  (In reverse order, Justice Kagan has been US Solicitor General, Justice Sotomayor had been a NY state prosecutor, Justice Alito had been a US Attorney for New Jersey, and Chief Justice Roberts had been a senior official in the Justice Department.)  

Of course, despite their Ivy League degrees and some similar resume lines, I think all the current Justices, thanks in part to significant time in a variety of professional roles other than just as a government lawyer, did come onto the Court with some diverse "real life experiences" and "real struggles."  Still, I think candidate Christie is making a reasonable pith for greater educational (and personal and professional?) diversity on the Supreme Court.  And especially now that criminal justice reform is a hot-topic on the campaign trail, it is now at least possible to imagine that a future President would seriously consider nominating for the Supreme Court somebody with a background in criminal defense.

August 24, 2015 in Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Sunday, August 23, 2015

"From Jones to Jones: Fifteen Years of Incoherence in the Constitutional Law of Sentencing Factfinding"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now on SSRN authored by Benjamin Priester. Here is the abstract:

With tens of thousands of persons sentenced every year in the United States, the contemporary American criminal justice system places undeniable importance upon the constitutional constraints governing the scope of the permissible and impermissible exercises of factfinding authority by sentencing judges in the course of determining the specific punishment to be imposed upon an individual convicted of a criminal offense.  Yet for the past fifteen years the United States Supreme Court has failed to provide doctrinal stability and consistency to this crucial area of constitutional law.

Even the most recent decisions, such as Alleyne v. United States (2013) regarding mandatory minimum sentencing provisions, have generated only more unpredictability in the doctrine and more disagreements among the justices’ viewpoints.  The path to an enduring doctrinal solution is not readily evident, and the Court’s unwillingness to reach consensus leaves the constitutional law of sentencing factfinding trapped in an ongoing cycle of unpredictability and doctrinal incoherence.

August 23, 2015 in Almendarez-Torres and the prior conviction exception, Apprendi / Blakely Retroactivity , Blakely Commentary and News, Blakely in the Supreme Court, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 21, 2015

Split Michigan appeals court finds juve has Sixth Amendment right to jury findings for LWOP sentence

Thanks to a few helpful readers, I learned about a very interesting split panel ruling today from the Michigan Court of Appeals in Michigan v. Skinner, No. 317892 (Mich. Ct. App. Aug. 21, 2015). Here is how this majority opinion starts in Skinner:

This case presents a constitutional issue of first impression as to whether the Sixth Amendment mandates that a jury make the findings set forth by Miller v Alabama, 576 US ___; 132 S Ct 2455; 183 L Ed 2d 407 (2012) as codified in MCL 769.25(6), before sentencing a juvenile homicide offender to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.  We find that the Sixth Amendment mandates that juveniles convicted of homicide who face the possibility of a sentence of life without the possibility of parole have a right to have their sentence determined by a jury.  In so finding, we expressly reserve the issue of whether this defendant should receive the penalty of life in prison without the possibility of parole for a jury.  In this case, defendant requested and was denied her right to have a jury decide her sentence.  Accordingly, we vacate her sentence for first-degree murder and remand for resentencing on that offense consistent with this opinion.

Here is how this dissenting opinion in Skinner gets started:

I respectfully dissent. While the majority sets forth a strong argument, it ultimately fails because it is based upon a false premise: that Apprendi and its progeny requires that all facts relating to a sentence must be found by a jury.  Rather, the principle set forth in those cases establishes only that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial requires the jury to find those facts necessary to impose a sentence greater than that authorized by the legislature in the statute itself based upon the conviction itself.  And the statute adopted by the Michigan Legislature with respect to juvenile lifers does not fit within that category.

I am going to need some time to read these opinions closely before I weigh in, but I would guess that the Michigan Supreme Court (and maybe even the US Supreme Court) will have its say before long on this matter.

August 21, 2015 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Blakely in the States, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Who Built Prison America? Not Ted Kennedy"

Regular readers may recall a couple posts earlier this year (here and here) noting a fascinating book by Princeton Professor Naomi Murakawa titled The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison in America.  Interestingly, Ron Weich, a prominent former staffer for Senator Ted Kennedy has this new commentary at The Crime Report (with the same headline of this post) asserting it is wrong to lay blame on Senator Kennedy for modern mass incarceration.  Here are excerpts:

One of Kennedy’s most far-reaching bipartisan accomplishments was the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984.  Yet this law serves as Exhibit A for Professor Murakawa’s theory that liberals bear responsibility for the failed criminal justice policies of that era.  She blames the sentencing guideline system established by the Act for contributing to mass incarceration and accuses Sen. Kennedy of advancing unduly punitive policies....

Murakawa has harsh words for all who supported the 1984 Act, but she singles out Kennedy for special criticism.  She decries the fact that the man she calls “the liberal lion of the Senate” included in the law various “carceral” elements such as the abolition of parole and a reduction in the availability of good-time credits for prisoners.  She tracks changes in the sentencing bills Kennedy introduced from 1977 to 1984 and argues that his bills became increasingly punitive.  She regards Kennedy as a “hard test case for my claim that Democrats aided, abetted, and legitimized a punitive law and order regime.”

The first flaw in the Murakawa book is its subtitle: How Liberals Built Prison America. No fair observer of criminal justice policy could conclude that liberals -- or conservatives or Democrats or Republicans -- bear sole responsibility for the spike in incarceration over the past half century. Rather, these disastrous criminal justice policies were a bipartisan misadventure that reflected the nation’s anger and fear about crime.

Every crime bill enacted by Congress in the 1980s and 1990s passed with broad bipartisan majorities and the support of leaders from both political parties.  Only a handful of liberal House Democrats sometimes voiced concern.  The Senate often passed crime bills by unanimous consent.

It is certainly fair to criticize Kennedy and other liberals for supporting bad crime bills. But they did not build “Prison America” by themselves, as the subtitle of Murakawa’s book unfairly suggests.

Murakawa’s narrative also fails to appreciate the complex collaborative nature of the legislative process.  She attributes to Kennedy personally the flaws she perceives in his bills. Yes, he was a lead sponsor of the Sentencing Reform Act, but he did not write the law in a vacuum.  The bill’s text is the product of years of negotiations with [Strom] Thurmond and many other members of the Senate, as well as committee markups and floor debates.

Murakawa acknowledges, but does not emphasize, the huge influence of the Justice Department in shaping the final law.  It is no surprise that a bill first introduced during President Jimmy Carter’s administration became more conservative by the time it was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.

Too often, Murakawa conflates the role of the guideline system and mandatory minimum sentencing laws in contributing to overincarceration.  Many of the most draconian mandatory minimums for drug and gun crimes were enacted in 1986, after the passage of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 but before the guidelines took effect in 1987.  Kennedy recognized that mandatory minimums were unjustified once the guideline system had been established.  He repeatedly argued that guidelines are a reasonable mechanism to restrain judicial discretion, whereas mandatory minimums are blunt and unyielding.

Throughout the 1990s Kennedy fought against mandatory minimum sentencing proposals, as I detailed in my article “The Battle Against Mandatory Minimums: A Report from the Front Lines.”

He championed the safety-valve provision (18 USC 3553(f)) in the 1994 crime bill, which allows certain low-level, nonviolent offenders to be sentenced below applicable mandatory minimums.  In fact, in his 1994 reelection race against Mitt Romney, Kennedy faced brutal ads claiming he was soft on crime because he had opposed mandatory sentencing.

Kennedy and other liberals can be faulted for voting in favor of the 1986 crime bill and other bills which contained mandatory minimums, but they did not lead the charge for those policies as Kennedy had for a guideline system.  In fact, Sen. Kennedy was a leader in opposing mandatory minimums once their effect became clear and their inconsistency with the guideline system became apparent.

More generally, Kennedy was a voice for more rational criminal justice policies.  He always opposed capital punishment and, as Prof. Murakawa notes, led the unsuccessful fight to pass the Racial Justice Act which would have allowed capital defendants to challenge their sentences using statistical evidence of racial bias....

Professor Murakawa has written a thoughtful, comprehensive academic study of federal sentencing policies. A book like hers provides an important service, but it cannot be expected to take account of the rough-and-tumble aspects of the legislative arena.  During his long political career, Sen. Kennedy endured criticism that was a lot harsher and less fair than that contained in Murakawa’s book.

As someone who has been involved in criminal justice policy for many years, both before and after I worked for Sen. Kennedy, I share Murakawa’s concern about America’s overreliance on incarceration.  I also applaud the current trend toward more sensible sentencing policies.

I have no doubt that if Sen. Kennedy were alive today, he would be leading the charge for criminal justice reforms.  And he would be doing so in a bipartisan manner, working with Sens. Rand Paul, Mike Lee and other unlikely bedfellows.  That was his way.

Prior related posts:

August 21, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Has Jared Fogle gotten a sweetheart plea deal and/or celebrity treatment for sex crimes?

The question in the title of this post is one that I first had when I initially heard of the basics facts and basic plea deal terms (reported here) surrounding the child sex crimes committed by former Subway pitchman Jared Fogle.  In addition, a number of blog commenters have in prior posts comments likewise wondered about the sentencing range Fogle would appear to be facing under the terms of the plea deal.  Along those lines, here are now some recent media coverage on this plea deal front:

As federal practitioners know, whatever plea deal that has been put together in this case by the parties could ultimately be rejected by the district judge. Such a plea deal rejection, in a typical federal criminal case, is quite rare. But the media attention already generated by this case makes it anything but typical, and that media attention might also end up influencing the judge who has to approve the deal before it becomes official.

Helpfully, this official press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Indiana provides a bit more detail about what seem to be the sentencing elements of the proposed plea deal: 

According to Senior Litigation Counsel Steven D. DeBrota, who is prosecuting the case for the government, under the terms of the plea agreement, Fogle faces a mandatory minimum sentence of at least 5 years of imprisonment, a fine of up to $500,000, and supervised release after serving his prison sentence for at least 5 years and up to the remainder of his life. There is no agreed sentence in the case and the government may request of up to 151 months of imprisonment. However, Fogle may not request a sentence below 5 years of imprisonment.

The Plea Agreement also requires Fogle to pay a total of $1,400,000 in restitution to the 14 victims in the case, 8 of whom are still minors, and forfeit assets of $50,000. This is the largest amount of restitution ever ordered for a child pornography or sex trafficking case in the history of the Southern District of Indiana. The victims will be able to use these funds to pay for counseling and treatment to combat the debilitating life effects of these crimes.

Reading between the lines, it seems that the plea deal as described here may only limit the severity of the sentencing that prosecutors recommend, it may not formally limit what sentence the judge could acually impose. If this is accurate, then I would predict that the district judge would be inclined to accept even a seemingly "sweetheart" deal for Fogle safe in the knowledge that he could ultimately impose a sentence longer than the 12.5 years of imprisonment likely to be recommended by prosecutors when sentencing finally rolls around.

Prior related posts:

August 20, 2015 in Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

"Bernie Sanders Announces Bill to Abolish Private Prisons, Hints at Marijuana Policy Platform"

The title of this post is the headline of this notableg piece via the Marijuana Politics website that reports on some recent statements by Senator Sanders on the campaign trail that should be of special interest to sentencing law and policy fans. Here are excerpts (with links from original):

Bernie Sanders isn’t done talking about criminal justice reform — in fact, he’s merely getting started.  The presidential contender continues to rise in the polls and sensible Drug War reforms will only increase his standing with the Democratic base.

Appearing at a campaign rally in Nevada on Tuesday, the Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential candidate talked at length about the unfairly punitive policies that plague the American justice system and disproportionately affect people of color in the United States. Speaking to the crowd of 4,500 supporters gathered outside the University of Nevada, Sen. Sanders went beyond his previous speeches on the issue, announcing that, come September, he will be introducing federal legislation which would abolish for-profit private prisons.

“When Congress reconvenes in September,” Sanders said, “I will be introducing legislation, which takes corporations out of profiteering from running jails.”

Tackling the problem of for-profit prisons is a bold move for a federal legislator, as the prison industry is a hugely profitable part of the U.S. economy.  The top two private prison companies in the country, Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, have a combined annual revenue of over $3 billion, much of which is spent lobbying elected officials to protect their bottom line.  While some states, such as New York and Illinois, have enacted laws to ban the privatization of prisons, for-profit prisons have tragically remained a staple of the American criminal justice system, in large part due to the country’s skyrocketing incarceration rates made possible by the War on Drugs.

Bernie Sanders also indicated that the War on Drugs will be a focus of his campaign. “We want to deal with minimum sentencing,” Sanders said Tuesday,  “Too many lives have been destroyed for non-violent issues.  People that are sent to jail have police records. We have got to change that.  Our job is to keep people out of jail, not in jail.”  According to audience members, Bernie Sanders also said that his campaign will be addressing marijuana legalization in the weeks to come.

August 20, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Connecticut Supreme Court retroactive abolition of death sentences prompting prosepctive perspectives

Because I find a lot of state supreme court sentencing rulings quite interesting and important, I am sometimes troubled that such rulings rarely too garner much media or academic attention.  But, as with many stories in the sentencing unverse, these dyanmics change dramatically when the issue is death penalty abolition.  So, I am not too surprised that last week's ruling by the Connecticut Supreme Court, which followed up the state's legislature's prospective death penalty repeal with retrospective state consitutional abolition (basics here), has got lots of folks talking a lot.  Two recent commentaries especially have caught my attention this morning:

A key passage: "Although the State of Connecticut vs. Eduardo Santiago ruling definitively bans capital punishment in Connecticut, it raises three key questions about the death penalty nationally.  The first question is for the U.S. Supreme Court: How many states must abolish the death penalty before the high court will strike it down for good?"

A key passage: "In the breadth of its perspective on the history and current problematic state of the death penalty, in its cleareyed dissection of the irreconcilable conflict at the heart of modern death­penalty jurisprudence, the Connecticut Supreme Court not only produced an important decision for its own jurisdiction; but it addressed the United States Supreme Court frankly and directly.  The decision engages the Supreme Court at a crucial moment of mounting unease, within the court and outside it, with the death penalty’s trajectory over the nearly four decades since the court permitted states to resume executions."

Meanwhile, Kent Scheidegger at Crime & Consequences also continues to ruminate on what the Connecticut Supreme Court did in these follow-up posts: "Breathtaking Hypocrisy" and "Death-penalty Deception"

Prior related post:

August 20, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

"FDA warns Ohio not to illegally import execution drugs"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new article in my own Columbus Dispatch. The piece provides both the latest news and effective background on the difficulties Ohio has been facing of late in the operation of its death machinery:

A U.S. Food and Drug Administration official wrote June 26 to Gary Mohr, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation Correction, saying the agency learned the state “intends to obtain bulk and finished dosage forms of sodium thiopental.  Since sodium thiopental is not available in the United States, we assume the product would be obtained from an overseas source.”

“Please note that there is no FDA approved application for sodium thiopental,” wrote Domenic Veneziano, the federal agency’s director of import operations, “and it is illegal to import an unapproved new drug into the United States.”

Prisons spokeswoman JoEllen Smith confirmed receipt of the letter, but she would not say if the state followed through with an overseas purchase of the drug used in executions.  “DRC continues to seek all legal means to obtain the drugs necessary to carry out court ordered executions. This process has included multiple options,” Smith said.  The agency does not yet have drugs for the next execution, she said....

The latest development comes less than five months before Ohio’s scheduled execution of Ronald Phillips of Summit County on Jan. 21, 2016.  Another 20 executions have been set through May 2019.

Ohio’s last execution was Jan. 16, 2014, when Dennis McGuire struggled and gasped for several minutes before succumbing to a combination of midazolam, a sedative, and hydromorphone, a morphine derivative.  The drugs had never been used in combination for an execution anywhere in the U.S.  Prison officials subsequently abandoned using those drugs, and turned to the General Assembly for help.   The legislature passed a law permitting the agency to buy drugs under a secret contract with a “compounding pharmacy,” typically smaller businesses which mix ingredients to user specifications.

Sodium thiopental is no longer available for purchase in the U.S. The last domestic manufacturer stopped production in 2011, largely because states were using it for executions.  Ohio’s revised execution policy calls for using large doses of sedatives, either sodium thiopental or pentobarbital.  

August 19, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Lots and lots of good summer reads about US criminal justice problems

Among the many benefits I see in lots more political and policy attention to mass incarceration and broader American criminal justice concerns is the presence of lots more thoughtful (old and new) media coverage of problems in current US policies and pactices.  Here are just a few examples of both news coverage and commentary catching my eye early in this mid-summer week:

August 18, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Finally, a bit more (though inadequate and unfair) discussion of sentencing finality issues

I am intrigued to see this potent new New York Times op-ed by civil rights attorney Alec Karakatsanis headlined "President Obama’s Department of Injustice."  But, as explained below (and as hinted in the post title), though this piece does a useful job of highlighting concerns with doctrines and policies that give too much significance to the "finality" of problematic federal prison sentences, I fear this op-ed is itself a problematic version of "shooting the messenger."  Here are excerpts (with some key phrases emphasized for the comments to follow):

Last month, President Obama used his clemency power to reduce the sentences of 46 federal prisoners locked up on drug­-related charges.  But for the last six years, his administration has worked repeatedly behind the scenes to ensure that tens of thousands of poor people — disproportionately minorities — languish in federal prison on sentences declared by the courts, and even the president himself, to be illegal and unjustifiable.

The case of Ezell Gilbert is emblematic of this injustice.  In March 1997, he was sentenced to 24 years and four months in federal prison for possession with the intent to distribute more than 50 grams of crack cocaine.  Because of mandatory sentencing laws, Mr. Gilbert was automatically sentenced to a quarter-century in prison, though even the judge who sentenced him admitted that this was too harsh.

At his sentencing, Mr. Gilbert noted a legal error that improperly increased his sentence by approximately a decade based on a misclassification of one of his prior offenses. In 1999, without a lawyer, he filed a petition seeking his release.  A court ruled against him. Nearly 10 years later, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in another prisoner’s case, confirming that Mr. Gilbert had been right.  A public defender helped him file a new petition for immediate release in light of this new decision.

Mr. Obama’s Justice Department, however, convinced a Florida federal judge that even if Mr. Gilbert’s sentence was illegal, he had to remain in prison because prisoners should not be able to petition more than once for release.  The “finality” of criminal cases was too important, the department argued, to allow prisoners more than one petition, even if a previous one was wrongly denied.

A federal appellate court disagreed, and in June 2010, three judges set Mr. Gilbert free. The judges rejected the administration’s argument as a departure from basic fairness and explained that it simply could not be the law in America that a person had to serve a prison sentence that everyone admitted was illegal.  Mr. Gilbert returned home and stayed out of trouble.

Here’s where it gets interesting. There are many people like Mr. Gilbert in America’s federal prisons — people whose sentences are now obviously illegal. Instead of rushing to ensure that all those thousands of men and women illegally imprisoned at taxpayer expense were set free, the Justice Department said that it did not want a rule that allowed other prisoners like Mr. Gilbert to retroactively challenge their now illegal sentences.  If the “floodgates” were opened, too many others — mostly poor, mostly black — would have to be released.  The Obama administration’s fear of the political ramifications of thousands of poor minority prisoners being released at once around the country, what Justice William J. Brennan Jr. once called “a fear of too much justice,” is the real justification.

In May 2011, the same court, led by a different group of judges, sided with the original judge, saying that the “finality” of sentences was too important a principle to allow prisoners to be released on a second rather than first petition, even if the prison sentence was illegal.  A contrary rule would force the courts to hear the complaints of too many other prisoners. Mr. Gilbert was rearrested and sent back to prison to serve out his illegal sentence.

Judge James Hill, then an 87-­year­old senior judge on the appellate court in Atlanta, wrote a passionate dissent.  Judge Hill, a conservative who served in World War II and was appointed by Richard M. Nixon, called the decision “shocking” and declared that a “judicial system that values finality over justice is morally bankrupt.”  Judge Hill wrote that the result was “urged by a department of the United States that calls itself, without a trace of irony, the Department of Justice.”  Judge Hill concluded: “The government hints that there are many others in Gilbert’s position — sitting in prison serving sentences that were illegally imposed. We used to call such systems ‘gulags.’ Now, apparently, we call them the United States.”

Two years later, the Justice Department used a similar tactic to overturn an entirely different federal appellate court decision that could have freed thousands of prisoners convicted of nonviolent crack cocaine offenses — again, mostly impoverished and mostly black — on the grounds that their sentences were discriminatory and unjustifiable.  The administration again did its work without fanfare in esoteric legal briefs, even as the president publicly called the crack­-cocaine sentencing system “unfair.”

In 2013, several years after sending him back to prison, Mr. Obama granted Mr. Gilbert clemency, and the president has recently won praise for doing the same for several dozen other prisoners of the war on drugs....  

But Mr. Obama must take steps to further undo the damage that he has done.  He should use his clemency power to release all those currently held in a federal prison on an illegal sentence.  And he should appoint a permanent special counsel whose job would be to review new laws and federal court cases on a continuing basis to identify and release other prisoners whose sentences retroactively become clearly unlawful.  That the Department of Justice and Bureau of Prisons have never created such a position is an outrage.  If we fail to demand change now, this moment for justice may be lost.

I very much like this author's suggestion that DOJ and BOP have special counsel who would seek to identify and advocate for the release of those currently held in a federal prison on an illegal sentence. But, as a matter of substance, given that vast majority of federal prisoners sentenced before the 2005 Booker ruling were sentenced in violation of the Sixth Amendment, the author is arguably asserting that it is unjust that any federal prisoner is still serving any pre-Booker guideline sentence (let alone any other sentence impacted by any of the many pro-defendant Supreme Court sentencing rulings of the last decade).

Even more troublesome, as a matter of process, DOJ has not really been "working behind the scenes" or using any novel "tactic... in esoteric legal briefs" in order to keep prisoners behind bars based on illegal sentences.  Rather, DOJ has been just doing its job, namely seeking to faithfully execute the laws duly enacted by Congress and interpretted by the courts.  In the Gilbert case and in the other cases referenced in this op-ed, the real "villian" in these complicated legal stories is not really DOJ, but the text of the AEDPA and the Fair Sentencing Act which DOJ is duty-bound to seek to faithfully apply.  

This op-ed is not entirely off-base for suggesting that DOJ could be more inclined to read federal statutes and court rulings in a more defendant-friendly way.  But, especially in recent years, DOJ under the Obama Administration has actually been pretty willing to help prior-sentenced defendants get an extra day in court.  For example, after a few lower courts ruled that the FSA's lower crack mandatory minimums applied to "pipeline cases," DOJ changes its litigation arguments to a more defendant-friendly position.  In addition, Obama's DOJ has generally endorsed retroactive application of defendant-friendly guideline amendments.  And, most recently, DOJ appears to be taking a pro-defendant stance on the broad retroactivity of the Supeme Court's recent constitutional rulings in Miller concerning juve LWOP sentences and Johnson concerning ACCA sentences.

As regular readers know, I pull few punches when it comes to criticizing the Obama Administration and its Justice Department when making what I view as misguided discretionary decisions concerning the application and enforcement of federal sentencing laws and procedures.  But this op-ed, rather than highlight fundamental problems with laws like AEDPA and court jurisprudence that gives excessive weight to sentence finality, seems problematically eager to suggest a star-chamber deep inside Main Justice has Obama Administration officials twirling their mustashes while devising esoteric tactics for keeping innocent people in prison for as long as possible.  

I do not want to unduly criticize this op-ed because I have long been motivated by the same concerns as the author concerning courts having ample means to remedy problematic prior-imposed prison sentences. But the core problem is not really Obama's DOJ and its litigation positions, but the laws put in place by Congress and interpretted by the courts which largely demand that DOJ take many of its seemingly hard-hearted litigation positions.

Some (of many) prior posts on sentencing finality:

August 18, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

"Can a Federal Prisoner Be Too Old to Jail?"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new National Journal article.  Here are excerpts:

When you're locked in federal prison, how old do you have to be to count as "aging"?

That's the question two federal agencies are grappling over, and the answer they pick will determine how the government spends more than $800 million in public funding for prisons.  And for tens of thousands of federal inmates, it could mean the difference between becoming eligible for a late-life release program and spending their twilight years behind bars.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons is struggling to adjust to an aging prison population, a product, in part, of criminal-justice reforms of the late 1980s that dramatically reduced federal parole and imposed mandatory minimum sentences for some offenses.  In fiscal 2013, the Federal Bureau of Prisons spent nearly 20 percent of its $6.9 billion budget to incarcerate inmates aged 50 and older.  And without a policy intervention, those costs are set to rise: Inmates aged 50 and older make up the fastest-growing segment of the prison population, according to Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz.

To meet those costs, the Bureau of Prisons is requesting a 6.1 percent increase in funding for fiscal 2016, an increase from the bureau's $6.9 billion budget in 2015.  But in a report released in May, the Justice Department Office of the Inspector General suggested the Bureau of Prisons consider an alternative solution: expand a "compassionate-release" program that reduces the term of imprisonment for elderly inmates.

To be eligible for the reduced sentencing program, inmates must have "chronic or serious medical conditions relating to the aging process" that "substantially diminish their ability to function in a correctional facility" for which "conventional treatment promises no substantial improvement," according to a statement from the Bureau of Prisons.  They must also have served more than half of their sentence.  For inmates looking for early release under nonmedical circumstances, the time-served bar is higher: "the greater of 10 years or 75 percent of their term."...

But for any of the above criteria to be considered, the inmate must be aged 65 or older. The Inspector General report did not explicitly call on the Bureau of Prisons to lower the limit in its May report.  Instead, it recommended the bureau reconsider the age bar and noted the potential advantages of setting it at age 50.

The lower threshold would cut incarceration costs and relieve prison overcrowding without significantly increasing recidivism rates, the report said.  The report notes several ways in which prisoners 50 and over differ from the rest of the prison population.  Older inmates cost an average of 8 percent more to confine, but they are also less likely to end up back in prison after release.  While the recidivism rate among all prisoners is 41 percent, for those released after age 50, the rate falls to 15 percent.

According to the Inspector General report, lowering the threshold age from 65 to 50 and instituting a 5 percent release rate for only those inmates in minimum or low-security institutions or medical centers could reduce incarceration costs by approximately $28 million per year.  Federal prisons with the most aging inmates spent "five times more per inmate on medical care" and "14 times more per inmate on medication" than institutions with the fewest aging inmates, the report said.

The 65-or-over bar for the program is relatively new, set in 2013 in an effort to clarify the release program's eligibility criteria following a separate Inspector General report released earlier that year....  For now, it's unclear whether the Bureau of Prisons will lower the minimum age for its compassionate-release program.  In its response to the May Inspector General report, the agency said it would "raise the issue with relevant stakeholders for further discussion."

August 18, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, August 17, 2015

"Prosecutorial Constitutionalism"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting-looking new paper available via SSRN authored by Eric Fish. Here is the abstract:

As adversary lawyers, prosecutors are obligated to seek convictions.  But as executive branch officials, prosecutors are obligated to interpret and apply the Constitution in good faith.  These two roles are fundamentally at odds.  The first requires prosecutors to interpret the Constitution strategically so as to limit defendants’ rights, while the second requires them to interpret the Constitution evenhandedly much like judges do. The crucial question is: when should prosecutors be partisan advocates, and when should they be quasi-judicial rights enforcers? 

This Article argues that prosecutors should adopt the latter role in situations where the adversary system fails.  This happens when judges are unable to effectively control prosecutors’ actions (for example, with regard to the duty to reveal exculpatory evidence), and also when judges fail to enforce the relevant right out of concern for the limits of judicial doctrine (for example, with regard to charging decisions and plea bargaining).  In such situations, prosecutors should protect defendants’ constitutional rights even if judicial doctrine does not require it, and even if doing so lowers the chance of obtaining a conviction.

But individual prosecutors can hardly be expected to decide by themselves when to switch between these two roles.  Rather, prosecutors’ offices must enforce defendants’ constitutional rights by establishing internal policies that govern prosecutorial decision-making.  Such policies can be found in places like the American Bar Association’s Rules of Professional Conduct, the United States Attorneys’ Manual, and the State of Washington’s Recommended Prosecution Standards.  Indeed, although these documents are not presently understood as tools of constitutional enforcement, they already protect defendants’ constitutional rights above the baseline set by judges in a wide variety of areas: charging decisions, plea bargaining, grand jury proceedings, the disclosure of exculpatory evidence, exonerations, and more.  Consequently, these internal systems of regulation for prosecutors function as important sites of constitutional lawmaking.

August 17, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

US Sentencing Commission releases new data on retroactive application of "drugs -2" guideline amendment

I just noticed on the US Sentencing Commission's website this notable new document titled "2014 Drug Guidelines Amendment Retroactivity Data Report." This part of the report's introduction provides the basic back-story for the data which follow:

On April 30, 2014, the Commission submitted to Congress an amendment to the federal sentencing guidelines that revised the guidelines applicable to drug trafficking offenses by changing how the base offense levels in the drug or chemical quantity tables in sections 2D1.1 and 2D1.11 of the Guidelines Manual incorporate the statutory mandatory minimum penalties for drug trafficking offenses (Amendment 782). Specifically, the amendment reduced by two levels the offense levels assigned to the quantities that trigger the statutory mandatory minimum penalties, resulting in corresponding guideline ranges that include the mandatory minimum penalties, and made conforming changes to section 2D1.1. Amendment 782 became effective on November 1, 2014.

On July 18, 2014, the Commission voted to give retroactive effect to Amendment 782 beginning on the effective date of the amendment. The Commission also voted to require that courts not release any offender whose term of imprisonment was reduced pursuant to retroactive applications of Amendment 782 prior to November 1, 2015.  To effectuate these decisions, the Commission promulgated Amendment 788, which added Amendment 782 to the list of amendments in section 1B1.10 (Reduction in Term of Imprisonment as a Result of an Amended Guideline Range)(Policy Statement) that apply retroactively. Amendment 788 also added a new special instruction to section 1B1.10 requiring that the effective date of all orders reducing a term of imprisonment pursuant to retroactive application of Amendment 782 be November 1, 2015 or later.  Amendment 788 became effective on November 1, 2014.

The data in this report represents information concerning motions for a reduced sentence pursuant to the retroactive application of Amendment 782.  The data in this report reflects all motions decided through July 24, 2015 and for which court documentation was received, coded, and edited at the Commission by August 3, 2015.

The subsequent official data indicate that, thanks to the USSC's decision to make its "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactive, approximately 13,000 federal prisoners have had their federal drug prison sentences reduced by an average of nearly two years.

So, given the (conservative) estimate of each extra year of imprisonment for federal drug offenders costing on average $35,000, the USSC's decision to make its "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactive so far appears to be on track to save federal taxpayers close to one billion dollars.  Kudos to the US Sentencing Commission for providing at least some proof that at least some government bureaucrats inside the Beltway will sometimes vote to reduce the size and costs of the federal government.

August 17, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Split Ninth Circuit panel upholds federal conviction in "stash house" sting operation

The Ninth Circuit released a notable split panel decision today in US v. Pedrin, No. 11-10623 (9th Cir. Aug. 17, 2015) (available here), which rejects a notable challenge to a conviction emerging from ATF's "stash house sting" operations. This unofficial summary of the Pedrin ruling highlights why the two opinions in the case make for an interesting read:

Affirming a conviction and sentence for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, the panel held that the defendant’s prosecution did not result from “outrageous government conduct.”

The defendant was the target of a drug “stash house” sting, in which an undercover agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms suggested that he, the defendant, and a co-conspirator join forces, rob a fictitious stash house, and split the proceeds.  Following United States v. Black, 733 F.3d 294 (9th Cir. 2014), the panel held that this reverse sting operation was not outrageous government conduct warranting the dismissal of the indictment where the co-conspirator reached out to the government, and not vice versa; the defendant readily agreed to participate in the supposed stash-house robbery; and the defendant supplied plans and materials.  These circumstances provided a sufficient basis for the government to infer that the defendant had a predisposition to take part in the planned robbery.

Dissenting, Judge Noonan wrote that the defendant was not known to the government to be predisposed to raid a stash house at the time when an agent of the ATF proposed this action to him.  Accordingly, even though the defendant did not argue entrapment, the court should hold that he was entrapped because the ATF originated the criminal design, implanted it in the defendant’s mind, and induced him to commit the crime that the government then prosecuted.

August 17, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Should there really be so much left-leaning distrust for the Koch brothers' criminal justice reform work?

MaxresdefaultThe question in the title of this post emerged as read this lengthy Washington Post article about recent federal sentencing reform efforts headlined "Unlikely allies: A bipartisan push for sentencing reform unites President Obama and the Koch brothers, but many are still waiting behind bars."  Here are the excerpts that especially generated the question in the title of this post (with some links preserved):

When he gives speeches, Charles Koch says he asks those in the audience to raise their hand if they have never made a mistake that could have gotten them in serious trouble.  “I’ve never had anyone raise his or her hand,” he said in his office on the sprawling Koch Industries campus here.  “There, but for the grace of God or good luck or good fortune go all of us.”

The industrialist said his interest in overhauling the criminal justice system is not new.  For 12 years, Koch Industries, the country’s second-largest private company with a $115 billion valuation according to Forbes, has been working with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and is providing funding to train lawyers who represent indigent defendants.  The group honored Koch Industries a few years ago with its Defender of Justice Leadership award.

He describes his focus on sentencing reform as part of his libertarian philosophy of limited government and his commitment to removing barriers of opportunity for the poor.  He said Obama should do more and do it faster to rectify the effects of mandatory minimum sentences, especially for the disadvantaged and men and women of color.

“Clemency for a few — to me, that isn’t just,” said Koch, noting that the president has not granted clemency to Angelos despite appeals to do so from a large group of bipartisan lawmakers.  “If you have 1,000 people who got unjust sentences, to give clemency to [a few] — what about the others? Why should they suffer?”

But some Democratic groups remain skeptical about any recasting of the Kochs’ image as anything other than megadonors who have long backed Republican politicians, including tea party candidates.  They’ve ridiculed the effort as “Kochshank Redemption,” playing off the name of the 1994 movie “Shawshank Redemption,” about an inmate sentenced to two life terms.

Liberal blog ThinkProgress has questioned how the Kochs can support criminal justice reform while also supporting candidates such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.  As a state legislator, Walker sponsored dozens of tough-on-crime bills, including ones to increase mandatory minimum sentences and not allow parole for many offenders.

Critics have also noted the Kochs’ support for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an advocacy group that helped push for mandatory minimum sentences, tough three-strikes laws and privatization of the prison industry.

Liberal watchdog group Bridge Project last month released a report, “The Koch Brothers’ Criminal Justice Pump-Fake,” attacking their work on criminal justice issues, saying the Kochs’ interest in reform stems from a 97-count indictment and prosecution charging the Koch Petroleum Group and several employees with violating the Clean Air Act at its refinery in Corpus Christi, Tex.

David Uhlmann — the federal prosecutor who was head of the environmental crimes section of the Justice Department — described the lawsuit as “a classic case of environmental crime: illegal emissions of benzene — a known carcinogen — at levels 15 times greater than those allowed under federal law.” “Koch pleaded guilty and admitted that its employees engaged in an orchestrated scheme to conceal the benzene violations from state regulators and the Corpus Christi community,” said Uhlmann, now a law professor at the University of Michigan Law School.

Uhlmann, along with other critics, are reluctant to accept the Kochs’ support for criminal justice reform at face value, and believe there must be a deeper political agenda — possibly to include the later pursuit of legal reforms that will benefit corporations. “Their advocacy for less draconian drug laws could prove to be a stalking horse for their long-standing efforts to protect corporate criminals and roll back environmental, health and safety laws,” he said.

Koch Petroleum was fined $10 million in the Corpus Christi case and ordered to pay another $10 million to fund environmental projects. In a plea agreement, the charges were dropped against the four employees. In Charles Koch’s opinion, the federal case was unjust. “We had four innocent employees indicted,” he said. “Okay, the company can handle it. Okay, we pay a fine and so on. What’s so upsetting is seeing what it did to them personally and their families.”

And Mark Holden, Koch Industries’ general counsel and senior vice president, said the company “was railroaded” and its experience in the Corpus Christi case “is what really started us working on criminal justice issues.”

Of the skeptics, Holden said, “People are going to believe what they want to believe. We’ve been working on these issues for 12 years now.  Charles has had these views his whole life, by and large.  Just judge us by our actions. We’re in this for the long haul.” In a nod to the moment, Holden has a T-shirt in his office with the words: “Koch. Not Entirely Awful,” playing off the words of a recent article.

Van Jones, the president of #Cut50, a group seeking to cut the incarcerated population by 50 percent over the next 10 years, and the former special adviser on Obama’s Council on Environmental Quality, defends the Kochs.

“In a democracy, when you disagree with somebody, you should really work hard against them,” Jones said. “We oppose the Koch agenda when it comes to their pro-polluter, extremist agenda for the environment, and we fight real hard.  But when you agree with them, you should work really hard alongside them.  On criminal justice reform, we’re very proud to work alongside them.”

“And,” Jones added, “I never met a single person in prison who said, ‘I sure hope the Republicans and the Koch brothers don’t help me.’ ”

This final quote from Van Jones highlights one reason why I am such a big supporter of the Kochs' criminal-justice reform efforts.  But, perhaps even more significantly, because much of my own affinity for modern sentencing refrom comes from a libertarian distrust-for-big-government, dislike-of-wasteful-government-spending foundation, I see the Kochs' efforts here as a natural out-growth of their broader philosophy and not a "pump-fake" in any way.  But maybe I am just naive in the ways of the world, and perhaps others have different views on the question in the title of this post.

Some prior related posts on Koch family efforts in support of criminal justice reform:

August 17, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Saturday, August 15, 2015

"The Circuit Split on Johnson Retroactivity"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective new Casetext analysis of the intricate lower-court legal story already emerging in the wake of the Supreme Court's big Johnson Armed Career Criminal Act ruling declaring the residual clause of ACCA void for vagueness.  Authored by Leah Litman, the full piece merits a full read, and here is how it gets started:

In Johnson v. United States, the Supreme Court held that the “residual clause” of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) is unconstitutionally vague.  Defendants therefore can no longer be sentenced under the residual clause to a 15-year mandatory minimum term of imprisonment.  But what about defendants who have already been sentenced under ACCA’s residual clause?  I predicted in April, before Johnson was decided, that determining who can be resentenced in light of Johnson would be fraught with difficulties.  The courts of appeals have begun to sort through this question, and I’ll highlight one such case in this post.

In In re Rivero, the Eleventh Circuit purported to decide an important question that affects who can be resentenced in light of Johnson — namely, whether the Supreme Court has made Johnson retroactive.  Generally, new rules of constitutional law do not apply to convictions that have become final.  But certain “retroactive” rules apply to convictions that have become final; prisoners can raise claims that are based on retroactive rules in post-conviction review — review that occurs after a defendant’s conviction has become final.  If a prisoner has already filed one petition for post-conviction review, he may file a second or successive petition for post-conviction review only if the Supreme Court has made a rule retroactive (as opposed to a court of appeals or district court doing so).

I said that the Eleventh Circuit “purported” to decide whether the Supreme Court has made Johnson retroactive because the Eleventh Circuit’s decision is a bit quirky.  Most importantly, the defendant wasn’t actually sentenced under ACCA — he was sentenced under an analogous provision of the Sentencing Guidelines (the “career-offender Guideline”).  But the Eleventh Circuit “assumed” that Johnson applied to the career-offender Guideline and that the career-offender Guideline was therefore unconstitutional. Working off that assumption, the Eleventh Circuit went out of its way to disagree with the Seventh Circuit on whether the Supreme Court has made Johnson retroactive.

Rivero has thus created a potentially unnecessary circuit split, as well as some uncertainty about who can be resentenced in light of Johnson.  I’ll offer some thoughts on how narrowly or broadly Rivero can be read. (Spoiler: I think it should be read pretty narrowly.)

Some prior related posts:

August 15, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 14, 2015

In Ohio, "State prisons chief calls for softened hearts"

The quote in the title of this post is the headline of this local AP story about notable recent comments from the Director of Ohio's Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. Here are the details:

Ohio’s prisons chief is calling for more compassion toward wrongdoers as he continues a push to reduce the state’s inmate population.  Too often an “us vs. them” mentality gets in the way of instituting programs to prevent people from going to prison and to keep former inmates from returning, corrections director Gary Mohr told a legislative prison-inspection committee on Thursday in remarks that at times were closer to a sermon than a speech.

“Our hearts need to be softened to some degree,” said Mohr, director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.  “We have to think about the sense of forgiveness.” When Mohr started his prisons career 41 years ago, Ohio had 8,300 inmates in seven prisons, including 291 female inmates.  The total now is holding steady at about 50,000 in 27 prisons, including 4,200 female prisoners.

The state’s incarceration rate was 5.3 per 100,000 citizens, compared with 68.1 today, said Mohr in a 40-minute speech to the bipartisan Correctional Institution Inspection Committee.  Mohr is also dissatisfied that 1 in 4 state employees now work in adult corrections.

Society’s tough-on-crime attitude doesn’t match statistics showing violent crime at historic lows, he added.  But Mohr also sees signs of optimism as commitments from the state’s biggest counties drop thanks to the growth of community alternatives in urban areas.  The next challenge is extending such programs to the 82 counties where commitments have increased.  The state is taking advantage of programs seeking to better integrate prisoners into society, as well, Mohr said. And the expansion of Medicaid will help inmates as they re-enter communities.

Among other issues Mohr said:

• 8,400 Ohio inmates spend less than a year in prison, a short period of time likely better served in communities in some form.

• 1 in 4 inmates is a probation violator, a trend that needs to be reversed by giving judges more discretion when ex-offenders make mistakes.

• The high population of some Ohio prisons raises security concerns.

Under Gov. John Kasich, the state has made efforts to slow the inmate population by easing penalties on first-time offenders, providing some early-release opportunities and boosting community-based options.  At the same time, the state’s painkiller- and heroin-addiction epidemic has led to a rash of thefts, burglaries and other crimes that have increased prosecutions.

August 14, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Connecticut Supreme Court follows legislature's prospective DP repeal with retrospective state consitutional abolition

The Connecticut Supreme Court today finally resolved, via a split vote, what is to become of the other capital murderers on te state's death row in the aftermath of the legislative repeal of death penalty back in 2012. Here is the lengthy paragraph that starts the lengthy marjority opinion in Connecticut v. Santiago, No. SC 17413 (Conn. Aug 13, 2015) (available here):

Although the death penalty has been a fixture of Connecticut’s criminal law since early colonial times, public opinion concerning it has long been divided.  In 2009, growing opposition to capital punishment led the legislature to enact Public Acts 2009, No. 09-107 (P.A. 09-107), which would have repealed the death penalty for all crimes committed on or after the date of enactment but retained the death penalty for capital felonies committed prior to that date.  Then Governor M. Jodi Rell vetoed P.A. 09-107, however, and it did not become law.  Three years later, in 2012, the legislature passed a materially identical act that prospectively repealed the death penalty; see Public Acts 2012, No. 12-5 (P.A. 12-5); and, this time, Governor Dannel P. Malloy signed it into law.  During the public hearings on both P.A. 09-107 and P.A. 12-5, supporters argued that the proposed legislation represented a measured and lawful approach to the issue.  Others raised serious concerns, however, as to whether, following a prospective only repeal, the imposition of the death penalty would violate the state constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.  Perhaps most notably, Chief State’s Attorney Kevin T. Kane, who serves as this state’s chief law enforcement officer and represents the state in the present case, testified before the legislature that such a statute could not pass constitutional muster.  Additionally, the Division of Criminal Justice submitted written testimony, in which it advised the legislature that a prospective only repeal would be a "fiction" and that, "[i]n reality, it would effectively abolish the death penalty for anyone who has not yet been executed because it would be untenable as a matter of constitutional law . . . . [A]ny death penalty that has been imposed and not carried out would effectively be nullified."  In the present appeal, the defendant, Eduardo Santiago, raises similar claims, contending that, following the decision by the elected branches to abolish capital punishment for all crimes committed on or after April 25, 2012, it would be unconstitutionally cruel and unusual to execute offenders who committed capital crimes before that date.  Upon careful consideration ofthe defendant’s claims in light ofthe governing constitutional principles and Connecticut’s unique historical and legal landscape, we are persuaded that, following its prospective abolition, this state’s death penalty no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency and no longer serves any legitimate penological purpose.  For these reasons, execution of those offenders who committed capital felonies prior to April 25, 2012, would violate the state constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Over at Crime & Consequences, Kent has this post in reaction to the Santiago ruling titled "A Broken Promise In Connecticut."

August 13, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23)

What can and should voters know about the criminal justice impact of marijuana prohibition as they consider repeal?

I will be off-line for most of the rest of the day in order to have a meeting with a retired Ohio judge (and perhaps some others) to discuss the question that is the title of this post.  The question has become especially salient for Ohio voters today: as detailed in this post at MLP&R, as of yesterday it became official that, in less than 90 days,  Ohio voters will be deciding whether to legalize marijuana in the Buckeye State for recreational and medical use.

I have spent a fair bit of time trying to rigorously assess, for Ohio and other jurisdictions, just how to measure and describe the "criminal justice footprint" of modern marijuana prohibition and how that footprint can be impacted by marijuana reform.  But while I am off-line today, I would be grateful to hear from readers just what they would be eager to know, as a voter considering a reform proposal, about how the criminal justice might change (or not change) due to repeal of marijuana prohibition in a jurisdiction.

August 13, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Split Eleventh Circuit panel splits from Seventh Circuit approach on Johnson retroactivity

I had an inkling it might not take too long for lower courts to become divided on what the Supreme Court's big Johnson Armed Career Criminal Act ruling, which declared the residual clause of ACCA was void for vagueness, could and should mean for long-ago imposed sentences.  And, sure enough, less than seven weeks after the Johnson ruling, we already have a big circuit split.

As detailed in this post last week, the Seventh Circuit in Price v. US, No. 15-2527 (7th Cir. Aug. 4, 2015) (available here), decided that a defendant serving an ACCA-influenced sentence of 20+ years imposed way back in 2006 could bring a new, successor 2255 motion based on the Johnson ruling.  But, now as flagged effective via this post at the "Southern District of Florida" blog, a divided three-judge panel of the the Eleventh Circuit had a different take on this issue in In re Rivero, No. 15-13089 (11th Cir. Aug. 12, 2015) (available here). Here is a key passage from the marjority opinion in Rivero:

We acknowledge that one of our sister circuits has held that Johnson applies retroactively to decisions on collateral review, but we are unpersuaded by that decision. See Price v. United States, No. 15-2427 (7th Cir. Aug. 4, 2015).  In Price, the Seventh Circuit explained that “[t]here is no escaping the logical conclusion that the [Supreme] Court itself has made Johnson categorically retroactive to cases on collateral review” because “[a] defendant who was sentenced under the residual clause necessarily bears a significant risk of facing a punishment that the law cannot impose upon him.”  Id. at *7.  We disagree.  We can “escap[e] th[at] logical conclusion” because Congress could impose the punishment in Johnson if Congress did so with specific, not vague, language.

Our dissenting colleague assumes that the new rule announced in Johnson also applies to the residual clause of the career offender enhancement in the Sentencing Guidelines, U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(2), but that assumption makes clear that precedents of the Supreme Court do not “necessarily dictate,” In re Anderson, 396 F.3d at 1339 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted), that Rivero may file his second or successive motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence.  See Dissenting Op. at 15 n.2.  The Supreme Court has never held that the Sentencing Guidelines are subject to a vagueness challenge. And four of our sister circuits have held that the Sentencing Guidelines — whether mandatory or advisory — cannot be unconstitutionally vague because they “do not establish the illegality of any conduct” and are “designed to assist and limit the discretion of the sentencing judge.” United States v. Tichenor, 683 F.3d 358, 363–66, 365 n.3 (7th Cir. 2012); see also United States v. Smith, 73 F.3d 1414, 1418 (6th Cir. 1996); United States v. Pearson, 910 F.2d 221, 223 (5th Cir. 1990); United States v. Wivell, 893 F.2d 156, 159–160 (8th Cir. 1990).  But the absence of Supreme Court precedent provides an alternative ground for why we must deny Rivero’s application for leave to file a second or successive motion.

Especially because the Justice Department appears to be supporting Johnson retroactivity, I suspect we may end up with more circuits lining up behind Price than behind Rivero in the weeks ahead. But whatever transpires in other lower courts, it is now already clear that SCOTUS is going to need to take up Johnson's application before too long.

Some prior related posts:

August 13, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Lots of great reads via The Marshall Project

I really enjoy all the work being done by The Marshall Project, and this collection of recent items from the site highlights why sentencing fans should be making regular visits there:

August 12, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Make Them Hear You: Participatory Defense and the Struggle for Criminal Justice Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting paper available via SSRN authored by Janet Moore, Marla Sandys and Raj Jayadev. Here is the abstract:

This Article introduces participatory defense as a powerful new model for improving public defense and challenging mass incarceration.  This grassroots movement empowers the key stakeholders — people who face criminal charges, their families, and their communities — to become change agents who force greater transparency, accountability, and fairness from criminal justice systems.  After introducing the model’s core principles and goals, the Article offers innovative analyses from doctrinal, theoretical and empirical perspectives.

First, the Article connects participatory defense with the crisis-ridden history of the constitutional right to counsel, including that doctrine’s roots in the Due Process right to be heard.  Second, the Article frames participatory defense within a new theory of criminal justice that emphasizes equality in the generation and administration of law. Finally, core principles of participatory defense are applied in cutting-edge empirical research that amplifies the voices of the key stakeholders in system assessment and offers new support for reform litigation and policy advocacy. 

August 12, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

New Hampshire enacts novel law requiring defendant's presence in courtroom for victim impact statements

As reported in this Reuters piece, headlined "New Hampshire to make criminals face victims' families at sentencing," one ugly sentencing case has lead the Granite State to enact a novel sentencing procedure law. Here are the details:

New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan on Tuesday signed a law that requires convicted criminals to appear in court at sentencing when victims’ families and friends are given the opportunity to express their pain. The law, believed to be the first of its kind in the United States, was proposed after a man convicted last year of murdering a 19-year-old college student asked not to attend his sentencing, saying he didn't want to hear the victim's family “yell and whine and bitch and moan.”

In the end, convicted murderer Seth Mazzaglia, 33, dropped the request and attended the sentencing, where family members of his victim, Elizabeth "Lizzy" Marriott, expressed profound grief and anger toward him.

Her father, Bob Marriott, was among several relatives of crime victims who backed the bill. At the bill-signing ceremony, Hassan praised Marriott “for speaking up on behalf of his daughter Lizzy, for his family, and for all families impacted by crime.”...

The signing comes almost a year to the day after Mazzaglia was sentenced to life in prison without parole for first degree murder involving sexual assault, among other crimes. He was accused of having his girlfriend lure Marriott to their apartment so he could have sex with her. Prosecutors alleged Mazzaglia strangled Marriott after she rejected his sexual advances and then raped her lifeless body.

The key text of this new law, which can be found here, provides that the "defendant shall personally appear in court when the victim or victim's next of kin addresses the judge, unless excused by the court." The final phrase of this provision, which allows the court to excuse the defendant, confirms my instinct that this new sentencing law is much more about symbolism than substance. That said, especially because the symbolism of the sentencing process is often quite important to crime vicitms, this novel law strikes me as a beneficial way to give victims that much more respect in a sentencing process that sometimes forgets about their various concerns.

August 12, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

"Does Plea Bargaining Add to Criminal Court Caseloads?"

The question in the title of this post is the title of this new commentary by LawProf Darryl Brown at Casetext.  Here are excerpts:

Crime rates have been declining for twenty years, and more recently the caseloads in many state and federal courts have been declining as well, although somewhat more modestly. Yet as courts got a little breathing room, the rate of guilty pleas has not declined. Instead, in the federal system and some states, guilty pleas increased—usually from an already-high rate (as a share of total convictions) of 90 or 95 percent.  To legal scholars who have examined plea bargaining for decades, this was not a surprise.  Studies of courts in the 1970s found that plea bargaining did not decline even when caseloads for a local court system sharply fell, leaving prosecutors and judges with proportionately more time to handle the rest.  Federal plea bargaining, it now seems clear, increased as prosecutors gained more bargaining leverage from mandatory sentencing laws and federal guidelines that greatly restricted judges’ sentencing discretion.

Plea bargaining, in short, is not simply of function of crime rates and the criminal caseloads that result from them. It depends many things: whether the parties want to reach a deal, strength of the evidence, and — far from least — how much bargaining leverage the law gives to prosecutors. To say merely that “plea bargaining is essential” begs the real question.  It doesn’t answer whether all plea bargains we now achieve — 95 percent in federal courts — are compelled by caseloads and strapped budgets.  Plea bargaining may be essential, but how many — or what percentage of — cases must be resolved by guilty pleas rather than trials?...

Discretionary decisions play out differently when courts and prosecutors can handle more cases thanks to the efficiency of plea bargaining.  If it doesn’t “cost” as much to charge and convict, it is more tempting to do so.  Police know courts can process some additional petty offenses, and prosecutors know that they can handle more as well.  This doesn’t have to be a conscious recognition in every officials’ mind ... [but] plea bargaining helps to create a new set of norms or baselines — about how many cases prosecutors and judges ought to handle, about which defendants ought to plead guilty, and perhaps about which events deserve to be charged as crimes.  Cases with evidence so weak that a trial conviction is highly uncertain now look worth the effort because, with hard-ball right plea bargaining, they can be turned into convictions.  After years of achieving 95 percent of convictions through guilty pleas, a court system that suddenly had trials in 15 percent of cases would look like it is doing something wrong.  The defendants who insisted on those additional trials would seem like ones whose cases didn’t “deserve” a trial and, consequently, that merit a harsher sentence because they had one.

All of these things are hard to measure.  Empirical researchers have not yet demonstrated that plea bargaining actually drives up the number of cases in criminal courts.  It may be the kind of phenomena that simply can’t be reliably measured. But ... recall that criminal caseloads continue to increase long after crime began to decline in the early 1990s.  More tellingly, Professor John Pfaff has found that evidence that, in many states, prosecutors file charges a higher percentage of cases they receive from police than they did twenty or thirty years ago.  That is, they use their discretion less often to decline to prosecute.  Reasons for this are unclear.  Maybe police now collectively send prosecutors case reports backed by stronger evidence.  Maybe the current generation of prosecutors has tougher-on-crime views than the previous generation did.  But we ought to be concerned that we have made plea bargaining so common, and so efficient, that its effect has not simply been to enable the criminal justice system to process more cases without more judges and prosecutors.  There is a good chance that plea bargaining has also increased the number of criminal cases in the system.

That might be good thing if crime was increasing.  Or if we simply couldn’t afford to increase funding for prosecutors and judges at the same that we do for police and prisons.  Or if we placed no social and political value on trial by jury.  But none of that is true.  What is true is that, as we have increased the rate of guilty pleas from already high levels of 75 or 85 percent of convictions to 90 or 95 percent, the United States also created the single most punitive criminal justice system, with by far the highest incarceration rate, in modern world history.  That alone ought to be reason to worry that our exceedingly efficient system of plea bargaining has triggered “rebound effects.”

August 11, 2015 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thanks to prior commutation, Missouri marijuana lifer now to get paroled

As reported in this Huffington Post piece, headlined "Man Who Was Serving Life In Prison For Marijuana To Be Set Free," there has been a notable development in a notable drug sentencing case in Missouri. Here are the details:

Jeff Mizanskey, a 61-year-old Missouri man who was serving life in prison for nonviolent marijuana offenses, will be set free in a matter of days, his attorney confirmed Monday to The Huffington Post. "We were notified today that he will be granted parole and be released within '10 to 25 days,'" lawyer Dan Viets said about the Missouri Department of Corrections' decision. Mizanskey had met with the parole board just last Thursday.

After two decades in prison, Mizanskey became eligible for parole in May when Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) commuted his life sentence, while granting pardons to five other nonviolent offenders who had already completed their punishments. Parole was an option that Mizanskey did not have previously because he had been sentenced as a "prior and persistent drug offender" under Missouri's three strikes law, which was repealed last year.

All three of Mizanskey's offenses involved marijuana. He was given a life sentence after a conviction for attempting to sell about six pounds of pot in a 1993 police sting operation.

A Change.org petition seeking clemency for Mizanskey had received nearly 400,000 signatures. "Great news everyone... Jeff is coming home this month!" said a post Monday on the Free Jeff Mizanskey Facebook page. "We want everyone to know how greatful [sic] we are for all the support received throughout this whole ordeal."

Marijuana offenses, mainly involving simple possession, account for roughly half of all drug-related crimes. According to a recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union, 88 percent of the more than 8 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010 were for possession alone. There were more arrests in the U.S. for marijuana possession in 2011 than for all violent crimes combined, according to the FBI's uniform crime report. The ACLU report also found significant racial disparities in the arrest patterns. While black and white Americans use marijuana at about the same rates, blacks were nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana during the years examined.

August 11, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

"Buying Access: How Corporations Influence Decision Makers at Corrections Conferences, Trainings, and Meetings"

The title of this post is the title of this new report issued by In the Public Interest.  Here is the report's executive summary:

Private corrections companies, which contract with corrections departments and facilities to oversee and provide services to incarcerated people, make up a multibillion-dollar industry.  Every year, they devote resources to building influence with decision makers in order to find and capitalize on new business opportunities.  One key avenue of influence is through professional corrections associations, which are non-profit organizations that support corrections officials, including wardens, administrators, state Department of Corrections staff, sheriffs, and others through events, trainings, and public policy advocacy.

This report first details how companies spend millions of dollars sponsoring conferences, paying vendor fees, and providing other funding to gain access to the professional corrections associations.  This report then shows how corrections companies leverage this access in ways that can influence decision makers and benefit the companies’ bottom lines.

Considering corrections companies’ track records of providing low-quality services that harm prisoners, communities, and taxpayers, the influence they exert through professional corrections associations is cause for concern.

The research in this report is based on limited information that professional corrections associations make publicly available.  Consequently, the report’s findings constitute only a portion of the total contributions made by companies and the subsequent opportunities they receive to influence decision makers.

Private companies make contributions to professional corrections associations. In 2014, sponsors, vendors, corporate partners, and other non-individual entities contributed at least $3 million to five of the largest professional corrections associations, including the American Correctional Association, the American Jail Association, the Association of State Correctional Administrators, the Corrections Technology Association, and the National Sheriffs’ Association.

In return, corrections contractors are able to build relationships with and influence decision makers in key ways:

  • Corrections companies send executives and staff to professional corrections association conferences to meet decision makers. Many companies receive lists of attendees, allowing the corporate staff to target certain corrections officials.

  • Corrections companies lead trainings and workshops at conferences. Often times, companies will directly market goods and services.

  • Corrections companies host conference events where their executives and marketing staff meet with and give speeches to corrections officials.

  • Corrections companies market their products and services at conference vendor booths to identify potential government customers and generate leads.

  • Corrections companies advertise on conference materials, such as the program books, hotel room key cards, tote bags, and take-home mugs. This marketing encourages officials to consider the companies’ products and services when making purchasing and outsourcing decisions.

August 11, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Urban Institute creates intriguing on-line "Prison Population Forecaster"

I just learned about this notable new on-line resource from the Urban Institute, which it calls "The Prison Population Forecaster." Here is how the tool is described at the site:

Roughly 2.2 million people are locked up in prison or jail; 7 million are under correctional control, which includes parole and probation; and more than $80 billion is spent on corrections every year.

Research has shown that policy changes over the past four decades have put more people in prison and kept them there longer, leading to exponential growth in the prison population even while crime has dropped to historic lows.

But despite widespread agreement that mass incarceration is a serious problem, the national conversation is light on details about what it will take to achieve meaningful and sustainable reductions. What do states actually need to do roll back their prison populations by 10 percent? 20 percent? 50 percent?

To advance the policy conversation, decisionmakers and the public need to know the impact of potential policy changes. Our Prison Population Forecaster can estimate the effect, by state, of policies that aim to reduce prison admissions and length of stay for the most common types of offenses.

The tool currently uses data from 15 states, representing nearly 40 percent of the national prison population, to forecast population trends and project the impact of changes on rates of admission or lengths of stay in prison.

Using the tool, we can see that in some states, limiting prison admissions to only new crimes and diverting parole and probation revocations will substantially reduce the number of people behind bars. Other states can stem prison growth by tackling how they address drug and property offenses. Still others may discover that modest reductions in time served for violent offenses are necessary.

This forecasting tool paves the way for a more productive conversation about the need for tailored reforms that address the unique drivers of mass incarceration in each jurisdiction.

August 11, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 10, 2015

Could USSC's proposed amendment dealing with SCOTUS Johnson ruling be made retroactive (and how many federal prisioners could then get reduced sentences)?

Readers know that I have been making much of the potential practical impact of the Supreme Court's big ruling in Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (June 26, 2015) (available here).  Johnson declared that that a key clause defining violent offenses in the Armed Career Criminal Act violated "the Constitution’s prohibition of vague criminal laws."   I have made much of the Johnson ruling's potental impact in part because its holding is inevitably going to echo for quite some time — in some ways predictable and in some ways unpredictable — through other important parts of federal sentencing law.

Perhaps the biggest early post-Johnson federal sentencing echo emerged late last week when, as reported in this US Sentencing Commission news release, the USSC put forth "proposed changes to the existing guideline definitions of a 'crime of violence' [which are] primarily intended to make the guideline consistent with the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Johnson v. United States, __ U.S. __, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015)."   This recent post provides the basic details of what the USSC is proposing, and all the official details appear in this USSC document.  

I am still working through the potential import and impact of what the USSC is proposing, and the USSC itself stresses that its proposed guideline amendment is not just preliminary.  But, as the question in the title of this post suggests, the import and impact of what the USSC is proposing would be that much bigger and that much more consequential if any USSC post-Johnson amendments were to be made fully retroactive by the Commission to all federal prisoners currently serving long guideline-career-offender-based sentences.

As hard-core federal sentencing practitioners know, sorting through whether, how and for whom guidelines amendments are made retroactive can be a tough slog both legally and practically.  But because many current prisoners potentially impacted any post-Johnson guideline amendments may already be able to bring Johnson-based constitutional challenges to their existing sentences, it might actually prove more efficient and effective for all actors in the federal sentencing system for the USSC to make any of its post-Johnson guideline amendments fully retroactive — rather than to have everyone in the system await court rulings (and inevitable circuit splits?) on just what Johnson means for prisoners now serving long prison sentences based on the existing (constitutionally suspect) guideline definitions of "crime of violence."

Some prior posts on Johnson and its possible impact:

August 10, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, August 09, 2015

New York Times says: "Congress and Obama Are Too Timid on Marijuana Reform"

A little more than a year ago, as first reported here, the New York Times editorial board ran a provocative serious of editorial calling for the end of marijuana prohibition.  I had hoped that in the following weeks and months the NYTimes editorial board would become a vocal and aggressive advocate and cheerleader for state marijuana reforms and federal reform proposals, but it seems there was relatively little editorial follow-up on this front subsequently.  This new editorial, headlined "Congress and Obama Are Too Timid on Marijuana Reform," perhaps makes up for some lost time by effectively chastising federal policy-makers for falling behind on the marijuana reform front.  Here are excerpts:

Even as support for ending marijuana prohibition is building around the country, Congress and the Obama administration remain far too timid about the need for change.

Last year, residents in Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia voted to join Colorado and Washington State in making recreational use of marijuana legal.  Later this year, residents of Ohio are expected to vote on a ballot measure that would legalize it. Nevadans will vote on a legalization proposal next year.  And Californians could vote on several similar measures next year.

Instead of standing by as change sweeps the country, federal lawmakers should be more actively debating and changing the nation’s absurd marijuana policies, policies that have ruined millions of lives and wasted billions of dollars.  Their inaction is putting businesses and individuals in states that have legalized medical and recreational marijuana in dubious legal territory — doing something that is legal in their state but is considered a federal crime.  Many growers, retailers and dispensaries also have to operate using only cash because many banks will not serve them, citing the federal prohibition....

Congress has taken a few positive steps, like approving a provision that would prevent the Justice Department from using federal funds to keep states from carrying out their own medical marijuana laws.  And some senior Republicans, including Mr. Grassley and Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, have expressed support for the medical use of a compound known as cannabidiol, which is found in the cannabis plant but is not psychoactive.  The Obama administration recently made it easier for scientists to study marijuana by removing a requirement that studies not funded by the federal government go through an additional review process, beyond what is required for researchers working with other drugs.

But both Congress and the White House should be doing more.  Specifically, marijuana should be removed from the Controlled Substances Act, where it is classified as a Schedule I drug like heroin and LSD, and considered to have no medical value.  Removing marijuana from the act would not make it legal everywhere, but it would make it easier for states to decide how they want to regulate it.

Even as Washington demurs, efforts to legalize marijuana continue in the states.... Direct democracy can sometimes produce good results.  But it would be far better for Congress and the president to repeal failed laws and enact sensible drug policies.

Kudos to the Times for encouraging some proactive federal work in this arena, and I have long believed that an (easy?) first step for the feds might be to create some kind of marijuana reform task force or commission (or even a drug policy reform commission) along lines akin to the Colson Corrections Task Force recently created by Congress or the 21st Century Policing Task Force recently created by the President. There is so much state reform activity going on (and so much confusions about the impact of these reforms), I think the feds could and should at this point at least try to create an neutral institution that will study and assess all the rapid developments taking place at the state level.

As long-time readers know, one way for the feds and others to keep an eye on some highlights of state-level developments is by following my Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog. Here are just a few recent notable posts from that space:

August 9, 2015 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Why aren't sentencing recommendations part of the ABA-LDF's "Joint Statement on Eliminating Bias in the Criminal Justice System"?

I just came across recently this intriguing and lengthy "Joint Statement on Eliminating Bias in the Criminal Justice System" put together and released last month by the American Bar Association and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The statement has a lengthy introductory discussion of concerns about racial bias in the operation of American criminal justice systems, and here is part of this intro:

Given the history of implicit and explicit racial bias and discrimination in this country, there has long been a strained relationship between the African-American community and law enforcement. But with video cameras and extensive news coverage bringing images and stories of violent encounters between (mostly white) law enforcement officers and (almost exclusively African-American and Latino) unarmed individuals into American homes, it is not surprising that the absence of criminal charges in many of these cases has caused so many people to doubt the ability of the criminal justice system to treat individuals fairly, impartially and without regard to their race.

That impression is reinforced by the statistics on race in our criminal justice system.  With approximately 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has approximately 25 percent of the world’s jail and prison population.  Some two-thirds of those incarcerated are persons of color.  While crime rates may vary by neighborhood and class, it is difficult to believe that racial disparities in arrest, prosecution, conviction and incarceration rates are unaffected by attitudes and biases regarding race....

Given these realities, it is not only time for a careful look at what caused the current crisis, but also time to initiate an affirmative effort to eradicate implied or perceived racial bias – in all of its forms – from the criminal justice system.

The statement then goes on to list 12 detailed action items in the form of reforms viewed to be "necessary investments that are essential to strengthening public confidence in the rule of law and the legitimacy of our justice system.  Dinconcerningly, though, none of these reforms addresses directly or even indirectly reforming sentencing laws that have initially emerged from questionable (and often racialized) assumptions and that have an indisputably disproportionate impact on communities of color. Here I am thinking particularly about the enduring federal crack/powder sentencing differential and many state felon disenfranchisement laws.

In addition, missing from the urged reforms is the useful idea long promoted by Marc Mauer and The Sentencing Project: having 'Racial Impact Statements' similar to fiscal or environmental impact statements prepared for any proposed criminal justice legislation so that legislators and the public can better assess and examine possible racial effects of all proposed legal reforms.  

In the end, I guess I understand the sentencing omissions in the Joint Statement given that recent controvesial police-citizen encounters seem to have been the driving force behind the document.  Still, I find it both curious and troubling that two critical advocacy institutions, both of which have played very important roles in advocating for sentencing reform, failed to have a least one of a dozen of bias-elimination reform proposals speak directly to modern sentencing laws and practices.

August 9, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Ohio Gov (and GOP Prez candidate) links Obamacare and crime/recidivism reduction

I am a big fan of Ohio Gov John Kasich for a variety of reasons, and my affinity for the guy is significantly enhanced by the fact that he has, as noted in this article, appropriately linked health care reforms and public safety.  The article is headlined "Kasich Says Obamacare Empties Prisons — In a Good Way," and here are excerpts:

The Ohio governor says the program, unpopular with Republicans, has reduced recidivism rates. Ohio Gov. John Kasich defended his expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare at Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate.

The Medicaid expansion, unpopular among many of the Republican faithful, has benefited mentally ill prison inmates, said Kasich. “I’d rather get them their medication so they could lead a decent life,” he said.

“Eighty percent of the people in our prisons have addictions or problems,” Kasich added. “We now treat them in the prisons, release them in the community and the recidivism rate is 10 percent….”

I have highlighted in a number of prior posts that a lot of "wonks" have sensibly suggested that Obamacare might prove over time to be an extraordinarily valuable public safety achievement. Here are some of these prior posts:

August 8, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, August 07, 2015

"Judge orders Texas man to get married or face jail time"

The title of this post is the headline of this local report on a recent local sentencing in Texas that makes for perfect Friday afternoon follies.  (First joke alternative headline: "Judge orders Texas man to face either short-term or long-term loss of true freedom.")  Here are the (ugly? amusing? semi-sweet? unconstitutional?) details:

An East Texas couple says their choice to marry when they wanted to was taken away by a criminal court judge.  In July, a Smith County judge sentenced Josten Bundy to get married to his 19-year-old girlfriend as part of his probation, which also included writing Bible verses and getting counseling.

The court case stemmed from a February altercation between Bundy and the ex-boyfriend of his girlfriend, Elizabeth Jaynes.  “[The ex-boyfriend] had been saying disrespectful things about Elizabeth, so I challenged him to a fight,” said Bundy. “He stepped in and I felt like it was on and I hit him in the jaw twice.”

Bundy said the ex-boyfriend did not require medical attention, but pressed assault charges. “I took matters into my own hands and I know that’s wrong,” Bundy said. “I know I was raised better, but it happened.”

At his sentencing hearing, Judge Randall Rogers asked Bundy about the fight. “Is she worth it?” Judge Rogers asked Bundy, according to court transcripts. “I said, well to be honest, sir, I was raised with four sisters and if any man was talking to a woman like that,” recalled Bundy, “I’d probably do the same thing.”

Judge Rogers asked Bundy if he was married to Jaynes and then said, “You know, as a part of my probation, you’re going to have to marry her…within 30 days.” If Bundy declined to do the probation, he would be sentenced to 15 days in jail.  “He offered me fifteen days in jail and that would have been fine and I asked if I could call my job [to let them know],” said Bundy. “The judge told me ‘nope, that’s not how this works.’”

Jaynes, who was in the courtroom said the proposal from the judge embarrassed her. “My face was so red, people behind me were laughing,” said Jaynes. “[The judge] made me stand up in court.”

Afraid of Bundy losing his job if he spent two weeks behind bars, the couple applied for their marriage license and scheduled a date with the justice of the peace to get married. “It just felt like we weren't going to be able to have the wedding we wanted,” said Jaynes. “It was just going to be kind of pieced together, I didn't even have a white dress.”

The pair said a summer courthouse wedding was nothing like what they pictured when they imagined their future nuptials while they were dating. “I used to watch Say Yes to the Dress and all those shows and all the dresses and think about what kind of dress I would have,” said Jaynes. “I would have liked a spring wedding when it’s not too hot and not too cold.”...

But with only 18 days to plan, even the people most important to them were missing. "My father didn’t get to go, and that really bothers me, I know he would have liked to be there,” said Bundy. “None of my sisters got to show up, it was such short notice, I couldn’t get it together."

The father of the bride, Kenneth Jaynes, wanted answers. “[I felt] anger; I was mad. [The judge] can’t do this by court ordering somebody to be married,” said Kenneth Jaynes. “I contacted a couple of lawyers but they told me someone was trying to pull my leg…that judges don't court order somebody to get married.”

Judge Rogers declined to interview about an open probation case. He also declined to comment generally about his sentencing practices. Attorney Blake Bailey, who practices constitutional law, said an order to marry is not legal. “To say you're not going to be criminally punished if you get married is way out of left field,” said Bailey. “It sounds like the old days of shotgun weddings, but not even the judge is capable of enforcing, what he thinks is best for some people in his court.”

Bundy and Jaynes say they do not at all regret getting married, but they do regret not being able to plan or have control over their special day. “What if we [had said to the judge] we don't want to get married right now and we're not ready?” said Jaynes. “Is he going to go to jail? It scared us, a little bit.”

Attorney Bailey said the sentence would have likely been struck down on appeal to a higher court.

August 7, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

US Sentencing Commission proposes guidelines amendments to deal with SCOTUS Johnson ruling

I just finished watching on-line the brief public meeting today of the US Sentencing Commission, and the efficient event tracked closely this on-line notice/agenda.  Ever the efficient agency, within minutes of the conclusion of the meeting, the USSC got up on its website this news release reporting on the Commission's significant actions today:

The United States Sentencing Commission voted today to seek comment on proposed changes to the existing guideline definitions of a “crime of violence.” The proposed changes are primarily intended to make the guideline consistent with the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Johnson v. United States, __ U.S. __, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015).

In Johnson, the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutionally vague a portion of the statutory definition of “violent felony” used in a similar penalty provision in the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). While the Supreme Court in Johnson did not consider or address sentencing guidelines, the statutory language the Court found unconstitutionally vague, often referred to as the “residual clause,” is identical to language contained in the “career offender” sentencing guideline, and other guidelines which enhance sentences based on prior convictions for a crime of violence.

Consistent with Johnson, the proposal would eliminate from the guideline definition of “crime of violence” the residual clause, which provides that a “crime of violence” includes a felony offense that “otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another. In addition, the proposal would provide definitions for several enumerated crimes of violence.

“We already see litigation over the impact of Johnson on the sentencing guidelines,” said Judge Patti B. Saris, Chair of the Commission. “In light of uncertainty resulting from the Johnson decision, we feel that it is prudent to begin considering whether, as a matter of policy, the guidelines should also eliminate the residual clause. We want to begin the process of seeking public comment so that the Commission could vote on a guideline amendment as early as possible, perhaps as soon as January 2016. However, this proposal is only preliminary and we look forward to public comment furthering informing us on this complex topic. We also intend to continue to study recidivist enhancements including those based on prior drug convictions in the guidelines throughout the upcoming amendment cycle.”

The Commission also unanimously approved its list of priorities for the coming year. Among its top priorities again is continuing to work with Congress to reduce the severity and scope of certain mandatory minimum penalties and to consider expanding the “safety valve” statute that exempts certain low-level non-violent offenders from mandatory minimum penalties.

“The Commission has taken some steps on its own to reduce federal drug sentences and relieve some of the overpopulation in the federal prisons, but only Congress can make the more fundamental changes needed to address the severity and disparity problems associated with certain mandatory minimum penalties,” said Judge Saris. “We look forward to continuing to work with Congress on this vital issue.”

The Commission will continue to work on several multi-year projects, including an examination of the overall structure of the advisory guideline system, a comprehensive recidivism study, and a review of federal practices relating to the imposition and violations of conditions of probation and supervised release and immigration.

Here are the two key documents released by the Commission on its website today that reflect and detail the summary provided by the press release:

August 7, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"What We Learned From German Prisons"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable New York Times op-ed authored by Nicholas Turner, president of the Vera Institute of Justice. and Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Here are excerpts:

Earlier this summer, we led a delegation of people concerned about the United States criminal justice system to visit some prisons in Germany and observe their conditions. What we saw was astonishing.

The men serving time wore their own clothes, not prison uniforms. When entering their cells, they slipped out of their sneakers and into slippers.  They lived one person per cell. Each cell was bright with natural light, decorated with personalized items such as wall hangings, plants, family photos and colorful linens brought from home. Each cell also had its own bathroom separate from the sleeping area and a phone to call home with.  The men had access to communal kitchens, with the utensils a regular kitchen would have, where they could cook fresh food purchased with wages earned in vocational programs...

This is an encouraging moment for American advocates of criminal justice reform. After decades of callousness and complacency, the United States has finally started to take significant steps to reverse what a recent report by the National Research Council called a “historically unprecedented and internationally unique” experiment in mass incarceration. Congress, in a bipartisan effort, seems prepared to scale back draconian federal sentencing laws. Many states are making progress in reducing their prison populations. And President Obama, in a gesture of his commitment to this issue, last month became the first American president to visit a federal correctional facility.

The delegation that we took to Germany represented the emerging national consensus on this issue. It included a Democratic governor; corrections officials from across the political spectrum; chief prosecutors; formerly incarcerated individuals; a liberal scholar of race and criminal justice; and representatives from Right on Crime and the Charles Koch Institute, conservative groups that advocate reform, as well as the evangelical Christian group Prison Fellowship.

But for all the signs of progress, truly transformative change in the United States will require us to fundamentally rethink values. How do we move from a system whose core value is retribution to one that prioritizes accountability and rehabilitation? In Germany we saw a potential model: a system that is premised on the protection of human dignity and the idea that the aim of incarceration is to prepare prisoners to lead socially responsible lives, free of crime, upon release.

While the United States currently incarcerates 2.2 million people, Germany — whose population is one-fourth the size of ours — locks up only about 63,500, which translates to an incarceration rate that is one-tenth of ours. More than 80 percent of those convicted of crimes in Germany receive sentences of “day fines” (based on the offense and the offender’s ability to pay). Only 5 percent end up in prison. Of those who do, about 70 percent have sentences of less than two years, with few serving more than 15 years.

The incarcerated people that we saw had considerable freedom of movement around their facilities and were expected to exercise judgment about how they used their time. Many are allowed, a few times a year, to leave the prison for a few hours or overnight to visit friends and family. Others resided in “open” facilities in which they slept at night but left for work during the day. Solitary confinement is rare in Germany, and generally limited to no more than a few days, with four weeks being the outer extreme (as opposed to months or years in the United States).

The process of training and hiring corrections officers is more demanding in Germany. Whereas the American corrections leaders in our delegation described labor shortages and training regimes of just a few months, in the German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, less than 10 percent of those who applied to be corrections officers from 2011 to 2015 were accepted to the two-year training program. This seems to produce results: In one prison we visited, there were no recorded assaults between inmates or on staff members from 2013 to 2014.

Germans, like Americans, are greatly concerned with public safety. But they think about recidivism differently. During our visit, we heard prison professionals discussing failure in refreshingly unfamiliar terms: If, after release, an individual were to end up back in prison, that would be seen as a reason for the prison staff members to ask what they should have done better. When we told them stories of American politicians who closed a work-release or parole program after a single high-profile crime by a released inmate, they shook their heads in disbelief: Why would you close an otherwise effective program just because one client failed?...

The first article of the German Constitution reads, “Human dignity shall be inviolable.” Granted, our own Constitution bans cruel and unusual punishment and protects individuals against excessive government intrusions. As was noted by the Supreme Court justice Anthony M. Kennedy in a landmark 2011 opinion ordering California to reduce its prison population: “Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons. Respect for that dignity animates the Eighth Amendment.”

These words hold much promise, but currently they have far too little impact on actual conditions in American prisons. In Germany, we found that respect for human dignity provides palpable guidance to those who run its prisons. Through court-imposed rules, staff training and a shared mission, dignity is more than legal abstraction.

The question to ask is whether we can learn something from a country that has learned from its own terrible legacy — the Holocaust — with an impressive commitment to promoting human dignity, especially for those in prison. This principle resonates, though still too dimly at the moment, with bedrock American values.

August 7, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Some (simple? tough?) questions on crime and punishment for the GOP field

Images (8)As detailed in some prior posts below, I have been gearing up for tonight's big GOP debate by suggesting criminal justice reform topics that I think should be a significant part of the conversation among all serious candidates for President. Here I want to turn to developing a few (pointed?) questions on these topics that might be asked of all the GOP candidates during tonight's planned festivities.

I seriously doubt the FoxNews moderators asking questions tonight regularly turn to this blog for help on how they do their jobs. But I am at least hopeful that a range of folks in social media might help ensure the mainstream media gives sufficient attention to crime and punishment topics throughout the 2016 election season. With that aspiration in mind, here are some questions I would like to see asked:

On prison policies: "The United States has 5% of the world's population but nearly 25% of the world's prisoners. Why do you think this is so, and do you think this is a national problem that a President should be trying to address?"

On state marijuana reform: "The decision by Colorado voters to legalize marijuana for adults has helped create tens of thousands of new jobs and considerable new tax revenues. President Obama's Justice Department has seemingly adopted a hands off approach concerning these sorts of state-level marijuana reforms. Would you continue or change this approach and why?"

On clemency practices: "For most of his presidency, Barack Obama was criticized for pardoning more turkeys than people. But now, after instructed his Justice Department to work harder identify good clemency candidates, his admininstration has hinted he could ultimately reduce federal prison terms for hundreds of non-violent drug offenders. What approach might you take as President in the exercise of your constitutional clemency powers?"

From Bill Otis via comments at Crime & Consequences: "Which more nearly reflects your view: That, as Attorney General Holder and some Republicans have said, we have too many people in prison for too long; or that we haven't yet done enough to keep criminals off the street?"

Of course, I welcome additional suggested questions via the comments to this post. And I am especially hopeful all folks seriously interested in serious discussion of criminal justice reform will join me in trying to ensure these kinds of issues get their due tonight and in all future debates throughout the 2016 campaign.

A few recent related posts:

August 6, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Is it now ungodly to oppose significant sentencing and prison reform?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable recent Crux commentary authored by Jacob Lupfer headlined "There’s a truly religious consensus on prison reform." Here are excerpts:

In an era when most faith groups’ political priorities align predictably with the two major parties, it is refreshing to behold a truly diverse religious consensus on an issue....

The budget-busting prison-industrial complex was politically popular for a time, but in the past decade the pendulum has begun swinging the other way.  Harsh sentences, particularly for nonviolent drug offenders, created unsustainable fiscal pressures.  States simply cannot afford to house more prisoners and pay the salaries and benefits of employees to supervise and care for them.

Already, states are taking steps to spend less on “corrections.”  Fiscal conservatives now view prisons as overly expensive, hugely inefficient, bloated bureaucracies.  Yet Christians and other people of faith see problems, too.

America’s denominations and faith organizations are calling for reform.  Our vast criminal justice system emphasizes punishment over rehabilitation, while our faith traditions preach redemption.  Citing Isaiah 61, Jesus announced that his gospel would include “release for the captives” (Luke 4:18).  It seems wrong for a Christian conscience to support needless incarceration.

Catholics were early leaders in promoting restorative justice, the idea that communities must help ex-offenders re-enter society in healthy and productive ways.  The US Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a major pastoral statement in 2000 that placed criminal justice issues in the context of social ills, including family breakdown, violence, racial disparities and the perverse incentives of for-profit prisons.

Once a powerhouse in ecumenical Christian political influence, the National Council of Churches has reinvented itself as a smaller, more focused agency. Yet it has made mass incarceration its top advocacy priority.  NCC President Jim Winkler has a provocative idea. “If churches want to see revival,” he told me last year, “they should pick up released prisoners and help reintegrate them into their communities.” Criminal justice reform is not just an issue. It is essential to the gospel: Redeemed sinners proclaiming mercy in the name of Jesus Christ....

Leaders from Catholic, mainline, and black Protestant traditions have been sounding this refrain for years. But the growing consensus among white evangelicals and Republican officeholders may finally make sentencing reform an urgent and truly bipartisan imperative.  The National Association of Evangelicals, known to be more active on non-sex-related issues than other religious conservatives, has spoken strongly of the need for criminal justice reform....

Until recently, disparate groups have worked on the issue largely independently.  That is changing.  In 2014, Congress appointed a committee to study the feasibility of reform among federal prison populations, whose growth threatens other federal law enforcement and funding priorities. The committee is called the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections.  Earlier this year, the task force sought input from faith leaders and saw unprecedented agreement across traditions and enthusiastic support for reform....

Sentencing and prison policy is more easily seen as a boring bureaucratic issue. Even though millions are incarcerated, most Americans know zero or one person in prison. Yet faith communities are adding urgency to the imperative for prison and sentencing reform, even as they remain divided on the death penalty (for now).

In the end, fiscal constraints will force changes in prisons and sentencing if moral concerns do not.  It seems better to make these changes out of a warm-hearted, merciful impulse than through cold fiscal realities.  The faith community can credibly speak with one voice on criminal justice reform, and that voice must be heard.

August 6, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Religion, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)