Friday, April 18, 2014

Should Prez Obama create a "Presidential Commission on Mass Incarceration"? Who should be on it?

The questions in the title of this post are prompted by one of the executive actions suggested earlier this week the Brennan Center for Justice in this new report titled "15 Executive Actions to Overcome Government Dysfunction."  Notably, as listed here, at least three of the suggested actions are focused on criminal justice matters that should be of special interest to sentencing fans:

9. Create a Presidential Commission on Mass Incarceration, modeled after the “Kerner Commission.”

10. Issue an executive order directing federal agencies to recast their criminal justice grants in a Success-Oriented Funding model.

11. Direct the Justice Department to identify federal prisoners to whom the Fair Sentencing Act would retroactively apply, and recommend commutations for all those eligible, barring exceptional circumstances.

The first proposal of these three struck me as especially novel and interesting, and here is part of the full report's discussion of the proposal:

With only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has 25 percent of its prisoners.  More than 2 million Americans are behind bars.  A quarter of the nation’s adult population has a criminal record.  The prison population has increased sevenfold since 1970. The country spends a quarter of a trillion dollars a year on criminal justice, but true costs are wider: Economic and social impacts on families and children can continue for generations.  The explosion in our correctional population extends far beyond prison: pre-trial detention, parole and probation supervision, and those with arrest records.

Public safety does not compel incarceration of this scope.  More than half of prisoners are serving time for drug or nonviolent crimes.   One in four new prison admissions are for violations of parole. 106 One in five people behind bars are simply awaiting trial. 

Yet, the epidemic of mass incarceration hides in plain sight.  Most Americans are unaware of it.  Those who are aware are not mobilized to act.

Progressives and conservatives have begun to seek action. Several states have taken up reforms in recent years. Momentum is increasing in Washington.  Last year, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the “Smart on Crime” initiative, calling for federal prosecutors to seek harsh sentences only for the most serious drug traffickers and other reforms. 

These federal and states fixes, however, have been piecemeal rather than systemic.  Full change is not possible without wide public support.  Mass incarceration must be identified as a national problem requiring national attention.  Though jurisdictions vary in the minutia of their justice systems, the overall drivers of the incarceration explosion are similar across the country.  

Federal legislation to create a national commission on criminal justice has failed to pass repeatedly.  This year, Congress created the Chuck Colson Task Force, named after the founder of Prison Fellowship.  It will aim to study the federal prison system to alleviate overcrowding.  A similar assessment should be made of the far broader problem.

The president can help make mass incarceration visible by creating a National Commission on Mass Incarceration of leading bipartisan policymakers and civic leaders.  He can do so through an executive order or a presidential memorandum.  And he can avail himself of a high profile venue, such as a commencement address, to announce the commission.  

Such a panel could be modeled after the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (chaired by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, Jr.).  President Lyndon B. Johnson created the “Kerner Commission” to study the causes of urban riots.  The National Commission on Mass Incarceration should similarly study the current drivers of the growth in federal and state prison and jail populations.  It should examine the accompanying economic and societal toll. And, it should issue concrete policy recommendations to achieve a measureable goal — for example, cutting the nationwide incarcerated population by 25 percent by 2025.

Proposals should focus on “front-end” changes that help stem the influx of people into the pipeline to prison.

The Kerner Commission’s members included New York City Mayor John Lindsay, Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, Litton Industry founder Charles Thornton, NAACP head Roy Wilkins, and Atlanta police chief Herbert Turner Jenkins.  These prominent public figures helped bring national attention to the issue of race.  The National Commission on Mass Incarceration should include similar public and civic leaders.  Such a commission would draw the nation’s attention to this overlooked issue and, most importantly, catalyze action.

Regular readers will not be surprised to hear I like both the style and substance of this proposal. Thus, to answer my own post-title question, I do think Prez Obama should create a Presidential Commission on Mass Incarceration. (And, of course, I think I should be on this Commission along with Bill Otis and perhaps many other (but not all other) frequent commenters on this blog.)

April 18, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Effort to repeal death penalty in New Hampshire falls one vote short

As reported in this New York Times piece, headlined "Measure to Repeal Death Penalty Fails by a Single Vote in New Hampshire Senate," a tie vote yesterday in the Granite State will keep the death penalty alive there for now.  Here are the details:

In a tie vote, the New Hampshire Senate deadlocked Thursday on whether to repeal the death penalty, leaving the current law intact and New Hampshire as the lone state in New England that allows the execution of anyone convicted of a capital crime.

Only one person here is on death row, but his fate had as much to do with the vote as anything else. That inmate, Michael Addison, was convicted in 2008 in the shooting death of a Manchester police officer in 2006.

Proponents of the death penalty want him executed, but his case has been tied up in legal appeals.  State senators opposed to the death penalty said that they understood the visceral feelings against Mr. Addison and that their measure would still allow his execution even as it abolished the law authorizing it.  Death penalty supporters said that the bill posed constitutional problems and that Mr. Addison’s life could end up being spared.

“Trying to have it both ways was problematic for proponents of the bill — execute one person but repeal it prospectively,” Senator Jeb Bradley, a Republican and the majority leader, said in an interview after the vote.  “That was a bridge too far for a lot of people,” said Mr. Bradley, who opposed repeal....

New Hampshire’s action on Thursday stalled for now what had appeared to be momentum toward the abolition of the death penalty.  The State House of Representatives approved the repeal 225 to 104 last month, and Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, had been prepared to sign it.  Repeal would have made New Hampshire the 19th state to abolish the death penalty and the last in New England.  And it would have been the seventh state in seven years to do so.  New Hampshire’s last execution was in 1939.

But the State Senate, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 13 to 11, split 12-to-12 on Thursday, and tie votes are considered defeats.  Party leaders had freed their members for what they said would be a vote of conscience.  Two Republicans broke with their party and voted for the repeal, and one Democrat voted against it....

Death penalty opponents were disappointed and said they would continue to lobby senators in hopes of bringing up the bill again before the legislative session ends June 30. Arnie Alpert, spokesman for the New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said that many people “evolve” on the issue over the years and that there was still hope of changing minds.

Senator Bette Lasky, a Democrat and the chief sponsor of the bill, said she regretted that she did not have a chance to talk to all of her colleagues. “Many senators were so inundated, even when it came to colleagues talking to them, that they shut down,” she said.

Ms. Lasky said she would bring the bill up again if she knew she had the votes to pass it. Mr. Bradley, the majority leader, said it was hard to say whether supporters of the repeal could get enough votes to bring the measure back. “At 12-12, it could come off the table, but I suspect it won’t,” he said.

April 18, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Big new empirical analysis of federal prosecutorial charging practices

I just learned about an important NIJ-funded project and report through the National Criminal Justice Reference Service which examines in depth federal prosecutorial charging decisions across US District Courts.  The research was complete by Brian Johnson of the University of Maryland, and the 150+ page report, available at this link, is titled "Missing Link: Examining Prosecutorial Decision-Making Across Federal District Courts."  Helpfully, the report starts with this informative and insightful abstract:

U.S. Attorneys are arguably the most powerful and least studied actor in the federal criminal court workgroup.  They have immense discretion to decide which cases to prosecute and what charging concession to offer in the course of plea bargaining, yet a paucity of empirical research exists on these consequential decisions.  Recent scholarship on criminal sentencing suggests sentencing decisions vary significantly across court contexts, but virtually no prior work investigates jurisdictional variations in prosecutorial decision-making outcomes.

The current study uses unique data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics on federal criminal case processing to study these issues.  It links information across multiple federal agencies in order to track individual offenders across the various stages of the federal justice system.  Specifically, it combines arrest information from the U.S. Marshall’s Service with charging information from the Executive and Administrative Offices of the U.S. Attorney and with sentencing information from the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Linking data from these multiple sources provides a unique opportunity to study elusive prosecutorial decision-making outcomes in the federal justice system. These individual data, then, are subsequently augmented with additional information on federal courts to examine contextual variations in charging decisions across federal jurisdictions.

Findings from this research suggest several important conclusions.  First, there is little systematic evidence of age, race and gender disparities in U.S. Attorney decisions regarding which cases are accepted and which are declined for prosecution.  The most common reason for case declinations reported by U.S. Attorneys was weak or insufficient evidence.  Second, there is some evidence of disparities in charge reductions, but they operate in opposite directions for gender and race.  Male defendants were less likely than female defendants to receive charge reductions but black and Hispanic defendants were slightly more likely than white defendants to receive them.  Young, male, minority defendants, however, were both less likely to have their cases declined and less likely to receive charge reductions.  Fourth, both case declinations and charging reductions demonstrate significant variation across federal district court environments.  Larger districts were slightly more likely to decline prosecutions and reduce charges, but overall, few of the district-level characteristics that were examined proved to be strongly related to jurisdictional variations in prosecutorial decision-making outcomes.

In terms of policy recommendations, this research suggests that there is a strong need for improved data collection efforts on federal prosecution.  The dearth of research on prosecutors reflects a lack of quality data on their decisions-making processes and outcomes and on the social contexts in which these decisions are made.  Increased transparency, accountability, fairness and equality in federal punishment will ultimately require improved information on the essential role played by U.S. Attorneys in the multiple decision-making points that comprise criminal case processing in the federal criminal justice system.

I will need lots of time and lots of help digging into the data in the report before I can reach any truly informed conclusions about what this research most forcefully documents. But a review of just this abstract confirms my belief and concern that fully understanding the impact and import of prosecutorial discretion is a huge puzzle and challenge in the federal sentencing system.

April 17, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Critical reflections on the Cantu commutation ... aka why some federal prosecutors perhaps deserve to be demonized

220px-TrialKafkaThe more I reflect on the typo-correction sentence commutation of federal prisoner Cesar Huerta Cantu (basics here), and especially after re-reading this 2255 dismissal order that followed Cantu's own effort to have a court fix its own significant sentencing error, the more disgusted I feel about the modern federal sentencing system and especially about the U.S. Department of Justice and those federal prosecutors most responsible for Cesar Cantu's treatment by our Kafkaesque system.  In an effort to achieve some catharsis, let me try to briefly explain my feelings in three basic points:

1.  Cantu's original federal sentencing as guidelines numerology:  My disgust begins as I think about the basic reality that our federal sentencing system enables a small numerical typo — what should have been a 34 was a 36 in the presentence report guideline calculations — to result in 38-year-old defendant with no criminal history (who pleaded guilty and had considerable family support) to get sentenced to an extra 3.5 years in prison.  I continue to struggle to find much sense of justice or wisdom in a federal sentencing system in which quantitative numbers invented by a government agency, rather than qualitative factors and reasoned judgment, often still conclusively determine how many years or decades defendants are ordered to spend locked in a cage.

2.  Cantu's original federal sentencing as federal actors gone numb:  Arguably more depressing than a federal sentencing system in which numbers invented by a government agency determine how long a defendant gets locked up are sentencing actors whose concern for the human realities of incarceration have been numbed by all the numbers.  One would hope that, as part of a system in which years of human experience for federal defendants (and those who care about them) get determined by basic math, everyone involved would make extra sure the math is always done right.  But, numbed by so many humans being imprisoned for so many years based on so many numbers, the author of the PSR did not notice a typo that inflated Cantu's guideline-recommend prison sentence by many years, and neither did the defense attorney representing Cantu, and neither did the US Attorneys prosecuting Cantu, and neither did the federal judge sentencing Cantu.

3.  Cantu's dismissed 2255 motion as federal prosecutors possessed:  Bill Otis and others sometimes complain that I seem at times to suggest federal prosecutors are evil or satanic.  In fact, I have great respect for the hard work of federal prosecutors, and I am sure I would much rather have my daughters date 99% of federal prosecutors than 99% of federal defendants.  But I must wonder about what kind of evil or satanic forces may have possessed the federal prosecutors who responded to Cantu's pro se 2255 motion to correct his sentence with a motion to dismiss this matter as time-barred.  

Based on my reading of this 2255 dismissal order that followed Cantu's motion, federal prosecutors have never disputed that a  typo resulted in Cantu receiving a sentence 3.5 years longer than he should have, nor have they disputed that federal government officials are wholly responsible for this consequential error.  Still, the federal prosecutors who contributed to a mistake costing Cantu 3.5 years of his freedom responded to his 2255 motion by urging the sentencing judge also responsible for this mistake to refuse to correct Cantu's sentence because Cantu discovered their mistakes too late.  I am hard-pressed to come up with adjectives to describe this federal prosecutorial decision to seek dismissal of Cantu's 2255 motion other than inhumane.

I want to be able to imagine a positive motivation for why federal prosecutors sought a procedural dismissal of Cantu's motion to correct his indisputably erroneous sentence: perhaps, I was thinking, six years after prosecutors helped get an erroneously long sentence imposed on Cantu, these prosecutors came to believe Cantu was a criminal mastermind still involved in serious criminal wrongdoing from prison.  But, as this New York Times article reports, years after his initial erroneous sentencing, Cantu provided "law enforcement authorities with substantial assistance on an unrelated criminal matter" and "he has been a model prisoner, taking vocational and life skills courses and expressing remorse."  In addition, according to the Times reporting, Cantu is married and has 8-year old daughter.  Even if prosecutors were, for whatever reasons, disinclined to help Cantu get his erroneous sentence fixed after Cantu himself had helped the prosecutors, wouldn't they lose a little sleep over the notion that a typo could end up costing Cantu's wife the chance to have her husband's help to raise their daughter during her coming adolescence?

I am hoping Bill Otis or other current or former federal prosecutors will help me feel better about the work of our federal sentencing system and the Department of Justice in the wake of the Cantu commutation.  Especially because Prez Obama has been so stingy with his clemency power, I want this latest commutation to be a reason to celebrate rather than curse our justice system.  But unless and until someone can metamorphasize my understanding of the work of federal prosecutors in this case, I have a hard time not thinking that Josef K. and Cantu have far too much in common. 

April 16, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Another sign of the modern sentencing times: notable sponsor for "How the Criminal Justice System Impacts Well-Being"

I am pleased to note a notable event taking place in Texas this evening under the banner "Rule of Law: How the Criminal Justice System Impacts Well-Being." Here is a description of the event, with its notable chief sponsor (and a link) to be found after the jump:

Can criminal justice system reform improve overall well-being for individuals, families, and communities?

The United States has only 5 percent of the world’s population but about 25 percent of its known prison population. In fact, the country's prison population has increased by 790 percent since 1980, exceeding 2 million people in 2002.

We hope you’ll join us for a discussion on how the sharp rise in the number of people behind bars has had a significant impact on well-being. A criminal conviction, even for a minor offense, hinders opportunity and advancement, can contribute to a breakdown in family structure, and can put a strain on community resources. All too often, the effects of incarceration propel former prisoners to commit another crime, creating a vicious cycle of recidivism.

Thoughtful dialogue on this issue can lead to solutions to the challenges facing the criminal justice system and those affected by it, especially the least fortunate. That’s why we’re bringing together leading figures in the criminal justice arena for a conversation on the use of criminal versus civil law; federal and state reforms; mandatory minimum sentences; and other topics.

This Rule of Law event is presented by the Charles Koch Institute.

I know, as reported here by the founder of FAMM Julie Stewart, that "David Koch has donated generously and without fanfare to Families Against Mandatory Minimums for many years.  And the broader libertarian commitments of the Koch brothers should make them fans of a variety of sentencing and drug war reforms, especially at the federal level.

If (when?) the Koch Brothers together start aggressively and visibly putting lots of their political might and their billions behind sentencing reform efforts, I will start to believe seriously that significant reform is on the horizon.  Indeed, it would be especially significant (and surely a huge boast to the presidential prospects of Senator Rand Paul) if the Koch brothers were to make clear to all members of the GOP that they will only support those candidates who are vocal and active suporters of significant federal sentencing reform.   

April 16, 2014 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Prez Obama commutes 15-year sentence for marijuana offender down to 11.5 years

Build-itIf NYU Law builds it, the President's counsel will come ... and, it seems, the President will act!  

With apologies for the bad "Field of Dreams" reference, I am not sure how else to react to the news I have got via this press release while I am sitting in the audience excited to be at this amazing on-going NYU conference on "Mercy in the Criminal Justice System: Clemency and Post-Conviction Strategies" with the keynote speaker White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler.   I was hoping and expecting the White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler would be making news via her afternoon keynote, but her boss beat her to the punch as the full text of the press release reveals:

Today, President Barack Obama granted clemency to the following individual:

• Ceasar Huerta Cantu, also known as Cesar Huerta Cantu – Katy, Texas

Offenses: Conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana; money laundering (Western District of Virginia)

Sentence: 180 months’ imprisonment (as amended), five years’ supervised release (May 11, 2006)

Commutation Grant: Prison sentence commuted to 138 months’ imprisonment

Thanks to the wonderful internet, I found this 2255 dismissal order concerning the Cantu case which suggests that Cantu received an erroneous initial sentence that he was unable to get changed via traditional legal means. But it is unclear from this order alone whether this sentence calculation error provides the basis and reason for this notable commutation.  A quick read of the order does suggest that the reduction from 180 to 138 appears to reflect precisely the sentence Cesar Huerta Cantu would have and should have gotten (after getting substantial assistane credit) had his initial sentence been calculated properly. 

Live-blogging UPDATE:  In her keynote speech at this NYU conference, White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler is talking up this grant and says that it shows that clemency can serve as a "fail-safe" for correcting errors that cannot be corrected by other means.

WH Counsel Ruemmler has announced that DOJ via BOP is going to alert federal prisonsers about the on-going clemency initiative previously announced by Deputy AG Cole.

MSM UPDATE:  Lots of press reports are now providing context for this grant such as this AP article headlined "Obama commutes sentence made longer by typo."

April 15, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Notable comments by AG Holder about marijuana legalization in the states

This notable new Huffington Post article, headlined "Eric Holder 'Cautiously Optimistic' About Marijuana Legalization," reports on notable new interview with the AG discussing his latest view onf marijuana reform. Here are excertps: 

Attorney General Eric Holder is "cautiously optimistic" about how things are going in Washington state and Colorado following the legalization and state regulation of marijuana. But the nation's top law enforcement official, who spoke to The Huffington Post in an interview on Friday, also said it was tough to predict where marijuana legalization will be in 10 years.

"I'm not just saying that, I think it's hard to tell," Holder said in a jury room at the federal courthouse in Charleston, which he visited as part of the Justice Department's Smart on Crime initiative. "I think there might have been a burst of feeling that what happened in Washington and Colorado was going to be soon replicated across the country. I'm not sure that is necessarily the case. I think a lot of states are going to be looking to see what happens in Washington, what happens in Colorado before those decisions are made in substantial parts of the country."

Under Holder, the Justice Department has allowed marijuana legalization to move forward in Washington and Colorado and has issued guidance to federal prosecutors that is intended to open up banking access for pot shops that are legal on the state level.

Based on the reports he has received out of Washington and Colorado, Holder also said he thinks things are going about how he'd expected them to go. "I think what people have to understand is that when we have those eight priorities that we have set out, it essentially means that the federal government is not going to be involved in the prosecution of small-time, possessory drug cases, but we never were," Holder said. "So I'm not sure that I see a huge change yet, we've tried to adapt to the situation in Colorado with regard to how money is kept and transacted and all that stuff, and try to open up the banking system."

"But I think, so far, I'm cautiously optimistic," Holder continued. "But as I indicated to both governors, we will be monitoring the progress of those efforts and if we conclude that they are not being done in an appropriate way, we reserve our rights to file lawsuits."

Holder's positive outlook on how legalization is going in Washington and Colorado stands in contrast to the views expressed by Drug Enforcement Administration head Michele Leonhart, who reportedly criticized President Barack Obama for comparing marijuana to alcohol. Leonhart claimed earlier this month that voters were mislead when they voted to legalize and regulate marijuana on the state level, that Mexican drug cartels are "setting up shop" in Washington and Colorado and that this country should have "never gone forward" with legalization. Another DEA official recently claimed that "every single parent out there" opposed marijuana legalization.

Washington and Colorado, of course, aren't the only places in the U.S. reforming their approach to marijuana. In March, Washington, D.C., decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Asked about D.C.'s move, Holder said it didn't make sense to send people to jail on possession charges. "Well, I'll tell you, as a former judge, I had to put in jail substantial numbers of young people for possessory drug offenses, and it was not from the perspective I had as a judge necessarily a good use of law enforcement resources," Holder said. "When I became U.S. attorney we put in place certain guidelines so that people would not end up, especially young people, with criminal records and all that then implies for them."...

Holder also acknowledged the Obama administration has made the political decision not to unilaterally "reschedule" marijuana by taking it off the list of what the federal government considers the most dangerous drugs, though that is something the attorney general has the authority to do. Instead, Holder has said DOJ would be willing to work with Congress if they want to reschedule marijuana, which doesn't seem likely to happen in the near future.

"I think that given what we have done in dealing with the whole Smart on Crime initiative and the executive actions that we have taken, that when it comes to rescheduling, I think this is something that should come from Congress," Holder said. "We'd be willing to work with Congress if there is a desire on the part of Congress to think about rescheduling. But I think I'd want to hear, get a sense from them about where they'd like to be."

April 15, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

"Secret Drugs, Agonizing Deaths"

The title of this post is the headline of this New York Times op-ed published yesterday.  Authored by Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno, here is how it starts:

Facing a critical shortage of lethal injection drugs, prison officials in a number of states have recently engaged in an unseemly scramble to obtain new execution drugs, often from unreliable and even illegal sources.  Not only does this trend raise serious questions about the constitutionality of executions, it also undermines the foundations of our democratic process.  In the name of security, states are now withholding vital information about their death penalty procedures — from death row prisoners’ lawyers and from judges, whose stamp of approval they need to impose the ultimate sanction, as well as from the public, in whose name the sentence is carried out.

States have long shielded the identities of executioners, a reasonable policy that should not interfere with judicial review of execution procedures.  But in the past year, Georgia, Missouri, Tennessee and other states have expanded the reach of their secrecy laws to include not just the execution drugs used, but even the pharmacies that supply them.

These laws hide the information necessary to determine if the drugs will work as intended and cause death in a humane manner.  For states to conceal how they obtain the execution drugs, whether those purchases comply with the law and whether the drugs themselves are legitimate prevents courts from analyzing the legality and constitutionality of death penalty procedures.  And that deprives the public of informed debate.

April 15, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Monday, April 14, 2014

House Judiciary Chair suggests Smarter Sentencing Act still facing uphill battle on the Hill

DownloadCQ News has this important new article on federal sentencing reform developments in Congress under the headline "Goodlatte: Don't 'Jump to Conclusions' on Mandatory Minimums." Here are excerpts:

House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., is not convinced that Congress should scale back mandatory minimum drug sentences, even as the Obama administration and a bipartisan coalition in the Senate step up their efforts to do so.  Goodlatte, speaking to reporters from CQ Roll Call and Politico during a pre-taped interview that aired Sunday on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” program, said the severity of drug sentences “is a legitimate issue for us to be examining.”

He noted that his committee has set up a task force to review mandatory minimum sentences and many other aspects of the federal criminal code, and he did not rule out taking up a bipartisan, administration-backed Senate proposal (S 1410) that would reduce some minimum drug penalties by as much as 60 percent.  The Senate could take up the proposal in the coming weeks after the Judiciary Committee approved it 13-5 in March.

Despite signaling his willingness to consider sentencing changes, Goodlatte said, “I want to caution that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about what is right and what is wrong with the law yet.” Asked whether he believes that some federal prisoners are facing dramatically long sentences for relatively minor drug crimes — a claim frequently made by supporters of an overhaul — Goodlatte expressed skepticism.

“If you’re talking about 25- or 30-year sentences, you’re talking about something that the judge and the jury found appropriate to do above mandatory minimum sentences, because those are five-year and 10-year sentences,” he said.  Regarding the mandatory minimum sentences themselves, he said, “you’ll find that the quantities of drugs that have to be involved are very, very large.”

In the case of marijuana possession, for example, it takes “hundreds” of pounds of the drug to trigger a five-year mandatory minimum penalty and “thousands” of pounds to trigger a 10-year mandatory minimum penalty, Goodlatte said.  “With other drugs that are very potent in much, much smaller doses, those quantities are much, much lower,” he said. “But if you look at it from the standpoint of what someone has to be engaged in dealing, you’re talking about large quantities before you get those minimums.”

The Senate bill, which is supported by conservatives including Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rand Paul, R-Ky., would reduce 10-year minimum sentences for certain drug crimes to five years, while reducing five-year minimum sentences for other drug crimes to two years.  If those drug crimes result in “death or serious bodily injury,” mandatory minimum penalties would be slashed from their current 20 years to 10 years.  In all of the penalties being reconsidered, mandatory sentences are triggered based on the quantity of drugs involved in a particular crime....

Molly Gill, government affairs counsel for the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said in an e-mail that the quantity of drugs involved in a crime is “bad proxy for culpability” and suggested that it should not be used as the basis to defeat proposed changes to fixed drug sentences....

She noted that the independent U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets advisory sentencing guidelines for the federal judiciary, found in a 2011 study that “the quantity of drugs involved in an offense is not closely related to the offender’s function in the offense.” So-called “drug mules,” for example, physically transport large quantities of narcotics for others but are not themselves major traffickers or kingpins, Gill said.

Even as Goodlatte showed skepticism about lowering mandatory drug sentences, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. kept up his call for Congress to take action on the Senate proposal, known as the Smarter Sentencing Act.

After the Sentencing Commission approved its own changes in drug sentencing guidelines last week — a move that is expected to reduce some drug offenders’ penalties by an estimated 11 months — Holder urged Congress to follow up with more sweeping, statutory changes. “It is now time for Congress to pick up the baton and advance legislation that would take further steps to reduce our overburdened prison system,” he said in a statement.  “Proposals like the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act would enhance the fairness of our criminal justice system while empowering law enforcement to focus limited resources on the most serious threats to public safety.”

The full video of the interview with Rep. Goodlatte is available at this C-Span archive, and sentencing fans will want to cue the video up to a little after the 10 minute mark. Not long after that point, there is a discussion of federal marijuana policies and then the interview turn to drug sentencing generally. A review of the whole segment makes me a bit less pessimistic about the possibilities of federal sentencing reform making it through the House of Representatives. But being a bit less pessimistic is hardly being optimistic.

Some prior posts about federal prosecutorial perspectives on sentencing reform:

April 14, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Sunday, April 13, 2014

"Vacancy in Justice: Analyzing the Impact of Overburdened Judges on Sentencing Decisions"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing empirical paper I just noticed on SSRN. Authored by Jason Best and Lydia Brashear Tiede, here is the abstract:

Vacancies are one of the greatest challenges facing the federal judiciary and they persist due to the politics of the confirmation process.  Despite concerns as to the adverse consequences of judicial vacancies, research about their effects has remained elusive due to the difficulties of specifying the causal mechanism between vacancies and judicial decision-making.

Using an innovative instrumental variables approach to analyze the effect of vacancies on federal district court judges’ criminal sentencing decisions, we show that judges who are overburdened due to vacancies use shortcuts which affect the severity of punishment. Further, how the vacancy was created has differential effects on case outcomes.  Vacancies created by district judges’ assumption of senior status have minimal effects on punishment, while vacancies created by all other methods result in harsher penalties.  The results suggest that policymakers should prioritize filling vacancies based on the manner in which they are created.

April 13, 2014 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Is SCOTUS now no longer all that interested in criminal justice issues?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this chart concerning the make-up of the Supreme Court's merits docket this Term from the latest Stat Pack put together by the folks at SCOUTSblog.  The chart highlights that nearly 75% of the merits docket this Term involves civil cases.  In addition, this SCOTUSblog list of cert grants for October 2014 reveals that only one of nine grants for the next Term involves a criminal law issue (and that issue, as noted here, seems stunningly minor).

When Justices Alito and Sotomayor first joined the Court, it seemed as though they brought some extra interest and extra attention to the criminal justice part of the SCOTUS docket.  But of late it seems as though the Court is more eager to avoid rather than take up some important criminal justice matters.

Notably, there are any number of big lurking criminal justice issues relating to the Second (right to carry), Fourth (GPS tracking), Sixth (applications of Apprendi and Booker) and Eighth Amendments (applications of Graham and Miller).  I have an inkling that some of these matters will end up on the October 2014 docket, but this post perhaps highlights that I have a hankering for some more major criminal cases to be on the docket.

April 13, 2014 in Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, April 11, 2014

Was it "disrespectful" to the judiciary (or, in fact, quite helpful) for AG Holder to order prosecutors not to oppose application of pending drug sentencing guideline reduction?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this National Review article, headlined "Judge: Holder ‘Disrespected’ Judicial Branch In Sentencing Change," about a verbal skirmish that emerged during yesterday's US Sentencing Commission meeting to approve formally a small reduction in all federal drug guideline sentences (basics here).  Here are excerpts:

The United States Sentencing Commission Thursday unanimously approved an amendment to revise sentencing guidelines for non-violent drug offenders, but not before one commissioner accused Attorney General Eric Holder of having “disrespected” the judicial branch’s role in sentencing reform.

“I regret that, before we voted on the amendment, the Attorney General instructed Assistant United States Attorneys across the Nation not to object to defense requests to apply the proposed amendment in sentencing proceedings going forward,” Judge William Pryor, Jr. said at a public hearing in Washington. “That unprecedented instruction disrespected our statutory role, ‘as an independent commission in the judicial branch,’ to establish sentencing policies and practices under the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984.”...

In August, Holder revealed his “Smart on Crime” initiative, which includes recommendations for reduced sentencing, without consulting with the Sentencing Commission — an independent agency within the judicial branch tasked with setting such policies.  Although the sentencing reforms themselves were not controversial, Holder’s cavalier approach to separation of powers, including a March memo in which he “instructed the Assistant United States Attorneys across the Nation not to object to defense requests to apply the proposed amendment in sentencing proceedings going forward,” irritated commissioners and alarmed supporters of constitutional separation of powers.

The amendment approved Thursday, aims to reduce federal prison overcrowding by reducing non-violent drug trafficking offenders’ sentences by 17 percent. Holder did not attend the meeting. Instead, Commissioner Jonathan Wroblewski responded to what he called Pryor’s “very, very, very serious charge.” Wroblewski insisted that what the Attorney General did was “not only lawful, but in the greatest respect of the Justice Department,”

Chief Judge Ricardo Hinojosa stated that he was “surprised” by Wroblewski’s statement. He concurred with Pryor that Holder is setting a “dangerous precedent,” noting that two years ago, the Justice Department testified that it was not ready for reductions in sentencing, but that “all of a sudden, because the Attorney General says so” the DOJ has changed its course.

The meeting concluded with Chief Judge Patti Saris applauding the commission for its unanimous vote. But observers joined Pryor and Hinojosa in condemning Holder’s high-handed approach to constitutional boundaries.  “For those committed to the rule of law, the question now goes beyond whether reducing sentences for dealers in dangerous drugs is wise.  It’s whether the Attorney General, the chief law enforcement officer in the United States, is committed to following the law as it exists, or, instead, as he wants and speculates it might become,” William G. Otis a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, said in a statement.

My first reaction to this piece was to be intrigued and pleasantly surprised that Bill Otis was quoted criticizing the nation's top prosecutor for how he seeks to exercise his lawful prosecutorial discretion. (Notably, the author of this NRO piece seems to suggest that the AG should have felt some need to "consult" with a judicial branch agency before announcing a major prosecutorial initiative; I am pretty sure, based on prior debates over the potential problems with unreviewable prosecutorial discretion, that Bill does not believe it would be wise or even constitutional to expect federal prosecutors to have their charging policies reviewed by the judicial branch.)

My second reaction to this piece was to wonder if most federal judges agreed with Judges Pryor and Hinojosa that it was disrespectful and dangerous for the AG to instruct his prosecutors not to object to defense requests to apply the proposed reduced drug guidelines ASAP.  This issue is dynamic and challenging in part because if AG Holder had instructed prosecutors to object to application of these new guidelines until they formally became law in November, then defendants would likely start requesting sentencing delays in all federal drug cases throughout the bulk of 2014.  Because there are about 500 federal drug sentencings every week, this in turn would mean federal district judges nationwide would be receiving motions for sentencing postponements nearly every day for the next seven months.

Notably, just because AG Holder instructs his prosecutors not to object to the application of the proposed new drug guidelines, no judge is in turn obligated to follow the proposed drug guidelines.  Rather, judges now just have an easier time applying this new guidelines, if they so desire, without having to put all their drug cases on hold until November.  That is the context for the DOJ ex-officio representantive on the Commission, Jonathan Wroblewski, suggesting that AG Holder is actually seeking to help and show respect for the judiciary via his instructions to federal prosecutors.

That all said, if the substance of the drug guideline reform proposals now adopted by the Commission were very controversial (i.e., if the Commission itself was split) or if there was reason to believe that Congress and the President might formally reject the drug guideline reform proposal (i.e., if there was wide and vocal expressed opposition), then I think the concerns expressed by Judges Pryor and Hinojosa might be more compelling.  But since these judges themselves both voted with the unanimous Commission to lower the drug guidelines, and since there is momentum in Congress for even more drug sentencing reform, I do not really find AG Holder's exercise of his lawful discretion in this setting all that disrespectful or dangerous.

Some recent related posts:

April 11, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Is New Hampshire on the verge of becoming the next state to abolish the death penalty?

As reported in this local AP article, headlined "On revote, N.H. Senate panel endorses death penalty repeal measure," the Granite State appears to have now moved a step closer to possible repeal of capital punishment. Here are the details:

The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday revisited the idea of repealing New Hampshire’s death penalty and recommended that it pass, setting up a potentially historic vote in the chamber next week. The bill represents the most energetic recent effort to repeal the state’s centuries-old death penalty. It passed the committee by a 3-2 vote, days after the same panel issued a tie vote that could have sounded the death knell on the repeal effort.

The House has voted resoundingly for repeal, and the governor supports it. The Thursday vote in the Republican-controlled Senate is said to be too close to call. “I think it will be a tight vote,” Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley told the Associated Press. “I think it will not break down all that much on party lines.”...

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 2-2 Tuesday with one member absent, an outcome that would have automatically sent a message to the Senate to kill the repeal measure. The committee reconsidered the issue yesterday in deference to Democrat Donna Soucy of Manchester, who missed Tuesday’s meeting due to a family medical issue. There was no debate.

Sens. Bette Lasky, a Nashua Democrat, Sam Cataldo, a Farmington Republican, and Soucy voted for repeal. Sens. Sharon Carson of Londonderry and David Boutin of Hooksett, both Republicans, voted against it.

The state is the closest to repealing the death penalty that it’s been since 2000, when both houses of the Legislature approved repeal, but then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen vetoed it. Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan has said she would sign the repeal measure, because it wouldn’t affect the death sentence of Michael Addison – convicted of killing Manchester police Officer Michael Briggs in 2006. Addison is the only death row convict in the state, which has not seen an execution since 1939.

Death penalty opponents greeted yesterday’s vote with cautious optimism. Rep. Renny Cushing, a Hampton Democrat whose father and brother-in-law were murdered in separate crimes, has not wavered in his opposition to the death penalty through nearly two decades of sponsoring repeal measures.

“Everybody’s a swing vote,” Cushing said after yesterday’s vote. “It’s not a party issue,” he added. “There are a lot of senators genuinely wrestling with this.”

The House last month voted 225-104 in favor of repeal. The vote in the 24-member Senate – with 13 Republicans and 11 Democrats – could come down to a one-vote margin. A tie vote would kill the measure.

April 11, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 10, 2014

US Sentencing Commission to vote on reducing drug sentencing guidelines

As detailed in this official notice, "a public meeting of the [US Sentencing] Commission is scheduled for Thursday, April 10, 2014, at 2:30 p.m."  On the official agenda is "Vote to Promulgate Proposed Amendments," and as reported in this prior post, in January the USSC voted to publish proposed amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines that include an across-the-board reduction in the sentences recommended for all drug offenses.  

I expect there will be some press reports about the USSC vote on the drug guidelines later today.  In the meantime, this effective new PBS Frontline article headlined "Feds to Reconsider Harsh Prison Terms for Drug Offenders," provides some background and context:

The federal prison population has expanded by nearly 800 percent in the past 30 years, spurred in part by the increasing use of tougher sentences applied to nonviolent drug crimes. Now there’s a growing movement to scale it back. On Thursday, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent federal agency, plans to vote on an amendment to sentencing guidelines that could ultimately begin to winnow the federal prison population, nearly half of whom are people convicted of drug offenses.

The amendment is part of a bipartisan push away from America’s addiction to incarceration, which prison reform experts say costs far too much, not only in dollars — $80 billion a year in 2010 — but also in the devastation primarily of African-American communities, who have been disproportionately caught up in the system.

The commission’s proposal would lower the sentencing guideline levels for drug-trafficking offenses, allowing judges to impose reduced sentences by about 11 months, on average, for these crimes. The guidelines are the range between which a judge can sentence an offender. Currently, those guidelines are set higher even than mandatory minimum sentences — the lowest possible sentence a judge could impose — to give prosecutors bargaining power. The amendment would set the upper and lower guideline limits around the mandatory minimums, leading to lower sentences for nearly 70 percent of drug-trafficking offenders, the commission said....

Prison reform advocates say the commission’s proposal is an incremental step, but an important one. “When you’re serving 10 years, six months can make a difference,” said Jesselyn McCurdy, an attorney with the ACLU’s Washington legislative office. “It’s incremental, but it’s all important because it sends the larger message that we have to do something about the harsh sentencing in the federal system.”

Should the Sentencing Commission’s amendment pass, it will be sent to Congress, which will have 180 days to make any changes. If it does nothing — which is the likely outcome given bipartisan Congressional support for the proposal — the resolution will take effect on Nov. 1.

For years, states, which carry the bulk of U.S. prisoners, have taken the lead on sentencing reform — largely out of necessity. Struggling with stretched budgets and overflowing prisons, 40 states have passed laws that ease sentencing guidelines for drug crimes from 2009 to 2013, according to a comprehensive analysis by the Pew Research Center. Seventeen states have invested in reforms like drug treatment and supervision that will save about $4.6 billion over 10 years, according to the Justice Department.

Such reforms also have gained popular public support. According to Pew’s own polling, 63 percent of Americans say that states moving away from mandatory minimum sentencing is a “good thing,” up from 41 percent in 2001. Even more — 67 percent — said that states should focus on treatment, rather than punishment, for people struggling with addiction to illegal drugs....

The Sentencing Commission itself notes that substantial reform requires action by Congress. “Our proposed approach is modest,” said Patti Saris, the commission’s chairwoman. “The real solution rests with Congress, and we continue to support efforts there to reduce mandatory minimum penalties, consistent with our recent report finding that mandatory minimum penalties are often too severe and sweep too broadly in the drug context, often capturing lower-level players.”...

The Senate is currently considering a bill called the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bipartisan bill introduced in July 2013 by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). It wouldn’t abolish mandatory minimums, but it would allow judges to impose more lenient sentences for certain non-violent drug offenses. “Our current scheme of mandatory minimum sentences is irrational and wasteful,” Lee said when introducing the bill, adding that the act “takes an important step forward in reducing the financial and human cost of outdated and imprudent sentencing policies.”...

But the bill, which even the senators acknowledged as “studied and modest” on their website, doesn’t have great odds of passing. According to govtrack.us, a nonpartisan website that tracks congressional legislation, the Smarter Sentencing Act has only a 39 percent chance of being enacted.

Some recent related posts:

UPDATE:  This press release reports that, as expected, the USSC voted today to reduce the federal guidelines for all drug offenses.  Here is an excerpts from the press release:

The Commission voted unanimously to amend the guidelines to lower the base offense levels in the Drug Quantity Table across drug types. The drug guidelines under the amendment would remain linked to statutory mandatory minimum penalties. The Commission estimates that approximately 70 percent of federal drug trafficking defendants would qualify for the change, with their sentences decreasing an average of 11 months, or 17 percent, from 62 to 51 months on average.

The Commission this year has prioritized addressing federal prison costs and capacity with a continued commitment to public safety. The Commission estimates that the amendment reducing drug guidelines would reduce the federal prison population by more than 6,500 over five years, with a significantly greater long-term impact.

“This modest reduction in drug penalties is an important step toward reducing the problem of prison overcrowding at the federal level in a proportionate and fair manner,” said Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the Commission. “Reducing the federal prison population has become urgent, with that population almost three times where it was in 1991.”

In addition, the Chair of the USSC made a statement in conjunction with today's vote, which is now available here via the USSC's website.  The interesting three-page statement concludes with this interesting paragraph concerning possible retroactive application of the proposed new guidelines: 

Over the next few months, the Commission will be studying the issue of whether the drug amendment should apply retroactively, which we are statutorily required to do. This is a complex and difficult issue, and requires a different analysis than the decision we have made today about reducing drug sentences prospectively. The Commission will take into account, as it always does when considering retroactivity, the purposes of the amendment, the magnitude of the change, and the difficulty of applying the change retroactively, among other factors. I know the Commission will carefully consider this issue, and many stakeholders will have strong views. I do not know how it will come out, but we will carefully review data and the retroactivity impact analysis we have directed staff to conduct as well as public comment in order to ensure that we weigh all perspectives.

April 10, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Retro Report provides reminder of "When Youth Violence Spurred ‘Superpredator’ Fear."

WeeklyStandard-1995nov27The New York Times together with Retro Report puts together articles and videos looking back a media coverage and the aftermath of high-profile stories of years gone by. The latest production is available here under the headline "hen Youth Violence Spurred ‘Superpredator’ Fear." Here are excerpts from the article that goes along with the great 10-minute video on the topic:

Social scientists like James A. Fox, a criminologist, warned of “a blood bath of violence” that could soon wash over the land. That fear, verging on panic, is the subject of this week’s segment of Retro Report, a series of video documentaries that examine major news stories from years ago and explore what has happened since.

What happened with the superpredator jeremiads is that they proved to be nonsense. They were based on a notion that there would be hordes upon hordes of depraved teenagers resorting to unspeakable brutality, not tethered by conscience. No one in the mid-1990s promoted this theory with greater zeal, or with broader acceptance, than John J. DiIulio Jr., then a political scientist at Princeton. Chaos was upon us, Mr. DiIulio proclaimed back then in scholarly articles and television interviews. The demographics, he said, were inexorable. Politicians from both major parties, though more so on the right, picked up the cry. Many news organizations pounced on these sensational predictions and ran with them like a punt returner finding daylight.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the apocalypse. Instead of exploding, violence by children sharply declined. Murders committed by those ages 10 to 17 fell by roughly two-thirds from 1994 to 2011, according to statistics kept by the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Mugged by reality, a chastened Mr. DiIulio has offered a mea culpa. “Demography,” he says, “is not fate.” The trouble with his superpredator forecast, he told Retro Report, is that “once it was out there, there was no reeling it in.”

It certainly had consequences. It energized a movement, as one state after another enacted laws making it possible to try children as young as 13 or 14 as adults... Many hundreds of juveniles were sent to prison for life, though in the last few years the United States Supreme Court has ruled that such sentences must not be automatic, even in murder cases. Individual circumstances and possible mitigating factors should be weighed, the justices said....

The superpredator scare fit neatly with a “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” approach to rising crime that had taken hold even before the ‘90s. Many states are now moving in the opposite direction, if only because incarceration is expensive, in both its human toll and its burden on strapped government budgets....

Fears about predators, super or not, have not entirely disappeared. Of late, some are concerned about what is called “the knockout game.” It involves a young man or group of young men punching a stranger on the street. This is cast essentially as a black-on-white crime, perhaps a gang initiation rite. No question, such assaults have taken place. But are they part of an organized “game”? In New York, the police seem unsure if they amount to more than isolated incidents.

As for superpredators, not everyone has abandoned the notion. In the ‘90s, Mr. DiIulio called those youngsters “remorseless” and “impulsive,” describing them as unburdened by “pangs of conscience.” Hmm, said Richard Eskow. Or words to that effect. Mr. Eskow, a senior fellow with the Campaign for America’s Future, wrote for The Huffington Post two years ago that he knew a group of people who matched those very descriptions. They were, he said, the reckless bankers and Wall Street high rollers who almost brought the United States economy to its knees a few years ago.

April 9, 2014 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Fourth Circuit deepens (via dramatic split opinion) circuit split over fixing sentencing problems via 2255 motions

Though one needs to be a hard-core federal sentencing or habeas aficionado to really enjoy all the action, even casual fans may want to check out the extraordinary work of a Fourth Circuit panel yesterday in Whiteside v. US, No. 13-7152 (4th Cir. Apr. 8, 2014) (available here).  Excerpts from the three separate opinions provides a flavor of all the action, but a full read is needed to understand and appreciate the passion that is reflected in the passages quoted below.

To begin, writing for the panel majority, Judge Gregory explains the legal basics at the outset:

This case presents the question of whether a federal inmate may use a 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion to challenge a sentence that was based on the career offender enhancement under the United States Sentencing Guidelines when subsequent case law reveals the enhancement to be inapplicable to him.  We find that he may, and in doing so hold that the mistake results in a fundamental miscarriage of justice that is cognizable on collateral review.  For the reasons stated below, we grant a certificate of appealability, vacate the petitioner’s sentence, and remand the case for resentencing.

More than 30 pages later comes a concurring opinion by Judge Davis that runs only two pages, but effectively highlights the heart of the issues splitting this panel (and the circuit courts more generally). Here is an excerpt:

I am pleased to join Judge Gregory’s extraordinarily compelling opinion, which fully responds to the dissent’s overwrought and formalistic protestations that our judgment here presages an end to law as we know it. (Evidently, it is not enough simply for the dissent to say that there is no miscarriage of justice shown on this record.)

The dissenting opinion is hopelessly pleased with itself.  This is not surprising, as it prostrates itself at the altar of finality, draped in the sacred shroud of judicial restraint....

In any event, what’s remarkable is that, as viewed through the lens of our good friend’s dissenting opinion, it is perfectly fine for the United States Department of Justice, which is to say the Executive Branch, to bypass supposed reverence for finality on a case-by-case basis, through waivers of limitations and other devices, see ante, Maj. op., n.6, but the Third Branch is duty-bound never to acknowledge instances in which law’s interest in finality must give way to competing values rooted in our shared abhorrence of manifest injustice.  To devolve to the Executive Branch sole authority to identify a cognizable miscarriage of justice amounts to judicial abdication, not judicial restraint.  Such an approach enjoys no legitimate place in our scheme of institutional checks and balances. The Third Branch’s transcendent role, in our enviable but imperfect system of criminal justice, is to afford protection from the loss of individual liberty resulting from profoundly erroneous decision-making, and not least of all, erroneous decision-making by the Third Branch itself, as in this very case.

The dissenting opinion favors what’s “finished” over what’s “right” and thereby blinks at a profound miscarriage of justice. It is wrong to do so.

Finally, Judge Wilkinson provides an addition 30+ pages to explain his views about why the panel majority gets this matter so very wrong.  Here is how his lengthy opinion starts and ends:

Deangelo Whiteside was properly designated a career offender in the course of his federal sentencing proceedings.  Now, years later, the majority vacates that sentence.  In invalidating Whiteside’s sentence, the majority creates a circuit split over whether career-offender designations are cognizable on collateral review, and ignores settled law as to whether changes in circuit precedent can reset the statute of limitations for post-conviction review of federal criminal proceedings.  The majority opinion represents a dramatic expansion of federal collateral review that is unsupported by law or precedent.  It makes a shambles of the retroactivity doctrines that have long safeguarded the basic finality of criminal convictions.  It disrupts the orderly administration of our criminal-justice system....

The Great Writ stands for the fundamental proposition that government too is subject to the given law.  Here the government observed the law; it is, sadly, a court that accords no meaning to that fact.  How is it that requiring someone to serve a sentence lawfully imposed and constitutionally rendered becomes a “plain injustice” and a “fundamental unfairness”? Maj. Op. at 29.  This path vindicates no fundamental liberty.  It only transforms collateral review into a double of direct review, a redundant mechanism for routine error correction, deployed to unsettle sentences that were imposed years earlier under governing law, in accordance with unexceptionable procedure, and by a sovereign acting in accordance with its sovereign duty to protect citizens from those who repeatedly violate its criminal laws.

For the aforementioned reasons, and because I view this decision as wholly wrong and deeply damaging to our criminal-justice system, I respectfully dissent.

April 9, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

AG Eric Holder advocates for Smarter Sentencing Act in testimony to House Judiciary Committee

As reported via this DOJ press release, Attorney General Eric Holder testified this morning before the US House Committee on the Judiciary.  Here are parts of the AG's prepared remarks that should be of interest to sentencing fans:

Across the board, the Department’s comprehensive efforts reflect our commitment to integrity and equal justice — in every case and circumstance.  And nowhere is this commitment stronger than in our work to strengthen America’s federal criminal justice system. Through the Smart on Crime initiative I announced last August, my colleagues and I are taking action on a number of evidence-based reforms — including modifications to the Department’s charging policies with regard to mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent, low-level drug crimes.  This commonsense change will ensure that the toughest penalties are reserved for the most dangerous or violent drug traffickers.  And I’m pleased to note that Members of this Committee have shown tremendous leadership in the effort to codify this approach into law.

I’ve been proud to join many of you in supporting the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act — introduced by Representatives Scott and Labrador and cosponsored by Ranking Member Conyers — which would give judges more discretion in determining appropriate sentences for people convicted of certain federal drug crimes.  And I pledge to keep working with leaders like you — and like Senator Rand Paul and others — to address the collateral consequences of certain convictions, including felony disenfranchisement policies that permanently deny formerly incarcerated people their right to vote.

We will never be able to simply arrest and incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation. That’s why we need to be both tough and smart in our fight against crime and the conditions and behaviors that breed it.  And this struggle must extend beyond our fight to combat gun-, gang-, and drug-fueled violence — to include civil rights violations and financial and health care fraud crimes that harm people and endanger the livelihoods of hardworking Americans from coast to coast.

UPDATE: As highlighted in this Politico report, headlined "Eric Holder at center of marijuana debate," following AG Holder's prepared testimony there was some heated discussion of the topic of federal marijuana policy.  Here is how the Politico piece starts:

Attorney General Eric Holder found himself caught Tuesday in a vast congressional divide over how the federal government should respond to moves states have made to legalize marijuana.

During a House Judiciary Committee hearing, Republicans repeatedly bashed Holder for going too far to accommodate the state actions, while a Democrat pounded the attorney general for refusing to call for a study of whether the federal drug classification system exaggerates the dangers posed by cannabis.

April 8, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Noting the very cautious politics still surrounding pot legalization

Today's New York Times has this interesting lengthy article discussing pot politics under the headline "Despite Support in Party, Democratic Governors Resist Legalizing Marijuana." Here are excerpts:

At a time of rapidly evolving attitudes toward marijuana legalization — a slight majority of Americans now support legalizing the drug — Democratic governors across the country ... find themselves uncomfortably at odds with their own base.

Even with Democrats and younger voters leading the wave of the pro-legalization shift, these governors are standing back, supporting much more limited medical-marijuana proposals or invoking the kind of law-and-order and public-health arguments more commonly heard from Republicans. While 17 more states — most of them leaning Democratic — have seen bills introduced this year to follow Colorado and Washington in approving recreational marijuana, no sitting governor or member of the Senate has offered a full-out endorsement of legalization. Only Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat in Vermont, which is struggling with a heroin problem, said he was open to the idea....

The hesitance expressed by these governors reflects not only governing concerns but also, several analysts said, a historically rooted political wariness of being portrayed as soft on crime by Republicans. In particular, Mr. Brown, who is 75, lived through the culture wars of the 1960s, when Democrats suffered from being seen as permissive on issues like this.

“Either they don’t care about it as passionately or they feel embarrassed or vulnerable. They fear the judgment,” said Ethan Nadelmann, the founder of the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that favors decriminalization of marijuana. “The fear of being soft on drugs, soft on marijuana, soft on crime is woven into the DNA of American politicians, especially Democrats.” He described that sentiment as, “Do not let yourself be outflanked by Republicans when it comes to being tough on crime and tough on drugs. You will lose.”

In Washington and Colorado, the Democratic governors had opposed legalization from the start, though each made clear that he would follow voters’ wishes in setting up the first legal recreational-marijuana marketplaces in the nation. “If it was up to me, being in the middle of it, and having read all this research and having some concern, I’d tell people just to exercise caution,” Gov. John W. Hickenlooper of Colorado said in a recent interview....

Washington has yet to let its first marijuana stores open — that is expected to happen later this spring — but Gov. Jay Inslee has made his position clear. “As a grandfather, I have the same concerns every grandfather has about misuse of any drug, including alcohol and marijuana,” he said in a telephone interview, adding, “All of us want to see our kids make smart decisions and not allow any drug to become injurious in our life. “I recognized the really rational decision that people made that criminalization efforts were not a successful public policy,” Mr. Inslee continued. “But frankly, I really don’t want to send a message to our kids that this is a route that is without risk.”...

The resistance comes as public opinion on the issue is moving more rapidly than anyone might have anticipated. Nationally, 51 percent of adults support legalizing the drug, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in February, including 60 percent of Democrats, 54 percent of independents and 72 percent of young adults. Even 44 percent of Tea Party members said they wanted the drug legalized....

There is no obvious political upside to supporting legalization, analysts said, and politicians, as a rule, tend to be risk averse. “You don’t hold these positions without having a sense of your own place in history,” said former Representative Patrick J. Kennedy, who joined Mr. Sabet in founding Project SAM, which strives to reduce marijuana use by emphasizing health risks. “They can honestly see that this is not a good move, that it’s going to have huge consequences, not all of which can be foretold.”...

At this point, the prospects for other elected officials jumping on the legalization bandwagon is likely to depend on what happens as the experiments in Washington and Colorado proceed. Among the questions are whether legalization will lead to more drug abuse by teenagers and how much it will fatten state tax coffers.

“I don’t tell other governors what to do,” Mr. Hickenlooper said, “but when they asked me, I said, ‘If I was in your shoes, I would wait a couple of years and see whether

there are unintended consequences, from what is admittedly a well-intentioned law.’”

April 6, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Saturday, April 05, 2014

"Is the Death Penalty Starting to Make a Global Comeback?"

The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing Slate commentary.  Here are excerpts:

An Indian court today sentenced three men to death for the horrific gang rape of a photojournalist in Mumbai last year.  They are the first to be sentenced under India’s tough new anti-rape law.

The sentence hammers home something that’s been obvious for some time now: After appearing to be on the verge of abolishing the death penalty entirely, India has now firmly rejoined the ranks of the world’s executioners.  It’s one of a number of countries — including some of the world’s largest democracies — that have recently re-embraced capital punishment.

A 1983 Indian Supreme Court decision allows for capital punishment in only the “rarest of the rare” cases, and from 2004 to 2011 the country didn’t carry out any executions at all. From 1995 to 2012, it carried out only three.  Then in 2012, Ajmal Kasab, the last surviving gunman of the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, was hanged in secret in what appeared to be an unusually swift and haphazard execution.  The Kashmiri militant Afzal Guru was hanged under similar circumstances last year.  Seventy-two people in total were sentenced to die in India last year, including four of the men involved in the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old medical student in Delhi in 2012 — a case that shocked the country and prompted the drafting of laws aimed at speeding up the prosecution of rapists.

India’s not the only country heading in this direction. Amnesty International’s 2013 death penalty report noted that executions were up 15 percent last year — and that’s not even counting China, where the number of executions is a state secret.  Just three countries — Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia — accounted for 80 percent of executions, but to my mind, the most interesting recent trend has been been the countries that, like India, have been bucking the general global movement away from the death penalty.

In 2012 Japan carried out its first executions since 2010. Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, four rounds of “secret executions” have taken place.  Nigeria carried out its first executions in seven years last year and Indonesia its first in five years.  Vietnam resumed them after an 18-month pause with the execution of seven people by lethal injection.

It’s true that in terms of number of countries, the world is moving away from the death penalty. According to Amnesty’s numbers, 37 countries had the death penalty in 1994, compared with 22 today.  In Europe and Latin America, the practice has essentially been entirely banished and an increasing number of African countries are reviewing their laws.

On the other hand, with the exception of Brazil, where it’s banned, and Russia, where it’s legal but abolished in practice, the world’s 10 biggest countries are all death penalty states.  With India, Japan, and Indonesia rejoining the U.S., the world’s largest democracies are death penalty countries and the practice has heavy popular support in all of them.

UPDATE: This interesting international article highlights related death penalty developments under the headline "Vietnam is sentencing corrupt bankers to death, by firing squad."

April 5, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Serial killer hoping SCOTUS will be troubled by execution drug secrecy in Texas

As highlighted in this AP article, a legal challenges based on execution drug secrecy is now before the Supreme Court after a Texas death row defendant has won and then lost on lower courts in his effort to block his execution.  Here are the basics:

Attorneys for a serial killer asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt his execution set for Thursday in Texas as they challenge that state's refusal to release information about where it gets its lethal injection drug.

Lawyers for Tommy Lynn Sells made the plea after a federal appeals court allowed the execution to stay on schedule.  A lower court had stayed the execution Wednesday, ordering Texas to reveal more information about its drug supplier, but the ruling was quickly tossed on appeal.  "It is not in the public interest for the state to be allowed to be deceptive in its efforts to procure lethal injection drugs," Sells' attorneys told the high court.

The appeal was one of two separate issues pending before the justices.  Another before the court since last month asked for the punishment to be stopped to review whether Sells' legal help at his trial was deficient, and whether a court improperly denied him money to hire investigators to conduct a probe about his background.

Sells, who was sentenced to death for fatally stabbing a 13-year-old South Texas girl in 1999, claims to have committed as many as 70 killings across the U.S. The 49-year-old is scheduled to be lethally injected Thursday evening in Huntsville. Sells' attorneys argue that they need to know the name of the company now providing the state with pentobarbital, the drug used during executions, in order to verify the drug's quality and protect Sells from unconstitutional pain and suffering.

But 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Texas prison officials, who argued that information about the drug supplier must be kept secret to protect the company from threats of violence. It also found that the stock of the pentobarbital, a powerful sedative, falls within the acceptable ranges of potency.  The court said that had Texas wanted to use a drug never used before for executions or a completely new drug whose efficiency or science was unknown, "the case might be different."

It's unclear how the Supreme Court would rule. Last month it rejected similar arguments from a Missouri inmate's attorneys who challenged the secrecy surrounding where that state obtained its execution drugs, and the condemned prisoner was put to death....

A batch of pentobarbital that Texas purchased from a compounding pharmacy in suburban Houston expired at the end of March. The pharmacy refused to sell the state any more drugs, citing threats it received after its name was made public. That led Texas to its new, undisclosed suppler.

The court case challenging the state's stance also included 44-year-old Ramiro Hernandez-Llanas, who is scheduled for execution next week.  But the 5th Circuit ruling affected only Sells. Maurie Levin, an attorney for the inmates, said Sells' case would be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Levin said the lower court ruling, which had ordered the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to give defense attorneys details about the drug supplier and how the drug was tested, "honors the importance of transparency in the execution process."

If Sells' execution is carried out Thursday, it would be the fifth lethal injection this year in Texas, the nation's busiest death-penalty state.

Sells had dubbed himself "Coast to Coast," a nod either to his wandering existence as a carnival worker or to his criminal history. Court documents said he claimed as many as 70 murders in his lifetime in states including Alabama, California, Arizona, Kentucky and Arkansas. "We did confirm 22 (slayings)," retired Texas Ranger John Allen said this week. "I know there's more. I know there's a lot more. Obviously, we won't ever know."

UPDATE: This AP story reports that Sells "was put to death Thursday in Texas after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his lawyers' demand that the state release information about where it gets its lethal injection drug."

April 3, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (43) | TrackBack