Friday, December 19, 2014

Could (and should) Colorado (or others) respond to attack on marijuana legalization by counter-attacking federal prohibition?

As detailed in this prior post, yesterday Nebraska and Oklahoma filed suit in the US Supreme Court seeking "a declaratory judgment stating that Sections 16(4) and (5) of Article XVIII of the Colorado Constitution [legalizing and regulating marijuana sales] are preempted by federal law, and therefore unconstitutional and unenforceable under the Supremacy Clause, Article VI of the U.S. Constitution."  I find this lawsuit fascinating for any number of reasons, and I am still trying to understand the procedures through which the Justices will consider this case and I am still thinking through some of the implications of the claims being made by Nebraska and Oklahoma.  And, as the title of this post suggests, I am wondering if this case might enable advocates for marijuana reform to bring complaints about federal marijuana prohibition directly to the Supreme Court. 

This thought occurred to me in part because the SCOTUS filing by Nebraska and Oklahoma relies so very heavily on the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) classifying marijuana as a Schedule I drug.  Here are passages from the filing to that end:

Congress has classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug.  21 U.S.C. § 812(c).  Schedule I drugs are those with a high potential for abuse, lack of any accepted medical use, and absence of any accepted safety for use in medically supervised treatment. § 812(b)(1)....

Because Congress explicitly found that marijuana has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States and had categorized marijuana as a “Schedule I” drug, the CSA was enacted in order to eradicate the market for such drugs. As such, the United States argued [in Gonzales v. Raich a decade ago], “the CSA makes it unlawful to manufacture, distribute, dispense, or possess any Schedule I drug for any purpose, medical or otherwise, except as part of a strictly controlled research project.”

There has been lots of litigation in the past attacking in the DC Circuit the rationality of marijuana's placement on Schedule I in light of scientific evidence that marijuana has medical potentials. But all that litigation took place before a majority of states (now numbering well over 30) had formally legalized medical marijuana in some form. In light of all the recent state reform supportive of medical marijuana, I think new claims could (and perhaps should) now be made that it is entirely irrational (and thus unconstitutional) for Congress in the CSA to keep marijuana as a Schedule I drug.

Consequently, it seems to me one possible way (of many) for Colorado to defend its marijuana reform would be to assert a new full-throated attack on federal marijuana prohibition in the Supreme Court in light of the "new evidence" that the majority of US jurisdictions recognize in law the potential value of marijuana as medicine.

I doubt that Colorado will seek to attack Congress or the CSA is defense of its marijuana reform efforts. But perhaps others who in the past have legally attacked the rationality of marijuana's placement on Schedule I will see the special opportunity provided by this notable new lawsuit as an opportunity to take their arguments directly to the Supreme Court.

Recent related post:

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

December 19, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Nebraska and Oklahoma sue Colorado in US Supreme Court over marijuana legalization

As reported in this local article, "Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning filed a lawsuit Thursday with the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking a declaration that Colorado’s legalization of marijuana violates the U.S. Constitution."  Here is more on the latest fascinating development in the world of marijuana reform law and policy:

At a press conference Thursday, Bruning said he was being joined in the case by Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt. "Federal law undisputedly prohibits the production and sale of marijuana," Bruning said. "Colorado has undermined the United States Constitution, and I hope the U.S. Supreme Court will uphold our constitutional principles."

Bruning said he placed a courtesy call to Colorado Attorney General John Suthers before filing the lawsuit. Suthers said in a news release he was not “entirely surprised” to learn of the lawsuit. “We believe this suit is without merit, and we will vigorously defend against it in the U.S. Supreme Court,” he said.

Some Nebraska law enforcement officers undoubtedly will welcome Thursday’s action. Anticipating that the attorney general planned to announce a lawsuit, Scotts Bluff County Sheriff Mark Overman said Thursday he supports the move. "This stuff is illegal here, it’s coming here and it’s had an adverse effect on our citizens and way of life," Overman said. "Nebraska, from highest elected officials on down, should do something about it."...

He blamed U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for not enforcing federal drug laws in Colorado. "I am adamantly against the spread of marijuana across our country," Bruning said. He said he talked recently with a father who said marijuana was a "gateway drug" for his teen.

Colorado’s legalization of pot use has had a significant impact on Nebraska law enforcement agencies. Many departments, particularly in western Nebraska counties along Interstate 80, have seen spikes in their marijuana-related arrests tied to legally purchased pot that transforms into contraband once it crosses the border. At the western tip of the Oklahoma Panhandle, authorities regularly apprehend travelers coming from southeast Colorado with marijuana.

During a September hearing on the issue in Ogallala, Nebraska, a panel of lawmakers heard law enforcement authorities express concern about the flow of high-potency pot into Nebraska and increasing numbers of impaired drivers and possession by teens as young as 14. "Nebraska taxpayers have to bear the cost," Bruning said Thursday. "We can’t afford to divert resources to deal with Colorado’s problem."

Via the Denver Post, the 83-page SCOTUS filing can be found at this link.

Wowsa (and cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform)!

December 18, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

DPIC year-end report highlights "death penalty decline continues in 2014"

As detailed in this press release, the Death Penalty Information Center today released its high-profile annual report.  The full report is available at this link, and here are highlights drawn from the press release: 

With 35 executions this year, 2014 marks the fewest people put to death since 1994, according to a report released today by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). The 72 new death sentences in 2014 is the lowest number in the modern era of the death penalty, dating back to 1974. Executions and sentences have steadily decreased, as Americans have grown more skeptical of capital punishment. The states’ problems with lethal injections also contributed to the drop in executions this year.

Executions decreased 10% compared to 2013 — from 39 last year to 35 this year — continuing an overall decline since 1999, when there were 98 executions. The number of states carrying out executions — seven — was the lowest in 25 years. Just three states – Texas, Missouri, and Florida — accounted for 80% of the executions. For the first time in 17 years, Texas did not lead the country in executions, being tied with Missouri at 10.

Death sentences — a more current barometer than executions — have declined by 77% since 1996, when there were 315. There were 79 death sentences last year. This is the fourth year in a row that there have been fewer than 100 death sentences....

Seven people who had been on death row were exonerated in 2014, the most since 2009. Three men in Ohio were cleared of all charges 39 years after their convictions, the longest time of any death row exonerees. Two others in North Carolina were freed after 30 years in confinement. Since 1973, 150 people have been exonerated and freed from death row.

Individual state developments illustrate the growing isolation of death penalty use:

  • The number of executions has declined in 11 of the past 15 years. In 1999, 20 states carried out executions; in 2014, only 7 states did so.

  • For the seventh year in a row, Texas had fewer than a dozen death sentences, a sharp decline from 1999, when it had 48.

  • California (14) and Florida (11) provided 35% of the death sentences in the country.

  • Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced that no executions would take place while he is governor, joining the governors of Oregon and Colorado in halting executions.

  • In California, a federal judge declared the state’s death penalty unconstitutional.

December 18, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

President Obama (aka clemency grinch) grants a few holiday pardons and commutations

GrinchFollowing the holiday script he first wrote with a few clemency grants last year the week before Christmas (as reported in this prior post), President Obama this afternoon granted 20 clemencies in the form of 8 commutations and 12 pardons.  This AP story provides the basics and some background:

President Barack Obama on Wednesday cut short prison time for eight drug convicts as part of his new initiative to reduce harsh sentences under outdated guidelines, a step that could lead to a vast expansion of presidential clemency in his final two years in office.

The president also is pardoning 12 convicts for a variety of offenses.  But the commutations are particularly significant because they are the first issued under new guidelines announced earlier this year designed to cut costs by reducing the nation's bulging prison population and grant leniency to nonviolent drug offenders sentenced to double-digit terms....

The White House said the eight new commutations Obama granted were for prisoners who likely would receive a substantially lower sentence today and would have already served their time.  For example, they include Barbara Scrivner, who was sentenced to 30 years in 1995 when she was 27 years old for a minor role in her husband's meth ring. Obama ordered her sentence to expire June 12, while others will expire April 15.

Administration officials say they expect Obama to grant more clemency petitions in his final two years in office under the changed policy he ordered from the Justice Department. The White House said 6,561 people already have applied in the past year, compared to 2,370 the year before. "I think there is an awareness out there that this president is interested in granting clemency on these kinds of matters," White House counsel Neil Eggleston said in an interview.

The clemency policy changes aren't limited to drug offenders, who comprise about half of the roughly 216,000 federal prisoners, but the criteria makes it clear they are the main target. To be eligible, inmates must have already been behind bars for at least 10 years, have a nonviolent history, have no major criminal convictions, have a good behavior record in prison, and be serving a sentence that, if imposed today, would be substantially shorter than what they were given at the time....

In his first term, Obama commuted just one drug sentence and pardoned 39 people, causing prisoner advocates to accuse him of being too stingy with his power. Obama aides said it was because he wasn't receiving more positive recommendations from the Office of the Pardon Attorney so he directed the Justice Department to improve its clemency recommendation process and recruit more applications from convicts.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who in April announced the clemency policy changes, said the sentence commutations reflect a "commitment to bring fairness to our criminal justice system."

"While all eight were properly held accountable for their criminal actions, their punishments did not fit their crimes, and sentencing laws and policies have since been updated to ensure more fairness for low-level offenders," he said in a statement....

The White House noted Obama now has commuted 18 sentences, compared to 11 under President George W. Bush and three in the first six years of the Clinton presidency. Clinton eventually commuted 61, most in a controversial action on his last day in office.

The full list of the lucky receipients of this act of presidential grace can be found here via the White House.  And this link provide the full text of Deputy AG Cole's statement about these clemency grants.  I expect the folks who follow the ins-and-outs of clemency even more closely than I do will have a lot to say in the days ahead about what might be special about the folks on this clemency list.

Though I do not want to criticize the President too much on a day in which he finally saw fit to make some minor use of his constitutional clemency authority, I will still think of him as a clemency grinch until he begins more regularly granting commutations to a whole lot more offenders still stuck serving severe (and now repealed) crack sentences.  There are, I believe, thousands of federal prisoners still serving time for crack offenses based on the old 100-1 crack/powder ratio, and there are surely many thousands more low-level drug offenders arguably just as deserving of clemency consideration.  President Obama would have to grant eight commutations every single day over the two years remaining in his presidency to even start to make a serious dent in federal prison population.

December 17, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Should ALL federal marijuana sentencings be postponed now that Cromnibus precludes DOJ from interfering with state medical marijuana laws?

Images (6)As reported in this post yesterday, an astute lawyer in California sought (and, I now know, obtained) a significant postponement of his client's scheduled federal marijuana sentencing based on a provision in H.R. 83, the 1700-page Cromnibus spending bill, which directs the US Department of Justice not to use any funds to interfere with state-legalized medical marijuana regimes.  Specifically, Section 538 of the Cromnibus states, in relevant part:

None of the funds made available in this Act to the Department of Justice may be used ... to prevent such States [with current medical marijuana laws] from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.

Though this provision (which was officially signed into law by President Obama on Tuesday) is rightly being hailed as historic, what exactly Section 538 of the Cromnibus means formally and functionally for the Department of Justice and federal marijuana prohibition is anything but obvious or clear.  For starters, this provision is a funding directive to DOJ, not a formal restriction on DOJ activities, and it is unclear how such a provision is to be administered or enforced.  Moreover, this provision plainly does not provide a formal right or even permission for individuals under federal law to be involved in the "use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana."  Indeed, given that federal law currently has marijuana listed as a Schedule I drug, the very use of the term "medical marijuana" in this Section 538 of the Cromnibus is somewhat oxymoronic as a new phrase in the federal legal nomenclature.

That all said, the enactment of formal federal law ordering that DOJ not use funds to prevent the implementation of state medical marijuana laws clearly means something significant not only in states that have medical marijuana laws but throughout the nation.  In particular, as the question in the title of this post is meant to connote, I think this congressional approval (of sorts) of state medical marijuana laws should have a tangible (and perhaps significant) impact on any and all federal marijuana sentencings scheduled for the weeks and months ahead.

The specific instructions of 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) tells federal judges that they must consider at sentencing, inter alia, "the nature and circumstances of the offense" as well as the "need for the sentence imposed to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, and to provide just punishment for the offense."  Even before the passage of Section 538 of the Cromnibus, I thought it was appropriate for a judge at a federal marijuana sentencing to consider based on these provisions a defendant's claim that he was in compliance with state medical marijuana laws.  But DOJ in the past could respond by reasonably asserting that Congress would not want a federal judge for federal sentencing purposes to inquire into any claims of state-law compliance.  

Now that Section 538 of the Cromnibus is official federal law, I believe every federal judge at any future federal marijuana sentencings should feel duty-bound to examine the particulars of a defense claim of compliance with state medical marijuana laws.  In light of what Congress enacted, consideration of claimed compliance with state medical marijuana laws seems essential to "promote respect for the law" as well as to stake proper stock of "the nature and circumstances of the offense" and "just punishment for the offense."

Moreover, I think some viable sentencing arguments might now be made based on Section 538 on behalf of some federal marijuana defendants even in the 18 states that have not yet enacted medical marijuana reforms.  If a federal defendant can reasonably assert, even in a non-reform state, that he was (mostly? somewhat? a little?) involved in distribution of marijuana for medical purposes, he might point to 3553(a)(6) and claim that sentencing him hard for medical marijuana distribution in a non-reform state would create (unwarranted?) sentencing disparity when compared to sentences likely to be imposed for the same offense in reform-state jurisdictions.

Critically, I am not contending (yet) that Section 538 of the Cromnibus must or even should have a direct and substantial impact on federal marijuana sentencings in reform or non-reform states.  But I am contending that, thanks to Section 538 of the Cromnibus, there are now a lot more federal sentencing issues that need to be subject to a lot more thought before federal judges move ahead with the roughly 100 federal marijuana sentencings that take place throughout the US every week.

In sum, to answer my own question in the title of this post, I would say simple YES.

Some previous related posts:

December 17, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Detailed examination of how local costs may slowly kill the death penalty

The Marshall Project has this effective new piece on the modern realities of administering capital punishment. The piece is headlined "The Slow Death of the Death Penalty: The public supports it, but the costs are lethal." Here are excerpts from a lengthy piece that merits a full read:

While many prosecutors are still reluctant to admit that finances play a role in their decisions about the death penalty, some of them – especially in small, rural counties – have been increasingly frank in wondering whether capital punishment is worth the price to their communities. “You have to be very responsible in selecting where you want to spend your money,” said Stephen Taylor, a prosecutor in Liberty County, Texas. “You never know how long a case is going to take.”

Some prosecutors are far more blunt, and even hyperbolic, as they lament the state of affairs. “I know now that if I file a capital murder case and don't seek the death penalty, the expense is much less,” said James Farren, the District Attorney of Randall County in the Texas panhandle. “While I know that justice is not for sale, if I bankrupt the county, and we simply don't have any money, and the next day someone goes into a daycare and guns down five kids, what do I say? Sorry?”

Since capital punishment was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976, the cost of carrying out a death penalty trial has risen steadily. Increasing legal protections for defendants have translated into more and more hours of preparatory work by both sides. Fees for court-appointed attorneys and expert witnesses have climbed. Where once psychiatrists considered an IQ test and a quick interview sufficient to establish the mental state of a defendant, now it is routine to obtain an entire mental health history. Lab tests have become more numerous and elaborate. Defense teams now routinely employ mitigation experts, who comb through a defendant’s life history for evidence that might sway a jury towards leniency at the sentencing phase. Capital defendants are automatically entitled to appeals, which often last for years. Throughout those years, the defendant lives on death row, which tends to cost more due to heightened security.

In states such as Texas, Arizona, and Washington, where county governments pay for both the prosecution and defense of capital defendants (nearly all of whom are indigent) when they go to trial, the pressure on local budgets is especially strong. To ease the fiscal burden, some states have formed agencies to handle the defense or prosecution of capital cases. Other states reimburse counties for the expenses of a trial.

But even with that help, county officials around the country have sometimes had to raise taxes and cut spending to pay for death penalty trials. District attorneys have taken note. Many remain reluctant to acknowledge how fiscal concerns affect their decisions — they don’t want to appear to be cheapening the lives of murder victims. But a few are surprisingly candid. Their statements suggest that money is more than ever part of the explanation for the steep decline in death-penalty cases over the past decade. That is particularly the case in Texas, where there are few political obstacles to carrying out executions.

In the six states that have abolished capital punishment over the past decade, Republican and Democratic officials have also emphasized the cost of the death penalty as a major rationale. Even in states that retain the punishment, cost has played a central role in the conversion narratives of conservative lawmakers, public officials, and others who question the death penalty as a waste of taxpayer dollars.

The rising cost of capital trials disproportionately affects counties with small populations. While the number of death sentences in the United States has been dropping steadily since a peak in the mid-1990s, an overwhelming number of the cases still being filed come from urban counties. There, the tax bases are larger, and the impact of an expensive trial may be more easily absorbed. (Harris County, where Houston is located, has been responsible for more executions than Georgia and Alabama combined.) Texas counties with fewer than 300,000 residents sought the death penalty on average 15 times per year from 1992 to 1996. Between 2002 and 2005, the average was four.

Prosecutors don’t cite statistics when discussing the costs of the death penalty; they tell stories. In Texas, they point to Jasper County, near the Louisiana border, where in June 1998 three white supremacists killed a black man, James Byrd Jr., by chaining his ankles to the back of their pickup truck and dragging his body for more than three miles. The murder made international headlines and led to new state and federal hate crime legislation.

December 17, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Defense moves to postpone federal marijuana sentencing based new law ordering DOJ not to prevent states from implementing medical marijuana laws

California Attorney Ronald Richards today sent me a copy of a fascinating emergency motion he filed this week that seeks a postponement of his client's scheduled federal marijuana sentencing today. Here are excerpts from the four-page memorandum in support of the motion (which can be downloaded below) which highlights why I find it fascinating:

Rarely in any counsel’s career has he or she had to file an emergency motion.  However, in the world of marijuana laws, the landscape keeps changing; this time, on a historic level. On Saturday night, the United States Senate voted to approve H.R. 83.  This is a 1696 page spending bill.  In the bill, section 538 forbids the use of money by the Department of Justice for interfering with State laws that allow cultivation of marijuana....

In this case, if the Department of Justice is mandated to not spend any money on interfering with lawful marijuana cultivations implementing state law, the raids, the seizures, and the federal prosecution will come to a halt in California.  In addition, if the scheduling is attacked by the litigation in the Eastern District and changed, there are just too many signals that the 77 years of marijuana prohibition may be coming to an end.  At least, there is not a direct policy mandate from Congress.  It is no different than a highway withholding funding to keep speeds under 80 MPH or at 55 MPH during the energy crisis....

If this bill is signed by the President, which all indications are that he will sign it or the government will shut down, it will become law and policy.  The Department of Justice could not in either the spirit or the letter of the law allocate any further staff, investigation, or budget to continue to prosecute this case.  Furthermore, all future prosecutions of legal California cultivators would cease to exist....

Based upon the historic passage by the House and the Senate of H.R. 83, the defendant requests a 90 day adjournment of his sentence.  If the bill becomes law, he will move to withdraw his plea or file a stipulation to that effect with the government.  It would be unfair for him to be burdened with a felony conviction and incarceration when in just two weeks, all the current cultivators in this State would enjoy the new found relief provided by the Congressional mandate.

Download Motion to postpone federal MJ sentencing in California

December 16, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Notable NPR coverage of the "Human Casualties Of Mandatory Sentencing"

Download (3)I am pleased and intrigued to see that National Public Radio seems to be starting a deep dive into some of the personal stories surrounding the debate over federal mandatory minimum.  This introduction, headlined "From Judges To Inmates, Finding The Human Casualties Of Mandatory Sentencing," sets up the discussion this way:

This year, everyone from Attorney General Eric Holder to Tea Party Republicans in Congress has argued those stiff mandatory minimum prison sentences do more harm than good for thousands of drug offenders. Legislation to cut the tough-on-crime penalties has stalled on Capitol Hill, but it's likely to be reintroduced in 2015. Meanwhile, the White House and the Justice Department have taken the unprecedented step of asking for candidates who might win early release from prison through presidential pardons or commutations in the final years of the Obama presidency. That effort, known as Clemency Project 2014, is moving slowly.

Amid the backdrop of debate inside Washington and across the country, NPR decided to focus on the human toll of these mandatory prison sentences. We talked with judges who expressed tearful misgivings about sending people away for the rest of their lives for crimes that involved no violence and a modest amount of drugs. We found a newly-released inmate trying to reacquaint herself with her community in the Florida panhandle and rebuild ties with her grieving children after 17 years away from home. And we went inside a medium-security prison in New Jersey to find a lifer who says he deserves another chance. These people acknowledge they broke the law and accept the need for punishment. But they say their decades-long incarcerations cast a shadow that lingers over their families, damage that far outweighs the wrongs they did to put them in prison.

The series' first lengthy piece here is titled "Judge Regrets Harsh Human Toll Of Mandatory Minimum Sentences," has lots of good content and quotes from Judge John Gleeson and Professors Rachel Barkow and Bill Otis.

December 16, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, December 15, 2014

Police prevail 8-1 in first notable criminal justice merits ruling of SCOTUS term

The Supreme Court completed its last bit of formal action for the year this morning with an orders list and a few opinions.  One opinion is a bit of a holiday gift for criminal justice fans: a relatively short ruling in Heien v. North Carolina, No. 13–604 (S. Ct. Dec. 15, 2014) (available here), concerning Fourth Amendment application.  Here is the alignment of the Justices and the start of the majority opinion:

ROBERTS, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which SCALIA, KENNEDY, THOMAS, GINSBURG, BREYER, ALITO, and KAGAN, JJ., joined. KAGAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which GINSBURG, J., joined. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

The Fourth Amendment prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures.”  Under this standard, a search or seizure may be permissible even though the justification for the action includes a reasonable factual mistake.  An officer might, for example, stop a motorist for traveling alone in a high-occupancy vehicle lane, only to discover upon approaching the car that two children are slumped over asleep in the back seat.  The driver has not violated the law, but neither has the officer violated the Fourth Amendment.

But what if the police officer’s reasonable mistake is not one of fact but of law?  In this case, an officer stopped a vehicle because one of its two brake lights was out, but a court later determined that a single working brake light was all the law required.  The question presented is whether such a mistake of law can nonetheless give rise to the reasonable suspicion necessary to uphold the seizure under the Fourth Amendment.  We hold that it can.  Because the officer’s mistake about the brake-light law was reasonable, the stop in this case was lawful under the Fourth Amendment.

Obviously, Heien is not a sentencing case or even an issue that I could see readily having some sentencing echoes.  But the alignment of the Justices on this matter might lead some to identify additional tea leaves to read about the various criminal justice perspectives embraced by various members of the Roberts Court.

December 15, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Detailing the dysfunction of Pennsylvania's death penalty system

Download (2)This lengthy local article, headlined "Capital punishment in Pennsylvania: When death means life: Commonwealth's death penalty system called expensive and dysfunctional," provide a review of how the Keystone State has a capital punishment system that seems to function as if it were operated by the Keystone Cops. Here are excerpts from the article, which is the first is an extended series:

Pennsylvania's death penalty has cost taxpayers more than $350 million for a dysfunctional system that has sentenced hundreds but hasn't executed anyone in 15 years, a Reading Eagle analysis has found.  The newspaper analysis comes three years after state lawmakers called for an intensive report on Pennsylvania's death penalty, and as a Montgomery County lawmaker maps out a proposal to abolish the system.

The long-overdue report is at least several months away from being issued. There still has been no reckoning of the system's massive financial or psychological cost — including the immeasurable agony of justice-seeking family members and the pain of families waiting for condemned relatives to be executed. "My sister didn't have a choice about when her life ended. Why should he?" said Diane Moyer of Robesonia, referring to convicted killer Glenn Lyons of Reading.

Lyons is one of 185 condemned inmates, making Pennsylvania's death row the fifth largest in the nation.  He's also one of 12 death row inmates prosecuted for murders committed in Berks County, which along with York County has the second-highest number of death row inmates in the state behind Philadelphia's 69.  It was 1937 when Pennsylvania last executed someone for a murder that took place in Berks.

Observers of the state's system both locally and nationally agreed it is deeply flawed. It is likely to get even more scrutiny as prosecutors move ahead with a death penalty case against Eric Frein, accused of ambushing and murdering a state trooper this year....

The newspaper's cost estimate is likely a conservative number.  That's because the estimate, which relies on a 2008 Maryland study by the Urban Institute, was calculated using the Pennsylvania inmates now on death row.  The estimate does not account for unsuccessful death penalty cases tried by prosecutors, nor does it include death row inmates whose sentences were overturned on appeal.

The 2008 study — which produced findings similar to other state studies — found that Maryland spent an average of $1.9 million more on cases that led to death sentences than on cases where the death penalty could have been sought but was not.  At least two experts, including the researcher of the Maryland report, said the study was a fair comparison for estimating the cost to Pennsylvania taxpayers.  Applying the Maryland per-case figure to Pennsylvania's current 185 death row inmates yields a Pennsylvania cost of $351.5 million....

The state has executed three men, all of whom gave up their appeals, since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.  But with so few executions among the 429 death warrants Pennsylvania governors have signed since 1985, experts say it's critical lawmakers know the cost to justify budget expenses with a projected $1.85 billion state shortfall in the upcoming fiscal year.  So far, the death penalty hasn't been part of the budget debate.

For the loved ones of the victims, like Moyer, the financial cost of the death penalty is outweighed by the emotional toll of likely never having the killer's execution carried out. Lyons used two kitchen knives to stab Leibig, 45, of Millcreek Township, Lebanon County, again and again, investigators said.  The brutal attack lasted up to 15 minutes.  Lyons, now 49, was convicted and sentenced to death by a Berks jury, but claims he didn't kill Leibig.

The state Supreme Court denied his appeal in 2013, and his execution was set for August, but a federal judge granted him a stay in July, and his appeal process continues.  Leibig's family is frustrated and disappointed, knowing the state may never follow through with his execution.  "He'll keep fighting and playing the system," Moyer said.  "He had a fair trial, and he was guilty.  Put him to death. Give him the injection."...

A death penalty that doesn't actually execute people frustrates those on both sides of the debate.  Death penalty proponents blame an endless and costly appeals process.  Opponents criticize a system with too little funding for poor defendants....

At least one Berks judge who once supported the death penalty has had a change of heart. The judge, who asked not to be identified, had thought execution was a just punishment for the state's worst offenders and a deterrent to others.  But after seeing how cases continuously circle the courts, the judge now thinks the death penalty is a waste of time and money and is unnecessarily difficult on the victim's loved ones holding out hope for an execution.

"It's horrible for the families," the judge said.  Death penalty rulings aren't foolproof and should be scrutinized, but there should also be a limit on appeals, the judge said. "Now there is hearing after hearing.  It never ends," the judge said....

"There is a problem with a law that is never carried out," he said. State Rep. Thomas R. Caltagirone, a Reading Democrat, said he's heard from victims' families how hard it is to sit and wait for the death penalty to be carried out.  "They say: 'We lost a loved one. Why is he still living? Where is the justice?'" Caltagirone said.  "And victim's rights groups are livid about the endless appeals."  But Caltagirone also said he wonders whether it's appropriate for the state to execute someone.  "I'm kind of torn on it," he said.

More than a dozen states have analyzed death penalty costs.  Some states found the costs nearly 50 percent to 70 percent higher than non-death penalty cases.  While the costs vary across the U.S., all found capital trials more expensive.  The reason?  Mostly because the process is more complicated at every point in the case.  A death penalty case involves more attorneys, witnesses and experts.  Jury selection is long, as are the trials.  Also the cases usually have more pre-trial motions and require a separate trial for sentencing.

Incarcerating death row inmates in solitary confinement is also expensive — about $10,000 more a year than inmates serving a life sentence, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.  And, the majority of death penalty trials on appeal are found to be flawed, some significantly, and must be redone, adding to the price tag.

The state has been studying a laundry list of issues since 2011 when lawmakers directed the Joint State Government Commission to research capital punishment.  Berks officials did not know what the costs of trying capital cases are to taxpayers. "Definitely, the death penalty extremely strains our resources," Adams said.  "There's no way that we can put a financial number to that."...

"You can't choose to do it and not pay for," said Marc Bookman, a former public defender and director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation in Philadelphia, a nonprofit resource center.  "It's really expensive to do it properly and it's even more expensive to do it incorrectly," he said.

Last year, Maryland became the 18th state to abolish capital punishment.  Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley cited the cost — roughly three times as much as life without parole — as one of the factors for repealing the death penalty.  John Ramon, author of "The Cost of the Death Penalty in Maryland," said the costs to Pennsylvania taxpayers are likely comparable, assuming trial and incarceration expenses are similar. "It's not as big as an assumption as it sounds," Ramon said....

Knowing the cost, Ramon and others said, changes the conversation on a very polarizing issue. "I think it changes the nature of the debate because what it's saying is let's not just ask if the death penalty is better than not having the death penalty," Ramon said. "It's saying, given the death penalty is far more expensive, is it still worth having?"

December 14, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Friday, December 12, 2014

Supreme Court grants cert to (finally!?!) resolve whether Miller applies retroactively

The Supreme Court, as revealed by this order list, finally appears set to resolve an issue that it has been avoiding for a few years as lower courts have split over implementing its Eighth Amendment work in Miller v. Alabama.  Here is the basic news as set out in the order list:

TOCA, GEORGE V. LOUISIANA

The motion of petitioner for leave to proceed in forma pauperis is granted. The petition for a writ of certiorari is granted limited to the following questions: 1) Does the rule announced in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U. S. ____ (2012), apply retroactively to this case? 2) Is a federal question raised by a claim that a state collateral review court erroneously failed to find a Teague exception?

December 12, 2014 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Federal task force on corrections getting geared up for (big?) work in 2015

Logo5As effectively reported in this Crime Report piece, earlier this week the members of a "congressionally mandated task force on the federal prison system" were announced.  Here is the context for this notable development:

[The task force is now] headed by a bipartisan duo of former House members, Republican J. C. Watts of Oklahoma and Democrat Alan Mollohan of West Virginia.  They are being be joined by seven other experts in a yearlong study that many analysts hope will result in agreement on ways to cut the prison population.

There were 212,438 federal inmates last week, a total that has jumped from about 136,000 since the turn of the century -- even though crime rates have steadily fallen. (The federal inmate total exceeded 218,000 two years ago; it has shrunk as the Obama administration has reduced the terms of some prisoners serving time for low-level drug offenses.)...

Last month, Justice's Inspector General, Michael Horowitz, said that the Bureau of Prisons budget totals $6.9 billion and accounts for about 25 percent of the department’s "discretionary" budget, which means that prison spending hampers the DOJ's "ability to make other public safety investments."

The new task force is named for the late Chuck Colson, the former aide to President Richard Nixon who served a 7-month prison term in 1974 for obstruction of justice in the Watergate scandal and then became a corrections reformer, founding the Prison Fellowship. Colson died in 2012.  Retiring Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the committee that reviews Justice Department appropriations, successfully pushed for the task force in recent years while Congress was unable to agree on any major legal changes that would affect the federal inmate total.

Watts, who will chair the panel, served in the House from 1995 to 2003. When he was elected, he was one of only two African-American Republicans in the House.  He is a member of the conservative justice-reform group Right on Crime.  Last summer, in an article in the Tulsa World on prison reform in Oklahoma, Watts wrote that, "for nonviolent offenders, watching television and receiving 'three hots and a cot' in prison does far less to advance personal responsibility than paying restitution to the victim, performing community service, holding a job and paying child support."

Mollohan, who serve as vice chair, was Wolf's predecessor as the House's chief Justice Department appropriator when the Democrats controlled the House.  Mollohan has presided over many hearings on corrections issues.  In 2012, he co-authored an op-ed article with David Keene, former chairman of the American Conservative Union, declaring that, "Instead of throwing good money after bad, Congress should follow the example of ... states and take steps to curb federal prison population growth."...

The task force will hold the first of five meetings on January 27 in Washington, D.C. Its official mandate is to "identify the drivers of federal prison population growth and increasing corrections costs; evaluate policy options to address the drivers and identify recommendations; and prepare and submit a final report in December 2015 with findings, conclusions, policy recommendations, and legislative changes for consideration by Congress, the Attorney General, and the President."

The Urban Institute and the Center for Effective Public Policy will provide "research, analysis, strategic guidance and logistical support" for the task force under an agreement with the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance.   A year ago, the Urban Institute published a study titled "Stemming the Tide: Strategies to Reduce the Growth and Cut the Cost of the Federal Prison System," that might be something of a blueprint for the Colson group....

Several members of Congress, notably Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), have introduced proposals that could lead to reductions in the federal prison population, but it is not clear that any will be enacted while the Colson task force is conducting its study.

In any case, the task force's final report is likely to include recommendations that will go beyond any bills that might be approved in the next year.  The group's eventual proposals may include some that require Congressional approval and others that the Obama administration could put into effect by executive order.

This new Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections rolled out this website, which I am hopeful over time might become a source of new research and data about the federal criminal justice system.  And though I tend to be somewhat cynical and pessimistic about what task forces can really achieve, I am hopeful and optimistic that this group will be an effective and important contributor to on-going federal sentencing reform efforts.

December 12, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Texas top court rules juveniles getting transferred to adult court too readily

As reported in this Texas Tribune article, headlined "CCA Offers Guidance to Courts Trying Teens as Adults," the top criminal court in Texas issued a significant ruling earlier this week about bringing juvenile offenders into the adult system. Here are the details:

A Houston teen sentenced to 30 years in prison should not have been tried as an adult, the state's highest criminal court ruled Wednesday in a decision calling for greater judicial scrutiny before young defendants are transferred into the adult court system.

"The transfer of a juvenile offender from juvenile court to criminal court for prosecution as an adult should be regarded as the exception, not the rule," Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Tom Price wrote in the majority opinion, agreeing with an earlier ruling by the 1st Court of Appeals in Houston....

Trial judges can transfer a juvenile's case to adult court after considering criteria including whether the crime was against a person or property, the juvenile defendant's maturity level and previous criminal record. The court's ruling zeroes in on how prosecutors prove a juvenile has sufficient maturity to be tried as an adult. In Moon's case, prosecutors called one witness, the arresting officer.

In Wednesday's opinion, Price, citing a 1995 change in the law, said that a juvenile court should "take pains to 'show its work' in coming to that certification decision.

"This legislative purpose is not well served by a transfer order lacking in specifics that the appellate court is forced to speculate as to the juvenile court’s reasons for finding transfer to be appropriate or the facts the juvenile court found to substantiate those reasons," Price wrote.

The Houston Chronicle has reported that when Moon was certified, Harris County judges were granting prosecutors' requests for certifications about 95 percent of the time.

The Court of Criminal Appeals' decision sends Moon's case back to Harris County, where a spokesman for the prosecutor's office said they were "disappointed" about the court's ruling. "But we're going to revisit the case, and there's a possibility we will try to recertify him," said Jeff McShan, spokesman for the Harris County district attorney's office.

"It's a nice Christmas present," said Jack Carnegie, Moon's attorney, adding that the ruling gives trial courts better guidance on what they need to do certify juvenile defendants. "This is a roadmap for how you have to do it now."

The full 40-page Texas ruling in this case is available at this link.

December 12, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Senator Grassley introduces juvenile justice bill showing eagerness to do bipartisan reforms

This article from The Hill, headlined "Next Judiciary chairman eyes treatment of minors," provides an encouraging sign that the incoming new leadership in the Senate may be eager to work on at least some bipartisan federal criminal justice reforms. Here are the details:

Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) introduced a bill Thursday that would update national standards covering how the justice system treats minors.

With Grassley preparing to take over as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the next Congress, the move is an early signal of the committee’s potential criminal justice agenda. Grassley has been particularly supportive of new accountability measures that will be included in the bill to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA).

“The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention program helps in preventing at-risk youth from entering the system and helps those in the system become valuable members of communities across the country,” Grassley said in a statement. “This bipartisan bill will be a good starting point for reauthorizing this important program as we begin a new Congress.”

One advocate said Thursday that Grassley’s sponsorship will be a boon for the bill, but that the measure still has a long journey to becoming law. “I think as head of Judiciary, with his name on it, that is going to be a huge help,” said Marcy Mistrett, the CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice.

The bill, which will not see any movement before the end of the current Congress, aims to beef up juvenile justice standards that haven’t been updated in more than a decade. The juvenile system is estimated to detain 60,000 minors on any given night.

“This legislation will strengthen the main protections of the JJDPA, and improve the conditions and practices that can determine whether offenders leave our justice system as productive members of society,” Whitehouse said in a statement.

One update would make it harder for states to lock up children who have committed “status offenses” that would not be an offense if they were an adult, like running away from home or skipping school. Another update would require that states do more to make sure they are not confining minors near adults. It would also give states new direction on how to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system....

The bill comes at a moment when there is bipartisan support for certain reforms to the criminal justice system. Grassley has had a historical interest in juvenile justice. But it is not known if he will have the committee tackle some of the thorny problems in the adult criminal justice system, which encompasses everything from policing to prison conditions.

The United States imprisons more people than any other nation in the world, something a smattering of lawmakers have been moving to change. Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Dick Durbin (D-Il.) have introduced a bill that would make small changes to the federal mandatory minimum sentences that have led to black Americans being imprisoned at disproportionate rates. It’s received support from big names both sides of the aisle, including Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). But Grassley opposes the measure and will decide whether it comes up for a vote on the Judiciary Committee, where it would likely pass.

December 12, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Notable new reporting on "tough-on-sex-offenders" rhetoric in recent judicial campaigns

The Marshall Project has this interesting new review of the most recent election cycle headlined "Trial By Cash: Judicial elections have gotten ugly. That’s bad news for defendants." Here is how it gets started:

In this year’s battle for the governorship of Arkansas, criminal justice reform was front and center. The Republican victor, Asa Hutchinson, a former federal prosecutor and DEA administrator, promised to combat prison overcrowding and called out “over-aggressive prosecutors who do not use common sense.”  His Democratic challenger, Mike Ross, advocated lighter sentences for nonviolent offenders and more emphasis on rehabilitation. Neither candidate deployed the fear-mongering attack advertisements that have been a campaign-season staple for decades.

The race for an open seat on the Arkansas Supreme Court seat was another matter.  One outside group's campaign ad praised Judge Robin Wynne of the state court of appeals for “refusing to allow technicalities to overturn convictions.”  Another attacked his primary opponent, defense attorney Tim Cullen, by claiming he had called child pornography “a victimless crime.”  Over eerie black-and-white footage of an empty playground, a woman’s voice responded to the statement (a distortion of Cullen's defense brief for a single case), intoning: “Tell that to the thousands of victims robbed of their childhood.” Wynne won.

If there is a growing bipartisan consensus that America locks up too many people for too long, there is little indication that anyone spending money on judicial elections shares the concern.  The real scourge of American justice, these campaigns seem to suggest, is the rampant coddling of child molesters by judges up for re-election.  “WHY SO LENIENT?” one ad demanded, attacking an incumbent state justice in Illinois.  A similar commercial in North Carolina cut from an image of children pedaling tricycles to one of inmates pacing in their cells, and declared that a justice up for re-election “took the side of convicted molesters.”

Judicial races once were largely polite, low-budget affairs.  But in the 1990s, business and political groups began to focus on these elections as an important (and often cost-effective) path to influencing policy and regulation.  Since then, judicial campaigns have come to look more like any other political circus: rallies, political consultants, attack ads, and a flood of campaign cash.  As of Nov. 5, election watchers at the Brennan Center, a liberal think tank that tracks legal issues, estimated that at least $13.8 million had been spent on TV advertising for state supreme court elections nationwide in 2014 — up from $12.2 million in the last midterm election in 2010.  

The funders of these campaigns aren’t generally motivated by a desire to lock up criminals.  In fact, some of this year’s big donors to organizations running tough-on-crime campaigns — including the conservative philanthropists Charles and David Koch — have simultaneously backed so-called “smart-on-crime” reform efforts aimed at shortening mandatory sentences and reducing prison populations.  But fear works, election strategists believe.  Why run on what really matters to your funders — like tort reform or deregulation — when you can run against paroling pedophiles?

December 11, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Scheduled Georgia execution raising again issues of poor lawyers and intellectual disability

This New York Times article reports on the legal issues surrounding the fate of a condmned murderer scheduled to be executed tonight in Georgia.  Here are the basics:

A parole panel in Georgia refused on Monday to grant clemency to a man who is scheduled to die by lethal injection on Tuesday evening, apparently unpersuaded by evidence that he was ineptly represented at trial by a drunken lawyer, had an exceptionally harsh childhood and has a severe intellectual deficit.

But in what could be a legal decision with wider effects, lawyers for the man, Robert Wayne Holsey, were still waiting for the Georgia Supreme Court to respond to a last-­minute appeal. They argued that the state’s standard for determining intellectual disability in capital cases — the country’s most stringent — runs afoul of a recent decision by the United States Supreme Court.

Mr. Holsey was convicted of armed robbery and murder in 1997 and sentenced to death. He had robbed a convenience store and shot and killed a pursuing officer.  His trial lawyer later admitted that at the time he was drinking up to a quart of vodka daily and facing theft charges that would land him in prison. He said he should not have been representing a client.

On appeal, a Superior Court judge ruled that during the penalty phase of Mr. Holsey’s trial, his lawyer had failed to effectively present evidence that might have forestalled a death penalty, including facts about Mr. Holsey’s history and his intellectual deficit. That judge called for a new sentencing trial.  But the Georgia Supreme Court reversed the decision, ruling that the jury had heard enough evidence about mitigating factors during the initial trial....

That Mr. Holsey had received ineffective counsel seemed clear, said John H. Blume, a professor and director of the death penalty project at the Cornell Law School. “But the quality of representation in capital cases is often so low,” he said, “that it’s difficult to shock the courts.”

He and other legal experts said a more promising tack — if not for Mr. Holsey, then for defendants in the future — is the challenge to Georgia’s standard of proof for intellectual disability.  The state requires defendants to prove that they are intellectually disabled “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  For those near the borderline, often described as an I.Q. around 70, that standard is nearly impossible to meet.  Many legal experts think it violates a Supreme Court ruling last May that said states cannot create “an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed.”

In other states, either a “preponderance of evidence” or “clear and convincing evidence” is necessary to establish disability, said Eric M. Freedman, a law professor and death penalty expert at Hofstra University. Both are less stringent standards than the one used in Georgia.

In a landmark decision in 2002, the United States Supreme Court barred the execution of mentally disabled people, but largely left it to the states to set the criteria. In its decision in May, the court added new conditions, ruling in Hall v. Florida that the state could not rely on a simple I.Q. cutoff but rather must take a broad look at a person’s ability to function.

Mr. Holsey’s I.Q. has been measured at around 70.... The state, he said, had argued that because he could drive a car and had a girlfriend, Mr. Holsey could not be disabled....

Constitutional scholars say it is most likely that at some point either the Georgia Supreme Court or the federal Supreme Court will strike down the standard as an unreasonable outlier. “You’ve got a national constitutional rule that people with intellectual disability shouldn’t be executed, but it’s being applied differently in different states,” Mr. Blume of Cornell said

December 9, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, December 08, 2014

Seventh Circuit affirms, over government complaints, way-below-guideline sentence for child porn producer

Regular readers are familiar with my tendency to lament the failure of circuit courts to scrutinize rigorously post-Booker claims by defendants that within or above-guideline sentences are unreasonably high.  But a recent opinion from a Seventh Circuit panel in US v. Price, No. 12-1630 (7th Cir. Dec. 5, 2014) (available here), prompts me to note that there can be occassions when circuit courts seem a bit too willing to approve way-below-guideline sentences that the government asserts are unreasonably low.  Here are the basics of the defendant's crime and sentencing in Price:

Jeffrey Price took numerous sexually explicit photographs of his daughter R.P. when she was between the ages of 10 and 12.  He put some of them on the Internet, and they have been implicated in at least 160 child-pornography investigations across the country.  Price also kept a large stash of child pornography depicting other children, which he stored on two computers.

For this conduct Price was indicted on charges of producing child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2251(a) and possessing child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(5)(B).  A jury convicted him as charged.

Price is more dangerous than the average child-pornography offender because he also has a history of sexually abusing children.  He molested R.P. on multiple occasions, and he sexually abused his sister on a regular basis when she was between the ages of 8 and 14. Despite this history, the district judge imposed a sentence well below the 40-year term recommended by the sentencing guidelines: 18 years on the production count and a concurrent 6-year term on the possession count.

Here is the heart of the Seventh Circuit panel's rejection of the government's appeal of this sentence (with my emphasis added):

The government argues in its cross-appeal that Price’s 18-year sentence — less than half the 40-year guidelines sentence — is substantively unreasonable....

The district judge did exactly what she was supposed to do under the advisory guidelines regime. She correctly calculated the guidelines sentence and exhaustively considered the § 3553(a) factors, giving particular emphasis to the aggravated facts of this case. But she also exercised her discretion to consider the scholarly and judicial criticism of the guidelines for child-pornography offenses, as she is permitted to do. She expressed substantial agreement with the Second Circuit’s opinion in United States v. Dorvee, 616 F.3d 174 (2d Cir. 2010), which explained that the guidelines in this area are not the product of the Sentencing Commission’s empirical expertise, but rather reflect directions from Congress to punish these crimes more harshly, id. at 182.  Dorvee also notes that § 2G2.2, the guideline for possession of child pornography, calls for the application of multiple enhancements that apply in almost every case, making inadequate distinctions between the worst offenders and those who are less dangerous. Id. at 186–87.

The judge acknowledged that most of the criticism of the child-pornography guidelines is aimed at § 2G2.2, the guideline for the possession offense. But she concluded that § 2G2.1, the guideline for production of child pornography, “presents some of the same problems.” Both guidelines, she said, are vulnerable to the critique that they are not the product of the Sentencing Commission’s empirical study and independent policy judgment. She also noted that both guidelines call for enhancements that apply in nearly every case, exerting virtually automatic upward pressure on sentences and failing to separate less dangerous offenders from those who are more dangerous....

The government objects that Price’s 18-year sentence is only three years above the 15-year statutory minimum. See § 2251(e). Canvassing the aggravated facts of the case and Price’s history of sexually abusing children, the government argues that the sentence strays too far from the 40-year guidelines sentence and is simply too low to be considered substantively reasonable. “At the very least,” the government maintains, the sentences for the production and possession counts should be consecutive, as the guidelines recommend. See § 5G1.2(d).

Price’s crimes are indeed deplorable, and a sentence of 18 years obviously represents a substantial variance from the recommended 40-year term. But there is room for policy-based disagreement with the guidelines even to this extent. The government has not established that the sentence exceeds the boundaries of reasoned discretion. More specifically, the government has not established that an 18-year sentence for Price’s crimes — even in light of his contemptible history and unrepentant nature — is so low as to be substantively unreasonable.

I have been one of a number of academic critics of the severity of the federal child pornography sentencing guidelines, but that criticism has been largely based on the fact that these guidelines often call for decade-long sentences even for those offenders who did no more than download illegal pictures and thereafter showed remorse, pleaded guilty and sought treatment for their criminal activity. In contrast, the defendant in this Seventh Circuit case seemingly has a long history of child rape to go along with producing and possessing child pornography, and the Seventh Circuit recognizes he has both he has an "contemptible history and unrepentant nature."

Though perhaps 18-year in prison is still plenty long enough for this sexual predator (as the district judge apparently concluded), I would have liked to heard a lot more from the Seventh Circuit about how this way-below-guideline sentence appears reasonable in light of all of the 3553(a) factors. Especially for a defendant who has already shown himself to be a significant danger, "close enough for government work" is not all that satisfying an approach to reasonableness review in my view.

December 8, 2014 in Booker in the Circuits, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Bill Otis provides important (though incomplete) review of the real state of debate over sentencing reform

Today's must-read for all sentencing fans is this lengthy new post by Bill Otis, amusingly titled "Should I Feel Lonely?".  The piece is a fun read in part because Bill is an effective writer and advocate, but it is a must read because it highlights that (1) while many in the media now struggle to find pundits other than Bill to speak actively and vocally in support of severe sentencing laws and mass incarceration, (2) efforts in Congress to significantly reform federal sentencing laws and "on the ground" developments to reduce incarceration levels are still failing to gain much traction.

I cannot do the Bill's full post justice in a brief excerpt, but here is a taste of what one can find by clicking through here:

Not to worry -- this post is not psychobabble about my feelings.  It's about a question I was asked by two journalists with whom I spoke recently.

The two were Ms. Carrie Johnson of NPR and Mr. Mark Obbie, a writer for Slate. The subject of their interviews was sentencing reform.  Both Ms. Johnson and Mr. Obbie were cordial, well-informed, thoroughly pleasant, and -- most important for journalists -- curious.

Each asked me the same question: Whether, as an opponent of sentencing reform, I feel lonely? I told them I don't.

Their question was perfectly natural. Almost everything one sees nowadays about the subject of sentencing sings the same tune -- tough sentencing might have been needed at one point, but we've gone too far; momentum has swung toward "smart sentencing;" reducing the prison population (to cut back on costs if for no other reason) is the wave of both the present and the future; and that the newly-ascendant Republican Party will lead the way through such figures as Sens. Mike Lee and Rand Paul.

But the mantra leaves something out. That would be the part of the country outside the Beltway (and outside Boston, Berkeley, New York, Seattle and a few other cities). In other words, what it leaves out is the United States.

The omission of Main Street America from the assessment about where the country is going would seem odd to most people, but for those of us, like me, who live inside the Beltway and work in academia, it's no surprise.  The liberal bubble is big. It's also, for the most part, impenetrable.

And it's one more thing -- wrong.

If one wants to know the state of play with "smart sentencing," and the Smarter Sentencing Act in particular, there might be a couple of places to look outside the editorial pages of the Washington Post and Mother Jones.  One might look, for example, to what actually happened in the last Congress, what's likely to happen in the next one, and what imprisonment trends have been over the last several years....

[T]there are some prominent people in the Republican Party on board with "sentencing reform."  But the great majority of Republicans, and the center of the Party, are not being fooled.  The much lower crime that increased incarceration helped produce are both wise policy for the country and good politics for Republicans....

So to return to my first question: 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."  Both the most recent statistics, and the most recent election, show that the American people know better than to cash in a system we know works for one we know fails.

There is much to discuss in Bill's important assessment of the current state of sentencing reform. But I have emphasized the very last phrase because I think it lacks demographic nuance based on the mostly older (and not-too-diverse) "bubble" that I suspect Bill mostly travels in.

Bill surely seems correct that an older (and mostly white) population of voters and political leaders are reasonably content with the sentencing/incarceration status quo, and that these voters and leaders still have considerable control over the policies and practices of the Republican party (as well as, for that matter, the Democratic party).  Bill stresses in his post, for example, that we do not hear much talk of sentencing reform coming from "Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Chuck Grassley (the incoming Chairman of SJC), or Bob Goodlatte (the once-and-future Chairman of HJC) [or] Michael Mukasey."  Notably, everyone on that list is well over 60 years old, and they have all succeeded politically with "tough on crime" rhetoric and policies.

But as a new generation of GOP leaders emerge who are much younger (even though they are still mostly white), we are seeing growing concern for and focus on sentencing reform.  Leading GOP Governors from Chris Christie to Rick Perry, and leading GOP Senators from Rand Paul to Mike Lee, and leading GOP Reps from Paul Ryan to Jason Chaffetz, all have talked up sentencing reform in recent years.  And while Bill's list of older GOP leaders will control GOP policies and politics for the next few years, the younger leaders already on record supporting sentencing reform are likely to control GOP policies and politics for the subsequent few decades.

Turning from political leaders to voters, we see the same basic dynamics in play in recent election seasons.  According to polls and other sources, older and whiter voters seem much more wary about any significant changes to sentencing laws or drug laws.  But younger voters and people of color are much more open and eager to support significant sentencing and drug law reform as represented by the passage of Prop 47 and prior three-strikes reform in California and by initiatives for marijuana legalization in an array of states.

(Notably, these generational and demographic realities concerning sentencing reform are not only a  GOP story.  Older and whiter Democrats — from the Clintons to Joe Biden to Harry Reid to Nancy Pelosi to even Jerry Brown — have largely been stuck in political thinking of the 1990s and slow to warm to advocating for significant sentencing reform.  But if and when younger and more diverse voices continue to emerge on the Democratic side of the aisle, we should expect even more liberal advocacy for the kinds of criminal justice reforms championed by the Obama Administration rather than a return to the toughness championed throughout the Clinton Administration.)

Finally, and to give Bill still more credit for his analysis, despite generational and demographic shifts and divides on these matters, I agree that the future of significant sentencing reform is quite uncertain and will turn greatly on short-term and long-term assessments of "what really works."   Americans are a pragmatic people who will always move away from criminial justice policies shown or felt not to be really working.  That is why, I believe, alcohol Prohibition failed even though it had constitutional gravitas and also why we moved away from a purely rehabilitation model of sentencing and corrections through the 1970s and 1980s.  

Now we are seeing a push back on the modern drug war and mass incarceration mostly from younger folks and people of color have come to conclude that these policies are not working for their interests abd communties.  But there are still a whole lot of folks in power (particularly those who are older and whiter like Bill) who still see more a lot more good than bad from the sentencing and mass incarceration status quo.  Whether and how these competing groups views as to  "what really works" unfold and compete in the coming years will determine whether sentencing and incarceration policies in the US circa 2050 look more like they did in 2000 or in 1950. 

December 8, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Notable new resources from DOJ and DOE to improve education in juve justice systems

I am pleased and intrigued to see this new DOJ press release titled "Attorney General Holder, Secretary Duncan, Announce Guidance Package on Providing Quality Education Services to America's Confined Youth." Here are notable excerpts from the press release which, inter alia, links to a whole array of additional related resources:

Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan today announced a Correctional Education Guidance Package aimed at helping states and local agencies strengthen the quality of education services provided to America’s estimated 60,000 young people in confinement every day....

“In this great country, all children deserve equal access to a high-quality public education — and this is no less true for children in the juvenile justice system,” said Attorney General Holder.   “At the Department of Justice, we are working tirelessly to ensure that every young person who's involved in the system retains access to the quality education they need to rebuild their lives and reclaim their futures.   We hope and expect this guidance will offer a roadmap for enhancing these young people's academic and social skills, and reducing the likelihood of recidivism.”

“Students in juvenile justice facilities need a world-class education and rigorous coursework to help them successfully transition out of facilities and back into the classroom or the workforce becoming productive members of society,” said Secretary Duncan.   “Young people should not fall off track for life just because they come into contact with the justice system.”...

“High-quality correctional education is thus one of the most effective crime-prevention tools we have,” Attorney General Holder and Secretary Duncan wrote in a dear colleague letter to chief state school officers and state attorneys general.  “High-quality Correctional education – including postsecondary correctional education, which can be supported by Federal Pell Grants — has been shown to measurably reduce re-incarceration rates. Less crime means not only lower prison costs — it also means safer communities.”...

Providing young people in confinement with access to the education they need is one of the most powerful and cost-effectives strategies for ensuring they become productive members of their communities.  The average cost to confine a juvenile is $88,000 per year — and a recent study showed that about 55 percent of youth were rearrested within 12 months of release.  Inmates of all ages are half as likely to go back to jail if they participate in higher education — even compared to inmates with similar histories.

December 8, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

"Are prosecutors above the law?"

The title of this post is the title of this lengthy new commentary at Daily Kos.  It starts and ends this way: 

There is something terribly wrong with a justice system that allows an inordinate amount of power to reside in the hands of one office that not only has no real accountability or oversight, but is insulated from the consequences of its actions by court-granted immunity. And no, I am not talking about Supreme Court justices, but about prosecuting attorneys.

The prosecuting attorney — whether local, state, or federal — has an incredible amount of authority and discretion in how to exercise that authority.  The prosecuting attorney decides how many, and what kind of charges are brought in criminal prosecutions. The prosecuting attorney has the ability to directly charge a crime, or to use a grand jury for more serious crimes, to indict a defendant.  The prosecuting attorney has the authority to offer plea bargains.

And while there should be some type of accountability other than election, and while the fiction exists that prosecuting attorneys could be disbarred, in reality, they face little punishment for abusing their discretion or authority....

Prosecutors do need some level of immunity in order to properly perform their duties. And they require prosecutorial discretion in order to keep the wheels of justice turning. We have seen how efforts to restrict judicial discretion resulted in mandatory minimum sentences, removing a judge's discretion in sentencing entirely.  (Now it is the prosecutor who determines the sentence by exercising his discretion in deciding what charges an offender will face.)  But there does need to be some limit, some oversight to a prosecutor's office.

If grand juries only exist to give the result the prosecutor desires, what is the point of using them?  Initially, they were to allow citizens some input into the system, but as that system has become more complicated and more laws have been enacted to criminalize behavior, most citizens do not have the knowledge necessary to fulfill that role.  Since all of their actions are taken in secret, and since they are never allowed to reveal what happened within the jury room, it is impossible to determine if they are working the way they were intended.

The most powerful office in the justice system, whose decisions carry the greatest impact and consequence, is still occupied by human beings, subject to all of the normal human failings.  In order to ensure that the power is used properly, sunshine, oversight, and accountability must become part of the system.

December 8, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack