Thursday, May 24, 2018

Prez Trump posthumously pardons boxer Jack Johnson

As reported in this new CNN piece, "President Donald Trump on Thursday granted a posthumous pardon to boxer Jack Johnson on the advice of actor Sylvester Stallone."  Here is more:

"Today I've issued an executive grant of clemency, a full pardon, posthumously, to John Arthur 'Jack' Johnson ... The first African-American heavyweight champion of the world, a truly great fighter. Had a tough life," Trump said.  Trump was joined in the Oval Office by Stallone, current heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder, and Johnson's great-great niece Linda Bell Haywood, among others.

"We have done something today that was very important, because we righted a wrong," Trump said. "Jack Johnson was not treated fairly, and we have corrected that, and I'm very honored to have done it." Last month, Trump said he was considering the pardon....

Johnson, the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion, was convicted in 1913 under the Mann Act for taking his white girlfriend across state lines for "immoral" purposes.  The Mann Act purported to prevent human trafficking for the purpose of prostitution, but critics have argued it was applied inconsistently to criminalize African Americans and those with dissenting political views. 

Johnson was convicted by an all-white jury in less than two hours and was imprisoned for a year.  The sentence and imprisonment destroyed the boxing career of the "Galveston Giant."  He died in 1946.

Stallone called Johnson an "inspirational character." "It's incredible that you've done this," the "Rocky" star told the President....

In 2016, then-Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, and Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, along with Reps. Peter King, R-New York, and Gregory Meeks, D-New York, petitioned the Obama administration to grant a pardon to Johnson. The bipartisan group of lawmakers sent a letter to the White House asking that the pardon be given in honor of the 70th anniversary of the boxer's death. "While it is unfortunate that this unjust conviction was not corrected during the boxer's lifetime, a posthumous pardon today represents the opportunity to reaffirm Jack Johnson's substantial contributions to our society and right this historical wrong," the letter said.

In March 2017, Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, joined with McCain, King and Meeks to reintroduce a resolution urging Johnson's pardon. "Despite this resolution passing both chambers of Congress several times in recent years, no pardon has been issued to date," McCain said in a statement at the time. "I hope President Trump will seize the opportunity before him to right this historical wrong and restore a great athlete's legacy."

In an era in which there are so many living people subject to excessive sentences and unfair convictions and collateral consequences, I am generally not a huge fan of posthumous pardons. But these kinds of actions reveal that a chief executive knows and is willing to acknowledge mistakes and injustices in the operation of the justice system, and (one hopes) they can serve as a precursor to more meaningful use of the clemency power on behalf of people still alive to benefit from it.

This USA Today article from last month provides an interesting review of two previous exampled of posthumous Prez pardons: "Bill Clinton and the Buffalo soldier" and "George W. Bush and the godfather of the Israeli air force"

May 24, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Amazing new empirical research in federal sentencing outcomes detailing disparities based on political background

This week brought this amazing new working paper by Alma Cohen and Crystal Yang titled simply "Judicial Politics and Sentencing Decisions." I did not want to blog about the paper until I had a chance to read it, and doing so make me want to now do dozens of blog posts to capture all the issues the paper covers and raises. The paper's simple abstract provides a hint of why the paper is so interesting and provocative:

This paper investigates whether judge political affiliation contributes to racial and gender disparities in sentencing using data on over 500,000 federal defendants linked to sentencing judge.  Exploiting random case assignment, we find that Republican-appointed judges sentence black defendants to 3.0 more months than similar non-blacks and female defendants to 2.0 fewer months than similar males compared to Democratic-appointed judges, 65 percent of the baseline racial sentence gap and 17 percent of the baseline gender sentence gap, respectively.  These differences cannot be explained by other judge characteristics and grow substantially larger when judges are granted more discretion.

Each of these three sentences could alone justify multiple postings on just research particulars: e.g., I believe a database with over 500,000 sentencings might be the largest ever assembled and analyzed; I wonder if the data looks different for Clinton and Obama judges among the Ds, for Nixon and Reagan and others judges among the Rs; I fear many judge characteristics like prior jobs and connections to certain communities are really hard to control for.  In other words, just the scope and methods of this research is fascinating.

Moreover and more importantly, there is great richness in the findings of the full paper.  For example, the authors find "statistically significant differences in racial gaps in base offense level and final offense level by judge political affiliation."  In other word, the authors have discovered worrisome disparities in how guideline ranges are set/calculated, not just in how judges sentence in reaction to a particular guideline range.   Some additional notable findings are summarized in this recent WonkBlog piece at the Washington Post headlined "Black defendants receive longer prison terms from Republican-appointed judges, study finds."  Here are excerpts:

Federal judges appointed by Republican presidents give black defendants sentences that are, on average, six to seven months longer than the sentences they give to similar white defendants, according to a new working paper from Alma Cohen and Crystal Yang of Harvard Law School.  That racial sentencing disparity is about twice as large as the one observed among judges appointed by Democrats, who give black defendants sentences that are three to four months longer than the sentences they give to white defendants with similar histories who commit similar crimes....

They did find, however, that the gap between sentences for black and white defendants was smaller for more-experienced judges than for less-experienced ones.  They also found that differences between how Republican and Democratic judges treat black and white defendants grew larger after the Supreme Court's 2005 decision in United States v. Booker, which gave federal judges much more leeway to depart from federal sentencing guidelines.

Importantly, however, they found that growing differences between Democratic and Republican judges in the post-Booker era are due to Democratic judges reducing disparities in how they sentence black and white defendants.  Given more discretion, in other words, Democratic judges treated defendants of different races more equally, while Republican judges continued to carry on as they had before.

Cohen and Yang also found one important geographical effect: Black defendants fared particularly poorly in states with high amounts of population-level racial bias, measured here by the percentage of white residents in a given state who believe there should be laws against interracial marriage.  These states tend to be clustered in the South, and previous research has shown a similar racial sentencing bias in these states when it comes to capital punishment.

Finally, they also observed an opposite effect in how Democratic and Republican judges treated female defendants: While all judges tended to hand down shorter sentences to women than to men charged with similar crimes, Republican judges were considerably more lenient to women.  “Overall, these results indicate that judicial ideology may be a source of the persistent and large racial and gender disparities in the criminal justice system,” Cohen and Yang conclude.

Anyone with any experience in the federal sentencing system knows full well how judicial ideology may be a source of the persistent and large disparities in the operation of the system. But reflecting on my own experiences as a defense attorney and expert in a number of federal sentencing settings, I am eager here to highlight how the impact of judicial ideology may be impacted by the work of other actors involved in the federal sentencing process. I often sense that those judges (perhaps disproportionately Republican Appointees) with an earned reputation as a "by the guideline" type may not consistently receive the same type of mitigating information from probation officers and defense attorneys as do those judges known often to depart or now vary.

If readers are as intrigued and engaged by this new paper as I am, please say so in the comments, and I may try to see if I can encourage some folks to write up some guest-postings about this research.

May 24, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

"The Company Store: A Deeper Look at Prison Commissaries"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the folks at the Prison Policy Initiative.  This press release describes the report as a "first-of-its-kind data analysis [of] the economics of prison commissaries in three states."  Here is how the report gets started:

Prison commissaries are an essential but unexamined part of prison life.  Serving as the core of the prison retail market, commissaries present yet another opportunity for prisons to shift the costs of incarceration to incarcerated people and their families, often enriching private companies in the process.  In some contexts, the financial exploitation of incarcerated people is obvious, evidenced by the outrageous prices charged for simple services like phone calls and email.  When it comes to prison commissaries, however, the prices themselves are not the problem so much as forcing incarcerated people — and by extension, their families — to pay for basic necessities.

Understanding commissary systems can be daunting.  Prisons are unusual retail settings, data are hard to find, and it’s hard to say how commissaries “should” ideally operate.  As the prison retail landscape expands to include digital services like messaging and games, it becomes even more difficult and more important for policymakers and advocates to evaluate the pricing, offerings, and management of prison commissary systems.

To bring some clarity to this bread-and-butter issue for incarcerated people, we analyzed commissary sales reports from state prison systems in Illinois, Massachusetts, and Washington.  We chose these states because we were able to easily obtain commissary data, but conveniently, these three states also represent a decent cross section of prison systems, encompassing a variety of sizes and different types of commissary management.  We found that incarcerated people in these states spent more on commissary than our previous research suggested, and most of that money goes to food and hygiene products.  We also discovered that even in state-operated commissary systems, private commissary contractors are positioned to profit, blurring the line between state and private control.

Lastly, commissary prices represent a significant financial burden for people in prison, even when they are comparable to those found in the "free world."  Yet despite charging seemingly "reasonable" prices, prison retailers are able to remain profitable, which raises serious concerns about new digital products sold at prices far in excess of market rates.

May 24, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Two great new long reads from The Marshall Project

The Marshall Project is for me a regular must-read: my weekdays mornings start most days with its "Opening Statement" email full of all sorts of original and linked criminal justice stories.  Many days I find the "Opening Statement" a bit frustrating because it has more amazing content than I have time to read, and this morning was especially challenging because there were these two original pieces that are lengthy and more than worth the time:

"The Billionaire's Crusade: Broadcom's Henry Nicholas is spending millions to give victims a bigger voice, but not everyone agrees."

An excerpt: Six states have now passed some version of Marsy’s Law, which Nicholas shaped and named for his murdered sister. He has spent upwards of $25 million so far, according to campaign filings, and plans to spend millions more in pursuit of his goal: to get the amendment passed across the country and ultimately, onto the U.S. Constitution.

He’s on his way. This November, the measure will be on ballots in five more states: Oklahoma, Nevada, Kentucky, Georgia and Florida. At least five additional states are considering putting Marsy’s Law before voters in upcoming election seasons — efforts backed almost single-handedly by Nicholas. The measure promises an equal voice for victims in a system where the rights of defendants are constitutionally guaranteed. “We can all agree that no rapist should have more rights than the victim,” the Marsy’s Law website says. It is meant to protect people who have suffered a good deal already, and its appeal to voters is obvious: who is against victims?

But however well-intentioned, Marsy’s Law is drawing criticism from some unexpected quarters, including prosecutors and some victims’ rights advocates.

"Prosecutor Elections Now a Front Line in the Justice Wars"

In most district attorney elections, the campaign playbook is clear: Win over the local cops and talk tough on crime. But in California this year, the strategy is being turned on its head.  Wealthy donors are spending millions of dollars to back would-be prosecutors who want to reduce incarceration, crack down on police misconduct and revamp a bail system they contend unfairly imprisons poor people before trial.

The effort is part of a years-long campaign by liberal groups to reshape the nation’s criminal justice system.  New York billionaire George Soros headlines a consortium of private funders, the ACLU and other social justice groups and Democratic activists targeting four of the 56 district attorney positions up for election on June 5.  Five other California candidates are receiving lesser support.

The cash infusion turns underdog challengers into contenders for one of the most powerful positions in local justice systems, roiling conventional law-and-order politics.  The challengers have matched or surpassed the millions of dollars, largely from police, prosecutors and local business, flowing to incumbents unaccustomed to such organized liberal opposition.

May 23, 2018 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Capitalizing on Criminal Justice"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Eisha Jain now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The U.S. criminal justice system “piles on.”  It punishes too many for too long.  Much criminal law scholarship focuses on the problem of excessive punishment.  Yet for the low-level offenses that dominate state court workloads, much of the harm caused by arrests and convictions arises outside the formal criminal sentence.  It stems from spiraling hidden penalties and the impact of a criminal record.  The key question is not just why the state over-punishes, but rather why so many different institutions — law enforcement institutions as well as civil regulatory agencies and private actors — find it valuable to do so.

This Article argues that the reach of the criminal justice system is not just the product of overly punitive laws, but also the product of institutions capitalizing on criminal law decisions for their own ends.  Criminal law is meant to serve a public purpose, but in practice, key institutions create, disseminate, and rely on low-level criminal records because they offer a source of revenue or provide a cost-effective way of achieving discrete administrative objectives.  These incentives drive and expand the reach of the criminal justice system, even as they work in tension with the state’s sentencing goals.  This dynamic creates obvious harm.  But it also benefits key actors, such as municipalities, privatized probation companies, background check providers, employers, and others who have incentives to maintain the system as it is.  This Article identifies how organizational incentives lead a host of institutions to capitalize on criminal law decisions, and it argues that reform efforts must, as a central goal, recognize and respond to these incentives.

May 23, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

FIRST STEP Act passes US House of Representatives by vote of 360-59(!), but its fate in Senate remains uncertain

The prospect of at least partial federal statutory criminal justice reform got that much brighter this afternoon when the US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of the FIRST STEP Act.  The vote was 360-59, with Republicans voting 226 to 2 in favor of the bill (not doubt in part because of Prez Trump's strong advocacy for prison reform), and Democrats voting 134 to 57 in favor of the bill. Democratic opposition was certainly based on the failure of the bill to include any sentencing reforms, and this Reason article highlights why this reality might bode ill for the bill's prospects in the Senate.  The Reason piece has this fitting headline: "Prison Reform Bill Passes The House; Is Prison Reform Dead? The House passed a major, bipartisan prison reform bill backed by the White House, but it’s being attacked from all sides."  Here are excerpts:

The House passed legislation that would introduce several significant reforms to the federal prison system today, but the bill's future is uncertain and its passage has openly divided a criminal justice coalition that has worked together, at least in public, for the past several years.

The FIRST STEP Act, which includes a number of substantive changes to the federal prison and reentry system, passed by a vote of 360-59 and now goes to the Senate, but advancing to the White House is not a sure thing. Democrats are split on it, old-school conservatives are drumming up opposition from law enforcement groups, and progressive advocacy groups are attacking it from the left. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Republican pointman on criminal justice reform, says the bill is dead in the water unless it includes major reforms to federal sentencing law as well.

Trying to keep the whole thing from falling apart are a bipartisan group of House members, the White House—where prison reform has been a priority for President Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner—and criminal justice groups who say some progress is better than none.

"I think unfortunately there are groups that would like to see sentencing reform happen right now and are not willing to settle for less," says Jessica Jackson Sloan, co-founder of #Cut50, a group that works to lower the U.S. prison population. "In some ways it's strategic because they helped us to make this bill as good as it can be, but at this point it's splitting the Democrat vote and we need a strong show of support to have this taken up in the Senate."...

The bill has sharply divided Democrats. On one side is Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), the bill's co-sponsor, and others who say it would provide better conditions and the possibility of earlier release for the roughly 180,000 inmates serving time in federal prison. "Any objective reading of this bill is that it will improve inmates' quality of life," Jeffries said on the House floor prior to the vote.

On the other side are Democrats who say the good provisions in the bill are outweighed by core concerns over how the overcrowded, underfunded Bureau of Prisons system would handle the new programs and changes. In a "dear colleague" letter released last week, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), and Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Tx.) wrote that the reforms would fail without broader sentencing reforms....

Meanwhile in the Senate, Grassley and a bipartisan group of co-sponsors are pushing the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which includes reductions to federal mandatory minimum sentences. The bill is the result of years of negotiation between Senate Republicans and Democrats, and the lead negotiators don't want to see their work languish.

"With the President's encouragement, I believe we can reach a deal on criminal justice reform," Grassley said in a statement Tuesday. "For that deal to pass the Senate, it must include sentencing reform. This is necessary for practical as well as political reasons."

However, sentencing reform is a non-starter for the White House, where Attorney General Jeff Sessions — a staunch opponent of criminal justice reforms — holds sway....

For supporters of the bill, the last few months have felt like an unending game of whack-a-mole. "One obstacle pops up and you knock it down," says Holly Harris, Executive Director at the U.S. Justice Action Network. "This has been a delicate dance from the beginning.  I think this will be the most well-vetted bill that Congress has seen in years. It's been a long time coming, and those who stand in the way of progress, those will be the losers in this situation."

Some of many prior related posts:

May 22, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Two new short essays providing ideas in criminal justice administration to think about for a long time

I have noticed these two notable new essays on SSRN that have the benefit of both being short reads with ideas worth thinking long and hard about:

"Classical Liberal Criminal Law" by Rachel Barkow

Abstract: This essay, written for a festschrift for Richard Epstein, argues that classical liberals should support robust constitutional protections in criminal matters.  It specifically highlights the need for robust Eighth Amendment review.

"Approaches to Federal Judicial History: The Federal Courts and Criminal Justice" by Sara Mayeux

Abstract: Mass incarceration has long constituted not only a sociological fact and a moral disaster in the United States, but also a major sector of the public and private economy; a significant component of ideologies of race, gender, and sexuality; and a distorting influence upon electoral processes and deliberative democracy.  What role has the federal judiciary played in this complex history?  This short historiographical essay provides a brief and necessarily selective introduction to exemplary scholarship addressing the relationship between the federal courts and criminal justice in U.S. history, and seeks to encourage historians of the carceral state — even or especially those who do not define themselves primarily as legal historians — to join the conversation.  The essay is structured around three of the most significant ways in which the federal judiciary has historically made and enforced criminal justice policy: by adjudicating federal criminal prosecutions; by reviewing state-court convictions, via federal habeas jurisdiction; and by reforming state prisons and local jails, via constitutional conditions-of-confinement litigation.  This essay was prepared at the invitation of the Federal Judicial History Office for a forthcoming volume.

May 22, 2018 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 21, 2018

On eve of planned House vote on FIRST STEP Act, NY Times editorial misguidedly asserts a "partial bill could end up being worse than nothing"

The on-going debate over competing proposals for federal statutory criminal justice reform continues to fascinate me, but I am getting ever more troubled by suggestions from certain folks that the FIRST STEP Act is so bad and that the Sentencing Reform & Corrections Act is a so much better.  This new New York Times editorial, headlined "The Right Way to Fix the Prisons," reflects this thinking, and here are excerpts with passages stressed that particularly concern me:

For more than a decade, states of every political hue — from Texas and Louisiana to Connecticut and California — have been overhauling their criminal justice systems, to reverse the effects of decades of harsh and counterproductive policies.  But Congress has watched this revolution from the sidelines, thanks to reactionary lawmakers, including Mr. Sessions when he was in the Senate.  Comprehensive federal legislation has been foiled again and again, as states forge ahead, reducing both prison populations and crime rates through bipartisan reforms....

One bill backed by the White House, known as the First Step Act, would improve some prison conditions and help smooth the path to re-entry for people behind bars. It would, for example, require that inmates be housed within 500 miles of their families, prohibit the brutal but disturbingly common practice of shackling pregnant women and expand rehabilitative programs in which prisoners can participate to earn good-time credits.  These are all important and long-overdue fixes to existing law.

But the bill would leave it up to individual prison wardens to decide who gets to use their credits and when, which means inmates would be treated differently based on where they’re locked up.  The bill also restricts early release to halfway houses, even though as many as 40 percent of people behind bars pose no risk to public safety, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice, and would do fine with less intensive oversight, such as electronic monitoring.  On top of that, federal halfway houses are so underfunded that even inmates who are eligible for immediate release can’t go anywhere, because there aren’t enough beds available.

The biggest problem with the First Step Act, however, isn’t what’s in it; it’s what’s left out.  Specifically, sentencing reform.  Harsh sentencing laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s, like mandatory minimums of 10 or 20 years even for low-level drug crimes, have been among the main drivers of the nation’s exploding prison population....

Mr. Grassley is sponsoring the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which would reduce the harshest sentences for nonviolent drug crimes and give judges more discretion to issue lighter sentences.  The bill nearly passed Congress in 2016, only to be killed by then-Senator Jeff Sessions.... Mr. Grassley’s bill has the support of top senators of both parties, as well as law-enforcement leaders and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 civil-rights organizations.  It’s not perfect, but it’s far preferable to the First Step Act, which could get a vote in the House as soon as this week.

Meanwhile, liberal backers of the First Step Act, like Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the New York Democrat who is sponsoring the bill, argue that it’s better than nothing, especially in the current political environment. “We have a Republican president. Republicans control the House of Representatives and the Senate,” Mr. Jeffries wrote in letter to his colleagues on Friday. “Those are the facts.”

He’s right.  And yet a partial bill could end up being worse than nothing, especially if its benefits don’t live up to expectations, and if Congress, which has many other pressing matters to attend to, decides it’s had enough of the topic.  “Get a bill to my desk,” Mr. Trump said on Friday. “I will sign it.” If he means this, and if he genuinely cares about reforming the federal justice system, he’ll demand a bill that addresses the system’s most pressing problems.

Though this Times editorial references Rep. Hakeem Jeffries' extended letter defending the FIRST STEP Act, I wonder if the details of this important missive was fully understood.  That letter highlights that many of the prison reform provisions are MUCH improved in the FIRST STEP Act as compared to the SRCA.  Of particularly importance, the FIRST STEP Act includes the "Good Time Credit" fix, which serves functionally as a 2% across the board cut to prison terms for all current and all future federal prisoners.  There is no proper way to claim that a permanent and retroactive 2% cut in all federal prison terms "could end up being worse than nothing."  Moreover, it bears noting that the SRCA is anything but major sentencing reform, as it is only forecast to impact less than 5% of all cases annually under the US Sentencing Commission's estimates.  

In other words, the SRCA offers a worse version of prison reform cobbled together with a weak version of sentencing reform.  Even on the substantive merits, I am not sure I would prefer SRCA to the FIRST STEP Act.  (And of course, Congress has been trying to pass variant on the SRCA for now nearly half a decade to no avail.)   Most critically, the passage of the SRCA would be much more likely to bring what the NY Times fears, namely a reform bill that does not live up to expectations and yet allows Congress to feel it can move on after having done something "comprehensive."  In contrast, the FIRST STEP Act, if passed, will be in both name and spirit just what is needed here: a real improvement that is widely understood as only the first of many needed steps toward fixing a deeply flawed federal sentencing and prison system.

Some of many prior related posts:

UPDATE: This Politico article from Monday night, headlined "Trump-backed prisons bill DOA in the Senate," suggests that neither the FIRST STEP Act or the SRCA has much of a chance to make it through the Senate no matter what happens in the House.  Though the headline of this Politico piece is disconcerting, the full article is not quite so pessimistic and reinforces that Judiciary Chair Senator Chuck Grassley and Senate Leader Senator McConnell are the critical players for the future of any federal statutory criminal justice reforms for the foreseeable future. 

May 21, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

In shadow of Parkland, a notable discussion with victim families about capital prosecutions in Florida

This local article from Florida, headlined "For victims' families, no easy answer on whether the ordeal of a death penalty case is worth it," take a thoughtful look at what a death penalty prosecution can mean for the families of murder victims. I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

The parents of the murdered students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have been asked — directly by prosecutors, indirectly by defense lawyers, and while talking amongst themselves — whether the young man responsible for mercilessly slaughtering their children should be executed for the crime.

At stake is more than just the life of the killer, Nikolas Cruz.  Whenever the death penalty is ordered in Florida, the case is automatically appealed, guaranteeing the victims’ families will be locked with Cruz in a lengthy process that can take years or even decades to resolve. It’s a position no one envies, but some who have been through similar ordeals say the Parkland parents cannot give a wrong answer, no matter what they decide.

The South Florida Sun Sentinel talked to family members of three victims whose accused killers faced the death penalty. They agreed that the process is long, grueling and takes an emotional toll. Yet none regret their decisions to ask prosecutors to seek a death sentence.

The Broward State Attorney’s Office already announced that it plans to seek the death penalty against Cruz, 19, who killed 14 students and three staff members at the Parkland high school.  Prosecutors won’t say whether the families’ input could change the strategy.  And Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, whose office is representing Cruz, has offered to have him plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life in prison.

Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was among the dead, said Finkelstein’s offer is tempting. “I support the death penalty,” he said. “But I don’t want to pursue it in the case of my daughter’s killer. … If there’s a chance Cruz is willing to take a plea deal, I say go for it.”  Guttenberg said his main concern is having to relive the case at every stage — a trial, followed by a penalty phase, followed by appeals, the specter of a retrial, repeating the process from the beginning, “only to end up at what is likely to be a life sentence anyway.”...

For Chris Crowley, staying away wasn’t an option.  Crowley waited 27 years to see his sister’s killer executed in 2013. William Frederick Happ confessed in the execution chamber and begged for forgiveness before he was put to death by lethal injection.  His victim, Angela Crowley, had lived in Lauderdale Lakes for just a few months and was working at a travel agency in the spring of 1986.  She was on her way to visit a friend in Citrus County when she was abducted and murdered by Happ.

Chris Crowley, 61, said watching Happ die gave him a kind of closure he never could have gotten had he known the killer was in a cell getting three meals a day. “He would have had the possibility to kill again,” Crowley said. “The possibility of escape. The possibility of a commuted sentence. With the death sentence, there’s finality.”...

Deborah Bowie calls her situation “the textbook case for everything that is dysfunctional about capital punishment.”  Bowie’s sister, Sharon Anderson, was murdered in 1994 along with two others in what became known as the Casey’s Nickelodeon murders.  The other victims were Casimir "Butch Casey" Sucharski, former owner of the popular Pembroke Park bar that gave the case its nickname, and Marie Rogers....  “It’s a marathon every time,” said Bowie. “I feel for any family that is starting a death penalty case at the beginning. They have no idea what they’re in for.” 

May 21, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"President Trump supports prison reform"

85940444-fb0b-4222-9893-8d947ed60a7f (1)The title of this post is the heading of the lead item on "1600 Daily," the daily promotional email coming from the White House.  Here is what appears under the heading:

Crime imposes a significant burden on Americans' well-being and taxpayer-financed resources. These costs are amplified by re-arrest rates for released American prisoners that exceed 50 percent. Many programs have been tried to reverse this trend over the past few decades. Some of them work; some don't.

President Donald J. Trump supports prison reform legislation that builds on evidence-based programs to reduce prisoner recidivism rates. The President has called on Congress to help former inmates who have completed their sentences to have a second chance to become contributing members of society.

The White House hosted a summit on prisons last week. "Prison reform is an issue that unites people from across the political spectrum," President Trump said. "It's an amazing thing. Our whole nation benefits if former inmates are able to reenter society as productive, law-abiding citizens."

Learn how President Trump wants to fix America's prison system.

WatchHighlights from the President's remarks at the White House summit

This Fact Sheet (which is the first link above) strikes me as a reasonably detailed statement of reasonably progressive federal prison reforms (e.g., there is discussion of the need to "Expand access to prison work programs to allow all eligible inmates who want to work to gain job skills while incarcerated and prepare for successful reentry into society" and "Allowing BOP to place low-risk offenders in home confinement for the maximum amount of time permitted when appropriate" and "Requiring BOP to make female-healthcare products available for female prisoners").  I would be eager to hear from experts who are especially informed about prison reform and the federal system as to what particular prison reforms they see missing from these White House talking points.

Of course, criminal justice reform advocates are rightly troubled by this Administration's disaffinity for any front-end sentencing reforms.  The Fact Sheet notable states: "Rather than lowering sentences, the President supports reforms that empower prisoners participating in recidivism-reducing programming to obtain 'earned-time' credits."  I am not sure if this statement intimates that Prez Trump would veto a bill that included sentencing reforms, but I am sure this statement accounts from why so many GOP leaders are much more bullish on the FIRST STEP Act than on the SCRA.  

Some of many prior related posts:

May 21, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Without explanation, SCOTUS rejects vagueness challenges to pre-Booker mandatory application of career-offender guideline

It was a "civil" morning for US Supreme Court today, with two opinions from the civil side of its docket (one big, one little) and four cert grants on matters that are mostly civil and somewhat procedure (although one, Royal v. Murphy, deals with tribal jurisdiction over a capital prosecution).   But there was still some interesting news for sentencing fans in today's SCOTUS order list in the form of somewhat surprising denials of certiorari in cases dealing with the residue of the Johnson vagueness ruling for guideline-sentenced defendants before Booker make the guidelines advisory.

This part of this SCOTUSblog Relist Watch post by John Elwood from a few weeks ago spotlights cases I have had my eye on:

Lester v. United States17-1366, would justify readers in feeling a bit of déjà vu all over again. The case presents the question whether the residual clause of the career offender sentencing guideline was unconstitutionally vague back before United States v. Booker when the Sentencing Guidelines were still mandatory.  If that seems as familiar as Indiana Jones 4, that very question is already before the court in a number of serial relists: Allen v. United States17-5684Gates v. United States17-6262James v. United States17-6769 (all relisted nine times) and Robinson v. United States17-6877 (relisted seven times). 

Sentencing gurus know that the Supreme Court in Beckles decided that the Court's big vagueness ruling in Johnson dealing with a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act did not entail constitutional problems for a parallel clause of the sentencing guidelines because the guidelines are now advisory, not mandatory.  But defendants in the cases above, which SCOTUS had been mulling over now for many months, were sentenced with the problematic parallel clause of the sentencing guidelines before Booker made the guidelines advisory.  But because judges could (and sometimes did) depart from the guidelines even before Booker made them mandatory (but cannot depart from applying ACCA), these cases presented an interesting and uncertain push-pull between the Johnson ruling and Beckles' gloss on its application.

I had been hoping that the collection of these cases as "serial relists" meant that SCOTUS was busy looking for the right vehicle for considering these post-Johnson matters.  But today, as noted above, certiorari was denied by the Supreme Court in all these cases without any explanation.  Of course, explanations for cert denials are not common.  But because relists often lead to a cert grant or at least some discussion by some justice of the issue, I am starting my week bummed that an interesting intricate piece of sentencing jurisprudence did not prompt any substantive SCOTUS engagement.

May 21, 2018 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 20, 2018

"Punishing Risk"

The title of this post is the title of this new article on SSRN authored by Erin Collins.  Here is the abstract:

Actuarial recidivism risk assessments — or statistical predictions of the likelihood of future criminal behavior — drive a number of core criminal justice decisions, including where to police, who to release on bail, and how to manage correctional institutions.  Recently, this predictive approach to criminal justice has entered a new arena: sentencing.  Actuarial sentencing has quickly gained a number of prominent supporters and is being implemented across the country.  This enthusiasm is understandable.  Its proponents promise that actuarial data will refine sentencing decisions, increase rehabilitation, and reduce reliance on incarceration.

And yet, in the rush to embrace actuarial sentencing, scholars and policy makers have overlooked a crucial point: actuarial risk assessment tools are not intended for use at sentencing.  In fact, their creators explicitly warn that these tools were not designed to aid decisions about the length of a sentence or whether to incarcerate someone.  And yet, that is precisely how those who endorse actuarial sentencing — including the American Law Institute in the recently revised Model Penal Code for Sentencing — suggest they should be used.

Actuarial sentencing is, in short, an unintended, “off-label” application of actuarial risk information.  This Article re-examines the promises of actuarial sentencing in light of this observation and argues that it may cause a number of equally unintended and detrimental consequences.  Specifically, it contends that this practice distorts, rather than refines, sentencing decisions.  Moreover, it may increase reliance on incarceration — and for reasons that undermine the fairness and integrity of the criminal justice system.

May 20, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

US District Judge Bennett explains why meth sentencing guidelines are wrong to treat "drug purity [as] a proxy for culpability"

Long-time readers know that US District Judge Mark Bennett has long made his post-Booker mark with thoughtful opinion explaining why various guidelines ought not merit full respect in light of the purposes of sentencing set forth in 18 USC § 3553(a). Judge Bennett's latest important sentencing work, which a helpful reader made sure I did not miss, comes in US v. Nawanna, No. CR 17-4019-MWB (D. Iowa May 1, 2018) (available here). Like so many of Judge Bennett's opinions, this latest ruling is a must-read for all who follow the federal sentencing system, and it starts and ends this way:

The United States Sentencing Guidelines differentiate between methamphetamine mixture and actual (pure) methamphetamine or "ice."  That difference is the primary basis for the defendant's motion for a downward variance.  Even though he is a first-time drug offender who has never been in prison, he argues that he faces a "breathtakingly high" Guidelines sentencing range of 360 months to life, where the methamphetamine at issue was treated as actual (pure) methamphetamine or ice.  He argues that the harsh methamphetamine Guidelines overstate his culpability and should be rejected on policy grounds.  Specifically, his argument, of first impression for me, is that the methamphetamine Guidelines are based on a flawed premise, set out in U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1, cmt. n.27(C), that drug purity is a proxy for culpability.

The prosecution responds that, although I am free to place whatever weight I wish on the various advisory Guidelines, the defendant's advisory Guidelines sentencing range is appropriate in this case, because it reflects the dangerous role the defendant played in dealing pure methamphetamine . Thus, this case requires me, once again, to consider the question of the merits of the advisory Guidelines sentencing range for a defendant convicted of methamphetamine offenses.  In United States v. Hayes, 948 F. Supp. 2d 1009 (N.D. Iowa 2013), I followed the lead of two other federal district judges by reducing a methamphetamine defendant's advisory Guidelines sentencing range by one third, on the basis of a policy disagreement with the methamphetamine Guidelines.  This sort of variance was for low level, non-violent, addict offenders.  This opinion, which supplements my rationale on the record at the defendant's sentencing hearing, explains why I find that a similar reduction, based on a different calculation, is appropriate in this case....

Exercising my discretion to reject the advisory Guidelines sentencing range for methamphetamine offenses on the basis of a policy disagreement, I determined that a downward variance was appropriate in Nawanna's case.  The reasons for rejecting the methamphetamine Guidelines, here, were independent of the reasons for rejecting the methamphetamine Guidelines set out in my decision in Hayes.  Here, I concluded that the methamphetamine Guidelines are based on a flawed assumption that methamphetamine purity is a proxy for role in the offense, which, like Judge Robert C. Brack of the District of New Mexico, I find "is divorced from reality." Ibarra-Sandoval, 265 F. Supp. 3d at 1255.  Nawanna's advisory Guidelines sentencing range of 360 months to life would be greater than necessary to accomplish the purposes of sentencing under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).  Instead, for the reasons stated, above, and on the record during Nawanna's sentencing hearing, Nawanna should be sentenced to 132 months incarceration.

May 20, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The latest political back and forth, on both sides of the aisle, as federal prison reform efforts gain momentum

Politico has two fascinating new articles about on-going political debates and maneuvering surrounding the FIRST STEP Act.  That proposal, as reported here, received a 25-5 vote in favor in the House Judiciary Committee ten days ago, and it seems to be the top federal criminal justice reform bill with a real chance to get to the desk of Prez Trump in the coming months. Here are the full headlines and the start of each Politico article:

"Trump pushes for prison reform bill that divides Democrats: The split among Democrats over whether to support a narrow bill or push for sentencing reductions spilled into the open on Friday":

President Donald Trump on Friday embraced a bipartisan prison reform proposal, but a sharp divide among Democrats on the issue threatens to undermine the deal.  The discord was on display Friday as Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York circulated a scathing letter accusing fellow Democrats of trying to tank the effort by waging an opposition campaign “riddled with factual inaccuracies.” At issue is whether to move ahead with a more narrow overhaul or to hold out for a broader criminal justice bill that includes sentencing reductions.

Trump vowed in his remarks that his administration would make circumstances "far, far, far greater than ever before" for former prisoners looking to rebuild their lives.  But other leading Democrats are fighting Jeffries' approach, pushing for the sentencing reductions, which are opposed by the Trump administration. Jeffries' rebuke came in response to a letter [posted here] criticizing the narrower prisons bill circulated on Thursday by Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), among others.

"Cotton jolts prison reform negotiations":

Multiple law enforcement groups say Sen. Tom Cotton’s office approached them about opposing a bipartisan prison reform bill — a key legislative priority for President Donald Trump — according to emails reviewed by POLITICO.

Cotton’s office says it made no direct request for groups to oppose the bill. But the outreach from the Arkansas Republican, one of Trump's closest allies in Congress, has left supporters of the prison reform effort suspicious that he is trying to tank the Trump-backed legislation before it reaches the Senate.

Cotton is a stalwart critic of broader criminal justice overhaul proposals but has yet to publicly come out against the narrower, prison-focused approach that Trump is backing. However, the emails reviewed by POLITICO show at least two leading law enforcement groups discussing a call by Cotton’s office this week for letters of opposition on prison reform ahead of a White House summit Friday on the issue.

In one instance, the request from Cotton’s camp appears to have lost the prisons bill a supporter: The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which had declared its endorsement in February, wrote to House and Senate Republican leaders on Friday announcing it was reversing that position and would oppose the prison reform bill, citing changes made to the measure in recent weeks. A member of the organization said Cotton’s office had asked the group to send a letter of opposition, according to one of the emails reviewed by POLITICO. The FLEOA did not return a request for comment.

In a separate email shared with POLITICO, another top law enforcement group said it and other similar organizations had been contacted by Cotton’s office with a request to oppose the bill in writing.

Cotton spokeswoman Caroline Tabler said the office had not directly requested any public opposition. “Senator Cotton believes it’s important that we get prison reform right, and that any legislation must fully protect law-abiding Americans. He’s consulted with Arkansans and several law enforcement groups and is actively working with his colleagues to address his concerns with the current bill,” Tabler said in a statement.

I suspect that there are not many examples of Senator Tom Cotton and Senator Kamala voting similarly on a high-profile piece of legislation, but the latest news and developments concerning federal criminal justice reform suggests they may both end up voting no (albeit for different reasons) if and when the FIRST STEP Act comes up for a vote in the Senate. Interesting times.

Some of many prior related posts:

May 19, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Federalism and Constitutional Criminal Law"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Brenner Fissell now available via SSRN.  As the title itself suggests, Eighth Amendment jurisprudence is among the area of Supreme Court decision-making discussed in this paper. Here is the abstract:

A vast body of constitutional law regulates the way that police investigate crimes and the way that criminal cases are handled at trial.  The Supreme Court has imposed far fewer rules regarding what can be a crime in the first place, how it must be defined, and how much it can be punished. What explains this one-sided favoring of “procedure” over “substance?”

This Article aims to unearth and assess the justification that the Court itself most often uses when it refuses to place constitutional limits on substantive criminal law: federalism. While the Court often invokes the concept to rationalize its restraint, this Article argues that federalism is not a universally effective argument against the imposition of these types of constitutional limits.  Instead, different variants of “federalism” vary in their strength when used to resist different types of constitutional rules, and often the federalism-based argument is unjustified.

May 19, 2018 in Recommended reading, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 18, 2018

Head of federal Bureau of Prisons abruptly resigns

As reported in this USA Today article, headlined "Federal prisons chief Mark Inch abruptly resigns from job he took over in September," while Prez Trump and others today at the White House were discussing federal prison reform, the head of the federal prison agency surprisingly resigned. Here is the story and possible backstory:

Mark Inch, the director of the embattled federal Bureau of Prisons, abruptly announced his resignation Friday, the Justice Department announced Friday. There was no immediate reason provided for the departure of Inch, who had just assumed leadership of the country's largest detention system in September.

In a brief statement, Attorney General Jeff Sessions thanked Inch for his service wished him "luck in his future endeavors." The attorney general did not elaborate. As director, Inch oversaw 122 detention facilities, 39,000 staffers and 186,000 inmates.

Inch’s resignation also comes as the White House was staging a summit Friday on prison reform. There, White House senior adviser and President Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner commended Inch for his work on the Federal Inter-agency Reentry Council, though it was not clear whether he was aware of Inch's resignation. "We're working on the reentry commission, where the new director of the Bureau of Prisons, General Inch, has been working with Attorney General Sessions to look at all the different changes they can make in the prisons,” he said.

Hugh J. Hurwitz, assistant director of the BOP’s Reentry Services Division, will serve as acting director, Sessions said.

For the last year, the Bureau of Prisons has been the focus of a review by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has been examining allegations of sexual harassment, management retaliation against staffers and staffing shortages. Those shortages have routinely thrust nurses, teachers, food service workers and others to take up guard duty in under-staffed prison yards and solitary confinement wings.

Hundreds of non-custodial staffers were tapped last year to fill guard posts across the Bureau of Prisons because of acute officer shortages and overtime limits, according to prison records reviewed by USA TODAY and staff interviews. The moves were made despite repeated warnings that the assignments placed unprepared employees at risk. And the practice has continued for years even though the agency has been rebuked by Congress and federal labor arbitrators....

According to his Justice biography, Hurwitz began his career with the BOP as a law clerk in the Office of General Counsel in 1988. He went on to serve in three other agencies before returning to the BOP in 2015 as the senior deputy assistant director of the Information, Policy and Public Affairs Division.

May 18, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Prez Trump pledges to sign prison reform that will be "best in the world"

As reported in this CBS News piece, both President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence spoke at a prison reform summit the White House this morning. Here are some of the details:

Pence, taking to the podium, called prison reform a top priority for the Trump administration. Pence said the current prison system "too often" misses an opportunity to help improve people's lives, and instead just makes American communities more dangerous. Pence said the Trump administration will continue to hold accountable those who break the law, but also recognize that too many ex-offenders feel they have nowhere else to turn once they leave prison, and return to crime. "Prison reform is about changing lives, and about changing communities," Pence said.

The White House has hosted such discussions before, although not in such a large summit. But the reforms Mr. Trump's administration has floated before mostly entailed better preparing inmates for reentry and reducing recidivism rates, not the sentencing reform that liberals and some conservatives have hoped for in recent years. Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, who has made prison reform a top issue in his portfolio, said Mr. Trump is "all in" on prison reform, but explained why the White House's focus is narrow for now.

"Sentencing reform is something that people still have different opinions on," Kushner said, noting how Washington has been unable to come to a consensus on the matter for years. Kushner said he thinks the country's system of governance works well, and requires intense deliberation on pivotal issues like prison reform.

I was able to hear live a few of the comments by Prez Trump, and he pledged to sign the prison reform bill Congress delivered to him and he closed by asserting, in Trumpian fashion, that the prison reforms would be the "best in the world." People who know about prisons around the world, particularly in Scandinavia and other part of Europe, surely realize that Prez Trump is setting quite a high bar for US prison reform. But I was please to hear him make this commitment and continue to be hopeful that the energized support of the Trump Administration helps ensure that at least some form of federal criminal justice reform becomes a reality this year.

May 18, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Death penalty restoration may get a vote in Illinois House

I have not blogged before about the recent suggestion by the Illinois Gov to restore the death penalty in his state, but this new article reports that the idea may now be headed toward a vote in the Illinois House.  Here are the details:

Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan agreed Thursday to allow a vote on Gov. Bruce Rauner’s controversial plan to reinstate the death penalty and expand the waiting period to purchase firearms, creating a political minefield Democrats contend could hurt re-election-seeking Republicans more than themselves.

Madigan said the issues the Republican governor raised “deserve a full hearing and consideration before the House.” “We look forward to hearing from stakeholders and continuing our effort to keep our children, our schools and our communities safe from senseless gun violence,” Madigan said in a statement.

Rauner’s rewrite would create a 72-hour “cooling off” period to buy any firearm and reinstate capital punishment for slaying a law enforcement officer or in cases where two or more people are killed. A new bill containing the governor’s plan will be discussed by the House Judiciary Committee on Monday, and Democrats said Madigan intends for it to be eventually called for a full House vote.

The move provides some political insulation for Madigan, the chief political nemesis of the re-election-seeking governor. It prevents the governor from attacking the veteran House speaker for defending the lives of cop killers by blocking a vote on Rauner’s crime-fighting initiative. It’s doubtful the Rauner plan would pass the House, but Madigan’s move carries several political risks for individual lawmakers in both parties. It also creates significant complications for rank-and-file Republicans.

Lawmakers on both sides who vote against the measure could find themselves targeted by political opponents as being soft on crime and weak in their support of law enforcement by refusing to lift the state’s seven-year ban on capital punishment. That could particularly impact suburban Democratic lawmakers in a region where the party has made increasing inroads on traditionally Republican territory. Still, several lawmakers who served in 2011 when the state abolished the death penalty following a tarnished history of wrongful convictions are already on record with their vote.

The bill is more complex for Republicans. While reinstating the death penalty has its appeal to Republican voters, Rauner’s plan also would create a 72-hour waiting period for all guns, not just military-style firearms contained in the original bill. An expansion of the waiting period is opposed by the politically powerful National Rifle Association and is at odds with many voters in rural Illinois legislative districts represented by Republicans who champion their support for gun rights.

Kudos to leadership for allowing debate and a vote on these matters. Especially in an election year, voters should be able to know when their representatives stand on an array of high-profile political issues. I wish Senator Mitch McConnell and other GOP leaders in Congress would take a page from the folks in Illinois when it comes to allowing high-profile criminal justice issues like sentencing reform and marijuana reform get a fair up-or-down vote so that voters can know for sure where there representatives stand and so that proposals with majority support can actually become law.

May 18, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Five prominent congressional Democrats write in opposition to federal statutory prison reform without broader sentencing reform

As reported in this Politico piece, a set of "powerful Democrats stepped up their opposition campaign against a bipartisan bill on prison reform via a lengthy letter Thursday, their latest attempt to stamp out momentum for the proposal before it hits the House floor next week." Here is more:

The Democrats’ five-page opposition letter, which describes the bill as a “step backwards,” is just the latest volley in an ongoing battle over how far Congress should go this year to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system.  The legislation is backed by the White House and could be the last real chance for a bipartisan success — no easy feat in a contentious election year — but has several key opponents, particularly in the Senate.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the revered civil rights leader and one of the most influential members of the House Democratic Caucus, signed on to the letter.  Other Democrats already known to be opposed to the prison bill also added their names: Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas.

“We write to express our serious concerns with the First Step Act, legislation that purports to reform federal prisons but which would in fact be a step backwards,” they wrote. They go on to say that the bill, which would provide training programs for prisoners that are aimed at reducing repeat offenses, could actually have the opposite effect by putting in place policies that are more discriminatory toward inmates of color.

The letter — particularly Lewis’ opposition — could be a significant blow to efforts by the bill’s supporters to round up support ahead of an expected floor vote next week.  Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Doug Collins (R-Ga.), lead authors of the push for prison reform, have been meeting with members since the bill sailed out of committee last week....

The letter takes several shots at the prison reform proposal, saying that it doesn’t provide enough funding to be effective and that Sessions, a vocal opponent of criminal justice reform, would have far too much autonomy over the new programs.

The bill has strong Republican support in the House — all but one Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, including several far-right members, backed the proposal. But the legislation has divided Democrats, particularly members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Lewis’ opposition to the bill could be particularly influential for Democrats deciding how to vote.  But the bill’s authors can also point to several prominent backers on their side, including CBC Chairman Cedric Richmond (D-La.) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a leading progressive.

The full five-page "Dear Colleague" letter is available at this link, and it reiterates a series of arguments that the progressive opponents of prison reform have been making for months. As I have said before, though I see merit in many of the criticisms of prison-only reform efforts, I struggle to see any path forward for more robust reforms in the immediate future.  (There is also the irony that the prison-reform provisions they criticize in the FIRST STEP Act also appear in the broader sentencing reform bill they promote as an alternative.) 

As I noted in this recent post, broader reforms have now been robustly discussed for the better part of a decade and they did not become law even when there was a supportive Prez and Attorney General.  Perhaps the authors of this letter have a viable plan for getting a better bill to the desk of the Prez and signed into law, but I know I am more than tired of waiting to see any kind of serious criminal justice reform passed by Congress.  (Keep in mind it has been a full eight years since the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, the last notable statutory sentencing or prison reform, and that law only addressed one crime that makes up now less than 5% of the federal caseload.)

The strategy of hoping for more favorable political conditions for broader sentencing reform strikes me as an especially risky strategy given AG Jeff Sessions' obvious disaffinity for any reforms and his ability and eagerness to use any crime data and developments to make the case against reform.  If crime data in the coming months show a continued rise in crime, AG Sessions is sure to argue that cutting sentences at a time of rising crime is misguided; if data instead show a new decline, AG Sessions is sure to assert that his policy changes have been efficacious and that current law preserves the status quo. 

Some of many prior related posts:

May 17, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Legal Innocence and Federal Habeas"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper available via SSRN authored by Leah Litman that is a must read for anyone following post-Miller or post-Johnson litigation (and who isn't?). Here is the abstract:

Although it has long been thought that innocence should matter in federal habeas corpus proceedings, innocence scholarship has focused almost exclusively on claims of factual innocence — the kind of innocence that occurs when new evidence reveals that the defendant did not commit the offense for which he was convicted.  The literature has largely overlooked cases where a defendant was convicted or sentenced under a statute that is unconstitutional, or a statute that does not apply to the defendant.  The Supreme Court, however, has recently begun to recognize these cases as kinds of innocence and it has grounded its concern for them in innocence-related considerations. 

This Article highlights how the doctrine has started to treat these “legal innocence” cases as cases in which defendants are innocent, as well as the reasons why it has done so.  As this Article explains, legal innocence is conceptually and inextricably linked with factual innocence; in both kinds of cases, the defendant was convicted or sentenced under a law she did not violate.  These cases raise similar concerns and implicate many of the same features of our criminal law system.  By recognizing the emerging category of legal innocence as a kind of innocence, this Article maps out how the existing federal habeas system can provide relief to legally innocent defendants.

May 17, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

A fittingly depressing account of the current state and potential fate of federal statutory criminal justice reform

This NPR piece from earlier this week, headlined "White House Adviser Jared Kushner Pushes Prison Reform Bill Forward," reviews the state of federal proposals in Congress with a few fitting flourishes about the continuing slog to get any form of criminal justice reform passes. These emphasized passages in particular prompted this post:

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST: There is some movement on the bipartisan effort to overhaul the nation's federal prisons.  The House Judiciary Committee recently advanced a bill to improve prison conditions, and the White House is also getting involved. Here to talk more about the effort is NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.  Hey there.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So you've been covering plans it seems like for years, plans to change, upgrade, update the U.S. prison system. Get us up to speed.  Where do those plans stand?

JOHNSON: Well, last week the House Judiciary Committee voted 25 to 5 to approve legislation called the FIRST STEP Act.  That bill would make life a little bit easier for pregnant inmates. And it would offer programs prisoners could take to earn good time credits, credits for possible early release.... I'm hearing the bill could get a vote from the full U.S. House of Representatives next week before the Memorial Day holiday.

KELLY: All right, so that sounds promising.  But I gather there is a catch 'cause you're talking about the House and the Senate may be in a really different place.

JOHNSON: Mary Louise, there's a big catch.  For some justice advocates this legislation in the House is actually a step backwards, not forwards ... [as] this is not the same plan we've been talking about for six or seven years since the Obama White House. That bigger plan would touch tens of thousands of prisoners and change some of those tough mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, actually reducing the number of people who go behind bars in the first place.  What the House is doing now is a much smaller bite of the apple.  And people in the Senate, including the Republican chairman of the judiciary committee, Chuck Grassley, are now holding out for a lot more....

JOHNSON: Yeah. So [Jared] Kushner since he got to the White House has been holding roundtable discussions about this.  One of the people he's trying to partner with is the Texas senator John Cornyn, a member of the Republican leadership.  Cornyn has introduced a more modest version of prison reform as of last week.  It's a kind of a companion to the House plan we've been talking about.  And together Kushner and Cornyn are going to try to push the Senate to take up this legislation even though the leader of the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, thinks that's a bad idea in an election year.  Now, experts who've been following these issues for a long time thinks it's - think it's going to be a tough slog, lots of talking, lots of energy. But in the end it's quite likely that Congress won't be able to get anything done.

KELLY: Wow. It sounds like you may have many more years to come of following person reform.

To review, then: there have been reform plans in Congress for years, and the leading "bigger plan" is one "we've been talking about for six or seven years" (but have not really even gotten close to passing).  But now that a seemingly viable smaller reform plan in the form of the FIRST STEP ACT (which, in fact, will "touch tens of thousands of prisoners") looks like it might make it through the House of Representatives this week, it appears Senate leaders are going to blocks its progress for various reasons.  Consequently, smart folks are predicting "lots of talking, lots of energy" to no effect, because "in the end it's quite likely that Congress won't be able to get anything done."  But at least Carrie Johnson (who is a terrific reporter) will likely have "many more years" to cover this particular story of congressional dysfunction. 

Some of many prior related posts:

May 16, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Will the Supreme Court Scrutinize Solitary Confinement? One Justice Offers a Map"

The title of this post was the headline of this Sidebar piece by Adam Liptak in yesterday's New York Times.  Here are excerpts:

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy is a fierce critic of solitary confinement. “It drives men mad,” he said in 2015 at Harvard Law School.  He attacked the practice in a 2015 concurring opinion. “Years on end of near total isolation exact a terrible price,” he wrote, noting that “common side effects of solitary confinement include anxiety, panic, withdrawal, hallucinations, self-mutilation, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.”

Justice Kennedy concluded that opinion with an unusual request, inviting lawyers to file appeals challenging the constitutionality of prolonged isolation.  The requested appeals arrived, but the Supreme Court has so far turned them down.  The court, which typically moves in measured increments, may not want to take on a question as broad as whether extended solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment barred by the Eighth Amendment.

But the court will soon consider whether to hear appeals raising a much narrower question: Do prisoners held in solitary confinement have a right to regular outdoor exercise?

As it happens, Justice Kennedy has already answered that question.  Almost 40 years ago, not long after he became a federal appeals court judge, he wrote that prisoners held in solitary confinement have a constitutional right to a little fresh air once in a while.

“Some form of regular outdoor exercise is extremely important to the psychological and physical well being of the inmates,” he wrote in 1979 for a unanimous three-member panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco. “It was cruel and unusual punishment for a prisoner to be confined for a period of years without opportunity to go outside except for occasional court appearances, attorney interviews and hospital appointments.”

Justice Kennedy, who joined the Supreme Court in 1988, may now have the opportunity to establish that principle nationwide.  The new appeals were filed by several prisoners in Colorado. One of them, Donnie Lowe, 46, has spent almost his entire adult life in various prisons for various offenses.  He was held in solitary confinement for 11 of those years. Mr. Lowe’s lawsuit took issue with a decades-long blanket policy at the Colorado State Penitentiary that denied him outdoor exercise for the more than two years he was in solitary there....

The Supreme Court is not a fan of lawsuits seeking money from state officials for constitutional violations. But Mr. Lowe’s appeal, along with a companion case, present the court with the opportunity to tell the nation what the Constitution requires even if it rules in favor of the prison officials on the ground that the law used to be unclear. In a sign that the court might be interested in the cases, Lowe v. Raemisch, No. 17-1289, and Apodaca v. Raemisch, No. 17-1284, it ordered the officials to file responses to the plaintiffs’ petitions.

Justice Kennedy is nearing the end of a long judicial career, and he might think it fitting to return to an issue he considered just a few years after he first put on a robe. “Underlying the Eighth Amendment,” he wrote in 1979, “is a fundamental premise that prisoners are not to be treated as less than human beings.”

May 16, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Encouraging findings from big study of 16 prosecutor-led diversion programs in 11 jurisdictions

I saw today a big report from a big National Institute of Justice study on the topic of diversion programs.  This big report has this full title: "NIJ’s Multisite Evaluation of Prosecutor-Led Diversion Programs Strategies, Impacts, and Cost-Effectiveness."  And here is part of its executive summary:

In recent years, a growing number of prosecutors have established pretrial diversion programs, either pre-filing—before charges are filed with the court—or post-filing—after the court process begins but before a disposition. Participating defendants must complete assigned treatment, services, or other diversion requirements. If they do, the charges are typically dismissed. With funding from the National Institute of Justice, the current study examined 16 prosecutor-led diversion programs in 11 jurisdictions across the country and conducted impact evaluations of five programs and cost evaluations of four programs....

Case Outcomes, Recidivism, and Cost

  • Case Outcomes: All five programs participating in impact evaluations (two in Cook County, two in Milwaukee, and one in Chittenden County, VT) reduced the likelihood of conviction — often by a sizable magnitude.  All five programs also reduced the likelihood of a jail sentence (significant in four and approaching significance in the fifth program).

  • Re-Arrest: Four of five programs reduced the likelihood of re-arrest at two years from program enrollment (with at least one statistically significant finding for three programs and at least one finding approaching significance in the fourth).  The fifth site did not change re-arrest outcomes.

  • Cost: All four programs whose investment costs were examined (two in Cook County and one each in Chittenden and San Francisco) produced sizable cost and resource savings.  Not surprisingly, savings were greatest in the two pre-filing programs examined, which do not entail any court processing for program completers.  All three programs whose output costs were examined (i.e., omitting the San Francisco site) also produced output savings, mainly stemming from less use of probation and jail sentences.

Conclusions

There were a number of important study limitations, including a focus on 16 high-volume diversion programs mainly located in large jurisdictions, a smaller number of study sites for the impact and cost evaluations, and limitations in the scope and quality of quantitative data available in some of the impact sites.  Understanding these limitations, we generally found that today’s prosecutor-led diversion programs pursue a wide range of goals, not limited to rehabilitation and recidivism reduction.  We also found that these programs serve a mix of target populations — including felonies as well as misdemeanors and, in virtually all programs we examined, including defendants with a prior criminal record.  Although it bears noting that we evaluated program impacts in a limited number of sites, meaning that our findings may not be generalizable to other sites and programs that we did not study, our research yielded positive results. Across five programs in three sites, diversion participants benefited from a reduced likelihood of conviction and incarceration; and in four of the five programs, pretrial diversion participation led to reduced re-arrest rates.  In addition, in all four programs where a cost evaluation was conducted, diversion cases involved a lesser resource investment than similar comparison cases.

May 16, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The Right to Two Criminal Defense Lawyers"

the title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Bruce Green now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

In conjunction with a symposium on “disruptive innovation in criminal defense,” this article proposes that indigent defendants be assigned two lawyers each of whom would have primary responsibility for different functions -- the “settlement lawyer” would have responsibility for the counseling and negotiating roles while the “trial lawyer” would be the principal advocate. 

The proposal to divide defense representation between two lawyers, as a potential “disruptive innovation”, provides an occasion to consider various problems associated with indigent defense apart from underfunding and excessive caseloads.  These problems relate to how some defense lawyers think about and structure their work, where they choose to direct their energy and how they prioritize their time, how they respond to incentives, preferences and even unconscious motivations, and how they relate to prosecutors, clients or others in the criminal process.  Whether or not a right to two lawyers is realistically achievable, the proposal provides a vehicle for contemplating deficiencies in criminal defense representation and potential responses.

May 16, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Lots of juvenile sentencing developments as Oklahoma sorts through application of Miller

Last week brought interesting developments in the arena of juvenile sentencing in Oklahoma thanks to all three branches of the state government.   As this local article details, the Oklahoma legislature earlier this month passed, with some controversy, a new law to seeking to operationalize existing Eighth Amendment limits on LWOP sentences for juveniles:

Senate Bill 1221 would put sentencing for teen killers in the hands of a judge, not the jury that convicted them....  The bill passed Wednesday in the state Senate would require judges to determine sentencing based on a number of factors including the underage killers’ maturity, psych tests, and take jury’s out of the sentencing equation.

But some lawmakers cried foul. “We are going to circumvent an Americans right to equal protection under the law because the kid is 17 years old not 21,” said Senator AJ Griffin (R) Guthrie....  “It’s disrespectful to the citizens of this state that elected us and put us here in order to do our job. If an adult deserves a jury a kid deserves a jury,” Senator Griffin said.

As this excerpt indirectly reveals, because jury sentencing is the norm in Oklahoma, this new law would have created a distinctive judge-centric sentencing procedure just for juvenile murders in Oklahoma.  But before Oklahoma's Governor acted on this bill, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals (the state's highest criminal court) handed down a big new juve sentencing ruling in Stevens v. Oklahoma, 2018 OK CR 11 (Ok. Crim. App. May 10, 2018) (available here). Stevens is yet another notable example of another state court working through just how Miller and Montgomery should be applied, and it includes these notable passages (with most cites removed):

In all future trials where the State intends to seek a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for an offender who committed his or her offense under the age of eighteen (18) years of age the State shall give notice of this fact by stating at the bottom of the Information in bold type: "The State is seeking the punishment of life without the possibility of parole for the offense of Murder in the First Degree, as Defendant (state last name here) is irreparably corrupt and permanently incorrigible." See Parker v. State, 1996 OK CR 19, ¶ 24, 917 P.2d 980, 986 (adopting notice pleading). Both parties shall be afforded full discovery on this issue in accordance with established discovery law. 22 O.S.2011, § 2001 et seq. The assigned trial judge has the authority under our Discovery Code to issue any orders necessary to accomplish this task.

The Sixth Amendment demands that the trial necessary to impose life without parole on a juvenile homicide offender must be a trial by jury, unless a jury is affirmatively waived. Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, 490 (2000). The defendant's trial shall be bifurcated and the issue of the defendant's guilt shall be separately determined from the enhancement of his or her sentence.... [E]ach party shall be afforded the opportunity to present evidence in support of its position as to punishment in the second stage of the trial. The trial court shall submit a special issue to the jury as to whether the defendant is irreparably corrupt and permanently incorrigible....

It is the State's burden to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant is irreparably corrupt and permanently incorrigible. Luna, 2016 OK CR 27, ¶ 21 n. 11, 387 P.3d at 963 n. 11; see also Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002) (holding facts increasing punishment beyond the maximum authorized by a guilty verdict must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt). The State shall have the opportunity to present any evidence tending to establish this fact subject to the limitations of 12 O.S.2011, § 2403. Generally, this will include, but not be limited to, evidence concerning the defendant's: (1) sophistication and maturity; (2) capability of distinguishing right from wrong; (3) family and home environments; (4) emotional attitude; (5) pattern of living; (6) record and past history, including previous contacts with law enforcement agencies and juvenile or criminal courts, prior periods of probation and commitments to juvenile institutions; and (7) the likelihood of the defendant's rehabilitation during adulthood. See Luna, 2016 OK CR 27, ¶ 20, 387 P.3d at 962; Cf. 10A O.S.2011, § 2-5-205(E).

Similarly, the defendant must be permitted to introduce relevant evidence concerning the defendant's youth and its attendant characteristics. Miller, 567 U.S. at 489 ("[A] judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for a juveniles."). Generally, this will include, but not be limited to, evidence concerning the defendant's: "(1) chronological age and its hallmark features--among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences; (2) the incompetencies associated with youth--for example, his inability to deal with police officers or prosecutors (including on a plea agreement) or his incapacity to assist his own attorneys; and (3) whether the circumstances suggest possibility of rehabilitation." Luna, 2016 OK CR 27, ¶ 20, 387 P.3d at 962 (quotations and citation omitted).

If the sentencer unanimously finds that the defendant is irreparably corrupt and permanently incorrigible it is then authorized to consider imposing a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.  If the sentencer does not make this finding it is prohibited from considering a sentence of life without the possibility of parole and may only impose a sentence of life imprisonment.

Notably, Oklahoma's Governor followed up all this activity by vetoing the bill that would allow for juvenile sentencing to be before a judge.  Gov Mary Fallin's veto statement here states:

Senate Bill 1221, also known as the Alyssa Wiles Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentencing Act, has provisions that, are in my opinion, in violation of the United States Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 132 SCt. 2455, 183 L.Ed.2d 407. That decision was followed by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals in its decision rendered May 10, 2018, in Roberts A. Stevens v. The State of Oklahoma. Case No. PC-2017-219.

In case anyone cares, I believe there is at least a plausible argument that Apprendi jurisprudence does not demand that a jury make the essential "findings" that Miller and Montgomery seem to make constitutionally required under the Eighth Amendment for sentencing a juvenile to life without parole.  Readers with long memories may recall that I have long argued that Blakely's Sixth Amendment rule makes most sense only when applied to offense facts rather than to offender characteristics.  The Supreme Court has vaguely, but not conclusively, rejected such a conceptual distinction in the reach of the Sixth Amendment.  But even though I can see possible constitutional uncertainty as to how offender-eligibility factors are must be adjudicated under the Supreme Court's Sixth and Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, I think it may well be sound practice for these kinds of determinations to be given to juries (perhaps particularly in a state with a strong tradition of jury involvement in sentencing decision-making).

May 15, 2018 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Blakely Commentary and News, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Puzzling through the current politics of pursuing federal statutory criminal justice reforms

Rolling Stone has this notable new report on the latest politics surround federal criminal justice reform efforts under the headline "'We Don't Have to Worry About Senator Sessions': A look inside the Congressional battle for criminal justice reform." Here are excerpts:

Less than one month ago, there was no hope for any meaningful criminal justice reform to make its way out of this Republican-controlled Congress. But last week a large, bipartisan block of members of the House Judiciary Committee passed a narrow prison reform bill aimed at stemming the recidivism rate. That tees it up for a floor vote, even as many political watchers have predicted most major legislative efforts will be put on hold until after voters go to their polling booths in November.

"This is just a money and morals issue for me," Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), who is one of the bill's lead authors, tells Rolling Stone.  "It's about money that we're saving by not only redirecting that in our prison system, but also the moral aspect that everybody deserves a second chance."

Collins was able to revive the effort by massaging the bill with his ally Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), who represents Brooklyn and Queens and is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.  The legislation sailed through their House committee by a lopsided 25-5 vote, but it faces stiff opposition in the Senate from those who want it to go much further in overhauling the nation's system of mandatory minimum prison sentences that critics say constrain the nation's judges and have left prisons brimming with nonviolent drug offenders.

"I'm disappointed, but it doesn't change anything that we have to do over here," Sen. Chuck Grassley, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, tells Rolling Stone. "[Senate Minority Whip Dick] Durbin and I are working together to make sure that if there's going to be anything done on criminal justice reform, it's going to contain sentencing reform."...

Collins says they were able to revive the bill in the House because they narrowed its scope to win over Attorney General Jeff Sessions. "We're not dealing with sentencing reform at this point, and he understood that," Collins said.

In response to reports that Sessions supported the measure, a DOJ official tells Rolling Stone that Sessions did not, in fact, sign off on the House bill, and that he opposes it.  The official refused to elaborate on reasons why.

But Grassley maintains the attorney general is irrelevant on the issue – even though he's the top law enforcement official in the nation. "We don't have to worry about Senator Sessions," Grassley tells Rolling Stone. "Why's that?"

"We don't have to worry about Senator Sessions," he repeated. "You don't have to know why. We just don't have to worry about him."  Grassley's staff refused to answer questions as to whether the senator has been assured that Trump would sign a mandatory minimum bill over Sessions' protest, or, on a more sinister note, whether Grassley believes Sessions will remain in his current position as attorney general.

Independent of Sessions, however, it's unclear whether there's enough support in Congress to pass criminal justice reform that leaves mandatory minimums untouched. Supporters of the House bill argue that doing anything to help current prisoners escape the incarceration cycle is better than not sitting idly by.

"[Sessions] is an impediment, and I'd suspect Trump's people are basically against sentencing reform," Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) tells Rolling Stone. "To get sentencing reform is probably going to necessitate a Democratic Congress, so that'll come next year. There's no reason to have people sit in a jail for another year when they don't need to be."

To review: it seems we do not know if AG Sessions is formally for or against the prison reform bill, the FIRST STEP Act, that passed the House Judiciary Committee last week, and we do not know if Senate Judiciary Committee leaders (or other Senators) may be willing to move forward with this FIRST STEP Act. I continue to fear AG Sessions' general opposition to any meaningful reforms and Senate leaders' eagerness for sentencing reforms may mean nothing gets done to bring any relief to any federal defendant anytime soon.

Some of many prior related posts:

May 15, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, May 14, 2018

Interesting accounting of history and modern realities of victims' rights

The New Yorker has this notable lengthy new article authored by Jill Lepore under the headline "The Rise of the Victims’-Rights Movement: How a conservative agenda and a feminist cause came together to transform criminal justice."  The article covers lots history (with a particular focus on the importance of the Oklahoma City bombing) along with considerable law and policy (taking mostly a jaundiced view on victim rights). I recommend the piece in full, and here are a few excerpts:

Because victims’ rights is a marriage of feminism and conservatism, the logic behind its signal victory, the victim-impact statement, rests on both the therapeutic, speak-your-truth commitment of a trauma-centered feminism and the punitive, lock-them-up imperative of law-and-order conservatism.  Arguably, this has been a bad marriage....

Some of the things admitted as victim-impact evidence, including testimony that the victim was an excellent piano player, was “good honest hardworking God fearing people,” was a “smart person with higher IQ than others in her family” or had “a 3.8 grade point average,” would appear to advance the fundamentally anti-democratic notion that the lives of the eloquent, the intelligent, the beautiful, the cherished are more worthy of the full protection of the law than others.

How much evidence is enough, or too much?  Challenges in some states have sought to limit admissible victim-impact witnesses to numbers that range from three to eleven, but, effectively, the number is limitless.  What kind of evidence is allowed?  Courts have admitted poems, “handcrafted items made by the victim,” “letters children wrote to their murdered mother,” and “photographs of the stillborn child victim dressed in clothes that the victim-mother had intended him to wear home from the hospital.”  Judges often report that they themselves find it difficult to recover their emotional equilibrium after hearing victim-impact statements.  Sorrow knows no bottom....

Thirty-two states have passed victims’-rights amendments; five more ballot initiatives may pass in November. Once enough states have acted, activists will again press for a federal amendment.  The last time the measure reached Congress, one of the prosecutors in the Oklahoma City bombing case argued against it (victims had tried to prevent one of McVeigh’s associates from signing a plea agreement in exchange for his testimony against McVeigh, which proved crucial in the trial).  [Paul] Cassell believes that there is much more work to be done.  The movement’s latest campaigns would expand the range of victim-impact evidence allowed in both capital and non-capital cases, and more strictly enforce victims’ rights that are already on the books.  In the age of #MeToo, victims’ rights are making remarkable political headway, for many of the same reasons they did after the Oklahoma City bombing.  Tragedy is a fierce tailwind.  And, as Susan Bandes puts it, “Nobody really wants to have to tell victims, or survivors of violent crime, that they cannot be heard.”

Critics remain.  Nancy Gertner, a former district-court judge from Massachusetts, is among those who have questioned Judge Aquilina’s conduct at Larry Nassar’s sentencing. Gertner told me, “The question is whether the victims needed that, as bloodletting, and the question is should the justice system allow that?  Or is it a throwback to public hanging?” Scott Sundby, a former prosecutor who studies capital juries, told me that the Nassar sentencing reminded him of Biblical punishments.  “Hey, we all get to pick up a rock and throw it at this person!”

May 14, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Among lots of CJ work, SCOTUS finds capital defendant's Sixth Amendment rights violated by counsel's unauthorized concession of guilt

The US Supreme Court got back to business this morning with a lot of notable activity in the criminal justice arena.  As noted in this prior post, there were a bunch of significant Dimaya GVRs.  In addition, the Court handed down five opinions in argued cases.  Four of the cases decided today involve criminal defendants, though the biggest of the rulings should also be of great interest to criminal justice fans as it addresses the relationship between federal prohibitions and state laws.  The federalism case, Murphy v. NCAA, No. 16–476 (S. Ct. May 14, 2018). (available here), may be of particular interest to advocates for state-level marijuana reforms, and I have this initial post on that case over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform.

Criminal procedure is the focal point of the four other SCOTUS cases handed down this morning: Byrd v. United StatesDahda v. United StatesMcCoy v. LouisianaUnited States v. Sanchez-Gomez.  This alphabetic list of these four rulings may also roughly approximate their order of importance/significance, though I welcome reader input on whether there are some important elements to a set of decisions that all seem somewhat narrow and fact-specific.  The ruling that may be of greatest interest to sentencing fans in McCoy, which split the Court 6-3 and starts with these paragraphs from Justice Ginsburg writing for the Court:

In Florida v. Nixon, 543 U.S. 175 (2004), this Court considered whether the Constitution bars defense counsel from conceding a capital defendant’s guilt at trial “when [the] defendant, informed by counsel, neither consents nor objects,” id., at 178.  In that case, defense counsel had several times explained to the defendant a proposed guiltphase concession strategy, but the defendant was unresponsive. Id., at 186.  We held that when counsel confers with the defendant and the defendant remains silent, neither approving nor protesting counsel’s proposed concession strategy, id., at 181, “[no] blanket rule demand[s] the defendant’s explicit consent” to implementation of that strategy, id., at 192.

In the case now before us, in contrast to Nixon, the defendant vociferously insisted that he did not engage in the charged acts and adamantly objected to any admission of guilt. App. 286–287, 505–506.  Yet the trial court permitted counsel, at the guilt phase of a capital trial, to tell the jury the defendant “committed three murders. . . . [H]e’s guilty.” Id., at 509, 510.  We hold that a defendant has the right to insist that counsel refrain from admitting guilt, even when counsel’s experienced-based view is that confessing guilt offers the defendant the best chance to avoid the death penalty. Guaranteeing a defendant the right “to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence,” the Sixth Amendment so demands.  With individual liberty — and, in capital cases, life — at stake, it is the defendant’s prerogative, not counsel’s, to decide on the objective of his defense: to admit guilt in the hope of gaining mercy at the sentencing stage, or to maintain his innocence, leaving it to the State to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

May 14, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

A couple dozen Dimaya GVRs in federal criminal cases in latest SCOTUS order list

The US Supreme Court this morning handed down this order list, and criminal justice fans should take notice of the significant number of federal criminal cases in which certiorari is granted followed by the "judgments are vacated, and the cases are remanded to the United States Court of Appeals ... for further consideration in light of Sessions v. Dimaya." 

Based on a quick scan, it would appear that SCOTUS has now "GVRed" at least one of every type of post-Dimaya case that John Elwood flagged in this SCOTUSblog "Relist Watch" post a few weeks ago (though in one case it appears SCOTUS said the GVR was to allow further consideration in light of Beckles).

Long story short: the fall-out from the Dimaya vagueness ruling seems likely to take many months (perhaps years) and many rulings to sort out.  Of course, I said this same thing about the Johnson vagueness ruling in 2015, and Dimaya et al three years later is really just itself one big part of the post-Johnson fall-out.  And because Johnson was fundamentally the product of the late Justice Scalia's continued railing against the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act, the long tail of the Johnson/Dimaya jurisprudence serves as an interesting (and perhaps never-ending) part of his constitutional legacy.

May 14, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, May 12, 2018

"Predatory Public Finance and the Evolution of the War on Drugs"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Bruce Benson and Brian Meehan now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

US drug policy has a long history of providing revenue for federal, state, and local governments.  Before the War on Drugs, opium and cocaine were legal and medical professionals who prescribed these substances had to pay extra taxes to do so.  This chapter explains how, as the federal government began enforcing outright bans on drugs, law enforcement agencies took advantage of their newly acquired authority to profit.

Today, civil asset forfeiture related to drug crimes provides officers with incentives to use and abuse their authority and increase their revenue by making more drug arrests.  Key takeaways: (1) Drug policy has a long history of providing law enforcement with increased revenues and authority over time. (2) Law enforcement agencies may be targeting the crimes that present the opportunity to raise revenue for their departments rather than the most serious public safety threats.

May 12, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, May 11, 2018

Nevada defense attorney loses latest battle, but may still be winning war, in effort to preclude an execution defendant apparently seeks

This local article, headlined "Nevada Supreme Court overturns lower court ban on using a paralytic in Scott Dozier execution, citing procedural issues," reports on a state Supreme Court ruling that might (or might not) increase the chance of the first execution in Nevada in more than a decade.  This matter seems to have a notable (and disturbing?) backstory, and here are the basics (with a few points emphasized):

Nevada’s Supreme Court has ordered a lower court to vacate its decision blocking part of the state’s proposed three-drug lethal injection combination, although one of the drugs it needs to carry out an impending execution has expired and it’s uncertain if and when the state can replace it.

The unanimous ruling comes two days after oral arguments were held in the case of 47-year-old Scott Dozier, whose execution was scheduled for November 2017 but has been indefinitely delayed.  Dozier, who was convicted of two murders in Nevada and Arizona, voluntarily gave up his appeals and says he wants to be put to death.

While a federal public defender raised the prospect that including the third drug and final drug in the protocol, a paralytic, could lead to a torturous execution that would violate prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment, the justices focused their ruling on the procedural elements of the case. The justices rebuked both the District Court judge and federal public defenders representing Dozier, saying the challenge to the execution protocol was “procedurally improper” and led to confusion and a failure to follow the correct procedures for appealing a death penalty case.

The decision said the federal public defender didn’t file a 1983 action or another appropriate mechanism to challenge the execution method, and instead raised the challenge as part of a “Motion for Determination Whether Scott Dozier’s Execution Will Proceed in a Lawful Manner” in a post-conviction proceeding that had already been suspended....

Togliatti ruled in November that the state’s proposed drug combination to carry out the execution presented a “substantial risk of harm” to Dozier as the method had never been tested and because prison officials presented little evidence in court. The court found that the inclusion of the paralytic could mask symptoms that the first two drugs were not working, leading to the possibility that Dozier would be aware but unable to communicate as he suffocated.   Justices noted in a footnote that the federal public defender’s actions appeared to “be at odds” with Dozier’s directive that his counsel not take any actions to delay the execution.

A representative of the attorney general’s office told justices this week that the state’s supply of diazepam — the first of the three drugs proposed to be used in the execution — had expired on May 1, but said it might be possible to replace the drug. Pharmaceutical companies that have barred the use of their drugs for executions have made it difficult for states to carry out the killings. Lawyers for Dozier didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday on what their next steps would be.

A spokeswoman for the Nevada Department of Corrections said the agency was waiting for the issuance of a warrant of execution before they could get started setting a date for Dozier to be put to death.

I am generally sympathetic to what might be called "creative" lawyering by capital defense attorneys when an execution date looms and their client requests pursuing every possible means to block an execution.  But in this case, according the Nevada Supreme Court, the death-row defendant has "consistently stated that he wanted the State to carry out the death sentence and did not want counsel to take actions that might disrupt his execution."  Under these circumstances, I am troubled by the "creative" lawyering deployed here to thwart the express wishes of the capital client.

The defendant here has not only been languishing on death row for an extra seven months while a procedurally improper motion was litigated all the way up to the Supreme Court, but now Nevada may no longer have "valid" drugs it needs to carry out the execution that the defendant presumably still wants.  I assume the defense attorney here and perhaps others may be urging Dozier to reconsider his request to have his execution go forward, and it will be interesting to watch if any further appeals are brought whenever the state can get another execution date scheduled.  But unless and until one thinks the rule of law can and should be ignored whenever the stakes are high enough, the capital litigation backstory story should be considered disconcerting.

May 11, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (20)

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Mapping out the politics for the path forward for federal prison (and sentencing?) reform

I am unsure how big a deal to make out of the passage of the FIRST STEP Act out of the House Judiciary Committee today (discussed here) because I am not sure it create much more confidence about the chance of the Senate moving forward with a form of federal criminal justice reform that can actually become law.  This new Politico article discusses the political uncertainty that is now the reality:

Congress on Wednesday edged closer to a rare bipartisan achievement during a hotly contested election year after a House panel voted overwhelmingly to send a prison reform plan to the floor — despite persistent internal GOP tensions in the Senate over the White House-backed bill.

The prison legislation, a key priority of Jared Kushner, won easy approval in the House Judiciary Committee.  It was a striking turnabout after backers scrapped a vote on an earlier version two weeks ago amid waning support.  But the bill’s lopsided 25-5 vote masked ongoing disputes among Senate Republicans and House Democrats over its omission of sentencing reforms opposed by President Donald Trump. Critics of the measure say those sentencing reforms are crucial to any deal.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has allied with Democratic supporters of a broader criminal justice package that includes both sentencing and prison reform provisions. GOP leaders in both chambers want to instead move the narrower prison bill, which would authorize training for prisoners that’s aimed at reducing recidivism rates.

As the House panel moved to okay the bill, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) — a previous backer of the broader criminal justice overhaul who has narrowed his sights to prison reform — said he hoped to negotiate with Grassley on a path forward....

Grassley and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, his lead Democratic partner on the Senate criminal justice package, said Wednesday that they were “encouraged” by the House’s progress but giving no ground on their position. “For any criminal justice reform proposal to win approval in the Senate, it must include these sentencing reforms,” Grassley and Durbin said in a statement.

Lobbying on the House prison bill also has become contentious in recent weeks, pitting one of the legislation’s lead cosponsors, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), against the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel, fellow New York Rep. Jerry Nadler. Jeffries has worked for months with Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) on the bill, omitting the sentencing provisions that are a nonstarter with the White House in part because of longstanding opposition from Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Nadler took part in a Tuesday meeting with opponents of the legislation and made an impassioned plea to delay consideration of the bill during the markup. Jeffries, however, downplayed the tension after the bill sailed through the judiciary panel. He said everyone involved in the bill supports addressing sentencing laws; the disagreement is over when that should happen. “Mass incarceration has been with us for almost 40 years. It’s going to take more than one singular legislative magic wand to eradicate it,” Jeffries said in an interview.

“We all agree that sentencing reform should be a part of any broad criminal justice reform effort that takes place. The First Step Act represents the beginning of the end of overcriminalization in America.”

A House floor vote on the bill is possible before the Memorial Day recess, according to multiple sources. But the proposal still faces formidable foes, from powerful civil rights groups like the ACLU and key senators such as Grassley and Durbin. Dozens of advocacy groups, including the NAACP, sent another letter opposing the prison bill to House members on Tuesday.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), another supporter of the broader criminal justice package, reiterated in a Tuesday interview that “I want to see sentencing reform and prison reform move together, and I worry that this bill doesn’t” make that happen. Booker met Monday night to discuss strategy on the bill with Durbin, Jeffries, Nadler, Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). But supporters of the broader and narrower approaches to criminal justice left entrenched in their positions, according to a source with knowledge of the meeting.... The bill, if successful, would likely be the last major bipartisan effort to clear Congress before the election. And it would be a major victory for Kushner, who has failed to score any significant wins in the White House, despite a disparate policy portfolio that has included everything from bringing peace to the Middle East to tackling the nation’s opioid crisis.

“The key for this is a realization that perfect doesn’t exist on the Hill,” Collins said in an interview. “Although we want to have done some more, this is a very valid first step.” The White House "look[s] forward to a vote in the full House" on the legislation, deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said by email.

The bill would authorize $50 million annually for five years for educational and vocational programs for prisoners with the goal of equipping inmates for life after incarceration and reducing repeat offenses.

In a major win for progressives, the bill also includes a technical tweak to current law that would increase “good time” credit for prisoners from 47 days to 54 days per year. The change, which would be applied retroactively, would lead to the immediate release of 4,000 prisoners, according to the bill’s supporters.

Some of many prior related posts:

May 9, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

House Judiciary Committee approves FIRST STEP Act by a vote of 25-5 after lots of discussion of amendments

As reported in this article from The Hill, the House Judicial Committee "on Wednesday approved a new prison reform bill being pushed by the White House."  Here are some details:

The bill, called the First Step Act, seeks to offer more funding for prison programs in an attempt to reduce an inmate’s likelihood to re-offend after they’ve been released. The House Judiciary Committee approved the bill, by a 25-5 vote, that Reps. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) spent the last week negotiating after committee Democrats pushed back against a number of conservative provisions.

In the legislation now advancing to the House, lawmakers removed language that would have allowed certain law enforcement officials and correctional officers to carry a concealed firearm in all 50 states and created more opportunities for prisoners to earn time credits by completing prison programs. They can then use those credits to serve the remaining days of their sentence in a halfway house or home confinement.

The bill, which authorizes $50 million a year for five years for the Bureau of Prisons to spend on programs like job training and education that reduce recidivism, clarifies current law to allow prisoners up to 54 days of credit for good behavior annually. The law was previously interpreted as only allowing prisoners to earn 47 days a year.

The previous bill, known as the Prison Reform and Redemption Act, and the current compromise, however, have divided Democrats and liberal groups. While #cut50, a criminal justice reform advocacy group led by Van Jones, the CNN host and former adviser to President Obama, is now backing the new bill, the measure is still opposed by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and 73 other groups.

Democrats and progressive groups argue the criminal justice reform bill should include provisions that reduce mandatory minimum prison sentences. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), the committee’s ranking member, said the bill is well-intentioned but the committee should be working on legislation that includes sentencing reform. He offered a motion to postpone the markup by one month to give committee members time to negotiate and markup sentencing reform legislation.... Nadler’s motion was [after discussion] voted down by the committee.

Progressives were able to win language prohibiting female prisoners from being shackled during pregnancy, childbirth and up to 12 weeks after a baby is born. But the committee voted down an amendment Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) offered to create a pilot program in federal prisons to allow female inmates who give birth while behind bars to live with their child in a prison housing unit until the child is two-and-a-half years old.

The committee, however, approved an amendment from Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) to expand a pilot youth mentorship program and a pilot program that gives prisoners the skills to train rescue and abandoned dogs. The bill would take the programs from two years in 10 facilities to five years in at least 20 facilities.

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) also had an amendment approved that would prevent faith-based organizations that want to offer prison programming from being discriminated against.

A bipartisan amendment from Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), Collins, Jackson Lee, Jeffries and Val Demings (D-Fla.) was also approved to clarify that the legislative fix, which makes prisoners eligible for 54 days of good time instead of 47, applies to prisoners already serving sentences....

Collins said he’s confident there’s enough Democratic support to get the bill through the House and the Senate. “They have their own process to go through. There may be some issues that we can then work on later, but I do feel this is one of the pieces of legislation that will be signed into law this year,” he said.

The House Judiciary Committee has this press release about the vote and key provisions of the bill under the heading, "House Judiciary Committee Approves Bill to Reform the Federal Prison System."  Though not mentioned in these reports, I believe all the Republican votes coming from the committee were in favor of this FIRST STEP bill except for Rep. Steve King from Iowa, and also that a majority of the Democrats in the committee also voted for the bill (though Ranking Member Jerry Nadler and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee were among the notable "No"s).

All of this suggests to me a reason to be optimistic that there might really be some notable federal criminal justice reform getting done in 2018.  It is less than I would like to see, but I still think it would be MUCH better than nothing. 

Some of many prior related posts:

May 9, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

On eve of House Committee consideration, distinct advice from criminal justice reform groups on latest federal prison reform proposal

As noted in this prior recent post, a new and improved version of a federal prison reform bill, the "Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act" or the "FIRST STEP Act, " is now slated for House Judiciary Committee markup the morning of Wednesday, May 9th.  The full text of this FIRST STEP bill is available at this link, and I am starting to wonder if this may be a significant criminal justice reform bill that ends up getting in committee even more votes from Republicans than from Democrats.  (For those keeping score, and as this official list details, there are 40 members of the House Judiciary Committee of which 23 are Republicans and 17 are Democrats.)

I do not know for sure if all 23 Republican members of the HJC will be voting for the FIRST STEP bill, but I surmise that some Democrats will be voting against it because the bill is too limited and lacks any sentencing reform elements.  Indeed, on Tuesday, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights along with 74 reform-oriented organizations sent this lengthy letter to House Judiciary Committee members titled "Vote 'No' on The FIRST STEP Act."  Here is how the letter gets started: 

On behalf of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the 74 undersigned organizations, we urge you to vote “No” on the FIRST STEP Act that will be considered during the mark up.  Any effort to pass prison reform (or “back-end” reform) legislation without including sentencing reform (or “front-end” reform) will not meaningfully improve the federal system.  Across the country, states that have enacted legislation containing both front and back end reforms have reduced rates of incarceration and crime.  Any legislation that addresses only back end reforms is doomed to fail in achieving these goals.  Without changes to sentencing laws that eliminate mandatory minimums, restore judicial discretion, reduce the national prison population, and mitigate disparate impacts on communities of color, the FIRST STEP Act alone will have little impact.

Critically, though, not all leading criminal justice reform groups are urging a no vote on the FIRST STEP Act.  The President of Families Against Mandatory Minimums sent a short memo to the sponsors of the FIRST STEP Act, Representatives Doug Collins and Hakeem Jeffries, explaining why FAMM believe the bill "deserves the Judiciary Committee’s support."  That memo, which can be downloaded below, echoes many concerns of other advocacy groups, but explains why it is ultimately backing this bill in these terms: "FAMM is in contact with nearly 40,000 federal prisoners every week.  Far too many of them are serving excessive sentences.  This bill might be the only opportunity we have in the next few years to get them some overdue relief and justice."    Download FAMM Memo on First Step

Regular readers likely realize I am in the FAMM camp here, wishing that a more comprehensive bill was being considered, but resigned to the political reality that a prison reform bill looks like the only form of statutory criminal justice reform that has a serious chance of being enacted this year.  In this arena, something is always better than nothing, and Congress has delivered nothing on sentencing or prison reform for now nearly eight years despite so much talk from so many folks about a strong bipartisan interest in reform.

Some of many prior related posts:

May 9, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

In latest speech, AG Jeff Sessions calls "war on crime and drugs ... a roaring success"

Today, Attorney General Jefferson Sessions delivered this speech at the Gatlinburg Law Enforcement Training Conference.  The use of the phrase "roaring success" to describe the "war on crime and drugs" caught my attention, and here is some context and some more notable passages from what AG Sessions had to say today:

My best judgement is that working together we have an historic opportunity to make our country better, safer, and more prosperous. We don’t come to this conference with a blank slate. We are experienced. We are professional. We are trained to do that which the times demand.

The problem is that we got away from the proven policies that reduced crime all over this country: community-based policing, incarcerating serious repeat criminals, new technologies, more officers, and more prosecutors. The war on crime and drugs did not fail. It was a roaring success. The success came as a direct result of rejecting the criticism and policies of the progressive left. The country gave its attention to the American people and crime victims for a change. High school drug use rates and homicide rates fell by half after the dreamland policies of the fuzzy-headed left were rejected, and sound professional policies were adopted....

Of course we don’t need anyone in jail that doesn’t need to be there. But revolving prison doors that allow dangerous criminals to prey on the innocent will not produce safety. Indeed homicide increased by 12 percent in 2015 and 8 percent in 2016 after 22 years of decline. Drug use, addiction and overdoes deaths have surged. We must work resolutely to stop those trends and to reverse them. We know how. We have proven what works. Science proves what works. We share good practices at conferences like this all the time.

My goal is to support you, to empower you, and to unleash you and your law enforcement partners to apply the good and lawful policies that are proven to make our communities safer.

This point was given a powerful support just a few weeks ago when Paul Cassel and Richard Fowles of the University of Utah analyzed the dramatic surge in Chicago homicides in 2016. Homicides went from 480 in 2015 to 754 in 2016 — a stunning event. They asked why. They considered numerous possible causes. They concluded the 58 percent increase was caused by the abrupt decline in “stop and frisks” in 2015. There had been a horrific police shooting, protests, and an ACLU lawsuit. The settlement of that lawsuit resulted in a decline in stops from 40,000 per month to 10,000 per month. Arrests fell also. In sum, they conclude that these actions in late 2016, conservatively calculated, resulted in approximately 236 additional victims killed and over 1,100 additional shootings in 2016 alone. The scholars call it the “ACLU effect”.

Look, this does not surprise you experienced professionals. If you want crime to go up, let the ACLU run the police department. If you want public safety, call the professionals. That is what President Trump believes and that is what I believe. Let’s put our focus on what works.

These are our explicit goals for 2018: to bring down violent crime, homicides, opioid prescriptions, and overdose deaths....

We have tolerated and winked at the illegality in our immigration system for far too long. It’s time that we put ourselves on the path to end illegal immigration once and for all. And, that will be one step towards reducing crime. And it will build on the centerpiece of our crime reduction strategy: Project Safe Neighborhoods, or PSN.

Here’s how it works. I want our U.S. Attorneys to target and prioritize prosecutions of the most violent people in the most violent areas. And I’ve directed that they engage with a wide variety of stakeholders – our state and local law enforcement partners, as well as others like community groups and victims’ advocates – in order to identify the needs specific to their communities and develop a customized violent crime reduction plan.

This approach has been proven to work. One study showed that, in its first seven years, PSN reduced violent crime overall by 4.1 percent, with case studies showing reductions in certain areas of up to 42 percent. PSN has the flexibility necessary for it to work in every district. PSN is going to build on the results we have achieved across America over the past year.

In 2017, the Department of Justice brought cases against the greatest number of violent criminals in a quarter of a century. We charged the most federal firearm prosecutions in a decade. We convicted more than 1,200 gang members. We have already charged hundreds of people suspected of contributing to the ongoing opioid crisis — including more than 150 doctors for opioid-related crimes. Sixteen of these doctors prescribed more than 20.3 million pills illegally. Our Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Forces have also indicted more than 6,500 defendants in opioid-related investigations and forfeited more than $150 million in the past year.

From 2016 to 2017 our fentanyl prosecutions more than tripled. And in the past month and a half, the DEA has seized nearly 200 pounds of suspected fentanyl in cases from Detroit to New York to Boston. Fentanyl is 50 times as powerful as heroin, and it’s the killer drug. It’s got to be a priority for all of us. All of this hard work is paying off. There are some good signs in the preliminary data that the increases in murder and violent crime appear to have slowed and violent crime may have actually begun to decrease. Publicly available data for the rest of the year suggest further progress.

May 8, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, National and State Crime Data, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Monday, May 07, 2018

New and improved version of federal prison reform bill to be considered by House Judiciary Committee

First-step-concept-cork-board-77226634In this post last night, I expressed my deep pessimism concerning Congress managing to pass any notable criminal justice reform.  So it is fitting kismet that this afternoon came the exciting news of a new and improved version of a prison reform bill known as the "Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act" or the "FIRST STEP Act." The full text of this bill is available at this link, and this House Judiciary Committee page indicates that this bill will be marked up this Wednesday.

This new Politico article, headlined "Kushner-backed prison reform bill finds new life," provides an account of the background politics and the critical new provisions of the new proposed legislation. Here are excerpts:

A group of bipartisan House lawmakers unveiled a new criminal justice bill Monday, with hopes it can overcome obstacles that derailed an earlier version of the legislation just two weeks ago. The House Judiciary Committee will vote on the prison reform bill Wednesday after its lead authors, Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Doug Collins (R-Ga.), spent the congressional recess working with President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner and others to tweak the proposal.

The bill would authorize funding for training programs to help rehabilitate prisoners. If approved by the Judiciary Committee, the bill could be on the House floor before the Memorial Day recess, according to several sources. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) introduced a companion proposal Monday afternoon.

But while Jeffries and Collins have been working to build a bipartisan coalition of support, key lawmakers including Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), top Democrat on the House Judiciary panel, and Senate Judiciary Charmain Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) remain potential obstacles.

The House Judiciary Committee scrapped plans two weeks ago to mark up an earlier version of the bill after support waned — due in part, according to House sources, from Grassley and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) privately urging members to oppose the plan because it didn't include sentencing reforms. “What we’re disagreeing on right now is how far can we go right now,” Collins said in an interview Monday. “Do you want to actually make law or do you want to make press releases?”...

Collins and Jeffries said they hope the plan’s broad support — from liberal criminal justice group #cut50 to the Koch brothers to Kushner — is enough to ensure passage in the House. Kushner is meeting with the conservative House Freedom Caucus Monday evening to rally support for the bill.

But Nadler — who still has “a lot of concerns” a spokesman said Monday — isn’t alone in his opposition to the bill. Detractors argue the proposal doesn’t go far enough because it doesn’t also tackle sentencing reform, an effort Grassley and Durbin have spent months negotiating. Grassley along with several key Senate Democrats and influential civil rights groups like the ACLU and NAACP want a comprehensive criminal justice overhaul that includes both sentencing and prison reforms....

Jeffries and Collins told POLITICO they hope the changes made over the last two weeks are enough to get reluctant House lawmakers on board. Jeffries is also hopeful that Sessions will refrain from trying to sink the effort as he has in the past. “At the moment, it appears that the Department of Justice is in a position of neutrality as it relates to the bill,” Jeffries said. “To the extent that changes, that could be a complicating factor once the bill gets on the House floor.”

The bill — which they are now calling the “First Step Act,” in part to signify it’s the initial step in a longer effort to reform the justice system, including sentencing laws — has several major changes from previous versions.

The bill would authorize $50 million annually for five years to provide education and vocational training programs to prisoners; the latest version would also allow nonviolent drug offenders to participate in the programs. Jeffries and Collins also agreed to language that would allow more prisoners to take advantage of credits that would allow inmates to serve part of their sentence in home confinement or at a halfway house.

The proposal also includes several wins that liberal groups had pushed for, including language codifying prohibitions on shackling pregnant female inmates, both during their pregnancy and for 12 weeks postpartum.

And in what progressive backers are touting as another major win, the bill includes a technical fix that would allow inmates to earn up to 54 days of “good time” credit a year, up from 47 days annually under current interpretation of the law.

“We also had concerns around whether or not this was a meaningful reform. Those have been answered by including the good time credit fix,” #cut50 co-founder Jessica Jackson Sloan said, noting roughly 4,000 prisoners would immediately be eligible for release. “We’re fully on board with this bill. We’ll continue to fight for sentencing reform,” she added.

To turn up pressure on House Judiciary Democrats, the Koch brother’s Freedom Partners launched a wave of digital ads Monday encouraging lawmakers to support the bill. The Facebook and Twitter ads will run in six Judiciary Democrats’ districts, including Jeffries, Nadler and Reps. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas), Cedric Richmond (D-La.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.). The White House is also expected to increase its outreach on the Hill this week, likely through Kushner, according to sources.

For the plans’ supporters, they say now is the best time to act with the goal of getting sentencing reform down the road. “There were some who took the position that we should wait on criminal justice reform until [Hillary] Clinton is president and Democrats were in control of the Senate. How did that work out?” Jeffries said.

I will not count any congressional chickens until they have hatched in the form of a Presidential signature on enacted legislation. But, after feeling distinctly pessimistic last night, now I am peculiarly optimistic that something pretty significant could get done in the coming months.

May 7, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Reviewing the feds increased pursuit of ever more federal gun cases

The New York Times had this front-page piece about an increase in federal gun prosecutions under the headline "In Fight Against Violent Crime, Justice Dept. Targets Low-Level Gun Offenders." Here are excerpts:

Urged by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to punish offenders as harshly and as quickly as possible, federal prosecutors have increasingly pursued low-level gun possession cases, according to law enforcement officials and an examination of court records and federal crime statistics....  Mr. Sessions is putting into action his own long-held views on criminal justice, forged as a United States attorney in Alabama during the drug war. They reflect a philosophy popular among conservatives and long backed by the gun lobby: that the effective enforcement of existing laws can reduce crime without resorting to the passage of additional legislation.

“I believe very strongly in enforcing gun laws,” Mr. Sessions said in an interview with the far-right Breitbart News this year. “I believe there’s no value in having them on the books if they’re not prosecuted.”

Mr. Sessions’s approach has touched off a debate about whether he is making the country safer from violent crime, as he and President Trump have repeatedly vowed to do, or devoting resources to low-level prosecutions that could instead be put toward pursuing bigger targets like gun suppliers.

“It’s a good idea to enforce the existing gun laws,” said Avery Gardiner, co-president of The Brady Campaign, a nonprofit coalition that works to combat gun violence. “That’s something prosecutors should do. But going only after the people who are purchasing the guns illegally is only part of the story.”

Local police, who have for years sought more muscle from federal law enforcement, welcomed Mr. Sessions’s more aggressive approach. “We have been trying to send a message,” said J. Thomas Manger, president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which represents police departments across the country. “The bad guys have a real fear of federal prosecutions versus state prosecutions.”

Penalties for federal gun convictions are steep.  On average, firearms defendants spend six years in federal prison. If they are convicted under the two statutes requiring mandatory minimum sentences, that average jumps to 11 years.

In the three months following a directive from Mr. Sessions last year to pursue gun crimes, possession cases — a relatively routine charge — rose nearly a quarter.  That was part of a 15 percent increase in all federal gun prosecutions in the first nine months of 2017.  Three out of every four federal gun charges filed in the 12 months starting in October 2016 were under a statute forbidding felons from owning or transporting a gun, according to Syracuse University’s TRAC database, which monitors gun crime statistics.  The period encompasses both the end of the Obama administration and the first several months of Mr. Sessions’s term.

Three law enforcement officials described a newfound interest among prosecutors in taking on smaller gun cases — referred to in law enforcement parlance as one-man, one-gun cases for their narrow impact.  Such cases had long been left to state and local prosecutors, freeing Justice Department officials to focus on broader investigations of interstate gun trafficking and criminal networks....

Supporters of Mr. Sessions’s initiatives acknowledge the politics of his approach and remain wary it could be used to sap energy from further legislative or regulatory efforts to combat gun violence, like regulating assault weapons or increasing background check requirements. “We certainly are hoping for some additional legislative fixes by Congress,” Mr. Manger said.

It is difficult to judge the impact of Mr. Sessions’s initiatives.  Many offenders charged with federal gun laws in 2017 are just now going to trial or being sentenced, and some of the cases could still be moved out of the federal system.  Federal firearm prosecutions have historically ebbed and flowed, often spiking in the years following significant court decisions or large-scale mass shootings.  After steadily dropping since 2004, prosecutions began increasing again in 2015, according to the TRAC database.

People convicted of firearms-related crimes make up more than 17 percent of the federal prison population, the second-biggest group after drug offenses, Justice Department data showed. Ninety-six percent of defendants convicted of a federal firearms offense in 2017 were sentenced to prison....

Amid surging public pressure following the mass shooting at a Florida high school in February, Mr. Trump directed Mr. Sessions to more strictly enforce existing gun laws.  Survivors of that shooting have pushed Mr. Trump to ban assault weapons and raise the legal purchasing age for firearms.  Instead, prodded by Mr. Trump, Mr. Sessions pushed federal prosecutors to more strictly enforce background check violations and ban bump stocks, a device that can help semiautomatic weapons fire like machine guns.  Bump stocks were used in the Las Vegas massacre in October.

Mr. Sessions explained his rationale at a speech following the Florida shooting. “It’s not good,” he said, “if we’ve got gun laws that say criminals can’t carry guns and they never get enforced.”

May 7, 2018 in Gun policy and sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Interesting complicated stories of the recidivism impact of California's big modern sentencing reforms

Via email, I received news of this notable new publication, titled "Evaluating the Effects of Realignment Practices on Recidivism Outcomes," authored by Mia Bird and Ryken Grattet emerging from their empirical work funded by the Justice Department.   Sentencing fans know that "realignment" refers to the big statutory sentencing reforms enacted by California in 2011 to address the state's unconstitutional prison overcrowding; but it is only one part of a number of dramatic changes in sentencing laws and practices in that state over the last decade.  Like the state of California, this new research publication defies easy summary, and I will here reprint its closing analysis:

To date, our research has portrayed the changes in the local correctional populations across two major reforms — 2011’s Public Safety Realignment and 2014’s Proposition 47 — and across probation systems and county jails.  Moreover, through the survey data we have compiled, we have been able to explore the way the nature of probation work has changed. And, finally, we have provided an in-depth analysis of how realignment has affected recidivism and are in the preliminary stages of identifying effective program, service, and sanction interventions.

Realignment changed major features of the correctional system by lessening deterrence and incapacitation and aiming to improve rehabilitation.  The results we see here are likely reflective of the impacts of these countervailing changes. The strongest conclusion from this work is that, in the first years under realignment, recidivism outcomes have varied substantially across realignment treatment groups and counties, with some offenders achieving much better outcomes under realignment and others faring worse in comparison to their pre-realignment counterparts.  However, analysis of the first two years of realignment is insufficient to draw policy conclusions because many counties were unprepared to take on the challenges of implementing evidence-based interventions with more serious offender groups.  Given that context, our findings show some promise that improvements can be made over time, particularly if we are able to leverage the diversity of county approaches to identify and disseminate effective practices.

Our work on changes in jail and probation populations has demonstrated that the state and counties have prioritized correctional resources for more serious offenders under Realignment and Prop 47.  This change has reduced overall incarceration levels and criminal justice contact, but has also increased the need for guidance on evidence-based practices at the local level.

May 7, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Another round of criticisms of Prez Trump's decision to nominate Bill Otis to US Sentencing Commission

As reported in this prior post, Prez Trump back in early March announced these notable new nominations to the US Sentencing Commission.  As I have noted before, it is usually only hard-core sentencing nerds like me who pay much attention to USSC nominations.  But this slate of nominees, especially the nomination of Bill Otis, has led to more than the usual amount of focus on how Prez Trump is looking to put his stamp on the USSC.  I noted in this post back in March an array of critical commentary from media outlets like Mother Jones, Reason and Slate, and recently these two new commentaries have furthered this notable nominee chatter:

Here are some excerpts from the New Republic piece, with some notable quotes for and against the nominee:

The commission isn’t typically prone to partisan warfare. In fact, Congress created the seven-member body in 1984 precisely so it could avoid politicized battles when crafting federal sentencing guidelines. Otis’s nomination could upset that balance.

“He’s been the arch-nemesis of criminal-justice reform at the federal level for a decade at least,” Kevin Ring, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), told me. “He’s opposed basically every legislative reform, every reform the Sentencing Commission has passed, and just seems to enjoy that curmudgeonly position of saying no.”

FAMM, which advocates for sentencing reform through Congress and before the Sentencing Commission, has never endorsed or opposed a commission nominee before, preferring instead to work with those commissioners once they’re in office. But Otis’s nomination changed that. “He’s an ideologue in a position that is supposed to be driven by evidence and data,” Ring said....

If confirmed by the Senate, Otis would bring first-hand experience with the federal criminal-justice system under both Democratic and Republican presidents. Among the posts he held during three decades in the government are stints as a legal advisor to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s administrator, as a special counsel in the George W. Bush White House, and as a federal prosecutor in the eastern district of Virginia, where he led the office’s appellate division.

Otis’s nomination has raised alarm among pro-reform groups that see the commission as a key ally in reining in mass incarceration in America, and it’s at odds with the reformist zeitgeist that’s swept D.C. think tanks and advocacy groups on the left, right, and center. Organizations ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Koch brothers’ political network have put muscle behind the effort to reduce over-incarceration in recent years. Lower crime rates also helped spur state and federal lawmakers to rethink harsh policies from a bygone era.

Not everyone is on board with the shift away from tough-on-crime politics, including Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. But few are more vocal about it than Otis. “Although I am decidedly out-of-step with my learned colleagues inside the Beltway, and despite all the puff pieces in the press running in the other direction, I don’t feel lonely in opposing the more-crime-faster proposals marketing themselves as ‘sentencing reform,’” he wrote in 2014.

Otis declined to comment for this article, citing standard practices for pending judicial-branch nominees. Those who’ve worked with him say his appointment would bring a much-needed alternative perspective to the Sentencing Commission’s work. Kent Scheidegger, a California-based attorney and legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, told me that he thinks it’s important to avoid a “uniformity of viewpoint” on the commission.

“[Otis] has a view that the rush to lessen sentences, particularly for serious crimes, is a mistake, that it’s going too far too fast, and that people who have the contrary view necessarily are opposed to that,” he said. Scheidegger shares that skepticism of reformers’ efforts, telling me, “I think they’re largely forgetting history and condemning us to repeat it.”

The two men are regular contributors to Crime and Consequences, a blog that discusses criminal-justice issues from a conservative perspective. Otis’s posts there offer brief but illuminating glimpses into how he approaches the subject. His central theme is straightforward and often bluntly expressed: that tough-on-crime policies helped bring down crime over the past 25 years, and scaling them back will cause crime to surge upwards once more....

Otis occasionally takes aim at perceived elites whom he casts as insulated from the consequences of their policy decisions. “When early release goes wrong, as it so often does, who pays the price?” he wrote in 2016. “The sentencing reform crowd at their posh, self-congratulatory, ‘we-are-so-humane’ parties in Manhattan and Hollywood, or the next unsuspecting victim they helped set up?”

But Otis’s views are also out of sync with a growing number of conservatives. Republican leaders in red states like Georgia and Texas have adopted measures aimed at reducing recidivism and lowering excessive prison populations. “Someone who doesn’t adapt to new ways of thinking that have actually proven to be a lot more effective than simply warehousing people for years on end — someone who can’t accept that reality — doesn’t really need to be on the Sentencing Commission,” Jason Pye, the vice president for legislative affairs at FreedomWorks, told me.

Scheidegger said the debate over Otis’s positions would be a net positive for the commission. “I think it’s a good nomination, and I think it’s important to keep it in the context of the whole panel, including representation on the other side of the aisle as well,” he told me. “That’s an important aspect of the nomination. Diversity of viewpoint on this subject is a good thing.”

Trump’s nominees to the commission are still awaiting Senate confirmation.  The other three are William Pryor, a Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals judge, as well as Third Circuit judge Luis Restrepo and federal district-court judge Henry Hudson.  Reform advocates told me they also had concerns about Hudson, who once went by the sobriquet “Hang ’em High Harry” as a prosecutor in the 1980s, but acknowledged he has plenty of practical experience as a sentencing jurist.

But Otis is still a bridge too far, they told me, even though many of them said they like him personally. “Part of the commission’s job is to take some of the politics away from the politicians,” Ring said. “You want sentencing to be driven by this commission as some insulation from Congress. And that’s the worst place for an ideologue from either side.”

Prior related posts:

May 7, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (31)

Sunday, May 06, 2018

More criticism of prison-reform only efforts, while failing to explain a path forward for broader federal sentencing reforms

Todd Cox, policy director at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, has this notable new commentary in The Hill headlined "Sentencing reform is moving in the wrong direction." Here are excerpts with a bit of additional commentary to follow:

In 2015, Senator Chuck Grassley introduced a long awaited bi-partisan criminal justice reform bill designed to address inequities in federal sentencing and promote rehabilitation and re-entry for persons who are incarcerated.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA) was a compromise that fell far short of the comprehensive criminal justice reforms that are needed to truly transform the nation’s criminal justice system; and yet, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and many of our civil rights coalition partners, generally supported this compromise. Limited sentencing reforms were easier to accept in 2015, under a Department of Justice itself dedicated to policing reform and to reforming its own charging policies with the goal of reducing the impact of overly harsh sentences.

However, the Department of Justice is now led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Session’s DOJ has not only abandoned policing reform but is ramping up the now discredited “war on drugs,” re-opening the flood gates to our nation’s federal prisons.  Under these circumstances, it would be a critical mistake to pursue strategies that do not include reforming the front-end of the system or sentencing.

Unfortunately, some in Congress have decided to do just that: pursue a criminal justice reform strategy that does not include sentencing reform but focuses instead on so-called prison reform, the back-end of the system.  These proposals will not meaningfully reform the federal criminal justice system.  Indeed, states have pursued the opposite strategy, adopting both front-end and back-end reforms that have reduced both incarceration rates and crime.

Proposals without, at least, front and back-end reform will not achieve these results.  Without sentencing reform that eliminates mandatory minimums, reduces the prison population, and addresses the disparate impact of our criminal justice system on communities of color, these proposals will have little impact....

House proposals would exclude too many people currently in prison from early release even though the vast majority of these individuals would still be coming home one day. These exclusions would likely have a disparate impact on racial minorities because the proposals exclude individuals convicted of certain immigration and drug-related offenses. These types of offenses account for 53.3 percent of the total federal prison population and are made up of mostly minorities, so the bill is likely to neglect a significant portion of the prison population and exacerbate racial disparities....

We need comprehensive, meaningful criminal justice reform to create a fair equitable justice system.  We cannot accept proposals that not only take us backwards, but may actually harm the communities we serve.

I share the author's interest in "comprehensive, meaningful criminal justice reform," especially any form of federal legislation that "eliminates mandatory minimums, reduces the prison population, and addresses the disparate impact of our criminal justice system on communities of color."  But, as the commentary highlights, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act itself falls short of comprehensive reform (and it includes the prison reform features that this commentary now derides as potentially harmful).  Moreover, despite broad bipartisan support, the SRCA is still yet to get a floor vote in either chamber of Congress after three years of considerable effort.  Because sentencing reform in the form of the SRCA (or anything better) seems unlikely to move until there is a new President and/or Attorney General, criticizing efforts to move forward with just prison reform strikes me as tantamount to resigning oneself to the federal sentencing and corrections status quo until at least 2021.

I continue to hope I am wrong when fearing that there is no path forward for significant federal statutory sentencing reform until at least 2021 (if not later).  But it is discouraging to read commentaries that call for big reforms and then fail to explain how politically such reforms get done anytime soon.  Meanwhile, even a faulty version of prison reform could and should provide at least some extra bit of help and hope to tens of thousands federal prisoners (and their families and friends awaiting their release).  And focused advocacy efforts might help ensure passage of an improved version of prison reform to enhance the help and hope prisoners would get from even an imperfect and incomplete form of reform.  But as another month passes without any viable bill even getting through a committee, it seems help and hope for federal prisons is still wishful thinking.

I have become deeply pessimistic about federal statutory sentencing reform in recent years, and Congress finds new ways each session to make my pessimism look like a perverse form of wisdom.  So I suppose I will continue to predict that nothing is going to get done here anytime soon.

A few of many prior related posts:

May 6, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Leading newspaper in New Hampshire advocates "Governor, end the death penalty"

I have not blogged about the recent votes by New Hampshire’s legislature to repeal the state's rarely used death penalty because of reports that New Hampshire's Governor was sure to veto the repeal and there were not sufficient votes to override a veto. But since the veto has yet to take place, I figured I might note this new editorial in the Concord Monitor headlined "Governor, end the death penalty." Here are excerpts:

For the second time since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1977, both houses of New Hampshire’s Legislature have voted to repeal the state’s capital punishment law.  The first attempt died in the face of a threatened veto by then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen.  It was a dark hour in the state’s history.  New Hampshire is the only New England state to countenance the death penalty, indeed the only Eastern state north of Virginia whose laws call for putting transgressors to death.

This year’s repeal vote faces a promised veto by Gov. Chris Sununu.  We urge the governor to let the will of the people, as represented by the majority vote of their representatives, be expressed.  He should sign the bill or let it become law without his signature.  If he does neither, lawmakers should override his veto.  In the House, one more vote would have given repeal proponents a veto-proof majority.  In the Senate, just two more votes would have done the same.

John Breckenridge, a Manchester police officer who watched his partner, Michael Briggs, die from a bullet fired by Michael Addison, the only inmate on New Hampshire’s death row, spoke against the death penalty four years ago when the New Hampshire House voted to abolish capital punishment.  “As a Catholic, I could not justify the very pre-meditated act of executing someone who -- for all the evil of his crime and all the permanent hurt he caused others -- still lives . . . in the possibility of spiritual redemption.”

This year, another former Manchester police officer, Rep. Richard O’Leary, once the Queen City’s deputy chief, voted for repeal.  “I don’t believe we have the right under any circumstances, except immediate self-defense, to take a life.  Once the criminal has been subdued, arrested, segregated from society and rendered defenseless, I cannot see where the state has any compelling interest in executing him.  It’s simply wrong.”

It is also costly.  Because he was sentenced to death the state will spend millions to prosecute Addison for Briggs’s murder.  That’s money that could be put to far better use.  We urge Manchester Sens. Lou D’Allessandro and Kevin Cavanaugh to heed the words of Breckenridge and O’Leary and, if it comes to that, vote to override a Sununu veto.  Others who voted against repeal should change their vote and at long last put New Hampshire on the right side of moral history....

A wrongful death committed in society’s name cannot be undone.  It’s time for New Hampshire to join the enlightened states and nations that have abolished capital punishment.

May 6, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Friday, May 04, 2018

Georgia execution back on; stay lifted with clemency denied by state parole board

As reported in this prior post, earlier this week the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles issued an unusual stay on the even of a scheduled execution.  But now, as reported in this article headlined "Murdered Georgia man’s father thanks God inmate’s execution is back on," it appears that the execution will go forward only 48 hours after it had been originally scheduled. Here are the basics:  

Not long after halting the scheduled execution of Georgia inmate Robert Earl Butts Jr., the State Board of Pardons and Paroles lifted its own stay, putting the death penalty wheels back in motion.  Butts is now scheduled to die by lethal injection Friday at 7 p.m.  Before the parole board issued a stay Wednesday night, Butts was expected to get the needle Thursday evening for the 1996 murder of off-duty correctional officer Donovan Corey Parks.

“Oh Lord,” said Freddie Parks, the victim’s father. “I’m nervous. I’m really happy to hear the good news. I’ve been going through it 22 years. Nobody knows what I’ve been going through but me and the Lord. And I’ve been really talking to Him.” Just hours earlier, Parks, a 75-year-old retired prison guard, was angry and despondent at the same time over the stay of execution. “It wasn’t fair the way it came out, putting it off. Another blow,” he said at the time.

When the board issued its 90-day stay Wednesday night, its spokesman said the five-member panel needed time to review the “considerable amount of additional information” it received in a meeting with Butts’ attorneys, as well as in a subsequent session with those who wanted to see the execution carried out.  “Knowing the gravity of its decisions, the board extended deliberations in order to consider supplemental information submitted during the meeting that members had not previously reviewed,” spokesman Steve Hayes said. “Completing that process, the board voted to deny clemency.”

While the parole board has the sole constitutional authority to grant clemency, the courts have the ultimate power to decide whether to spare an inmate’s life. So Butts’ attorneys continued to file appeals on Thursday.

If Butts, 40, is executed, he will be the second man Georgia has put to death this year.

Prior related post:

UPDATE: This local article reports on the completed execution:

Robert Earl Butts Jr. was put to death by lethal injection Friday at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison. He was pronounced dead at 9:58 p.m. When asked for a final statement, Butts replied, “I’ve been drinking caffeine all day.”  Then he declined an offer for a prayer.

Butts kept his eyes closed from the moment he was placed on the gurney. He never looked at the father and brother of his victim, sitting on just the other side of the window that separates the witness area from the execution chamber.  Nor did he look at Baldwin County Sheriff Bill Massee or Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, who was chief deputy in Baldwin County at the time of the murder.

Two minutes after the pentobarbital began to flow into the vein in his arm, Butts mumbled, “It burns, man.” After that, he yawned and took a series of deep breaths until there was no movement about a minute before he was pronounced dead.

Butts, 40, was sentenced to death for the March 1996 murder of 25-year-old Donovan Corey Parks in Milledgeville. Butts and his co-defendant, Marion Wilson Jr., asked Parks — an off-duty correctional officer — for a ride from a local Walmart store, then minutes later ordered him from the car and shot him in the head. Butts was 18 at the time.

May 4, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)

"Judicial Appraisals of Risk Assessment in Sentencing"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now available via SSRN authored by John Monahan, Anne Metz and Brandon Garrett.  Here is the abstract:

The assessment of an offender’s risk of recidivism is emerging as a key consideration in sentencing policy in many American jurisdictions.  However, little information is available on how actual sentencing judges view this development.  This study surveys the views of a population sample of judges in Virginia, the state that has gone farther than any other in legislatively mandating risk assessment for certain drug and property offenders. Results indicate that a strong majority of judges endorse the principle that sentencing eligible offenders should include a consideration of recidivism risk.  However, a strong majority also report the availability of alternatives to imprisonment in their jurisdictions to be inadequate at best.  Finally, most judges oppose the adoption of a policy requiring them to provide a written reason for declining to impose alternative interventions on “low risk” offenders.

May 4, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, May 03, 2018

An uncertain execution stay for uncertain reasons from the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles

As reported in this AP piece, "Georgia's parole board on Wednesday issued a decision halting the scheduled execution of a condemned inmate less than 24 hours before he was set to be put to death." Here is more about the decision that strikes me as full of uncertainties:

Robert Earl Butts Jr., 40, had been scheduled to die at 7 p.m. Thursday at the state prison in Jackson.  The State Board of Pardons and Paroles issued its decision just before 8:30 p.m. Wednesday to grant a stay of up to 90 days to give board members more time to consider the case.

"Due to the considerable amount of additional information the Board has received regarding the case and because the Board understands the importance and seriousness of its authority and responsibility, a stay was issued," board spokesman Steve Hayes said in an emailed statement....  The board could issue a final decision in the case during the stay period or at the end of the 90 days, Hayes said. 

Earlier Wednesday, the board held a closed-door hearing to listen to arguments for and against clemency for Butts.  A judge in the Superior Court of Baldwin County, where Butts was sentenced to death, last month issued the order for the execution to be carried out within a window starting Thursday and ending May 10.  If the board decides to lift the stay and denies clemency within that period, the execution could go forward without a new execution order.

The board also has the option to commute Butts' death sentence to a sentence of life in prison with or without the possibility of parole.

Butts and Marion Wilson Jr., 41, were convicted of murder and armed robbery in the March 1996 slaying of Donovan Corey Parks in central Georgia.  The two men asked Parks for a ride outside a Walmart store in Milledgeville and then ordered him out of the car and fatally shot him a short distance away.  Prosecutors have said Butts fired the fatal shot.

Authorities said Butts and Wilson were gang members who had gone looking for a victim when they drove Butts' car to the Walmart store.  Juries in separate trials found sufficient evidence to sentence both men to death because Parks was killed during the commission of an aggravating felony, armed robbery.  Wilson's case is still pending in the courts.

Butts' attorneys had asked the parole board in a clemency application filed last week to spare his life.... His attorneys insisted in the clemency application that Butts wasn't the shooter. A jailhouse witness, Horace May, who testified at trial that Butts confessed to being the shooter has now signed a sworn statement saying he made the story up out of sympathy for Wilson, whom he also met in jail....

Butts' attorneys also argued in his clemency petition that the single aggravating factor wouldn't warrant a death sentence in Georgia today.  They also ask the board to consider commuting Butts' sentence to life in prison after weighing abuse and neglect during Butts' childhood, the fact that he was just 18 when the crime occurred and that he has expressed remorse.

Butts' lawyers submitted a supplement to the clemency application to the board at the clemency hearing Wednesday. In that supplement, they argued that evidence in the case indicates that Wilson consistently had possession of the gun used to kill Parks. They also said there's no evidence that Butts was a member of a gang or that Parks' killing was gang-related. They wrote that the fact that the two tried to sell the car at a chop shop shows the crime was financially motivated.

Because Georgia sets a week for an execution time, it seem possible that the clemency petition will be denied in the coming days and the execution still goes forward. Thus, I find it uncertain whether this stay connotes a real likelihood that this defendant will avoid execution in the coming day. And that uncertainty is itself built on top of uncertainty about what the Georgia Board might be finding troubling in this case.  Notably, this local article provides this account of the last time this kind of stay was granted and its aftermath: "The last time the board stayed an execution was on April 17, 2012. Daniel Green was scheduled to be executed for a 1991 Taylor County murder. The board commuted Green’s sentence to life without parole on April 20, 2017."

May 3, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"The Opioid Crisis and Federal Criminal Prosecution"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new article recently posted to SSRN authored by Rachel Rothberg and Kate Stith. Here are parts of its introduction:

An opioid crisis has swept the United States, ravaging communities across the country. In this Article we examine how federal law enforcement has responded to the crisis, both nationally and in a variety of locales.  We focus in depth, however, on federal investigators and prosecutors in the District of Connecticut, where the epidemic has hit hard....

What role can criminal law — and those who enforce it — play in combatting the opioid crisis?  The Connecticut U.S. Attorney’s Office’s shift in policy represents just one of many federal law enforcement reactions to alarming increases in opioid abuse and overdose deaths.  As opioid users’ tolerance increases and their access to prescription pills dwindle, they often transition to cheaper heroin, and then again to the more powerful synthetic opioids — sometimes unwittingly.  In general, law enforcement has struggled to keep up with the epidemic and the opioid market’s evolving characteristics.

In Part II of this Article we provide an overview of the nationwide, interagency efforts initiated by the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.  In Part III, we briefly survey a number of strategies pursued by various U.S. Attorney’s Offices.  There are ninety-three U.S. Attorney’s Offices in the United States, and although all of them are part of the Department of Justice, each one is semi-autonomous in deciding which cases to investigate and prosecute.

Then, in Part IV, we narrow our focus to the federal prosecutorial efforts of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Connecticut.  We focus on the Office’s two main strategies— (1) charging the supplier of an illicit substance resulting in death with the crime of drug distribution; and (2) educating the community, particularly high-school students, about opioid usage — and discuss whether they have implications for the national role of federal law enforcement.  Lastly, in Part V, we address what more might be needed from federal law enforcement going forward to protect communities nationwide from the devastation wrought by opioid proliferation.

May 3, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Spotlighting modern tendency to invest more in prisons than in schools

Marc Schindler has this new commentary at The Hill headlined "Taxing our kids to fund prisons." Here are excerpts:

What do schools and prisons have in common? They each require budget allocations, which establish and demonstrate our priorities. And each affects crime prevention. But the commonalities end there. Studies show that while quality education decreases crime, imprisonment actually increases crime; the ROI on prison spending is a losing proposition. In 2015, the United States placed 40th in the world in math and 25th in science. We need well-educated kids to become productive and law-abiding adults, and an educated workforce to remain competitive in a global economy. This requires significant investment in education....

Research demonstrates that education is one of the soundest investments we can make, but we spend smaller portions of our budgets on it every year. If our kids and future actually are a priority, we need to reflect that in how we allocate limited resources.  Yet, policymakers repeatedly send scarce tax dollars to one of the least effective investments — prisons.

At a time when more than half of Americans are willing to pay higher taxes to support education, states are spending extraordinary amounts to lock people up, even though incarceration has been shown to make us less safe, and is significantly more expensive, than community-based alternatives.  And, in an ironic and troubling twist, Colorado legislators introduced a bill to jail striking teachers.  Not only would Colorado be spending money on incarceration at the expense of education, Colorado would be spending money on locking up teachers who are protesting this failed public policy approach.

In the past 30 years, we’ve seen a shift in the way we allocate resources — spending on education has grown painfully slowly, compared to spending on incarceration. Between 1980 and 2013, education budgets grew by 58 percent in West Virginia, 69 percent in Oklahoma, and 102 percent in Kentucky; during that time there was an explosive growth of spending on incarceration with an increase of 483 percent in West Virginia, 341 percent in Oklahoma and 259 percent in Kentucky. Other states showed similar patterns during those years: Colorado saw a growth of 103 percent for education but 513 percent for corrections; Arizona spent 188 percent more for education but 491 percent more for corrections.

The explosion in prison costs isn’t because we’ve improved the quality of life in prison, but because we’ve implemented policies that needlessly warehouse more people, particularly poor people of color.  We’ve seen that spending more to warehouse people doesn’t lead to safer communities — for example, Oklahoma and Louisiana have among the highest incarceration rates while still having comparatively high crime rates.

This spending disparity isn’t inevitable.  We have community-based programs that are significantly more effective, and cheaper, than incarcerating somebody.  We could free up millions of dollars to invest in teachers and schools if we reduce our reliance on incarceration by shifting to community-based alternatives.

We must do this if we are to effectively spend our limited tax dollars. It’s time we held elected officials accountable for decisions that waste money, make us less safe and penalize our kids with a second-rate education.  If we are serious about creating safer and healthier communities, where our kids can find good jobs and build healthy lives as responsible adults, we cannot keep spending our limited resources on incarceration at the expense of funding the best education in the world.  We need to get our priorities straight if we want to create a better, safer, future for ourselves and our kids.

May 2, 2018 in Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Might Kim Kardashian West actually convince Prez Trump to grant clemency to federal drug offender?

Download (11)The question in the title of this post is not satire, but a serious inquiry based on this extended Mic report headlined "Kim Kardashian West has talked to White House about pardoning nonviolent drug offender."  Here are excerpts from the report:

Kim Kardashian West and President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner have spoken over the phone about a possible presidential pardon for Alice Marie Johnson, a 62-year-old great-grandmother serving a life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense.

The telephone calls, according to a source with knowledge of the conversations, have taken place over the course of the past several months and have picked up in intensity over the last several days.

A representative for Kardashian West confirmed to Mic that she has been in communication with the White House and is working to bring Johnson’s case to the president’s desk. The source with knowledge of the conversations also told Mic that Johnson’s case has been reviewed by White House attorneys.

Johnson, who has been in federal prison since October 1996, has captured international attention from criminal reform activists — and Kardashian West.  Kardashian West first learned about Johnson’s case from a Mic video [available here] published in October.  Kardashian West shared it on Twitter, and the video has since been viewed more than 8 million times.

Shortly after, Kardashian West became involved in trying to free Johnson, who was convicted for her role facilitating communications in a drug trafficking case. In November, Kardashian West enlisted a team of lawyers, including her Los Angeles-based attorney Shawn Holley, to advocate for Johnson’s release.

The two women also have communicated, with Johnson expressing her gratitude toward Kardashian West for her support in a November letter. Still, it appears the only clear path for Johnson’s release would be a presidential pardon or clemency — which could come at odds with Trump’s recent proposal to impose the death penalty for certain drug dealers.

In her October op-ed, Johnson told Mic she became involved in drug trafficking as a way to make ends meet following a particularly rough period in her life: She lost her job at FedEx, where she had worked for 10 years, due to a gambling addiction; she got divorced; and then her youngest son died in a motorcycle accident. “I felt like a failure,” Johnson said. “I went into a complete panic and out of desperation, I made one of the worst decisions of my life to make some quick money. I became involved in a drug conspiracy.”

Johnson was arrested and sentenced to life in prison, with no opportunity for parole. As of May 2018, she has spent over two decades behind bars. For criminal justice reform advocates, Johnson’s case serves as a glaring example of why America’s sentencing laws need reform.

Johnson was one of six prisoners featured in the ACLU’s campaign to end mass incarceration. She has also participated in Skype conversations at top universities including Yale and New York University, as well as at companies such as Google, where Mic first became aware of her story. One of Johnson’s daughters, Tretessa Johnson, told Mic in a video in November that her mother is remorseful and has been a model prisoner during her time behind bars....

President Barack Obama granted clemency to 231 individuals in December 2016, many of whom had similar drug-related charges. Johnson was not one of them. “When the criteria came out for clemency, I thought for sure — in fact, I was certain that I’d met and exceeded all of the criteria,” Johnson told Mic. “Oh my goodness, I had so much support.”

Now, her hope rests with Trump. News of Kushner and Kardashian West’s conversations comes on the heels of multiple reports in recent months that Kushner has been working to pass a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill in Congress, co-sponsored by Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), among others.

For a lot more information about Alice Marie Johnson, check out all the materials assembled here at the CANDO website where she is listed #1 on this list of Top 25 Women who deserve clemency from federal prison.

May 2, 2018 in Celebrity sentencings, Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

"Revisiting the Role of Federal Prosecutors in Times of Mass Imprisonment"

The title of this post is the title of this recent article authored by Nora Demleitner recently posted to SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The article highlights how the Department of Justice and its leadership can change even long-standing prosecutorial orthodoxy and prevailing approaches when they set out a clear mission and empower and guide prosecutors in implementing it.  To decrease the number of federal prisoners, the Obama administration adopted a tri-partite strategy that included prevention and re-entry, co-equal with prosecutions.  Yet the collection and analysis of relevant data continued to fall short which privileged old practices that emphasized the number of convictions and prison years imposed.

A substantial investment in data is needed to support and reinforce a shift away from prison terms.  Perhaps most importantly, the article questions the role federal prosecutors should play at a time prisons remain overcrowded despite a historically low crime rate.  The criminal justice paradigm may not be an appropriate avenue for addressing social problems.

May 2, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Should Prez Trump grant clemency to former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new commentary authored by Kristen McQueary for the Chicago Tribune. Here are excerpts:

Former Illinois first lady Patti Blagojevich is back in the spotlight, pulling every lever to convince President Donald Trump to award clemency to her imprisoned husband. In several media interviews, she has tried to build camaraderie with Trump by painting former Gov. Rod Blagojevich as a victim of FBI targeting and an overzealous prosecution.

That is sure to get Trump’s attention. But the better play might be appealing to Trump’s inside knowledge of the swamp — the trading of favors and campaign contributions between politicians and special interest groups. Trump knows it well. He was part of it. “Nobody knows politicians better than I do,” Trump said during a meeting with the Tribune Editorial Board in June 2015, shortly after he announced his candidacy for president. He was in town to speak to the City Club of Chicago and the editorial board invited him to stop by. He did, along with son Donald Jr.

During the meeting, we asked him about Blagojevich, who by then had been in prison for three years. The two had met on the set of “Celebrity Apprentice” in 2010 while the former governor’s corruption case was winding through the courts.

Here’s what Trump said then: “It was good having him on. I found him to be, I can only speak for myself, I found him to be a very nice guy. Not sophisticated. Had little knowledge of computers and things and you know we found that out … We found him to be very nice,” Trump said. “Now, he was under a lot of pressure at that point.

“I think that’s an awfully tough sentence that he got for what supposedly he did,” Trump said. “Because what he did is what politicians do all the time and make deals.”

Boom. What politicians do all the time. That has been the most compelling defense of Blagojevich throughout his controversial arrest, double trial and convictions. The feds placed two bugs and six wiretaps on his home telephone, his campaign office phone and his cellphone, and also bugged his friends and chief of staff. How many other politicians would end up in prison if the government listened to their conversations?

Yes, at two trials Blagojevich was rightfully found guilty on a total of 18 corruption counts for, among other things, trying to trade an Illinois U.S. Senate seat appointment for personal gain. Blagojevich deserved to go to prison. He lied to the FBI about a firewall that he claimed existed between his campaign fund and his government responsibilities. He tried to shake down campaign donors by withholding legislation they sought from state government....

Blagojevich has served six years of a 14-year sentence. Isn’t that enough?

Trump could grant him clemency and consider time served as punishment enough for what Blagojevich plotted. Remember, prosecutors arrested him before any transactions occurred.  They got him primarily on intent, not completion.  They also indicted Blagojevich’s brother to squeeze him but dropped the charges for the second trial, an admission that perhaps they were overzealous in their pursuits....

Trump knows the swamp.  He was the real estate mogul with a fat checkbook before he was president of the United States.  Plenty of politicians courted him and vice versa.  Will he look sympathetically on a fellow swamp thing?  He might.  He should.

Some of many older related posts on the Blagojevich case:

May 1, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Feds forego capital prosecution for airport mass murderer, allowing guilty plea to LWOP

This new local article from Florida, headlined "Airport shooter Esteban Santiago to plead guilty, spend life in prison," highlights how (jury) sentencing discretion and other procedural rights in capital cases can impact how prosecutors approach charging and bargaining even in horrible murder cases.  Here are the details (with my emphasis added), with a bit of commentary to follow:

Esteban Santiago, the man who confessed to fatally shooting five people and wounding six at Fort Lauderdale’s international airport, has agreed to plead guilty and spend the rest of his life in federal prison.

Prosecutors have accepted his offer and are not seeking the death penalty but the judge first wants Santiago to undergo a mental health evaluation to make sure he’s legally competent to plead guilty.

The decision takes a very expensive and potentially long and emotional trial — followed by years of appeals — off the table.  Santiago’s documented history of severe mental illness, the fact that he went to the FBI and asked for help two months before committing the mass shooting, his willingness to plead guilty and his military service in the Iraq War were likely among the top factors that affected the decision, experts said.

Santiago, 28, had pleaded not guilty to a 22-count indictment in the Jan. 6, 2017 mass shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.  Ten of those charges carried a potential death sentence or life in federal prison. His change-of-plea hearing is expected to be scheduled in the next several weeks in federal court in Miami.

Both sides are due back in court May 23 for a competency hearing with U.S. District Beth Bloom. If the judge is satisfied that Santiago is mentally competent, she would then allow him to plead guilty....

He was briefly hospitalized for psychiatric care in Alaska in November 2016, two months before the shooting. He had driven to the FBI office in Anchorage, asked for help and told agents he was hearing voices and thought the government was controlling his mind.

After Santiago surrendered at the airport, FBI agents said he confessed and told them he was “programmed” to act under government mind control. Later in the interview, he said he was inspired by the Islamic State extremist group, but authorities said no terrorism links have been found.

Though the line highlighted above tells a big part of the story, I still find myself left wondering about what factors played a central role in the sentencing decision-making of federal prosecutors here. I wonder if many or even most of the victims/family members supported this decision to forego a capital prosecution (and also wonder if they at all troubled that this critical decision lingered for 16 months from the time of this awful crime). I also wonder if prosecutors, perhaps concerned about a possible insanity defense and criticisms of mental health care given to veterans, we not even confident about getting a guilty verdict, let alone a death sentence, were this case to go to trial.

Whatever the reasons for the feds decision-making here (which will remain hidden and are essentially unreviewable), this case helps reveal the range of forces that necessarily place brakes on any efforts by the Trump Administration and Attorney General Sessions to make significantly more use of the death penalty.  A mass shooting in an airport of nearly a dozen people with five deaths would seem to be a textbook example of a "worst-of-the-worst" offense.  But because the defendant can make the case that he is not a worst-of-the-worst offender, federal prosecutors (in a pro-death penalty state) are not even willing to try to secure a death sentence.  

May 1, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)