Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Concerns about lethal drug creates reprieve for condemned Georgia woman

As reported in this CNN piece, for "the second time, a Georgia woman's execution has been postponed -- this time because of concerns about the drugs to be used." Here is why:

Kelly Renee Gissendaner was scheduled to die at 7 p.m. ET Monday.  "Prior to the execution, the drugs were sent to an independent lab for testing of potency.  The drugs fell within the acceptable testing limits," the Georgia Department of Corrections said in a statement.

"Within the hours leading up to the scheduled execution, the Execution Team performed the necessary checks.  At that time, the drugs appeared cloudy.  The Department of Corrections immediately consulted with a pharmacist, and in an abundance of caution, Inmate Gissendaner's execution has been postponed."

The 47-year-old was originally scheduled to die on Wednesday, but that execution was called off because of winter weather.

If I were a deeply religious person, I might be inclined to contend that some higher power is doing all it can to keep Georgia from being able to execute Gissendaner.

March 3, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, March 02, 2015

California Supreme Court rules blanket sex-offender residency restriction fails rational basis review

In recent years, a number of state courts have struck down local sex-offender residency restrictions on a number of different legal grounds.  As this AP article reports, another state Supreme Court is now part of this group: "California's Supreme Court ruled Monday the state cannot prohibit all registered sex offenders in San Diego County from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park."

As the title of this post hints, the unanimous ruling released today in In re Taylor, S206143 (Cal. March 2, 2015) (available here), strikes me as especially significant because of the legal rationale used to strike down a state-wide voter-initiative law as it was applied in one jurisdiction. These passages explaining the heart of the ruling highlight why Taylor will likely be cited in challenges to sex offender residency restrictions nationwide:

In this case, however, we need not decide whether rational basis or heightened strict scrutiny review should be invoked in scrutinizing petitioners' constitutional challenges to section 3003.5(b).  As we next explain, we are persuaded that blanket enforcement of the mandatory residency restrictions of Jessica's Law, as applied to registered sex offenders on parole in San Diego County, cannot survive even the more deferential rational basis standard of constitutional review. Such enforcement has imposed harsh and severe restrictions and disabilities on the affected parolees‟ liberty and privacy rights, however limited, while producing conditions that hamper, rather than foster, efforts to monitor, supervise, and rehabilitate these persons.  Accordingly, it bears no rational relationship to advancing the state's legitimate goal of protecting children from sexual predators, and has infringed the affected parolees' basic constitutional right to be free of official action that is unreasonable, arbitrary, and oppressive....

The authorities we have cited above explain that all parolees retain certain basic rights and liberty interests, and enjoy a measure of constitutional protection against the arbitrary, oppressive and unreasonable curtailment of “the core values of unqualified liberty” (Morrissey v. Brewer, supra, 408 U.S. at p. 482), even while they remain in the constructive legal custody of state prison authorities until officially discharged from parole.  We conclude the evidentiary record below establishes that blanket enforcement of Jessica's Law's mandatory residency restrictions against registered sex offenders on parole in San Diego County impedes those basic, albeit limited, constitutional rights. Furthermore, section 3003.5(b), as applied and enforced in that county, cannot survive rational basis scrutiny because it has hampered efforts to monitor, supervise, and rehabilitate such parolees in the interests of public safety, and as such, bears no rational relationship to advancing the state's legitimate goal of protecting children from sexual predators.

March 2, 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 (4) | TrackBack

"A Slow Motion Lynching? The War on Drugs, Mass Incarceration, Doing Kimbrough Justice, and a Response to Two Third Circuit Judges"

The provocative title of this post is the provocative title of this new article authored by US District Judge Mark Bennett now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

A federal district court judge who has sentenced more than 4000 defendants reflects on federal sentencing and its role in mass incarceration.  The focus of the article is on federal sentencing in crack cocaine cases and policy disagreements with the United States Sentencing Guidelines (Guidelines) in drug trafficking cases.  The article explores the U.S. Supreme Court cases in Kimbrough v. United States, United States v. Spears, and Pepper v. United States, the only U.S. Supreme Court cases that address sentencing judges’ policy disagreements with the guidelines.  Ironically, or perhaps serendipitously, the author was the sentencing judge in both Spears and Pepper, where he was reversed a whopping 5 times by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit (twice by an en banc court) before both defendants’ sentencing positions were vindicated by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The article takes exception to two Third Circuit judges who have argued in law review articles that federal sentencing judges should be concerned about "legislative backlash" if they sentence outside the now advisory guidelines.  In the arc of the history of federal sentencing and its impact on mass incarceration, we are perched at a cresting point where the gravity of reason and our Nation’s experience with mass incarceration hopefully will pull towards greater justice in sentencing.

March 2, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

AG Holder provides Congress a sentencing reform to-do list

This new Politico story indicates that a confirmation vote for Loretta Lynch to replace Eric Holder as Attorney General may still be week away. But AG Holder is still in the midst of some parting shots as he prepares to leave his position, and this Washington Post commentary finds the AG making a full-throated pitch for more congressional sentencing reforms.  Here are excerpts from a piece headlined "Time to tackle unfinished business in criminal justice reform":

Today, a rare consensus has emerged in favor of reforming our federal drug sentencing laws.  This presents a historic opportunity to improve the fairness of our criminal justice system.  But unless we act quickly, we risk letting the moment pass.

The Justice Department has sought to be an early innovator on this front.  A year and a half ago, I launched the Smart on Crime initiative — a comprehensive effort to reorient the federal government’s approach to criminal justice....  Preliminary results from this effort are extremely encouraging....

Last year also witnessed the first overall reduction in the federal prison population in 32 years.  Most impressive of all, we achieved this drop in incarceration at the same time we cut the crime rate, marking the first simultaneous reduction in both crime and incarceration rates in more than four decades.

But while it is indisputable that we are moving in the right direction, there is a limit to what the Justice Department can accomplish on its own.  Moving forward, we need to build upon, and make permanent, these gains through action in Congress.... [A] few specific items of unfinished business should command our immediate attention.

First, although Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act to eliminate a discriminatory 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, thousands of individuals who committed crimes before 2010 are still serving sentences based on the old ratio. This is unfair.  Congress should pass legislation to apply that statute retroactively so that no one is sitting in prison serving a sentence that Congress, the president and the attorney general have all declared unjust.

Second, while the Justice Department has declined to seek harsh mandatory minimum sentences in cases where they are not warranted, we need to codify this approach. Congress should pass one of the multiple bipartisan bills aimed at restricting and refining those crimes to which mandatory minimums apply.

Third, in individual states, legislatures should eliminate statutes that prevent an estimated 5.8 million U.S. citizens from exercising their right to vote because of felony convictions.  These unfair restrictions only serve to impede the work of transitioning formerly incarcerated people back into society.

Finally, we should seek to expand the use of federal drug courts throughout the country for low-level drug offenses.  These programs provide proven alternatives to incarceration for men and women who are willing to do the hard work of recovery, and it is my hope that, in the next five years, there will be an operational drug court in every federal district — with individual states following suit.

While I will depart the Obama administration in the coming weeks — and my own formal career in law enforcement will soon draw to a close — I intend to continue this work, to promote this mission and to advance this cause.  And I hope that, in the days ahead, leaders in Congress and around the country will come together to help build the fairer, more efficient and more effective criminal justice system that all Americans deserve.

In this post over at The Volokh Conspiracy, titled "The President doesn’t need Congress’s help to fix unjust sentences," Will Baude properly notes that Prez Obama could take care of the first item on the AG's action list without any action by Congress.  As Will notes, the "Constitution gives the President 'Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States.' If the President indeed shares the Attorney General’s views, he can eliminate the thousands of unfair sentences at a few strokes of a pen."  Will speculates that "the President is unwilling to exercise his constitutional pardon power [this way] because he wants political cover if somebody who is pardoned later goes on to do something wrong." 

I am glad Will highlights the president could through commutations (or pardons) readily fix on his own problems and unfairness presented by the non-retroactivity of the Fair Sentencing Act.  Those problems persist because of President Obama's failure of resolve, not a failure of power, on this front.  In addition, I think the President could (and should) be using a lot more of his political time and energy trying to move Congress forward on other fronts as well (e.g., he could have, but failed to, talk at lengthy about these issues during his State of the Union address not long ago).

March 2, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Georgia scheduled to execute only female murderer on its death row

As reported in this AP piece, headlined "After weather delay, Georgia ready to perform rare execution of a woman," the Peach State appears poised this evening to end the life of a bad apple notable for her gender. Here are the details:

After getting a temporary reprieve when her execution was postponed because of winter weather conditions forecast to hit the state, the only woman on Georgia's death row is again set for execution Monday. Kelly Renee Gissendaner, 46, was scheduled to be executed Wednesday at the state prison in Jackson, but the Department of Corrections postponed it to Monday at 7 p.m., citing the weather and associated scheduling issues.

Gissendaner was convicted of murder in the February 1997 stabbing death of her husband, Douglas Gissendaner. Prosecutors said she plotted his death with her boyfriend, Gregory Owen.... Kelly Gissendaner repeatedly pushed Owen in late 1996 to kill her husband rather than just divorcing him as Owen suggested, prosecutors said. Acting on Kelly Gissendaner's instructions, Owen ambushed Douglas Gissendaner at the Gissendaners' home, forced him to drive to a remote area and stabbed him multiple times, prosecutors said

Owen pleaded guilty and received a life prison sentence with eligibility for parole after 25 years. He testified at Gissendaner's trial, and a jury convicted her and sentenced her to death in 1998.

The State Board of Pardons and Paroles, the only entity in Georgia authorized to commute a death sentence, on Wednesday denied Gissendaner clemency. A federal judge in Atlanta rejected a request to halt her execution, and her lawyers have appealed that decision to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

If Gissendaner's execution happens, she will be the first woman executed in Georgia in 70 years. Lena Baker, a black maid, was executed in 1945 after being convicted in a one-day trial for killing her white employer. Georgia officials issued her a pardon in 2005 after six decades of lobbying and arguments by her family that she likely killed the man because he was holding her against her will. Baker was the only woman to die in the state's electric chair. P>Execution of female inmates is rare with only 15 women put to death nationwide since the Supreme Court in 1976 allowed the death penalty to resume. During that same time, about 1,400 men have been executed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Prosecutors offered Gissendaner the same plea deal that was offered to Owen, but she turned it down. Post-conviction testimony from her trial lawyer, Edwin Wilson, gives some insight into why, Gissendaner's lawyers argued in a clemency petition. They quote Wilson as saying he didn't think a jury would sentence Gissendaner to death. "I guess I thought this because she was a woman and because she did not actually kill Doug," Wilson is quoted as saying, adding that he should have urged her to take the plea.

Victor Streib, a retired Ohio Northern University law professor and an expert on the death penalty for women, said it's clear that women are condemned to die far less frequently than men, but that there are so few cases that it's tough to draw any general conclusions. "Statistically, yes, if you've got two cases and everything about them is exactly the same and one case is a woman and the other case is a man, the man is more likely to be sentenced to death," Streib said, but added that he wouldn't count on that as a legal strategy.

One reason women aren't sentenced to death as often is that they don't commit as many murders and when they do they generally aren't the "worst of the worst" murders that lead to the death penalty, Streib said. Juries may also be more likely to believe a woman was emotionally distressed or not in her right mind at the time of a killing, which can spare them a death sentence, he said.

March 2, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Another account of the massiveness and messy process behind Prez clemency initiative

This lengthy new Washington Post article, headlined "U.S. clemency effort, slow to start, will rely on an army of pro bono lawyers," reports on the extraordinary scope and process behind the clemency initiative started seemingly long ago and still awaiting major action by Prez Obama. Here are excerpts:

A massive influx of applications from prisoners and a complicated review process have slowed the Obama administration’s highly touted initiative to grant clemency to nonviolent offenders, shifting the burden to an army of pro bono lawyers and specialists willing to help.

Just over a year after the administration unveiled its initiative, President Obama has commuted the sentences of eight prisoners, all of whose applications had already been submitted at the time of the announcement.  In the meantime, more than 35,000 inmates — about 16 percent of the federal prison population — have applied to have their sentences shortened under the Justice Department-led initiative.

In an unusual arrangement, the department has sought to deal with the deluge by encouraging outside lawyers to help identify candidates for earlier release and to represent them. Prisoner applications are being reviewed by more than 1,000 attorneys at 323 law firms and organizations nationwide.

“We have created what very well may be the largest, most ambitious pro-bono effort in the history of the legal profession,” said Norman L. Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, one of the four groups that make up what is known as the Clemency Project 2014.  Reimer, detailing the group’s efforts for the first time, said it spent all of 2014 “gearing up” and was hopeful the process would be accelerated soon....

Candidates for clemency under the new Justice Department criteria, released in the spring, must have served at least 10 years of their sentence, have no significant criminal history and no connection to gangs, cartels or organized crime.  Applicants also must be inmates who probably would have received a “substantially lower sentence” if convicted of the same offense today.

Even given those criteria, however, the universe of inmates who might qualify is huge, lawyers say.  “We had decades of harsh sentencing,” said Marjorie J. Peerce, a partner at Ballard Spahr in New York, whose lawyers have been screening clemency applications. “People were going to jail for decades because they were drug addicts selling a little bit of crack. There was such a disparity, and it was disproportionately affecting minorities.”...

[T]he Clemency Project — which includes Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association and Reimer’s association of criminal defense attorneys — has sent the petitions of only 14 inmates to the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney to be considered for clemency....

Lawyers with the Clemency Project say the pace is partly a symptom of dealing with clients whose cases are complex and whose ability to communicate is limited because they’re incarcerated.  Every lawyer participating in the project had to be trained to sift through the applications to identify candidates who met the Justice Department criteria.  In many cases, they had to try to locate old legal documents and contact prosecutors and judges who imposed the sentences for answers.

Most of the inmates who requested assistance from the lawyers sent applications electronically through the Bureau of Prisons computers, but several thousand who didn’t have access to computers sent paper applications that had to be manually entered into an enormous database the attorneys have built.  Prisoner applications are still trickling in. “Some of these inmates have been in 20 to 25 years. Lawyers have to try to get pre-sentencing reports and sentencing transcripts, and, in some cases, the sentencing proceeding might not have been transcribed. It’s a cumbersome process, and you want to get it right,” Peerce said.

Although the Clemency Project is facilitating the process for inmates, it is not working directly with the Justice Department.  Inmates can contact the Clemency Project, which will research and prepare petitions for qualified candidates and send them to the Office of the Pardon Attorney, or, as 5,333 inmates have done since the spring, apply directly to that office. From there, petitions with recommendations go to the office of acting Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates.

Yates then sends the petitions with her recommendations to the White House counsel, Neil Eggleston, who sends them with his recommendations to Obama. Some advocates view that process as overly cumbersome. Justice Department spokeswoman Emily Pierce said that the agency “remains committed to the President’s Clemency Initiative, consistent with our overall efforts to modernize outdated sentencing laws.”

“The Clemency Initiative is just one prong of the tools we are using to accomplish that goal, including pushing sentencing reform in Congress and through the Sentencing Commission,” Pierce said. “We also are committed to ensuring that each individual who applies is treated fairly and equally and that public safety is a consideration in each and every petition under consideration.”

Reimer, of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said that now that the Clemency Project has put in place a process for sorting out clemency applications, it plans to review and submit them to the Justice Department more quickly. “We’ve got a lot of work this year, but we’re determined to do it,” he said. “We will find everyone who may qualify and complete that by sometime early next year.”

Some prior related posts:

March 1, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

"The Politics of Botched Executions"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new article by Corinna Lain now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

For decades now, America’s death penalty has been beset by serious problems in its administration, but what has finally gotten the public’s attention is a spate of botched executions in the first half of 2014.  Botched executions are, like the death penalty’s other woes, nothing new. But having to manage the public relations nightmare that has followed these high-profile events is new, and tells a story of its own.  What are the politics of botched executions?  Officials have lowered the blinds so witnesses could not see what was happening inside the execution chamber, called for an “independent review” by other arms of the state, minimized concerns by comparing the execution to the condemned’s crimes, even denied that a botched execution was botched in the first place.

In this symposium contribution, I recount the four botched executions of 2014 and state responses that accompanied them.  I then make three observations — one about states’ fealty to the death penalty, one about backlash politics, and one about the changing cultural construct of lethal injection in the United States.  Finally, I surmise how state responses to botched executions (or the lack thereof) might impact the constitutionality of lethal injection and prove true the old adage about politics making strange bedfellows: the inept executioner may prove to be the abolitionist’s best friend.

March 1, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, February 27, 2015

Split Connecticut Supreme Court works through Miller application issues

Images (3)As reported in this local AP piece, headlined "Connecticut court tosses 100-year sentence imposed on teen," the top court in the Nutmeg State issued a notable and significant ruling on juvenile sentencing in the wake of recent SCOTUS Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. Here are the basics:

The Connecticut Supreme Court on Friday overturned a 100-year prison sentence that was imposed on a Hartford teenager in a murder case, saying juveniles cannot be treated the same as adults when being sentenced for violent crimes.

In a 5-2 ruling, justices ordered a new sentencing hearing for Ackeem Riley, who was 17 in November 2006 when he sprayed gunfire into a Hartford crowd from a passing car. Three bystanders were shot, including 16-year-old honor student Tray Davis, who died....

The Miller decision was one of three U.S. Supreme Court rulings since 2005 that “fundamentally altered the legal landscape for the sentencing of juvenile offenders to comport with the ban on cruel and unusual punishment,” Connecticut Justice Andrew McDonald wrote in the majority decision. The rulings also barred capital punishment for all juvenile offenders and prohibited life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for juveniles in non-homicide cases.

McDonald wrote in Friday’s ruling, which overturned a state Appellate Court decision, that it didn’t appear trial Judge Thomas V. O’Keefe Jr. adequately considered Riley’s age at the time of the shooting. “The court made no mention of facts in the presentence report that might reflect immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” McDonald wrote. “In the entire sentencing proceeding, only defense counsel made an oblique reference to age.”

Justices Carmen Espinoza and Peter Zarella dissented....

State lawmakers are now considering a bill that would revamp Connecticut’s juvenile sentencing rules to conform to the U.S. Supreme court rulings. A similar measure failed last year. There are about 50 Connecticut prisoners serving sentences of 50 or more years for crimes committed when they were under 18, and most are not eligible for parole. Defense lawyers say they expect more appeals involving the juvenile sentencing issue.

The extended majority ruling in Connecticut v. Riley is available at this link, and it gets started with these passages:

The defendant, Ackeem Riley, was seventeen years old when he committed homicide and nonhomicide offenses for which the trial court imposed, in the exercise of its discretion, a total effective sentence of 100 years imprisonment. The defendant has no possibility of parole before his natural life expires. In his certified appeal to this court, the defendant claims that his sentence and the procedures under which it was imposed violate Graham and Miller, and, hence, the eighth amendment....

We agree with the defendant’s Miller claim. Therefore, he is entitled to a new sentencing proceeding at which the court must consider as mitigation the defendant’s age at the time he committed the offenses and the hallmarks of adolescence that Miller deemed constitutionally significant when a juvenile offenderis subject to a potential life sentence. We decline, however, to address the defendant’s Graham claim. As we explain later in this opinion, the legislature has received a sentencing commission’s recommendations for reforms to our juvenile sentencing scheme to respond to the dictates of Graham and Miller. Therefore, in deference to the legislature’s authority over such matters and in light of the uncertainty of the defendant’s sentence upon due consideration of the Miller factors, we conclude that it is premature to determine whether it would violate the eighth amendment to preclude any possibility of release when a juvenile offender receives a life sentence.

The dissenting Riley opinion is available at this link, and it starts this way:

I disagree with the majority’s conclusion that the total effective sentence of 100 years imprisonment imposed by the trial court on the defendant, Ackeem Riley, violates the eighth amendment to the United States constitution. I agree with the Appellate Court’s conclusion that, "[b]ecause the court exercised discretion in fashioning the defendant’s sentence, and was free to consider any mitigating evidence the defendant was able to marshal, including evidence pertaining to his age and maturity"; State v. Riley, 140 Conn. App. 1, 4, 58 A.3d 304 (2013); the sentence complied with the decision of the United States Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 183 L. Ed. 2d 407 (2012), which held that "the [e]ighth [a]mendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders." (Emphasis added.) Id., 2469. To be clear, therefore, Miller applies only to mandatory sentencing schemes. Accordingly, I respectfully dissent.

February 27, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

How might US Sentencing Commission's new Tribal Issues Advisory Group deal with marijuana law and policy?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new US Sentencing Commission press release, which was released on a day I am participating in the first ever Tribal Marijuana Conference (some background here via MLP&R).  Here are excerpts from the press release:

The United States Sentencing Commission announced today the formation of a Tribal Issues Advisory Group (TIAG), which will consider methods to improve the operation of the federal sentencing guidelines as they relate to American Indian defendants, victims, and tribal communities.

The TIAG will look at whether there are disparities in how federal sentencing guidelines are applied to defendants from tribal communities or in the sentences received by such defendants as compared to similarly situated state defendants. The group will also examine whether there should be changes to the guidelines to better account for tribal court convictions or tribal court orders of protection and consider how the Commission should engage with tribal communities in an ongoing manner....

The TIAG is composed of federal appointees and at-large members. The federal judge appointees are Judge Diane Humetewa from Arizona, Judge Brian Morris from Montana, Chief Judge Ralph Erickson from North Dakota, and Chief Judge Jeffrey Viken and Judge Roberto Lange from South Dakota. The ten at-large members were selected from a broad array of applicants from across the country, and they represent a wide spectrum of tribal communities and roles in the criminal justice system. The TIAG at-large members include tribal court judges, social scientists, law enforcement officials, defense attorneys, and victims’ advocates.

“I commend the Commission for creating a mechanism to develop insights and information that have the potential to improve the lives of our citizens in Indian Country,” said Chief Judge Erickson. “I look forward to working with the distinguished members of this Group and with the Commission to rationally address longstanding sentencing issues in Indian Country.”

There are literally hundreds of tribal attendees at the tribal marijuana conference because it seems a number of tribal leaders think there is a chance that, despite federal prohibition, marijuana activity on tribal lands might "have the potential to improve the lives of our citizens in Indian Country." Of course, this new USSC advisory group has more than enough challenging issues to consider without getting into marijuana law and policy matters. But, especially because typically only the feds have full criminal jurisdiction in tribal lands, I think it will unavoidable for TIAG to discuss marijuana enforcement issues if (and when?) a number of tribes jump into the marijuana industry in the weeks and months ahead.

February 27, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

AG nominee Loretta Lynch one step closer to confirmation

As reported in this Politico piece, "Loretta Lynch cleared a key vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday in her bid to become the nation’s next attorney general, picking up support from three Republicans on the panel in favor of her confirmation." Here are the details:

The vote was 12-8. The three Republicans who backed her nomination, along with all committee Democrats, were Orrin Hatch of Utah, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona.

The next battle is on the Senate floor, where the federal prosecutor from Brooklyn is still expected to have enough GOP backing to be confirmed. But the controversy over President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration have overshadowed her nomination — particularly after her confirmation hearing last month, where she testified that those unilateral moves are legal.

Most GOP senators on the committee stressed that they could not support someone to be the nation’s chief law enforcement official who believes that the executive actions — which Republicans uniformly oppose and say are unconstitutional — are legal....

The committee’s chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), announced Thursday that he would oppose Lynch because he believes she would not be sufficiently independent from Obama and the administration’s policies. “I remain unconvinced she will lead the [Department of Justice] in a different direction,” he said. “Now, I’m confident that if she had demonstrated a little more independence from the president, she would’ve garnered a lot of support today.”

Democrats, meanwhile, have long demanded that the controversy over Obama’s executive actions — which could stop deportations for more than 4 million immigrants here illegally and grant them work permits — stay out of the attorney general battle. “Loretta Lynch, a supremely qualified nominee for a vital national security and law enforcement post, should never have been pulled into the fray” over immigration, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said....

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) invoked the issue of race and gender in regard to the nomination of Lynch, who would be the first black female attorney general if confirmed. He noted that near the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, it was “fundamentally unfair” to reject Lynch because she agrees with Obama’s immigration policies.

That drew the ire of Republicans. Hatch, who has said for weeks that he would support Lynch, said Democrats’ insinuation of a so-called double standard on her nomination was an “offensive and patently false innuendo.”

February 27, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Encouraging recidivism realities after three-strikes reform in California

This new New York Times article, headlined "California Convicts Are Out of Prison After Third Strike, and Staying Out," reports on some good post-sentencing-reform news from the West Coast.  Here are excerpts:

Mr. Taylor, 58, is one of more than 2,000 former inmates who were serving life terms under California’s three-strikes law, but who were freed early after voters scaled it back in 2012. Under the original law, repeat offenders received life sentences, with no possibility of parole for at least 25 years, even if the third felony was as minor as shoplifting....

Formerly branded career criminals, those released over the last two years have returned to crime at a remarkably low rate — partly because they had aged in prison, experts say, and because participation in crime declines steadily after age 25, but also because of the intense practical aid and counseling many have received. And California’s experience with the release of these inmates provides one way forward as the country considers how to reduce incarceration without increasing crime.

“I hope the enduring lesson is that all of these people are not hopeless recidivists,” said Michael Romano, director of the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School, which provides legal aid to prisoners and training to public defenders. “Those who remain dangerous should be kept behind bars,” added Mr. Romano, who was an author of the 2012 revisions. “But there are many people in prison who are no threat to public safety.”...

In 2012, with crime down and prisons overflowing, California voters had second thoughts. Proposition 36 held that many prisoners whose third offenses were not violent or serious would be eligible for resentencing, so long as a judge did not find an “unreasonable risk of danger to public safety.”

Of about 9,000 prisoners who had been sentenced under the three-strikes law, about 3,000 qualified for a rehearing; another 6,000, with more violent records, did not. As of late February, 2,008 inmates had been released for time served, and 92 were serving out reduced sentences. More than 700 cases remain to be adjudicated.Judges ruled against just 132 of the eligible inmates.

After being free for an average of more than 18 months, just 4.7 percent of the former life prisoners have returned to prison for new crimes, usually burglaries or drug crimes. By comparison, Mr. Romano calculates based on state data, of all inmates released from California prisons, about 45 percent return for new crimes over a similar period.

February 26, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Passage of Smarter Sentencing Act is reportedly "very important" to Prez Obama

This notable new USA Today piece, headlined "Bipartisan sentencing bill gets White House support," reports that President Obama indicated at a meeting yesterday with congressional leaders that he was interested and eager to have the Smarter Sentencing Act become law. Here are the details:

President Obama is throwing his support behind a bipartisan proposal to change the nation's sentencing laws by cutting many mandatory minimum sentences in half. That commitment came out of a meeting with 16 members of Congress at the White House Tuesday night, called by the president to gather their ideas on how to overhaul the criminal justice system.

Members of Congress who attended said the main topic of conversation was the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bill sponsored by Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.

Obama supported a similar bill in the last Congress, but the current proposal goes even further. Mandatory life sentences would be reduced to 20 years — effectively cutting life sentences in half because the current life sentence averages 40 years.

Another change: Those convicted of importing drugs into the United States would not be eligible for the reduced sentences unless they were merely couriers whose role was limited to transporting or storing drugs or money.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who has introduced a companion bill in the Senate, said Obama "focused specifically" on the Smarter Sentencing Act "and his desire to have it passed."

"It was showing us that this is very important to him, and he has the resources of his administration that he's been willing to put out there," Lee told KSL Radio in Salt Lake City Wednesday.

White House spokesman Frank Benenati said Wednesday that the White House is still reviewing the text of the legislation, but that "it certainly appears" that the Labrador proposal meshes with the president's aims to "make our communities safer, treat individuals more justly and allow more efficient use of enforcement resources."

Obama has signaled his support for sentencing changes as recently as Monday, when he praised governors who had signed similar bills at a White House dinner. "Last year was the first time in 40 years that the federal incarceration rate and the crime rate went down at the same time," Obama said. "Let's keep that progress going, and reform our criminal justice system in ways that protect our citizens and serves us all."

Labrador said that's an important point for Obama to make. "The main obstacle is the perception that sentencing reform will lead to more crime. And I think the opposite is true," he said. "The concern is that we want to continue to be tough on crime, but we want to be smart on crime."...

House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who also attended the meeting with Obama, would not comment on the meeting. He's been cool to sentencing changes in the past, but Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said he thought Goodlatte seemed "remarkably open" to the issue.

February 25, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

SCOTUS in Yates rejects broad interpretation of federal criminal statute via fascinating 5-4 split (with Justice Alito as swing vote)!!

Download (5)I often tell students that one of many reasons I find sentencing and related criminal justice issues so fascinating is because truly hard and interesting Supreme Court cases will rarely be resolved via the traditional (and traditionally boring) political splits among the Justices.  This reality is dramatically and uniquely on display this morning thanks to a ruling for a federal criminal defendant today in Yates v. United States, No. 13-7451 (S. Ct. Feb. 25, 2015) (available here).  Yates has produced this remarkable and unprecedented combination of opinions and votes:

GINSBURG, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and BREYER and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined. ALITO, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. KAGAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which SCALIA, KENNEDY, and THOMAS, JJ., joined.

Here are some money quotes from the start of the plurality opinion authored by Justice Ginsburg:

John Yates, a commercial fisherman, caught undersized red grouper in federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico.  To prevent federal authorities from confirming that he had harvested undersized fish, Yates ordered a crew member to toss the suspect catch into the sea. For this offense, he was charged with, and convicted of, violating 18 U. S. C. §1519...

Yates does not contest his conviction for violating §2232(a), but he maintains that fish are not trapped within the term “tangible object,” as that term is used in §1519.

Section 1519 was enacted as part of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, 116 Stat. 745, legislation designed to protect investors and restore trust in financial markets following the collapse of Enron Corporation. A fish is no doubt an object that is tangible; fish can be seen, caught, and handled, and a catch, as this case illustrates, is vulnerable to destruction.  But it would cut §1519 loose from its financial-fraud mooring to hold that it encompasses any and all objects, whatever their size or significance, destroyed with obstructive intent.  Mindful that in Sarbanes-Oxley, Congress trained its attention on corporate and accounting deception and cover-ups, we conclude that a matching construction of §1519 is in order: A tangible object captured by §1519, we hold, must be one used to record or preserve information.

And here are excerpts from the close of the dissenting opinion authored by Justice Kagan:

If none of the traditional tools of statutory interpretation can produce today’s result, then what accounts for it? The plurality offers a clue when it emphasizes the disproportionate penalties §1519 imposes if the law is read broadly. See ante, at 17–18. Section 1519, the plurality objects, would then “expose[] individuals to 20-year prison sentences for tampering with any physical object that might have evidentiary value in any federal investigation into any offense.” Ante, at 18. That brings to the surface the real issue: overcriminalization and excessive punishment in the U. S. Code.

Now as to this statute, I think the plurality somewhat — though only somewhat — exaggerates the matter. The plurality omits from its description of §1519 the requirement that a person act “knowingly” and with “the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence” federal law enforcement. And in highlighting §1519’s maximum penalty, the plurality glosses over the absence of any prescribed minimum. (Let’s not forget that Yates’s sentence was not 20 years, but 30 days.) Congress presumably enacts laws with high maximums and no minimums when it thinks the prohibited conduct may run the gamut from major to minor.... Most district judges, as Congress knows, will recognize differences between such cases and prosecutions like this one, and will try to make the punishment fit the crime. Still and all, I tend to think, for the reasons the plurality gives, that §1519 is a bad law— too broad and undifferentiated, with too-high maximum penalties, which give prosecutors too much leverage and sentencers too much discretion.  And I’d go further: In those ways, §1519 is unfortunately not an outlier, but an emblem of a deeper pathology in the federal criminal code.

But whatever the wisdom or folly of §1519, this Court does not get to rewrite the law. “Resolution of the pros and cons of whether a statute should sweep broadly or narrowly is for Congress.”  Rodgers, 466 U. S., at 484. If judges disagree with Congress’s choice, we are perfectly entitled to say so — in lectures, in law review articles, and even in dicta.  But we are not entitled to replace the statute Congress enacted with an alternative of our own design.

Great stuff here (including a cite by Justice Kagan to the esteemed source pictured above).  And surely not to be overlooked is the remarkable reality that Justice Alito, who has a history of almost always backing prosecutors in close cases, turned out in Yates to the be key vote (and author of the actual controlling opinion) for a federal criminal defendant.  

Amazing stuff... and I hope some future law review article on Yates considers a title like "One Justice, Two Justice, Red Justice, Blue Justice: What Congress Should Learn from Dr. Seuss about Writing Statutes."  

February 25, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Prez Obama talks about criminal justice reform with members of Congress and...

This piece from The Hill, headlined "Obama meets with lawmakers on criminal justice reform," reports that talk about federal criminal justice reform is continuing among most (but not all) key federal policy-makers:

The bipartisan group of 16 lawmakers included Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), two rising Republican stars who have backed reforms meant to reduce the number of adults in prison. They were joined by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who have proposed moderate changes to the mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug crimes.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), the Democrat sponsoring a significant update to the nation's primary law dictating how to treat minors in custody, was also in attendance.

Notably absent from the meeting was Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who along with Whitehouse is the sponsor of a major prison reform bill, and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and who is backing the juvenile justice bill.

Grassley was the only top member of either the House or Senate judiciary committees not to attend. House Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and ranking member Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) attended the meeting, as did Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

At a time when congressional Republicans and the White House are at loggerheads over several issues, the meeting was another sign that there is some level of bipartisan agreement that changes must be made to federal criminal justice policies. But what form those reforms might takes remains in question. Some in Congress want reforms made to the mandatory minimums, while others — like Cornyn and Grassley — have expressed a preference for other prison reforms that do not change the drug sentences.

The administration has indicated that it would be open to a range of possibilities. 

As long-time readers know, what I think the Obama Administration has truly "indicated" through its work on these matters for six years is that it is always eager to talk about the need for reform and never eager to spend and serious political capital on actually moving needed reforms forward. There has been serious and significant "bipartisan agreement that changes must be made to federal criminal justice policies" for nearly a decade now going back at least to when the Booker ruling invalidated important aspects of the bipartisan Sentencing Reform Act (and even before that if we focus on the crack-powder sentencing disparities).

I had long hoped that Prez Obama and others in his administration, who at least (tepidly) helped secure passage of the (tepid) Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, could and would get bolder and more proactive on criminal justice reforms once reelected. But it is now painfully clear that Prez Obama and his administration has decided that its political and policy energies and capital should always be focused much more on other (more controversial and divisive) issues like gay marriage, immigration and health care.

February 25, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

"Eighth Amendment Presumptions: A Constitutional Framework for Curbing Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by William Berry II now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The Supreme Court’s conceptualization of the Eighth Amendment over the past decade has focused on narrow exceptions to the ability of the states to punish criminal offenders, excising particular punishments based on characteristics of the offender or crime. What is missing, however, is a set of broader guiding principles delineating the line between acceptable and impermissible punishments.  The Court itself, in Kennedy v. Louisiana, acknowledged as much, describing the case law as “still in search of a unifying principle.” In light of this vacuum, this article proposes a new approach to the application of the Eighth Amendment.

The absence of regulation of excessive and disproportionate punishments by state legislatures over the past two decades has resulted in the largest prison population in the history of the human race.  Instead of merely being a tool that merely removes a few types of offenses and offenders from the purview of state legislatures, the Eighth Amendment should also serve as a more robust guide to shape state penal practices.

To that end, this Article argues for the development of a series of Eighth Amendment presumptions — guiding principles that would govern the punishment practices of legislatures without excluding them from the conversation.  Currently, the Eighth Amendment serves to identify the constitutional “exceptions” to the “rules” promulgated by the legislatures.  This Article’s approach would reverse that status quo, with the Court articulating general rules and the legislatures then developing (and justifying through careful study) the exceptions to the rules.  Indeed, an examination of the Court’s Eighth Amendment cases suggests this “presumptive” sentiment is already implicit in much of the thinking of the Court.

Part I of the Article briefly explains the shortcomings of the current evolving standards of decency doctrine and its devastating consequences.  Part II of the Article explores the concept of presumptions, exploring how presumptions operate and demonstrating their virtues.  The Article then argues in Part III for the reimagining of the Eighth Amendment as an Amendment of constitutional presumptions combining elements from the Court’s past cases with the needs arising from three decades of neglecting the decisions of legislatures. Finally, Part IV demonstrates how this conceptual framework would work in practice.

February 25, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

More notable new posts from the Collateral Consequences Resource Center

As regular readers know, I have made a habit of noting here notable posts from the Collateral Consequences Resource Center because the topics covered there are so interesting and get so little attention in the mainstream media (or many other places in the blogoshere). Here are a bunch of new posts from CCRC from recent weeks:

February 25, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Collateral consequences, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Two notable and timely new reform reports from The Sentencing Project

Via an e-mail from The Sentencing Project (reprinted in part below), I received this summary (with links) to two notable new reports from the group:

[Here are] two new reports from The Sentencing Project documenting changes in criminal justice policy in 2014 and successful advocacy campaign strategies in conservative state environments. The reforms highlighted in these reports represent approaches that lawmakers and advocates can consider to address sentencing policy and collateral consequences at the state level.

The State of Sentencing 2014 highlights policy changes in 30 states and the District of Columbia in both the adult and juvenile justice systems, including:

  • Scaling back sentences for low-level drug offenses

  • Reducing barriers to reentry, including employment restrictions and bans on public assistance

  • Eliminating juvenile life without parole

State Criminal Justice Advocacy in a Conservative Environment documents successful advocacy strategies employed in campaigns in Indiana, Missouri, and Texas. In these states, advocates achieved the following reforms:

  • Reduced enhanced penalties in drug-free zones in Indiana by shrinking the limit of zones from 1,000 feet to 500 feet, and eliminating all zones except those around schools and parks
  • Modified Missouri’s federal lifetime ban on food stamp benefits for persons with felony drug convictions
  • Closed two Texas prison facilities: the Dawson State Jail and the Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility

February 24, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tie vote ends effort to end the death penalty in Montana

As reported in this local article, headlined "House deadlocks on bill to abolish death penalty in Montana," a very red state came had a death penalty repeal bill come (surprisingly?) close to passage.  Here are the details:

The state House deadlocked Monday 50-50 on a bill to abolish the death penalty in Montana, likely killing the measure for the 2015 Legislature. Rep. David “Doc” Moore, R-Missoula, the sponsor of House Bill 370, told members to “just vote your conscience” moments before the vote.

He said later that he’s undecided whether to ask the House on Tuesday to reconsider its action on HB370, saying it could be difficult to pick up a single, additional vote to force another emotional debate and vote on the floor.

Monday’s vote fell largely along party lines, with most Republicans against it — but it took three of the House’s 41 Democrats voting “no” to reject the bill, which would abolish the death penalty in Montana and substitute it with life in prison without parole. Montana has two murderers on death row.

The vote also marked the closest that death penalty opponents have come to getting a bill through the Montana House, which has blocked similar efforts for years. Bills to abolish the death penalty have been approved by the state Senate in recent legislatures, only to see them die in the House.

Supporters of the bill argued the death penalty does not act as a deterrent and costs the state millions of dollars on appeals and other prosecutorial costs. Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, also said state prison workers shouldn’t be put in the position of having to operate “the machineries of death.”...

One longtime supporter of abolishing the death penalty, Rep. Mitch Tropila, D-Great Falls, spoke as though he thought supporters had the votes to pass HB370 on Monday. “This is an historic moment in the Montana House of Representatives,” he said. “It has never voted to abolish the death penalty on second reading. This is a momentous moment, and we are on the cusp of history."...

Opponents, however, offered their own emotion-charged testimony against the measure, saying the death penalty can help prosecutors extract plea bargains out of terrible criminals and spare both the state and the victims’ families the financial and emotional cost of a trial. “How can you put a price on my emotions and what I was going through, with my family?” asked Rep. Tom Berry, R-Roundup, whose son was brutally murdered a dozen years ago. “All this bill does is reward the murderer, handicap the prosecutor … and penalize victims like me.”

Rep. Roy Hollandsworth, R-Brady, who opposed the bill, said those who want to abolish the death penalty should take it to the Montana public as a referendum — but they won’t, because they know they would lose. The public overwhelmingly supports the death penalty, he said.

February 24, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, February 23, 2015

"What rights do felons have over their surrendered firearms?"

The question in the title of this post is the substance of the title of this helpful SCOTUS argument preview of Henderson v. US authored by Richard Re over at SCOTUSblog.  Here are excerpts which highlight why I think of Henderson as an interesting and dynamic sentencing case:

Tuesday, the Court will hear argument in Henderson v. United States, a complex case that offers a blend of criminal law, property, and remedies, with soft accents of constitutionalism. The basic question is this: when an arrested individual surrenders his firearms to the government, and his subsequent felony conviction renders him legally ineligible to possess those weapons, what happens to the guns?

The petitioner, Tony Henderson, was a Border Patrol agent convicted of distributing marijuana, a felony offense. Shortly after being arrested in 2006, Henderson surrendered his personal collection of firearms and other weapons to federal agents as a condition of release during the pendency of his criminal case. According to Henderson, his weapons collection included valuable items that had long been in the family, as well as an “antique.” Moreover, the collection was and remains Henderson’s lawful property. So, starting in 2008, Henderson asked authorities to transfer his weapons collection to someone else. But prosecutors and courts alike declined. Understandably enough, Henderson didn’t want his collection to escheat to the government like so much feudal property. So he’s pressed his rights to the Supreme Court.

The legal issues start with a conflict between a procedural rule and a federal statute. Under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41, the government usually has to “return” a defendant’s lawful property. But that can’t happen in Henderson’s case because a federal criminal law (18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1)) prohibits convicted felons, including Henderson, from possessing firearms. So if Rule 41 were allowed to operate according to its terms, Henderson would instantly be in violation of Section 922(g)(1). The courts below recognized that result as contrary to federal law and policy. (In a footnote in its merits brief, the federal government acknowledges that some of Henderson’s long-withheld weapons collection actually doesn’t consist of firearms at all. The government accordingly assures the Court that the “FBI is making the necessary arrangements to return the crossbow and the muzzle-loading rifle to petitioner.”)

To get around Section 922(g)(1), Henderson asked the government to transfer his firearms to third parties who are permitted to possess such items – specifically, either his wife or a friend who had promised to pay for them. Those proposed transfers, Henderson points out, wouldn’t result in his own possession of the firearms. And, critically, the proposed transfers would honor Henderson’s continued ownership of the weapons.... While Rule 41 by its terms may authorize only the “return” of property, Henderson argues that the federal district courts have “equitable” authority to direct transfers to third parties....

Without questioning that federal equitable authority operates in this area, the courts below apparently rejected Henderson’s transfer request in part based on the ancient rule of “unclean hands.” Under this venerable maxim, a wrongdoer (whose hands are figuratively dirty) may not seek relief at equity in connection with his own wrongful act. Based on a broad view of that precept, the courts below seemed to say that convicted felons are categorically barred from equitable relief as to their government-held property. Henderson contends that this holding revives ancient principles of “outlawry,” whereby criminals lose the protection of the law, while also running afoul of the Due Process Clause, the Takings Clause, and other constitutional provisions. However, the Solicitor General disputes that the decision below actually rested on this ground and — more importantly — has declined to defend it.

Instead, the federal government defends the result below on the ground that Section 922(g)(1) should be read to prohibit not just felons’ actual possession of firearms, but also their “constructive possession” of such weapons. On this view, impermissible constructive possession occurs when a convicted felon can exert some control over the next physical possessor of a particular item of property. Thus, Henderson would exert constructive possession – barred by federal law – if he could direct the transfer of his firearms to any particular person, including his wife or friend. Such direction, the government contends, would also create an unacceptable risk of letting the firearm find its way back to the felon. A permissible approach, in the government’s opinion, would be for it to transfer weapons to a licensed firearms dealer for sale, with proceeds going to the convicted felon.

Having gotten the federal government to endorse some remedial third-party transfers – a significant development in itself – Henderson asks why a convicted felon can’t at least nominate specific third parties, like a museum or a relative, to receive previously surrendered firearms that double as historical artifacts or family heirlooms....

While the ultimate outcome may turn in part on case-specific facts, the case touches on a number of important public debates. This becomes most obvious when the parties peripherally joust over the Second Amendment. The case has also drawn a number of amici. For instance, the Institute for Justice connects the case to public debate over forfeitures by asserting an aged canon against such forfeitures. Meanwhile, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the National Rifle Association of America respectively argue from the Excessive Fines Clause and, of course, the Second Amendment. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the government’s only amicus, also joins issue.

February 23, 2015 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

SCOTUS denies review for Eighth Amendment challenge to 15-year mandatory minimum sentence for possessing shotgun shells

I am quite bummed, and more than a bit grumpy, that the Supreme Court this morning denied certiorari review via this new order list of the case of Edward Young, who is serving a "mandatory fifteen-year prison sentence for the crime of possessing seven shotgun shells in a drawer."  I am bummed because, as detailed in this post, I helped file an amicus brief in support of Young's Eighth Amendment claim in the Sixth Circuit and also in support of his SCOTUS cert petition.

I am grumpy because the Supreme Court's willingness to deny review in this case, without even requiring the feds to file a brief in opposition and without any noted dissents, highlights yet again that modern Supreme Court Justices remain much more concerned with whether the worst-of-the-worst state murderers might feel some momentary pain while being executed than with whether Congress and federal prosecutors have gone to far in their application of extreme mandatory prison sentencing terms.   In my amicus brief, I had these concluding sentiments about the Young case and its implications:

The essential facts of this case read like a fictional story about a totalitarian dystopian state imagined by the likes of Franz Kafka or George Orwell: after unintentionally coming into possession 18 of a handful of shotgun shells while helping his widowed neighbor — conduct which is not a crime in his home State or in the vast majority of States in our Union — Edward Young was prosecuted by federal officials using a federal law that mandated a sentencing judge to order Mr. Young to spend the next 15 years of his life locked in a cage.  Disconcertingly, this nightmare tale of extreme punishment is not only true, but it has occurred in the United States of America — a country which was supposedly “conceived in liberty,” Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, and in which school children still recite their commitment to “liberty and justice for all.”  Pledge of Allegiance (codified in Title 4 of the United States Code § 4)....

[I]f Mr. Young’s fifteen-year mandatory federal prison term based on his harmless possession of shotgun shells is allowed to remain in place without further review, this Court would essentially signal to Congress that it very well could constitutionally make even “overtime parking a felony punishable by life imprisonment.” Rummel v. Estelle, 445 U.S. 263, 274 n.11 (1980).

Edward Young can, and I hope will, continue to assail his prosecution and sentencing via a 2255 petition, but such actions are subject to all sorts of additional difficulties (including the absence of a right to counsel).  Moreover, for me this case was not just about how Young's minor crime was treated by the feds, but whether federal judges believe that the Eighth Amendment provides any limit on the mandatory prison terms that could be imposed by federal authorities.  I strongly believe the Framers thought they were doing something about extreme sentences like the one given to Edward Young when they enacted the Eighth Amendment, but it seems no modern federal judges agree with me on this front.  Grrr.

Prior related posts:

February 23, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack