Monday, March 19, 2018

"Informed Misdemeanor Sentencing"

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

There is no such thing as a low-stakes misdemeanor. The misdemeanor sentence itself, which can range from time served to up to twelve years in some jurisdictions, is often significant.  But the collateral consequences of such a conviction can be far worse, affecting a person’s work and home lives for decades, and sometimes for the rest of their lives. As a result of misdemeanor convictions, defendants can be fired from their jobs, barred from future employment in many fields, deported, evicted from public housing together with their entire family, and refused housing by private landlords.

Under most theories of punishment, a judge at sentencing does not simply look back to the crime and its circumstances but also looks forward at the defendant’s future.  Judges imposing sentences in misdemeanor cases should focus forward much more heavily than back, and should consider the collateral effects of a misdemeanor conviction on the defendant’s future.  Viewed through that more expansive lens, and given the broad discretion of judges in misdemeanor sentencing and lack of existing guidance for that discretion, the sentencing function of judges in misdemeanor cases is in serious need of study and reform.

This Article’s goal is two-fold.  First, it contextualizes judicial responsibility for misdemeanor sentencing in the realities of the lower criminal courts, where a number of structural and systemic barriers — including violations of the right to counsel and pressures on judges to move cases along rapidly — affect but do not excuse the way judges go about sentencing.  Second, the Article calls for judges to undertake “informed misdemeanor sentencing,” which draws on principles of proportionality and parsimony in determining the just sentence in a misdemeanor case.  Accordingly, judges should explicitly acknowledge the many serious collateral consequences an individual suffers after any penal sanction, and incorporate those into the sentencing process to ensure that punishment is proportionate.  In addition, judges should bring parsimony into the sentencing process by making more use of deferred adjudication as well as expungement and related mechanisms for mitigating the unintended effects of a misdemeanor conviction.

March 19, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Highlights from Prez Trump's tough talk about the opioid crisis and federal response

This FoxNews piece, headlined "Trump declares war on opioid abuse, calls for death penalty for traffickers, more access for treatment," provides some details on Prez Trump's comments on the opioid crisis today in New Hampshire.  Here are excerpts:

Speaking from one of the states hardest hit by the opioid epidemic, President Trump on Monday laid out a battle plan that calls for harsher sentences — and even the death penalty — for traffickers.

Trump called for expanded treatment options for victims in the Manchester, N.H., speech, but leveled most of his emphasis on beefed-up enforcement. And he heaped plenty of scorn on the people he believes are responsible for as many as 42,000 U.S. deaths per year. "These are terrible people and we have to get tough with those people," Trump said of traffickers and dealers. "This isn’t about committees... this is about winning a very tough problem."

"The ultimate penalty has to be the death penalty," Trump said, before musing, "maybe our country is not ready for that."

Trump wants Congress to pass legislation reducing the amount of drugs needed to trigger mandatory minimum sentences for traffickers who knowingly distribute certain illicit opioids. The death penalty would be pursued where appropriate under current law. Justice Department says the federal death penalty is available for several limited drug-related offenses, including violations of the "drug kingpin" provisions in federal law.

Trump reiterated an observation he has shared several times before — that a person in the U.S. can get the death penalty or life in prison for shooting one person, but that a drug dealer whose actions could lead to thousands of overdoses can spend little or no time in jail.

The president said the federal government may consider aggressive litigation against pharmaceutical companies deemed complicit in the crisis. "Whether you are a dealer or doctor or trafficker or a manufacturer, if you break the law and illegally peddle these deadly poisons, we will find you and we will arrest you and we will hold you accountable," Trump said.

Trump singled out Mexico and China as main sources of illicit opioids. A Drug Enforcement Administration report last year said: "Seizures indicated that China supplies lower volumes of high-purity fentanyl, whereas fentanyl seizures from Mexico are higher volume but lower in purity."...

Trump also announced a nationwide public awareness campaign, as well as increased research and development through public-private partnerships between the federal National Institutes of Health and pharmaceutical companies. He announced a new website,, where people can share their stories about addiction. The hope is that horror stories will scare people away from behavior that could lead to addiction. The Trump administration aims to see the number of filled opioid prescriptions cut by one-third within three years.

A third part of the plan addresses improving access to treatment and recovery programs that have proven effective. Many health professionals, relatives of those who have died of overdoses and people who have experienced addiction to opioids have been pushing for treatment to be a key component of any campaign to fight the epidemic. "Failure is not an option," the president said. "Addiction is not our future. We will liberate our country from this crisis."...

Meanwhile, Congress plans to weigh a range of bills targeted at curbing the epidemic. The bills cover everything from improving access to treatment to intercepting shipments of illicit opioids en route to the United States. "Our recommendations will be urgent and bipartisan, and they will come very quickly," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, according to published reports.

Interestingly, though the media (and Prez Trump himself in his spoken remarks) are making much of the death penalty and other tough-on-crime pieces of the plan, this official White House accounting of the plans, described as "President Donald J. Trump’s Initiative to Stop Opioid Abuse and Reduce Drug Supply and Demand," gives significantly more attention to public health elements and actions.

Prior related posts:

March 19, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Justice Sotomayor suggests "reconsideration of other sentencing practices in the life-without-parole context"

I noted in this prior post denial of cert in the closely-watched capital case of Hidalgo v. Arizona, and Justice Breyer's statement respecting the denial of certiorari in Hidalgo was not even the most interesting such statement on this morning's SCOTUS order list.  That honor goes to Justice Sotomayor's statement respecting the denial of certiorari in Campbell v. Ohio, which suggests importing more of the Eighth Amendment's procedural protections for the death penalty to life without parole sentencing. I recommend this four-page statement in full, and here are snippets:

Because of the parallels between a sentence of death and a sentence of life imprisonment without parole, the Court has drawn on certain Eighth Amendment requirements developed in the capital sentencing context to inform the life-without-parole sentencing context....

The “correspondence” between capital punishment andlife sentences, Miller, 567 U. S., at 475, might similarly require reconsideration of other sentencing practices in the life-without-parole context. As relevant here, the Eighth Amendment demands that capital sentencing schemes ensure “measured, consistent application and fairness to the accused,” Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U. S. 104, 111 (1982), with the purpose of avoiding “the arbitrary or irrational imposition of the death penalty,” Parker v. Dugger, 498 U. S. 308, 321 (1991). To that aim, “this Court has repeatedly emphasized that meaningful appellate review of death sentences promotes reliability and consistency.” Clemons v. Mississippi, 494 U. S. 738, 749 (1990)...

Our Eighth Amendment jurisprudence developed in the capital context calls into question whether a defendant should be condemned to die in prison without an appellate court having passed on whether that determination properly took account of his circumstances, was imposed as a result of bias, or was otherwise imposed in a “freakish manner.”  And our jurisprudence questions whether it is permissible that Campbell must now spend the rest of his days in prison without ever having had the opportunity to challenge why his trial judge chose the irrevocability of life without parole overthe hope of freedom after 20, 25, or 30 years.

March 19, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Three Justices join Justice Breyer questioning how Arizona's death penalty system operates

Many month ago, as highlighted here, the cert petition in Hidalgo v. Arizona generated considerable attention.  That matter ended today when the petition for a writ of certiorari was denied, along with this lengthy statement by Justice Breyer joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan. I was expecting some Justices to say something really notable after all this build up, by the statement ends this way:

Although, in my view, the Arizona Supreme Court misapplied our precedent, I agree with the Court’s decision today to deny certiorari. In support of his Eighth Amendment challenge, the petitioner points to empirical evidence about Arizona’s capital sentence system that suggests about 98% of first-degree murder defendants in Arizona were eligible for the death penalty.  That evidence is unrebutted. It points to a possible constitutional problem.  And it was assumed to be true by the state courts below. Evidence of this kind warrants careful attention and evaluation. However, in this case, the opportunity to develop the record through an evidentiary hearing was denied. As a result, the record as it has come to us is limited and largely unexamined by experts and the courtsbelow in the first instance. We do not have evidence, for instance, as to the nature of the 866 cases (perhaps they implicate only a small number of aggravating factors).  Nor has it been fully explained whether and to what extent an empirical study would be relevant to resolving the constitutional question presented.  Capital defendantsmay have the opportunity to fully develop a record with the kind of empirical evidence that the petitioner points to here. And the issue presented in this petition will be better suited for certiorari with such a record.


March 19, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Prez Trump reportedly to call for more capital cases under current federal laws, but not seeking new death penalty laws

Ever since Prez Trump starting talking up his affinity for using the death penalty for drug dealers, I have been wondering if he was planning to call for Congress to develop new capital statutes to help pursue that end.  But, according to this new Wall Street Journal piece, a big speech coming from Prez Trump on Monday will only call for more capital cases to be brought under existing federal criminal laws.  The WSJ piece carries this full on-line headline "Trump’s Opioid Battle Plan Includes Seeking More Death-Penalty Prosecutions: The president will ask the Justice Department to press more cases against drug traffickers under current law."  Here are highlights:

President Donald Trump on Monday will call for new steps to combat the opioid epidemic, including a push to reduce opioid prescriptions by a third over three years, asking the Justice Department to seek more death-penalty cases against drug traffickers under current law, and for federal support to expand the availability of overdose-reversal medication.

The proposals will come in a speech in the hard-hit state of New Hampshire. They form part of a broader blueprint by Mr. Trump, which senior White House officials on Sunday described as seeking to deploy education, law enforcement and treatment to try to reverse abuse of particularly addictive drugs that claim the lives of more than 100 people a day in the U.S.

Other elements of the strategy, the White House said, would include a fresh public-awareness campaign about drug abuse, a research-and-development partnership between the National Institutes of Health and pharmaceutical companies into opioid prescription alternatives, tougher sentences for fentanyl traffickers, and screening of all prison inmates for opioid addiction.

But it is the death penalty proposal that is likely to dominate discussion of the package.  “The Department of Justice will seek the death penalty against drug traffickers when it’s appropriate under current law,” said Andrew Bremberg, the president’s top domestic-policy adviser.

Senior White House officials referred specific questions about the death-penalty stance to the Justice Department but emphasized that the administration was seeking to use current law rather than call for a new federal statute.

A 1988 federal law imposes the death penalty on drug “kingpins” who commit murder in the course of their business.  Some legal analysts say that it has resulted in dozens of sentences but few executions since then.  John Blume, a law professor at Cornell Law School and director of its death-penalty project, said the statute as enforced to date typically has ensnared “mid- to low-level drug dealers…None of them were really objectively the people they said they were going to get.”...

In November, a presidential commission headed by Mr. Trump’s one-time political rival for the Republican presidential nomination, former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, issued a 56-recommendation report that included calls for the federal government to set up drug courts across the U.S., retrain medical prescribers on opioid use and reduce incentives for doctors to offer the powerful painkillers. It also called for engaging with states to expand access to naloxone, an overdose-reversal drug. The administration accepts all 56 recommendations, a senior White House official said Sunday.

At a brief appearance at a White House summit on opioids earlier this month, Mr. Trump openly mused that other countries allow the death penalty for drug trafficking and that he believed they had less of a drug problem as a result. He said that translated into a need for more “strength.” He offered few further details, saying only that he also wanted to see the federal government bring legal action against opioid manufacturers, because “if the states are doing it, why isn’t the federal government doing it?”

Such remarks had sparked speculation that Mr. Trump would seek a new death penalty for drug trafficking, and with it, a revived debate about the permissibility of such laws under the constitutional amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court has rejected capital punishment for crimes such as child rape in recent years and has taken a narrower view of arguments that seek to execute people for indirectly causing deaths through criminal actions.

Prior related posts:

March 18, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, March 16, 2018

New Philly DA puts forward new policies intended to "end mass incarceration and bring balance back to sentencing"

Web-larry-krasner-winner-1024-x-576This Slate article, headlined "Philadelphia’s New Top Prosecutor Is Rolling Out Wild, Unprecedented Criminal Justice Reforms," reports on the remarkable new policies put forward by the former defense attorney who is the newly elected Philly DA.  Here are highlights:

On Tuesday, Krasner issued a memo to his staff making official a wave of new policies he had announced his attorneys last month. The memo starts: “These policies are an effort to end mass incarceration and bring balance back to sentencing.”

The most significant and groundbreaking reform is how he has instructed assistant district attorneys to wield their most powerful tool: plea offers. Over 90 percent of criminal cases nationwide are decided in plea bargains, a system which has been broken beyond repair by mandatory minimum sentences and standardized prosecutorial excess. In an about-face from how these transactions typically work, Krasner’s 300 lawyers are to start many plea offers at the low end of sentencing guidelines. For most nonviolent and nonsexual crimes, or economic crimes below a $50,000 threshold, Krasner’s lawyers are now to offer defendants sentences below the bottom end of the state’s guidelines. So, for example, if a person with no prior convictions is accused of breaking into a store at night and emptying the cash register, he would normally face up to 14 months in jail. Under Krasner’s paradigm, he’ll be offered probation. If prosecutors want to use their discretion to deviate from these guidelines, say if a person has a particularly troubling rap sheet, Krasner must personally sign off.

“It’s the mirror of a lot of offices saying, ‘If you don’t ask for the max you’ve got to get my permission,’ ” says David Rudovsky, a prominent Philadelphia civil rights attorney. For longtime career prosecutors, this will take some getting used to. “You want to be sure your assistants are actually doing it,” Rudovsky says.

Krasner’s lawyers are also now to decline charges for marijuana possession, no matter the weight, effectively decriminalizing possession of the drug in the city for all nonfederal cases. Sex workers will not be charged with prostitution unless they have more than two priors, in which case they’ll be diverted to a specialized court. Retail theft under $500 is no longer a misdemeanor in the eyes of Philly prosecutors, but a summary offense—the lowest possible criminal charge. And when ADAs give probation charges they are to opt for the lower end of the possible spectrum. “Criminological studies show that most violations of probation occur within the first 12 months,” the memo reads, “Assuming that a defendant is violation free for 12 months, any remaining probation is simply excess baggage requiring unnecessary expenditure of funds for supervision.” When a person does break the rules of probation, minor infractions such as missing a PO meeting are not to be punished with jail time or probation revocation, and more serious infractions are to be disciplined with no more than two years in jail.

In a move that may have less impact on the lives of defendants, but is very on-brand for Kranser, prosecutors must now calculate the amount of money a sentence would cost before recommending it to a judge, and argue why the cost is justified. He estimates that it costs $115 a day, or $42,000 a year, to incarcerate one person. So, if a prosecutor seeks a three-year sentence, she must state, on the record, that it would cost taxpayers $126,000 and explain why she thinks this cost is justified. Krasner reminds his attorneys that the cost of one year of unnecessary incarceration “is in the range of the cost of one year’s salary for a beginning teacher, police officer, fire fighter, social worker, Assistant District Attorney, or addiction counselor.”

The policies memo is available at this link, and all sentencing fans will want to check out the entire document.

March 16, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18)

The latest account of Trump Administration's latest punitive ideas for responding to drug problems

Politico has this lengthy new article reviewing the soon-to-be-released (and perhaps still in development) plan from the Trump Administration to respond to the opioid crisis and other drug problems.  The piece is headlined "Trump finalizing opioid plan that includes death penalty for dealers," and here are excerpts (with an emphasis on punishment pieces though it seems there will be important public health parts to the coming plan):

The Trump administration is finalizing a long-awaited plan that it says will solve the opioid crisis, but it also calls for law enforcement measures — like the death penalty for some drug dealers — that public health advocates and congressional Republicans warn will detract from efforts to reverse the epidemic.

The ambitious plan, which the White House has quietly been circulating among political appointees this month, could be announced as soon as Monday when President Donald Trump visits New Hampshire, a state hard hit by the epidemic. It includes a mix of prevention and treatment measures that advocates have long endorsed, as well as beefed-up enforcement in line with the president’s frequent calls for a harsh crackdown on drug traffickers and dealers.

Trump’s plan to use the death penalty in some cases found at least one fan among congressional Republicans: Rep. Chris Collins of New York, one of the president’s most consistent cheerleaders. “I’m all in on the capital punishment side for those offenses that would warrant that,” he said when asked about the plans Thursday afternoon. “Including drug cases. Yep.”

But several congressional Democrats said they were alarmed by Trump's plan to ramp up punishment. “We are still paying the costs for one failed 'war on drugs,' and now President Trump is drawing up battle plans for another," said Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts. "We will not incarcerate or execute our way out of the opioid epidemic."

The White House's most concrete proposal yet to address opioids comes after complaints from state health officials and advocates that Trump has moved too slowly to combat the epidemic after his bold campaign promises to wipe out the crisis touching all parts of the country.

However, the plan could cost billions of dollars more than Trump budgeted — and likely far more than any funding package that Congress would approve — raising questions about how much of it can actually be put into practice. Trump's emphatic embrace of the death penalty for some drug dealers has also alarmed some advocates, who say the idea has been ineffective when tried in other countries and resurrects the nation’s unsuccessful war on drugs.

Under the most recent version of the plan, which has gone through several revisions, the Trump administration proposes to change how the government pays for opioid prescriptions to limit access to powerful painkillers. It also calls on Congress to change how Medicaid pays for treatment, seeking to make it easier for patients with addictions to get inpatient care. It would also create a new Justice Department task force that more aggressively monitors internet sales....

POLITICO obtained two versions of the White House plan and spoke with four individuals who have reviewed it. The White House confirmed that a plan was in development but didn’t respond to multiple requests for further comment. Many of the measures in the plan were recommended by the president’s opioids commission last fall or discussed at a March 1 White House opioid summit. For instance, it endorses a long-promised priority: greatly expanding first responders' access to naloxone, a medication used to reverse opioid overdoses. It also calls on states to adopt a prescription drug monitoring database that health care providers can access nationwide to flag patients seeking out numerous opioid prescriptions.

On the policing side, the plan would ramp up prosecution and punishment, underscoring the tension in how public health advocates and law enforcement officials approach the crisis. Public health advocates say the nation's opioid epidemic should be treated as a disease, with emphasis on boosting underfunded treatment and prevention programs. But some law enforcement officials back tougher punishments as a deterrent, especially for drug dealers. The two camps don’t always see eye-to-eye, at times pitting HHS and DOJ officials against each other. “There is a lot of internal dissension between the health folks and the enforcement folks,” said an official involved in the crafting of the plan.

While Trump this month repeatedly suggested using the death penalty to deter drug dealers and traffickers — an idea roundly opposed by public health advocates — many lawmakers have said they weren’t sure whether to take the idea seriously. “I would have to strongly evaluate and look at any proposal like that,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) on Wednesday. “I don’t know if the president was serious or just said it off the cuff. … It’s a big issue when you decide to bring a capital case or pass a law that allows for capital punishment.”

According to language circulating this week, the Trump administration will call for the death penalty as an option in "certain cases where opioid, including Fentanyl-related, drug dealing and trafficking are directly responsible for death."

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), whose home state is one of the hardest hit by the opioid epidemic, said she doesn't support the death penalty for drug cases. “I mean, I get the message he’s delivering: We’ve got to treat it seriously,” she said. “I don’t see that that’s going to solve the problem.”

The White House plan also calls for making it easier to invoke the mandatory minimum sentence for drug traffickers who knowingly distribute illegal opioids that can be lethal, like fentanyl. It also proposes a new Justice Department task force known as “Prescription Interdiction and Litigation,” or PIL, which would be empowered to step up prosecutions of criminally negligent doctors, pharmacies and other providers.

As serious sentencing fans perhaps already realize, though any proposal for the death penalty for drug dealers is sure to garner a lot of attention, proposals to expand the reach or application of mandatory minimum sentences are sure to be far more consequential to the day-to-day operation of the federal criminal justice system.

Prior related posts:

March 16, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Oklahoma embracing nitrogen gas instead of lethal drugs as method of execution

Images (3)As detailed in this new CNN piece, headlined "Oklahoma plans to use new execution method," the Sooners are soon to be trying a novel execution protocol. Here are the details:

Unable to obtain drugs to use for its lethal injections, Oklahoma will use inert gas inhalation as the primary method for death penalty executions once a protocol is developed and finalized, the state's attorney general announced Wednesday. Oklahoma is the first state to adopt this method.

"As you know, in Oklahoma, a bill that was signed back in 2015 by the governor states that if lethal injection is held unconstitutional or is unavailable, an execution shall be carried out by nitrogen hypoxia," Attorney General Mike Hunter said. "We are exercising that option." Nitrogen is one of several inert gases that can cause hypoxia, an oxygen deficiency that causes death.

Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Joe M. Allbaugh said his office will prepare the legal documents within the next 90 to 120 days and, if that's acceptable, the attorney general will move forward with the protocol. Hunter said the state is "at the very beginning of this process ... and will provide updates as they become available."

Currently, 49 people sit on death row in Oklahoma; 16 have exhausted their ability to appeal their cases, Allbaugh said. The state has struggled to find legally obtainable lethal injection drugs, he said. It previously used a three-drug combination: an anesthetic (either sodium thiopental, pentobarbital or midazolam), a paralytic agent (pancuronium bromide) and a heart-stopping agent to cause death (potassium chloride), according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center....

The bipartisan Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission issued a study of the death penalty in the state on April 25. The report concluded that the moratorium should remain in place until significant reforms to the death penalty process are made, and recommended a one-drug barbiturate execution protocol.

But Hunter said inert gas inhalation is used in countries that have legalized assisted suicide. A 2010 Journal of Medical Ethics study, based on experiments performed by Swiss organization Dignitas, found that the dying process of oxygen deprivation caused by an inert gas is "potentially quick and appears painless." "It also bypasses the prescribing role of physicians, effectively demedicalizing assisted suicide," the researchers wrote.

Hunter said that "using an (inert gas inhalation) will be effective, simple to administer, easy to obtain and requires no complex medical procedures." "Research has shown that individuals exposed to an excessive amount of inert gas experience fatigue, dizziness, perhaps a headache, loss of breath and eventual loss of consciousness," he said, citing the US Air Force Flight Surgeon's Guide, which looks at cases of pilots breathing excessive amounts of inert gas.

Hunter said that people who die by inhalation of inert gases are dead within just a few minutes. The method is "safest, best and most effective," he said.

By contrast, the American Veterinary Medical Association's Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals recommend the use of nitrogen for chickens, turkeys and pigs but say it's unacceptable for other mammals. "These gases create an anoxic environment that is distressing for some species," the authors say.

Oklahoma re-enacted the death penalty in 1973 and, since 1976, has performed 112 executions. Hunter noted that an overwhelming majority of the Oklahoma electorate voted to amend the Constitution and guarantee the state's power to impose capital punishment two years ago.

March 14, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Another US Sentencing Commission public hearing on alternatives to incarceration and synthetic drugs

As noted in this prior post, last year the United States Sentencing Commission had a public hearing exploring alternatives to incarceration programs and synthetic drugs.  This webpage with the USSC hearing agenda has links to written testimony from all the scheduled witnesses at that prior 2017 heading, and this testimony provide a wealth of information and research about alternatives to incarceration and synthetic drugs.

Tomorrow, as detailed on this USSC webpage, the United States Sentencing Commission in scheduled to conduct another public hearing on these topics (in part because the USSC never formally moved forward with any guidelines amendments on these topics because of an incomplete membership). As the new hearing page details, "the purpose of the public hearing is for the Commission to receive testimony on proposed amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines related to Synthetic Drugs and First Offenders/Alternatives to Incarceration."

March 13, 2018 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, March 11, 2018

"'A Day Late and a Dollar Short': President Obama's Clemency Initiative 2014"

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

Over his last two years in office, President Barack Obama used his Article II Pardon Clause power to commute the sentences imposed on more than 1,700 drug offenders. In a 2017 law review article, he congratulated himself for reinvigorating the federal clemency process. His clemency initiative, however, was hardly the unqualified success that he claims.

Obama waited far too long before undertaking his effort. He should have started it in 2010, rather than in 2014.  That would have allowed the thousands of clemency decisions he made to be handled at a more reasonable pace and probably more accurately.  He also should have issued a general conditional commutation order rather than undertake a case-by-case re-examination of the sentence each clemency applicant received. That would have allowed district court judges, who are far better than any president could be at making sentencing decisions, to resentence each offender.  Finally, he should have reformed the clear structural defect in the federal clemency process.  The Department of Justice controls the clemency application process even though, as the agency that prosecuted every clemency applicant, the department suffers from an actual or apparent conflict of interest.  In sum, Obama could have done far more by doing far less or by doing something far different than by acting as the Resentencer-in-Chief.

March 11, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Iowa Supreme Court issues latest major ruling on juve sentencing limits and process after Miller

As reported in this local article, the "Iowa Supreme Court on Friday offered guidance to judges for interpreting a 2015 law that lays out sentencing guidelines for juveniles convicted of murder."  Here is more from the press report about the latest in a series of rulings following up on the US Supreme Court's juve sentencing jurisprudence:

Some justices also signaled in concurring opinions that they believe rigid sentences for other crimes committed by juveniles should eventually be rolled back.

The court ruled Friday in a murder case in which Rene Zarate stabbed Jorge Ramos to death in 1999, when Zarate was 15.  Zarate, now 34, originally received a mandatory sentence of life without parole, but requested a resentencing hearing after a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibited such sentences for juveniles.  His new sentence makes him eligible for parole after 25 years, with credit for time served.

Zarate challenged his sentence as well as the constitutionality of a 2015 Iowa law that revised how juveniles who commit first-degree murder are sentenced. Under the law, the sentencing judge could choose from a variety of options including life without the possibility of parole, life with parole after a certain amount of the sentence is served, and life with the immediate possibility of parole.  The law further outlined 25 factors for the court to take into consideration when sentencing juveniles for murder.

In 2016, after that law was passed, the Iowa Supreme Court found that life sentences without parole are unconstitutional for juveniles.  But Friday's ruling was the first time the Iowa Supreme Court addressed the new law. A majority of justices said Friday that the guidelines laid out in the law are constitutional — except for the subsection that allowed for life sentences without parole....

They said judges must give juvenile offenders an individualized hearing taking the circumstances of the case into account, and must consider as mitigating factors things such as the offender's age at the time of the crime, family and home environment and the possibility for rehabilitation and change. But the district court judge who re-sentenced Zarate did so based on his belief that anyone that anyone who takes the life of another individual should spend a certain amount of time in prison, according to the opinion joined by four of the seven justices. "The sentencing judge allowed the nature of Zarate’s offense to taint his analysis by imposing a mandatory minimum sentence of imprisonment due to his belief that there should be a minimum term of imprisonment for anyone who commits murder, regardless of their age at the time of the offense," Justice Bruce Zager wrote in the majority opinion....

The court's remaining three justices issued separate concurrences urging the court to go further in striking down mandatory minimums for juveniles as unconstitutional. Justice Brent Appel, who authored the court's earlier opinion against life sentences without parole for juveniles, said it's time to re-examine the constitutionality of all mandatory minimum sentences for minors who commit crimes. "Instead of imposing mandatory minimums through an unreliable judicial guess, the constitutionally sound approach is to abolish mandatory minimum sentences on children and allow the parole board to make periodic judgments as to whether a child offender has demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation based on an observable track record," Appel wrote in his concurrence.

Justice Daryl Hecht, writing a concurrence joined by Justice David Wiggins, wrote that he believes mandatory minimums for juveniles are categorically prohibited by the Iowa Constitution. "Whether imposed by legislative mandate or by a sentencing court, the constitutional infirmity of mandatory minimum sentences for juvenile offenders is the same in my view," Hecht wrote.

The full opinion in Iowa v. Zarate, No. 15-2203 (Iowa Mar. 9, 2018), which rests much of its constitutional analysis on the Iowa Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment (rather than the US Constitution's Eighth Amendment), is available at this link.

March 10, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Prez Trump issues his second pardon; Kristian Saucier, whom prosecutors sought imprisoned for six years, served year for taking photos in classified sub room

I am pleased to report that President Donald Trump is continuing to make use of his clemency power during the first part of his first term.  A relatively high-profile case is yet again the subject of his activity, as reported in this Politico article headlined "Trump pardons sailor in submarine photos case." Here are the details:

President Donald Trump has pardoned a Navy submariner sentenced to prison for taking photos inside the classified engine room of a nuclear submarine, the White House announced on Friday.

Petty Officer First Class Kristian Saucier pleaded guilty in May 2016 to two felony counts, one for unlawful retention of national defense information and another for obstruction of justice, for taking cellphone pictures inside the Navy vessel and later destroying his own equipment upon learning he was under investigation.

“The president has pardoned Kristian Saucier, a Navy submariner,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced at a briefing with reporters. The Justice Department later confirmed the move. Sanders added that “the president is appreciative of Mr. Saucier's service to the country.”

The move marked just the second pardon Trump has granted since entering office, with the first extended in August to Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona sheriff who was convicted of criminal contempt of court in a case involving his tactics targeting undocumented immigrants.

Saucier was sentenced to 12 months in prison for mishandling classified information. Critics have cited the episode to allege a double standard in how low- and high-ranking U.S. officials handle sensitive material. The president brought the case back into public view in January, when he compared the treatment of Saucier with that of his former electoral opponent Hillary Clinton and her top campaign officials....

Prosecutors had sought a much steeper sentence for the former Navy machinist, calling for him to face six years in prison, but the judge gave a more lenient sentence, a point the White House highlighted in announcing his pardon. “The sentencing judge found that Mr. Saucier’s offense stands in contrast to his commendable military service,” Sanders noted.

Though I would like to see Prez Trump issuing many more clemency grants, particularly in lower-profile cases, I remain quite pleased that Prez Trump is continued to use his clemency powers more during his first three years in office than did the last three presidents combined.

Related post on prior clemency grants:

March 10, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thursday, March 08, 2018

You be the sentencing juror: what punishment for deadly drunk driving by Texas State college student?

UntitledThe question in the title of this post is prompted by this local article in Texas, headlined "‘I’m guilty’: Former Texas State student testifies in deadly DWI crash," which highlights that in the Lone Star State jurors are sometimes called to serve as primary sentencers in non-capital cases.   Here are some case particulars via the local press piece:

When Shana Elliott took the stand Thursday morning, she admitted: “I’m guilty.” Elliott, 22, says she was intoxicated and should not have been driving the evening of Aug. 2, 2016, after a day of tubing on the San Marcos River. “We decided to go float the river, we weren’t thinking ahead, we didn’t plan who was going to be driving,” Elliott said on the stand. “The float ended around 5 and that’s when nobody else was going to drive and I decided that I would.”

On that day, Elliott, who was 21 years old at the time, allegedly drove drunk and ran head-on into a car on State Highway 21 killing 23-year-old Fabian Guerrero Moreno and injuring his pregnant wife, Kristian Nicole Guerrero. Guerrero was five months pregnant. The unborn child did not survive.

Elliott says before the crash she dropped her friends off at their homes then decided to drive home herself. “It’s really blurry, I just remember as soon as the accident happened, I know that I made the worst decision ever.”

She says she got out of her car at the scene of the crash and ran to the other vehicle. “I just remember fighting, I wanted to go to make sure they were okay,” she said. “I’m sorry. I accept responsibility and I know what I did was wrong.”

At Elliott’s home, investigators found meth, heroin and a large bag of marijuana.  On the stand Elliott admitted to being addicted to heroin at one time, she said she smoked marijuana, but never did meth. She says after a previous arrest for drugs she had plans to sober up.

While Elliott was on the stand, prosecutors presented a large bottle of alcohol that was found at the crash site.  Elliott told the jury it was hers, adding it was full before she and her friends began floating the river.

Prosecutors also played recordings of phone calls Elliott made from jail. In one of the recordings, Elliott is talking with her boyfriend, speculating the other victims of the crash were part of the cartel. In another recording, Elliott can be heard joking and laughing with her friends about getting her eyebrows threaded in jail just four days after the crash.

Elliott’s grandmother Eleanor Brumley also took the stand Thursday morning. “She was determined to make something of herself,” said Brumley. “I’ve always been proud of her.” Brumley describes Elliot’s childhood as difficult. She says her father died of a heart attack and her stepdad was an alcoholic and was abusive mentally and emotionally. “Shana would deal with that and walk out the door with a smile on her face. She didn’t complain. She’s always thinking of everybody else,” said Brumley.

Elliott says she tried to deal with the abuse herself, but when she arrived at college she sought psychiatric help through a doctor at Texas State University.  She claims the doctor diagnosed her with depression, anxiety and slight PTSD stemming from her difficult childhood.

At the time of the crash, Elliott was a senior at Texas State University. Records show her blood alcohol content was .199 at the hospital.  On Monday, Elliott entered a plea of guilty for two counts of intoxication manslaughter and intoxication assault. The jury is expected to decide her punishment this week.

UPDATE: This local article reports on the jury's sentencing decision:

Shana Elliott, a former Texas State University student, was sentenced to seven years in prison Friday afternoon on each count in the deaths of a man and his unborn child.... Elliott, who pleaded guilty Monday, received seven years in prison each for two counts of intoxication manslaughter with a vehicle in the deaths of Fabian Guerrero-Moreno and his unborn child, who were killed in a drunk driving crash in August 2016.

March 8, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (21)

"Turn Prisons Into Colleges" ... and urging colleges to invest in prisoner education

The quoted portion title of this post is the headline of this recent New York Times commentary authored by Elizabeth Hinton.  Here are excerpts (with a little commentary at the end from me):

Imagine if prisons looked like the grounds of universities. Instead of languishing in cells, incarcerated people sat in classrooms and learned about climate science or poetry — just like college students.  Or even with them.

This would be a boon to prisoners across the country, a vast majority of whom do not have a high school diploma. And it could help shrink our prison population. While racial disparities in arrests and convictions are alarming, education level is a far stronger predictor of future incarceration than race.

The idea is rooted in history. In the 1920s, Howard Belding Gill, a criminologist and a Harvard alumnus, developed a college-like community at the Norfolk State Prison Colony in Massachusetts, where he was the superintendent. Prisoners wore normal clothing, participated in cooperative self-government with staff, and took academic courses with instructors from Emerson, Boston University and Harvard. They ran a newspaper, radio show and jazz orchestra, and they had access to an extensive library....

Researchers from the Bureau of Prisons emulated this model when they created a prison college project in the 1960s. It allowed incarcerated people throughout the country to serve their sentences at a single site, designed like a college campus, and take classes full-time. Although the project was never completed, San Quentin State Prison in California created a scaled-down version with support from the Ford Foundation, and it was one of the few prisons then that offered higher education classes.

Today, only a third of all prisons provide ways for incarcerated people to continue their educations beyond high school. But the San Quentin Prison University Project remains one of the country’s most vibrant educational programs for inmates, so much so President Barack Obama awarded it a National Humanities Medal in 2015 for the quality of its courses.

The idea of expanding educational opportunities to prisoners as a way to reduce recidivism and government spending has again gained momentum. That’s partly because of a study published in 2013 by the right-leaning RAND Corporation showing that inmates who took classes had a 43 percent lower likelihood of recidivism and a 13 percent higher likelihood of getting a job after leaving prison.

Lawmakers have rightly recognized the wisdom in turning prisons into colleges. In 2015, Mr. Obama created the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, which has enrolled more than 12,000 incarcerated students in higher education programs at 67 different schools. The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions is considering permanently reinstating Pell Grants for incarcerated students, who lost access to federal scholarships under the 1994 crime bill. Even Education Secretary Betsy DeVos calls providing prisoners with the chance to earn a degree “a very good and interesting possibility.”...

Mass incarceration is inextricably linked to mass undereducation in America. Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Georgetown, Wesleyan and New York University are among a handful of institutions that realize this and have begun to create ways for incarcerated people to take college classes.  These universities recognize that they have a moral responsibility to pursue educational justice for prisoners, a group that has disproportionately attended under-resourced public schools.

College presidents across the country emphasize the importance of “diversity, inclusion and belonging,” and they are reckoning with their institutions’ ties to slavery.  Expanding prison education programs would link those two ventures in a forward-thinking way.  It’s clear that education will continue to be a central part of criminal justice reform.  The question we should ask ourselves is not “Will incarcerated students transform the university?” The better question is, “Will colleges begin to address and reflect the world around them?”

I very much like that this commentary is not merely suggesting prisons ought to foster educational opportunities, but also that it calls upon "college presidents across the country" to commit to "expanding prison education programs."  I blogged here last month about the new program in New York through which the company JPay will provide all New York state prison inmates with a electronic tablet, through which prisoners can purchase programming. I know many colleges and universities have a range of on-line degree programs and ample on-line education content.  I would love to see some higher education institutions partnering with JPay or other like companies to provide education content to prisons for free or at the lowest possible cost. 

As I see it, lots of the needed infrastructure and substantive content already exists to make college-level educational opportunities available to more prisons, if university administrators and prison official are truly committed to making a difference in this way.  In other words, I think there already is a way, the only question is whether there is the will.

March 8, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Via executive order, Prez Trump creates new Federal Interagency Council on Crime Prevention and Improving Reentry

Images (8)As reported in this Axios piece, "President Trump on Wednesday launched, by executive order, the Federal Interagency Council on Crime Prevention and Improving Reentry." Here is more:

The president enacted the council with the aim of reducing crime while looking for ways to "provide those who have engaged in criminal activity with greater opportunities to lead productive lives."...

“We applaud President Trump for following through on his stated commitment to reducing crime, reforming our prisons and rehabilitating individuals who are hungry for a second chance,” [said] Mark Holden, general counsel at Koch Industries who recently launched the Safe Streets and Second Chances prison reform initiative, told Axios. Holden said he is particularly encouraged that Jared Kushner will be one of the co-chairs.

While she thinks this is a good step from the administration, Inimai Chettiar, director of the justice program at the Brennan Center for Justice told Axios, "there can be no real criminal justice reform without reducing the number of people entering prison. The President and Attorney General are attempting to kill bipartisan sentencing reform in Congress, and offering incremental reentry reforms instead."...

The executive order calls for "mental health, vocational training, job creation, after-school programming, substance abuse, and mentoring," for inmates. "Incarceration is necessary to improve public safety, but its effectiveness can be enhanced through evidence-based rehabilitation programs." The order asks for a report from the council within 90 days that will outline a timeline for ways to reduce crime and recidivism.

The council will be co-chaired by Jared Kushner, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Assistant to the President of Domestic Policy Andrew Bremberg.  The council will include the heads of: The Department of the Treasury, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Labor, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Education, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The executive order asks for ways to reduce recidivism and better re-entry for those coming out of the criminal justice system, but does not suggest looking at changes to sentencing guidelines. 

The full Executive Order creating the Federal Interagency Council on Crime Prevention and Improving Reentry can be accessed at this link. The first section of the EO provides as follows:

Section 1. Purpose. The Federal Government must reduce crime, enhance public safety, and increase opportunity, thereby improving the lives of all Americans. In 2016, the violent crime rate in the United States increased by 3.4 percent, the largest single-year increase since 1991. Additionally, in 2016, there were more than 17,000 murders and nonnegligent manslaughters in the United States, a more than 20 percent increase in just 2 years. The Department of Justice, alongside State, local, and tribal law enforcement, has focused its efforts on the most violent criminals. Preliminary statistics indicate that, in the last year, the increase in the murder rate slowed and the violent crime rate decreased.

To further improve public safety, we should aim not only to prevent crime in the first place, but also to provide those who have engaged in criminal activity with greater opportunities to lead productive lives.  The Federal Government can assist in breaking this cycle of crime through a comprehensive strategy that addresses a range of issues, including mental health, vocational training, job creation, after-school programming, substance abuse, and mentoring. Incarceration is necessary to improve public safety, but its effectiveness can be enhanced through evidence-based rehabilitation programs.  These efforts will lower recidivism rates, ease incarcerated individuals’ reentry into the community, reduce future incarceration costs, and promote positive social and economic outcomes.

I am not going to get too excited by this new Council until I see what kind of "recommendations for evidence-based programmatic and other reforms" appear in the various reports it is tasked to issue. But this order provides still more reason to believe that the Trump White House wants to (and wants to be able to claim) it is doing something productive in the arena of criminal justice reform.

Notably, President Barack Obama formally acted in a fairly similar manner via this Presidential Memorandum in late April 2016 discussing "Federal Interagency Reentry Council." That memorandum noted that "in 2011, the Attorney General formed the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, a Cabinet-level working group dedicated to the rehabilitation and reintegration of individuals returning to their communities from prisons and jails" and said the 2016 memorandum was being issued to "ensure that the Federal Government continues the important work of this council and builds on its successes." This new Executive Order by Prez Trump formerly states that it revokes Prez Obama's 2016 memorandum, but in substance it looks quite similar.

March 8, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

"Plea Bargaining: From Patent Unfairness to Transparent Justice"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now appearing on SSRN authored by Mirko Bagaric, Julie Clarke and William Rininger. Here is its abstract:

The United States is in the midst of an unprecedented mass incarceration crisis.  It imprisons more of its citizens than any other country — and by a considerable margin.  It is now widely acknowledged that there is no community dividend stemming from an overly punitive sentencing system.  Over-incarceration does not make the community safer and diverts billions of dollars annually from productive social services, such as health and education.  Lawmakers have failed to find overarching solutions to this crisis. This Article proposes to change that paradigm by offering concrete reforms to a key failing of the sentencing system.

Emerging evidence suggests that one of the main reasons for the mass incarceration crisis relates to the dysfunctional plea bargaining process, in which the prosecution has the stronger negotiating power and often uses it to press for harsh penalties.  The reality is that most defendants in the United States do not receive a trial, let alone a fair one.  Their fate is determined by a negotiation with a prosecutor. More than ninety percent of all criminal matters in the United States are finalized in this manner.   There is a wide-ranging consensus that this process is flawed. It results in a large portion of defendants receiving harsher penalties than is commensurate with the seriousness of their offense. Sometimes it also leads to defendants who are innocent pleading guilty, in order to avoid the uncertainty of a trial.  The process is especially unfair on minority groups, with evidence establishing that African Americans in particular, receive harsher penalties than similarly situated white defendants.

This Article proposes reforms to the plea bargaining process that will demonstrably and profoundly reshape the framework for plea negotiations.  The central plank of the proposed reform is to shift more discretion and power from prosecutors, who invariably agitate for tougher sentences, into the hands of (impartial) sentencing judges.  This can be achieved by conferring a discount to offenders who plead guilty.  The size of the discount should be up to thirty percent.  A similar system already operates effectively in Australia.  In addition to this, defendants who plead guilty in circumstances when there is a weak prosecution case (and who are tenably innocent) should receive a discount of up to seventy-five percent.  This proposal would considerably reduce incarceration numbers in a way that does not compromise community safety and preserves the cost-saving benefits of the current plea bargaining process.  The reform will also reduce the discriminatory operation of the sentencing system against offenders who come from socially and economically deprived backgrounds.

March 7, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Another sad account of how US Bureau of Prisons administers compassionate release program

The Marshall Project and the New York Times have this lengthy new piece about the ugly administration of the federal compassionate release program by the US Bureau of Prisons. At the Marshall Project, the piece has this full headline summarizing its content: "Old, Sick and Dying in Shackles: 'Compassionate release' has bipartisan support as a way to reduce the federal prison population and save taxpayer money. New data shows that it’s rarely used." Here are excerpts:

Congress created compassionate release as a way to free certain inmates, such as the terminally ill, when it becomes “inequitable” to keep them in prison any longer.  Supporters view the program as a humanitarian measure and a sensible way to reduce health care costs for ailing, elderly inmates who pose little risk to public safety.  But despite urging from lawmakers of both parties, numerous advocacy groups and even the Bureau of Prisons’ own watchdog, prison officials use it only sparingly.

Officials deny or delay the vast majority of requests, including that of one of the oldest federal prisoners, who was 94, according to new federal data analyzed by The Marshall Project and The New York Times.  From 2013 to 2017, the Bureau of Prisons approved 6 percent of the 5,400 applications received, while 266 inmates who requested compassionate release died in custody. The bureau’s denials, a review of dozens of cases shows, often override the opinions of those closest to the prisoners, like their doctors and wardens.

Advocates for the program say the bureau, which oversees roughly 183,000 inmates, denies thousands of deserving applicants. About half of those who died after applying were convicted of nonviolent fraud or drug crimes. “It makes sense to release prisoners who present very little danger to society. It’s the humane thing to do, and it’s the fiscally responsible thing to do,” said Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, a Democrat. “The Bureau of Prisons has the theoretical authority to do this, but they basically do none of it.”

Case files show that prison officials reject many prisoners’ applications on the grounds that they pose a risk to public safety or that their crime was too serious to justify early release. In 2013, an inspector general reported that nearly 60 percent of inmates were denied based on the severity of their offense or criminal history. The United States Sentencing Commission has said that such considerations are better left to judges — but judges can rule on compassionate release requests only if the Bureau of Prisons approves them first.

Late last month, Schatz introduced legislation — co-sponsored with Senators Mike Lee of Utah, a Republican, and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a Democrat — that would let prisoners petition the courts directly if the bureau denies or delays their requests.

Many are turned down for not meeting medical requirements. [Kevin] Zeich, who was serving 27 years for dealing methamphetamine, requested compassionate release three times, but was repeatedly told he was not sick enough. On his fourth try, his daughter, Kimberly Heraldez, finally received a phone call in March 2016 saying her father would soon be on a plane, headed to her home in California. Early the next morning, she was awakened by another call. Her father had died....

Compassionate release dates back to an overhaul of federal sentencing laws in the 1980s. While abolishing federal parole, Congress supplied a safety valve, giving judges the power to retroactively cut sentences short in “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances. But a court could do so only if the Bureau of Prisons filed a motion on an inmate’s behalf. For years, the agency approved only prisoners who were near death or completely debilitated. While nonmedical releases were permitted, an inspector general report found in 2013, not a single one was approved over a six-year period.

The report said the program should be expanded beyond terminal illness cases and used more frequently as a low-risk way to reduce overcrowding and health care spending. The Bureau of Prisons widened the criteria to explicitly include inmates over 65 and those who are the sole possible caregiver for a family member.  Then Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., promoted the changes as part of his “Smart on Crime” initiative to “use our limited resources to house those who pose the greatest threat.

”But the bureau, which is part of the Justice Department, has yet to fully embrace those changes. Of those inmates who have applied for nonmedical reasons, 2 percent (50 cases) have been approved since 2013, according to an analysis of federal prison data.  And although overall approval numbers increased slightly between 2013 and 2015, they have since fallen.

At a 2016 sentencing commission hearing, Bureau of Prisons officials said they believed the program should not be used to reduce overcrowding.  And even the principal deputy assistant to Holder, Jonathan Wroblewski, said the program was not an “appropriate vehicle for a broad reduction” in the prison population.  “Every administration has taken the position that part of our responsibility is to ensure that public safety is not undermined,” he said.

After the hearing, the commission released new guidelines encouraging prison officials to determine only whether inmates fit the criteria for release — that is, if they are old enough, sick or disabled enough, or if they are the sole possible caregiver for someone on the outside. Whether the prisoner poses a risk to the public should be left to a judge to decide, the commission said.

Mark Inch, who was appointed director of the Bureau of Prisons by Attorney General Jeff Sessions last August, has made no public statements about the program. The bureau declined to make Inch available for an interview and did not respond to emailed questions.

As this article indicates, there are bills now pending in Congress that would in various ways address deficiencies in the current compassionate release mechanisms. This is on of many reasons I am hopeful (but not optimistic) that folks on both sides of the aisle in Congress will try hard in the coming weeks to get at least some form of prison reform legislation to Prez Trump's desk. A revised and expanded compassionate release mechanism could and should help hundreds, perhaps thousands, of federal prisoners, particularly those who have likely already served a very long time in federal prison and who pose little or no risk to public safety.

A few recent of many prior related posts:

March 7, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Lethal Rejection: An Empirical Analysis of the Astonishing Plunge in Death Sentences in the United States from Their Post-Furman Peak"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new paper by David McCord and Talia Roitberg Harmon now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The authors gathered information on 1665 death-eligible cases nationwide for three years at decade intervals: 1994, 2004, and 2014.  In 517 cases death sentences were imposed; in 311 cases sentencers spared the defendants from death sentences, and in 837 cases prosecutors spared defendants from death sentences.  The Article proceeds in three Parts. Part I explains the methodology for unearthing relevant data and preparing it for analysis.  Part II analyzes declines in death sentences due to decreasing death eligibility, that is, fewer murderers over time meeting the criteria that made death a sentencing option.  Four reasons are examined: fewer death-eligible murders, the United States Supreme Court’s exemptions of juveniles who were less than eighteen years of age at the time of the commission of the murder, and persons with intellectual disability (known to the law as the “mentally retarded”); and the abolition of the death penalty in several states.  This Part concludes that about half of the decline in death sentences is attributable to decreased death-eligibility, mostly due to the steep decrease in the number of death-eligible murders.

Part III examines increasingly narrower perceptions of death-worthiness, that is, the evolution in attitudes among prosecutors and sentencers toward deeming fewer among the many death-eligible defendants worthy of death sentences.  This Part requires the most complicated analysis because unlike death-eligibility decisions, which are dictated by law, death-worthiness decisions emerge from an opaque brew of many factors, including, but not limited to, resource differentials among jurisdictions, prosecutorial attitudes, the wishes of the murder victim’s survivors, defense counsel performance, public opinion, and sentencer reactions.  But while death-worthiness decisions are often opaque in individual cases, each case generates empirical data from which patterns may be discerned. Part III uses such data to analyze ten questions and arrive at tentative answers:

• Did the advent of life-without-parole (hereinafter “LWOP”) reduce death sentences in jurisdictions where it was added as an option? (only in Texas)

• Did sentencers become more reluctant to return death sentences? (no)

• Were death sentences decreasingly imposed in less aggravated cases and increasingly imposed in more aggravated cases? (to some extent)

• Did presentation of greater numbers of mitigating factors conduce to fewer death sentences? (no)

• Did robbery during a murder became a less powerful aggravator? (yes)

• Did 18-to-20 year-olds benefit from a ripple effect from the exemption of juveniles? (yes)

• Did death sentences become less common in multiple perpetrator cases? (yes)

• Did low population counties increasingly drop out of death sentencing? (yes)

• Did low revenue counties increasingly drop out of death sentencing? (no) and

• Did a few traditionally high-volume death sentencing counties skew the figures by cutting back on the use of the death penalty due to local political factors? (yes)

March 7, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Noting the focus on prosecutor elections as new front in criminal justice reform efforts

This new McClatchy article, headlined "Progressive groups investing in district attorney races as path to criminal justice reform," highlights the new focus on DA elections within the broader modern criminal justice reform movement. Here is how the piece starts:

The American Civil Liberties Union, backed by millions in funding from billionaire Democratic donor George Soros, is investing resources and applying organizational muscle in local district attorney races in 2018.

The ACLU is among a variety of organizations working to elect prosecutors willing to jumpstart a laundry list of criminal justice reforms, including an overhaul of the pretrial bail bond system. It received a $50 million grant from Soros’ Open Society Foundations in 2014.

Now, in this year’s elections, the organization is planning voter education and outreach campaigns in district attorney races in California, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Vermont and possibly North Carolina and Missouri.

The group hasn’t determined which local races will be targeted, but it will focus on contests in big cities with large jail populations that feed the state prison system, said Taylor Pendergrass, senior campaign strategist for the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice.  More than 1,000 local prosecutors are up for election in November, according to the group. “We’re just recognizing how powerful district attorneys are in shaping criminal justice policies, both at the local level, but also at the statehouse,” Pendergrass said. “The lobbying power of prosecutors is really a substantial force almost everywhere we want to see change made in the criminal justice system.”

The ACLU doesn’t endorse political candidates. Instead, it said the objective is to raise awareness about criminal justice issues of concern to the organization, its members and the voting public.  But Soros-funded super PACs and advocacy groups have helped elect a growing number of progressive district attorneys who now serve metro areas such as Chicago, Denver, Houston, Philadelphia and Orlando. And it’s looking to add more in 2018.

The Color of Change Political Action Committee, which has also received Soros funding, is urging black voters to support Democratic candidate Elizabeth Frizell for Dallas County District Attorney in Texas.  A former state district judge, Frizell has called for special prosecutors to investigate shootings by police.  She also supports replacing cash bail bonds with a pretrial release system based on factors such as the type of offense, the facts of the case and the defendants’ likelihood to re-offend and return to court.

An African American, Frizell reflects a new wave of ethnically diverse, activist district attorney candidates, many of whom support policies such as diversion programs for minor drug offenders, reentry programs for people leaving prison and reducing disparities that disproportionately impact poor and minority defendants in the courts.

March 6, 2018 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Federal prosecutors seeking (way-below-guideline) sentence of 15 years for "Pharma Bro" Martin Shkreli

As reported in this new Reuters piece, "U.S. prosecutors on Tuesday said former drug company executive Martin Shkreli should spend at least 15 years in prison after being convicted of fraud, saying his lack of remorse and respect for the law justified a long time behind bars." Here is more, with a final point stressed for commentary:

The request by the Department of Justice came three days before Shkreli’s scheduled sentencing by U.S. District Judge Kiyo Matsumoto in Brooklyn federal court. Prosecutors called Shkreli “a man who stands before this court without any showing of genuine remorse, a man who has consistently chosen to put profit and the cultivation of a public image before all else, and a man who believes the ends always justify the means.”

Shkreli, 34, had requested a 12-to-18-month term following his conviction last August for lying to investors about the performance of his hedge funds MSMB Capital and MSMB Healthcare, and conspiring to manipulate the stock price of the drug company Retrophin Inc. Known as “Pharma Bro,” in part for his ability to attract attention, Shkreli is perhaps best known for raising the price of the anti-parasitic drug Daraprim by more than 5,000 percent in 2015, while serving as chief executive of Turing Pharmaceuticals, now called Vyera Pharmaceuticals....

Shkreli has been in jail since September, when Matsumoto revoked his bail after he offered social media followers $5,000 for a hair from former U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. On Monday, Matsumoto ordered Shkreli to forfeit $7.36 million of ill-gotten gains. She said he may be forced to give up assets such as a Picasso painting and a one-of-a-kind Wu-Tang Clan album if he cannot find the money....

In a letter to the judge last week, Shkreli said he accepted that he had made “serious mistakes,” but still considered himself “a good person with much potential.”

But prosecutors said that while in jail, Shkreli has privately expressed disdain for his conviction and the judicial process, providing further evidence he does not deserve mercy. It cited a January email conversation where Shkreli allegedly wrote “fuck the feds” and expressed hope for a big tax refund because only his “liquid money” was affected by the forfeiture. “Shkreli’s email communications confirm that any remorse he may express publicly is a carefully constructed facade,” prosecutors said.

A 15-year term is shorter than the minimum 27 years recommended under federal guidelines. Brafman has called that length “draconian and offensive.”

There is much in this story and in this high-profile sentencing that merits commentary, but I am especially struck by the decision by federal prosecutors to request a sentence here that is more than a decade below the advisory guideline range.  Recall that the May 2017 Sessions Memo said federal prosecutors "should in all cases seek a reasonable sentence under the factors in 18 U.S.C. § 3553. In most cases, recommending a sentence within the advisory guideline range will be appropriate."  This high-profile case is still more proof that federal prosecutors recognize that the applicable federal sentencing guidelines for at least some fraud offenses are not reasonable and can be unreasonable extreme by more than a decade.

Prior related posts:

March 6, 2018 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, March 05, 2018

Spotlighting the modern realities and challenges of geriatric executions

Adam Liptak has this new Sidebar piece in the New York Times headlined "Too Old to Be Executed?  Supreme Court Considers an Aging Death Row." Here is how the piece gets started:

The nation’s death rows are starting to look like geriatric wards. Condemned inmates in many states are more likely to die of natural causes than to be executed.  The rare ones who are put to death often first spend decades behind bars, waiting.

It turns out that executing old men is not easy.  In November, Ohio called off an attempt to execute Alva Campbell, 69, after the execution team could not find a suitable vein into which to pump lethal chemicals.  The state announced that it would try again in June 2019, by which time he would have been 71.

But Mr. Campbell suffered from what one judge called an “extraordinary list of ailments.”  He used a walker, could barely breathe and relied on a colostomy bag.  He was found lifeless in his cell on Saturday, having died in the usual way, without government assistance.

In Alabama last month, state officials called off the execution of Doyle Lee Hamm, 61, also because they could not find a suitable vein. Mr. Hamm has at least two kinds of cancer, cranial and lymphatic, and he may not have long to live with or without the state’s efforts.

Last week, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of another Alabama inmate, Vernon Madison, 67, who suffers from dementia and cannot remember the crime that sent him to death row.  The court, which has barred the execution of juvenile offenders and the intellectually disabled, is now turning its attention to old people.

Prior related posts:

March 5, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

SCOTUS grants cert on structural SORNA issue and Justice Sotomayor dissents in capital case with IAC issues

The Supreme Court has been mulling over a number of cases that would, if cert were granted, be of great interest to sentencing fans. But the Justices, via today's new SCOTUS order list, did not grant (or deny) cert on any blockbusters. Here is the SCOTUSblog accounting of what sentencing fans did get today:

The second grant is Gundy v. US, but only limited to the fourth question presented by the petition: whether Congress's delegation of power to the attorney general to issue regulations interpreting the Sex Offender Notification and Registration Act violates the nondelegation doctrine....

The non-delegation challenge to SORNA is (1) more plausible than most non-delegation challenges because of the criminal context; but (2) would be the first non-delegation challenge that has prevailed at the Court in a very long time. And it would blast a giant hole in SORNA.

Justice Sotomayor dissented from the denial of review in Wessinger v. Vannoy, a capital case involving an attorney's duties to conduct a mitigation investigation when the court has denied funds for expert assistance.

Justice Sotomayor's solo dissent in Wessinger ends this way:

The Court’s denial of certiorari here belies the “bedrock principle in our justice system” that a defendant has a right to effective assistance of trial counsel, and undermines the protections this Court has recognized are necessary to protect that right. Martinez, 566 U.S., at 12. Indeed, the investigation of mitigation evidence and its presentation at sentencing are crucial to maintaining the integrity of capital proceedings.  The layers of ineffective assistance of counsel that Wessinger received constitute precisely the type of error that warrants relief under this Court’s precedent.  Yet, Wessinger will remain on death row without a jury ever considering the significant mitigation evidence that is now apparent. Because that outcome is contrary to precedent and deeply unjust and unfair, I dissent from the denial of certiorari.

March 5, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Sixth Amendment Sentencing after Hurst"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Carissa Byrne Hessick and William Berry available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The Supreme Court’s 2016 decision in Hurst v. Florida, which struck down Florida’s capital sentencing scheme, altered the Court’s Sixth Amendment sentencing doctrine. That doctrine has undergone several important changes since it was first recognized.  At times the doctrine has expanded—invalidating sentencing practices across the country — and at times it has contracted — allowing restrictions on judicial sentencing discretion based on findings that are not submitted to a jury. Hurst represents another expansion of the doctrine.  Although the precise scope of the decision is unclear, the most sensible reading of Hurst suggests that any finding required before a judge may impose a higher sentence must be submitted to a jury and proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  This reading invalidates several state capital sentencing systems and several non-capital systems, and it would require dramatic changes to federal sentencing as well.

March 5, 2018 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, March 02, 2018

Lots of notable reaction to Prez Trump's nominations to the US Sentencing Commission

As reported in this prior post, Prez Trump yesterday announced these notable new nominations to the US Sentencing Commission.  Usually, only hard-core sentencing nerds like me play much attention to USSC nominations, but this slate of nominees, especially the nomination of Bill Otis, has led to some notable media attention.  Here are some of the commentary I have already seen: 

From The Daily Caller, "Trump's Sentencing Commission Nominees Show He May Not Be That Angry At Jeff Sessions"

From Mother Jones"'I Live to Put People in Jail': Here Are Trump's Nominees for the US Sentencing Commission"

From Reason, "Trump Nominates Man Who Called for Abolishing US Sentencing Commission to US Sentencing Commission"

From Slate, "Trump picked a mass-incarceration advocate obsessed with 'black-on-black' crime for a job setting federal sentences"

From Splinter, "Trump Nominates the Last Person You'd Ever Want to Help Oversee the Criminal Justice System"

And perhaps best highlighting how this one nomination is not like the others, here is the text of this press release from Families Against Mandatory Minimums released just a few hours after Prez Trump announced his new USSC picks:

FAMM president Kevin Ring issued the following statement on William Otis, one of four nominees put forward today by the Trump administration for the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the administrative body that writes and updates the federal sentencing guidelines used to sentence more than 70,000 people each year in federal courts:

FAMM has never taken a position before on U.S. Sentencing Commission nominees, but we feel compelled to change that policy in light of today’s announcement.  Mr. Otis’s outdated views are well-known and well-documented.  This is not a person who will be guided by evidence and data.  The Senate should reject this nomination.

Prior related post:

March 2, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (20)

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Prez Trump talks up "very strong" criminal penalties "with respect to the pushers and to the drug dealers"

In this post from a few days ago, I noted a report that Prez Trump has been known privately to give "a passionate speech about how drug dealers are as bad as serial killers and should all get the death penalty."  Now, as reported here by CBS News under the headline "Trump brings up death penalty for drug dealers, suing drug companies at opioids summit," Prez Trump has brought his thinking into the public discourse:

President Trump made an unexpected appearance at a White House summit on the opioid crisis Thursday afternoon, floating penalties for "opioid companies" and tougher punishments for drug dealers, noting that some countries have the "ultimate penalty."

"The administration's gonna' be rolling out policy over the next three weeks and it'll be very, very strong," the president said. "I've also spoken with Jeff (Sessions) about bringing a lawsuit against some of these opioid companies. I mean, what they're doing and the way, the distribution. You have people who go to the hospital with a broken arm and the come out addicted. They're addicted to painkillers, and they don't even know what happened."

"So we're going to very much, you know, as you know, I think we've been more involved than any administration by far. It's a problem that's growing.  And drugs are a similar but different problem in the sense that we have pushers, and we have drug dealers that don't — I mean, they kill hundreds and hundreds of people.  And most of them don't even go to jail. You know, if you shoot one person, they give you life, they give you the death penalty. These people can kill 2,000, 3000 people, and nothing happen to them. And we need strength with respect to the pushers and to the drug dealers. And if you don't do that, you're never going to solve the problem."

"Some countries have a very, very tough penalty, the ultimate penalty," the president said.  "And by the way, they have much less of a drug problem than we do.  So we're going to have to be very strong on penalties.  Hopefully we can do some litigation against the opioid companies."

A video of Prez Trumps comments are available at this link via CNN.  Yikes!

Prior related post:

March 1, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Prez Trump makes (tough) nominations to US Sentencing Commission

Though there is much talk these days of Prez Trump and AG Jeff Sessions being at odds, the President today announced these new nominations to the US Sentencing Commission that I suspect are very much to the liking of Attorney General Sessions.  Here are the basics, with lots of commentary to follow (in this post and perhaps others):

Today, President Donald J. Trump announced his intent to nominate the following individuals to the United States Sentencing Commission:

If confirmed, Judge William H. Pryor Jr. of Alabama will serve as the Chairman of the United States Sentencing Commission. Judge Bill Pryor serves as a Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, and as Acting Chairman of the United States Sentencing Commission....

If confirmed, Judge Luis Felipe Restrepo of Pennsylvania will serve as a Commissioner of the United States Sentencing Commission. Judge Phil Restrepo serves as a Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Judge Restrepo was appointed to the Third Circuit in 2016 by President Barack Obama. Prior to his elevation to the Third Circuit, Judge Restrepo served for two and a half years as a United States District Judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, a post to which he was also nominated by President Obama. Prior to his service on the United States District Court, Judge Restrepo served for seven years as a United States Magistrate Judge, practiced privately, and served as an Assistant Federal Public Defender in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

If confirmed, Judge Henry E. Hudson of Virginia will serve as a Commissioner of the United States Sentencing Commission. Judge Henry Hudson serves as a United States District Judge for the Eastern District of Virginia. Judge Hudson was appointed to the United States District Court bench in 2002 by President George W. Bush. Before his appointment to the Federal bench, Judge Hudson served as a Virginia circuit judge for Fairfax County, Director of the United States Marshals Service, as the Senate-confirmed United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, and as the elected Commonwealth’s Attorney for Arlington County, Virginia.

If confirmed, William Graham Otis of Virginia will serve as a Commissioner of the United States Sentencing Commission. Bill Otis serves as an Adjunct Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center. Before joining the faculty at Georgetown, Mr. Otis served in the Federal Government for 29 years. Over this period, Mr. Otis served as Counselor to the Administrator of Drug Enforcement Administration during the George W. Bush presidency, as an Assistant United States Attorney and Chief of the Appellate Division of the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia (under both Democrat and Republican Administrations), and as Special Counsel to President George H.W. Bush.

Regular readers may recall this post from August 2017 linking to a Wall Street Journal article reporting that "Attorney General Jeff Sessions is urging the White House to nominate a federal judge and tough-on-crime ex-prosecutor once nicknamed “Hang ’Um High” Henry Hudson" to the USSC.  But regularly readers are likely even more familiar with the name Bill Otis, because he was once a regular commentor on this blog and has long been a prominent person who prominently shares his (tough-on-crime) sentencing perspectives in many media.  I have to guess that AG Sessions was also happy to see Bill's name on this list as well (and I have already noticed on twitter a few folks who are not happy to see Bill's name on this list).  I am personally very friendly with Bill Otis (and his famous wife), and we have spent considerable time disagreeing on many sentencing matters without being too disagreeable. 

I also suspect AG Sessions is also quite pleased to see his Alabama pal, Judge Bill Pryor, getting officially tapped to serve as Chair of the US Sentencing Commission (which he has been serving as in the acting capacity for over a year).  I have long been intrigued and impressed by Judge Pryor's views on a range of sentencing issues, and I have been particularly pleased with the many kinds of new data reports the USSC has been producing during his short time as Chair.

Last but not least, though I do not know too much about Judge Luis Felipe Restrepo, I am pleased to see a former defense attorney named to the USSC to balance out all the potent new prosecutorial perspectives.  I am not sure if this "slate" of nominations have already been in some way blessed or vetted by key members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but I am sure that the nomination of Judge Restrepo may well be intended as, and may rightly be seen as, one way to get Senators on both sides of the aisle to be comfortable with all of these nominees. 

March 1, 2018 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Will strong religious liberty advocates rally for Mennonite investigator jailed for refusing to testify in Colorado capital case?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this remarkable story from the Denver Post headlined "Mennonite investigator sent to jail after refusing to testify in Robert Ray death penalty hearing: Lawyer for Greta Lindecrantz says she is being punished for long-standing religious beliefs." Here are the basics:

A 67-year-old Mennonite woman spent a second day in the Arapahoe County jail Tuesday after she refused to testify for the prosecution in a death penalty case. Greta Lindecrantz on Tuesday morning was found in contempt of court after she told District Judge Michelle Amico she would not answer questions in the witness stand because of her religious beliefs. Lindecrantz has been called to testify on behalf of the prosecution in an appeals hearing for Robert Ray, who was sentenced to death in 2009 for ordering the murder of Javad Marshall-Fields and Vivian Wolfe, who were witnesses in another murder case.

Lindecrantz worked as an investigator for Ray’s defense team, but those attorneys have not called her as a witness. However, the prosecution wants to question her about her work during the investigation and original trial, said her attorney, Mari Newman. All of her work already is a part of the official court record and there really is no reason for her to take the stand again, she said.

Lindecrantz sat in the courtroom wearing an orange jumpsuit with her hands shackled as Newman argued that she should be released because she is being punished by the courts for religious beliefs. Testifying would go against her moral and religious views, Newman said. “Imprisonment has not been effective,” Newman said. “It will not be effective tomorrow.”

But Amico said she had made her decision and was sticking to it. She told Newman she could appeal to a higher court. Until then, Lindecrantz would go back to jail. “It was a difficult decision for the court to make (Monday),” Amico said. Newman had asked for a lesser punishment, but Amico responded, “How would less punishment be effective? I’ve imposed jail and she’s still refusing to testify.”

After the hearing, Newman gathered on the courthouse lawn with Lindecrantz’s husband, Dave Sidwell, and supporters from the metro area’s two Mennonite congregations. “She has a fundamental religious belief against the killing of other human beings and specifically against state-sanctioned killing in the form of the death penalty,” Newman said. “She has refused to testify as a witness called by the prosecution — and the reason, the one and only reason she’s refused to testify, is because to do so would violate her firmly held religious beliefs against the death penalty.”

Because of her religious conviction, Lindecrantz has two choices — stay in jail or abandon her faith, Newman said. On Monday night, Lindecratz was in a cell with nine women, some of whom were sick all night because they were detoxing from drugs. Lindecrantz is old enough to be those women’s mothers, she said. “For the court to imprison her until she is broken, until her will is broken, and she abandons her faith and her view that she cannot participate in state-sanctioned killing is an abomination,” Newman said.

Sidwell, who also is a Mennonite, said he supported his wife’s stand, saying they both were adamantly opposed to the death penalty. “She’s not going to change her mind,” Sidwell said. “It’s, to me, a pointless pursuit.”

The Rev. Vern Rempel, pastor of Beloved Community Mennonite Church in Englewood, said he counseled Lindecrantz over the weekend about what she would do when called to the stand Monday morning. Those discussions included figuring out a way that Lindecrantz could comply with the courts without betraying her religious conviction. On Sunday, the congregation gathered around Lindecrantz to pray over the decision. “On Sunday, she said she had clarity and was ready to do this,” he said. “Really, we felt the strength of her commitment.”

Mennonite opposition to the death penalty dates to 1525, Rempel said. “This is not something that is not a mood of Greta’s,” he said. “Or a fancy. Or something she’s making up. It has been a lifetime commitment for her.”

While Lindecrantz is spending her second night in jail, the legal drama has been playing since Jan. 20, when Newman first filed a motion in an attempt to keep her client off the witness stand. But Amico repeatedly denied the motion, saying in an order written on Feb. 16 that allowing people to refuse to participate in death penalty cases on religious grounds would disrupt the justice system. Religious-based capital defense teams would be able to refuse to follow proceedings, rules and laws based on those grounds, Amico wrote. It would create an “absurd and unworkable result” for death penalty cases in Colorado.

Because of the politics involved, I am inclined to guess that the folks who eager to support, on religious liberty grounds, those resisting laws restricting displays of religious items on public lands or laws concerning certain medical procedures will not be quite as quick to get behind this particular form of legal resistance based on sincere religious beliefs. (And, by the same political token, I suspect those usually critical of legal resistance based on religious liberty claims may not be so critical of the claim in this setting.)

March 1, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Religion, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

"The Politics of Prosecution: Examining the Policymaking Role of Prosecutors"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper available via SSRN authored by Abhinav Sekhri. Here is the abstract:

This short paper focuses on prosecutors in the federal setting and contributes to this growing field of scholarship.  Through the lens of Prosecutorial Agreements in the sphere of corporate criminal liability, I demonstrate that prosecutors engage in important policy making exercises.  I argue that this analysis helps better understand the constrains in which prosecutorial discretion is exercises, and here I suggest how such an analysis offers a more nuanced reading of the prosecutorial charging practices in corporate crime over the last two decades.  I conclude by suggesting that examining the policymaking potential of prosecutors merits great attention today, as the importance of these actors within the criminal justice system is being appreciated beyond legal spheres.

March 1, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Senator Grassley talking up Senate vote on his SRCA bill along with any prison reform bill lacking sentencing reforms

As reported in this post, the White House yesterday signaled its disaffinity for key parts of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act when an official was quoted as saying the "sentencing reform part still does not have a pathway forward to getting done."   But Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley is seemingly not prepared to give up on his bill, as detailed in this new press article headlined "Grassley: I'll fight for sentencing reforms."  Here are the key details:

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, pledged Wednesday to fight for a criminal justice proposal that includes reducing certain mandatory prison sentences, and he raised the prospect of blocking a package of related reforms the White House and congressional Republicans are said to be interested in if he can't get an agreement....

Late Tuesday, the White House expressed interest in proposals to reduce recidivism among offenders, but not changes to sentences. A White House official who wasn't identified said the sentencing reform piece "does not have a pathway forward to getting done," according to several news reports. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, also is said to be an obstacle to getting the legislation to the floor.

On a conference call with Iowa reporters Wednesday, Grassley disputed the idea his bill can't pass and said with Democrats and Republicans, there are at least 60 votes for his proposal. The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee two weeks ago on a 16-5 bi-partisan vote.

Grassley said people pushing for a narrower approach just want to get a bill passed. "Well, if they take up prison reform, they’re going to have to have 60 votes to get prison reform up.  And I’ll bet we’ve got, if all the Democrats go along with me, we can stop that from coming up until we get a deal to get a vote on my sentencing reform," Grassley said.

Grassley, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and has been a key figure in getting the Trump administration's court picks through the confirmation process, said he planned to talk to Durbin first before deciding whether to take that route....

On the conference call Wednesday, Grassley said the chances for his proposal, at the moment, aren't very good.  But he said he isn't going to give up.  "This would be a bipartisan policy win for the administration. And it seems like a no-brainer to me."  He said he hasn't spoken to President Trump about the proposal yet.

A few prior related posts:

February 28, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Entire First Circuit urges Supreme Court to revisit Harmelin's limits on Eighth Amendment challenges to extreme adult prison sentence

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss the remarkable opinion emerging yesterday from the First Circuit in the form of a very lengthy concurrence in the denial of rehearing en banc in United States v. Rivera-Ruperto, No. 12-2364 (1st Cir. Feb 27, 2018) (available here). Last year I noted the panel opinion in this case in this post titled "Extended dissent laments First Circuit panel's rejection of Eighth Amendment attack on 160-year sentence for stash house participant."  Interestingly, this time around all the First Circuit judges seem to be on the same page, deciding they lack authority to find Wendell Rivera-Ruperto's extreme sentence unconstitutional, but urging the Supreme Court to revisit the precedent they see as standing improperly in their way.

Judge Barron's lengthy opinion is a must-read for Eighth Amendment fans, and it defies ready summary.  To begin, Judge Barron explains why the analytical framework set by Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277 (1983) would lead him to "find that Rivera's mandatory, more-than-century-long sentence was grossly disproportionate and thus in violation of the Eighth Amendment."  But, continues Judge Barron, judges must further consider Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957 (1991), and "the Harmelin concurrence controls the outcome here, and ... does so by limiting our inquiry to a consideration of only Solem's first criterion."  And, according to Judge Barron, ultimately judges "have no choice but to approve mandatory 'forever' sentences under § 924(c) so long as they can hypothesize a rational reason for the legislature to have thought that the underlying criminal conduct was as serious as the large quantity drug possession at issue in Harmelin." 

After intricate analysis of these and other Eighth Amendment and related precedents, this remarkable opinion (which, again, was joined by all the First Circuit judges), concludes this way:

Rivera faces the longest and most unforgiving possible prison sentence for conduct that, though serious, is not of the most serious kind.  He does so not because the legislature had authorized its imposition and a judge had then considered all of the aggravating and mitigating circumstances and determined that this sentence was appropriate.  He does so only because Congress has been deemed to have made a blanket judgment that even an offender like Rivera -- who has no prior criminal record and whose series of related crimes resulted in no harm to an identifiable victim -- should have no hope of ever living free.  And he does so even though virtually every comparable jurisdiction punishes comparable criminal conduct less harshly, and even though the federal government itself punishes nearly the same or seemingly worse conduct more leniently.

Almost three decades have now passed since the concurring Justices in Harmelin concluded, without reference to real-world comparative benchmarks, that the Eighth Amendment afforded the Michigan legislature the scope to try out what at the time was viewed as a permissible sentencing experiment to address a newly concerning crime problem.  In those intervening decades, virtually no jurisdiction has been willing to replicate that state's experiment.  In fact, even the state that the Harmelin concurrence permitted to try it has abandoned it.  And yet the Harmelin concurrence still controls.

In my view, a consequence as grave as the one that Harmelin requires in a case like this should have the imprimatur of more than only a nearly three-decade old, three-Justice concurrence. I thus urge the Supreme Court to consider whether the Eighth Amendment permits, at least in a case such as this, the mandatory stacking of sentences under § 924(c) that -- due to their cumulative length -- necessarily results in the imposition of a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

February 28, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Trump White House expresses opposition to sentencing reform part of SRCA of 2017

Given that the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 could not even get very far in Congress despite the support of then of the President and Attorney General, I have never been all that optimistic about the prospects for the 2017 version of this bill.  Attorney General Sessions has been against it from the get-go, and this new report from the The Hill indicates that the White House has now put its opposition forward.  Here are the details:

The White House on Tuesday said it sees no path forward for legislation to reduce mandatory minimum prison sentences, instead throwing its support behind measures aimed at reducing recidivism rates. "The conclusion we reached was that, at this time, it's appropriate for us to go forward with prison reform," a senior administration official said.

The White House's position represents a major setback for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who has been working to move his criminal justice reform bill through Congress after it stalled last session.

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act to the floor by a 16-5 vote earlier this month over the objections of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and a few GOP members on the committee....

A senior White House official said the administration respects Grassley’s efforts, but sees no path forward for sentencing reform. "The sentencing reform part still does not have a pathway forward to getting done," the official said. "And so what we see now is an environment where the prison reform does have enough support to get done. And we think that by maybe doing this in smaller bits and pushing the prison reform now, we think this has a better chance of getting done."

A second official said the White House is instead focused on prison reform legislation like Rep. Doug Collins's (R-Ga.) bipartisan Prison Reform and Redemption Act. That bill, co-sponsored by nine Democrats and seven Republicans, allows prisoners to serve the final days of their sentences in halfway houses or home confinement if they complete evidence-based programs while in prison that have been shown to reduce recidivism rates.

Prison programming could include everything from job and vocational skills training to education and drug treatment. "I think that that is a good basis that we can look at and start with," the second senior White House official said of Collins's bill. “I do think that as the conversation continues over the coming weeks, there might be additions, changes, amendments, and we want to go through the regular order committee processes. But I do think that that's a big piece of legislation to look at as a starting point."

A source familiar with the talks with the White House told The Hill in January that Collins’s bill is expected to be marked up in the House Judiciary Committee before the first quarter ends in April. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) have introduced similar legislation in the Senate.

Taylor Foy, a spokesman for Grassley, said the chairman is focused on passing sound policy, not the path of least resistance. "Bipartisan support continues to grow in the Senate for comprehensive criminal justice reform, which includes providing additional discretion for judges at sentencing for lower level, non-violent drug crimes," he said. "Chairman Grassley’s broadly bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is cosponsored by nearly a quarter of the Senate. Our office continues to have productive conversations with the White House on this issue.”

A senior White House official said President Trump is planning to sign an executive order Wednesday to revamp the Federal Reentry Council and move it from the Department of Justice to the White House. Under the Obama administration, the interagency council worked to reduce recidivism and improve employment, education, housing, health and child welfare outcomes, according to the Department of Justice website.

The White House said Tuesday it sent a list of legislative principles for reform efforts to Congress. In addition to effectively using government resources to reduce crime and incentivize re-entry programs, the White House wants Congress to expand access to prison work programs. It also wants lawmakers to evaluate and facilitate public and private partnerships that improve pre- and post-release employment opportunities for inmates.

I am disappointed but not especially surprised that the White House is indicating that it is only willing to support a more modest prison reform bill rather than all the significant sentencing reforms that appear in the SRCA.  Prez Trump has to date only voiced support for prison reform efforts, and he has formally and informally talked up a "tough and tougher" approach to sentencing drug dealers.  Those eager to see reductions in federal drug sentences should likely be grateful many leading GOP legislators favor such reforms because otherwise Prez Trump might well be actively advocating for enhancing the severity of federal drug sentences.  

I have long been saying that, for various reasons and for lots of offenders, significant prison reform could end up even more consequential than some proposed sentencing reform.  Thus, I sincerely hope that everyone interested in the kinds of reforms that the SRCA represent will be prepared to get behind the Prison Reform and Redemption Act (PRRA) and work to make it as effective and expansive and consequential as possible.  Some version of the PRRA looks now to be the only significant federal criminal justice reform proposal with a realistic chance of becoming law in 2018. 

It has already been nearly a decade since we have seen anything close to significant legislative reforms benefiting federal defendants or prisoners. (I am thinking of the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act as the last big legislative change, though the 2014 "Drugs-2" guideline amendment was also a very big deal.)  I want to believe that the passage of something like the PRRA could help create new momentum for a range of reforms bog and small in Congress and elsewhere, and so the fact that the White House is endorsing some reform efforts is still encouraging despite its discouraging view of the SRCA.

A few prior related posts:

February 28, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

"The State of the Death Penalty Decline"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now available via SSRN authored by Brandon Garrett and Ankur Desai.  Here is the abstract:

The death penalty is in decline in America and most death penalty states do not regularly impose death sentences. In 2016 and 2017, states reached modern lows in imposed death sentences, with just thirty-one defendants sentenced to death in 2016 and thirty-nine in 2017, as compared with over three hundred per year in the 1990s.  In 2016, only thirteen states imposed death sentences, and in 2017, fourteen did so, although thirty-one states retain the death penalty.  What explains this remarkable and quite unexpected trend?

In this Article, we present new analysis of state-level legislative changes that might have been expected to impact death sentences.  First, life without parole (LWOP) statutes, now enacted in nearly every state, might have been expected to reduce death sentences because they give jurors a non-capital option at trial.  Second, legislatures have moved, albeit at varying paces, to comply with the Supreme Court’s holding in Ring v. Arizona, which requires that the final decision in capital sentencing be made not by a judge, but by a jury.  Third, states at different times have created state-wide public defender offices to represent capital defendants at trial.  In addition, the decline in homicides and homicide rates could be expected to contribute to the decline in state-level death sentencing.

We find that contrary to the expectations of many observers, changes in the law such as adoption of LWOP and jury sentencing, did not consistently or significantly impact death sentencing. The decline in homicides and homicide rates is correlated with changes in death sentencing at the state level.  However, this Article finds that state provision of capital trial representation is far more strongly and robustly correlated with reduced death sentencing than these other factors.  The findings bolster the argument that adequacy of counsel has greater implications for the administration of the death penalty than other legal factors.  These findings also have implications beyond the death penalty and they underscore the importance of a structural understanding of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel in our system of criminal justice.

February 27, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

SCOTUS finally resolves Jennings v. Rodriguez, ruling Ninth Circuit erred when deciding detained aliens have a statutory right to periodic bond hearings

The Supreme Court granted cert in Jennings v. Rodriguez nearly two years ago, but the case got set for re-argument this Term and now has finally resulted in an opinion concerning certain procedural rights for detailed aliens.  The full Jennings opinion is lengthy and intricate, and the opinion for the Court authored by Justice Alito sets up the discussion this way:

In this case we are asked to interpret three provisions of U.S. immigration law that authorize the Government to detain aliens in the course of immigration proceedings.  All parties appear to agree that the text of these provisions, when read most naturally, does not give detained aliens the right to periodic bond hearings during the course of their detention.  But by relying on the constitutional-avoidance canon of statutory interpretation, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that detained aliens have a statutory right to periodic bond hearings under the provisions at issue.

Under the constitutional-avoidance canon, when statutory language is susceptible of multiple interpretations, a court may shun an interpretation that raises serious constitutional doubts and instead may adopt an alternative that avoids those problems.  But a court relying on that canon still must interpret the statute, not rewrite it.  Because the Court of Appeals in this case adopted implausible constructions of the three immigration provisions at issue, we reverse its judgment and remand for further proceedings.

I believe the context and content of the majority's ruling likely mean the Jennings decision will not have many big implications outside the immigration detention setting. But Justice Breyer's lengthy dissenting opinion discusses bail and due process more broadly, and his closing sentiments highlights why a ruling the other way in Jennings might have been significant for a broad array of criminal defendants:

The relevant constitutional language, purposes, history, traditions, context, and case law, taken together, make it likely that, where confinement of the noncitizens before us is prolonged (presumptively longer than six months), bail proceedings are constitutionally required.  Given this serious constitutional problem, I would interpret the statutory provisions before us as authorizing bail.  Their language permits that reading, it furthers their basic purposes, and it is consistent with the history, tradition, and constitutional values associated with bail proceedings.  I believe that those bail proceedings should take place in accordance with customary rules of procedure and burdens of proof rather than the special rules that the Ninth Circuit imposed.

The bail questions before us are technical but at heart they are simple.  We need only recall the words of the Declaration of Independence, in particular its insistence that all men and women have “certain unalienable Rights,” and that among them is the right to “Liberty.”  We need merely remember that the Constitution’s Due Process Clause protects each person’s liberty from arbitrary deprivation.  And we need just keep in mind the fact that, since Blackstone’s time and long before, liberty has included the right of a confined person to seek release on bail.  It is neither technical nor unusually difficult to read the words of these statutes as consistent with this basic right.  I would find it far more difficult, indeed, I would find it alarming, to believe that Congress wrote these statutory words in order to put thousands of individuals at risk of lengthy confinement all within the United States but all without hope of bail.  I would read the statutory words as consistent with, indeed as requiring protection of, the basic right to seek bail.

February 27, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, February 26, 2018

Split California Supreme Court holds 50-year sentence for juve kidnapper violates the Eighth Amendment after Graham

This afternoon, the Supreme Court of California issued a 93-page opinion in California v. Contreras, No. S224564 (Cal. Feb. 26, 2018) (available here), which extends the limits that the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment ruling in Graham places on juvenile sentencing for non-homicide crimes. Here is how the majority opinion, authored by Justice Liu, gets started:

Defendants Leonel Contreras and William Rodriguez were convicted in a joint trial of kidnapping and sexual offenses they committed as 16 year olds. Rodriguez was sentenced to a term of 50 years to life, and Contreras was sentenced to a term of 58 years to life.  We granted review to determine whether the sentences imposed on these juvenile nonhomicide offenders violate the Eighth Amendment as interpreted in People v. Caballero (2012) 55 Cal.4th 262, 268 (Caballero) and Graham v. Florida (2010) 560 U.S. 48 (Graham).  We hold that these sentences are unconstitutional under the reasoning of Graham.

The lead dissenting opinion, authored by Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye, gets started this way:

I respectfully dissent. The majority’s erroneous interpretation and extension of Graham v. Florida (2010) 560 U.S. 48 (Graham) yield a result the Graham court did not intend — the categorical condemnation of all sentences in which juvenile offenders convicted of nonhomicide crimes will serve a term of 50 years or greater. At the same time, the majority fails to properly account for legislation and regulations that afford defendants William Rodriguez and Leonel Contreras an initial opportunity for parole no later than when they reach the age of 60.  These measures take defendants’ sentences outside of Graham’s purview even under the majority’s mistaken approach to that decision. Defendants’ sentences do not violate the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and I would so hold.

Because this ruling appears to rest squarely on application of the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution rather than on the parallel provision in article I, section 17 of the California Constitution, it would seem the state of California could seek to appeal this expansive application of the Graham ruling to the US Supreme Court. It will be interesting to see if California pursues an appeal and what might become of it were the state to do so.

February 26, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

SCOTUS takes up Alabama case concerning competency to be executed while again turning away post-Hurst capital challenges

The US Supreme Court issued this order list this morning, and capital punishment followers will find a few SCOTUS cert decisions of note.  First, the Court granted certiorari in Madison v. Alabama, No. 17-7505, and the docket number here is quite important because Vernon Madison had two notable cert petitions pending: Madison v. Alabama, 17-7505, which was granted raises asked whether Alabama may "execute a prisoner whose mental disability leaves him without memory of his commission of the capital offense?";  Madison v. Alabama, 17-7535, which was denied raised the issue of whether Alabama could move forward with the execution of a defendant whose death sentence result from the state's now-abolished practice of judicial override.

The death sentencing procedural issue that the Supreme Court decided not to take up in Vernon Madison's case is, of course, yet another off-shoot of what I have long called the "post-Hurst hydra."  After the Supreme Court in Hurst v. Florida declared Florida's death penalty procedures violative of the Sixth Amendment, I coined the term term "post-Hurst hydra" to describe the multi-headed, snake-like litigation destined to develop in various ways in various courts as state and federal judges tried to make sense of just what Hurst must mean for past, present and future capital cases.  I am further reminded of that hydra because today's SCOTUS order list concluded with two short dissents from the denial of certiorari authored by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor in two Florida capital cases.  Justice Sotomayor's dissent is a bit longer and joined by Justice Ginsburg and includes these passages:

Dale Middleton and Randy Tundidor were sentenced to death under a Florida capital sentencing scheme that this Court has since declared unconstitutional.  See Hurst v. Florida, 577 U. S. ___ (2016).  Relying on the unanimity of the juries’ recommendations of death, the Florida Supreme Court post-Hurst declined to disturb the petitioners’ death sentences, reasoning that the unanimity ensured that jurors had made the necessary findings of fact under Hurst.  By doing so, the Florida Supreme Court effectively transformed the pre-Hurst jury recommendations into binding findings of fact with respect to the petitioners’ death sentences.

Having so concluded, the Florida Supreme Court continually refuses to grapple with the Eighth Amendment implications of that holding.  If those then-advisory jury findings are now binding and sufficient to satisfy Hurst, petitioners contend that their sentences violate the Eighth Amendment because the jury instructions in their cases repeatedly emphasized the nonbinding, advisory nature of the jurors’ role and that the judge was the final decisionmaker.  This Court has unequivocally held “that it is constitutionally impermissible to rest a death sentence on a determination made by a sentencer who has been led to believe that the responsibility for determining the appropriateness of the defendant’s death rests elsewhere.” Caldwell v. Mississippi, 472 U. S. 320, 328–329 (1985).

February 26, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, February 25, 2018

"The Perverse Power of the Prosecutor"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new commentary authored by John Pfaff in the journal Democracy. The piece asks this question in a subheadline: "How responsible are prosecutors for holding back progressive criminal justice reform?". And here is how it starts:

One of the more important shifts in criminal justice reform over the past five or so years has been a growing awareness of just how powerful and influential prosecutors truly are. Perhaps startled to find themselves under such attention after decades of little to no scrutiny, prosecutors are now pushing back.  One common rebuttal prosecutors make is that they don’t actually have that much power.  It is the legislature, they argue, which passes the laws and thus really calls the shots.  Prosecutors simply impose what the legislature enacts.

Such claims, however, are quite disingenuous, since they conveniently overlook one of the most important sources of prosecutors’ power: their oversized influence over the legislative process.  District attorneys are not passive players in the politics of crime, sitting idly by awaiting their orders from on high.  In states from Pennsylvania to Louisiana to California, district attorneys aggressively, and effectively, lobby against reforms they dislike and for new laws that they do.  Louisiana recently adopted an expansive criminal justice reform bill, but the final version was significantly watered down from the original proposal, almost entirely due to aggressive and effective lobbying by the state’s district attorneys.  And in Pennsylvania the House of Representatives recently passed a bill (which still languishes in the Senate) reinstating drug-focused mandatory minimums that had been invalidated by the state’s supreme court; despite a majority of voters of all ideological stripes opposing the bill, it passed unanimously thanks to the concerted efforts of the state’s prosecutors.

In other words, as reformers start to pay closer attention to the power of prosecutors, they need to keep their eyes not just on how prosecutors have driven up incarceration rates in their day-to-day decisions — like deciding how many people to charge with felony charges or what type of sentence to impose on them during plea bargaining — but also on how they shape the broader politics of criminal justice.  Many former prosecutors are now judges and legislators, and current district attorneys frequently work hard to impose tougher laws and to stifle reform.  Regulating prosecutors will require looking at not just their direct powers, but their significant indirect political influence as well.

February 25, 2018 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Prez Trump reportedly "would love to have a law to execute all drug dealers here in America"

The quoted portion of the title of this post comes from this new Axios report by Jonathan Swan headlined "Trump privately talks up executing all big drug dealers." The piece is notable for more than just the death penalty talk, and here are extended excerpts:

In Singapore, the death penalty is mandatory for drug trafficking offenses.  And President Trump loves it.  He’s been telling friends for months that the country’s policy to execute drug traffickers is the reason its drug consumption rates are so low.  "He says that a lot," said a source who's spoken to Trump at length about the subject. "He says, 'When I ask the prime minister of Singapore do they have a drug problem [the prime minister replies,] 'No. Death penalty'."

But the president doesn't just joke about it. According to five sources who've spoken with Trump about the subject, he often leaps into a passionate speech about how drug dealers are as bad as serial killers and should all get the death penalty.  Trump tells confidants a softer approach to drug reform — the kind where you show sympathy to the offenders and give them more lenient sentences — will never work. He tells friends and associates the government has got to teach children that they'll die if they take drugs and they've got to make drug dealers fear for their lives.

Trump has said he would love to have a law to execute all drug dealers here in America, though he's privately admitted it would probably be impossible to get a law this harsh passed under the American system.

Kellyanne Conway, who leads the White House's anti-drug efforts, argues Trump's position is more nuanced, saying the president is talking about high-volume dealers who are killing thousands of people. The point he's making, she says, is that some states execute criminals for killing one person but a dealer who brings a tiny quantity of fentanyl into a community can cause mass death in just one weekend, often with impunity.

Trump may back legislation requiring a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for traffickers who deal as little as two grams of fentanyl.  Currently, you have to deal forty grams to trigger the mandatory five-year sentence. (The DEA estimates that as little as two milligrams is enough to kill people.)...

Conway told me this kind of policy would have widespread support. “There is an appetite among many law enforcement, health professionals and grieving families that we must toughen up our criminal and sentencing statutes to match the new reality of drugs like fentanyl, which are so lethal in such small doses,” she said. "The president makes a distinction between those that are languishing in prison for low-level drug offenses and the kingpins hauling thousands of lethal doses of fentanyl into communities, that are responsible for many casualties in a single weekend."

Trump wants to get tough on drug traffickers and pharmaceutical companies. Stay tuned for policy announcements in the not-too-distant future. Trump and some of his advisers are discussing whether they might adopt other aspects of Singapore's "zero tolerance" drug policies, like bringing more anti-drug education into schools.

Notably, Section 109 of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 that just recently passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee includes a five-year mandatory consecutive term of imprisonment for dealing fentanyl.  So the report that "Trump may back legislation requiring a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for traffickers who deal as little as two grams of fentanyl" may be a reference to this provision of the SRCA or it might be a reference to another piece of proposed legislation.  Either way, it would seem that Prez Trump is now inclined to embrace a punitive mind-set for dealing with the nation's drug problems (though, as this old press story reveals, he once previously said "you have to legalize drugs to win that war ...  to take the profit away from these drug czars.")

February 25, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

What a difference a DA can make: new Philly District Attorney taking new approach to juve lifer resentencings

This recent local article, headlined "Why Philly DA Krasner could let 180+ juvenile lifers out of prison early," reports on the impact the recently elected Philadelphia prosecutor is having local cases demanding resentencing in the wake of the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment ruling in Miller. Here are the details:

Philadelphia has sentenced more teens to life in prison with no chance of parole than any other jurisdiction in the world — and that meant it had the largest number to resentence after the U.S. Supreme Court two years ago ruled that its 2012 ban on mandatory life-without-parole sentences for minors must be applied retroactively.

As of this week, 127 out of approximately 315 juvenile lifers from Philadelphia have been resentenced. For those whose cases are still in process, the election of District Attorney Larry Krasner appears to have immediately and dramatically changed the outlook.

It means new deals are already on the table for 17 who had rejected offers made under the previous District Attorney’s Office, which mostly stuck close to current state sentencing guidelines that set minimums at 35 years to life for first-degree murder and 30 to life for second-degree murder. The latest offers make all but two of the lifers eligible for parole right away; it would also keep them all on parole for life. Some set minimums as low as 21 years for first-degree murder.

As for the remaining resentencings, Krasner said he intends to consider each case individually. Rather than relying on the sentencing guidelines, he said he would look to the historical, national and international context that has made Pennsylvania second in the nation in imposing life-without-parole sentences. “We are being consistent as we do our duty, which is to consider all these unique factors in resentencing,” he said. “It’s worth bearing in mind that Pennsylvania is an extreme outlier in excessive sentencing, and the United States is an extreme outlier in excessive sentencing.”

What’s unclear, however, is whether a Philadelphia judge will sign off on those agreements. At a recent status hearing, Common Pleas Judge Kathryn Streeter-Lewis, who is in charge of approving agreements in juvenile-lifer cases, asked the district attorney to submit briefs defending the deals’ legality in light of precedent-setting rulings by Pennsylvania’s appellate courts in the case of Qu’eed Batts, an Easton man who was 14 when he participated in a gang-related execution. In his case, the court acknowledged each judge has discretion to craft individualized minimum sentences, but said “sentencing courts should be guided” by current state law. “I understand that there is a different administration,” she said, but added, “Some of these [offers] are very much below the guidelines the decision required. … I’m going to need some reasons.”

One such case involved Avery Talmadge, who’s been locked up 22 years and was offered a time-served deal that — in a departure from past practice for the District Attorney’s Office — contemplates whether the original conviction was even appropriate. “The case was a street fight that turned into a shooting,” Assistant District Attorney Chesley Lightsey told Streeter-Lewis. “The [DAO’s internal resentencing] committee believes this is closer to a third-degree, though it was a first-degree conviction.” She said he also had an excellent prison record, reflecting the Supreme Court’s underlying rationale that kids, while impulsive and immature, also have a great capacity for rehabilitation.

Bradley Bridge of the Defender Association, which represents many of the lifers, believes the new offers will withstand judicial scrutiny — and that of the public. Krasner, he said, “sees the dangers of overincarceration and has come up with a meaningful solution.  He has reevaluated offers and, consistent with the protection of the public, has recognized that new offers can take into account to a more significant degree the juvenile’s growth while in prison.”...

Krasner said offers he’s approved so far have included minimums ranging between 40 years and just under 20 years.  He declined to specify a floor for minimum sentences. “I see no arbitrary number. We are approaching this the way the Anglo-American court system has approached these for centuries: on a case-by-case basis.”

February 25, 2018 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Contemplating the capital prosecution of Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz

The New York Times has this lengthy new article exploring some particulars and players involved in the possible capital prosecution in Florida of teenage mass murderer Nikolas Cruz. I recommend the full piece, headlined "After a Massacre, a Question of One More Death: The Gunman’s," and here are excerpts:

Among the suspects on the list of the country’s 10 worst mass shootings, Nikolas Cruz is alone in one thing: He was taken alive.  His arrest raises the rare prospect of a death penalty trial for a massacre, a huge undertaking with far-reaching consequences for all involved. Some would not be satisfied without an execution, while for others the trial itself would bring anguish.

The chief prosecutor here in Broward County has said that the killing of 17 people at a high school on Valentine’s Day “certainly is the type of case the death penalty was designed for.”  A trial may be the only opportunity to lay bare all of the facts.  But it would also likely be televised and followed by lengthy appeals, provoking years of public agony, as well as sustained attention for Mr. Cruz, who has already confessed.

Over years of mass shootings, from a university campus in Huntsville, Ala., to a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., prosecutors have struggled with this conundrum, testing political winds, spending days talking with survivors and families of the dead and reflecting on the intersection between morality and the oath of office.

Even Broward County’s public defender, whose office is representing Mr. Cruz and who wants to save his life, readily acknowledges the wrenching emotions that are part of a case that is only beginning. “If it were my daughter, I would want to personally kill my client, make no mistake about it,” said Howard Finkelstein, the public defender, an elected position. Later, though, he said that perhaps he would “try to go on and build a future. I don’t know what I would do. I just don’t know.”

Already, Mr. Finkelstein’s office has offered a way to avoid a trial: Mr. Cruz’s guilty plea in exchange for a punishment of 17 consecutive life sentences without parole. But Mr. Finkelstein recognizes that for some victims, that might not be enough: “I’m a father. I don’t know whether I would take my offer.”

Relatives of the victims of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., have not yet made their feelings about the death penalty widely known.  And it is not clear where Michael J. Satz, Broward County’s prosecutor, is in his deliberations.  He declined to comment.  Mr. Satz, who was elected state attorney when Gerald R. Ford was president, is regarded as a hard-edged prosecutor, but he is still likely to consider an array of factors, including the odds of persuading a jury.

Although jurors condemned men for massacres in Charleston, S.C., where nine churchgoers were killed, and at Fort Hood, Tex., where there were 13 fatalities, they spared the life of the Aurora gunman who killed 12, citing his history of mental illness. In the Huntsville shooting, the prosecutor said his conversations with the families of the victims were a reason he did not seek execution.

George Brauchler, the lead prosecutor in the Aurora case, said he had engaged in “serious soul-searching” about whether to pass up a plea deal and seek the death penalty. “This is as much a moral decision as it is a decision about justice, and that is not an easy decision to make,” he said....

A crucial consideration in potential capital cases, prosecutors and defense lawyers said, is whether failing to seek the death penalty in a mass shooting would set a precedent, making it more difficult to seek it in cases with lower death tolls. In Charleston, the federal government had a sharp internal debate, and met with resistance from family members of victims, before it decided to seek the death penalty against Dylann S. Roof....

For defense lawyers seeking to spare their client’s life, an appeal to efficiency is one of the few cards they can play — particularly when, as Mr. Finkelstein says, the “case is not a whodunit.” Expecting that Mr. Satz will seek the death penalty, Mr. Finkelstein and his deputies are already preparing for a “long, arduous legal battle” and intend to concentrate on jury selection. Because juries must unanimously recommend death sentences in Florida, a single juror could prevent execution. Mr. Finkelstein said the defense would likely focus on mental health and the accumulation of failures by government agencies to stop Mr. Cruz from opening fire....

In Florida, where 347 people are on death row after an execution on Thursday night, state law spells out a roster of aggravating factors and mitigating circumstances that jurors may consider in capital cases.  Aggravating factors, at least one of which must be proven for someone to be eligible for a death sentence, include a finding that a defendant “knowingly created a great risk of death to many persons” or that a homicide was “committed in a cold, calculated and premeditated manner.”

Mitigating circumstances, like a defendant’s age and whether he or she was under the “influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance” at the time of the crime, can legally tilt jurors toward a punishment of life in prison.  Mr. Finkelstein made plain that he is dreading any trial here, and not just for legal reasons. In his dimly lit office, he raspily declared a hope that “divine intervention” would persuade Mr. Satz to avoid a trial and an airing of the tragic details.

Prior related post:

February 25, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Notable video from American Conservative Union: "Unshackled - America's Broken Justice System"

Speakers such as Prez Trump and the head of the NRA got the most attention at this year's annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) received the most attention, but Friday's CPAC agenda included a General Session panel titled "Second Chance: The Conservative Stance on Criminal Justice Reform" as well as a breakout sessions titled "Dignity for Incarcerated Women: Is it Really Necessary to Shackle Women in Labor?." I have been noting in recent years the intriguing criminal justice reform programming appearing on the CPAC agenda, and now I see that the Center for Criminal Justice Reform of the American Conservative Union Foundation has a notable new video with conservative leaders discussing why modern criminal justice reform is a core conservative concern:

February 24, 2018 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, February 23, 2018

Interesting sentencing details as former Trump campaign official Rick Gates pleads guilty and faces significant prison time

In this post from October following their indictment, I highlighted that former campaign officials for Prez Trump, Paul Manifort and Rick Gates, could be facing very significant prison terms in light of the charges and potentially applicable sentencing guidelines. Today, as reported here by BuzzFeed News, "Rick Gates, a former Trump campaign aide and longtime associate of former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, pleaded guilty on Friday in the criminal case brought by special counsel Robert Mueller's office." And the BuzzFeed News report includes these interesting legal and practical sentencing particulars:

The two counts in the new criminal information each have a maximum penalty of five years in jail. According to Gates' plea agreement with the special counsel's office, he faces an estimated sentencing guidelines range of between 57 and 71 months in jail and a fine between $20,000 and $200,000; those numbers could change when the guidelines range is ultimately calculated, the judge noted.

Gates' lawyer Thomas Green told the judge that he reserved the right to argue for a lower sentence based on Gates' "disproportionate conduct" as compared to Manafort. Gates has agreed to cooperate with the special counsel's office. If prosecutors determine he has "provided substantial assistance," they have agreed to file a motion asking for a downward departure from the sentencing guidelines range. When Gates is sentenced, the government will dismiss the remaining counts in the original indictment as well as the new charges filed in Virginia.

As part of the plea deal, Gates agreed to delay his sentencing to give him time to cooperate. Asked how far out into the future the judge should set a deadline for the government to update the court on the status of the case, special counsel prosecutor Andrew Weissmann suggested three to four months. US District Judge Amy Berman Jackson set a deadline for a status report for May 14.

Gates spoke little during the plea hearing. He and Green declined to speak with reporters after the hearing as he exited the courthouse and got into a car.  He'll remain free pending sentencing, albeit subject to continued GPS monitoring and certain limits on his ability to travel beyond his home city of Richmond, Virginia.  He also had to agree to forfeit certain assets if he fled or failed to show up to court.

The folks at Lawfare have Gates's superseding criminal information and plea agreement now posted at this link. That agreement explains the ways in which the parties determine that "the applicable Guidelines Offense Level will be at least 25" which means the "estimated Sentencing Guidelines range is 57 months to 71." The plea agreement also speaks to potential departure arguments this way:

Your client agrees that, solely for the purposes of calculating the applicable range under the Sentencing Guidelines, a downward departure from the Estimated Guidelines Range set forth above is not warranted, subject to the paragraphs regarding cooperation below and the argument that the Guidelines do not adequately reflect the defendant's role in the offense.  Accordingly, you will not seek any departure or adjustment to the Estimated Guidelines Range set forth above, nor suggest that the Court consider such a departure or adjustment for any other reason other than those Specified above.  Your client also reserves the right to disagree with the Estimated Guideline Range calculated by the Office.  However, your client understands and acknowledges that the Estimated Guidelines Range agreed to by the Office is not binding on the Probation Office or the Court.  Should the Court or Probation Office determine that a different guidelines range is applicable, your client will not be permitted to withdraw his guilty plea on that basis, and the Government and your client will still be bound by this Agreement.

February 23, 2018 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Thursday, February 22, 2018

"A Pound of Flesh: The Criminalization of Private Debt"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new big ACLU report. Here part of its executive summary:

An estimated 77 million Americans — one in three adults — have a debt that has been turned over to a private collection agency. Thousands of these debtors are arrested and jailed each year because they owe money. Millions more are threatened with jail. The debts owed can be as small as a few dollars and can involve every kind of consumer debt, from car payments to utility bills to student loans to medical fees.  These trends devastate communities across the country as unmanageable debt and household financial crisis become ubiquitous, and they impact Black and Latino communities most harshly due to longstanding racial and ethnic gaps in poverty and wealth.

Debtors’ prisons were abolished by Congress in 1833 and are thought to be a relic of the Dickensian past.  In reality, private debt collectors — empowered by the courts and prosecutors’ offices — are using the criminal justice system to punish debtors and terrorize them into paying even when a debt is in dispute or when a debtor has no ability to pay.

The criminalization of private debt happens when judges, at the request of collection agencies, issue arrest warrants for people who failed to appear in court to deal with unpaid civil debt judgments. In many cases, the debtors were unaware they were sued or had not received notice to show up in court.  Tens of thousands of these warrants are issued annually, but the total number is unknown because states and local courts do not typically track these orders as a category of arrest warrants.

In a review of court records, the ACLU examined more than 1,000 cases in which civil court judges issued arrest warrants for debtors, sometimes to collect amounts as small as $28.  These cases took place in 26 states — Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin — and Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Even without arrest warrants, the mere threat of jail can be effective in extracting payment — even if that threat is legally unfounded. In the case of debts involving bounced checks, private collection companies now have contracts with more than 200 district attorneys’ offices that allow them to use the prosecutor’s seal and signature on repayment demand letters.  It’s estimated that more than 1 million consumers each year receive such letters threatening criminal prosecution and jail time if they do not pay up.  But review of company practices has documented that letters often falsely misrepresent the threat of prosecution as a means of coercing payments from unknowing consumers.

February 22, 2018 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Florida Supreme Court finds that state's Miller fix statute to death with Eighth Amendment problems has Alleyne Sixth Amendment problem

The Florida Supreme Court issues an interesting ruling today dealing with juvenile sentencing in Williams v. Florida, No. SC17-506 (Fla. Feb 22, 2018) (available here). Here are the basics from the start of the ruling: 

This case is before the Court for review of the decision of the Fifth District Court of Appeal in Williams v. State (Williams II), 211 So. 3d 1070 (Fla. 5th DCA 2017).  In its decision, the Fifth District ruled upon the following question certified to be of great public importance:


Id. at 1073. We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(4), Fla. Const. For the reasons explained below, we hold that Alleyne requires a jury to make the factual finding, but conclude that Alleyne violations are subject to harmless error review. Where the error cannot be deemed harmless, the proper remedy is to resentence the juvenile offender pursuant to section 775.082(1)(b)2., Florida Statutes (2016).

As the opinion goes on to explain, the statute here was passed when Florida had to comply with the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment Miller ruling precluding mandatory LWOP sentences for juvenile murderers.  The statute provides that a finding that "a juvenile offender actually killed, intended to kill, or attempted to kill the victim leads to a minimum forty-year sentence with a sentence review after twenty-five years — whereas a finding that the offender did not actually kill, intend to kill, or attempt to kill the victim results in there being no minimum sentence and a sentence review after fifteen years."

The Florida Supreme Court was unanimous here in concluding that this statute has to comply with Alleyne's Sixth Amendment ruling that jury trial rights extend to any fact that raises a binding minimum sentence.  Hard-core sentencing proceduralists might still want to check out the Court's discussion, especially because there is an interesting partial dissent that starts this way:

I agree with the majority that under Alleyne v. United States, 570 U.S. 99 (2013), the factual findings provided for in section 775.082(1)(b), Florida Statutes (2016), must be made by the jury and that the absence of such jury findings in this case requires reversal of the sentence imposed under section 775.082(1)(b)1. and resentencing in the trial court.  But I dissent from the majority’s direction regarding the remand, which requires imposition of the less severe sanction available under the statute.  Because the issue of the remedy on remand has not been briefed in this case, I would simply direct remand for resentencing rather than preclude jury proceedings that might result in imposition of the more severe sentence under the statute.

February 22, 2018 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

How many of the executions scheduled today in Alabama, Florida and Texas will be completed?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Reuters article which begins, "Alabama, Florida and Texas plan to execute inmates on Thursday and if carried out, it would be the first time in eight years that three people on death row have been executed on the same day."  Here is more about what could be a busy day in both courts and execution chambers:

But in each state there are reasons why the executions could be halted, including an unprecedented clemency recommendation in Texas, where all three of this year’s U.S. executions have been carried out.

In Florida, questions were raised about holding an execution based on a majority, not unanimous, jury decision. In Alabama, lawyers have said the death row inmate is too ill to be executed.

Alabama plans to execute Doyle Hamm, 61, at 6 p.m. local time for the 1987 murder of motel clerk Patrick Cunningham.

Hamm’s lawyers have said he has terminal cancer, adding years of intravenous drug use, hepatitis C, and untreated lymphoma have made his veins unstable for a lethal injection. However, a court-appointed doctor examined Hamm on Feb. 15 and found he had “numerous accessible and usable veins in both his upper and lower extremities,” according to court filings.

Texas plans to execute Thomas Whitaker, 38, for masterminding a 2003 plot against his family in which his mother Tricia, 51, and brother Kevin, 19, were killed.  His father Kent Whitaker was shot in the chest and survived.  The father, 69, a devout Christian and retired executive, has said he forgives his son and his family does not want him to be executed. In a clemency petition, he said if the death penalty is implemented, it would make his pain worse.

On Tuesday, the Texas paroles board in a unanimous decision recommended clemency, largely based on the request of a victim’s forgiving family.  Republican Governor Greg Abbott has final say, and has not yet announced if he plans to halt the execution.

Florida plans to execute Eric Branch, 47, for the 1993 murder of University of West Florida student Susan Morris. Lawyers for Branch appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on arguments including that the court has previously blocked a Florida provision that allows executions for a non-unanimous jury decision and it should do so again in this case.

February 22, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

"These guidelines exist in some kind of middle universe that I don't understand..."

1204504745fullresThe title of this post is one of my (many) favorite lines appearing in this Supreme Court oral argument transcript from yesterday's proceedings in Rosales-Mireles v. United States.  The case addresses whether a (small) guideline error will usually satisfy the plain error standard for correction of an error raised only on appeal, and I highly recommend that sentencing fans read the entire transcript.  There are too many amusing and interesting flourishes throughout the transcript to cover them all here, but this one little passage from early in the second part of the argument that provides a flavor of the overall direction of Justices' approach to this case:

JUSTICE KAGAN:  Mr. Ellis [Assistant to the Solicitor General arguing for the prosecution], Justice Gorsuch, when he was a judge, wrote this opinion which I'm sure you've read many times, and I just want to quote one sentence from it and then ask you what you think about it because he basically, you know, suggests why you maybe lose.

This rev up to a question from Justice Kagan is only one of many part of the transcript that leads me to think basically, you know, the government is going to lose this case. Evan Lee in his SCOTUSblog preview of the Rosales-Mireles argument highlighted effectively why this case is sure to be an up hill climb for the government, and little in this transcript suggests otherwise.

I have not yet noted who spoke the line I have used in this title of this post, and I suppose at this point it would be fun to encourage readers to guess.  I suspect hard-core Court watchers with sentencing affinity may readily be able to figure out who said this, but arguably any and every Justice (and any and every judges and any and every practitioner) sometimes feels that, post-Booker, the guidelines exist in some kind of "middle universe." 

At the risk of making inappropriate suggestions, I do think the Justice who spoke this particular line might be able to engender a special kind of new fandom if in the future he were to suggest that the federal sentencing guidelines "exist in some kind of Middle Earth." With a single line, J.R.R. Tolkien fans might start showing up at US Sentencing Commission hearings as well as giving this Justice the kinds of adoration some colleagues get. And then my students will finally understand why I often walk around clutching the US Sentencing Guidelines Manual saying "My Precious."

UPDATE: I see that Evan Lee now has this "Argument analysis" up at SCOTUSblog under the heading "Justices hint at categorical approach to correcting forfeited Sentencing Guidelines errors." Here is how it starts:

Sometimes, an appellate court uses oral argument to help it decide who ought to win.  Other times, the justices know who will win, and oral argument becomes an opportunity for the judges to use counsel as a sounding board as to how the opinion should be written. W ednesday’s Supreme Court oral argument in Rosales-Mireles v. United States had the earmarks of the latter.

February 22, 2018 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Former federal judge explains how severe sentencing and mandatory minimums prompted his resignation

Last year I remember reading this local article about former US District Judge Kevin Sharp leaving the federal bench after only six years.  The former judge's complaints about mandatory minimum sentencing realities were partially spelled out in that article, but now I see this notable new Cato piece titled "Powerless on the Bench" which reprints Sharp's accounting for his decision.  I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

Like a lot of judges who take the bench, I had limited experience in criminal law.  Criminal law is fairly simple — much simpler than the tax code or some of the other things that I had done.  But it soon became the hardest thing I did on the bench.  In civil cases, my rulings generally concerned money.  But in criminal cases, when I said the “sentence is imposed as stated,” somebody was placed in handcuffs and led away by a U.S. marshal.

Early on, I sentenced a young man, Antonio, who was 27.  He was charged as a felon in possession of a firearm.  He had been convicted of two armed robberies at 17 years old.  At 27, Antonio is doing what we all hope a criminal defendant does after being convicted: he gets a job.  He is in contact with his family.  He does not do drugs . He does not drink.  But Antonio had been doing one thing that he should not have been.

Antonio was driving down the street and, without being too graphic, he and his girlfriend were engaged in an activity that caused him to cross slightly over the double-yellow line. The police saw it and pulled him over.  The police suspected his girlfriend was a prostitute, so they split Antonio and his girlfriend up and asked them questions. The police realized based on her answers that she in fact was Antonio’s girlfriend. Then, the police said, “OK, we are going to let you go.  Oh, by the way, do you mind if we search your car?” Antonio, forgetting that he had an unloaded pistol under the front seat of his car, responded, “No, go ahead.”

Antonio was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm.  Because he was convicted as an adult in his prior crimes, his mandatory minimum sentence was 15 years.  I read his case and thought this could not be right.  Fifteen years? What are “mandatory minimums”?  I did not fully understand what they were at the time.  I spent the next several days trying to figure out how to get around the minimum sentence — it cannot be done.

Regrettably, I did what I had to do.  I sentenced Antonio to 15 years.  I thought to myself, “What in the world are we doing?  Why would the government take away my ability to fashion a fair sentence?  I know what a judge is supposed to consider in determining how to fashion a sufficient sentence.  What I have done is in no way, shape, or form an appropriate sentence.”

Several years later, I had the same conversation with myself.  This time, the case involved a 22-year-old kid, Chris Young.  He was caught up with a group of members of the Vice Lords, a gang known for running cocaine and crack through middle Tennessee.  Chris was not a member of this gang.  He was an aspiring rapper who would hang out with members of the Vice Lords because one of the gang members had a studio. He was occasionally asked to make crack, but he did not know how.

Chris was arrested as part of a 30-person indictment for drug conspiracy.  Chris was such a minor player in the drug conspiracy — he did not even know how to make crack.  I think the only reason the DEA arrested him was because he happened to be at a gas station when they took down the Vice Lords’ leader.  He was at the wrong place with the wrong group at the wrong time.  The only evidence showing Chris’s connection to the gang were tapes from their wiretaps where Chris is talking to the gang’s leader about how he cannot figure out why the crack he has cooked did not turn out right.  The leader gets frustrated and finally says, “I’ll just come over and do it myself.”  That was basically the extent of it.

The prosecutor told Chris, “You can plead guilty, and we will give you twelve years.”  Chris is 22 and thinks, “12 years, no! I’m so minor in all of this, I will go to and win at trial.”  His lawyer convinces him that he should not go to trial, given his two prior drug convictions (one for less than half a gram of crack, which is about a sugar packet of crack) and the penalty he could face if convicted again — a mandatory life sentence.  At this point, the prosecutor changes his mind and says, “12 years was last week’s price — this week’s price is 22 years, and if you turn this down, next week’s price may be higher.”  A 22-year-old, Chris thought, “22 years is life! I’ll take my chances at trial.” Only three people of this 30-person group arrested, by the way, went to trial.  Everybody else pled guilty.  At trial, these three people, who happened to also be the lowest members of this conspiracy, all got life in prison.  Every single one of them.  Yes, the Vice Lords were selling a lot of drugs, but not Chris, and not the other two defendants who also decided to go to trial.  They all are behind bars for life.

Chris Young grew up in the projects, did not know his father, and saw his mother in and out of jail for her drug addiction.  When his mother had been sent to jail, Chris and his brother would stay in the house without electricity, water, or money for food.  They would eat out of garbage cans or ask neighbors to give them food.  When they were tired of the way that they smelled, they asked neighbors if they could take a shower.  This is how Chris grew up.  His brother eventually died.  It is unclear as to whether he committed suicide or was murdered.  I could not consider any of his hardships.  I could only look at how he was charged, and his charges led to his mandatory life sentence....

Members of Congress, in their desire to be elected and reelected, often show how tough on crime they can be, and they say, “Look, mandatory minimums are necessary so that we can take discretion away from the judges.”  But these legislators have not taken away discretion, they have just moved it to the prosecutor, who has a dog in the hunt.  If somebody said, “Well wait a minute, let’s not allow the prosecutor to do it but the defense counsel,” they would say “You’re insane!  Why would you do that?”  My position, then, is why would you give discretion to the prosecutor?

Because of the way that I grew up, as I saw criminal defendants come through my court, I would think about how I may have gone to high school or have worked at an oil refinery with these people.  These were real people who faced real consequences.  And, despite my position, I was told what to say.  I was just a messenger.  And I thought to myself, “Somebody else can be a messenger.  If real change is going to be made, then I need to do that on the other side of the bench.  Sure, I am giving up a lifetime appointment, but am I going to walk in here every day and do things that I do not think are just? The government can pay me for life to do that, but that is not enough for me.  The government does not pay me enough for this — I cannot be paid enough to do this.”

February 21, 2018 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

SCOTUS issues opinions on fees for prisoner suits and the impact of guilty pleas

The Supreme Court this morning handed down four new opinions in argued cases, and these two should be of interest to criminal justice fans:

Murphy v. Smith: "GORSUCH, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C.J., and KENNEDY, THOMAS, and ALITO, JJ., joined. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which GINSBURG, BREYER, and KAGAN, JJ., joined." From the start and end of the opinion for the Court:

This is a case about how much prevailing prisoners must pay their lawyers. When a prisoner wins a civil rights suit and the district court awards fees to the prisoner’s attorney, a federal statute says that “a portion of the [prisoner’s] judgment (not to exceed 25 percent) shall be applied to satisfy the amount of attorney’s fees awarded against the defendant. If the award of attorney’s fees is not greater than 150 percent of the judgment, the excess shall be paid by the defendant.” 42 U. S. C. §1997e(d)(2). Whatever else you might make of this, the first sentence pretty clearly tells us that the prisoner has to pay some part of the attorney’s fee award before financial responsibility shifts to the defendant. But how much is enough? Does the first sentence allow the district court discretion to take any amount it wishes from the plaintiff ’s judgment to pay the attorney, from 25% down to a penny? Or does the first sentence instead mean that the court must pay the attorney’s entire fee award from the plaintiff ’s judgment until it reaches the 25% cap and only then turn to the defendant? ....

At the end of the day, what may have begun as a close race turns out to have a clear winner. Now with a view of the full field of textual, contextual, and precedential evidence, we think the interpretation the court of appeals adopted prevails. In cases governed by §1997e(d), we hold that district courts must apply as much of the judgment as necessary, up to 25%, to satisfy an award of attorney’s fees.

Class v. United States: "BREYER, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C.J., and GINSBURG, SOTOMAYOR, KAGAN, and GORSUCH, JJ., joined. ALITO, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which KENNEDY and THOMAS, JJ., joined."  From the start of the opinion for the Court:

Does a guilty plea bar a criminal defendant from later appealing his conviction on the ground that the statute of conviction violates the Constitution?  In our view, a guilty plea by itself does not bar that appeal.

For a host of reasons, Class is much more consequential, and I hope to find some time to blog more about the opinion in the days ahead. In the meantime, I welcome comments on both the substance and division of the Justices in this latest SCOTUS activity.

February 21, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Texas board recommends clemency for condemned killer for first time in over a decade

As reported in this local article, headlined "In rare move, Texas parole board recommends clemency for death row inmate Thomas Whitaker," the state which executes the most murderers in modern times is the locale for a rare clemency recommendation for the next scheduled to die. Here are the details:

In an exceedingly rare move, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles voted Tuesday to recommend a lesser sentence for a death row inmate facing execution.

The board voted unanimously in favor of clemency for Thomas Bartlett Whitaker, a man who is set to die on Thursday evening. The decision now falls on Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who can approve or deny the recommendation to change Whitaker’s death sentence to life in prison. The last time the board recommended clemency for a death row inmate was in 2007.

Abbott said at a political rally Tuesday night that he and his staff would base his decision on the facts, circumstances and law. “Any time anybody's life is at stake, that's a very serious matter,” Abbott said. “And it deserves very serious consideration on my part.”

Whitaker, 38, was convicted in the 2003 murders of his mother and 19-year-old brother as part of a plot to get inheritance money. His father, Kent Whitaker, was also shot in the attack but survived and has consistently begged for a life sentence for his son.

“Victims’ rights should mean something in this state, even when the victim is asking for mercy and not vengeance,” Kent Whitaker said at a press conference at the Texas Capitol just before the board’s vote came in.

Keith Hampton, Thomas Whitaker's lawyer, choked up when announcing to the family and the press that the board had recommended clemency. Kent Whitaker's wife cried out and grabbed Whitaker, who let out a sob and held his head in his hands. “Well, we’re going to the governor’s office right now,” Hampton said.

In December 2003, Thomas Whitaker, then 23, came home from dinner with his family knowing that his roommate Chris Brashear was waiting there to kill them, according to court documents. When they entered the house, Brashear shot and wounded Thomas’ father and killed his mother, Patricia, and 19-year-old brother, Kevin. Suspicion turned toward Whitaker in the murder investigation the next June, and he fled to Mexico, according to court documents. He was arrested more than a year later, and his father begged the Fort Bend County District Attorney’s Office not to seek the death penalty.

Whitaker offered to plead guilty to two life sentences, but the prosecution rejected the offer, saying Whitaker wasn’t remorseful and was being manipulative, court records show. They sought the death penalty, and in March 2007, they got it. Brashear was given a life sentence.

Fred Felcman, the original prosecutor in the case, said Tuesday that the parole board made its decision only because of the father’s forgiveness and seemingly didn't take into account the large number of other people affected by the murders, including the victims, the county, the jury and Patricia’s family. He said the board also disregarded testimony from psychiatrists and their own investigators who said Whitaker was manipulative. “I’m trying to figure out why [the board members] think they should commute this, and why the governor should even give it a second thought,” said Felcman, who is first assistant district attorney at Fort Bend County....

Attached to Whitaker’s petition to the board were letters from former prison guards and at least seven death row inmates who thought the condemned man deserved the lesser sentence of life in prison. Kent Whitaker said Tuesday that the guards said he was never a threat, and one said he’d be an asset in general population.

Death row inmates attested to Whitaker’s helpful presence in a prison environment, saying he encouraged them to better themselves, helped those with mental illness and could easily calm inmates down. William Speer, who has been on death row since 2001 for a prison murder, wrote in 2011 that the prison system needs more men like Whitaker to keep other inmates calm. “Of all the people I have met over the years Thomas Whitaker is the person I believe deserves clemency the most,” Speer wrote, according to the petition. “He is one of the best liked inmates on this farm by the guards and other inmates, and he has worked the hardest to rehabilitate himself.”...

Despite the board’s surprise recommendation on Tuesday afternoon, Whitaker was still scheduled for execution on Thursday after 6 p.m. If Abbott rejects the recommendation and the Supreme Court justices dismiss his appeals, he will become the fourth man executed in Texas — and the nation — in 2018. There are three other executions scheduled in Texas through May.

Prior related post:

February 21, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Split en banc Fifth Circuit holds that Texas burglary convictions do not serve as predicates for federal Armed Career Criminal Act

I long ago gave up trying to keep up with all the intricate litigation and jurisprudence in circuit courts dealing with predicate offenses that can trigger the severe mandatory minimum sentences of the Armed Career Criminal Act.  But every so often, a big ACCA ruling comes down the pike, and today is one of those days as an en banc Fifth Circuit, splitting 8-7, has decided Texas burglary convictions cannot serve as an ACCA predicate.  The majority ruling by Judge Higginbotham in US v. Herrold, No. 14-11317 (5th Cir. Feb. 20, 2018)  (available for download below), gets off to this interesting start and then summarizes its holding 30+ pages later:

Three decades ago, Congress set the courts upon a new course for the sentencing of federal defendants, moving away from a long-in-place system that gave wide discretion to federal judges to impose sentences from nigh no prison time to effective life sentences.

But this discretion was not so wide in practice as in appearance — the judge’s sentence gave way when the prisoner left the court for prison.  The total time served by the prisoner was on his arrival determined in the main by a parole commission.  The commission determined release dates, and in a rough and crude way — relative to the work of the Sentencing Commission — anticipated the system now in place by using a scoring system that looked in part to a defendant’s criminal history.  In response to charges from the Left of disparate and from the Right of anemic sentencing, and thus with the support of both ends of the political spectrum, Congress shifted the focus to a defendant’s individual circumstances on the one hand and mandatory minimum sentences tailored to particular crimes on the other.  With much work from its newly erected Sentencing Commission, nourished by reflection, essential empirical study, and judges tasked with applying its regulations, this reform effort appears to now be understood by bench and bar, enjoying a measure of well-earned credibility.  Yet its relatively calibrated system of adjustments struggles with rifle-shot statutory efforts deploying an indeterminate calculus for identification of repetitive, sentence-enhancing conduct that add on to the sentence produced by the guidelines, such as the Armed Career Criminal Act. In setting a federal criminal sentence the district judge looks, in part, to both the number and type of a defendant’s prior convictions, a task complicated by the statute’s effort to draw on criminal conduct bearing differing labels and boundaries set by the various states.  Today, we continue to refine our efforts....

To summarize, the burglary provisions encoded in Texas Penal Code §§ 30.02(a)(1) and (3) are indivisible. Texas Penal Code § 30.02(a)(3) is nongeneric because it criminalizes entry and subsequent intent formation rather than entry with intent to commit a crime.  For these reasons, Herrold’s ACCA sentence enhancement cannot stand. We VACATE and REMAND to the district court to resentence him in accordance with our decision today. 

A lengthy dissent authored by Judge Haynes provides a succinct account of why this ruling is a big deal (and could be SCOTUS bound):

The majority opinion upends years of well-settled law. Just over a year ago, this court confirmed that Texas Penal Code § 30.02(a) is a divisible statute, and the Supreme Court denied certiorari.  United States v. Uribe, 838 F.3d 667 (5th Cir. 2016), cert. denied, 137 S. Ct. 1359 (2017). The effect of the majority opinion, in addition to unsettling established precedent, is to render all burglary convictions in the second-most populous state in the country nullities as far as the ACCA is concerned.  That is no small thing. In just a single year, Texans reported 152,444 burglaries, all of which now escape the ACCA’s reach. See TEX. DEP’T PUB. SAFETY, CRIME IN TEXAS 2015 6 (2015),  From this misguided determination, I respectfully dissent.

Download Herrold slip op

February 20, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Notable account of a notable juror whose note had a notable impact on a scheduled Ohio execution

Prior posts here and here discussed a letter from a former juror in an Ohio capital case that prompted Governor John Kasich to grant a reprieve based on mitigating evidence that the juror said would have changed his vote at the penalty phase.  This story is told in full form in this new local article, headlined "This man stopped a Cincinnati killer's execution. Here's why he did it." Here are excerpts:

Ross Geiger isn’t some kind of activist when it comes to the death penalty. He’s never organized a candlelight vigil or stood outside a prison protesting an execution. He wants to be clear about that. “Everybody thinks I’m a crusader or something,” Geiger said. “They think I have no sympathy for the victims. That’s just not true.”

Yet Geiger did something last week that anti-death penalty activists rarely do. He stopped an execution. Earlier this year, the Loveland man wrote a letter to Gov. John Kasich because he was worried about the case of Raymond Tibbetts, a Cincinnati man who beat to death his wife, Sue Crawford, and stabbed to death his landlord, Fred Hicks, on the same day in 1997.

Geiger’s letter carried weight with Kasich, who delayed Tibbetts’ Feb. 13 execution until at least October, because Geiger served on the jury that convicted Tibbetts and recommended his death sentence....

Records related to Tibbetts’ clemency case with the parole board showed far more detail about Tibbetts’ background than was presented at the trial, Geiger said. He’d been abused as a child, put into foster care as a toddler and endured years of abuse and neglect, along with his siblings, the records showed.

At the trial, the jurors heard from a psychiatrist who’d examined Tibbetts, but no other witnesses. No family members. No other mental health professionals. None of the people Geiger found in the clemency paperwork. “I was astounded by the amount of material that was available (for the trial) that I never saw,” Geiger said. “There was an obvious breakdown in the system.”

The more he thought about it, Geiger said, the more upset he got. “The state had a duty to give me access to the information I needed to make the best decision I could,” he said. “It’s like if you have to take a big test, but you were deprived of the textbook.”

Geiger thought a long time about what he should do. He’s not a rabble rouser by nature. He’s raised two kids in suburban Cincinnati and works in the financial world. He considers himself a libertarian and said he was a rock-solid Republican at the time of the trial. He said he’s not opposed to the death penalty and he doesn’t believe he’s second-guessing the decision he made as Juror No. 2 in Tibbetts’ case. Given what he knew at the time, he said, the decision he made was correct.

But now he believes there is more he should have known. “I don’t really view it as changing my mind because the information wasn’t available at the time I was asked to make the decision,” Geiger said. “Based on the information available now, I don’t think justice was served in the case of Tibbetts.”

The appeals courts did not agree. A divided U.S. 6th Circuit panel ruled against Tibbetts, concluding any evidence the jurors didn’t hear would have been insufficient to change their minds about Tibbetts’ “moral culpability for such a brutal and horrific crime.” Prosecutors also have dismissed Geiger’s concerns. They say trials can’t be retried over and over every time a juror has second thoughts about a decision.

Kasich isn’t necessarily convinced, either. His reprieve gives the parole board time to reconsider clemency, but guarantees nothing. The execution still is set for Oct. 17.

Asked how he’d feel if Tibbetts died on that day, Geiger struggled to answer. He said he believes he did his job 20 years ago at the trial, and he believes he’s doing the right thing now by speaking up. “My motivation in writing that letter wasn’t to save an individual’s life,” Geiger said. “My prime motivation was to point out the errors.

“If we are going to trust the state to be our agents to execute people, then the state has a duty to get it right.”

Prior related posts:

February 20, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)