Thursday, January 29, 2015

Intriguing review of early impact of California's Prop 47 reducing offense seriousness

La-me-g-early-release-20150127Though marijuana reform is the national criminal justice reform story most significantly driven by voter initiatives, voters in California the last two major election cycles have been enacting significant sentencing reforms through the initiative process.  In 2012, voters approved Proposition 36 to revise the state's tough Three Strikes Law; last year, voters passed Proposition 47 to reduced various crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. These developments provide yet another reason to view California as the most interesting and dynamic of all states in the history of modern sentencing reform.

The Los Angeles Times now has this lengthy new article detailing some early impacts of Prop 47. The piece is headlined "Prop. 47 brings a shift to longer time spent behind bars," and here are excerpts:

For decades, Los Angeles County jail inmates divided their sentences by five, 10 or 20 to calculate the time they would actually spend behind bars. Because of overcrowding, they left after completing as little as 5% of their sentences.

Now, as Proposition 47 begins to reshape the California criminal justice system, they are serving much more of their time. The new law, passed by voters Nov. 4, reduced drug possession and other minor crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. The county jail population plummeted and sheriff's officials began increasing the time served for the remaining inmates to 90% or more.

Most of the affected inmates will end up serving only half of that, due to automatic credits prescribed by state law, but the change is still profound. Because of Proposition 47, others who would have landed in jail are not being arrested as street cops take a pass because of the low stakes. At the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, bookings are down by 23% and narcotics-related arrests are down 30%.

Other California counties are also seeing significant decreases in their jail populations as a result of the new law. In Los Angeles County, the altered landscape has led to renewed questions about how big the new Men's Central Jail should be, as well as concerns about whether those now being issued misdemeanor citations are missing out on drug treatment that could turn their lives around.

Under the new law, the cost savings from smaller county jail populations, which the state legislative analyst estimated could be hundreds of millions of dollars, will be channeled into substance abuse and mental health programs, victim services and reducing school dropouts and truancy.

But some, including law enforcement officials, worry that people who need help will not enter the system. Already, fewer are opting for mandatory drug treatment programs because they face little to no jail time as an alternative. "What concerns me is that some of those offenders were getting treatment," said Gardena Police Chief Ed Medrano, the Los Angeles County representative for the California Police Chiefs Assn., which lobbied against Proposition 47. "If they're getting arrested less, that doesn't mean their drug addiction problems have gone away."

Early release has been a near-constant feature in Los Angeles since 1988, when a federal judge allowed sentenced inmates to be let out early as a temporary solution to overcrowding. Many inmates were freed after serving only 10% of their time. A 2006 Times investigation found that nearly 16,000 were rearrested for new offenses while they could have been finishing out their sentences. Sixteen were charged with murder....

Over the years, the county has tried solutions including electronic monitoring, work programs and firefighting camps. But nothing had a dramatic impact until Proposition 47 passed with nearly 60% of the vote.

More than 400 county jail inmates have been released in the last three months because their crimes — which include theft and writing bad checks as well as drug possession — have been downgraded to misdemeanors under Proposition 47. That, combined with the reduced number of arrests, helped bring the jail population down to a low of about 15,000 from 18,600. Since early release has been scaled back, the inmate count has rebounded to about 17,400.

Inmates with county sentences for burglary, theft, DUI and the like are now serving 90% of their terms, whereas men had been serving 20% and women serving 10%. Those convicted of more serious offenses such as child molestation or assault with a deadly weapon are now serving 100% of their terms, compared with 40% previously. About 3,000 inmates are serving the longer county sentences; most of those serving state sentences are not affected.

The smaller jail population has allowed sheriff's officials to complete overdue repairs and has freed up more space for educational programs, Cmdr. Jody Sharp said. Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey praised the news that serious offenders in Los Angeles County are now serving most of their terms, calling it "a positive and welcome effect" that could help her office strike better plea deals. "Every defendant asks the following question: 'When can I get out?' " Lacey said. "If the 'when can I get out' is far in the future, it could impact if they plead guilty early or if they demand a trial."

Lacey emphasized that keeping a close eye on crime and recidivism rates will be key to understanding the full impact of the new law.

In Orange County, the inmate count has dropped nearly 22% since Proposition 47 took effect after the election, allowing sheriff's officials to close a section of the James A. Musick jail. Previously, there were no extra beds for new arrivals on the long weekends when court was not in session. "Now, we've got the luxury of not waiting on pins and needles — now we have some space," said Lt. Jeff Hallock, a department spokesman.

This report provides early evidence that Prop 47 has succeeded in redirecting California's state law enforcement and correction resources principally to the most serious offenders presenting the greatest risk to public safety.  Of course, long-term developments and analyses will been needed to conclusively assess whether the Prop 47 reform is an unqualified success.  But this early report sure is encouraging (and perhaps explains why the folks at Crime & Consequences, who had substantive posts assailing Prop 47 before the November vote, have not substantively discussed the law since its passage).

Some prior related posts on California's Prop 47:

January 29, 2015 in Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

"Lynch to Cast Herself as Departure From Holder in Bid to Be Attorney General"

The title of this post is the headline of this New York Times article previewing the start today of hearings concerning President Obama's nomination for Eric Holder's replacement as Attorney General. Here is how the article starts:

Loretta E. Lynch on Wednesday will cast herself as an apolitical career prosecutor who is a departure from Eric H. Holder Jr. when she faces a new Republican-­controlled Judiciary Committee that includes some of the administration’s fiercest critics in Congress.

“I look forward to fostering a new and improved relationship with this committee, the United States Senate, and the entire United States Congress — a relationship based on mutual respect and constitutional balance,” Ms. Lynch said in testimony prepared for the confirmation hearing.  “Ultimately, I know we all share the same goal and commitment: to protect and serve the American people.”

If she is confirmed, Ms. Lynch would be the nation’s first African-American woman to serve as attorney general.  Her allies have sought to differentiate her from Mr. Holder, an outspoken liberal voice in the administration who clashed frequently with Republicans who accused him of politicizing the office.

In particular, Ms. Lynch is expected to face tough questioning about her opinion of the president’s decision to unilaterally ease the threat of deportation for millions of unauthorized immigrants.  Mr. Holder approved the legal justification for that action, enraging some Republicans.

In these hearings, I am expecting some Senators to ask some questions about sentencing reform and federal marijuana policy. I hope to be able to provide some coverage and commentary about what gets asked and what nominee-Lynch says in future posts.

Prior related posts:

January 28, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Did feds just win the drug war?: kingpin twin drug dealers get kingly sentencing break thanks to cooperation

ImagesAs detailed in this AP story, headlined "Trafficking Twins Get Sharply Reduced Sentences," the sentencing benefits of cooperating with the government was on full display yesterday in a Chicago federal courtroom. Here are the details:

Identical twin brothers who ran a drug-trafficking ring that spanned much of North America were sentenced Tuesday to 14 years in prison after a judge agreed to sharply reduce their penalty as a reward for becoming government informants and secretly recording Mexico's most notorious drug lord.

In a rare courtroom display, it was a federal prosecutor who poured praise on Pedro and Margarito Flores, portraying them as among the most valuable traffickers-turned-informants in U.S. history and describing the courage they displayed in gathering evidence against Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and other leaders in Mexico's Sinaloa cartel.

With credit for time served awaiting sentencing and for good behavior in prison, the brothers, now 33, could be out in as little as six years.

Chief U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo likened Americans' sense of security to walls and scolded the brothers for introducing drugs that fueled violence and despair. "You devastated those walls. You knocked them down," he said.  The twins' cooperation was the only thing that spared them from an actual life sentence, Castillo told the brothers. But, he added, they would still serve a life sentence of sorts — having to look over their shoulders the rest of their lives in constant fear of a deadly attack by an assassin working for the cartel they betrayed.

Castillo said the twins were the most significant traffickers ever in his court.  But he said he had also never seen traffickers at the height of their power and wealth come forward to offer to become government witnesses, as the siblings had.

The twins appeared in court with the same olive-green clothes and the same closely cropped haircuts. Both kept tapping one foot nervously throughout the hourlong hearing. Just before the judge imposed a sentence, each walked to a podium separately to speak, appearing uneasy. "I'm ashamed. I'm embarrassed. I'm regretful," Margarito Flores said. "There is no excuse."

So successful was their criminal enterprise that the jewelry-loving, Maserati-driving twins smuggled $1.8 billion — wrapped in plastic and duct tape — into Mexico, according to prosecutors....

Prosecutor Mike Ferrara had asked for a sentence of around 10 years. He noted the twins' cooperation led to indictments of Guzman and more than 50 others. The twins began cooperating with agents in 2008 and engaged cartel leaders for months, sometimes switching on recorders and shoving them in their pockets. They continually risked death, Ferrara said.

The 5-foot-4 twins' trafficking careers soared after they left Chicago to live in Mexico around 2004. In mid-2005, they met with Guzman in his secret mountain compound to cut major drug deals, government filings said. The brothers ran their operation from a Mexican ranch. Their network stretched from its Chicago hub to New York, Detroit and Washington, D.C., and to Los Angeles and Vancouver, British Columbia....

Later Tuesday, Chicago-based U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon announced new charges against several Sinaloa figures stemming from the twins' cooperation. Asked about their lenient sentences and the message it sent to other would-be cartel traffickers, Fardon said it should demonstrate, "You can right some of what you did wrong ... by helping the government."

So does this all mean that the federal drug war can be declared officially over, and that we can claim the good guys officially won this 50-year costly war?  After all, this was a sentencing of two of the most significant drug traffickers, and they have become the "most valuable traffickers-turned-informants in U.S. history."  Surely this must scare off and deter all other current and would-be drug dealers and all the trillions in taxpayer dollars spent on the drug war has now been vindicated as money well spent.  

Of course, I am asking the question above and in the title of this post with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek.  A key problem with the drug war, as I see it, is that even a huge drug war "victory" in catching and prosecuting some drug dealers typically will make it that much more valuable and enticing for other drug dealers to seek to replace the captured criminals.  I fear that , unless and until illegal drug demand is reduced,  illegal drug suppliers will be plentiful in part because the drug war makes their activities potentially much more lucrative.  

January 28, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

"The Humane Death Penalty Charade"

The title of this post is the headline of this New York Times editorial.  Here are excerpts:

When the United States at last abandons the abhorrent practice of capital punishment, the early years of the 21st century will stand out as a peculiar period during which otherwise reasonable people hotly debated how to kill other people while inflicting the least amount of constitutionally acceptable pain.

The Supreme Court stepped back into this maelstrom on Friday, when it agreed to hear Warner v. Gross, a lawsuit brought by four Oklahoma deathrow inmates alleging that the state’s lethal­injection drug protocol puts them at risk of significant pain and suffering.

In accepting the case, the justices had to change its name.  The lead plaintiff, Charles Warner, was executed on Jan. 15 after the court, by a vote of 5-­to-­4, denied him a last­minute stay.  That may sound strange until you consider that while it takes only four justices to accept a case for argument, it takes five to stay an execution.  The case is now named for another inmate, Richard Glossip. (On Monday, the Oklahoma attorney general requested temporary stays of the impending executions of Mr. Glossip and the other two plaintiffs.)...

The justices have been here before.  They upheld the constitutionality of lethal injection in 2008.  But, since then, the battles over the practice have grown more warped.  Many drug makers now refuse to supply their products for killing, leaving states to experiment on their inmates with other drugs, often acquired under cover of official secrecy and administered by authorities with no medical training.  During a hearing last month on Oklahoma’s protocol, a state witness who testified that midazolam is effective appeared to rely on the website drugs.com, not scientific studies.  It would all be a laughable farce if it didn’t involve killing people.

There is disingenuousness on both sides.  Many who oppose the death penalty, this page included, are obviously not interested in identifying more “humane” methods of execution; the idea itself is a contradiction in terms.  Nor are many capital punishment supporters concerned with how much suffering a condemned person might endure in his final moments.  In the middle sit the armchair executioners who engage in macabre debates about the relative efficiency of, say, nitrogen gas.

It is time to dispense with the pretense of a pain­free death.  The act of killing itself is irredeemably brutal and violent. If the men on death row had painlessly killed their victims, that would not make their crimes any more tolerable.  When the killing is carried out by a state against its own citizens, it is beneath a people that aspire to call themselves civilized.

I love the phrase "armchair executioners," even though I could not help reacting with a classic "Taxi Driver" response.

Recent related posts:

January 27, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, January 26, 2015

"Beyond a Reasonable Disagreement: Judging Habeas Corpus"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Noam Biale now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This Article addresses ongoing confusion in federal habeas corpus doctrine about one of the most elemental concepts in law: reasonableness.  The Supreme Court recently announced a new standard of reasonableness review for habeas cases, intended to raise the bar state prisoners must overcome to obtain federal relief.  This new standard demands that errors in state court decisions be so profound that “no fairminded jurist could disagree” that the result is incorrect. Scholars have decried the rigid and exacting nature of this standard, but very little interpretive work has yet been done to theorize what it means and how it should be used.

This Article develops a theoretical framework for understanding the new habeas standard and shows that the assumptions lower courts are making about its meaning are wrong. It concludes that federal courts need more data beyond the mere possibility of fairminded disagreement to find that a decision is reasonable.  The Article draws on scholarship and jurisprudence in other areas of law that employ reasonableness standards, and argues that the missing data should be supplied by examining the state adjudicative process.  The case for focusing on state process in federal habeas cases is not new, but this Article represents the first argument that the new habeas standard not only permits such a focus but, in fact, requires it.

January 26, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

The SCOTUS culture of death: "Execution Case Highlights the Power of One Vote"

The title of this post is drawn from the headline of this New York Times piece by Adam Liptak that highlights why the Supreme Court's decision on Friday to grant cert to review Oklahoma's execution protocol is so interesting and creates much death penalty drama for this coming week and the months ahead.  Here is how the piece starts:

There are nine justices on the Supreme Court.  It takes four votes to hear a case, but it takes five to stay an execution.

That can leave a lethal gap.  A death penalty case can be important enough to claim a spot on the court’s docket of perhaps 75 cases a year.  But the prisoner who brought it may not live to see the decision.

In agreeing on Friday to hear a challenge to the chemicals Oklahoma uses to execute condemned prisoners, the court brought fresh attention to the life-or-­death importance of a single vote.  The lead petitioner in Friday’s case, Charles F. Warner, was already dead. He was executed eight days earlier, after the Supreme Court refused to stay his execution. The vote was 5 to 4.

“What happened to Charles Warner was not an isolated glitch,” said Eric M. Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University and the author of a new article on the court’s voting procedures in capital cases. “It was a typical, if high­-visibility, example of a systemic flaw in the machinery of justice that has gone unrepaired for far too long.”

The case the court agreed to hear used to be called Warner v. Gross, No. 14­7955.  On Friday, taking account of Mr. Warner’s death, the court changed it to Glossip v. Gross, No. 14­7955. It may change again.  The new lead petitioner, Richard Glossip, is scheduled to be executed on Thursday.  The other two petitioners in the case also have execution dates in coming weeks, all of them well before the court is expected to hear arguments in the case, in April.  

The Supreme Court did not say on Friday whether it would stay the other three executions. In a statement, Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s attorney general, made a pointed reference to the fact that it took only four votes to grant review.  He seemed to indicate that the state was prepared to proceed with the executions.

The petitioners’ lawyers will doubtless seek stays.  In Mr. Glossip’s case, they will have to act quickly.  How the court responds will illuminate the current vitality of its fitful commitment to a procedure it sometimes uses to bridge the voting gap: the “courtesy fifth” vote to stay executions.  Such votes are said to be available once the court makes a formal decision to grant review of a condemned prisoner’s case.

Recent related posts:

January 26, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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

PSPP_Fed_Growth_FS_fig1The question in the title of this post is part of my reaction to this new fact sheet released by the Pew Public Safety Performance Project. The Pew document is titled "Growth in Federal Prison System Exceeds States': Federal imprisonment rate, taxpayer costs soar as states curtail expansion, protect public safety," and here is how it starts (footnoted omitted):

Between 1980 and 2013, the federal imprisonment rate increased 518 percent, from 11 inmates for every 100,000 U.S. residents to 68.  During the same period, annual spending on the federal prison system rose 595 percent, from $970 million to more than $6.7 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars.  Prison expenditures grew from 14 percent of the Justice Department’s total outlays to 23 percent, increasingly competing for resources with law enforcement and national security programs.

States, like the federal government, recorded sharp increases in incarceration and corrections costs over the past three decades.  However, between 2007 and 2013, many states made research-driven policy changes to control prison growth, reduce recidivism, and contain costs. While the federal imprisonment rate continued to rise during that period, the state rate declined.

Folks like Bill Otis and some other defenders of the modern state of the modern federal criminal justice system are often suspect when I (and others like Senator Rand Paul and Grover Norquist) assert that a true commitment to conservative values should prompt serious questions about the size and operation of federal criminal justice system.  And I fully understand how folks committed to certain social conservative values, and who also believe the federal government should be actively promoting certain social values, can continue to support strongly the federal war on drugs and ever-increasing federal expenditures in service to promoting certain social values.

But, as the title of this post suggests, I do not understand how anyone who is truly committed to fiscal conservative values is not now compelled to examine whether it is wise to keep spending/borrowing more and more federal monies to keep growing the federal prison system.  As this Pew document and many others have highlighted, a significant number of states have been able to reduce its spending on incarceration over the last decade without any obvious harmful impact on public safety.  My advocacy for federal sentencing reform is based largely on the hope and belief that the feds can now do the same.

January 26, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

High-profile capital trials put spotlight on dynamics of death-qualification of jurors

This new AP story, headlined "Death-qualified' juror search slows marathon, theater cases," effectively reviews the distinct notable realities that attend jury selection in a capital case. Here are some excerpts:

One prospective juror was brutally frank when asked whether he could consider a sentence of life in prison for the man accused of bombing the Boston Marathon. "I would sentence him to death," he said, then added: "I can't imagine any evidence that would change how I feel about what happened."  Another prospective juror said he couldn't even consider the death penalty, telling the court, "I just can't kill another person."

The two men are on opposite sides of the capital punishment debate, but both unlikely to make it on the jury for the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: to be seated for a death penalty case a juror must be willing — but not eager — to hand down a sentence of either life or death.

The process of finding "death qualified" jurors has slowed down jury selection in federal case against Tsarnaev, who is charged with setting off two bombs that killed three people and injured more than 260 during the 2013 marathon.  It is expected to do the same in the state trial of James Holmes, the man accused of killing 12 people and injuring 70 others in a suburban Denver movie theater in 2012.

The process is designed to weed out jurors who have strong feelings for or against the death penalty.  A 1985 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court said a juror can lawfully be excused if his views on the death penalty are so strong that they would prevent or substantially impair his ability to follow the law.

But death penalty opponents have long said the process is fundamentally unfair.  They argue that death-qualified juries do not represent a true cross-section of the community and are less likely to be sympathetic to the defense.  "You end up with a jury with less women, less blacks, less Democrats ... you end up with a jury that is skewed in ways that make it probably more conservative, more accepting of prosecution arguments, of state authority," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization that opposes executions.

The Capital Jury Project, a consortium of university researchers, interviewed about 1,200 jurors in 353 capital trials in 14 states beginning in the early 1990s.  The group's research has shown that death penalty juries are more likely to convict and that jurors often make up their minds about what punishment to hand down long before they're supposed to, said William Bowers, director of the project....

Death penalty opponents have argued that to get around this kind of pre-judgment, separate juries should be chosen to hear evidence in the guilt phase and the punishment phase. But that idea has not gained traction....

In the Holmes case, an unprecedented 9,000 jury summonses were mailed. As of Friday, 210 prospective jurors had been excused over four days. Individual questioning is set to begin next month.  In the marathon bombing case, 1,373 people filled out juror questionnaires. Individual questioning of prospective jurors has been slowed as the judge has probed people at length about their feelings on the death penalty. The judge had originally said he hoped to question 40 jurors each day, but during the first five days only averaged about 15.

Capital punishment supporters say the current system of screening out strong pro- and anti-death penalty jurors is the only fair way to choose juries in death penalty cases.  "The process simply says that jurors must be willing to abide by the law," said John McAdams, a Marquette University professor who supports the death penalty.

January 26, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

"The Unconvincing Case Against Private Prisons"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing recent article by Malcolm M Feeley just now appearing on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In 2009, the Israeli High Court of Justice held that private prisons are unconstitutional. This was more than a domestic constitutional issue.  The court anchored its decision in a carefully reasoned opinion arguing that the state has a monopoly on the administration of punishment, and thus private prisons violate basic principles of modern democratic governance.  This position was immediately elaborated upon by a number of leading legal philosophers, and the expanded argument has reverberated among legal philosophers, global constitutionalists, and public officials around the world.  Private prisons are a global phenomenon, and this argument now stands as the definitive principled statement opposing them.

In this Article, I argue that the state monopoly theory against privatization is fundamentally flawed.  The Article challenges the historical record and philosophy of the state on which the theory is based, and then explores two other issues the theory wholly ignores: private custodial arrangements in other settings that are widely regarded as acceptable if not exemplary and third-party state arrangements that are universally hailed as exemplary.

The Article presents first-of-its-kind empirical data on private prisons in Australia, discusses the implications of readily available information on juvenile facilities, and explores interstate compacts on prisoner transfers.  The Article maintains that the state monopoly theory erroneously asserts that privatization is inconsistent with the modern state, and concludes with a call for policymakers and judges to imbue their future privatization decisions with local knowledge and time-honored pragmatism.

January 26, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Will this week's confirmation hearings for AG nominee Loretta Lynch produce any fireworks?

This new National Law Journal article suggests the answer to the question in the title of this post may actually be no. The piece is headlined "Nominee Isn't Drawing a Crowd: Loretta Lynch hasn't inspired the passions that Eric Holder Jr. did — but that might be by design." Here are excertps:

Since Loretta Lynch's nomination on Nov. 8 for attorney general, the Senate Judiciary Committee has received about a dozen letters supporting her — a volume that starkly contrasts with the outpouring Eric Holder Jr. inspired six years ago.

That may not be a bad start for a nominee whose Senate hearings are scheduled to begin on Jan. 28. But by the time Holder's confirmation hearings began on Jan. 15, 2009, the committee had received more than 100 letters from law enforcement, victims' rights and civil rights organizations — among other groups and individuals — weighing in on Holder's fitness for the job.

A former White House lawyer who worked on previous Obama administration nominations told the NLJ that the dearth of formal submissions concerning Lynch is less about a lack of enthusiasm for her than the fact her work in the law hasn't generated sharp, easily defined divisions on Capitol Hill.

Lynch's critics so far haven't pointed to any particular moment in her career that raises questions about her fitness to serve as the nation's top law enforcement officer. Indeed, some Republicans intend to challenge Lynch as a proxy for the Obama administration at large — with a focus on the president's executive action on immigration....

As of press time, the Judiciary Committee had posted 13 letters addressing Lynch's nomination. Lynch's public support, so far, represents a cross-section of federal prosecutors, district attorneys, in-house corporate attorneys, African-American lawmakers and law enforcement officers. She has the formal support of general counsel at Alcoa Inc. and Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Officers, the Federal Bar Council, the Congressional Black Caucus and the National District Attorneys Association....

From almost as soon as Obama nominated Lynch, some Senate Republicans signaled they wouldn't stand in her way. In November, for example, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Lynch "looks good to me." Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called her a "solid choice." That does not mean there won't be opposition. The difference between 2009 and 2015 in the political climate and the Senate's composition — now with the Republicans in control — may mean Lynch will be confirmed by a narrower margin than Holder's 75-21 tally, which included 19 Republican "yea" votes. "The pattern of recent confirmations has been that nominees will get just enough to get through," Gorelick said.

Gun Owners of America intends to voice its concerns to the judiciary committee for those senators looking for reasons to vote "no" against Lynch. In a proposed letter, the group said Lynch has "no real paper trail." The letter tied her to justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, as well as to Holder, each of whom the Gun Owners of America calls "a committed anti-gun radical." "She's kind of like Eric Holder in a skirt," organization president Larry Pratt told the NLJ. Although Lynch has made her name as a longtime prosecutor, Pratt's letter highlights sustained criticism of Holder as an activist attorney general.

Prior related posts:

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

"The Politics of Mercy: Is clemency still the third rail? We may find out."

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy piece by Ken Armstrong at The Marshall Project. Here are excerpts:

For decades, the conventional wisdom has been that clemency equals danger. Any governor who grants pardons or commutations to convicted felons invites political risk – with no potential benefit. In Massachusetts, Mitt Romney signed not a single pardon, a record he later touted.

But when [Robert] Ehrlich was governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007, he made clemency a priority, dedicating lawyers to screen requests and meeting monthly with senior aides to review applications.  In the end, Ehrlich granted clemency more than 200 times. And should he run for president, he plans to hold up that record as a signature achievement, arguing that it shows he is someone who leads instead of cowers.... The GOP field could also include other candidates who have resisted convention, such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has commuted the death sentences of five condemned inmates since 2011.

Is it possible that a willingness to grant clemency might now offer some political benefit? “I would give it a qualified yes,” says P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political science professor at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill., and editor of the Pardon Power blog. “I think increasingly there’s a sense that it’s a nebulous plus if you at least appear to be someone who takes the Constitution seriously and isn’t stuck in the 1980s, pushing the Willie Horton button.”...

Ehrlich says there has since been a cultural shift, with growing concern about harsh sentencing laws — for example, mandatory minimums — and a realization that “the drug epidemic is more appropriately viewed as a health issue than as a criminal justice issue.” The country’s booming prison population “is impacting so many people, so many families, so many careers, so many parents,” Ehrlich says.  “It crosses every line.”...

Margaret Love, who served as U.S. Pardon Attorney under presidents Clinton and George H.W. Bush, says,  “This is a function of the justice system that should not be subject to these political whims.  I get sort of annoyed whenever I see it treated as a sort of holiday gift-giving. That’s not what it is. It’s part of the system, or at least ought to be.”

On Thursday, Love wrote a post on the website for the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, noting the symbolism of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s recent summoning of the media to watch him sign a conditional pardon for an autistic inmate.  “There may be no more telling sign that the ‘soft on crime’ label is losing its power over elected officials than McAuliffe’s decision to publicize this bedside act of mercy,” she wrote.

In the next campaign, no candidate would test the power of that label more than Mike Huckabee, who this month left his Fox News show to consider running.  In his decade as Arkansas governor, Huckabee granted clemency more than 1,000 times.  On Thursday, BuzzFeed published an unaired ad that Mitt Romney’s campaign had prepared during the 2008 race, tying Huckabee to the early release of a serial rapist who, once freed, committed murder.  Romney’s campaign ultimately balked at using the ad.

Since then, Huckabee has become an even more inviting target.  In 2009, in Washington state, a former Arkansas inmate named Maurice Clemmons shot and killed four police officers in a coffee shop.  Nine years before, Huckabee had commuted Clemmons’s prison sentence, making him eligible for parole.

It might seem that advocates for clemency would cringe at the prospect of a Huckabee candidacy in 2016, given his vulnerability to Willie Horton-type attacks.  But Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, says, “I’ve told people for the last few years that one of the best things for clemency would be for Huckabee to run.”

What Osler and others see in Huckabee is an opportunity for an open discussion of what clemency is – and is not. “It does not lead to perfection, in the same way the jury system does not lead to perfection,” Osler says.  “With clemency you have an independent moral actor who is unpredictable — and that’s the person receiving clemency.  You can never guarantee that that person will not commit another crime.”

Clemency advocates believe Huckabee, an ordained minister, can make a persuasive case for mercy, particularly given how he links clemency to his Christian faith and to his belief in what he calls “restorative justice.”...

Ehrlich, unlike Huckabee, has not had any grants of mercy come back to haunt. And when talking about his embrace of clemency, he’s found support among dramatically different audiences, from a dinner co-hosted by the Charles Koch Foundation to a forum sponsored by George Soros’s Open Society Foundations.  “So it’s hard right and hard left, but the audiences have generally the same view on this issue,” he says.  In a speech three years ago, Ehrlich boiled his motives for making clemency a priority down to this: “Because it's the right thing to do. It's really not that complicated.”...

The field of potential presidential candidates also includes governors at the opposite end of this spectrum.  Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, has refused to grant any pardons, portraying them as an undermining of the criminal justice system, rather than as a way to recognize someone’s rehabilitation or help check an unduly harsh law or ill-conceived prosecution.  To Ruckman, Walker is “on the wrong side of history. He’s a dinosaur on this one.”

January 25, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Another remarkable exoneration thanks only to NC Innocence Inquiry Commission

3a47dbc6b83315036c0f6a70670038b2On this blog, I typically do not extensively cover or frequently discuss exonerations and criminal appeals based on actual innocence claims because, as some may know, I fear guilt/innocence concerns can at times distort sentencing procedures and policy debates focused only on indisputably guilty persons.  But this new amazing story out of North Carolina, headlined "After 36 years, Joseph Sledge's unfamiliar feeling: normal," seemed especially blogworthy for various reasons.  

Most significantly, I think, is that this remarkable NC story highlights the unique benefits resulting if (and perhaps only when) a jurisdiction has a special institution and special procedures for  dealing specifically with innocence claims. Here are the basic of one remarkable story that is embedded in the broader realities of North Carolina's unique approach to innocence concerns:

Joseph Sledge looked out across Lake Waccamaw on Friday afternoon, shivering against a cold January rain and trying to embrace an unfamiliar feeling: normal. Sledge walked out of jail Friday for the first time in 36 years without the burden of handcuffs and shackles.

He is finally free. The state had been wrong about him in 1978, and in all the years since; he is no killer. At 70, he will begin again. “I’m full up on freedom,” Sledge said shyly, leaning over a menu at Dale’s Seafood, a lakeside restaurant in rural Columbus County.

Sledge is the eighth man freed through a unique process that forces the state to deal with prisoners’ claims of innocence. The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, created in 2006, examined Sledge’s innocence claim over the last 18 months, and in December, it voted that his case merited a possible exoneration.

On Friday afternoon, a trio of judges did just that. Jon David, the Columbus County district attorney, made their decision swift and easy; David told judges he had become convinced that Sledge was innocent.

As Superior Court Judge Tom Lock announced Sledge’s exoneration, a dozen photographers and reporters rushed toward Sledge and his attorneys. Sledge smiled slightly as his attorneys, Christine Mumma and Cheryl Sullivan of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, pulled him close. Applause erupted....

Sledge ... stole some T-shirts from a department store in the early 1970s. A judge sentenced him to four years in a prison camp in rural Eastern North Carolina. In 1976, with just a year left in his sentence, he escaped from the White Lake Prison Camp one night after a beef with another inmate.

That very night, not 5 miles away, someone brutally murdered Josephine and Ailene Davis, a mother and daughter, who lived together in rural Bladen County. That horrible coincidence set the course for Sledge’s life.

Sledge’s exoneration is bittersweet. It comes after dozens of mistakes and casual dismissals of his pleas for help. David, the district attorney, ticked through the justice system’s blind spots in Sledge’s case. The system wasn’t what it is now, he said. No DNA testing was available. The best it had – microscopic hair comparison – could only determine that Sledge’s pubic hair was consistent with pieces left on one victim’s exposed torso. Sledge’s escape and the wild testimony of two jailhouse informants made it all seem too obvious during the 1978 trial, which had been moved to Columbus County.

David said Friday that he regretted the system’s weaknesses and any part that court officials played in it. “There’s nothing we regret more to our values as prosecutors than to believe an innocent person is in prison,” David said. He offered Sledge an apology.

Mumma, who first encountered Sledge’s case a decade ago, has had a hard time swallowing all of the ways the criminal justice system failed Sledge – and the amount of time it took to make it right. Clues that should have sent investigators to other suspects were disregarded. None of the nearly 100 fingerprints taken from the crime scene matched Sledge’s. Investigators also collected head hairs from the victims’ bodies, but Sledge had always shaved his bare.

During two decades, Sledge sent dozens of letters to judges, police officials and prosecutors asking that they find and test evidence from his case for DNA. Yet it took nearly 20 years for a clerk to find hairs that would prove his innocence. By happenstance, a Columbus County clerk climbed a ladder in late 2012 while cleaning the evidence vault; she found an envelope flat on the top shelf with the missing hairs. The clerks had been ordered to search for that evidence as far back as 2003.

Without the state’s new apparatus for testing innocence claims, Sledge might have remained in prison. The Center on Actual Innocence and the Innocence Inquiry Commission interviewed dozens of people, testing memories that had faded over decades.  Commission staff discovered crime scene evidence and investigators’ notes that local sheriff’s deputies had said for years had been lost or destroyed.  The commission spent $60,000 on forensic testing.

January 24, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Friday, January 23, 2015

Seven years after Baze, Supreme Court takes up another lethal injection challenge

As reported in this new USA Today piece, taking up a "case that could have broad implications for hundreds of death row inmates, the Supreme Court will consider whether a drug protocol used in recent lethal injections violates the Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment."  Here is more:

The justices agreed Friday to consider a case originally brought by four death-row inmates in Oklahoma -- one of whom was put to death last week, after the court refused to block his execution with a combination of three drugs that has caused some prisoners to writhe in pain.

Because the court's four liberal justices dissented from the decision to let that execution go forward, it presumably was their votes in private conference Friday that will give the issue a full hearing in open court. Only four votes are needed from the nine-member court to accept a case. It will likely be heard in April, though it could be held over until the next term begins in October.

Lawyers for Charles Warner and three other convicts set for execution in Oklahoma over the next six weeks sought the Supreme Court's intervention after two lower federal courts refused their pleas. While the court's conservatives refused to stop Warner's execution, the request for a full court hearing had been held for further consideration.

The lawyers claim that the sedative midazolam, the first drug used in the three-drug protocol, is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a general anesthetic and is being used in state executions virtually on an experimental basis. They say inmates may not be rendered unconscious and could suffer painfully as the other drugs in the protocol are administered.... "States now experiment with various drug formulations that have resulted in multiple malfunctioning executions — indeed, spectacles — over the past year," the challengers' brief says....

The court's four liberal justices -- Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan -- voiced deep concern about the three-drug protocol in their eight-page dissent last week. They also dissented last September when the court rejected a stay application from a Missouri inmate executed with the same drug.

I presume this cert grant will halt all scheduled executions in Oklahoma until the Supreme Court rules.  Left unclear, however, is whether other states will be able to move forward with executions while this case is pending.  This DPIC page with scheduled executions suggest that at least a half-dozen states have more than a dozen serious execution dates scheduled before the Supreme Court is likely to resolve this new case from Oklahoma.

I am sure that these states will try to move forward with executions, especially if their protocols are dissimilar to what Oklahoma does in executions. But I am also sure that death row defendants and their lawyers will urge states to postpone all execution until the Supreme Court rules in this new case (as happened when the Supreme Court first took up this issue eight years ago in Baze v. Kentucky). In short, here we go again!

Recent related posts:

January 23, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack

US Sentencing Commission essentially giving up on fixing definition of "crimes of violence"

As noted in prior posts here and here, the US Sentencing Commission earlier this month publish proposed guideline amendments with some modest but significant possible revisions to the federal fraud sentencing guidelines.  One reason these modest proposed guideline changes could be the most consequential reform coming from the Commission this year is because, as noted at the very end of these remarks at by the USSC Chair Patti Saris, it appears the Commission has given up its effort to seek to improve the doctrinal problems surrounding another big part of the federal sentencing guidelines:

I did want to briefly address an issue that does not appear in the proposed amendments.  As I announced at the last public meeting, the Commission held a roundtable discussion this fall on the definition of “crimes of violence” and related terms.  We had hoped that we would be positioned to publish some proposals today as an outgrowth of that very informative roundtable, and we conducted considerable follow up work after that event. But ultimately, after much consideration of this issue internally and consultation with leading experts, the Commission concluded that, given the existing statutory scheme, any attempts by the Commission at this time to clarify these definitions or establish more consistency within the guidelines would likely only lead to more confusion and renewed litigation.  We are currently considering whether it would be helpful for the Commission to issue a report on this issue with recommendations for legislative fixes.

I am a bit disappointed and troubled that the USSC thinks the best way now to deal with all the confusion and litigation over some key guideline terms is just to give up trying to fix these terms. But I also understand the challenge the USSC faces given that these terms are so significant in federal statutes that the Commission cannot itself amend.  And, perhaps usefully, the Commission's struggles here might further embolden the Supreme Court to declare part of the Armed Career Criminal Act unconstitutionally vague as it reconsiders the pending Johnson case (as discussed here).

January 23, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 22, 2015

NACDL explains the massive work behind Clemency Project 2014

Download (1)As noted in this prior post, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley last week sent this letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking a number of questions about the relationship between the Justice Department and outside groups working on "Clemency Project 2014." Though AG Holder has not yet, to my knowledge, late last week one of the key groups involved in Clemency Project 2014 described its work and the broader project.

Specifically, the NACDL on Friday sent around this lengthy news release (which I believe was a joint statement by all of the groups working together on this project) titled "Clemency Project 2014: A Historically Unprecedented and Wholly Independent Volunteer Effort By the Nation's Bar." The release merits a full read for those following closely the current activities surrounding federal clemency, and here is an excerpt:

An army of volunteer lawyers are diligently working on behalf of thousands of prisoners who have requested free legal assistance in drafting and submitting clemency petitions. This unprecedented, wholly independent effort by the bar, facilitated by the organizations which make up Clemency Project 2014, seeks to achieve justice for those prisoners. It reflects these organizations' shared commitment to the highest calling of the legal profession.

At its core, Clemency Project 2014 is a vehicle through which attorneys, responding to the Department of Justice's call for the bar to offer free assistance to potential petitioners, may participate in this important initiative.  The Project has not been delegated any responsibility or authority by the Department of Justice.  The Project expects the Department of Justice to treat these petitions as they would any other well-reasoned petition in making its recommendations to the President, who is the sole authority for granting clemency.  Many prisoners have applied directly to the Department of Justice for clemency without using the lawyers working with Clemency Project 2014, and/or are using counsel they identified and retained outside of the Project.

Since its conception less than a year ago, Clemency Project 2014 created a training and case management infrastructure to prepare an army of volunteer lawyers. Indeed, in just a handful of months, the Project:

  • Provided volunteer support from each of the entities to organize a mechanism for outreach to inmates and attorneys, and to develop a technological infrastructure;

  • Received critical funding from the ACLU and supplemental funding from the Foundation for Criminal Justice to fund and recruit three critical staff positions to oversee the effort;

  • Obtained donated office space and technological infrastructure from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL);

  • Enabled Project administrators to efficiently review, sort, and assign prisoner requests, and created and implemented an electronic database to efficiently organize detailed prisoner requests for assistance that at last count numbered more than 26,000;

  • Developed and deployed an extensive, multi-hour legal education training program (available on demand to any interested attorney at no charge) to ensure that all volunteer lawyers, from any practice background, will be equipped with the tools necessary to evaluate and prepare petitions for submission to the Office of Pardon Attorney for its review and consideration;

  • Responded to a legal memorandum issued by the Administrative Office of the Courts that opined that federal public defenders may not provide representation in clemency matters, by recruiting additional volunteer attorneys to fill the void while federal defenders continue to assist in gathering documents on behalf of former clients, and to provide administrative support for the Project;

  • Worked with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law to recruit more than 50 large firms, bringing hundreds of additional lawyers to the process;

  • Established and implemented a multi-tier process to assist volunteer lawyers in identifying potentially eligible applicants and preparing petitions for submission to the Office of Pardon Attorney for consideration....

  • Assigned 5,310 cases to volunteer attorneys;

  • Provided individual notice to several thousand applicants with a sentence of less than ten years, a disqualifying factor under the Justice Department's criteria;

  • Established a website with information for the public, including family members; and

  • Offered ongoing, individual legal support, resource materials, and on demand training to more than 1,500 volunteer attorneys.....

This endeavor has brought in lawyers from vastly diverse practice backgrounds, more than 50 of the nation's largest and most prestigious law firms and law clinics, leading not-for-profit organizations, and the criminal defense bar to answer the call made last year by Deputy Attorney General James Cole before the New York State Bar Association.

Some prior related posts:

January 22, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Speculating about how new California Supreme Court will now handle capital cases

This new Los Angeles Times article, headlined "Brown appointees to Supreme Court renew hopes in death penalty cases," reviews reasons why some think that new California Justices might mean a new type of California capital justice. Here are excerpts from the piece:

In the long run, the new composition [of the California Supreme Court] could affect an array of cases, including medical malpractice and medical marijuana, but probably will be most felt in the criminal arena. The court, long dominated by former prosecutors, has affirmed about 90% of the death sentences it has reviewed. Criminal defendants rarely win.

"Brown certainly seems to have reshaped this court in a fairly dramatic way," said Jan Stiglitz, a co-founder of the California Innocence Project, which is representing a client in a case before the newly constituted court. Instead of appointing former prosecutors, Stiglitz said, "Brown has brought in not just people from the outside but people who don't have this background that sort of predisposes them to be cynical in criminal cases."

But little experience in criminal law also can be a handicap, critics said. Former prosecutors have "stared evil in the face and know what it looks like," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports the death penalty. None of the Brown appointees have had prior judicial experience. "The academic view of criminal law is what produces bad decisions," Scheidegger said.

[Mariano-Florentino] Cuellar, the court's only Latino, is a former Stanford law professor. [Leondra] Kruger, the only African American justice, has worked primarily in Washington, where she represented the federal government in cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Goodwin Liu, Brown's first appointee last term, was a law professor at UC Berkeley....

Legal analysts expect the Brown justices may form a new majority with Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, a moderate to liberal Republican appointee.  Unlike the other Republican appointees, she was never a prosecutor.  She worked for the federal government on civil rights matters and as staff attorney on appellate courts.

January 21, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Should a court hearing be required anytime a registered sex offender seeks entry to a public school?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable article from Virginia headlined "ACLU questions new sex offender bill." Here are the details:

Their faces and address are already public, now one Virginia lawmaker wants registered sex offenders to face public hearings before going inside schools.  To have access to Virginia public schools, House Bill 1366 would require violent sex offenders to pay for a newspaper ad publicizing a personal court hearing.  It would run once a week for two weeks. Then anyone could attend the hearing and testify against them.

The bills author, Delegate Jeff Campbell, says it’s about safety, but the ACLU says it crosses the line of civil rights.  “The public hearing is simply an invitation for an angry mob to gather at a school and get in the way of a parent’s right to be involved in the education of his or her child,” said ACLU of Virginia’s Executive Director Claire Gastanaga.

Gastanaga said there is no real proof that registries and restrictions like this keep kids safer. He said the most direct impact of the bill would be on parents with kids in school who want to go and meet with the kids’ teachers.

Delegate Campbell disagrees: “I disagree totally, what it does is it gives parents of the other children a say in who is around their children.”... “The public’s right to know who is around their children and to have a say in whether they agree in that or not trumps that individual’s right to free access to the school,” he said.

Currently, sex offenders must inform school superintendents before they go inside a Virginia school. Delegate Campbell said there was an incident last year in Wise County where a parent did that and got permission to attend sporting events, but then started showing up to school at other times. Parents got upset and that is the reason for his bill.

A subcommittee unanimously passed the bill on Monday, but there is no set date yet for it to go before the full committee.

Because Virginia's court system is surely already pretty crowded, the burden this bill will create for state court personnel strikes me as significant and notable. A bit of research revealed that there are about 20,000 registered sex offenders in Virginia. Even if only 10% of that group has good reason to go to a public school each year, the Virginia court system is going to have to handle 2000 more annual hearing to consider (and supervise?) any school visit.

January 21, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A (too) brief 2015 State of the Union mention of criminal justice issues

At the tail end of a lengthy speech mostly focused on economic issues and foreign affairs, President Barack Obama in his 2015 State of the Union Address mentioned a few matters that should intrigue those focused on federal criminal justice issues.  Here are the passages from this CNN text of the SotU speech that caught my attention:  

As Americans, we have a profound commitment to justice -- so it makes no sense to spend three million dollars per prisoner to keep open a prison that the world condemns and terrorists use to recruit.  Since I've been President, we've worked responsibly to cut the population of GTMO in half.  Now it's time to finish the job. And I will not relent in my determination to shut it down. It's not who we are....

We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York. But surely we can understand a father who fears his son can't walk home without being harassed. Surely we can understand the wife who won't rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift. Surely we can agree it's a good thing that for the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together, and use that as a starting point for Democrats and Republicans, community leaders and law enforcement, to reform America's criminal justice system so that it protects and serves us all.

The absence of anything more substantive or substantial about federal criminal justice reform confirms my sense and fear that President Obama is more content simply to support criminal justice reforms pushed by others from behind rather than committed seriously to leading reform efforts from the bully pulpit.

January 20, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Hoping for (but not expecting) some mention of sentencing reform in 2015 State of the Union

For criminal justice and especially sentencing fans, the most notable aspects of President Obama's State of the Union addresses have been the absence of any discussion of anything having to do with sentencing or criminal justice.  Notably, the Obama era SOTU silence on sentencing issues contrasts with President George Bush's discussion of reentry and capital defense in his 2004 and 2005 SOTU speeches.  

Calling America "the land of second chance," President Bush in his 2004 State of the Union Address spotlighted prisoner re-entry issues and proposed "a four-year, $300 million prisoner re-entry initiative to expand job training and placement services, to provide transitional housing, and to help newly released prisoners get mentoring, including from faith-based groups."  And asserting that in America "we must make doubly sure no person is held to account for a crime he or she did not commit," President Bush in his 2005 State of the Union Address said he was going to send "to Congress a proposal to fund special training for defense counsel in capital cases, because people on trial for their lives must have competent lawyers by their side." 

I am expecting that President Obama in his 2015 State of the Union Address scheduled for tonight may finally say something about criminal justice issues, in part because I think he will want to say something about race and policing issues in the wake of Ferguson and his creation of a Task Force on 21st Century Policing.  But, as the title of this post reveals, I am not really expecting to hear tonight any discussion of sentencing law and policy  issues even though many in Congress and throughout the nation are concerned about the modern status quo and prospects for federal reforms.

On this front, Andrew Cohen at The Marshall project put together this terrific new piece headlined "‘My Fellow Americans …’: Reimagining the president's State of the Union speech," in which he got "a group of people who think deeply and regularly about criminal justice to share what they would like President Obama to say."   I was honored to be one of the people who Andrew Cohen asked to share my thoughts, though I find most notable what Senator Patrick Leahy, (D-Vt.) had to say:

The biggest issue facing our justice system today is our mass incarceration problem. The president has said before that we should enact laws that ensure “our crime policy is not only tough, but also smart.”  But tonight, while he has the attention of every member of Congress and the American people, I want to hear the president say that he supports an end to all mandatory minimum sentences, as I do.  Mandatory minimums are costly, unfair, and do not make our country safer.  For too long they have served as an easy way to score cheap political points: Want to prove you're tough on crime? Just add another mandatory minimum to the law. No need to bother with evidence that they do not make us safer; they make a nice talking point. That policy fallacy is one of the reasons we have the largest prison population in the world. And why $7 billion – nearly a third of the Justice Department’s budget – goes to the Bureau of Prisons instead of to community policing, victims services, or prison diversion programs that would make us safer and save taxpayers money.

Reagular readers will not be surprised to hear that I support the substance of what Senator Leahy is saying here.  But I am personally a bit surprised that the a ranking member (and former Chair) of the Senate Judiciary Committee is saying he think it is important for an executive branch official to say he opposes a legislative sentencing problem that Congress itself created and seems unable or unwilling to address dynamically. 

January 20, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

SCOTUS rules in favor of prisoner's RLUIPA claim and capital defendant's AEDPA contention

The Supreme Court handed down a few opinions this morning, and two of them involve notable victories for criminal defendants (and notable reversals of the Eighth Circuit).  

Via a unanimous ruling in Holt v. Hobbs, No. 13- 6827 (S. Ct. Jan 20, 2015) (available here), the Court explains why a rigid prison beard policy wrongfully infringes religious rights. Here is how the opinion, per Justice Alito, gets started:

Petitioner Gregory Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, is an Arkansas inmate and a devout Muslim who wishes to grow a 1⁄2-inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs. Petitioner’s objection to shaving his beard clashes with the Arkansas Department of Correction’s grooming policy, which prohibits inmates from growing beards unless they have a particular dermatological condition. We hold that the Department’s policy, as applied in this case, violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), 114 Stat. 803, 42 U. S. C. §2000cc et seq., which prohibits a state or local government from taking any action that substantially burdens the religious exercise of an institutionalized person unless the government demonstrates that the action constitutes the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest.

We conclude in this case that the Department’s policy substantially burdens petitioner’s religious exercise.  Although we do not question the importance of the Department’s interests in stopping the flow of contraband and facilitating prisoner identification, we do doubt whether the prohibition against petitioner’s beard furthers its compelling interest about contraband.  And we conclude that the Department has failed to show that its policy is the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling interests.  We thus reverse the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

Via a summary reversal in Christeson v. Roper, No. 14-6873 (S. Ct. Jan 20, 2015) (available here), the Court explains why lower federal courts were too quick to preclude a capital defendant from arguing a habeas deadline ought to be tolled.  Here is how the Court's per curiam decision gets started:  

Petitioner Mark Christeson’s first federal habeas petition was dismissed as untimely. Because his appointed attorneys — who had missed the filing deadline — could not be expected to argue that Christeson was entitled to the equitable tolling of the statute of limitations, Christeson requested substitute counsel who would not be laboring under a conflict of interest.  The District Court denied the motion, and the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit summarily affirmed. In so doing, these courts contravened our decision in Martel v. Clair, 565 U. S. ___ (2012).  Christeson’s petition for certiorari is therefore granted, the judgment of the Eighth Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings.

Notably, in Holt, Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor concurred in a little separate opinion to provide a bit of their own spin on RLUIPA.  And in Christeson, Justices Alito and Thomas dissent from the summary reversal because they would have preferred full briefing concerning a "question of great importance" regarding "the availability of equitable tolling in cases governed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA)."

January 20, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack