Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Assailing the new expanded mandatory minimum for "career offenders" being pushed by AG Jeff Sessions

As noted in prior posts here and here, earlier this month Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave a big speech advocating for reform to the Armed Career Criminal Act in part as a response to the Supreme Court's 2015 ruling in Johnson finding a part of ACCA vague.  Writing at The American Prospect, Manuel Madrid has this new piece unpacking the particulars of this effort.  The full headline and subheadline summarizes the themes of the piece: "Jeff Sessions and the Conservative Nostalgia for Harsh Sentencing: A new Republican bill would slap nonviolent criminals with 15-year mandatory minimum sentences. White-collar crimes, property crimes, and drug-related offenses would all count toward being considered a 'career armed criminal'.”  Here are some excerpts:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s full-court press for more tough-on-crime policies has found a home in Congress.  Speaking before a crowd of law enforcement officials and prosecutors ... in Little Rock, Arkansas, Sessions called for legislation to reinstate an aggressive Reagan-era sentencing law that targets repeat offenders....

About an hour before the speech, Republican Senators Orrin Hatch of Utah, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina offered a glimpse into what such a fix would look like with their new bill, the Restoring the Armed Career Criminal Act of 2018. The proposed legislation revises the language in the original act and broadens its scope to avoid possible legal challenges, while extending hefty mandatory minimum prison sentences to violent and nonviolent criminals alike....

While the original act might have been defended on the grounds that it at least attempted to hone in on some violent criminals, the Cotton-Hatch-Graham redux abandons all pretenses of even trying.  Under the new bill, nonviolent crimes such as identity theft, fraud, and money laundering could earn a person the label of armed career criminal. And the list goes on: Property crimes like burglary and theft and a score of drug-related crimes would all be on the table.

Before the 2015 Supreme Court decision, about 600 offenders were charged each year under the Armed Career Criminal Act. That number dropped to 265 last year.  The change would likely open the floodgates to more mandatory minimum prison sentences, which already disproportionately affect minorities.  In 2017, more than half of felons charged with unlawful possession of a firearm were black and almost 20 percent were Hispanic.  Only 4.4 percent were charged as armed career criminals....

During his time in the Senate, Sessions, along with Senator Cotton, persuaded other Republicans to join them in torpedoing a bipartisan sentencing reform bill in 2016 which would have shortened existing mandatory minimums and narrowed the scope of drug convictions that triggered them....

The drastic expansion of the Armed Career Criminal Act proposed in the Cotton-Hatch-Graham bill would accelerate the federal government’s backsliding on criminal justice, achieving little more than earning the praise from a minority of conservative politicians nostalgic for the hardline policies of decades past.

Prior related posts:

August 15, 2018 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The American Execution Queue"

The title of this post is the title of this new interesting article by Lee Kovarsky now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The modern death penalty presents a puzzle: law and norms heavily constrain how American jurisdictions impose death sentences, but not how they select death-sentenced inmates for executions.  In this Article, I explain why this strange void persists, argue that its presence undermines equality, and offer workable institutional responses. In short, I advance a comprehensive theory of the American execution queue — the process by which death penalty jurisdictions decide which condemned inmates will actually die.

My first objective is explanatory.  Because executing a death-sentenced inmate now entails both significant litigation and extensive coordination among under-motivated state institutions, the process takes ten times as long as it did fifty years ago.  Modern executions have become “scarce,” as American jurisdictions simply cannot kill all of their condemned offenders.  Even though the state must make choices, there are no rules for choosing.  Because there is little consensus around decision-making criteria, the process operates with few constraints.  By the time the state must decide which condemned inmates to execute, the capacity of familiar decision-making criteria to meaningfully sort inmates by death-worthiness — things like offense conduct, blame, or future danger — has been exhausted during prior phases of the capital punishment sequence.

My second objective is normative.  I specify several preferred institutional design strategies, anchored to interests in legitimacy, transparency, fairness, and equality.  First, jurisdictions should centralize the process by which they select death-sentenced inmates for executions; localities should have no role in setting execution dates.  Second, a centralized entity should engage in administrative-law-like rulemaking in order to develop transparent, legitimate selection criteria.  Third, jurisdictions should separate the power to determine execution priority from the power to schedule execution dates.  By shifting to a centralized process grounded in transparent rulemaking and rational decision-making criteria, jurisdictions can curb the arbitrariness that plagues the existing system.

August 15, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Interesting commutation developments in wake of initiative reform in Oklahoma

This local story, headlined "49 Oklahoma inmates imprisoned for drug crimes asking for commutations; 49 asking state to consider commutations in light of State Question 780," reports on an interesting clemency echo in the wake of a notable ballot initiative passed in Oklahoma in 2016. Here are the details:

Some state inmates serving 10 years to life in prison for what has been described as “low-level” drug crimes have applied for commutations thanks to the help of advocates and law students.

The 49 inmates and those backing their commutation applications are citing recent changes in state law — and Oklahoma’s highest incarceration rate in the nation — as the reason why. “A lot of these are 20-, sometimes 30-year sentences on a crime that if charged now would be a misdemeanor,” said Corbin Brewster, Tulsa County’s chief public defender.

Brewster’s office assisted Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform with creating the list of inmates. The coalition of business and community leaders, law enforcement experts and advocates across the state is led by former state House Speaker Kris Steele.

The state Pardon and Parole Board will take the up the first batch of 23 commutation requests — all female inmates — on Monday in Oklahoma City. The rest are scheduled to be considered next month.

The requests for commuted sentences, if recommended by the parole board and approved by the governor, would only reduce the length of the prison terms. Some sentences could be modified to “time served,” but the convictions would remain on the inmate’s record.

Push for commutations is spurred by the passage of State Question 780, which starting July 1, 2017, made nonviolent drug possession offenses and low-level property offenses misdemeanors instead of felonies. Steele led the call for the state question, which was approved in November 2016 by 58 percent of Oklahoma voters.

Eight law school students, working as summer interns for Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, helped choose applicants and interviewed them, said Stephen Galoob, associate professor at the University of Tulsa Law School. Galoob said the effort is aimed at “just making the system work.”

“These are all cases and these are all stories that are really powerful,” he said. “And a lot of what the students are doing is just telling the stories of the people who are in prison for crimes that the people of Oklahoma don’t really think we should be locking people up for.”...

The parole board uses a two-stage process to consider commutations. During the first stage, the board reviews the application before considering whether to pass the request to a second, more thorough review stage. At least a majority vote of the board is needed to forward the commutation request to the governor for final consideration.

The parole board considered 477 commutation requests in fiscal 2018, which ended June 30, said DeLynn Fudge, the agency’s executive director.  The board passed 19 of the requests to the second stage of its review process, of which 10 were forwarded to the governor with a recommendation that they be approved, Fudge said. 

Especially in light of the historical numbers reported in this article, it is especially interesting and exciting to see this follow-up article headlined "Nearly two dozen cases involved in 'commutation campaign' advance to second stage of consideration":

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted Monday to advance a group of nearly two dozen people who are being assisted by a commutation campaign to a second stage of review.

August 15, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Nebraska completes its first ever lethal injection, which is first US execution to include use of the opioid fentanyl

The lengthy local article, headlined "'A monumental day'; Nebraska executes Carey Dean Moore in state's first lethal injection," reports on a milestone capital punishment even in the heartland today. Here are a few details:

Nebraska carried out its first execution in 21 years on Tuesday, using four drugs to end the life of double murderer Carey Dean Moore.

Moore, 60, became the first condemned inmate in the state put to death by lethal injection. He had served 38 years on death row for the 1979 killings of Omaha cabdrivers Reuel Van Ness and Maynard Helgeland. Helgeland and Van Ness were shot five days apart as Moore targeted cabdrivers because he knew they carried cash. Both men were 47 years old, fathers and military veterans.

Corrections Director Scott Frakes said the first of four execution drugs was administered at 10:24 a.m. The Lancaster County coroner declared Moore dead at 10:47 a.m. Frakes said the execution was carried it out with "professionalism, respect for the process and dignity for all involved."

The scene outside the Nebraska State Penitentiary, where the execution occurred, was subdued on Tuesday morning amid on-and-off rain showers. Only about a dozen death penalty opponents prayed outside the prison; only three capital punishment proponents attended. Many more state troopers and media members stood nearby.

Gov. Pete Ricketts, who helped lead an effort to overturn a 2015 repeal of the death penalty by the Nebraska Legislature, spent the morning in a meeting with state agency officials. “Today, the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services carried out the sentence the court ordered in accordance with the will of the people of Nebraska," Ricketts said in a prepared statement. "The death penalty remains a critical tool to protect law enforcement, corrections officers and public safety.”

Outside the governor's mansion in Lincoln just after the execution, a handful of protesters stood in the rain, one carrying a sign reading "Ricketts has blood on his hands.”

Among the death penalty supporters who came to the prison were Vivian Tuttle, whose daughter was slain inside a Norfolk bank in 2002. "I'm here to support the victims," Tuttle said. "That's the ones I have to stand for." Standing with her was Pierce County Sheriff Rick Eberhardt, who, along with Tuttle, collected hundreds of signatures to allow voters to restore the death penalty in 2016.

​Tuttle's daughter, Evonne Tuttle, was one of five people killed in a bank robbery in Norfolk on Sept. 26, 2002. Evonne Tuttle, a single mother, went to the bank in Norfolk to cash a $64 check. Three gunmen from the robbery, Jose Sandoval, Jorge Galindo and Erick Vela, all are on death row. "I think it's important that we have voices that still say it's important that we stand for the death penalty. And for the families of victims," Tuttle said.

Moore — who had served the longest time on Nebraska's death row — was led to the execution chamber at 10 a.m. After he was strapped to the execution table, he mouthed the words "I love you" multiple times toward his official witnesses, which included a brother and a niece.

His final words were delivered in a handwritten statement: He hoped that lawyers could get his younger brother, Donald, released from parole, and urged death penalty opponents to pursue claims of innocence by four others on Nebraska's death row....

The four official media witnesses to the execution said that Moore's face gradually turned slightly red, then purple, as the four drugs were administered. The execution was the first using the four drugs obtained by Nebraska, over legal objections by death penalty opponents and some drug manufacturers. The curtain to the execution chamber was lowered at 10:39 a.m. after the fourth drug was administered. The curtains reopened eight minutes later after he was pronounced dead....

Duggan called the execution "a monumental day" after the many debates in the state over capital punishment. The death penalty was restored by voters in 2016 by a 61-39 percent margin after a petition drive, in large part funded by Ricketts, placed the issue on the ballot. "There's no question it's a significant day in the state's history," the reporter said.

In a statement, Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson said, "Our sympathy is extended to the families of Reuel Van Ness and Maynard Helgeland for the loss of their loved ones nearly thirty-nine years ago. Today's somber event serves to provide a measure of closure for what has been a lengthy enactment of justice."

Nebraska has now carried out 38 state-sanctioned executions. Moore was put to death using a previously untried four-drug combination of diazepam, fentanyl, cisatracurium and potassium chloride.

He is the first inmate executed using the drug fentanyl, a powerful narcotic painkiller that has contributed to the nation's epidemic of drug overdoses. He was put to death despite two federal lawsuits filed last week by drug companies seeking to keep their products from being used. The state's last execution before Tuesday took place in 1997, when the electric chair was the method. Lethal injection was adopted in 2009 after the state Supreme Court outlawed electrocution as cruel and unusual punishment.

August 14, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, August 13, 2018

"Algorithmic Risk Assessments and the Double-Edged Sword of Youth"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Megan Stevenson and Christopher Slobogin now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

At sentencing, youth can be considered both a mitigating circumstance because of its association with diminished culpability and an aggravating circumstance because of its association with crime-risk.  In theory, judges and parole boards can recognize this double-edged sword phenomenon and balance the mitigating and aggravating effects of youth. But when sentencing authorities rely on algorithmic risk assessments, a practice that is becoming increasingly common, this balancing process may never take place.

Algorithmic risk assessments often place heavy weights on age in a manner that is not fully transparent -- or, in the case of proprietary “black-box” algorithms, not transparent at all.  For instance, our analysis of one of the leading black-box tools, the COMPAS Violent Recidivism Risk Score, shows that roughly 60% of the risk score it produces is attributable to age.  We argue that this type of fact must be disclosed to sentencing authorities in an easily-interpretable manner so that they understand the role an offender’s age plays in the risk calculation.  Failing to reveal that a stigmatic label such as “high risk of violent crime” is due primarily to a defendant’s young age could lead to improper condemnation of a youthful offender, especially given the close association between risk labels and perceptions of character and moral blameworthiness.

August 13, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 12, 2018

While I was on road, did others notice that we "stopped being a civilized nation and accepted barbarism"?

The question in this title of this post is my somewhat tongue-in-check reaction after getting a chance to finally read Justice Sotomayor's remarkable dissent from the denial of the application for stay in Irick v. Tennessee handed down last week.  This dissent, which assailed the Court's refusal to stay an execution that Tennessee carried out this past Thursday, concluded this way:

In refusing to grant Irick a stay, the Court today turns a blind eye to a proven likelihood that the State of Tennessee is on the verge of inflicting several minutes of torturous pain on an inmate in its custody, while shrouding his suffering behind a veneer of paralysis.  I cannot in good conscience join in this “rush to execute” without first seeking every assurance that our precedent permits such a result. No. M1987–00131–SC–DPE–DD (Lee, J., dissenting), at 1.  If the law permits this execution to go forward in spite of the horrific final minutes that Irick may well experience, then we have stopped being a civilized nation and accepted barbarism. I dissent.

Because no other justice joined this dissent and Irick's execution did in fact go forward around at 7:30 p.m. CDT on Thursday, August 9, 2018, it seems that last Thursday night according to Justice Sotomayor we "stopped being a civilized nation and accepted barbarism." And, notably, this local report on Irick's execution (and the crime that prompted it) reports that the execution was not completed smoothly:

The execution began later than scheduled. The blinds to the execution room lifted at 7:26 p.m., 16 minutes later than expected. Irick, with nearly shoulder-length hair, a scraggly beard and dressed in a white prison jumpsuit and black socks, was coughing, choking and gasping for air. His face turned dark purple as the lethal drugs took over.

August 12, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

FAMM provides detailed review of SRCA sentencing provisions most likely to be added to FIRST STEP Act

As noted in this recent post, the latest buzz from inside the Beltway is that four sentencing reform provisions from the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act might get added to the FIRST STEP Act in the Senate to produce a final federal criminal justice reform bill that will finally get voted on in both houses of Congress. Helpfully, the folks at FAMM have produced this extended document reviewing which SRCA sentencing provisions are seemingly in play.  The document is styled as a memo to Congress members and staff under the heading "Facts sheets explaining potential sentencing additions to FIRST STEP Act."  Here is part of its introduction:

In May, the U.S. House passed the FIRST STEP Act (H.R. 5682) by a vote of 360 to 59. Some Senate leaders have argued that any criminal justice reform bill considered by the Senate must include sentencing reform. Earlier this month, President Trump expressed a willingness to consider adding four sentencing reform provisions to the FIRST STEP Act.

As Members of Congress consider adding some commonsense sentencing provisions from the Senate Judiciary Committee-approved Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA, S. 1917), we thought it would be useful to provide some background on the four sentencing provisions under consideration. In the four factsheets that follow, we explain the problem that current sentencing law is creating, provide an example of how it is harming real people, share the proposed reform found in SRCA, and relay the potential financial impact based on studies conducted by the Congressional Budget Office and the U.S. Sentencing Commission. We recognize that the reforms included in SRCA might change during negotiations and that the impact of these reforms will change accordingly.

For those interested in a detailed (pro-reform) accounting of what sentencing reform provisions now seem to have a real chance of passage, this FAMM document is very much worth checking out. Also, here is a list of just some of the (too) many prior posts I have done about the policy and political debates over federal reforms just this year:

August 12, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Does Prez Trump have the courage to visit the largest maximum security prison in the country?

The question in the title of this post reflects my weak effort to try to goad Prez Donald Trump into accepting an invitation from Louisiana's governor as reported in this article:

Gov. John Bel Edwards has invited President Donald Trump to visit Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the largest maximum security prison in the country.

In a letter sent Thursday (Aug. 9) [available here], Edwards said Angola would be a good place for Trump to explore the benefits of Louisiana's criminal justice overhaul last year. Edwards touted the vocational, victim reconciliation and faith-based programs housed at the prison, where nearly 6,000 inmates live.

Specifically, Edwards said Trump should see the accredited Bible college located at Angola and the prison's hospice program, which has received national recognition. "It is not a secret that the implementation of these types of programs is what helped to transform LSP from one of the bloodiest prisons in America to a place of hope, transformation and reconciliation," Edwards wrote to Trump.

Both the Bible college and the hospice program at Angola predate by several years the criminal justice overhaul Edwards spearheaded. In fact, inmates at Angola were not as significantly affected by the criminal justice law changes in 2017 as people in other parts of the prison system.

Edwards' criminal justice overhaul dealt mostly with shortening sentences and expanding parole and probation opportunities for nonviolent offenders. It has resulted in Louisiana losing its title of incarceration capital of the country, but the drop in the prison population has occurred almost entirely among people serving time for lower-level offenses.

Angola is home predominantly to people serving life sentences for violent crimes who will never be released from prison. Those inmates mostly did not see substantial changes in their sentences as a result of the criminal justice overhaul.

The governor also attended a meeting in New Jersey with Trump and several other elected officials on criminal justice issues Thursday. Other governors attending included Gov. Matt Bevin, R-Kentucky, Gov. Phil Bryant, R-Mississippi, and Gov. Nathan Deal, R-Georgia. Edwards was the only Democrat invited to the meeting.

Notably, a little more than three years ago as detailed in this post, Prez Obama got lots of good press for making history by being the first occupant of the White House to visit a federal correctional facility.  Back in 2015, I had this to say in the wake of this historic visit: "Though I am not really expecting it, I would love for this kind of presidential visit to a prison to become a regular habit and something of a tradition. As President Obama stressed in his recent speech to the NAACP, most of the persons behind bars "are also Americans" and all presidents should be committed to serving all Americans, even those who are incarcerated."  It would be amazing for Prez Trump to be the one who turns visiting a prison into a tradition, and perhaps Prez Trump could even be goaded into trying to  Prez Obama's visitation record by visiting both a state and a federal prison as he advocates for Congress to pass criminal justice reform.

Interestingly, earlier today Prez Trump had this tweet which mention his advocacy for prison reform in this way: "I'm pushing for prison reform to give people who have paid their debt to society a second chance. I will never stop fighting for ALL Americans!"  I hope part of his push will include a visit to Angola and other prisons and jails, where millions of Americans reside.

A few older related posts:

August 11, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, August 10, 2018

Could a version of the FIRST STEP Act with sentencing reforms pass the Senate in a matter of weeks?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this encouraging Thursday Washington Examiner piece headlined "Jared Kushner helps Trump pave rare bipartisan path to big win." Here are excerpts with a few lines emphasized:

Thursday’s roundtable at President Trump’s summer White House in New Jersey to address prison and sentencing reform with governor’s is the latest bid by top aide Jared Kushner to give his father-in-law a rare bipartisan victory on a once controversial issue.

In getting Trump to carve out part of his working vacation at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., Kushner and other officials are hoping to demonstrate how important the issues are to the president as he works to get a Senate vote in the next month.

Trump’s meeting this afternoon with governors, state attorneys general, and top aides is the latest in which he will endorse prison reform and he is also expected to open the door to sentencing reform, a sign to key senators that he is ready for a deal.

Just last week he met with Trump met with Republican Sens. Mike Lee, Lindsey Graham, Tim Scott and Chuck Grassley who are working legislation on sentencing and prison reform.

“We are trying to get a vote in the next two weeks,” said an administration official of the broad prison reform bill known as the First Step Act that passed the House overwhelmingly.

As he has on Middle East peace and other projects his father-in-law has given him, Kushner has worked overtime -- and always behind the scenes -- to build an unusual coalition in support of the reforms....

“There can’t be any doubt that by having this as the only major event on the president’s schedule that he is laser focused on this,” said one associate, who added, “We think that with this momentum and with the coalition behind it, that this can actually happen.”

Importantly, as I understand matters, the Senate would be voting on not just the prison reforms in the House version of the FIRST STEP Act, but also some sentencing reforms. Those reform are limited, but still quite significant, and they are outlined in this recent piece by Mark Holden.  And if this is brought up for a vote in the Senate, I do not think there is any real likelihood it would not pass.  Indeed, the question would be probably whether it might get even more than 80 votes.

If this really gets completely done in the coming weeks, I do think it will be right to give Prez Trump and his Administration a considerable amount of credit.  But that credit comes only if and when a bill is signed and the law is changed.  Remarkably, I am starting to get optimistic that this could happen pretty soon.

August 10, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, August 09, 2018

White House emails "startling facts about America’s prison system"

Though I will not be back on-line regularly for a few more days, I  am finding ways to check my emails and felt inspired to report here on what appeared at the very top of the daily email blast from the White House today.  Specifically, this text and these links appeared under the heading "The startling facts about America’s prison system":

Following successful bipartisan passage of the FIRST STEP Act in the House of Representatives, President Trump is hosting a roundtable with a number of America’s governors today to discuss implementing prison reform in their states.

President Trump supports efforts to reduce recidivism — the return of former inmates to prison—as a way to make America’s streets safer. The Administration has worked closely with Congress to find a solution that reduces crime, enhances public safety, and increases opportunity for those who have earned a second chance.

“The facts about America’s prison system are startling,” Senior Advisor Jared Kushner wrote in The Wall Street Journal in April. “The U.S. has 4% of the world’s population, but roughly 25% of the world’s prisoners. . . . Of the 650,000 people who leave prison every year, two-thirds will commit a new crime within three years.”

The bottom line, says Kushner: “President Trump promised to fight for the forgotten men and women of this country—and that includes those in prison.”

The starting facts about America’s prison system.

Taking action: President Trump’s principles for reforming our prisons

No White House gets any credit or congratulations from me unless and until actual legislation gets enacted into law.  But this email, which also noted that today "President Donald J. Trump is hosting a roundtable discussion with governors on prison reform and the FIRST STEP Act before Congress," reinforces my sense that this White House is going to keep talking up at least some measure of criminal justice reform until at least something actually gets done. Or, at least, they are fooling me into believing this is a real priority for this Administration.

August 9, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, August 04, 2018

Encouraging news from DC about prospects for prison reform with sentencing reform getting enacted in 2018

Though I am a very long way from DC right now (much closer to Russia, in fact, somewhere on this route), I had to find a way on-line to be sure to note the exciting federal criminal justice reform news reported here in The Hill under the headline "Trump gives thumbs up to prison sentencing reform bill at pivotal meeting."  Here are the details:

President Trump has told Republican senators that he’s open to a new proposal on prison and sentencing reform, giving new life to an issue that seemed hopelessly stalled on Capitol Hill.

The compromise presented to Trump by Republican senators at a White House meeting on Wednesday would combine the prison reform bill passed by the House in May — the First Step Act — with four sentencing reform provisions that have bipartisan Senate backing, according to a source familiar with the meeting.

A senior White House official described the president as “positively inclined” toward the compromise proposal. The source said Trump told GOP senators to “do some work with your colleagues” and “let's see where the Senate is and then come back to me with it.”...

The compromise offer was presented to Trump at a meeting with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.). Jared Kushner, a senior White House adviser and Trump’s son-in-law; Shahira Knight, the new White House legislative affairs director; and White House chief of staff John Kelly also attended the White House meeting.

Attendees described Trump’s support for the initiative as a positive development for the effort to reduce mandatory-minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. While getting a final bill to Trump would require a Senate vote and then winning House approval for the new package, a second source familiar with the meeting described it as “very successful.” “It’s not done until it’s done, but we made a lot of progress,” the source said.

Grassley said afterward that he believes prison reform and sentencing reform can be moved in tandem. “I think we made great progress so it doesn’t have to be broken up,” Grassley told reporters Thursday. “There seems to be an interest on the part of the White House now to keeping the bills together.”

Negotiators now think there’s a possibility of moving legislation through the Senate as soon as this month, though it’s more likely to wait until the lame-duck session after the midterm elections....

The emergent compromise proposal would make several technical changes to the House-passed First Step Act and merge it with four sentencing reforms from the Senate’s Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which has a large number of co-sponsors from both parties.

“The question is how little sentencing reform we can put in there without losing the Democrats and how much we can put in there without losing more than a handful of Republicans, and we think we’ve about cracked that formula,” said a person familiar with the internal talks who briefed The Hill.

The proposed compromise would lower lifetime mandatory minimum sentences for people with prior nonviolent drug felony convictions to 25 years and reduce 20-year mandatory minimum sentences for similar offenders to 15 years. But in an effort to reach common ground, that reform would only apply to new sentences and not to people already in jail.

Another reform would free judges from having to ratchet up sentences for drug offenders convicted on simultaneous charges. A requirement known as the “stacking enhancement” forced judges to treat convictions on multiple charges as prior offenses and mandated harshly long punishments for nonviolent drug offenders. In another bid to broaden political support, this reform would not apply retroactively.

A third reform would apply the Fair Sentencing Act, which Congress passed in 2010 and reduced the disparity between cocaine- and crack-related offenses, retroactively. That law reduced the disparity between cocaine- and crack-related crimes prospectively but only applied to new sentences. The reform now being discussed would retroactively reduce the disparity of old sentences.

The final reform would expand exceptions to the application of mandatory-minimum sentences to more people with criminal histories.

I am not counting any sentencing reform chickens before they hatch, but this description of the compromise combo FIRST STEP Act and SRCA would seem to make a lot of sense in light of various positions staked out on both sides of the aisle. And if Prez Trump signals support for such a reform package and is willing to make it a priority, I would now be inclined to predict this will get done this year. But because Prez Trump has never seemed a serious advocate for sentencing reform, and because his Attorney General likely dislikes all of this, and because the run-up and aftermath of an election can disrupt lots in DC, I am inclined to remain pessimistic about all of this until votes are being scheduled and taken.

August 4, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Pope Francis official changes Catholic teachings on death penalty to work for abolition worldwide

As reported in this CNN piece, "Pope Francis has declared that the death penalty is never admissible and that the Catholic Church will work towards its abolition around the world, the Vatican formally announced Thursday." Here is more:

The change, which has been added to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, makes official a position that the Pope has articulated since he became pontiff.  The Church now teaches that "the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person" and states that it will "work with determination towards its abolition worldwide," the Vatican said.

The Catholic Church's teaching on the death penalty has been slowly evolving since the time of Pope John Paul II, who served from 1978 to 2005.  In his Christmas message in 1998, he wished "the world the consensus concerning the need for urgent and adequate measures ... to end the death penalty." His successor Benedict XVI, in a document published in November 2011, called on society's leaders "to make every effort to eliminate the death penalty."

Francis then wrote in a letter to the President of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty in March 2015 that "today capital punishment is unacceptable, however serious the condemned's crime may have been."  He added that the death penalty "entails cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment" and said it was to be rejected "due to the defective selectivity of the criminal justice system and in the face of the possibility of judicial error."

August 2, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Religion, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

"The Digital Wilderness: A Decade of Exile & the False Hopes of Lester Packingham"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Guy Padraic Hamilton-Smith now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The United States Supreme Court’s decision in Packingham v. North Carolina announced that people who have been convicted of sex offenses have a First Amendment right to access social media platforms.  In reaching its conclusion, the Court reasoned that the public square — and the communicative activity that the First Amendment protects — now exists on these platforms “in particular.”

Despite Packingham’s promise of free speech for arguably the most despised, feared, and misunderstood group of people in America, it did not directly address ways in which both the state and private actors keep Packingham’s beneficiaries in digital darkness.  As the rolls of America’s sex offense registries swell to near one million people in 2018, sustained exclusion from platforms that society increasingly relies on for civic engagement functionally cripples the ability of an enormous population of people to reintegrate, participate, and effectively challenge laws and policies that target them long after they have exited the criminal justice system.  Far from being dangerous or illicit, the voices of people directly impacted are necessary to properly balance a system which has all but foreclosed redemption, and thus their inclusion gives life not only to the values at the heart of Packingham, but to our conception of justice as well.

August 2, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sex Offender Sentencing, Technocorrections, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Senators Orrin Hatch and Tom Cotton proposing Johnson fix to expand reach of Armed Career Criminal Act

As detailed in this press release, "Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) introduced The Restoring the Armed Career Criminal Act of 2018, legislation that will protect Americans from the most violent, repeat offenders." Here is part of the release:

“True criminal justice reform includes giving prosecutors the tools they need to seek enhanced penalties against the worst repeat offenders, said Hatch. “Prosecutors lost one of those tools three years ago when the Supreme Court ruled that a provision of the Armed Career Criminal Act was unconstitutionally vague. Criminals released early from prison as a result of that decision have gone on to commit heinous crimes, including the murder of three innocent Utahns. Our bill will bring much-needed clarity to the law while empowering prosecutors to pursue justice.”...

The National Association of Police Organizations offered their full support for this bill. In addition, the National Sheriffs’ Association has written a letter of support with over 3,000 elected sheriffs nationwide. Click here to read the full letter....

Originally passed by a unanimous vote in the House and Senate in 1984, the Armed Career Criminal Act requires a minimum 15-year prison sentence for felons convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm who have three prior state or federal convictions for violent felonies or serious drug offenses, which must have been committed on three different occasions. These are the worst-of-the worst, career criminals.

The ACCA defines serious drug offenses as those punishable by imprisonment for 10 years or more. It defines violent felonies [in three ways, one of which was declared by the Supreme Court in Johnson] unconstitutionally vague and thus effectively void....

The Restoring the Armed Career Criminal Act of 2018 would do away with the concepts of “violent felony” and “serious drug offense” and replace them with a single category of “serious felony.” A serious felony would be any crime punishable by 10 years or more. By defining “serious felony” solely based on the potential term of imprisonment, the bill would address the vagueness issue and remove any discretion or doubt about which offenses qualify.

The bill would give federal prosecutors an additional tool to go after the most dangerous, career criminals and would not apply to low-level offenders. Specifically, the ACCA would still apply only in a case where a felon who possesses a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) has previously been convicted three times of serious felonies, which must have been committed on different occasions.

I noted in this post that the Armed Career Criminal Act is long overdue for a fix, but the solution presented here strikes me as problematic because it expands the reach of a severe mandatory minimum and still has ACCA's reach turn on prior offense definitions. Statutory mandatory minimums are always clunky, and all that may be needed to effectively achieve ACCA's goals would be to raise the applicable maximum terms for illegal gun possession by those with three or more felony convictions.  Judges could and would then use the US Sentencing Commission's guidelines, rather than the fortuity of some prior offense definitions, to determine who are truly the 'worst-of-the worst, career criminals" that should be imprisoned for decades.

Prior related post:

"Attorney General Sessions Delivers Remarks Calling for a Legislative Fix to the Armed Career Criminal Act" 

August 2, 2018 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Prez Trump says he thinks "we’ll be able to" get the FIRST STEP Act passed into law

President Donald Trump had a White House meeting with inner-city pastors today, and the even made headlined because on pastor said, as reported here, that Prez Trump may go down as the "most pro-black president" in recent history. Rather than engage with that comment, I am eager to note some of Prez Trump's comments about prison reform at the event. This link provides a transcript, and here are statements by Prez Trump that caught my eye:

Our focus on opportunity for every citizen includes helping former prisoners.  These citizens reentering society have had a tough time.  We want them to get jobs so they don’t have to return to a life of crime and go back into the same prison where they just got out....

We passed the First Step Act through the House, and we’re working with the Senate to pass that into law.  And I think we’ll be able to do it. When we say “hire American,” we mean all Americans — every American, everybody.

And, you know, it’s something that should have been done a long time ago — prison reform....  But a lot of people are saying, “You mean it’s the Trump administration that’s doing this?”  You understand.  They don’t believe it.  But we’re really making a tremendous amount of progress, and it’s a beautiful thing to watch.

I am not prepared to praise the Trump Administration for "making a tremendous amount of progress" unless and until I see laws enacted and real reforms implemented. But as Prez Trump continues to talk the talk on prison reform, I want to remain hopeful that real action will follow.

August 1, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Attorney General Sessions Delivers Remarks Calling for a Legislative Fix to the Armed Career Criminal Act"

The title of this post is the headline of this press release from the US Department of Justice today, and here are some of the comments that follow that focus on ACCA:

[B]ecause of a 2015 Supreme Court decision holding that the definition of violent felony was too vague — we are missing one of the most important law enforcement tools we had. The Johnson case is quite significant.

Regardless of the merits of the Court’s decision, the consequences have been devastating for Americans across the country.

This court decision led to the release of a man from right here in Little Rock. Eight months after he was released from prison, he was arrested for aggravated assault and domestic battery. A year after that he was arrested for kidnapping, rape, aggravated assault, battery, and terroristic threats. He is accused of raping a 62-year old woman and an autistic homeless man.

This court ruling also led to the release of a man who allegedly punched a pregnant woman at a nightclub in Forrest City. When police intervened, he allegedly assaulted three of them, cutting one of them on the forehead.

A man from Pine Bluff got his 15 year sentence cut in half. A year later, he got into an argument with a co-worker. According to the allegations against him, the co-worker turned around to walk away when the defendant sucker-punched him, broke his nose and eye sockets, chipped a tooth and busted his lip.

Two of these criminals I’ve talked about are now back in prison. They were let out of prison, reoffended, and now they’re back in prison.

But the consequences are not limited to Arkansas. This is a nationwide problem and it’s a cause for deep concern. In Utah, a career criminal released by this decision tortured and murdered two teenagers and then threw their bodies down a mineshaft. A released career criminal in California allegedly murdered his father, carjacked a vehicle and killed the driver. In Oregon, a released career criminal held a Subway sandwich shop hostage and then shot a police officer just 18 days after he was released.

Sadly, I could go on and on. So why did this happen? The Supreme Court struck down part of a law called the Armed Career Criminal Act. It had been on the books for 30 years and applied thousands of times.

This is the law that requires a minimum 15- year sentence for felons caught with a firearm after their third violent felony or serious drug trafficking conviction.

These are not the mythical “low-level, nonviolent drug offenders,” who we are always told are being excessively imprisoned. These are criminals who have already committed multiple serious offenses and then were caught with a gun.

This is no little matter. In 2016, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that nearly seven out of ten career criminals reoffended after being released. Federal firearms offenders were found to be the most likely to be rearrested of any category. These criminals are both. They are career criminals and firearms offenders. I was a United States Attorney before the Armed Career Criminal Act — and I was United States Attorney afterward. I’ve seen its importance firsthand as we worked to reduce crime in America.

Nationwide, the Supreme Court’s decision has resulted in more than 1,400 violent career criminals back onto our streets — including 18 here in Arkansas. Nine of these Arkansas criminals have already been arrested again.

Six-hundred of those 1,400 criminals have been arrested again. It’s only been three years since the Court decision, but 42 percent have already reoffended.

On average, these 600 criminals have been arrested or reoffended three times in the last three years. A majority of those who have been out of prison for just two years have been arrested again. Releasing repeat offenders has consequences. Every crime committed by a recidivist released by this court case would not have happened. Every one of their victims would not have been victimized.

We must fix the law so violent career criminals are not let out of jail early. Their recidivism rate is staggering indeed, but let’s remember: this is still likely an underrepresentation of their illegal activity. Any law officer in this room will tell you that criminals rarely get caught on their first offense. We can only imagine how many crimes they have really committed and how many innocent people they have victimized.

Releasing hardened criminals into our communities before they serve their minimum term is not fair to crime victims. And it is not fair to law enforcement. You shouldn’t have to go into danger time and again to arrest the same people.

Congress and our legislatures need to help us and consider legislation that protects the public. We need Congress to fix the law so that we can keep violent career criminals off of our streets. That shouldn’t be controversial.

Fortunately, some Members of Congress are helping. My good friend Senator Cotton understands this issue. He is working on legislation that is intended to fix this problem for good — and I want to thank him for his outstanding leadership on criminal justice issues.

We should look for effective and proven ways to reduce recidivism, but we must also recognize that simply reducing sentences without reducing recidivism unfairly creates more victims.

I agree with Attorney General Sessions that we need a Johnson fix and more.  Reform to the Armed Career Criminal Act is long overdue (Justices Scalia and Alito have bemoaning ACCA problems and urged Congress to act for many, many years before Johnson).  Beyond just the vagueness problem Johnson addressed, there are deeper problems with the entire structure of the Armed Career Criminal Act, particularly its reliance on a severe mandatory minimum prison term (of 15 years) for the mere act of possessing a firearm or ammunition. Consequently, I do not think a mere Johnson fix to ACCA will be a fully sound or effective response to the genuine concerns flagged by AG Sessions.

In a future post, I hope to be able to discuss the specifics of Senator Tom Cotton's approach to fixing ACCA.  For now, I will just suggest it will be interesting to see if anyone in Congress will be willing to try to roll an ACCA fix into existing criminal justice reform proposals that are now seemingly languishing on the Hill.

August 1, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Office of Inspector General issues "Review of the Department’s Clemency Initiative"

A couple of helpful readers made sure I did not miss today's release of this big new report from the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General titled simply "Review of the Department’s Clemency Initiative." Here is just the very start of its "Results in Brief":

We found that the Department did not effectively plan, implement, or manage the Initiative at the outset. However, subsequent actions by Department leadership enabled the Department to not only meet its goal of making recommendations to the White House on all drug petitions received by the deadline of August 31, 2016, but also to make recommendations on over 1,300 petitions received by OPA after the deadline. In total, as a result of the Initiative, the Department made recommendations to the White House on over 13,000 petitions, resulting in 1,696 inmates receiving clemency.

Our review identified several shortcomings in the Department’s planning and implementation of the Initiative. Because of philosophical differences between how the Office of the Deputy Attorney General (ODAG) and OPA viewed clemency, Department leadership did not sufficiently involve OPA in the Initiative’s preannouncement planning. Moreover, despite the Department’s stated commitment to provide OPA with the necessary resources, the Department did not sufficiently do so once the Initiative began.

The Department also did not effectively implement the Initiative’s inmate survey, which was intended to help the Department identify potentially meritorious clemency petitioners. For example, rather than survey only those inmates who likely met the Initiative’s six criteria, the survey was sent to every Federal Bureau of Prisons inmate. As a result, CP 14 and OPA received numerous survey responses and petitions from inmates who clearly did not meet the Initiative’s criteria, thereby delaying consideration of potentially meritorious petitions. We found other problems with the survey, resulting in OIG’s issuance of a Management Advisory Memorandum to the Department, which is attached as an appendix to this report.

Further, the Department experienced challenges in working with external stakeholders to implement the Initiative. For example, the Department did not anticipate that CP 14 attorneys would have challenges in obtaining inmate Pre-sentence Investigation Reports and, as a result, it took almost a year before the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts allowed CP 14 attorneys to access them, which hampered CP 14’s ability to make timely eligibility determinations. We also found that the Department and CP 14 had very different perspectives regarding CP 14’s role in the Initiative. In particular, while the Department expected CP 14 to focus on identifying and submitting petitions on behalf of inmates who were strong candidates for clemency, CP 14 instead viewed its role as assisting and advocating for any inmate who wished to file a petition. As a result, the Department believes CP 14 took longer to complete its work.

Because I am on the road, I fear I will not have a chance to review and comment on this important and valuable new report. But what I have already read reinforces all my long-standing concerns about the Department of Justice having a central role in the clemency process and my long-voiced contention that all Prez should take clemency powers and possibilities seriously from the very moment they are elected to serve in the Oval Office.

August 1, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"What Is Prison Abolition?"

The title of this post is the headline of this article in The Nation, which carries the subtitle "The movement that is trying to think beyond prisons as a tool to solve society’s problems." Here is an excerpt:

The prison-abolition movement is a loose collection of people and groups who, in many different ways, are calling for deep, structural reforms to how we handle and even think about crime in our country.  There are de facto figureheads (such as Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, the most famous contemporary abolitionists) and organizations (such as Critical Resistance, INCITE!, the Movement for Black Lives, the National Lawyers Guild, and Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee — all of which, if not explicitly abolitionist, at least engage in abolitionist ethics), and there are converging or at least overlapping political ideologies (anarchist, socialist, libertarian), but there is no structured organizing group or coalition.  Masai Ehehosi, a co-founder of Critical Resistance and longtime member of the New Afrikan Independence Movement, pointed me to the overlap between organizations promoting civil rights and abolitionists: “We want freedom” can just as easily be applied to ending Jim Crow or the New Jim Crow, to unlocking iron shackles or swinging open prison doors.

The “movement” thus operates with affinity groups, with various organizations working in prisoner support, prisoner advocacy, political advocacy, or community education. “And when something big happens,” as Azzurra Crispino, prison labor activist and philosopher, explained to me, “we all show up as a coalition, and we don’t interfere” with each other’s work.

Abolitionists believe that incarceration, in any form, harms society more than it helps.  As Angela Davis argues, prisons are an obsolete institution because they exacerbate societal harms instead of fixing them.  “Are we willing to relegate ever larger numbers of people from racially oppressed communities to an isolated existence marked by authoritarian regimes, violence, disease, and technologies of seclusion that produce severe mental instability?” Davis has written.  Even if we were to greatly diminish the current prison population, even if we were to cut it in half but keep the prison complex intact, we would still be consigning millions of people to isolation and violenc e— and that’s a form of inhumanity that abolitionists can’t abide.  Moreover, Davis contends, mass imprisonment “reproduce[s] the very conditions that lead people to prison.”

August 1, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Judge Kavanaugh in 2009: "I think acquitted conduct should be barred from the guidelines calculation."

I blogged here about how Justice Kennedy's replacement would likely be a greater supporter of jury trial rights, and I blogged here and here and here about folks noticing Judge Brett Kavanuagh's notable statement in the 2015 Bell case (available here) that "[a]llowing judges to rely on acquitted or uncharged conduct to impose higher sentences than they otherwise would impose seems a dubious infringement of the rights to due process and a jury trial."  But there is still more to this story as we await Judge Kavanaugh's confirmation hearing, and I realized as much thanks to this recent piece at the Brennan Center's website.

The Brennan Center piece noted that Judge Kavanaugh in 2009 testified to the US Sentencing Commission when the USSC was having regional public hearings to hear from stakeholders about federal sentencing.  The Brennan piece expressed concern that Judge Kavanuagh made the case for a return to a mandatory sentencing system in his testimony.  The Brennan analysis did not mention that Judge Kavanaugh in his testimony speaks out against the use of acquitted conduct (at least as a policy matter).  Here are portions of what he had to say in this testimony to the USSC and in follow-up questions:

Whether they are mandatory or advisory, I think acquitted conduct should be barred from the guidelines calculation. I don't consider myself a particular softy on sentencing issues, but it really bothers me that acquitted conduct is counted in the Guidelines calculation. I have written about this, and I think I am not alone.... It is just very problematic symbolically.

Put aside the substance, because I realize it still can come in on the back end, particularly in an advisory system, but telling a defendant, "Yes, you are acquitted but yes, we are going to calculate that sentence to include that acquitted conduct" just sends the wrong message. It seems to me in too many cases it seems inconsistent with the nature of our system. I would urge careful consideration of that issue.... (transcript pp. 41-42)

[O]ne of the things the guidelines did was to bring into the open, into the sunlight, things that had happened for years that no one knew or didn't think about in the same way, and all of a sudden you are having a precise increase based on acquitted conduct, and people say, "Well, it always happened that way."

Well, okay, but now you are actually seeing it, the actual impact.

As you say, quite rightly, no one understands that in the real world. It fails the common sense test, and it brings disrespect to the process, and it weakens confidence in the judicial process, and maybe you can reason your way from point A to point B to point C logically for why it should be part of the process, but when you take a step back, it just doesn't work, and I think even if it is purely symbolic, the effort to bar the consideration of acquitted conduct; even, in other words, if there is a logical reason to do it and the only reason not to do it is symbolic, symbolism has value in the criminal justice system at times, and I think this is one of those areas where it would be warranted.... (transcript pp. 80-81)

Of course, advocating against the use of acquitted conduct in guidelines calculations to the US Sentencing Commission is not the same as declaring the use of acquitted conduct in guidelines calculations unconstitutional. But this testimony leave little doubt as to Judge Kavanaugh's concerns about this issue, and it provides a reasonable basis for hoping he could bring some useful new perspectives to the Court on some sentencing issues.

Some prior related posts:

July 31, 2018 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

The American Conservative explores "What’s Philly’s DA Got to Do With Me?"

In prior posts here and here, I have highlighted an ongoing series of lengthy articles in The American Conservative that are part of "a collaborative series with the R Street Institute exploring conservative approaches to criminal justice reform."    This latest article zeroes in on a notable new figure under the full headline "What’s Philly’s DA Got to Do With Me?: If every city had a Larry Krasner, there might be fewer people in jail who didn't belong there." Here is how the article gets started:

Since taking office he’s stopped prosecuting simple possession of marijuana.  He’s limited civil asset forfeitures only to cases in which there’s a conviction.  He’s directed his assistant district attorneys to include the cost of a prison term in making sentencing recommendations.  Oh, and he’s published a list of 29 local police officers that he views as unreliable witnesses due to their abuse of their powers and other corruption.

For traditional law-and-order types, Philadelphia’s new district attorney, Larry Krasner, might be something of a nightmare.  But for civil libertarians and jail reformers across the political spectrum, he’s putting into practice policies that they’ve been pushing for a long time.

Krasner, who took office in January, styles himself a progressive, but his objectives dovetail closely with those of conservative and libertarian justice reformers.  All share a broader vision of radically reshaping a criminal justice system that is deeply unjust and out of line with American constitutional and moral values.

“I personally think our criminal justice system is thoroughly rotten and it has a number of features that, in my judgment, have so undermined the legitimacy of the criminal justice system and so sharply tilted the playing field in favor of prosecutors and against defendants that is has deprived our criminal justice system of its integrity and its legitimacy,” Clark Neily, the vice president for criminal justice at the Cato Institute, tells The American Conservative.

Prior related posts:

July 31, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, July 30, 2018

Notable review of capital clemencies by Ohio governors

The AP has this interesting new piece, headlined "Gov. Kasich spares record number of death row inmates," that reviews the current and past Ohio gubernatorial records on the death penalty and capital clemencies. Here are excerpts:

Ohio Gov. John Kasich has finished dealing with executions for the remainder of his time in office following a modern-era record of death penalty commutations.  The Republican governor spared seven men from execution during his two terms in office, including commutations on March 26 and July 20. Kasich allowed 15 executions to proceed, including the July 18 execution of Robert Van Hook for strangling, stabbing and dismembering a man he met in a Cincinnati bar more than 30 years ago.

Not since Democrat Mike DiSalle spared six death row inmates in the early 1960s has an Ohio governor spared so many killers during periods when the state had an active death chamber. DiSalle allowed six executions to proceed. Democratic Gov. Richard Celeste commuted eight death sentences just days before leaving office in 1991, but none of those inmates' executions was imminent....

Kasich's immediate predecessor, Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, commuted five death sentences and allowed 17 executions during his four-year term. Ohio resumed executions in 1999 under Gov. Bob Taft after a 36-year gap. Taft, a Republican, allowed 20 executions to proceed and spared just one inmate based on concerns raised by DNA evidence not available at the time of trial.

Nationwide, governors have spared 288 death row inmates since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of capital punishment in 1976, with a handful spared each year over the past decade. That doesn't include mass clemencies in states — such as New Jersey in 2007 — where the death penalty was abolished and entire death rows were emptied.

Sparing inmates is not the political death knell it might have been in decades past, thanks to concerns about innocence raised by DNA testing and the role of severe mental illness on some offenders' behavior. "Kasich's decisions to commute reflect a societal shift away from an unquestioning belief in the value of the death penalty or at least the value in every case," said Lori Shaw, a University of Dayton law professor....

Taft said he's now opposed to capital punishment except in the most severe cases, such as acts of terrorism, multiple victims or the killing of a police officer. He also backs findings of a state Supreme Court commission that recommended against the death penalty for inmates suffering severe mental illness at the time of the crime, and in cases where a homicide was committed during other crimes such as burglaries or robberies. "The climate is a little different in regard to the death sentence today," Taft said. "Governors have more latitude or leeway to consider a number of factors that may not have been considered in prior times."

I noted in this prior post that Gov Kasich's capital record was notable, and I find the comments of former Ohio Gov Taft especially interesting here. (N.B.: the AP needs to fact-check Taft's executions record, as I am pretty sure he presided over 24 executions.)  When Taft says "Governors have more latitude or leeway to consider a number of factors that may not have been considered in prior times," he is not talking about any change in the legal standards or procedures for clemency in Ohio.  Rather, Taft is referencing a purely political evolution that now make it much less politically risky for a Governor to grant lots of capital clemency.

July 30, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

A deep dive into various big and little juvenile life without parole stories

The Dublin Review has published this very lengthy discussion of juvenile life without parole sentences under the simple headline "A different season." The lengthy piece is authored by Andrew Purcell, and it cannot be readily summarized. Here is one snippet:

Many of Pennsylvania’s district attorneys have responded to the Supreme Court’s Montgomery decision by striking plea deals with the longest-serving prisoners. Others, in conservative counties, have not. By late September 2017, 173 of the state’s 517 juvenile lifers had been re-sentenced, and 77 paroled for time served. Most of the released prisoners are from Philadelphia, creating a small community of men with the shared experience of being locked up their entire adult lives, adapting to a world that has moved on without them. Courtney ‘Juan’ Boyd, recently released after serving thirty-six years, was calling John to ask about a re-sentencing hearing the previous night for a prisoner called Andre Martin.  At fifteen, Martin shot a police officer in the head from a window at the Wilson Park projects.  He had forty-one years in already, and the prosecution was seeking sixty to life, supported at the hearing by the dead cop’s family and a roomful of police officers.  Judge Barbara McDermott gave him forty-four to life. In three years, the opposing sides will meet again at an equally charged parole hearing, to argue about whether or not Martin should be released.

Each of the fifty states has responded differently to the Montgomery v Louisiana ruling, and there are also variations within states, as district attorneys interpret the concept of ‘permanent incorrigibility’. In Michigan, for instance, prosecutors initially sought new life-without-parole sentences for 236 of the 363 men and women serving mandatory life terms for crimes committed as minors, a clear deviation from the Supreme Court’s intent to reserve the punishment for ‘the rarest of juvenile offenders’. The Oakland County DA has asked for life without parole in forty-four of forty-nine cases; ‘These are young Hannibal Lecters,’ county sheriff Michael Bouchard told the press. In Missouri, teenage lifers are now eligible for parole once they have spent twenty-five years in prison, but of twenty-three who have applied, twenty have been denied. In Maryland, all 271 juvenile lifers are parole-eligible, but no such prisoner has been released in two decades.

All over the country, lawsuits are establishing whether and how Montgomery should affect discretionary sentences. ‘We think the Montgomery standard is impossible [for prosecutors] to beat, in that everyone is capable of rehabilitation given the proper support,’ said Brooke McCarthy of the Juvenile Law Centre. ‘To say that you can never fix someone in the future, no matter what, is such an incredibly difficult standard to reach. Some district attorneys have gotten clever … so rather than asking for life without parole they’re asking for fifty-, sixty-, seventy-five-year minimums.’

July 30, 2018 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Poll suggests huge public support for FIRST STEP Act with lots of other interesting findings

Over the weekend I noticed this Hill piece reporting in its headline "Poll finds broad support for House-passed prison reform bill." Here are the details via :

The poll, conducted for Freedom Partners by the Charles Koch-backed group In Pursuit Of and provided exclusively to The Hill, found that 70 percent of likely voters approve of the First Step Act, which cleared the House by a 360-59 margin earlier this year. Only 14 percent said the Senate should not pass it, according to the poll that sampled Republicans, Democrats and voters who did not affiliate with either party.

Freedom Partners has put six-figures behind an ad campaign urging senators from both parties to support the legislation. They hope the poll results will prod Senate Republicans to take the bill up.

Passing prison reform is a top priority for the Kochs. There is frustration among the network of conservative donors and activists that the Senate has not moved to take up the bill, which aims to incentivize inmates to complete prison programs that might reduce their likelihood to commit crimes again when they are released.

“Voters broadly support the FIRST STEP Act and will hold senators accountable for failing to pass the bill,” said Freedom Partners Chairman Mark Holden. “It’s time for the Senate to do its job and send this bipartisan legislation to President Trump’s desk.”

The bill has 60 percent support among registered Republicans, according to the poll. Nearly half of likely voters – 47 percent – said they would have a more negative view of Senate Republicans if they don’t move to pass the bill....

The Freedom Partners survey of 1,759 likely voters was conducted online between July 18 and July 20 and has a 2.3 percent margin of error.

This press release provides a few more details about this poll as well as this link to a summary of key findings from the poll. These findings, in particular, should be encouraging to those hoping criminal justice reform will be a salient political issue this fall:

How important is it to reduce the number of people who are in prison in America today?

72% TOTAL IMPORTANT    28% TOTAL NOT IMPORTANT

28% Very important    44% Somewhat important

19% Not very important    9% Not at all important...

 

Thinking ahead to the midterm elections this November – how important to you is the issue of criminal justice reform as you decide who you’ll be voting for?

75% TOTAL IMPORTANT    25% TOTAL NOT IMPORTANT

25% Very important    50% Somewhat important

20% Not very important    5% Not at all important...

 

Would you be more or less likely to vote for a political candidate if you knew he or she supported criminal justice reform?

60% More likely to support candidate    32% No difference in support    8% Less likely to support candidate

July 30, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, July 29, 2018

"Reducing the prison population is a bipartisan goal"

The title of this post is the title of this recent Dallas Morning News commentary authored by Doug Deason, who is a co-founder of the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center at Southern Methodist University.  Here are excerpts:

About 1.5 million people are sitting in state and federal prisons across the U.S. today, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, many for nonviolent crimes.  Prisoners all too often face inhumane conditions and are woefully unprepared to rejoin society as peaceful, productive and law-abiding citizens.

This weekend I will join Charles Koch and other business and philanthropic leaders for a retreat in Colorado Springs to discuss how we can work together to solve this and other challenges and create a freer and more open society.  We know challenges like these can't be solved alone.  We stand ready to, in the words of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, "unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong."  And there are few issues in which "doing right" is more urgently needed than fixing our broken criminal justice system....

Many are rightfully alarmed at the inequities in the criminal justice system. African-Americans make up around 13 percent of the U.S. population but account for one-third of inmates, according to the BJS, and compared to the general population, prisoners are far more likely to have a history of mental health problems and drug abuse.  A Brookings Institution study found that four out of every five prisoners had zero earnings when they entered prison.

Then there are the costs to taxpayers and innocent family members.  The annual cost of running the corrections systems at the national, federal, state and local levels exceeds $80 billion, according to a Washington University in St. Louis study.  It is a system that frequently turns folks who were once taxpayers into wards of the state. And it leaves many mothers and fathers to raise their children alone and without the aid of child support.

These mounting concerns have energized support for reform across the political spectrum. As a co-founder of the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center at Southern Methodist University, I have participated in panel discussions with CNN's Van Jones to highlight the need for cutting incarceration rates.  As a Republican businessman and a Democratic political commentator, we don't always see eye-to-eye when it comes to politics.  But like many Americans, we are willing to put our differences aside to address this critical problem.

As U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., recently said, according to Townhall.com, "overcriminalization is increasingly viewed as not a Republican or a Democrat problem but as an American problem." Jeffries and Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., are co-sponsors of the First Step Act, legislation that would help rehabilitate prisoners and save taxpayers billions of dollars in the process....

Reforming the criminal justice system won't be easy or quick. It will require a long-term commitment.  But if we want to break the barriers that keep too many Americans trapped in lives of crime and poverty, we will all need to work with unlikely partners.  The leaders gathering in Colorado Springs welcome any allies willing to unite to do right. Let's not let our differences stop us from working together on these critical issues.

July 29, 2018 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (17)

A (partisan) look at some of Judge Brett Kavanaugh's record on criminal justice issues

Over here at the Brennan Center's website, Priya Raghavan has a review of some of the criminal justice decision of new SCOTUS-nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh under the heading "Open Questions: Brett Kavanaugh and Criminal Justice: Kavanaugh’s record is sparse, but that makes understanding his stance on the issues all the more important."  Here is an excerpt (with links from the original and a little emphasis added):

The rare instances when Kavanaugh sides with defendants are equally telling.  In U.S. v. Burwell, Kavanaugh dissented from a decision that upheld a 20-year sentence enhancement for a defendant who used a machine gun during a robbery. Kavanaugh argued that there was no proof that the defendant knew the gun he used was a machine gun and that the law should require such proof.  But this doesn’t necessarily mean that Kavanaugh was looking out for the little guy. Insisting on such intent requirements — mens rea, in legal terminology — could make it harder for the government to prosecute white-collar criminals, largely benefitting a small segment of affluent defendants. 

Kavanaugh’s views on sentencing are more difficult to parse.  He testified in 2009 that, from a policy perspective, he believed federal sentencing guidelines should be mandatory, rather than advisory, to  limit judicial discretion in sentencing.  He was concerned that advisory guidelines would allow judges to impose their personal views at sentencing, leading to disparate outcomes. But Kavanaugh has on several occasions disagreed with his colleagues and supported lower court judges who gave harsh, above-guidelines sentences with little to no explanation of their reasons for doing so.  In both In re Sealed Case and the recent U.S. v. Brown, where the D.C. Circuit vacated sentences after judges issued harsh, above-guidelines sentences without sufficient explanation, Kavanaugh dissented, calling the majority’s holding in the latter case “confounding.”  Kavanaugh’s statements on sentencing leave us wondering: how much discretion does he think judges should have? 

Kavanaugh has had little chance to opine on those subjects that comprise the hallmarks of Kennedy’s criminal justice legacy, such as the death penalty, juvenile justice, and prison overcrowding. But it seems unlikely that Kavanaugh will follow his old boss’ lead, especially given his alignment with his “first judicial hero” William Rehnquist, whose far-right views on many issues, including criminal justice, fell well outside the mainstream. 

To be sure, conservatives do not always side with law enforcement.  Kavanaugh’s high school classmate and Kennedy clerk colleague, Justice Neil Gorsuch, recently sided with the defendant in Session v. Dimaya, a major ruling that found parts of the immigration law unconstitutionally vague. Kavanaugh could surprise us, too. 

Criminal cases comprise a sizeable portion of the Supreme Court’s docket, and the opinions from them can reverberate down to every encounter with police, as happened with the Miranda warning.  As just one example, this fall the Court will hear Timbs v. Indiana and decide whether the Eighth Amendment prohibition against excessive fines applies to the states, effectively determining how much criminal defendants can be fined. 

Before he is confirmed, the Senate — and the American people — must have a better sense of Kavanaugh’s thinking about criminal justice.  During his confirmation hearings, Senators should ask — and Kavanaugh should answer with specifics — the following questions: 

  • Given the stark racial disparities in the criminal justice system, how would he ensure equality under the law?
  • Does he believe that the meaning of the Constitution, specifically the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, can change over time? 
  • What is his stance on solitary confinement?
  • What are the limits of police power?
  • What are his beliefs about mandatory minimums and judicial discretion in sentencing?
  • Does he believe that fines and fees levied on criminal defendants should be limited?

I am always deeply troubled by the deeply misguided notion that preserving a serious commitment to mens rea in the criminal law does not help the "little guy," and I find almost comical the assertion that the views of Chief Justice William Rehnquist "fell well outside the mainstream."  Nevertheless, depsite this review being more than a bit too partisan, I am still glad to see it spotlight criminal justice concerns and its suggestion that Senators ask SCOTUS-nominee Kavanaugh a bunch of question about these issues.   And I think the questions I bolded above are on topics that seem to me especially timely.

That said, I think good questions to a SCOTUS nominee should not be about "his stance" or "his beliefs" as if he were seeking an elected office where he would be expected to put policy preferences into action.  Rather, sound and effective questions should focus on the text of the Constitution and existing SCOTUS precedents in order to explore how the nominee's judicial philosophy is likely to find expression as these issues come before the court in the years ahead.  In this post on a Sunday morning about 14 months ago, I gave some examples of how I might structure key questions in the run up to Justice Neil Gorsuch's confirmation hearing:

Some prior related posts:

July 29, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, July 27, 2018

"Those in Federal Prison and Their Families Can’t Wait for the Ideal Reform Bill"

The title of this post is the title of Shon Hopwood's new entry over at Prison Professors.   This piece is styled as a response to the this lengthy Hill commentary by DeAnna Hoskins, the president and CEO of JustLeadershipUSA, which assailed the FIRST STEP Act as "a step backward [that] invites a scary future" (which I discussed critically here).  I recommend folks read everything in full, and I will here reprint how Shon's piece concludes:

I speak to and receive emails from thousands of families with someone in federal prison.  These families almost invariably support First Step.  At the Reform Now rally outside Capitol Hill in early July, many of these families explained how First Step will significantly improve their family’s lives — whether by forcing the Federal Bureau of Prisons to provide meaningful rehabilitation programs or housing their loved one closer to home.  The reform groups who oppose First Step weren’t present for the rally.  I wish they were. They’d have a better understanding of what makes the federal prison system uniquely harmful to those who are inside it, and how First Step will alleviate some of those harms.

The families who aren’t supportive of First Step are mostly those with loved ones serving really long sentences or life in prison, and this won’t help them get out of prison — even as it is likely to improve the federal prison system overall.  I empathize with their pain and frustration.  But retroactively applicable sentencing provisions has no chance of passing this year.  Not even the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 was made retroactive when Democrats had a supermajority in Congress and the Presidency.  It is hard to imagine the current Congress somehow doing better.

First Step along with some sentencing additions is the best bill we can get now in the current political climate.  If we don’t take First Step now, we will be waiting at least another two years for any possibility of federal prison reform.  If the past thirty years is a guide, we are probably waiting much, much longer.  Given the stakes, there should be an urgency on all sides to get this done.

I understand that many people have strong feelings against the current President, and that undoubtedly drives some of the angst against First Step.  Yet there can be fights about every other issue without simultaneously rejecting a federal prison reform bill that provides meaningful help to those currently in prison and their families.

Some of many prior related posts:

July 27, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

An (overly) optimistic account of how new Justices could disrupt federal sentencing based on uncharged and acquitted conduct

In this post earlier this month, I suggested that Justice Kennedy might be replaced by a new Justice more inclined to afford criminal defendants stronger Sixth Amendment rights under Apprendi and Blakely.  And this subsequent post highlighted that new SCOTUS-nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh authored an interesting opinion a few years ago that expressed concern about the use acquitted conduct to increase sentences.  Against that backdrop, I was interested to see this new Law360 commentary authored by Alan Ellis and Mark Allenbaugh headlined "Sentencing May Change With 2 Kennedy Clerks On High Court." Here are excerpts from the start and end of the commentary:

Shortly before his confirmation just over a year ago, we wrote about what a now-Justice Neil Gorsuch could mean for federal sentencing.  In particular, we reviewed his Tenth Circuit opinion in United States v. Sabillon-Umana, wherein then-Judge Gorsuch, a former clerk for now-retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy, questioned the constitutionality of judicial fact-finding at federal sentencing, as opposed to fact-finding by a jury.  Known as “relevant conduct,” judge-found facts — which often include uncharged and even acquitted conduct — drive federal sentencings, often increasing terms of imprisonment by years and even decades.  As it turns out, another former Kennedy clerk, Judge Brett Kavanaugh of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit — who recently was nominated by President Donald Trump to take the retiring justice’s seat on the court — also shares Justice Gorsuch’s concern.  Accordingly, for the reasons discussed below, should Judge Kavanaugh be confirmed, we believe the “Kennedy clerks” will likely lead the court to finally rein in relevant conduct by holding unconstitutional the use of uncharged and acquitted conduct to enhance federal sentences....

Should Judge Kavanaugh be confirmed, we believe it quite likely that, based on his prior jurisprudence, the current manner in which relevant conduct or at least acquitted conduct is used to enhance sentences will soon be determined to be unconstitutional.

Though I certainly hope that new Justices could usher in a big changes to the modern federal sentencing system, I do not share these authors' view that such changes are "quite likely." In particular, finding unconstitutional any use of "uncharged" conduct at sentencing would be a real sea-change for lots of sentencing systems and practice, and I think a number of Justices would be hesitant to take Sixth Amendment doctrines this far.  But I still like this constitutional optimism even if I do not fully share it.

A few prior related posts:

July 27, 2018 in Blakely Commentary and News, Blakely in the Supreme Court, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Michigan Supreme Court declares plea agreement provision barring pursuit of public office unenforceable as against public policy

A helpful reader alerted me to an interesting decision today by the Michigan Supreme Court in Michigan v. Smith, No. 156353 (Mich. July 26, 2018) (available here). Here is how the court's majority opinion gets started:

As part of defendant’s plea deal, he agreed to resign his position as a state senator and not seek public office during his five-year probationary term.  After reviewing the agreement, the trial court determined that these terms violated the separation-of-powers doctrine and public policy.  It struck down the terms but, over the prosecutor’s objection, enforced the rest of the plea deal.  The Court of Appeals affirmed.

We took this case to decide whether the resignation and bar-to-office provisions of the plea deal were enforceable, and if not, whether the trial court erred by refusing to allow the prosecutor to withdraw from the deal.  We hold that: (1) the question regarding the resignation provision is now moot and we therefore decline to reach it and instead vacate the Court of Appeals’ discussion of that issue, (2) the bar-to-office provision is unenforceable as against public policy, and (3) the trial court erred by not permitting the prosecutor to withdraw from the plea agreement under People v Siebert.  We would have further held that the validity of the bar-to-office provision must be assessed under the balancing test in Town of Newton v Rumery. [FN: Town of Newton v Rumery, 480 US 386; 107 S Ct 1187; 94 L Ed 2d 405 (1987). Because the partial concurrence did not join this portion of the opinion, adoption of the Rumery test failed to garner majority support.]

And here is a key passage in the court's discussion:

However egregious defendant’s alleged offenses may be, they do not directly relate to the duties and responsibilities of public office — he was not charged with misconduct that was in any manner related to public office. Consequently, the prosecutor can point to no legitimate reason for the bar-to-office provision.  Its inclusion in the plea agreement reflects, instead, the prosecutor’s own conclusion that defendant should not serve in public office.  Our laws do not give prosecutors the unilateral authority to make this determination.

July 26, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Ohio gubernatorial candidate talking up criminal justice reform while advocating for state constitutional drug sentencing initiative

A couple of week ago, I flagged here an interesting and intricate drug sentencing initiative headed for the November 2018 ballot here in Ohio.  As of earlier this week, the "Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation" amendment (in full at this link) officially qualified for the fall ballot as Issue 1.  And, as reported in this local article headlined "Cordray, Holder support diversion of drug offenders from prison," this proposal is already receiving high-profile support:

Ohio no longer can afford — both in terms of money and lives — to imprison low-level drug offenders who instead should be diverted to addiction treatment, says Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray.  “We need to be tough on violent criminals, but mass incarceration of drug addicts who should be in treatment is unwise, it wastes too much money and it wastes a lot of lives in Ohio,” Cordray said.

The former Ohio attorney general was joined by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to discuss criminal justice reform at a Thursday campaign event at the Downtown YWCA.  The Democrat who served under former President Barack Obama spoke out against “warehousing” minor criminal offenders, saying governors and state attorneys general must steer new policy courses.

Holder chided Republican President Donald Trump and his U.S. attorney, Jeff Sessions, for “going back to the bad, old days of unthinking (criminal) sentences” for non-violent offenders who deserve another chance.

Cordray underlined his strong support for state Issue 1 on the Nov. 6 ballot that would reclassify low-level felony drug use and possession charges to first-degree misdemeanors punishable by only six months in jail, with the goal of diverting offenders to drug treatment.  It also would potentially allow the release of all current such offenders from state prisons.  “I believe It will set the way toward a policy of being smart on crime in the future, smart on how we use taxpayers’ dollars, smart on how we build people’s potential to be productive citizens in our society,” Cordray said.

Holder and Cordray agreed such a sentencing reform would be neither easier nor cheap in the short run, but provide savings and resuscitate more Ohioans from drugs and failed lives in the long run.

Comment is being sought from the gubernatorial campaign of Republican Mike DeWine, Ohio’s attorney general, whether he supports or opposes the statewide ballot issue.

The administration of Republican Gov. John Kasich is spending up to $58 million over two years to divert a flood of non-violent felony offenders, many convicted of drug possession amid the opioid crisis, from state prisons to local programs.  Many counties, however, are not accepting the money, saying it would not cover all local costs. More than a fourth of state inmates are non-violent drug offenders....

A Republican National Committee spokeswoman lambasted the pair.  “Richard Cordray’s decision to fund-raise with disgraced former Attorney General Eric Holder proves just how swampy and out-of-touch he is with Ohioans.  You can tell a lot about a person based on the company they keep, and if Cordray chooses Eric Holder as an ally, then Ohioans ought to be wary and steer clear of Richard Cordray,” said Mandi Merritt.

Prior related post:

July 26, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Interesting reflections on modern clemency realities

I flagged in this prior post an interesting star-studded event in DC yesterday discussing federal clemency's past, present and possible future.  This Washington Examiner piece reports on some of the interesting things said at the event under the headline "Alice Johnson recalls 'feeling of betrayal' from Obama, urges working with Trump."  Here are excerpts:

Former prison inmate Alice Johnson said Wednesday she had a "feeling of betrayal" when former President Barack Obama left office with her still behind bars, urging other clemency aspirants to put aside their qualms and work with President Trump to win their release.

Johnson, who Trump freed last month from a drug-related life sentence, spoke at a gathering of clemency advocates at George Washington University, saying her case should give hope to others. "From what everyone was saying, the Obama administration would be the one that would set you free, but I was still not set free. So to put your faith in a man was not a good thing to do," Johnson said.

"And not only was I left behind, but many others were left behind also," Johnson said. "There was a feeling of betrayal because I had so much hope that I was going to come out." Johnson, who addressed the gathering before a series of panels, and then again as a panelist, said she thinks there was a divine purpose in her wait. "It didn't happen for a reason. It happened for this time in history so that you will know that hearts can change, so that you will know that you should never stop fighting either, that you are not to look at what administration is in power, who is in office," she said....

Panelists at the clemency-themed event at points debated the merits of former President Barack Obama's late-second-term spree of prison commutations, which went overwhelmingly to drug convicts, a large share of whom were convicted for crack cocaine.  "The initiative missed a ton of people," said Rachel Barkow, a law professor and member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Barkow argued that a major flaw was relying on the Justice Department, saying that prosecutors are disinclined to recognize mistakes. "The deputy attorney general was saying 'no' in a lot of these cases," she said.

Roy Austin, a White House official in the Obama administration, defended Obama's late-term commutation push, saying "I'm biased, [but] we got it pretty dang right." Austin said he "loves" Trump's openness to recommendations from influential people, but that "the problem is that that's helping too few," and lacks a standardized process to ensure fairness.

Van Jones, an early-term Obama adviser who helps lead the clemency campaign #Cut50, offered positive views on the Trump administration, saying that at first "I was hopeless on election night" about clemency. "He took one step and got positive feedback," Jones said about Johnson's release, Trump's second prison commutation and his first for a drug convict.

Trump's subsequent invitation for professional athletes to submit the names of people worthy of clemency — an offer with few respondents — was "a remarkable development," Jones said. "He literally ran out of the White House saying, 'I want to do more.'"...

Several panelists discussed ideas for moving the vetting work of the Office of the Pardon Attorney out of the Justice Department, to streamline clemency applications and remove a possible conflict of interest.

Amy Povah, a Clinton clemency recipient who leads the CAN-DO Foundation, said that she's optimist about the Trump administration. "I think we have a huge opportunity because of [Johnson's] case, and I hope the Trump administration does something historic," Povah said.

Mark Holden, general counsel of Koch Industries, said clemency transcends the typical conservative-liberal divide in politics. "These are fundamental liberty issues," he said, arguing that Johnson's case "shocks the conscience" regardless of political affiliation.

I sincerely want to be as optimistic and hopeful as Amy Povah about Prez Trump doing something historic in this arena.  But all of his clemency chatter needs to become clemency action before too long if he wants to avoid creating a "feeling of betrayal" among a whole lot of federal prisoners now surely eager to benefit from all his encouraging talk.

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

July 26, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

An interesting political pitch for the FIRST STEP Act

Star-parkerStar Parker, a conservative commentator who is founder and president of the Center for Urban Renewal and Education (CURE), has this notable new Townhall commentary under the headline "Senate Should Pass the First Step Act." In addition to praising the substantive provisions of the FIRST STEP Act, the commentary makes some interesting political points in an effort to convince GOP leaders in the Senate to move forward with the bill. Here are excerpts:

You would think that Senate Republicans would be rolling out the red carpet for the First Step Act, particularly given that it's an initiative that started in the White House. Unfortunately, that's not happening. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley is not moving to embrace this bill because it doesn't including sentencing reform.

With all due respect to Senator Grassley, he's making a mistake. And as a result he's hurting his party and his country.

In all my years working in public policy, one lesson I have learned is that it is an invitation for failure to try to deal with a complex issue, one having a number of separate components, in a single huge, complicated piece of legislation. The result is either no action or a sweeping -- and bad -- law....

Everyone agrees we have a criminal justice problem. But like so many other areas, there is a woeful lack of agreement about what is causing the problem and how to solve it. And this brings us back to the incredible bipartisan passage of the First Step Act.

Senate Majority Leader McConnell and Senator Grassley should see this as an opportunity for the Republican-controlled Congress to show it can act decisively on a major national problem. Holding up prison reform to add on the complex issue of sentencing reform will result in what I said above: either nothing will happen or we'll get one big unworkable bill.

Furthermore, prison reform has major racial implications. Blacks, who constitute 12 percent of the population, make up 33 percent of the prison population. Hispanics, who constitute 16 percent of the general population, make up 23 percent of the prison population.

It's no accident that the NAACP opposes the bill. Or that Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder wrote in The Washington Post against it. Or that two very politically ambitious black Democratic Senators, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, oppose it.

Passage of the First Step Act would show that Republicans care and can help a large part of minority America in distress. Black Democrats don't want this to happen.

Senate Republicans must keep an eye on retaining control in November. They should get on the same page with the White House and the House and pass the First Step Act.

Some of many prior related posts:

July 25, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Procedural Justice and Risk-Assessment Algorithms"

The title of this post is the title of this article recently posted to SSRN and authored by A.J. Wang. Here is the abstract:

Statistical algorithms are increasingly used in the criminal justice system.  Much of the recent scholarship on the use of these algorithms have focused on their "fairness," typically defined as accuracy across groups like race or gender.  This project draws on the procedural justice literature to raise a separate concern: does the use of algorithms damage the perceived fairness and legitimacy of the criminal justice system?

Through three original survey experiments on a nationally-representative sample, it shows that the public strongly disfavors algorithms as a matter of fairness, policy, and legitimacy.  While respondents generally believe algorithms to be less accurate than either psychologists or statutory guidelines, accuracy alone does not explain their preferences. Creating "transparent" algorithms helps but is not enough to make algorithms desirable in their own right.  Both surprising and troubling, members of the public seem more willing to tolerate disparate outcomes when they stem from an algorithm than a psychologist.

July 25, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Louisiana Attorney General suggests pursuing alternative execution methods in letter to Governor

This local article, headlined "Electrocution, firing squads should be options for death penalty in Louisiana, AG Jeff Landry tells Gov. Edwards," reports on an interesting letter about the death penalty in the midst of a kind of intramural fight between Louisiana office-holders of different parties.  Here are the basics:

In their ongoing bickering over the death penalty, Louisiana’s Republican attorney general Tuesday asked the Democratic governor to support bringing back hanging, firing squads and the electric chair.

After the back and forth over capital punishment last week between the two possible rivals in next year's gubernatorial race, Attorney General Jeff Landry issued a letter Tuesday [available here] saying Gov. John Bel Edwards’ statements on why Louisiana hasn’t moved forward on executing convicted murderers are “both intentionally misleading and cold comfort to victims’ families.”

Landry again demanded Edwards say where he personally stood on the death penalty.  Then Landry proposed legislation that would change the state's capital punishment law to allow for different forms of execution other than just lethal injection.  He recommended the Legislature pass a law that would allow the state Department of Corrections to choose between hanging, firing squads, and electrocution to put condemned criminals to death if other methods are unavailable.  He asked for Edwards' support.

"Mr. Landry is accurate in that new legislation must be proposed to solve the death penalty issue.  However, in the past three legislative sessions Mr. Landry’s office has not presented any legislation to help alleviate this roadblock, until now," Department of Corrections Secretary James M. LeBlanc said.  Only a legislator can submit a bill for consideration of becoming law.  The next legislative session is scheduled to begin April 8.

Edwards has consistently ducked stating his personal view on capital punishment, saying instead that he has sworn to uphold state and federal laws.  “But I am not going to pretend that we have the ability to do something we don’t have. It’s not about scoring political points.  It’s about being realistic in the way we govern,” Edwards told reporters Monday, the day before Landry’s letter was released publicly.

In answering questions during a highway project groundbreaking ceremony on Monday, Edwards said he specifically did not favor hangings or firing squads. "I am not inclined to go back to methods that have been discarded (when) popular sentiment turned against methods that were deemed to be barbaric and so forth.  We have a law in place we will continue to try to search for solutions around that law," which allows execution by lethal injection, the governor said.

After Landry’s letter was released to a television station Tuesday, the governor’s spokesman, Richard Carbo, said in a prepared statement: “We are pleased that he has conceded that current law, not the governor, is standing in the way of the state resuming executions, which have been on hold since 2010.  Quitting the very lawsuit that was meant to bring justice for these families was never the answer, so his commitment to re-engage is welcome news.”...

Louisiana last executed an inmate, who volunteered to be put to death, in 2010.  Before that the last person executed was in 2002 during Gov. Mike Foster’s administration. Seventy-two inmates are on death row at the Angola penitentiary awaiting execution....

Landry would change the law to say that if lethal injection is unavailable then the method would be nitrogen hypoxia.  That mode basically fills an air tight mask on the condemned with nitrogen gas, thereby causing death by a lack of oxygen.  Oklahoma legislators have looked at that method of execution as a way around the inability to purchase the drugs needed for lethal injections. If nitrogen hypoxia is found unconstitutional or becomes otherwise unavailable, then Corrections Department secretary could choose between hanging, firing squad or electrocution, under Landry’s proposal.

July 24, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Could Judge Brett Kavanaugh, as a SCOTUS Justice, encourage his colleagues to take up acquitted conduct sentencing?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Marshall Project piece by Joseph Neff headlined "Punished for Crimes Not Proven: Brett Kavanaugh and the case of Gregory 'Boy Boy' Bell."  Here is how the piece starts and ends:

After a nine-month trial, a jury convicted Gregory "Boy Boy" Bell of selling crack cocaine, three sales totaling five grams and carrying a sentence in the five-year range. More importantly for Bell, the jury acquitted him of 10 serious charges, including a trafficking conspiracy and a racketeering conspiracy that would have meant decades in prison.

At sentencing, the judge ruled that Bell had engaged in the exact same crack cocaine conspiracies that the jury had rejected. The five grams of crack became 1,500 grams, and the judge sentenced Bell to 16 years, not the expected five.

Critics object that the use of “acquitted conduct” to justify longer sentences empowers prosecutors and judges to ignore the judgment of the jury, to base sentences on facts rebuffed by the citizens in the jury box.

Those critics include one of Bell’s jurors and Court of Appeals Judge Brett Kavanaugh, the current nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court. “Allowing judges to rely on acquitted or uncharged conduct to impose higher sentences than they otherwise would impose seems a dubious infringement of the rights to due process and a jury trial,” Kavanaugh wrote about Bell’s case in 2015 [available here].

Kavanaugh noted that he and his colleagues on the appeals court were powerless to overturn the sentence.  They are required to follow the rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court, which has allowed acquitted conduct to be a factor in sentencing.  In the meantime, Kavanaugh reminded trial judges that, when asked to use acquitted conduct to increase sentences, they can just say no....

Acquitted conduct and its legal siblings — dismissed conduct and uncharged conduct — are contentious subjects in the arcane world of federal sentencing law.  The tension arises from different standards of proof used at trial.  Juries convict after finding proof beyond a reasonable doubt.  At sentencing, judges use the preponderance of the evidence, a standard requiring more than 50 percent of the evidence to prove something, like the tip of a scale.

The standard makes sense in discretionary sentences, used in varying degrees in all state and federal courts.  Legislatures set ranges for criminal sentences: probation to 20 years in prison, for example, or, five years to life.  In fashioning a precise sentence within a wide range, a judge weighs aggravating and mitigating factors such as criminal record, education, victim testimony, family life, military service, abuse or neglect as a child and work history.

Dating back at least to 1949, the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed judges to use uncharged conduct to increase sentences. In later rulings, the Supreme Court explicitly allowed federal judges to make findings of fact that include acquitted conduct at sentencing. But the law is muddled. The Supreme Court began to limit the effect of uncharged and acquitted conduct in 2000, but more recent decisions have undercut those cases.  In Kavanaugh’s words, the Supreme Court lurched toward sentencing reform only to back away.

The court has since avoided the issue. In 2014, the Supreme Court declined to hear the cases of three Congress Park co-defendants: Joseph “JoJo” Jones, Desmond “Dazz” Thurston, and Antwuan “Big Ant” Ball.  Each had his sentence tripled or more based on allegations the jury found unpersuasive.  Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg wanted to hear those cases.  In a dissent, they said the time had come to confront acquitted conduct: “This has gone on long enough.”  It takes four justices to accept a case.

If Kavanaugh tips the balance,it will be too late for Gregory “Boy Boy” Bell, who has been locked up since his arrest in 2005.  He is scheduled to be released on Sept. 4.

In this post earlier this month, I asked "Might Justice Kennedy's retirement lead to defendants having stronger Sixth Amendment rights under Apprendi and Blakely?".  In that post, I highlighted Justice Kennedy's historic hostility to Apprendi and its Sixth Amendment progeny.  The Bell case is properly considered exhibit A to support the possibility that a possible Justice Kavanaugh will have a more rights-protective approach to these issues.  (Then again, Judge Kavanaugh has been heard to compliment the late Chief Justice Rehnquist, who authored the Watts opinion blessing acquitted conduct guideline enhancement in the pre-Apprendi world.)

That all said, it is worth remembering that Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kagan and Sotomayor also refused to vote to grant cert in the Ball case in 2014 (details here), even though all three had voted for extensions of Apprendi rights in prior cases like Southern Union.  Especially with Justice Kennedy gone and thus only Justices Breyer and Alito being on record as being eager to allow judges to enhance sentences without significant constitutional restraint, it is certainly possible to imagine the newer Justices (Gorsuch and Kavanaugh if conformed) convincing the likes of Roberts and Kagan and Sotomayor to be willing to take up this matter.  I sure hope so, but I will not be holding my breath.

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

Previous related posts on the DC cases discussed above:

July 24, 2018 in Blakely Commentary and News, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, July 23, 2018

Notable discussion of clemency's past, present and possible future in DC on July 25

As detailed in this press release, an impressive and diverse collection of experts will be speaking about clemency this week at the George Washington University Law School. Here are a few details about the event from the release:

Criminal Justice Reform Advocates to Hold Forum on July 25 to Discuss Clemency in the Trump Era, Featuring Commutation Recipient Alice Johnson & Bipartisan Clemency Advocates

What: Justice Roundtable will host a forum on July 25, 2018 from 11:30 am to 2:00 pm to explore clemency for drug offenses, focusing on its use in the Bush, Clinton and Obama presidencies, how it is being handled during the Trump presidency and concrete ways it can be enhanced today and beyond.

Where: George Washington University Law School, Moot Court Room 2000 H Street NW, Washington, DC

When: 11:30 am to 2:00 pm; Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Here is how the clemency panel discussion is structured and scheduled speakers:

What it Was

  • Roy Austin, former White House Domestic Policy Council
  • Rachel Barkow, Commissioner U.S. Sentencing Commission
  • Jason Hernandez, sentence commutation by President Obama
  • Amy Povah, Director CAN-DO Foundation & Clinton commutee

What it Is

  • Mark Holden, General Counsel, Koch Industries
  • Van Jones, political commentator, host of The Van Jones Show
  • Brittany Barnett, founder Buried Alive Project, Attorney for Alice Johnson
  • Alice Marie Johnson, sentenced commutation by President Trump

What it Can Be

  • Mark Osler, Professor & Distinguished Chair, Univ. of St. Thomas Law School
  • Paul Larkin, Senior Fellow, Meese Center, Heritage Foundation
  • Ebony Underwood, founder, We Got Us Now
  • Andrea James, Natl Council Incarcerated & Formerly Incarcerated Women & Girls

July 23, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Judicial Delegation"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper on SSRN authored by David Abrams, Roberto Galbiati, Emeric Henry and Arnaud Philippe.  Here is its abstract:

Greater delegation of authority to judges allows them to tailor decisions more precisely to the facts of the case and local norms, but also increases the likelihood of judicial capture, especially by repeat litigants.  Three main approach have historically been taken to address this in the criminal law realm: judicial elections, judicial rotation and sentencing guidelines.

We investigate some of the trade-offs inherent in the different approaches using data from North Carolina which has the unusual feature of frequent judicial rotation as well as elections and sentencing guidelines.  We find that sentences converge over time within a judicial spell in a district to the local average sentence.  We also document that the more prior interactions a judge has with a defense attorney, the more sentences decline.  Finally, we show that judges respond to electoral cycles and that elections thus can be a way to discipline them.

July 23, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

A father's perspective on clemency and its potential (and limits)

A helpful reader alerted me to this interesting new commentary authored by John Owen, headlined "A father's plea for mercy for his imprisoned daughter."  Here are excerpts:

President Donald Trump’s recent pardons and commutations have spotlighted, once again, the importance of executive clemency to soften the harshness of our criminal justice system.  President Abraham Lincoln was famous for preferring mercy over “strict justice.”  In fact, he used his clemency power so liberally, his attorney general had to assign someone to shadow him to record the names of all those he pardoned or commuted, according to author Margaret Love....

That’s how executive clemency is supposed to work.  It operates outside our rule of law, but it also respects it. It is the personal prerogative of the leader and so, inevitably, can be arbitrary.  It is also a message to our branches of government and to our society to mitigate our desire for vengeance with compassion....

I have spent the past nine years grieving the almost 20-year sentence imposed on my daughter, Mary Anne Locke, for her low-level, non-violent role in a meth distribution conspiracy.  She was ordered to report to federal prison in 2009, six weeks after she had a Cesarean section.  Along with her baby, she left behind a loving husband and two other children.

Mary Anne did not have an easy life, and I accept the role I played in that.... In her early teens, Mary Anne found drugs and men who were themselves substance abusers and also physically violent....  She relapsed at age 28, triggered by personal tumult, as well as health problems for which she was prescribed amphetamines. It was around this time that she became involved with the head of the meth conspiracy charged in her federal case. He gave her an unlimited supply of meth and, in return, embroiled her in a supportive capacity in his drug distribution activities.

Pregnant with her second child in 2007, Mary Anne again disavowed the drug lifestyle.  The indictment in her federal case was handed down in 2008, when she was pregnant with her third child, after two years of sobriety and a wonderful marriage with her then husband, who had no connection with her drug activities. She cooperated fully upon arrest, at considerable risk to herself.

Imagine our family’s devastation when she was sentenced to 234 months, or 19.5 years.  Murderers get less time. Although nationally, statistics indicate that defendants with her characteristics would receive an almost 50 percent reduction of their applicable guideline, the judge gave her just a 20 percent reduction.  Mary Anne was not the kingpin or organizer. She never engaged in or threatened any violence.  She played a supportive role to fund her addiction.  She had never spent more than a night in custody.  She is precisely the kind of low-level player deserving of leniency.

Rather, her sentence was driven by the charging decisions of the prosecutors she faced and the particular sentencing philosophy of her judge.  This judge has been critiqued as one of the harshest in the country.  In fact, she is the only sitting judge to have been subject to a commutation by Trump (the 27-year sentence of Sholom Rubashkin).  Moreover, today, not only would another judge give Mary Anne an almost 50 percent reduction of her applicable guideline, Mary Anne’s sentencing guideline would be substantially lower....

Needless to say, Mary Anne has served the top end of that guideline.  And she has done so with distinction.  She has been an exemplary prisoner — discipline-free, who has worked and studied consistently throughout her sentence, completing her final year in a three-year college program in office administration.  Don’t get me wrong.  Mary Anne broke the law and deserved punishment.  But her lengthy sentence violates any basic notions of justice and proportionality.  She deserves mercy.

She applied for clemency before President Barack Obama, and has again applied before President Trump.  She was represented in both applications by the Clemency Project at the University of Minnesota Law School.  I am a lifelong Republican. I am, however, forever grateful to Obama for bringing executive clemency back to its roots — to address systemic unfairness, while also acknowledging the humanity of each person behind bars.  I am also buoyed by Trump’s recent clemency decisions, and his pronouncements that he plans to use it even more expansively.

But nothing beats a legislative solution that grants my daughter — and the thousands of prisoners like her — a “second look” at the severity and fairness of their sentence, in a public proceeding, with a judge and an advocate.

July 23, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (16)

Sunday, July 22, 2018

More old-school, tough-on-crime talk and thinking from Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered these remarks today at the 2018 Summer Conference for the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia.  Much of what he said will sound familiar to those who have followed his public speeches, but today I was really struck by a certain logical disconnect in some of his standard rhetoric.  Here are excerpts, with bold added to highlight key passages for follow-up comments:

From the early 1990s until 2014, the crime rate steadily came down across the country.  But from 2014 to 2016, the trends reversed.  The violent crime rate went up by nearly seven percent. Robberies went up. Assaults went up nearly 10 percent.  Rape went up by nearly 11 percent. Murder shot up by more than 20 percent!...

We’ve got to get back on track. We must take these recent developments seriously and consider carefully what can be done about them.  Yielding to these trends is not an option for America and certainly not to us in law enforcement.  We have clear goals. From day one — I plainly stated our goal at DOJ — reduce crime, reduce homicides, reduce prescriptions, and reduce overdose deaths!...

We’ve got to be smart and fair about who we put behind bars and for how long.  This is not mindless “mass incarceration”.  But prison does play a role.  Two months ago, the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report on the recidivism rate of inmates released from state prisons in 30 states.

This is the longest-term study that BJS has ever done on recidivism and perhaps the largest. It was designed and started by the previous administration.  The results are clear and very important — historic importance. The reality is confirms what experienced professionals like yourselves have seen.

The study found that 83 percent of 60,000 state prisoners released in 2005 were arrested again within nine years.  That’s five out of every six.

The study shows that two-thirds of those — a full 68 percent — were arrested within the first three years.  Almost half were arrested within a year — one year – of being released. The study estimates that the 400,000 state prisoners released in 2005 were arrested nearly 2 million times during the nine-year period — an average of five arrests each.

Virtually none of these released prisoners were arrested merely for probation or parole violations: 99 percent of those arrested during the 9-year follow-up period were arrested for something other than a probation or parole violation.

In many cases, former inmates were arrested for an offense at least as serious — if not more so — as the crime that got them in jail in the first place.  It will not surprise you that this is often true for drug offenders. Many have thought that most drug offenders are young experimenters or persons who just made a mistake.  But the study shows a deeper concern.

Seventy-seven percent of all released drug offenders were arrested for a non-drug crime within nine years.  Presumably, many were arrested for drug crimes also. Importantly, nearly half of those arrests were for a violent crime.  Sometimes arrests lead to treatment, drug courts — often the problem is more serious.

Recidivism is no little matter.  It is a fact of life that must be understood.  But overall, the good news is that the professionals in law enforcement know what works in crime. We’ve been studying this and working on this for 40 years.

As any prosecutor in this room can tell you, when a criminal knows with certainty that he is facing real time, he is a lot more willing to confess and cooperate with prosecutors. On the other hand, when the sentence is uncertain and up to the whims of the judge, criminals are a lot more willing to take a chance.

Our goal as prosecutors is not to fill up the courts or fill up the prisons.  Our goal is not to manage crime or merely to punish crime.  Our goal is to reduce crime in America....

Law enforcement is crime prevention.  When we enforce our laws, we prevent new crimes from happening.  As prosecutors, we have a difficult job, but our efforts at the federal, state, and local levels have a real impact.  With every conviction we secure, we make our communities safer.

A blog post is an imperfect forum to work through all the particulars of AG Sessions' speech.  But his extended discussion of the BJS recidivism data (which concerns only state prisoners) suggests that modern prisons — at least in the late 1990s and early 2000s — functionally operated to make a lot of criminals worse, which in turn suggests that sending more people to prison would be a recipe for making ever more aggravated criminals.  Of course, this is what "professionals" generally know: time in prison tends to be criminogenic.  As Professor Mark Kleiman puts it, brute force often fails and we ought to seek to (and likely can) achieve less crime with less punishment.  

Put another way, the BJS recidivism data suggest we were doing something quite wrong with our prison policies even as crime was dropping from the early 1990s until 2014.  And yet the tenor of this speech, and what seems to be AG Sessions' general disaffinity for any federal criminal justice reforms, suggest AG Sessions is ever eager to embrace and champion all the policies and practices that contributed to modern mass incarceration despite evidence that those "old-school" policies and practices produce startling recidivism rates.

The significant crime spike that preceded AG Sessions coming in to office will seemingly always serves as a foundation and justification for him to promote and justify ever more federal prosecutors bringing ever more federal prosecutions.  But, as the title of this post hints, his old-school talk and thinking is tired and tiring, and likely disserves his presumably genuine commitment "to reduce crime in America."

July 22, 2018 in National and State Crime Data, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (22)

"Setting the Record Straight: The Pardon Power is Part of the Rule of Law"

The title of this post is the headline of this commentary at Just Security authored by Sam Morison, who worked for many years as a staff attorney in the Office of the Pardon Attorney.  I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts: 

Writing from the perspective of a former federal prosecutor, Barbara McQuade decried President Donald Trump’s most recent exercise of the pardon power, which supposedly poses a grave threat to “anyone who is committed to our legal institutions, particularly federal law enforcement.”  The remedy for such alleged abuse of discretion, she suggests, is to rely on the good judgment of the Office of the Pardon Attorney (OPA), the agency within the Justice Department that for many years has supervised the provision of advice to the president in clemency matters.  The default standard for making such decisions, she further suggests, is contained in the U.S. Attorney’s Manual, according to which a “petitioner should be genuinely desirous of forgiveness rather than vindication.”

This has now become a familiar refrain among the president’s critics.  But while reasonable minds might differ about the substantive merits of the president’s clemency decisions to date, McQuade’s critique exhibits both a remarkably impoverished view of the pardon power and an exaggerated confidence in the legitimacy of the extant advisory process....

[T]he president has both a right and a duty to exercise the pardon power because of his own constitutional concerns about a law or because of policy objections to enforcement of the law in a particular context.  This principle was established as early as 1804, when upon taking office President Thomas Jefferson pardoned those who had been convicted under the Alien and Sedition Acts, which he believed to be unconstitutional.  Similarly, President Woodrow Wilson granted dozens of pardons to persons convicted of liquor-related offenses under the Volstead Act, because of his constitutional objections to the law.

More recently, President Ronald Reagan granted pardon to former FBI agents Mark Felt and Edward Miller while their cases were still pending on appeal, on the grounds that they had not acted with criminal intent, but rather in a “good-faith belief that their actions were necessary to preserve the security interests of our country.”  President George H.W. Bush pardoned the so-called Iran-Contra defendants, after indictment but prior to trial, based on his conclusion that the independent counsel’s prosecution had constituted the “criminalization of policy differences.”  Prior to leaving office, President Clinton pardoned or commuted the sentences of numerous persons convicted in independent counsel investigations that had dogged his administration for basically the same reason.  And President George W. Bush commuted the prison sentence of Lewis Libby, his vice president’s former chief of staff, after his conviction was affirmed but before he reported to prison.  Bush reasoned that even if Libby had committed perjury in the context of a highly politicized grand jury investigation, a prison sentence would be excessively harsh punishment.

Granted over a period of more than 200 years, the common thread that ties these disparate acts of executive clemency together is the intersection of law and politics.  In each case, the president made the judgment that partisan considerations had improperly influenced either the legislative or the judicial process, thereby undermining the moral legitimacy of strictly enforcing the letter of the law.

When the president exercises the pardon power for this reason, it is not an idiosyncratic exception to the normal operation of the federal criminal justice system.  To the contrary, it is an integral part of the system of checks and balances embedded in the Constitution.  As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for a unanimous Court, a pardon “is not a private act of grace from an individual happening to possess power. It is a part of the Constitutional scheme. When granted it is the determination of the ultimate [executive] authority that the public welfare will be better served by inflicting less than what the judgment fixed.”  In this context, then, a pardon is a public act of grace, taken by the president in his official capacity as the chief executive, to preserve the integrity of the federal criminal justice system.

The only remaining question is who should exercise effective control over this broad discretionary power, a democratically elected president or a small cadre of anonymous bureaucrats in the Office of the Pardon Attorney (OPA)?  Having served as a staff attorney in OPA for more than a decade, I can say with some confidence that the office does not view its role as a neutral arbiter.  Instead, OPA’s institutional function is to protect the Justice Department’s prosecutorial prerogatives by churning out a steady stream of almost uniformly negative advice, regardless of the merits of any particular case.  This is problematic because in the normal course, the only information the president receives about a case is whatever the Justice Department chooses to tell him.  And in my entire tenure at OPA, I am not aware of a single instance in which a federal prosecutor acknowledged that one of her cases might have been affected by “undue harshness or evident mistake.”

There is no reason to believe that this situation has fundamentally changed, given the Justice Department’s inherent conflict of interest in each of these cases. In effect, the Justice Department’s advisory record amounts to the assertion that the federal criminal justice system is essentially perfect — injustices never occur, sentences are never excessive, circumstances never change, and mercy is never appropriate.  No disinterested person really believes this. Accordingly, if Trump insists in going it alone, as McQuade complains, the Justice Department has no one but itself to blame.

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

July 22, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Noting new challenges in securing death sentences now that juror unanimity is required in Florida

This extended local article, headlined "South Florida killers avoiding death row under new law," spotlights the new capital realities in Florida now that the state was forced by new constitutional rulings to require unanimous jury verdicts to secure death sentences. Here are excerpts:

South Florida juries appear to be less likely, so far, to send convicted killers to death row under the state’s newest death penalty law.  Two juries in Broward County decided to spare the lives of convicted killers in the past week in cases where capital punishment would have seemed likely just a few years ago.

On July 16, convicted cop killers Bernard Forbes, Eloyn Ingraham and Andre Delancy learned they would not face execution for the 2006 ambush murder of Broward Sheriff’s Deputy Brian Tephford.  And on July 19, Eric Montgomery’s life was spared by the same jury that convicted him of fatally shooting his stepdaughter in the face, chasing down her terrified mother and shooting her to death while his own grandmother physically tried to stop him, taking a bullet in the process.

In three first-degree murder trials in Palm Beach County since September, juries have recommended life sentences for the men they convicted. The challenge appears to be the stringent requirement of the death penalty law passed in the spring of 2017.  The state now requires juries to unanimously find at least one aggravating factor justifying the imposition of the death penalty, and a second unanimous vote recommending it....

Simple majorities were required before 2016, but a combination of federal and state supreme court decisions found that without a unanimous verdict, Florida’s death penalty process was unconstitutional.

Since the newest law was enacted, Broward juries have rejected the death penalty in three of four cases. In each of those cases, the defense put up a fight, calling witnesses and urging jurors to show mercy.  The unanimous death decision came against Peter Avsenew, convicted of killing a Wilton Manors couple near Christmas 2010, using their credit cards, stealing their car and trying to hide out at his mother’s house in Polk County.  After his conviction, Avsenew fired his defense lawyers and represented himself in front of the jury, making no effort to plead for his life or show a hint of remorse. “I have no regrets in my life and I am proud of the decisions I’ve made,” he said.

Defense lawyers and prosecutors agree that it’s too soon to determine whether the new law will result in a long term reduction in the number of capital sentences. According to the state corrections department, Florida sent 12 inmates to death row in 2014 and 2015.  From 2017 to 2018 so far, four have been condemned: one each from Collier, Polk, Duval and St. John’s County. But in Palm Beach, prosecutors have not gotten a death penalty since 1998, even under the old law....

“Whenever you have 12 people in a room, it’s hard to get them to agree on anything,” said former Broward prosecutor Marjorie Sommer, now a jury consultant with Focus Consulting Services.

Potential jurors in death penalty cases are typically removed if they have philosophical objections to capital punishment.  But sometimes they slip through. Last year, a Broward jury convicted Jacqueline Luongo of killing her roommate for insurance money, stuffing her body in a closet for days while disguising herself as her victim to make bank withdrawals.

When it came time to deliberate over the penalty, juror Sarah Miller said she was stunned to learn that a fellow panelist had no intention of even considering death.  “She faked her way onto the jury,” said Miller. “It was so unfair to the victim’s family. It didn’t sit well with me. We didn’t do justice.”  The vote, Miller said, was 11-1.  Luongo was sentenced to life in prison.

The outcome of that case has Miller worried that securing a death penalty in Broward will be impossible under the new law. Miller lives in Parkland and is a 2012 graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, scene of last February’s mass shooting.  She worries that if the shooter is convicted, he will escape the death penalty because of the new law.  “It’s very scary to me to think that ... another dishonest juror pretends to be open minded about it,” she said.

July 22, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Can a criminal be sentenced to run a 'help desk'?"

The question in the title of this post is the first line of this New York Times article about a high-profile upcoming federal (re)sentencing.  The piece is headlined "What Sentence Should Sheldon Silver Get? His Lawyers Get Creative," and here are excerpts:

Sheldon Silver, the former powerful speaker of the New York State Assembly who was convicted of public corruption charges in May, hopes [he can be sentenced to help-desk duty].

Mr. Silver, 74, is to be sentenced on July 27 in Manhattan, and federal prosecutors asked the judge on Friday to impose a sentence “substantially in excess” of 10 years. But Mr. Silver’s lawyers had a more creative proposal for how he could pay his debt to society.

After a “meaningful custodial sentence,” they suggested, he should be ordered to perform “rigorous” community service, like running a special help desk. In that role, they said, he would be helping New Yorkers “navigate their way through the state bureaucracy to answer their questions, and maximize their chances of receiving benefits to which they may be entitled.” He would be expressing his remorse, they said, and using “his unique skills to assist his fellow New Yorkers.”...

Evidence at the trial showed Mr. Silver obtained nearly $4 million in illicit payments in exchange for taking actions that helped a prominent cancer researcher at Columbia University and two real estate developers.... Mr. Silver, a Democrat, was originally convicted in 2015 and sentenced to 12 years by the judge, Valerie E. Caproni of Federal District Court. After his conviction was overturned on appeal, he was retried this year and found guilty.

“Mr. Silver is a broken man,” his lawyers wrote. “He has been humiliated and disgraced. Most of his assets are gone, either to forfeiture or fine.” But he “is also an intelligent man, with virtually unparalleled knowledge of New York State government,” they noted. Their proposal would allow the judge to exercise discretion “in a way that punishes Mr. Silver, but takes advantage of his unique talents and still affords the possibility of his living the end of his life in freedom.”

To provide a direct answer to the question in the title of this post, I would look to 18 U.S.C. § 3563(b)(12) which states that the court may provide that the defendant work "in community service as directed by the court” as a condition of supervised release. In other words, I think a federal defendant can be sentenced by a federal judge to run a help desk as a form of community service during a period of supervised release. Whether a federal judge will be inclined to do so for Sheldon Silver is another question.

Prior related posts prior to Sheldon Silver's initial sentencing:

July 22, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, July 21, 2018

"Isonomy, Austerity, And The Right To Choose Counsel"

The title of this post is the title of this paper authored by Janet Moore that I just came across. Here is the abstract:

People who can afford to hire criminal defense attorneys have a Sixth Amendment right to choose a lawyer who is qualified, available, and free from conflicts of interest.  The same right to choose counsel is routinely denied to people who need government-paid defense lawyers because they cannot afford to hire attorneys.  In prior work, I invoked democratic theory to argue that this de jure discrimination blocks constitutional law formation by poor people and should be eliminated.

This Article extends the analysis by explaining how a different theoretical approach — one grounded in libertarian commitments to private enterprise and austerity in public funding — shaped the nation’s first pilot study on counsel choice in a public defense setting.  Those commitments sharply limited the measure of counsel choice offered and left the study with insufficient data to support generalizable conclusions.  Thus, the study underscores questions about whether an equal right of counsel choice can be meaningful under conditions of austerity and might actually aggravate instead of ameliorate system deficits.  The Article concludes that while meaningful counsel choice for poor people may be elusive, the constitutional interests at stake nevertheless warrant elimination of overt class-based discrimination from the vindication of a fundamental right.

July 21, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 20, 2018

Following execution, Ohio Gov John Kasich closes his capital record with commuted death sentence and reprieve

As reported in this local article, "Ohio Gov. John Kasich spared death row inmate Raymond Tibbetts, who was convicted of killing his wife and landlord in Cincinnati more than two decades ago." Here is more on a (surprising?) decision, which was one of two notable capital changes today:

Kasich — going against the recommendation of the Ohio Parole Board — said that there were "fundamental flaws" in sentencing Tibbetts.  Jurors didn't learn about Tibbett's background as a neglected and abused child. Kasich commuted Tibbetts' sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.  Tibbetts had been set to be executed Oct. 17.

Tibbetts had been sentenced to death for beating his wife, Sue Crawford, to death and fatally stabbing his landlord, Fred Hicks, on the same day in 1997 in Over-the-Rhine.

The Ohio Parole Board had given Tibbetts' case a second look after a former juror, Ross Geiger of Loveland, wrote a letter to Kasich, expressing concern that jurors didn't know more about Tibbett's background before sentencing him to death.  But the parole board voted 8-1 against clemency.

Kasich disagreed. In a news release, the governor explained that "the defense’s failure to present sufficient mitigating evidence, coupled with an inaccurate description of Tibbetts’s childhood by the prosecution, essentially prevented the jury from making an informed decision about whether Tibbetts deserved the death penalty."

This press release from Gov Kasich's office also reports that "Gov. John R. Kasich granted a reprieve to delay the execution of Cleveland Jackson" with this accounting for this decision:

Cleveland Jackson was convicted for the 2002 murder of 17-year-old Leneshia Williams and three-year-old Jayla Grant in Lima.  The reprieve will delay his execution until May 29, 2019 to allow his newly appointed legal counsel sufficient time to review the case and properly prepare for his clemency hearing before the Parole Board.  Jackson’s previous court-appointed counsel withdrew their representation just four months prior to his initially scheduled execution after admitting that they failed to do any work to prepare his clemency application over the course of the previous four years.

With this commutation and reprieve, which follow an execution earlier this week which was Ohio's 15th execution during Gov Kasich's two terms in office, I believe Gov Kasich has closed out his capital record because there a now no more executions scheduled during his remaining time in office. (Interestingly, Ohio Gov Robert Taft presided over 24 executions from 1998 to 2006, and Ohio Gov Ted Strickland presided over 17 execution from 2007 to 2010.)

July 20, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

New ACS Issue Brief on "Litigating Federal Habeas Corpus Cases"

Eve Brensike Primus has authored this lengthy new Issue Brief for the American Constitution Society under the title "Litigating Federal Habeas Corpus Cases: One Equitable Gateway at a Time." Here is how its introduction starts and closes:

The Supreme Court has described the writ of habeas corpus as “a bulwark against convictions that violate fundamental fairness” and as “the judicial method of lifting undue restraints upon personal liberty.” Unfortunately, obtaining federal habeas corpus relief has become close to impossible for many prisoners.  The vast majority of habeas petitions are post-conviction petitions filed by state prisoners.  Congress and the Supreme Court have erected a complicated maze of procedural obstacles that state prisoners must navigate, often without the assistance of counsel, to have their constitutional claims considered in federal court. One wrong procedural step means the prisoner’s claims are thrown out of federal court altogether.  In fact, federal judges now dismiss a majority of state prisoners’ habeas claims on procedural grounds....

In this Issue Brief, I argue that habeas petitioners should highlight problems they had obtaining a full and fair review of their claims in state court as well as innocence concerns in an effort to push federal courts to expand the equitable exceptions that already permeate habeas doctrine.  I begin by providing a brief overview of the substantive and procedural thicket of federal habeas review, including a description of the many roadblocks that state prisoners encounter when attempting to obtain relief.  I then explore the doctrine’s equitable exceptions and explain how concerns about a lack of access to adequate state process and actual innocence often motivate federal courts to look past obstacles to federal habeas review.  Finally, I explore how litigants could use the animating principles behind these equitable exceptions to broaden procedural bypasses and inform the standard of review for merits determinations in federal court.  I argue that state prisoners often fail to highlight process failures in ways that could broaden the scope and impact of federal habeas review.  Sweeping reform of federal habeas review might not be feasible, but it may be possible to effectuate some change, one equitable gateway at a time.

July 20, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Another look at how Justice Kennedy shaped capital jurisprudence and what his departure entails

I noted here a few weeks ago a short piece on how death penalty jurisprudence is likely to be impacted considerably by a coming SCOTUS transition, and another longer piece in the same vein now comes from Matt Ford at The New Republic.  The piece is headlined "America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (at Least) a Generation," and here are excerpts (with links from the original):

With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles.  In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row prisoners.

“In a very real sense, the Eighth Amendment meant whatever Justice Kennedy decided that it meant,” Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told me. “He was often the fifth vote in denying stays of execution and in favoring the state on questions of lethal injection, but he was also often a fifth vote for determining that a particular death-penalty practice was unconstitutional.”

The high court will likely continue to intervene in death-penalty cases that stray too far from the legal mainstream.  But without Kennedy, it will no longer be the venue for a systemic attack on capital punishment as it had been in recent years.  “It seems likely that there will be a firm, five-person majority on the court in Kennedy’s wake with absolutely no interest in revisiting the status quo on the constitutionality of capital punishment,” Carol Steiker, a Harvard University law professor who specializes in the death penalty, told me....

With Kennedy now gone, it’s virtually certain that the Supreme Court won’t abolish the death penalty for at least a generation. Earlier this month, President Donald Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh, a reliably conservative judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, to fill Kennedy’s seat. While Trump himself is an unusually enthusiastic proponent of the practice, Kavanaugh’s own views on the death penalty are unknown. The D.C. Circuit’s narrow geographic jurisdiction means that it almost never hears death-penalty cases compared to the other federal appellate circuits.

As a result, there is no clear record for how Kavanaugh approaches the practice as a judge. Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito are resistant to curtailing capital punishment, and Justice Neil Gorsuch has voted alongside them during his first term on the court. If Kavanaugh votes in a similar manner, the court’s posture toward the death penalty would shift decisively away from limiting its scope. “The immediate impact of Kennedy’s retirement in terms of Eighth Amendment law is that it’s now whatever Chief Justice Roberts decides that it is,” Dunham said.

Roberts generally sides with the rest of the court’s conservatives on death-penalty matters. He has also joined the court’s liberals on occasion to rule in favor of defendants in certain egregious cases. In the 2017 case Buck v. Davis, he sided with a death-row prisoner after an expert testified during the sentencing phase that he posed a greater threat of “future dangerousness” because he is black. Though the exchange was a brief part of the overall trial, Roberts said in his majority opinion that it was still too much. “Some toxins are deadly in small doses,” he wrote.

Death-row prisoners will still bring cases to the Supreme Court, but Steiker said that the future of abolition efforts will now turn to the state and local level. “States are really where the story is happening,” she told me. “There are state constitutional challenges that can be brought. Seven state legislatures have voted to abolish the death penalty in the past ten or twelve years.” She also noted that a growing number of district attorneys are declining to seek the death penalty in cases where they otherwise could.

A local focus makes sense given the current geography of capital punishment. Death sentences increasingly come from only a handful of counties scattered across the country. Though state legislatures allow or forbid the death penalty as a matter of law, local prosecutors often decide in practice whether a defendant will face it. Cities like Houston and Philadelphia that once handed down dozens of death sentences have recently seen the election of district attorneys who are more skeptical of it.

For now, the rulings written by Kennedy will continue to mark the outer limits for American executions on a national level—unless the justices of a future generation choose to push them even further. “The law that Justice Kennedy leaves behind offers something of a blueprint for a future Supreme Court if it wanted to continue this project of reassessing the death penalty and its concordance—or not—with evolving standards of decency,” Steiker said.

Prior related post:

A quick look at how Justice Kennedy's retirement might impact capital punishment jurisprudence 

July 19, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Notable GOP Senators talk up mens rea reform while FIRST STEP Act and SRCA languish in their chamber

Senators Chuck Grassley and Orrin Hatch have this notable new commentary in the Washington Examiner under the headline "Mens rea reform and the criminal justice reform constellation." Here are excerpts:

A growing chorus of voices from across the country and political spectrum are calling out for reforms to our nation’s criminal justice system, and rightfully so.  Our criminal justice system should be tough but fair.  Criminal behavior should be punished, but the punishment should fit the crime. And those we send to prison should be afforded opportunities to participate in programs that prepare them to rejoin society when they complete their sentences.

As Congress works on bills to improve fairness in sentencing and bolster programs to better prepare inmates for life after prison, we should not ignore the root problem of overcriminalization.  There are more than 4,500 criminal laws on the books and more regulatory crimes than the Congressional Research Service was able to count.  And when many of these crimes are drafted without clear criminal intent requirements, it becomes increasingly easy for unsuspecting Americans to be sent to jail for conduct they had no idea was against the law.

Mens rea reform, in addition to sentencing and prison reform, is an essential part of the criminal justice reform constellation.  We can do only so much to improve fairness in our nation’s criminal justice system if we continue to allow individuals to be sent to prison for conduct they did not know was unlawful, even when Congress has not specified that their crimes should be strict liability offenses.

Fairness and justice demand that we clarify our criminal laws.  Statutes and regulations that impose criminal penalties should be clearly written so they prevent and punish criminal conduct even as they the safeguard the liberty of the innocent.  That’s why it is important that Congress take up and pass the Mens Rea Reform Act of 2018, which we’ve introduced, to improve clarity in existing criminal laws and regulations and encourage greater care when crafting future ones.

Our bill recognizes that the mens rea standard that works for one crime might not be appropriate for another.  It improves on past proposals to impose a one-size-fits-all mens rea standard to all laws and regulations that lack such clarity.  Instead, it empowers Congress and federal agencies to fill in the gaps with the appropriate level of intent required to constitute a crime.  The bill calls on the federal government to identify the criminal statutes and regulations that lack a mens rea requirement.  This will allow Congress to clarify the mens rea standard in criminal statutes through the legislative process.  The bill then directs federal agencies to put in place a clear mens rea standard for all regulatory crimes through a transparent process that invites public input on what the appropriate mens rea standard should be. Under our bill, agencies have six years to issue new rules to clarify the required level of intent. If the agencies don’t offer this clarification, they won’t be able to enforce the regulation....

We firmly believe that mens rea reform is an important piece of the broader criminal justice reform landscape.  Together with the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which we both support, the Mens Rea Reform Act will improve fairness and clarity in our criminal justice system.

While I share the Senators affinity for mens rea reform, at this point I am eager to hear any news about any movement in the Senate with respect to the FIRST STEP Act or the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.  One would hope that the current chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee (Grassley) and a powerful former chair (Hatch) could actually help get some legislation enacted, but the mysteries of government continue to mysterious prevent the passage of legislation that has widespread support in both houses of Congress.

It has now been nearly two months since the FIRST STEP passed the House by a huge margin (details here) and it has now been more than five months since the SRCA passed the Senate Judiciary Committee by a significant margin (details here). Prez Trump has suggested he will sign whatever bill gets delivered to his desk.  But as the summer marches on, I am struggling to remain optimistic that the full Senate will get to vote on any of these reform proposals anytime soon. Sigh.

July 19, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

"The Vanishing Criminal Jury Trial: From Trial Judges to Sentencing Judges"

The title of this post is the title of this article authored by Robert Conrad, Jr. and Katy Clements published earlier this year that I just came across and that is especially timely in light of the recent NACDL report on the "trial penalty" (discussed here). Here is its abstract:

Federal criminal jury trials are dying.  Surely, but not slowly. Within the ten-year span from 2006 to 2016, the absolute number of cases disposed of by jury trial declined by forty-seven percent.  During the same ten-year span, the portion of defendants’ cases disposed of by jury trial similarly declined by almost forty percent.  Go to the movies, turn on the television, or open a book, and the vanishing trial is not the portrayal of the American criminal justice system you will see.  The media depicts a thriving criminal adjudicatory system full of dramatic human interactions, complex fact patterns, and cathartic resolutions rendered at the hand of the twelve-person, hallowed pillar of American democracy: the jury.

This Article debunks that fiction. The criminal jury trial decline has been occurring since the 1980s.  Yet the primary factors scholars have attributed as responsible for igniting the trial decline no longer predominate.  Prior scholarship has blamed mandatory minimum penalties and mandatory Federal Sentencing Guidelines as the principal agents of the trial decline.  This Article examines the vanishing trial phenomenon in the post-mandatory Guidelines era and discovers startling results.  Despite the Supreme Court making the Guidelines advisory in United States v. Booker in 2005 and a prosecutorial push during the Obama Administration to circumvent charging mandatory minimum penalties, trial numbers continue to rapidly decline.

By tracing trial statistics in the twenty-first century, this Article identifies new factors, largely unexamined in the vanishing trial literature, that have arguably driven trial numbers to even lower levels.  Specifically, the authors contend that Booker, changes in Department of Justice policies, and other extrinsic factors outside the criminal justice system have further marginalized the existence of trials and juries.  The authors lament that the sentencing hearing has replaced the trial as the paramount proceeding in most criminal cases and explore the consequences of plea agreements supplanting the public square openness of trials.  By doing so, the authors hope to embolden the players in the criminal justice system to not go gentle into a trial-less system, but rather, to rage against the dying of the trial light.

July 18, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Texas completes eighth execution of 2018 despite complaints about clemency process

This Texas Tribune article, headlined "Texas executes Chris Young, who fought the state parole board in a final appeal," reports on the latest lethal injection and litigation in the Texas capital system.  The subheadline summarizes the heart of the story: "The death row inmate claimed that the parole board likely rejected his clemency petition because he was black. The argument highlighted a long-standing criticism of clemency in Texas." Here are excerpts from a lengthy piece:

In his final fight before his execution Tuesday evening, Chris Young targeted Texas’ secretive clemency process.

On Friday, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously rejected Young’s clemency petition — often the final check in the death penalty process before an inmate is sent to the death chamber.  Hours later, Young’s lawyers filed suit against the board members, claiming that they likely voted against a recommendation to reduce his sentence or halt his execution because he is black.

The appeal was a long shot, and one he ultimately lost in federal court Tuesday, hours before the state put him to death for the 2004 robbery and murder of Hasmukh Patel at Patel's San Antonio store.  At 6:13 p.m., Young, 34, was injected with a fatal dose of compounded pentobarbital and pronounced dead 25 minutes later....

Though unsuccessful, the late filing highlighted a long-established criticism of Texas clemency — the reasoning for the board’s decision is unknown to the public, and individual members usually cast their votes remotely without comment or a hearing.  Though members must certify that they do not cast their votes because of the inmate’s race, they also don’t have to give any reason for their decision....

Young was 21 when he entered Patel’s San Antonio store in 2004 and fatally shot Patel during an attempted robbery, according to court records. He was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in 2006.

In his recent petition to the parole board asking for a sentence of life instead of death, his lawyers cited his growth in prison — they claim he prevented both an inmate’s assault on a guard and a suicide and that he eased racial tensions on death row — and the fact that Patel’s son, Mitesh, also pleaded for the state to spare his father’s killer.

They tried to draw comparisons between Young and another young man whose life was recently spared by the board and Gov. Greg Abbott — Thomas Whitaker, who was convicted in the planned deaths of his family in 2003, killing his mother and brother and wounding his father in a plot to get inheritance money....

The state responded to Young’s allegations of racial discrimination in court Sunday, claiming Young’s case for clemency was “far weaker” than Whitaker’s.  Assistant Attorney General Stephen Hoffman highlighted factors left out of Young’s petition, including an alleged sexual assault just before Patel’s murder, previous misdemeanor convictions and disciplinary reports from death row.  The response also notes that, unlike Young, Whitaker wasn’t the triggerman in his relatives’ murders....

Since 1998, a Texas governor has spared the life of someone facing imminent execution only three times, according to data obtained from the parole board. In the same two decades, there have been more than 400 Texas executions....

Abbott’s predecessor, Republican Rick Perry, chose to reduce a death sentence to life in prison for only one inmate (U.S. Supreme Court decisions forced him to reduce other sentences) in his 14-year tenure.  He also rejected board recommendations in at least two other cases.  The Whitaker clemency was the first and only board recommendation under Abbott so far.

Because of the minuscule success rate of these cases and the secrecy that surrounds the process, attorney groups and several lawmakers have criticized Texas clemency procedures in capital cases for decades.  In 1998, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks called it “extremely poor and certainly minimal.” Sparks railed on how the public is kept from the board’s dealings and said no member fully reads the petitions, stating “a flip of the coin would be more merciful than these votes.”...

But for Young, the attempt to draw parallels between himself and Whitaker seemingly fell flat with the members of the parole board.  Instead of being moved off death row to another prison, he was sent to the death chamber, becoming the eighth person executed in Texas this year, and the 13th in the nation.

July 18, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Encouraging lawmakers to take a "face-to-face" approach to criminal justice reform

Connecticut Gov Daniel Malloy has this great commentary in The Hill under the headline "To reimagine the criminal justice system, start with a face-to-face connection." I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

Recently, the first lady and I convened a group of state officials, judges, prosecutors, victim advocates and other stakeholders to discuss Connecticut’s progress toward improving the state’s criminal justice system.  Sounds like a run-of-the-mill convening of policymakers and practitioners until you consider the venue: one of our state’s maximum-security prisons, the Cheshire Correctional Institution.

“Reimagining Justice 2018: Outside In” was the first-ever conference to be held inside such a prison, serving as a rare opportunity for those who shape and carry out Connecticut’s criminal justice policies to step into the confines of a prison and hear directly from those who are residents there.

During my time as governor, I’ve prioritized these types of meaningful interactions with people directly impacted by the correctional system, whether it’s been with people who are incarcerated, the corrections officers that supervise them or victims of crime.  Over the course of my 24 visits to date, interactions with victims, correctional officers and inmates have become a central part of my efforts to develop meaningful criminal justice policy changes.

These experiences have informed many policy discussions and have led to extraordinary progress in our state.  From 2008 to 2016, Connecticut has seen the complete closure of five prisons along with major portions of four other facilities.  More importantly our state has experienced the largest reduction in violent crime of any state in the nation over the past four years.  We’ve also seen our prison population reach its lowest level since 1994 due to fewer and fewer arrests and prison admissions and while continuing to see meaningful drops in recidivism rates....

Whether it be attending the reentry program graduation of someone preparing to return to the community after incarceration or meeting with corrections officers to discuss new ways to ensure a healthy working environment for them, these face-to-face engagements can help policymakers gain a deeper appreciation of the unique challenges people encounter when they are closely involved in the correctional system....

It’s critical for all elected leaders and policymakers at every level of government to understand the high value of these types of interactions.  That is why I, along with a group of 12 other Republican and Democratic governors across the country, have taken part in the Face to Face initiative, a call to action for all policymakers to personally connect with the people closest to the correctional system.

I urge all policymakers of all levels across the country to join these efforts and commit to following a thoughtful approach to policy that focuses not only on data, but the people behind those numbers.  Together, by considering the immeasurable human impact of our policy decisions, we can reimagine the way we approach criminal justice.

July 17, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The American Conservative reviews how "Law-and-Order Texas Takes on Criminal Justice Reform"

I spotlighted in this post last week this lengthy commentary in The American Conservative under the full headline "Where the Right Went Wrong on Criminal Justice: Ending our 'incarceration nation' would help return conservatives to their roots, acting on principles most of them already hold."  Now comes the second extended piece in a series appears here under the full headline "Law-and-Order Texas Takes on Criminal Justice Reform:Seeking alternatives to bloated prison populations and recidivism, the Lone Star state leads others to pursue to the same." Here are excerpts

Though Jerry Madden had no prior background in corrections or law enforcement, he helped change the course of both fields. Madden was serving in the Texas House in 2005 when he got called into the speaker’s office. Speaker Tom Craddock, a fellow conservative Republican, told Madden he would be chairing the corrections committee. Madden asked Craddock what he should do. Craddock uttered eight words that changed Madden’s life and altered the course of American corrections policy: “Don’t build new prisons, they cost too much.”

Texas, even more than most other states at the time, had been on a prison-building spree. It had reached a point where the return on investment was low. Madden used his training as a statistical engineer to hunt down the data about what wasn’t working, or could easily be changed, throughout the corrections system. Along with his counterpart in the state Senate, John Whitmire, Madden put together a package to overhaul parts of the state’s criminal justice system....

Recidivism fell quickly in Texas. Back in 2005, the state was paroling 21,000 prisoners, 11,000 of whom returned. A decade later, the state paroled 28,000 prisoners and about 4,500 came back. “It’s an effort to continue getting the gains in public safety we’ve been getting for 20 years now, while also reducing our extraordinarily high levels of incarceration,” says Vikrant Reddy, a senior fellow at the Charles Koch Institute.

The success of the Texas model stirred other states to replicate it, beginning with Kansas, Ohio, and South Carolina. The fact that Texas had a “hang ’em high” reputation, built not just on high incarceration rates but also on its status as the nation’s most active executioner, helped convince conservative legislators in other states that the idea of providing treatment for prisoners wasn’t some bleeding-heart proposal. Rather it was a skeptical redirection of government funds away from a strictly brick-and-mortar approach that demonstrably had not worked.

And so the Texas experiment became a model elsewhere. Cost savings and statistics that might on paper have been just as impressive out of California or Vermont wouldn’t have swayed so many red-state legislators, Reddy says, particularly the Deep South converts the criminal justice reform movement has found in places such as Louisiana, Mississippi, and Georgia. “It was a tremendous stroke of luck for the country that Texas was the first to step out of the gate,” says Adam Gelb, who directs the Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project, which provides technical assistance to states on criminal justice policies.

Nearly three-dozen states have now enacted policies that mirror, to a greater or lesser extent, the Texas template. Every state has done something to address prisoner reentry programs and employment. The impact of these efforts is now being felt in Washington.

Prior related post:

July 14, 2018 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)