Thursday, July 02, 2015

Varied perspectives on the varied challenges facing varied victims

I am sometimes inclined to say to my sentencing students that crime victims, especially victims of violent crimes, are often the most important and least understood players in the criminal justice system.  Helpfully, these two new lengthy and very different pieces about different violent crime victims can help enhance our understanding:

From the New York Times here, "Full Toll From Aurora Theater Shooting Goes Untold at Trial"

From Slate here, "He Killed Her Daughter. She Forgave Him. Linda White believes in a form of justice that privileges atonement over punishment. She practices what she preaches."

July 2, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Despite Glossip, hope for judicial abolition of the death penalty endures

This new Slate commentary by Robert J. Smith highlights that, despite the Supreme Court's ruling in Glossip upholding Oklahoma's execution protocol, at least some still believe there could soon be five SCOTUS votes to do away with the death penalty altogether. The lengthy piece is headlined "The End of the Death Penalty?: Recent Supreme Court opinions suggest there are five votes to abolish capital punishment." And here is how it starts and ends:

On the surface, the Supreme Court’s opinion in Glossip v. Gross appears to give death penalty proponents something to celebrate.  After all, the court allowed states to continue to use the sedative midazolam as part of a multidrug formula for lethal injections, despite Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s warning that such executions “may well be the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake.”  But the bitterly divided 5–4 opinion has implications that extend far beyond the narrow question.  This case may become an example of winning a battle while losing the war.

In a dissent, Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg concluded that it is “highly likely” that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments.  While acknowledging that the Supreme Court settled the constitutionality of the death penalty 40 years ago, Breyer wrote that the “circumstances and the evidence of the death penalty’s application have changed radically since then.”

They are not the first sitting justices to call capital punishment’s constitutionality into question.  Justices Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan routinely dissented from decisions upholding a death sentence on the grounds that capital punishment is always a cruel and unusual punishment.  Shortly before his retirement, Justice Harry Blackmun famously wrote that he would “no longer tinker with the machinery of death.”  Justice John Paul Stevens similarly concluded that the death penalty is an excessive punishment.

But Glossip feels different. Breyer’s dissent is more of an invitation than a manifesto. “Rather than try to patch up the death penalty’s legal wounds one at a time,” he wrote, “I would ask for full briefing on a more basic question: whether the death penalty violates the Constitution.” It also feels different because it is no longer unthinkable that there are five votes for ending the death penalty....

[Justice] Kennedy has embraced a view of societal norms that is much more holistic than a simple exercise that counts state legislative decisions.  For instance, in Graham v. Florida, the case in which the Supreme Court barred sentences of life without parole for nonhomicide juvenile offenders, Kennedy looked beyond the law on the books to see how the law was used in practice.  Even though most states allowed the sentence, Kennedy found that sheer infrequency reflected a consensus against its use, as did the fact that sentences were concentrated in a handful of states.  Most recently, in Hall v. Florida, Kennedy counted Oregon, a state that formally retains capital punishment, “on the abolitionist side of the ledger” because it “suspended the death penalty and executed only two individuals in the past 40 years.”

In Glossip, Breyer fine-tuned Kennedy’s approach, looking not only at how infrequently states resort to the punishment but also at how “the number of active death penalty counties is small and getting smaller.” (It might be particular personalities within counties as much as it is particular counties responsible for most death penalty sentences.)...

After Kennedy’s opinion in Obergefell, the flashlight is shining brightly on Kennedy’s death penalty jurisprudence. His road map for considering the evolution of contemporary societal norms, coupled with Breyer’s invitation to challenge the death penalty in its entirety, plausibly heralds the twilight of the death penalty in America.

In a similar vein, Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, has this new MSNBC commentary headlined "The death penalty has an innocence problem — and its days are numbered."

July 1, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Want does Johnson mean for the past, present and future of the career offender guidelines?

As first reported in this post, the the Supreme Court late last week in Johnson v. United States, No. 13-7120 (S. Ct. June 26, 2015) (available here), ruled that a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violated "the Constitution’s prohibition of vague criminal laws."  In this initial post, I quickly explored Johnson's appliction to those previously sentenced under ACCA, and I will have more to say on that topic in the future.  But in this post, I wanted to flag the possibility that Johnson could impact past, present and future sentencing pursuant to the career offender guideline of the US Sentencing Guidelines.  

The possible impact of Johnson on guideline sentencing arises because the key phrase declared unconstitutionally vague in Johnson — the phrase which defines predicate offenses to include any offense that "otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another" — is also used in the definition of a career offender predicate under USSG 4B1.1 and 4B1.2.  And, critically, many more federal defendants get sentenced pursuant to the career offender guidelines than pursuant to ACCA.  Indeed, according to Sentencing Commission data, it appears as many as four times more defendants on average each year (roughly 2,200 as opposed to 550) are subject to the career offender guideline than are subject ot ACCA.  

But, importantly, even though the career offender guideline uses the same phrasing as the ACCA statute as the basis of a big sentencing enhancement, this part of the guideline is not necessarily going to be deemed unconstitutionally vague in all cases because lower courts have suggested traditional vagueness doctrines simply do not apply to guidelines in the same way the apply to statutes.  Morevoer, the arguments against applying vagueness doctrines to the application of the federal sentencing guidelines would seem to be even stronger in a post-Booker world in which the guidelines are only advisory.

Moreover, even if the Johnson ruling and vagueness doctrines apply to the federal sentencing guidelines, defendants sentenced in the past under the career offender guideline may be able to get (or even seek) any sentencing relief comparable to ACCA-sentenced defendants.  As noted in prior posts, ACCA's application is such a big deal because it changes a 10-year statutory max sentencing term into a 15-year statutory minimum.  In contrast, the career offender guideline only changes a calculated guideline range within an otherwise applicable statutory range.  That difference certainly means that the best a career offender defendant can hope to get from Johnson is a chance at resentencing, not an automatically lower sentence.

Beyond the interesting and intricate question about Johnson's impact on past career offender sentences, I also think the present and future of this guideline's application remains uncertain.  Given that vagueness doctrine might not apply to the guideline, perhaps district judges could (and even should) still keep applying as it did in the past the phrasing found problematic in Johnson.  Or perhaps district judges ought to now just adopt the approach to the probelmtic clause that was advocated by Justice Alito in dissent in Johnson (discussed in this post).  Or perhaps the US Sentencing Commission needs to use its emergency amendment authority ASAP to just delete or revise the phrase that Johnson addressed because, if it does not, it is near certain different courts nationwide will take different approaches to how to implement the guideline now in light of Johnson.

In sum: Johnson + career offender guideline = lots and lots of uncertainty and interpretive headaches.

Some prior posts on Johnson and its possible impact:

July 1, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Anti-Death Penalty Activists Are Winning The Fundraising Battle In Nebraska"

The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing new BuzzFeed piece providing a "follow-the-money" update on who is really concerned about reversing or preserving the repeal of the death penalty in Nebraska.  Here are excerpts: 

After the Nebraska legislature successfully abolished the death penalty in the state, an expensive battle has begun to bring it back.  But so far, the side against the death penalty is winning the fundraising battle.  The money is all about the potential for a statewide vote on the death penalty.

In May, the state’s conservative legislature narrowly overruled Republican Gov. Pete Rickett’s veto of the measure that abolished the death penalty. Ricketts vowed there would be a referendum to give voters the option to bring it back.  Nebraskans for the Death Penalty will need to collect 57,000 signatures by August to get the vote on the ballot.  If they can manage to collect 114,000 signatures, the death penalty will remain on the books until voters weigh in.

The group estimates that it would need to spend about $900,000 to do so....  [So far] Nebraskans for the Death Penalty raised $259,744 — and more than 75% of that came from the governor’s family. Ricketts and his father, the founder of TD Ameritrade, have given $200,000 to the group.  Another $10,000 was given to the pro-death penalty organization by an Omaha police union.

Nebraskans for the Death Penalty has spent almost all of the money it has currently raised in starting the signature collecting process.  The group has $26,000 in cash remaining, but has $25,000 in unpaid legal and consulting bills.

On the other side, Nebraskans for Public Safety (an anti-death penalty group) has not yet filed its full campaign finance report as of Tuesday evening.  But the group has disclosed receiving a $400,000 contribution from a progressive organization called Proteus Action League.  The group is a 501c(4), meaning it does not disclose its donors. This isn’t the first time Proteus Action League has spent money against the death penalty — the group spent more than $3.4 million on anti-death penalty efforts in 2012, according to an IRS filing.

The anti-death penalty group Nebraskans for Public Safety, which is affiliated with Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska, has spent some of the money on television ads urging voters to not sign the petition.

Regardless of the outcome, Ricketts believes he will still be able to carry out the executions of the 10 men on death row.  In pursuit of that, his Department of Correctional Services has spent more than $50,000 on execution drugs from a seller based in India.

July 1, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Reviewing the energies and intricacies involved in Clemency Project 2014

Download (1)The July 2015 issue of the ABA Journal has this very lengthy new piece reporting on the work of Clemency Project 2014.  The piece, headlined "Clemency Project 2014 is out to help prisoners doing excessive time due to inflexible sentencing," and here are excerpts:

[L]ast year, the Department of Justice announced an extraordinary project that could provide relief to ... perhaps thousands of [federal prisonsers]. In January 2014, the department announced a plan to shorten thousands of long sentences handed down for nonviolent drug crimes, using President Barack Obama's clemency power.

It's a radical departure from the way modern presidents have used clemency. Rather than correcting injustices here and there, the project seeks to systematically reduce sentences handed down during an era of inflexible sentencing.

Equally extraordinary was the Justice Department's call for help from the private bar. Because an influx of pro se petitions could overwhelm Justice's small Office of the Pardon Attorney, the DOJ asked private attorneys to volunteer their help.

Enter Clemency Project 2014. About 1,500 volunteer attorneys have come forward to help eligible prisoners submit the best possible clemency petitions. This small volunteer army is being led by five groups of criminal justice stakeholders: the American Bar Association's Criminal Justice Section, the American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and a group of federal defenders—the heads of the 84 offices of federal public or community defenders.

"It is unprecedented, it is important — and the chance of a lifetime for a defense attorney to be able to walk someone out the prison doors this way," says Donna Lee Elm, the federal defender for the Middle District of Florida and part of the CP14 management.

Clemency cases move slowly; FAMM says an answer typically takes from two to seven years. But CP14 doesn't have that much time. Because the project relies on Obama's power to grant clemency — and there's no guarantee his successor will embrace the project — all decisions have to be made before January 2017.

That stress was increased last July when one fertile source of volunteers was cut off. A memo from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts forbade federal public defenders from actively representing CP14 clients, though they may still do administrative work. And although there is increasing bipartisan support for sentencing reform, CP14 has drawn criticism from both the right and the left. Among other complaints, critics say the federal government shouldn't allow nongovernmental groups to be so heavily involved in making policy....

CP14 relies on the constitutional power to grant clemency — pardons, sentence commutations and other actions that ease the consequences of a conviction. Though Obama's past statements have suggested he's concerned about unduly harsh drug sentences, he's made little use of his clemency powers. That's the case in general for presidents serving from 1980 onward....

Submissions come after a lengthy review process. Normally, clemency seekers submit their petitions directly to the [Office of the Pardon Attorney] OPA (either pro se or by using one of the few lawyers who specialize in clemency). An OPA lawyer then scrutinizes the petition closely, typically calling the prosecutor's office and judge involved in the original case for an opinion. Once that work is done, the deputy attorney general (currently Sally Quillian Yates) examines it and sends it to the White House with the office's recommendations.

Though petitioners are still free to take that direct route, those going through CP14 get additional review. For those without [any] close relationship to a former attorney, the process started with a survey sent out last year by the Bureau of Prisons, asking whether the prisoner meets the DOJ's clemency criteria. As of early June, CP14 had received more than 30,000 of them. Any volunteer attorney who has completed CP14's training — a six-hour online course — may take up one of those surveys. Volunteers dig through old documents to investigate whether the prisoner really meets the criteria, then create an executive summary. That goes to a screening committee, whose job is to thoroughly double-check whether the case meets the DOJ's criteria.

If the case gets through that round, it goes to a CP14 steering committee, which is responsible for ensuring that each of the project's five partner organizations is comfortable signing off on the case. That's a lot of layers of approval, but Felman says organizers felt each was necessary because they all have different functions. If the case is approved, the volunteer attorney drafts the actual petition. The petition goes to the Office of the Pardon Attorney with a cover letter from CP14, saying the project organizers believe this prisoner meets the criteria. From there, it's out of CP14's hands.

"I'm not saying that that [letter] gives that petition any special weight over there," Felman explained at the midyear meeting. "Our hope is it gives them a little more confidence. But there's no question that they will put it through their regular, routine process."

If the OPA approves a case, it goes to the Office of the White House Counsel. From there, Felman says, CP14 doesn't know what happens. Several emails to the White House press office were unreturned. Clemency Project 2014 petitions began going to the OPA at the end of 2014. In March, the president issued the first four commutations with project involvement, as part of a group of 22 commutations. Though it's hard for CP14 to predict what the president might do, Felman says he's been told the White House would like to start approving cases on a quarterly or even rolling basis. He notes that the March commutations were issued at the end of the year's first quarter and says he would not be surprised to see more issued at the end of the second quarter. This would be another departure from modern presidents' standard practice of granting clemency at Christmas or the end of their terms.

Even when petitions are approved, it's not clear whether clemency recipients will be able to go home right away. No government representative has commented on the issue, but Felman says CP14 has assumed the president will shorten sentences to what they would have been if handed out today. But the March commutations didn't follow that formula; all but one recipient were slated for release at the same time, in July....

[T]he loss of the defenders exacerbated another problem: insufficient volunteers. The project has quite a lot already — about 1,500 as of early June — and is recruiting from large law firms and law school clinics. But with roughly 30,000 prisoner surveys to review — and the end of President Obama's term looming — CP14 needs more.

Another problem, which is endemic to old cases, involves getting the paperwork. Because the Justice Department requires petitioners to have served at least 10 years in prison, the cases are at least that old. That makes it tough to establish a prisoner's eligibility, especially if no former attorney can forward the case file. Many of the cases require an in-person trip to a courthouse because older documents are not on PACER. Even tougher to get are the presentence investigative reports, or PSRs, which are usually sealed. Felman said at the midyear meeting that a handful of judges have denied requests to unseal them; and in one case, a prosecutor opposed it....

[C]ritics of CP14 aren't just law-and-order advocates. In fact, the project has been criticized by some of the most ardent supporters of clemency. On the political right, one critic has been Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley.... Another conservative organization, the watchdog group Judicial Watch, has sued the DOJ under the Freedom of Information Act in an effort to get records of its communications with CP14 partner organizations. Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton says this is a rule of law issue. "There's this effort to abuse the clemency power of the president, to bypass Congress' sentencing laws," he claims. "The whole project by itself is an affront to the idea that the clemency power of the president is exercised on a case-by-case basis."...

Law professors Mark Osler of the University of St. Thomas (who runs a commutation clinic) and Rachel Barkow of New York University ... argued in a November Washington Post op-ed that the clemency process has far too many layers of bureaucracy and creates a conflict of interest because the Justice Department reviews convictions won by its own prosecutors. They called for a stand-alone, bipartisan agency like those used for clemency in many states.

Other critics from the left contend that the DOJ criteria leave too many prisoners out—particularly those who meet all criteria except the 10-year requirement. Felman says CP14 organizers pushed back a little on this issue, but to no avail.

Lots of prior related posts about Clemency Project 2014:

July 1, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Might Pope Francis shame Prez Obama into doing more about mass incarceration?

The question in the title of this post is a bit of a riff off of this notable new commentary from Philadelphia magazine, headlined "Will the Pope Shame City Hall Into Fixing Its Atrocious Prison Problem?".  Here are excerpts:

The Cool Pope is visiting Philadelphia’s Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility during his trip to the city this fall, the Vatican announced Tuesday.  

When Pope Francis tours the jail, he’ll find a prison system that has been sued over its crammed conditions almost non-stop for the past 45 years.  In fact, a judge ordered the city to build CFCF in the nineties in order to alleviate overcrowding.  Today, the city's prison system houses nearly 8,200 inmates — about 1,700 more than it was built to hold. At CFCF, 400 to 500 prisoners live in "triple cells," which are jam-packed, three-man cells that are intended to hold only one or two people.  

Will city officials allow the Pope to see the prison's lackluster conditions?  Will he pop into a triple cell?  Or will his impending visit pressure the city to finally get its stuffed jails under control?

We asked Mark McDonald, a spokesman for Mayor Michael Nutter, if there are plans to change the setup of CFCF or move inmates to other jails in the city's system during the Pope's visit.  "There are no plans to change the 'setup' at the prison.  The Pope will see the facility as it is.  He will visit with a group of inmates and also speak to a group of staffers," he said, adding, "No, inmates will not be moved from CFCF."

There's a good chance that this might light a fire under the city to cut down on the prison population, though.  Throughout Nutter's tenure, the city has taken several steps to reduce the number of inmates in the city's jails — and, at times, has been very successful.  In early 2011, the prison system's population fell to 7,700, a recent low. Still, it has never reached that magic number — 6,500, which is the maximum number of inmates that the system was constructed to hold — under Nutter.

The prison population has often fallen under Nutter shortly after the city has been sued due to overcrowding.  Likewise, it has risen after such lawsuits were put on hold.... Won't the upcoming visit by Pope Francis — and all of the international media attention that will come with it — give the city an even bigger incentive to cut down on overcrowding?...

It's also noteworthy that Pope Francis is touring CFCF, which opened in 1995 and is one of the city's newest prison facilities, as opposed to, say, the House of Correction, which is nearly 150 years old and lacks air conditioning.

My post title and question is actually prompted by the fact that I could not remember the last time Prez Obama (or, for that matter, any sitting or former Prez) ever visited a US prison.  Notably, as this article reports, Prez Obama did visit in 2013 the South African prison cell which long housed Nelson Mandela. 

As a general matter, I wonder if any Presidential historians can help me figure out if or how many sitting or former Presidents have ever made an official visit to a US prison or jail facility.  In the meantime, I will here call it notable and telling, and ultimately shameful, that modern mass incarceration in the United States apparently is more of a Papal than a Presidential concern.

June 30, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Virginia Gov creates commission to study bringing back parole in state sentencing scheme

DownloadI have long thought and feared that the broad move in the 1980s and 1990s to abolish parole in the federal sentencing system and in many state systems was a significant (and rarely recognized) contributor to modern mass incarceration problems.  Consequently, I am intrigued and pleased to see this recent press report headlined "McAuliffe creates commission to study bringing parole back to Virginia." Here are the details of what is afoot in Virginia, as well as some highlights of the enduring political issues and debates that surround parole abolition and reforms:

Gov. Terry McAuliffe will create a commission to study reinstating parole in Virginia, two decades after it was abolished by then-Gov. George Allen amid a wave of tough-on-crime laws across the country.... McAuliffe (D) signed an executive order to review whether doing away with parole reduced crime and recidivism, analyze costs and make recommendations.

“It’s time to review whether that makes sense. Is it keeping our citizens safe? Is it a reasonable, good, cost-effective way? Are we rehabilitating folks?” he said. “Are sentences too long for nonviolent offenses? Are we keeping people in prison too long?”

The move is consistent with McAuliffe’s push to restore voting rights to thousands of former prisoners and remove from state job applications questions about criminal records, known as the ‘ban the box’ campaign. It also comes at a time when the country is redefining the way it enforces its laws, and sometimes questioning the strict policing and corrections strategies of the 1990s....

Carl Wicklund, the executive director of the American Probation and Parole Association, said research suggests that the laws of the 1990s were not necessarily effective, and politicians from both parties are embracing change. Parole gives inmates motivation to better themselves in hopes they could be let out early, he said. “People are starting to look at that, how do you incentivize people when they’re in prison to actually start to get their act together?” Wicklund said.

But others say that crime declined in Virginia in the two decades since parole was abolished and that the prisons are not overflowing with nonviolent first-time offenders. “I want to ask them which murderer, rapist or armed robber they want to get out of jail,” said former Virginia attorney general Jerry Kilgore (R), a lawyer in private practice who was Allen’s secretary of public safety. “Under the old system, murderers were serving a fourth to a third of their time.”

C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), a former prosecutor, said Virginia tends to lock up what he called “the right people”: violent offenders, repeat offenders, chronic probation violators and drug dealers. “Why the governor would want to tinker with undoing a good thing is beyond me,” he said. “It’s pure politics. I’m sure he’s getting a tremendous amount of pressure from the base of his party to tear down the criminal justice system. Criminal apologists would love nothing more than to have no one serve any time for practically anything.”

In the interview with WTOP (103.5 FM), McAuliffe said it is his job to protect citizens, but also safeguard taxpayer dollars. The state houses 30,369 inmates at a cost of $27,462 per year per inmate and a total of $833 million annually, he said. Inmates must serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before they can be released for good behavior. “The question now, 20 years later, is has it made us safer or have we spent a lot of money and we haven’t done what we need to do for rehabilitation?” he said.

Former Virginia attorney general Mark L. Earley Sr. — a Republican whom Allen once portrayed as an ally in abolishing parole — will chair the commission with McAuliffe’s secretary of public safety, Brian Moran, and his secretary of the commonwealth, Levar Stoney. The Commission on Parole Review must complete a final report by Dec. 4. “I want everybody just to relax here. We’re not saying let everybody out. We’re not doing that. We’re going to do a comprehensive study,” McAuliffe said.

The effects of parole abolition were also the subject of a study by the Senate Finance Committee released in November, which deemed the policy change a success. “Virginia has the third-lowest rate of violent crime and the second-lowest recidivism in the nation,” the 74-page report concluded. “Sentencing reform is working as intended.”

But the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia said there is little evidence that parole abolition has made Virginians safer. In fact, the state’s incarceration rate has increased and crime rate has declined at a slower rate than states that have reduced their incarceration levels, the group said. “By removing the opportunity for parole, the commonwealth has also compounded the disproportionate impact that our criminal justice system has on people of color,” said ACLU executive director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga.

Democrats generally praised McAuliffe for revisiting the policy. “It’s an issue of public safety and our commitment to rehabilitation, are we actually doing that in Virginia?” said Del. Charniele L. Herring (D-Alexandria), chairwoman of the House Democratic caucus. Virginia House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville) said the commission could recommend relaxing parole for some offenders, but not others. “I don’t believe the governor has any interest in encouraging any policy that’s going to release hardened criminals in advance of their sentence being served,” he said.

But Republicans denounced any effort to roll back one of the landmark reforms of Allen’s governorship. Del. Robert B. Bell (R-Albemarle), a criminal lawyer and former prosecutor who is planning to run for attorney general in 2017, said changing the state’s policy “would be an enormous step back for public safety in Virginia” and would create a “backdoor out of prison” after jurors, detectives and victims have left the courtroom.

House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said he agreed that the current system has served the commonwealth well and has become a national model. “While there are always improvements to be made, the notion that Virginia needs wholesale criminal justice reform seems to be more about politics than policy,” he said.

Parole abolition was popular in Virginia when Allen pushed for it, said Chris LaCivita, a Republican strategist who worked on Allen’s 1993 campaign. Allen won the governor’s office that year by an 18-point margin on the promise to abolish parole, and the General Assembly, then controlled by Democrats, passed it his first year in office, he said. “When Allen abolished parole in 1994, it was for violent offenders,” LaCivita said. “And the primary reason was because so many of those who were convicted of violent crimes were only serving a part of their sentence.”

As of 2000, 16 states had done away with discretionary release on parole, and four other states had gotten rid of the practice for certain crimes, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Experts said few, if any, states seem to have reversed course. If Virginia were to do so completely, it might be the first, said Keith Hardison, the chief administrative officer of Association of Paroling Authorities International, which represents parole board staffers. “It’s not unexpected, because it seems like a logical extension of some of the changing, perhaps backing off somewhat of the ‘get tough’ era, and the ‘nothing works’ era,” he said.

Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos (D) said it “makes abundant sense” to revisit the policy but noted that she did not feel abolishing parole was a mistake. Crime has dwindled in Virginia since parole was abolished, and while she said there might not be a causation, it was a factor to be considered. “It’s a function of a lot of things, but clearly, the bad folks who are in for a long time . . . for the time that they’re in for, they’re not committing crimes on the street,” she said. Stamos noted that no matter what the commission finds, it would be up to the Republican-controlled General Assembly to restore parole — an unlikely outcome.

June 30, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Lots and lots of Johnson GVRs with Justice Alito explaining their meaning and (limited?) import

Today's final Supreme Court order list confirms my view that the Johnson ACCA vagueness ruling is the most consequential criminal case of the just-completed SCOTUS Term.  That is because the list has, by my count, over 40 cases in which the Justices have now "GVRed" an Armed Career Criminal Act sentence: in all these appeals to the court, the order list states that certiorari for each case is granted and then the judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded to the appropriate circuit court "for further consideration in light of Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. ___ (2015)."

Notably, there were GVRs in this order list to nearly every one of the 12 federal circuit courts, and I am confident that even the few circuits left out of this morning's GVR fun have at least a few Johnson pipeline cases already on their docket. Consequently, it will be interesting to see which of the circuits is the first to have a significant Johnson implementation ruling. To that end, Justice Alito notably added this statement to nearly every Johnson GVR:

Justice Alito concurring in the decision to grant, vacate, and remand in this case: Following the recommendation of the Solicitor General, the Court has held the petition in this and many other cases pending the decision in Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. ____ (2015). In holding this petition and now in vacating and remanding the decision below in this case, the Court has not differentiated between cases in which the petitioner would be entitled to relief if the Court held (as it now has) that the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984, 18 U.S.C. Sec. 924(e)(2)(B)(ii), is void for vagueness and cases in which relief would not be warranted for a procedural reason. On remand, the Court of Appeals should understand that the Court’s disposition of this petition does not reflect any view regarding petitioner’s entitlement to relief.

Some prior posts on Johnson and its possible impact:

June 30, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 29, 2015

"A Place to Call Home: Courts are reconsidering residency restrictions for sex offender"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable article from the July 2015 issue of the ABA Journal.  Here are excerpts:

[T]he California Supreme Court struck down the blanket application of [the state's] Jessica’s Law in March’s In re Taylor (PDF).  The justices noted that parole officers may impose residency restrictions on a case-by-case basis.  But they unanimously agreed that universal application of the law violates offenders’ constitutional rights — and doesn’t keep children safe.

The law “has hampered efforts to monitor, supervise and rehabilitate such parolees in the interests of public safety, and as such, bears no rational relationship to advancing the state’s legitimate goal of protecting children from sexual predators,” now-retired Justice Marvin Baxter wrote.  Though the decision applied only to parolees in San Diego County, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation soon extended it to parolees statewide. CDCR spokesman Luis Patino says the state attorney general’s office believes courts would apply Taylor to every county.

California is not the only such state.  Later in March, a Michigan federal court struck down application of that state’s “geographic exclusion zones” to six plaintiffs, saying the law is unconstitutionally vague.  And in February, the New York Court of Appeals ruled that all local sex offender residency laws are pre-empted by state law, which does not include residency restrictions.

Courts weren’t always so friendly to these challenges. The highest court to rule on residency restrictions, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at St. Louis, ruled in 2005’s Doe v. Miller (PDF) that Iowa’s residency restrictions did not violate offenders’ constitutional rights.  That’s an important case, says professor Wayne Logan of Florida State University College of Law.  Most courts considering federal challenges on the issue have followed it.

But there are signs that things are changing.  Responding to compelling personal stories and mounting evidence that residency restrictions don’t work — and might even hurt public safety — courts are casting a more critical eye on these laws.  “There’s a public appetite for [sex offender laws], but there’s no evidentiary support that either registries or exclusion zones work,” says Miriam Aukerman, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan who represented the plaintiffs in the Michigan case. “And as a result, you’re seeing judges starting to rethink this.”

The facts of Taylor point to one of the biggest criticisms of residency restrictions: They often eliminate so much housing that they force ex-offenders into homelessness.  A 2011 report from the California Sex Offender Management Board expressly noted that “nearly 32 percent of sex offenders on parole are homeless due to Jessica’s Law.”...

And perhaps most damning, Levenson says the consensus among social science researchers is that residency laws don’t reduce recidivism. “We know from decades of research that most child sex abuse victims are well-known to their perpetrators,” she says. “So a person’s residential proximity … is really irrelevant.”

June 29, 2015 in Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Providing great reading (and little else of consequences), concurring and dissenting Justices use Glossip to debate death penalty's constitutionality

As noted in this prior post, states eager to move forward with challenged execution protocols got a big win on the merits from the Supreme Court this morning in Glossip v. Gross.  And while the substantive ruling from the Court will be of considerable consequence for states eager to move forward with scheduled executions, commentators (and law professors and death-penalty advocates) will likely take more note of the back-and-forth between Justice Breyer and Justices Scalia and Thomas in their separate Glossip opinion.  

Justice Breyer uses Glossip as an occassion to write a 40-page dissenting opinion (with Justice Ginsburg along for the ride) explaining why he now believes "it highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment" and that "the Court should call for full briefing on the basic question." Unsurprisingly, this disquisition prompts both Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas to author separate (and much shorter) concurring opinions seeking to explain why they think Justice Breyer's constitutional views are all washed up.

The work of these Justices debating the constitutionality of capital punishment as a categorical matter makes for great fun for those who enjoy constitutional debate as blood-sport (and for those eager to read the latest, strongests (policy) arguments against the modern death penalty). But the fact that seven current Justices apparently do not question the death penalty's essential constitutionality, including the five youngest Justices, suggests to me that abolitionists still have a lot more work to do before they can reasonable hope to see a majority of Justices find compelling a categorical constitutional ruling against capital punishment in all cases.

June 29, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

SCOTUS rules 5-4 against capital defendant's challenge to execution protocol in Glossip v. Gross

The Supreme Court handed down this morning the last big opinion of likely interest to sentencing fans via Glossip v. Gross, No. 14-7599 (S. Ct. June 29, 2015) (available here).  Here is how Justice Alito's opinion for the Court gets started:

Prisoners sentenced to death in the State of Oklahoma filed an action in federal court under Rev. Stat. §1979, 42 U.S.C. §1983, contending that the method of execution now used by the State violates the Eighth Amendment because it creates an unacceptable risk of severe pain.  They argue that midazolam, the first drug employed in the State’s current three-drug protocol, fails to render a person insensate to pain.  After holding an evidentiary hearing, the District Court denied four prisoners’ application for a preliminary injunction, finding that they had failed to prove that midazolam is ineffective.  The Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed and accepted the District Court’s finding of fact regarding midazolam’s efficacy.

For two independent reasons, we also affirm.  First, the prisoners failed to identify a known and available alternative method of execution that entails a lesser risk of pain, a requirement of all Eighth Amendment method-ofexecution claims.  See Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35, 61 (2008) (plurality opinion).  Second, the District Court did not commit clear error when it found that the prisoners failed to establish that Oklahoma’s use of a massive dose of midazolam in its execution protocol entails a substantial risk of severe pain.

Based on a too-quick read, the majority opinion seems like a big win for states seeking to move forward even with new and questionable execution methods. I doubt Glossip will halt all the lower-court litigation on state execution protocols, but it certainly should provide lower court judges a much clearer standard and basis for rejecting Eighth Amendment claims in this setting.

June 29, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Two distinct SCOTUS dissents from the denial of cert in capital federal habeas cases

Though a forthcoming opinion from the Supreme Court in Glossip v. Gross concerning executions methods is likely to highlight the Justices' distinct views on capital punishment, another example of this reality appears in this morning's SCOTUS order list.  At the end, one can find two lengthy dissents from the denial of cert: one, authored by Justice Thomas (and joined by Justice Alito), laments the Court's failure to take up a case from the Fourth Circuit that required further review of a North Carolina death sentence; the other, authored by Justice Sotomayor (and joined by Justices Ginsburg and Kagan), laments the Court's failure to take up a case from the Fifth Circuit that upheld a Mississippi death sentence.

Based on a quick read of both opinions, I must say I am generally content that the full Court did not bother to take up these cases as a prelude to seemingly inevitable 5-4 split capital decisions.  More generally, with so many interesting and important non-capital criminal law and procedure issues churning in lower courts, I hope the majority of Justices persistently resist what I see as a too-common tendency to get too-deeply engaged in what too often ends up as one-case-only, deeply-divided capital case error-correction (as I think we saw this term in Brumfield v. Cain and Davis v. Ayala).  

June 29, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Some real-world (conservative?) reasons why only Justice Alito advocated "real-world conduct" approach to ACCA

This past weekend afforded me the opportunity read more closely the various opinions in the big SCOTUS constitutional sentencing ruling in Johnson v. US striking down a provision of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) as unconstitutionally vague.  Looking forward, it will be interesting to see how many federal prisoners will claim Johnson demands they receive a lower sentence and also to see how various lower courts sort through such claims.  (I flagged some post-Johnson litigation issues in this prior post, and I will say more on this front in future posts.)  Here I want to look back a bit to explain why I think Justice Alito was unable to get a single colleague to support his suggested ACCA jurisprudence revision to preserve the sentencing provision stuck down in Johnson.

The Court is Johnson finds so much uncertainty in the ACCA residual clause because it "requires a court to picture the kind of conduct that the crime involves in 'the ordinary case,' and to judge whether that abstraction presents a serious potential risk of physical injury."  The Court stressed that it "is one thing [and presumably constitutional] to apply an imprecise 'serious potential risk' standard to real-world facts; it is quite another to apply it to a judge-imagined abstraction."  I think the Johnson majority is basically right on this front, especially seeing how lower courts have struggled greatly mapping various offenses abstractly onto ACCA's residual clause.

But Justice Alito has a readily response: noting ACCA "makes no reference to 'an idealized ordinary case of the crime," he contends the "residual clause can [and should] be interpreted to refer to 'real-world conduct'."  In other words, Justice Alito has a solution to the interpretive problems lamented by the majority: rather than looking at prior convictions in the abstract, sentencing courts could and should engaging in a "conduct-specific inquiry" to assess whether a prior offense presented a "serious potential risk of physical injury."

But while sounding like a viable and reasonable solution, I suspect Justice Alito's suggestion was rejected by all the other Justices because they could see many real-world challenges posed by a "conduct-specific inquiry" in this ACCA setting.  For starters, if a factual inquiry determined ACCA predicates, sentencing courts would have to conduct mini-trials to look at all the real-world conduct behind (long-ago) priors. The mini-trials of priors would implicate an array of complex Fifth and Sixth Amendment procedure issues --- e.g., what would be the burden of proof for the judge (or jury)? would the defense be able to call witnesses and assert confrontation rights?  what review standard applies for the (factual/legal?) determination of "serious potential risk"?

Moveover, with each ACCA case hinging on factual rulings about "real-world conduct," there could be no firm ACCA precedents: even after one court decided defendant Al's real-world drunk driving or flight from the police triggered ACCA, defendant Bert could and would still litigate the same issue in the next case based on his own distinct "real-world conduct."  Even in cases that facially should be easy ACCA calls, the prosecution or the defense might try to argue unique "real-world" conduct made, say, an offense of littering especially risky or an offense of sexual imposition especially safe.

Finally, Justice Alito's own concluding approach to Johnson's case itself reveals how ipse dixit the analysis of "real-world conduct" would still be under ACCA.  Obviously eager to trump up the seriousness of Johnson's shotgun possession offense, Justice Alito asserts "drugs and guns are never a safe combination" and posits that "collateral damage" and "carnage" were real possibilities.  But he seems to be making suppositions as a means to an end no more firm or determinate than considering shotgun possession in the abstract.

In short, I suspect Justice Alito was unable to convince any of his colleagues to embrace his "real-world conduct" approach to ACCA because they understood that this approach would likely create more real-world problems than it would solve.

Some prior posts on Johnson and its possible impact:

June 29, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, June 28, 2015

When might a modern marijuana reform issue get on the SCOTUS docket?

The question in the title of this post is prompted not only by the fact that the Supreme Court is expected to issues its final opinions of the current Term on Monday, but also because some commentators have noticed parallels between quickly changing voter opinions and state laws on gay marriage and quickly changing voter opinions and state laws on marijuana.  Of course, the SCOTUS already has before it the challenge brought directly by Oklahoma and Nebraska assailing the spill-over harms from Colorado's reforms.  But I believe most informed Court-watchers expect that the Justices will refuse to hear the suit brought by Colorado's neighbors

While we all await the final rulings from SCOTUS on Monday and anticipate some future SCOTUS Term with cases addressing new modern marijuana reforms, here are some recent posts of note from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform (including a few reporting on events that could generate some significant litigation): 

June 28, 2015 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Jails: Recommendations for Local Practice"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report authored by Jessica Eaglin and Danyelle Solomon for the Brennan Center for Justice. Here is how the report is summarized:

People of color are overrepresented in our criminal justice system. One in three African American men born today will be incarcerated in his lifetime. In some cities, African Americans are ten times more likely to be arrested when stopped by police. With the national debate national focused on race, crime, and punishment, criminal justice experts are examining how to reduce racial disparities in our prisons and jails, which often serve as initial entry points for those who become entangled in the criminal justice system.

This report, which relies on input from 25 criminal justice leaders, pinpoints the drivers of racial disparities in our jails lays out common sense reforms to reduce this disparity, including increasing public defense representation for misdemeanor offenses, encouraging prosecutors to prioritize serious and violent offenses, limiting the use of pretrial detention, and requiring training to reduce racial bias for all those involved in running our justice system.

June 28, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Gearing up for the next SCOTUS death penalty case while awaiting Glossip ruling

Though the Supreme Court has saved for last its decision in the still-pending Glossip case concerning execution protocols, I still am not expecting that Glossip will prove to be a blockbuster ruling.  I am guessing the decision will focus principally on Oklahoma's history with various execution drugs (and, if lower courts are lucky, will provide a clearer script for resolving Eighth Amendment challenges to execution protocols).  

Consequently, an especially for those who are even more concerned about the imposition of death sentences than how they get carried out, it is perhaps not too soon to look ahead to future SCOTUS death penalty cases.  One such case already on the near horizon comes from Florida, as this new local press article highlights.  The article is headlined simply "Fla. death penalty faces scrutiny from Supreme Court," and here are excerpts:

Thirteen years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juries, not judges, should decide death sentences, Florida stands alone in how its justice system imposes capital punishment....  Now the nation’s highest court is poised to consider in its next term whether Florida needs to change its system for deciding whom to execute.  The issue concerns the role of juries in death penalty decisions. It’s an aspect of the state’s system of capital punishment that courts have struggled with for years.

In Florida, as in other states, when defendants are convicted of murder in a death penalty case, juries hear evidence regarding the existence of “aggravating factors,” or aspects of the case that weigh in favor of a death sentence, as well as “mitigating factors,” information that favors a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.  In recommending a sentence, a jury determines whether aggravating factors in a case outweigh the mitigating circumstances and justify the imposition of a death sentence.

But Florida juries, unlike most other states, are told their decisions are merely advisory, and that the judge will make the ultimate determination over whether to sentence a defendant to death.  Trial judges in Florida are required to make their own, independent findings and are permitted to impose sentences different from jury recommendations. Juries in Florida also are not required to reach unanimous decisions on the existence of specific aggravating factors or on whether to recommend a death sentence.

No other state allows the imposition of a death sentence without jurors either finding unanimously that a specific aggravating factor has been established or unanimously finding that capital punishment is appropriate.  The American Bar Association, which takes no position on the overall constitutionality of the death penalty, is urging the U.S. Supreme Court to direct Florida to make changes and require jurors to specify which aggravating factors they have unanimously found to be present.  The association wants the high court to require jurors to unanimously agree on the imposition of death sentences....

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 threw out Arizona’s system of capital punishment, ruling it was unconstitutional because judges, not juries, determined the existence of aggravating factors and sentenced defendants to death.  Months later, the Florida Supreme Court left intact the state’s system of capital punishment, concluding that the U.S. Supreme Court had repeatedly reviewed it and found it constitutional.  The state’s high court noted that the U.S. Supreme Court had refused to hear the appeal of one of the Florida defendants challenging the state system, even after it made the Arizona decision....

The state Supreme Court called in 2005 for the state Legislature to make changes to the state’s death penalty law to require unanimity in jury recommendations.  But state lawmakers didn’t act.  In the ensuing years, the state Supreme Court continued to hold that the state’s death penalty system is constitutional.  One of those rulings came in the Escambia County case of Timothy Lee Hurst, convicted of murdering coworker Cynthia Harrison in a robbery at Popeye’s restaurant on May 2, 1998....

At the conclusion of the second sentencing hearing [in Hurst's case], jurors returned a verdict of 7-5 in favor of death.  Hurst appealed again to the state Supreme Court, which upheld his death sentence, rejecting arguments that included assertions the jury should have been required to unanimously find a specific aggravating circumstance and unanimously decide his sentence.

The state Supreme Court noted in its Hurst ruling that it has previously concluded that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Arizona case did not require juries to make specific findings of aggravating factors or to make unanimous decisions regarding death sentences. The Florida court refused to revisit its prior rulings.

Hurst also argued the jury should have been required to determine whether he was mentally disabled, a finding that would have barred the implementation of the death penalty.  After hearing testimony from witnesses and experts, the trial judge ruled that Hurst was not mentally disabled.  The state Supreme Court ruled that although some states require such findings be made by juries, Florida is not one of those states, and the U.S. Supreme Court has not mandated that procedure.

Hurst appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case in its next term, which begins in October.

June 28, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, June 27, 2015

"Will New Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform Plan Fly?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this notable new Crime Report piece by Ted Gest discussing the prospects for the newly introduced SAFE Justice Act (basics here). Here are excerpts:

As support for criminal justice reform has spread, many states have left the federal government behind when it comes to reducing their prison populations. There were 208,598 federal inmates as of yesterday, dwarfing the state with the most in the last national count: Texas, with about 168,000. Prisons are consuming at least a quarter of the U.S. Justice Department's budget, putting a squeeze on other spending.

Until yesterday, most discussion of the issue in Congress has taken place in the Senate, where several members, ranging from conservative Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky to liberal Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey have filed competing bills that would change federal sentencing laws and help inmates return successfully to society.

Now, two key House members from both major political parties are weighing in with a "Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective Justice Act"-- dubbed SAFE -- they suggest could go even farther than the Senate measures.

They are James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, and Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat, who have long headed the House subcommittee dealing with crime. (Scott recently moved from the panel, officially called the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations, and turned his role over to Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas.)...

Sensenbrenner and Scott headed a House over-criminalization task force that has spent the last year and a half holding hearings on the issue that led in large part to the new bill. Sensenbrenner contended yesterday that over-criminalization is a "major driver" of the federal prison count, although he conceded that no one know how many such cases are filed.

Liberals are much more interested in drug cases, arguing that mandatory minimum penalties dating from the 1980s have ensnared thousands of Americans serving terms of five or ten years or longer for relatively minor violations. Scott said that two-thirds of federal inmates serving mandatory terms in drug cases are not narcotics kingpins. He argued that in the end, the nation's high incarceration rate "generates more crime than it stops."

One notable aspect of yesterday's announcement was the presence of a wide range of organizations supporting the bill, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the conservative Koch Industries, the American Conservative Union Foundation, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and the Police Foundation.

Helpfully, this article provides this link to this full text of the new House proposal which is formally the "Sensenbrenner-Scott Over-Criminalization Task Force Safe, Accountable, Fair, Effective Justice Reinvestment Act of 2015."

Prior related post:

June 27, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Might prisons struggle with new SCOTUS jurisprudence on fundamental right to marry?

Gay Prison MarriageLots of folks a lot more invested in gay rights and broad constitutional jurisprudence likely have a lot more important things to say than I do about the Supreme Court's landmark marriage ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges.  But given that, as noted in this prior post, the Oklahoma Corrections Department halted all prison weddings while awating the Obergefell ruling, I could not resist here wondering aloud about whether prison officials will be long struggling with the reach of the ruling as the intersection of prisoner rights and the fundamental right to marry creates new and complicated administrative concerns. 

As the opinion for the Court in Obergefell mentioned, decades ago in Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987), the Supreme Court "held the right to marry was abridged by regulations limiting the privilege of prison inmates to marry." The Obergefell ruling further mentions Turner in a notable passage that perhaps takes on extra meaning when one considers the loneliness and fear that surely accompany long-term incarceration for many prisoners:

And in Turner, the Court again acknowledged the intimate association protected by this right, holding prisoners could not be denied the right to marry because their committed relationships satisfied the basic reasons why marriage is a fundamental right. See 482 U.S., at 95–96. The right to marry thus dignifies couples who “wish to define themselves by their commitment to each other.” Windsor, supra, at ___ (slip op., at 14).  Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there.  It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.

Of course, Supreme Court jurisprudence has long explained that prisoners have greatly diminished rights (e.g., they have no reasonable expectation of privacy and thus few if any traditional Fourth Amendment rights), and that the rights they retain behind prison walls must give way to reasonable prison regulations. More specifically, in Turner, the Court expressly stated that "legitimate security concerns may require placing reasonable restrictions upon an inmate's right to marry."

Nevertheless, in Turner the Court rigorously questioned claims by Missouri officials rationales for strict limits on prisoner marriages and concluded that an "almost complete ban on the decision to marry is not reasonably related to legitimate penological objectives." Consequently, in the wake of the the Obergefell ruling, I read Turner to preclude prison officials from simply asserting, without substantial evidence, that it will never allow prisoners to have a same-sex marriage. (Notably, only one current Justice was on the Court when Turner was decided, and Justice Scalia joined the opinion for the Court authored by Justice O'Connor striking down the Missouri prison's "almost complete ban on the decision to marry.")

June 27, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, June 26, 2015

How many federal prisoners have "strong Johnson claims" (and how many lawyers will help figure this out)?

After this post, I am going to take some time off-line in order to calmly and carefully read all the opinions in the big SCOTUS constitutional sentencing ruling today in Johnson v. US.  (Sadly, I think it is a bit too early to get some liquid assistance in calming down, but that will change in due time.) Helpfully, Justice Scalia's opinion for the Court in Johnson is relatively short and thus it should not prove too difficult for everyone to figure out the import of the Johnson ruling for future applications of ACCA or even for future vagueness/due process Fifth Amendment constitutional jurisprudence.

But, as the title of this post is meant to highlights, I suspect it may prove quite difficult for everyone to figure out the impact of the Johnson ruling for past applications of ACCA and those currently serving long federal ACCA mandatory prison sentences.  I am pretty sure vagueness ruling are considered substantive for retroactivity purposes, so even long-ago sentenced federal prisoners should at least be able to get into federal court to now bring Johnson claims.  But not every federal prisoner serving an ACCA sentence has even a viable Johnson claim and I suspect most do not have what I would call a strong Johnson claim.  In my mind, to have a strong Johnson claim, a defendant would have to be able to show he clearly qualified for an ACCA sentence based on and only on a triggering prior conviction that hinged on the application of the (now unconstitutional) residual clause.

That said, I suspect that there are likely many hundreds, and perhaps even thousands, of current federal prisoners who do have strong Johnson claim.  And the potential legal consequences of a strong Johnson claim claim could be profound because it may mean that a prisoner who previously had to be sentences to at least a mandatory 15 years in federal prison now may only legally be sentenced to at most 10 years in federl prison.

I have a feeling that this new Johnson ruling may ruin the weekend (and perhaps many weeks) for some federal prosecutors and officials at the Justice Department because they are perhaps duty bound to try to start figuring out how many federal prisoners may have strong (or even viable) Johnson claims and what to now do about these prisoners.  In addition, I am hopeful that some federal defenders and even private (pro bono Clemency project 2104) lawyers will also start working hard to identify and obtain relief for persons now in federal prison serving lengthy ACCA sentences that the Supreme Court today concluded were constitutionally invalid. 

Some prior posts on Johnson and its possible impact (last two from before the opinion)

June 26, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15)

A (way-too-quick) Top 5 list of thoughts/reactions to the votes and opinions Johnson

As noted here, the US Supreme Court issued a (very?) big constitutional criminal procedure ruling today in Johnson v. US.  I will need at least a few hours (if not a few days and certainly many reads) to really figure out how big a deal Johnson is.  But I can and will here, at the risk of prioritizing speed over accuracy, quickly type out the first big 5 thoughts that have come to mind concerning the  line-up of jurists in the Johnson ruling:

1.  It is truly amazing (and quite significant) that Justice Scalia was able to convince five of his colleagues (including three of the four newer Justices) to issue a big pro-defendant constitutional criminal procedure ruling in Johnson.

2.  It is very significant that Chief Justice Roberts joined Justice Scalia's significant pro-defendant constitutional criminal procedure ruling for the Court in Johnson.

3.  It is interesting that Justice Kennedy briefly concurred separately and did not join Justice Scalia's significant pro-defendant constitutional criminal procedure ruling for the Court in Johnson.

4. It is notable that the concurrence authored by Justice Thomas is longer than the majority opinion (and I suspect it was going to be the opinion for the Court before Justice Scalia convinced his colleagues to order rehearing on the constitutional issue the majority addressed).

5. It is not at all surprising Justice Alito alone dissents, and I may start formally counting how many (non-capital) criminal cases have been (and will in the coming years) be defined by that reality.

June 26, 2015 in Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

SCOTUS finds, per Justice Scalia, that ACCA residual clause is unconstitutionally vague

In a very important Fifth Amendment criminal procedure ruling, though one certain to be overlooked because of an even more important Fourteenth Amendment ruling issued right before it, the Supreme Court this morning in Johnson v. United States, 13-7120 (S. Ct. June 26, 2015) (available here), ruled that a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violated "the Constitution’s prohibition of vague criminal laws."  Justice Scalia wrote the main opinion for the Court (which carried five other Justices, including the Chief), and here is a key paragraph from the begining of the opinion's legal analysis:

We are convinced that the indeterminacy of the wide-ranging inquiry required by the residual clause [of ACCA] both denies fair notice to defendants and invites arbitrary enforcement by judges. Increasing a defendant’s sentence under the clause denies due process of law.

I will need some time to review and reflect to figure out how big a ruling Johnson may prove to be. But the basic reality that the defendant prevailed here on the broadest constitutional ground (and especially the fact that only Justice Alito was prepared to rule for the federal government on appeal) further proves a point I have been making since Blakely was handed down over a decade ago: The modern US Supreme Court is, at least on sentencing issues, the most pro-defendant appellate court in the nation.

That all said, and of particular significance for ACCA sentences that are built on convictions that do not depend on interpretations of the residual clause, the Court's opinion in Johnson ends with this critical and clear discussion of the limits of the holding:

We hold that imposing an increased sentence under theresidual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violates the Constitution’s guarantee of due process. Our contraryholdings in James and Sykes are overruled. Today’s decision does not call into question application of the Act to the four enumerated offenses, or the remainder of the Act’s definition of a violent felony.

June 26, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Bipartisan SAFE Justice Act with array of federal sentencing reforms introduced by House leaders

SS-602x399As this report from The Hill details, a notable and significant group of Representatives are backing a notable and significant new federal criminal justice reform bill.  Here are the basics:

A bipartisan pair of lawmakers on Thursday unveiled a comprehensive criminal reform bill aimed at reducing the federal prison population.  The Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act from Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) calls for new rehabilitation methods and sentencing reforms.  The bill is the result of the House Judiciary Committee's over-criminalization task force which examined ways to reform federal prisons....

Sensenbrenner said the bill was intended to reverse the staggering increase in the prison population, which has quadrupled in the last 30 years.  Despite increased incarceration and spending on prisons, recidivism still remains a problem, he also noted.  The bill applies mandatory minimums only to major crimes, and “expands recidivism reduction programming to incentivize and reward those who are working to make a change,” Sensenbrenner said....

Scott said the bill would encourage innovate approaches to criminal justice reform. “We were not interested in playing politics with crime policy,” said Scott.  He noted that 32 states had been able to reduce both crime and incarceration rates over the past five years. Calling those states "laboratories of democracy," he said the bill adopted many of those tested practices.

Scott lamented the high incarceration rate in the U.S. He said the bill aims to “direct non-violent low level, first time offenders from prison" and better acknowledge the conditions that lead to crime.  “If you address those underlying issues, you will have a better return rate than just from locking them up,” he said.

The bill also garnered support from major groups across the political spectrum. Leaders and representatives from Koch Industries, the ACLU, the NAACP, the Washington D.C. Police Foundation, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union have expressed support for the bill.

The bill is co-sponsored by Reps. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), Judy Chu (D-Calif.), Mia Love (R-Utah), and Scott Rigell (R-Va). “Too many of our children have gotten caught into a cycle that they can not get out of,” said Love, explaining the bill's appeal.

Rep. Rigell touted the broad coalition backing the bill, which includes Koch Industries, owned-by the Koch Brothers, who are major conservative donors. “If you think of those as two gate posts, “ he said, noting Koch Industries and the ACLU, “that’s an awfully wide gate.”

I am struggling to find on-line the full text of this important new federal sentencing reform proposal, but this summary from FAMM leads me to believe that this new SAFE Justice Act may go significantly farther (and be more politically viable) that the Smarter Sentencing Act and the Justice Safety Valve Act proposals that failed to move forward in the last Congress.  Indeed, these passages from this new Vox article, which provides the most detailed media account of the SAFE Justice bill's specifics, is prompting me to think all would-be federal reformers — including Prez Obama and his Justice Department, and especially Senators Cruz and Paul and other reform-minded GOP Prez candidates — should think seriously about giving up on the SSA and other reform bills now in the Senate in order to put all their advocacy efforts behind getting SAFE Justice passed through the House ASAP:

While Senate efforts at criminal justice reform have exposed a generational split in the Republican Party, in which young reformers like Senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul face off against old-school, tough-on-crime conservatives like Senators Chuck Grassley and Jeff Sessions, the House's bill was written by one of those old-school Republicans — Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin — as well as Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA).

Sensenbrenner and Scott think of the Safe Justice Act as a federal version of the criminal justice reform bills that have been taken up in state after state over the past several years, many of them under the mottos of "justice reinvestment" and "smart on crime." In their minds, they're building on what's worked in the states and are in line with reformers' emphasis on "data-driven" and "evidence-based" criminal justice policymaking.

The Safe Justice Act is a collection of dozens of different reforms. Most of them aren't terribly big on their own, but many of them overlap. That makes it really hard to estimate exactly how much the federal prison population would shrink if the bill became law. But its effect would be bigger than anything that's been introduced in Congress so far.

Many of the reforms would cut sentences for drug crimes — which reflects a growing consensus that nonviolent drug offenses aren't as bad as violent crimes. Drug prisoners are about half of all federal prisoners (unlike in states, where violent crime is the biggest cause of incarceration). That means that many of the Safe Justice Act's biggest reforms would target the largest slice of the federal population....

Most changes to prison sentences in Congress have focused on cutting mandatory minimum sentences, which force judges to sentence people to five, 10, or 20 years for certain drug crimes. But across-the-board cuts to mandatory minimums have been met with serious resistance from old-school Republicans, including Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA). The House's solution, via the Safe Justice Act, isn't to reduce the mandatory minimums themselves — but to narrow the range of people who they apply to. Instead of someone who's convicted of trafficking a certain amount of cocaine being automatically sentenced to 10 years, for example, he'd only trigger the 10-year minimum if he were also a leader or organizer of an organization of five or more people. And even then, the bill says that judges can override the mandatory minimum if the defendant doesn't have much of a criminal history, or has a serious drug problem.

The bill would also make it possible for more people to be sentenced to probation instead of getting sent to prison. It would allow drug offenders to get probation if they'd been convicted of low-level drug crimes before. It would encourage judges to give probation to first-time low-level offenders. And it would encourage districts to start up drug courts and other "problem-solving courts"; some states have found these are better ways to treat some addicts than prison is....

Current prisoners whose sentences would have been affected by the bill's front-end reforms could apply to get their sentences reduced that way. But the Safe Justice Act would also give them another way to reduce their sentences: by getting time off for rehabilitation. Under the bill, every federal prisoner would get an individual case plan, based on what particular prison education, work, substance abuse, or other programs are the best fit for his needs. For every month a prisoner follows the case plan, he'd get 10 days off his prison sentence — meaning a prisoner with a perfect behavior record could get his sentence reduced by a third. (Prisoners serving time for homicide, terrorism, or sex crimes aren't eligible for time off, but that's a very small slice of the federal prison population.) The logic is that prisoners who want to rehabilitate themselves, and whose good behavior shows they're succeeding, shouldn't be forced to spend extra time in prison just for prison's sake.

The bill goes even further when it comes to probation — which affects many more people than prison. For every month of perfect behavior on probation, the offender would get 30 days off the end of his sentence — essentially cutting the probation term in half. If the offender violated probation, on the other hand, there would be a set of gradually escalating punishments, instead of an automatic ticket back to prison....

In the year 2015, it is extremely hard to get any sort of bill through Congress. And Sensenbrenner, Scott, and their fellow reformers have a narrow window before the presidential campaign saps Congress of any will to act it has left. So the barriers are pretty high. But this isn't, in itself, supposed to be a polarizing bill. The presence of Sensenbrenner and other old-school Republicans reflects that. And this is something that both houses of Congress have been debating for some time.

If House leadership decides to snatch up the Safe Justice Act and bring it to the floor quickly, it might give the Senate enough time to act. Maybe they'll be interested in the provisions that would make it a little harder for the federal government to treat regulatory violations as crimes; that's a pet cause of conservatives, even those who aren't otherwise committed to reforming criminal justice.

Still, House leadership might not be interested. But this is the broadest bill that's been introduced during the current wave of criminal justice reform, and it's a marker of just how much consensus there is among reformers in both parties when it comes to reducing federal incarceration.

June 26, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Seeking SCOTUS predictions: what should we now expect in Glossip and Johnson?

I feel like the Supreme Court did me a solid this morning by deciding two non-criminal cases and continuing to keep everyone waiting for the two sentencing cases I have been following most closely this term: Glossip concerning execution protocols and Johnson concerning the constitutionality and application of the federal Armed Career Criminal Act.  I say that because I am due to be off-line and out-of-the-office most of the rest of today, and I am somewhat relieved I do not yet need to read and react to the (many divided and lengthy?) opinions to come from the Justices in these two cases.

In part because I am going to be off-line for a while, and in part because SCOTUS gave us a few more tea leaves to read with its rulings today and earlier this week, I am eager to hear from folks about what they are now expecting in Glossip and/or Johnson.  I think it is now a near certainty that we are going to get (deeply?) divided rulings in both cases, and I have long assumed Glossip would come down to a 5-4 vote and that Johnson might end up the same.  But as the days go by without a ruling, I am getting more and more excited (or should I say concerned) that both Glossip and Johnson will be big, lengthy and consequential.  

Do others agree?  Do folks expect the rulings tomomrrow?  Monday?  Later?

Do folks now have predictions about who will be writing for the Court and will be writing the main dissents in each case?

Does anyone share my fear that we might get a badly splintered Court in both cases?

June 25, 2015 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Circa mid-2015, Clemency Project 2014 will go down as an abject failure if it does not submit more petitions before 2016

This notable new USA Today article, headlined "'The clock is running' on Obama clemency initiative," reports that the various administrative and practical difficulties encountered (and self-created?) by those trying to get Prez Obama more good clemency case are now seemingly at risk of completely "screwing the pooch" on the whole clemency push.  Here are the discouraging details:

The Obama administration is urging lawyers for federal inmates to move more quickly in filing petitions for presidential clemency, reminding them that "the clock is running" on the Obama presidency. The new urgency from the Justice Department comes more than a year into a program intended to shorten the sentences to federal inmates who would have gotten less time under current law.

That clemency initiative was coupled with the Clemency Project 2014, an outside consortium of lawyers working on those cases. But the Clemency Project filed only 31 petitions in its first year, leading to criticism from some proponents of criminal justice reform that the process is moving too slowly.

"If there is one message I want you to take away today, it's this: Sooner is better," U.S. Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff told volunteer lawyers in a video seminar last week. "Delaying is not helpful." Leff is the Justice Department official who provides recommendations on commutations and pardons to the president, who under the Constitution has the power to shorten sentences for federal crimes and to restore other civil rights....

The Clemency Project has set a goal of Jan. 20, 2016, for all petitions to be filed, to give the Obama administration a full year to consider them and send them to the president's desk for a decision before his term ends. Leff said any petitions that come in after that date could be left to Obama's successor. "So if we receive an enormous number of petitions at the last minute, yes, they will be reviewed. But a lot of them will not be reviewed during this administration," she said.

She also suggested that attorneys were spending too much time on cases. "While I greatly admire your legal skills, this is not the time to prepare a treatise of hundreds of pages," she told the lawyers.

Another problem is paperwork. The Office of the Pardon Attorney requires the pre-sentence report for every inmate, but that can involve a complicated process of court approval. "It's been a real bottleneck to get these documents into the hands of the lawyers," said James Felman, a Tampa attorney who chairs the criminal defense committee of the American Bar Association. So the Clemency Project has now streamlined that process, allowing the Bureau of Prisons to supply that document unless a judge objects.

Felman said lawyers also need to understand that they're asking the president for mercy, and so need to be forthright about the strengths and weaknesses of the case. "Aggressive lawyering is not necessarily going to pay off," he said. The cases don't have to be perfect. Felman said the Justice Department has signaled a willingness to consider cases that don't meet all of the criteria. "Some of the criteria are less definite than others. Like, for example, a clean record in prison. Nobody has a perfect record in prison," he said.

And the Justice Department said that even cases that aren't appropriate for the clemency initiative — which is intended for people who have already served at least 10 years — will still get consideration. "In addition to the president's clemency initiative, he continues to consider commutations under the traditional criteria for clemency," said Justice Department spokeswoman Dena Iverson. "Every applicant for clemency receives an individual review."

Margaret Love, a Washington attorney who had Leff's job in the Clinton administration, said she worries that an emphasis on the volume and speed of cases could compromise the ability of attorneys to make the best argument for their clients. "What I heard was hurry up, hurry up, deliver as many cases as quickly as you possibly can," she said. "If it's true that there were only 31 cases submitted by the project by the end of May, that's surprising given the number of lawyers they have working on them."

Regular readers know that, ever since Prez Obama and his Aministration started talking up an effort to get serious about using the clemency power seriously, I have been regularly expressing concerns about how structurally peculiar and procedurally belabored this new (and now not-so-new) clemency push has been. My particular worry, which is exacerbated by articles like this one and other similar reports, has been that a robust effort by defense lawyer groups to (1) review the complete files of, and (2) provide trained lawyers for, and (3) present a complete and extensive argument/application for, any and every federal prisoner who might want to pursue a clemency application could create a whole lot of costly and time-consuming busy work with few real substantive benefits. This is especially so given that, as all serious federal clemency advocates should know, the Pardon Attorney's Office has historically always taken its sweet time to assemble and review the files of any clemency application and will always (and justifiably) be wary of relying on just the information and representations made by a clemency applicant and is lawyer.

That all said, I remain hopeful that all the hard work being done by all the groups and lawyers involved in Clemency Project 2014 will prove meaningful and valuable and will ultimately enable Prez Obama to live up to his promises to get serious about using the clemency power seriously before he leave office in January 2017. But that might now require those working on Clemency Project 2014 to get serious about getting their applications submitted ASAP rather than continuing to spend time letting the perfect be the enemy of the good enough in this arena.

Some prior related posts:

June 25, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Noticing Senator Cornyn's notable role in federal criminal justice reform efforts

ImagesRegular readers know that Senator Charles Grassley is perhaps the most critical current player in the current debates over federal sentencing reform because of his role as Senate Judiciary Committee Chair.  But this new National Journal article, headlined "Cornyn's New Role: The 'Bridge' on Tricky Bipartisan Bills," highlights the key role now being played by the current Senate whip.  Here are excerpts from an interesting piece about Texas Senator John Cornyn:

On April 10, John Cornyn toured a huge prison in rural east Texas, about a three-hour drive north of his Houston birthplace. Nearly 700 security employees stroll the H.H. Coffield facility, which has a maximum capacity of around 3,800 prisoners, and Cornyn, a three-term senator who rose to the Texas Supreme Court and attorney general positions during the lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the key 1990s, was there to draw attention to a project helping prisoners learn the skills they need to rehabilitate — and get out.

"Some of the inmates were so poorly educated they couldn't even read a tape measure," said Cornyn in an interview in his Washington office this week. "Which if you think about it, it doesn't say much for our public education system, but it also just shows how big a problem we have when people have zero coping skills — no education — and they basically have lived a continuous life of crime, and they know nothing else in terms of the challenges. We have to break that cycle."

Almost seven months into his role as Senate majority whip, Cornyn talks quite a bit about breaking cycles, whether in prisons or the nature of crises in the Senate. His official role is to keep the Republicans in line and on-message, but he also has been an influential figure — the "bridge," as one Democrat puts it — on bipartisan pieces of legislation, particularly on two in the Judiciary Committee that bedeviled the last Congress: a criminal-justice reform package — the cause du jour infiltrating liberal and conservative think tanks, as well as the 2016 presidential debate — and patent-reform legislation with Sen. Chuck Schumer. Neither is on the Senate GOP leadership's short list, but both bills could see floor action with Cornyn's help, especially if the appropriations process breaks down, leaving room in the schedule.

On criminal justice, Democrats see Cornyn as an instrumental figure in creating the package that requires low-risk offenders to participate in recidivism-reduction programs for an earlier release—saving taxpayer money and making communities safer — and that includes a bipartisan bill reducing mandatory-minimum prison sentences. That bill is supported by members across the ideological spectrum but was opposed by Cornyn — who says now that it wasn't ready for "prime time" — along with Sen. Chuck Grassley, now the Judiciary Committee chairman, and others last year.

"I think we need a marriage of both of those proposals," said Cornyn, who would like to build on his bill to include some sentencing reforms. "I think looking at nonviolent offenders, low-risk offenders, I think there's some things we can do."

"My hope is that in the near future we will have a product that we can then have a hearing on and then mark up, and my hope is that we'll get something to the president this year," he added.

Sen. Dick Durbin, who is leading the sentencing-reform effort with Sen. Mike Lee, said Tuesday that Congress could have a "dramatic impact" on the federal prison population by addressing even just a "very narrow" category of drug offenses not involving firearms, gangs, violence, or terrorism.

Grassley has been an obstacle on the issue, according to Sen. Jeff Flake, a Judiciary panel member. Grassley was not invited to a White House meeting to discuss the topic this year and was advised in his hometown paper to take up sentencing reform a few months ago. But he seems more willing to move the package now — he said recently that the committee has the "capability" of reaching a bipartisan agreement this year — and has been convening meetings to see if a compromise can be struck.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Judiciary Committee Democrat, sees Cornyn as the "bridge" trying to get their bills through the panel. "As you know, I think Chairman Grassley has gone to the floor three separate times to express his displeasure and dissatisfaction with the mandatory-minimum bill," said Whitehouse. "So by way of the chairman putting a marker down that he's not pleased with a piece of legislation in his committee, it would be hard to imagine much of a bigger, louder marker than that."

"And I think Senator Cornyn is a very helpful voice in trying to be a bridge among the different parties involved here," he added. "Whether it's Chairman Grassley, or Senator Lee or Senator Durbin, I think both Senator Cornyn and I are trying to be that bridge, but given that the chairman is a Republican and given that Senator Cornyn is a former attorney general, former judge, and leader within the Republican caucus, I think Senator Cornyn is a particularly important figure in the bridge between Senator Lee and Chairman Grassley."

June 25, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Notable new federal drug sentencing guideline reform data and discussion from US Sentencing Commission

I just received via e-mail a notable alert from the US Sentencing Commission concerningnotable new information and materials now available on the USSC's website.  Here is the text of the alert I received (along with relevant links):

Today, the U.S. Sentencing Commission released its first report on retroactive application of the 2014 drug guidelines amendment, which reduced the drug quantity table in the federal sentencing guidelines by two levels.  This report includes motions decided through the end of May 2015 for a reduced sentence under the new amendment.  Read the report.

For background information on why the Commission amended the drug guidelines, read the first of our new Policy Profile series, “Sensible Sentencing Reform: The 2014 Reduction of Drug Sentences.”

The Commission is also seeking public comment on proposed priorities for the upcoming amendment cycle.  Public comment is due on or before July 27, 2015.  More information

There is data and discussion in each of thse three new USSC documents that merit careful study and perhaps future substantive comment. For now, though, I am eager just to praise the Commission for the creation of the reader-friendly and astute "new Policy Profile series." I have long thought it a good idea for the USSC to say a lot more about matters of policy, but to do so in smaller forms than the traditional lengthy 300+ page reports to Congress. Thus, I consider this new Policy Profile series to be both a great idea and one that could pay lots of dividends for all policy-makers, researchers and advocates who are concerned about federal sentencing law and policy,

June 24, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"I know there needs to be [sentencing] reform,” Sen. Chuck Grassley says. “We need this.”

Secondary_150623_chuck_grassley_gty_1160The title of this post is the (slightly modified) subheadline of this lengthy new Politico report, headlined "Riots spur Senate look at sentencing reform." Here are excerpts:

After the Baltimore and Ferguson riots ignited nationwide discussions of race and criminal justice, a bipartisan group of top Senators is making headway on a sentencing reform compromise to release well-behaved prisoners early and reduce some mandatory-minimums.

But the fledgling proposal — yet to be committed to paper — faces potential resistance from the wings of both parties: Liberals and libertarians who want it to go further, and tough-on-crime conservatives who fear that it lets convicts off the hook.

The group, led by Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), is writing legislation to allow convicts with low risks of recidivism to earn time off their sentences. They’re also contemplating reductions to some nonviolent drug-related mandatory minimums — and maybe even increasing others on white-collar crime in the name of sentencing equality. Talks are ongoing.

The path forward is uncertain, however. Grassley must thread the needle between his colleagues like Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) — who say the war on drugs is dead and want to ditch mandatory minimums completely — and lawmakers like Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who are leery of ditching all such sentencing requirements and still back a tough-on-crime mindset that dominated the GOP in the 1980s and 1990s. It also marks a transition for Grassley, who’s never been a big advocate for reducing mandatory minimums and has been labelled an arch-nemesis of criminal justice reform by newspapers back home in Iowa.

“I have different views than Paul and those guys,” Grassley said in a short interview. “They’d make you believe [people are incarcerated] for smoking one pot or one ‘roach’ … But they’re not; they’re in for a lifetime of violent crime.” “But I know there needs to be reform,” he quickly added. “We need this.”

It’s a political gamble. On the one hand, the group risks being accused of writing a watered-down overhaul; on the other, lawmakers don’t want to be accused of letting convicts off too easily. Striking a balance between those two positions has been difficult in the past — and one of the reasons such legislation hasn’t been enacted in previous congresses.

“You’ve got to be very careful,” said Sessions, a former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama who’s already skeptical of the burgeoning deal. He launched into a lecture: “Historic criminal justice reform in the early 1980s has led to this dramatic drop in the crime rate. I mean, the murder rate is less than half of what it was — and so [mandatory minimums were] a fundamental component… I don’t want us to go further than we should in reducing sentences.”

The new compromise package comes amidst heightened inter-racial tensions following the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police officers. And when a young white man murdered nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., because of their skin color, the nation was again plunged into discussions of race relations. “My hope is that in light of what happened in South Carolina, we think beyond the symbolism of the [confederate] flag, to changes that really show we’re committed to fairness when it comes to racial equality,” said Democratic Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who is part of the compromise group.

For supporters of sentencing reform, reform is needed in the name of equality. Many mandatory minimums disproportionately affect African Americans because they are used for sentencing drug-related crimes that plague predominately lower-income, urban populations. “We’re housing too many of our citizens who are committing nonviolent crimes,” said civil rights activist Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). “So many people, especially, low-income people who can’t hire lawyers — and it’s not fair.”...

Over the past few years, reform negotiations have been dominated by people like Paul and more libertarian-type Republicans, as well as Democrats such as Leahy. The pair have teamed up on legislation that effectively eliminates mandatory minimums by allowing judges to override them. But the idea of eliminating mandatory minimum makes people like Grassley and his co-Republican negotiator, Sen. John Cornyn, nervous.

“Having been a judge for 13 years and attorney general, my observation is we have to be careful,” Cornyn said during a Tuesday interview in his Senate office. “Even though people may be well intentioned, there could be very negative consequences.”

The package marries provisions of two bills that passed the Judiciary panel last Congress. The first, sponsored by Cornyn and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), another member of the group, focuses on the back end of sentencing reform by letting inmates out early and giving them tools to assimilate back to normal life. The program would only be offered for prisoners considered to have a low risk of re-offending and who do not have prior convictions. Those who have committed more serious crimes such as rape, murder or terrorism wouldn’t be eligible.

“The people coming out of prison are better prepared to re-enter society and be productive as opposed to regressing back into their life of crime,” under the program, said Cornyn, who notes that states have found positive results by implementing these sorts of programs. In Texas, Cornyn’s home state, such reductions have allowed them to close three prisons, he says. The deal would also take a page out of a bipartisan bill called “Smarter Sentencing” that would reduce mandatory minimums for drug crimes.

The compromise would leave intact mandatory minimums on violent offences as well as convictions that involve the use of firearms (an important exception for Cornyn), importing heroin and cocaine (a requirement of Grassley’s), gang involvement and terrorism, among others. “It’s narrow category of drug sentencing… but it would have a dramatic impact on the population in our federal prisons,” Durbin said.

Critics like Leahy, however, are bound to have reservations because the bill likely won’t go far enough. “Passage of mandatory minimum sentencing laws has not made us safer, but it has driven our federal prison population to historic highs — a nearly 800 percent increase in 30 years,” the former Judiciary chairman said in late April, speaking to The Constitution Project. “I oppose all mandatory minimums.”

Leahy, one of the Democrats’ lead voices on this issue, also isn’t a fan of the Cornyn bill — ultimately abstaining from voting on the measure last year because he believes it will just exacerbate racial disparity with its “high risk,” “low” designations. Paul’s office would not weigh in on the package that’s still in the works.

Other lawmakers are taking the opposite tack. When asked about such a package, Sessions on Monday ranted about “safer streets … where children can be raised,” and likened the debate to a “pendulum that tends to swing.” Rubio has also written op-eds expressing reservations about getting rid of certain minimum sentence requirements. And Grassley, whose committee staff is taking the lead on the matter, is sympathetic to those worries. In fact, it’s ironic that Grassley — who was not invited to the White House when Obama hosted Republicans to discuss this issue — is taking the lead on the compromise. Back home, the Des Moines Register called him a “stumbling block remains stubbornly in place.”

But Grassley says he’s always favored reducing some minimum sentences. He also wants to increase others, however — placing him at odds with some Democrats he’s currently negotiating with. He’d like to increase mandatory minimums on white color crimes like fraud, he says.

While they applauded the idea of allowing prisoners to earn more time off their sentences, several Congressional Black Caucus members engaged in the criminal justice reform talks threw cold water on that particular pitch. “That’s not the way to do it,” said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.). “I would oppose that for the same reason I’m opposed to mandatory minimums on other crimes: They take discretion away from the judge and put too much discretion in the hands of the prosecution.” Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) said the idea would “clearly” addresses the question of equal treatment for black and white offenders, but he has “an objection to mandatory minimums beyond the equity question.”...

Other pieces of the package still up in the air include provisions limiting asset seizures, or funding police body cameras — but Grassley worries bringing those into the negotiations at this point may hinder talks.

Cornyn suggested the group would be open to changes in committee and on the floor — so long as they don’t take the bill too far off course from the direction it’s headed, he added. And despite potential pitfalls to come, Whitehouse seemed confident they could deliver: “There’s a sweet spot for people who support reconsideration of mandatory minimums… there is a sweet spot in the middle.”

June 24, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Many bombing victims scheduled to speak at formal sentencing of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

This AP article, headlined "More than 30 victims to speak at Boston bomber's sentencing," provides a preview of a high-profile formal sentencing scheduled to take place today in Massachusetts federal court.  Here are excerpts:

More than 30 victims of the Boston Marathon bombing and their family members are expected to describe the attack's impact on their lives before a judge formally sentences bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death.

In May, a federal jury condemned Tsarnaev to die for bombing the 2013 marathon with his brother. Three people were killed and more than 260 were injured when the brothers detonated two pressure-cooker bombs near the finish line. Under the federal death penalty law, Judge George O'Toole Jr. is required to impose the jury's sentence. Tsarnaev's sentencing hearing is scheduled for Wednesday morning in U.S. District Court.

Among those expected to speak are Rebekah Gregory, a Texas woman who lost a leg in the bombings, and Liz Norden, the mother of two Massachusetts men who each lost a leg. Tsarnaev, 21, also will be given a chance to speak if he chooses.

June 24, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

DOJ indicating it will appeal Judge Glesson's remarkable federal expungement order

As reported in this prior post, last month US District Judge John Gleeson examined the collateral workplace consequences of an old federal fraud conviction in the course of ordering the (legally questionable?) remedy of expungement in Doe v. US, No. 14-MC-1412 (EDNY May 21, 2015) (available here).  Now, as reported in this Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Justice Department Sets Its Sights on Rare Expungement Order," it appears that the Second Circuit will have a chance to consider this matter. Here are the basics:

The Justice Department spearheads the federal government’s efforts to help people convicted of crimes return to society after paying their dues, but a case in Brooklyn is putting its views to the test. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York signaled Friday that it will appeal a rare order by a federal judge expunging the fraud conviction of a health-care aide and mother of four who said her efforts to hold down a job have been sabotaged by her criminal record.

In his May order, U.S. District Judge John Gleeson nodded to “a growing recognition that the adverse employment consequences of old convictions are excessive and counter-productive.” He cited a 2011 letter by then Attorney General Eric Holder pressing state attorneys general to reassess state laws that limit the job prospects of ex-offenders. That same year, Mr. Holder established a council of 20 government agencies whose goal is “to remove federal barriers to successful reentry, so that motivated individuals — who have served their time and paid their debts — are able to compete for a job, attain stable housing, support their children and their families, and contribute to their communities.”

“If the government is trying to look out for people in these situations, why take this case of all cases?” said Brooklyn lawyer Bernard H. Udell, who is representing the woman whose conviction Judge Gleeson expunged. A spokeswoman at the Justice Department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., declined to comment. A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn had no immediate comment.

In 2002, Judge Gleeson sentenced the woman, who is identified in court documents by the pseudonym Jane Doe, to five years of probation for feigning injury in a staged car crash and falsely claiming to have received medical services as part of a scheme to collect insurance money. She landed several jobs as a health-care aide since her conviction but lost them after her record came to light in background checks, according to her petition. Judge Gleeson cited several factors in support of his decision to expunge her record, including the 17 years that have elapsed since she committed a crime, the trouble she has had keeping jobs, her age (mid-50s) and the nonviolent nature of her crime.

The Brooklyn U.S. attorney’s office opposed the petition in Judge Gleeson’s court, saying in a January legal brief that employers in the health-care industry were entitled to know about her criminal past. The brief said expungement should be used only in extreme circumstances, citing cases involving illegal arrests and police misconduct.

Prior related post:

June 23, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Is the initiative process a wise way to move forward with criminal justice reform?

Those who know me well know that I have become, generally speaking, big fan of direct democracy and not really that much of a fan of representative democracy.   This affinity is driven in part  by the efficacy of direct democracy in driving forward the national marijuana reform movement, but it is driven more fundamentally by the reality that direct democracy gets the electorate talking about (and the media reporting on) substantive policies and public priorities.  In contrast, as we see now most every election cycle, representative democracy too often gets the electorate talking about (and the media reporting on) personal scandals and public personas.

Because I am a big fan of direct democracy, I was especially excited to see this recent Washington Post article headlined "ACLU growing political program, plans ballot initiatives."  Here are excerpts:

The American Civil Liberties Union, looking to increase its effectiveness, is launching a major political advocacy program. The group has raised or received commitments for $80 million to back up a 501(c)(4) and announced on Friday that veteran Democratic operative Karin Johanson has been hired as its first ever national political director.

Johanson, who was executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee when the party took control of the House in 2006, will run the ACLU’s Washington, D.C. office and spearhead several ballot initiative campaigns in 2016, focused on criminal justice reform and banning discrimination against the LGBT community....

“It has become increasingly clear that we can’t rely upon litigation or old-style lobbying,” Romero said in an interview. “The gridlock in Washington is suffocating … Sitting down with legislators, walking through the pros and cons of a particular bill and trying to cajole them to do the right thing increasingly draws limited dividends. The place to light a fire under them is in their home district.”

The ACLU will soon pick three states with high incarceration rates and then sponsor ballot initiatives next year aiming to force sentencing reform.  Five states are being considered, but they’ll pick just three so that the group can go all-in and score some tangible victories.

Criminal justice is a hot issue right now, with backing from liberals, libertarians like the billionaire Koch brothers and fiscal conservatives. “This is not a reform effort focused on the Northeast liberal corridor,” said Romero.  “We’re going to the tough states, the Deep South.”

For various reasons, I am pleased to learn that the ACLU is looking to bring the arguments for criminal justice reform straight to the people through the initiative process. But I also know there are many people interested in criminal justice reform who have different views on the best means to reform ends, and I would be eager to hear in the comments any reasons why I should not be too excited about seeking criminal justice reform through direct democracy.

June 23, 2015 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Policing, Mass Imprisonment, and the Failure of American Lawyers"

In prior comments, someone spotlighted this notable recent commentary by Alec Karakatsanis appearing in the Harvard Law Review Forum under the title that serves as the title of this posts. Here are excerpts from the introduction and the final paragraph of this provocative piece:

The contemporary system of American policing and incarceration puts human beings in cages at rates unprecedented in American history and unparalleled in the modern world. Its current rate of incarceration is about five to ten times that of other comparably wealthy countries and five times its own steady historical average prior to 1980.  It is a considerable bureaucratic achievement to accomplish the transfer of thirteen million bodies each year from their homes and families and schools and communities into government boxes of concrete and metal.  It is also a failure of the legal profession....

The failure of lawyers is a tragedy in two parts.  First, there has been an intellectual failure of the profession to scrutinize the evidentiary and logical foundations of modern policing and mass incarceration.  Second, the profession has failed in everyday practice to ensure that the contemporary criminal legal system functions consistently with our rights and values....

Legal academics, judges, and lawyers of conscience must take up this two-pronged challenge: we must bring intellectual rigor to legal discourse and doctrine on these issues, and we must use the energy that animates our bodies to ensure that the legal system looks in practice as it appears in our scrolls and on our marble monuments.

June 23, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, June 22, 2015

Robina Institute now has great new "Sentencing Guidelines Resource Center"

Via e-mail, I just learned about a great new resource, The Sentencing Guidelines Resource Center, that has been created on-line by the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice.  Here is the text of the e-mail description of this resource center (which I already have added to my Resources sidebar):

The Robina Institute is pleased to present The Sentencing Guidelines Resource Center.  The Sentencing Guidelines Resource Center is a new website that serves as a central source of information related to American sentencing guidelines systems. The Sentencing Guidelines Resource Center includes:

  • Detailed profiles of 6 sentencing guidelines jurisdictions: Alabama; Kansas; Minnesota; Oregon; Pennsylvania; and Utah. More jurisdictions will be added over the next several months.
  • Current versions of the guidelines in each jurisdiction.
  • A searchable repository of materials produced by sentencing guidelines commissions (training manuals, worksheets, reports, meeting summaries).
  • Summaries of important interpretive case law.
  • A comparison tool so visitors can examine sentencing guidelines systems, side by side.
  • In-depth articles covering topics about guidelines and sentencing commissions.
By bringing together, in one place, materials that span all of the current sentencing guidelines systems in the U.S., the Robina Institute’s Sentencing Guidelines Resource Center is able to facilitate the exchange and sharing of information, expertise, and experience; educate on issues related to sentencing policy, guidelines, and commissions; promote multi- jurisdictional comparative research and policy analysis; and promote the adoption and retention of best practices in sentencing guidelines systems.

June 22, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

How much will get spent on (merely symbolic?) death penalty referendum efforts in Nebraska?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable local article from Nebraska headlined "Group fighting death penalty retention gets $400,000 grant."  Here are the interesting "follow-the-money" details:

Death penalty opponents got a cash injection Friday, and death penalty advocates accused them of using it to suppress voter rights.

ACLU of Nebraska will give the $400,000 grant from Massachusetts-based Proteus Action League to the Nebraskans for Public Safety coalition formed to fight the effort to retain capital punishment in the state.  Proteus Action has given $21 million nationwide in the past five years toward repeal of the death penalty.  "This support demonstrates the world is watching what is happening here this summer," Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska.  "This support will be like rocket fuel to the campaign."

ACLU of Nebraska is part of the coalition, as are Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Nebraska Innocence Project, faith leaders, conservative leaders and the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association.

Friday afternoon, Nebraskans for the Death Penalty called ACLU participation in the coalition shameful.  “Nebraskans have a constitutional right to vote on whether they wish to restore the death penalty," founding member Bob Evnen said in a statement. "The ACLU has announced that it will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to sabotage the right to vote on this very important issue.  Few rights in a democracy are more fundamental than the right to vote.  The ACLU’s effort to thwart that right is shameful.”

Replied Conrad: "I absolutely disagree with that.  I don't understand that attack." Conrad said her group's work is the opposite of voter suppression.  Declining to sign the pro-death-penalty petition is in fact exercising one's right to vote, she said.

Last month, Nebraska became the first red state since 1973 to abolish capital punishment.  The Legislature voted for repeal May 20 and a week later overrode a veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts. The bill (LB268) goes into effect Aug. 31.

Almost immediately, Omaha Sen. Beau McCoy said he'd look at putting the issue to a vote, and Nebraskans for the Death Penalty opened offices in Omaha and Lincoln the first week of June.... Death penalty supporters have 72 more days to gather 115,000 verified signatures -- 10 percent of registered voters -- to suspend the law and put it to a vote in November 2016.  They need about half that number to put the issue to a vote after the law takes effect.

"I think both are hard," Conrad said of the two thresholds.  "I can tell you from working both sides of campaigns in direct democracy, it's not easy to be out in the heat and the rain in a multitude of counties. ... I don't think that they or we can take anything for granted."

Conrad said Nebraskans for Public Safety will use the $400,000 to make sure the petition drive is conducted properly and to work statewide to educate people on the issue.  And if the move to stop the law from taking effect is successful, she said, her group will have a good start at working to defeat a vote next year.

Peterson said he expects Nebraskans for the Death Penalty will raise and spend about $900,000 and will file required paperwork June 30 saying how much it has raised so far.

This story suggests that at least a few million dollars are likely to be spent on just the initiative run-up effort in Nebraska, and I have to assume many millions more will get spent on the campaign if (when?) the issue gets on the ballot. And yet, even if Nebraska voters were to bring the death penalty back after the legislature's recent repeal, it seems highly unlikely the vote will significantly increase the chances any formerly condemned murderer gets executed or that any future murderers get sent to death row.

Even if the death penalty is brought back by voter initiative, defense attorneys are sure to continue pursuing extensive (and expensive) litigation in state and federal courts asserting that the eleven folks already on Nebraska's death row cannot now be executed. And even if the death penalty is brought back by voter initiative, prosecutors are sure to continue to struggle to convince Nebraska juries to condemn murderers to death in future cases.

Notably, given that Nebraska has not executed anyone in nearly two decades, and has averaged less than a single death sentence per year over its modern history, symbolism plainly matters a lot more than substantive outcomes as money is raised to fight over the death penalty's future in the Cornhusker State. Whatever position one takes on the death penalty, it is hard not to wonder if the monies to be spent on the developing symbolic capital policy fight could go to much uses for violent crime victims and the state's judicial system.

June 22, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Interesting statement from Justice Sotomayor on Fifth Circuit approach to plain-error sentencing review

As noted in this post today (and this prior post from last week) about recent SCOTUS activity, sentencing fans like me eagerly awaiting big Supreme Court rulings in the Johnson Armed Career Criminal Act case and the Glossip lethal execution drug case have to keep waiting at least a few more days for a decision.  But, truly hard-core sentencing fans got a smidgen of unexpected love from Justice Sonia Sotomayor through this brief statement in Carlton v. US concerning how the Fifth Circuit applies plain-error review.  Here are excerpts which provide the context:

The District Court enhanced petitioner Roy Carlton’s sentence based on a factual inaccuracy introduced into the sentencing record by the Government.  The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit refused to review Carlton’s appellate challenge to the enhancement, relying on Circuit precedent holding that factual errors are never cognizable on plain-error review.  For the reasons that follow, I believe the Fifth Circuit’s precedent is misguided....

The doctrine of plain error follows from the recognition that a “rigid and undeviating judicially declared practice under which courts of review would invariably and under all circumstances decline to consider all questions which had not previously been specifically urged would be out of harmony with . . . the rules of fundamental justice.” United States v. Olano, 507 U.S. 725, 732 (1993) (internal quotation marks omitted). And in all the years since the doctrine arose, we have never suggested that plain-error review should apply differently depending on whether a mistake is characterized as one of fact or one of law.  To the contrary, “[w]e have emphasized that a per se approach to plain-error review is flawed.”  Puckett v. United States, 556 U.S. 129, 142 (2009) (internal quotation marks omitted).  The Fifth Circuit’s wooden rule that factual mistakes cannot constitute plain error runs counter to these teachings....

Given its inconsistency with the governing text and longstanding precedent, it is little wonder that no other court of appeals has adopted the per se rule outlined by the Fifth Circuit in Lopez....  All agree the District Court improperly relied on testimony Anderson never gave.  But in the Fifth Circuit — and only the Fifth Circuit — that mistake cannot be reviewed and possibly corrected.  As a result, Carlton may spend several additional months in jail simply because he was sentenced in Alexandria, Louisiana, instead of Alexandria, Virginia.

For all these reasons, I conclude that Lopez’s categorical rule is unjustified. Nevertheless, I reluctantly agree with the Court’s decision to deny certiorari in this case.  The Solicitor General informs us that the Fifth Circuit is at times inconsistent in its adherence to Lopez.  When that sort of internal division exists, the ordinary course of action is to allow the court of appeals the first opportunity to resolve the disagreement. I hope the Fifth Circuit will use that opportunity to rethink its approach to plain-error review.

June 22, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Notable new study on 56 failed capital cases in North Carolina over past 25 years

CDPL-REPORT_-smaller-image-e1434556853262As detailed in this local article, headlined "Report: NC prosecutors sometimes push for death penalty in flimsy cases," a notable new report about capital prosecutions in the Tar Heel State was released this morning. Here are the basics:

Fending off a capital murder charge can cost falsely accused defendants money, jobs, homes and their health, according to a report released by the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

The center studied 56 cases from 1989 to 2015 in which the death penalty was threatened as a potential punishment, but the charges were either dropped or the person charged was acquitted at trial. The results suggest that prosecutors sometimes use the threat of the state's most severe penalty when their evidence is the weakest, said Gerda Stein, a spokeswoman for the center. "They believe they have the right person," Stein said. "The problem is, they don't have enough evidence."

The center's report suggests the death penalty is used to bully defendants into accepting plea deals or to extract confessions from witnesses.

North Carolina has not executed a criminal defendant since 2006 as lawsuits over the method of execution and the now-repealed Racial Justice Act have kept the state from moving forward. During that time, there have been high-profile exonerations of death row inmates, including the recently pardoned Leon Brown and his half-brother, Henry McCollum.

Less well known are cases like that of Leslie Lincoln, who was accused of her mother's 2002 murder. She was implicated in part by faulty DNA evidence. Ultimately, she was found not guilty at trial, but she struggled with the aftermath of spending three years in jail and another two years on house arrest. She lost her job, savings and home and suffered from anxiety and depression after the acquittal, according to the report....

The center distributed embargoed copies of its report last week. One of those who reviewed a copy was former Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, who says he does not oppose the death penalty but is troubled by its uneven application. "I think one of the points the report stresses is the leverage that comes with trying somebody and potentially pursuing the death penalty," Orr said. "It is sometimes the weakest cases, the ones where you don't have the strong evidence, that there seems to be an inclination to try to move forward with the death penalty."

The report doesn't suggest specific fixes to the issue. The center is one of a number of groups that has argued for the elimination of the death penalty altogether.

Orr said that, if the state is going to continue having capital punishment, it needs to do more to ensure a fair system. Both prosecutors and the defense attorneys for indigent defendants need better funding, he said, and he suggested the state ought to somehow centralize the decision on whether the death penalty is pursued, taking it out of the hands of prosecutors who might use the threat of capital punishment as tactical leverage. "That would make for a fairer, more even-handed, dispassionate decision-making process," he said.

The title of this new report is "On Trial for their Lives: The Hidden Costs of Wrongful Capital Prosecutions in North Carolina," and it can be accessed via this link.  That link also provides this summary of report's main findings about the 56 North Carolina cases it studied:

• The state spent nearly $2.4 million in defense costs alone to pursue these failed cases capitally.  Had the defendants been charged non-capitally, all that money could have been saved.  (This conservative figure does not take into account the additional prosecution and incarceration costs in capital cases.)

• Defendants who were wrongfully prosecuted spent an average of two years in jail before they were acquitted by juries or had their charges dismissed by prosecutors.

• The 56 defendants in the study spent a total of 112 years in jail, despite never being convicted of a crime.

• By the time they were cleared of wrongdoing, many defendants lost their homes, jobs, businesses, and savings accounts, and saw personal relationships destroyed.  They received no compensation after they were cleared of charges.

• Serious errors or misconduct played a role in many cases.  The 56 cases involved instances of witness coercion, hidden evidence, bungled investigations, the use of improper forensic evidence, and highly unreliable witnesses.

June 22, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

SCOTUS rules 5-4 against government in two criminal procedure cases

The Supreme Court, back in action this morning, issued two notable split decisions in favor of individuals asserting rights against local or state criminal justice powers.  Here is an abridged (slightly modified) account of the SCOTUSblog early coverage of these rulings (with links):

The opinion in Kingsley v. Hendrickson is here.

This case arises out of an incident in a Wisconsin jail. Kingsley was waiting for trial on a drug charge when he got into a dispute with jail officers, who handcuffed him, forcibly removed him from his cell, and later used a taser on him. Kingsley then filed a lawsuit, alleging that jail officials had used excessive force. The question before the Court was what standard of review should apply to an excessive force claim by a pretrial detainee.

The Court ruled in favor of Kingsley, holding that courts should apply an objective test – the same Fourth Amendment excessive force test that applies to people who have not been arrested.  Vote is 5-4.  Under Section 1983, a pretrial detainee must show only that the force purposely or knowingly used against him was objectively unreasonable to prevail on an excessive force claim.

Scalia dissents, joined by Chief and Thomas, and Alito dissents as well.

 

The opinion in Los Angeles v. Patel is here.

The question in this case was whether a Los Angeles ordinance that required hotel owners to keep registries of guests, and allowed officers to search them without any suspicion is unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment.  The Court the ordinance facially unconstitutional. Statute is facially unconstitutional because it fails to provide motel owners with an opportunity for pre-compliance review.

Sotomayor is writing. Decision of the Ninth Circuit is affirmed.  This is a strong decision for Fourth Amendment lovers.

June 22, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

"Justice Kennedy practically invites a challenge to solitary confinement"

The title of this post is the headline of this Los Angeles Times article which effectively reviews the remarkable (off-point) concurrence penned by Justice Kennedy in last week's SCOTUS ruling in a Davis v. Ayala.  Here are excerpts:

Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in an unusual separate opinion in a case, wrote that it may be time for judges to limit the use of long-term solitary confinement in prisons.  His comments accompanying a decision issued Thursday marked a rare instance of a Supreme Court justice virtually inviting a constitutional challenge to a prison policy.

“Years on end of near-total isolation exacts a terrible price,” he wrote.  He cited the writings of Charles Dickens and 19th century Supreme Court opinions that recognized “even for prisoners sentenced to death, solitary confinement bears ‘a further terror and a peculiar mark of infamy.’”

Sentencing judges and the high court have largely ignored the issue, Kennedy said, focusing their attention on questions of guilt or innocence or on the constitutionality of the death penalty.  “In a case that presented the issue, the judiciary may be required,” he wrote, “to determine whether workable alternative systems for long-term confinement exist, and, if so, whether a correctional system should be required to adopt them.”

Amy Fettig, an attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said Kennedy's comments came as a welcome surprise.  “It’s a remarkable statement.  The justice is sending a strong signal he is deeply concerned about the overuse and abuse of solitary confinement,” she said.

States such as Virginia and Texas routinely put death-row inmates in solitary confinement, she said.  “They are automatically placed there.  It has nothing to do with their being violent or their level of dangerousness,” she said.  This month, a federal judge in Virginia is weighing a “cruel and unusual punishment” claim brought by inmates on death row there, she noted.

Kennedy usually joins with the court’s conservatives in cases involving crime and punishment, but he has also voiced concern over prison policies that he deems unduly harsh. These include life terms for juveniles and long mandatory prison terms for nonviolent drug crimes. Four years ago, he spoke for a 5-4 majority that condemned overcrowding in California’s prisons and said it resulted in unconstitutionally cruel conditions....

Kennedy's comments drew a short, but sharp retort from Justice Clarence Thomas. “The accommodations in which Ayala is housed are a far sight more spacious than those in which his victims … now rest.  And, given that his victims were all 31 years or age or under, Ayala will soon have had as much or more time to enjoy those accommodations as his victims had time to enjoy this Earth,” Thomas wrote.

June 22, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Sunday, June 21, 2015

"Judicial Participation in Plea Bargaining: A Dispute Resolution Perspective"

The title of this post is the title of this significant new article by Rishi Batra recently posted to SSRN. Here is the abstract:

There is a common perception that judges do not or should not play a role in the criminal plea bargaining discussions between prosecutors and defense counsel. However, in many state jurisdictions, judicial participation is allowed or even encouraged by statute or by case law. This Article briefly summarizes some of the issues with the plea bargaining process, including how structural issues with the way defense counsel are appointed and compensated, along with the power of prosecutors, makes good representation for defendants less likely.

By then performing a fifty-state survey of rules for judicial participation in plea bargaining, the Article explicates both advantages and disadvantages of judicial participation in the plea process. Most importantly, it makes five recommendations for how states can involve judges in the plea process to retain the advantages while minimizing the disadvantages of judicial participation: having a separate judge or magistrate judge manage the plea process, recording plea bargains for future review, ensuring judges take a facilitative role during the plea process, involving defendants in the process where possible, and holding plea bargains in an informal setting.

June 21, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Despite statutory repeal, capital defenders say they need to keep representing Nebraska condemned

Some of the challenging issues facing Nebraska lawyers in the aftermath of the state's legislative repeal of the death penalty are on display in this notable local article headlined "John Lotter's lawyers argue they must stay on case because death penalty issue isn't settled." Here are the details:

Legal arguments over Nebraska’s death penalty repeal have quickly emerged in a federal court case involving one of the state’s death row inmates.  Two Kansas City attorneys argued this week that John Lotter’s death sentence was negated by the Nebraska Legislature’s May 27 repeal of capital punishment.

But lawyers Rebecca Woodman and Carol Camp said their client remains under threat of execution while a referendum petition drive attempts to overturn the repeal law and Gov. Pete Ricketts pushes for the lethal injections of Lotter and the nine other men on death row.  For that reason, the attorneys asked to remain assigned to Lotter’s case.

“Although Mr. Lotter asserts that the U.S. and Nebraska Constitutions would bar his execution even if the governor and his group were able to repeal the repeal, it is clear the governor will keep attempting to execute him until the courts definitively say he may not. That moment has not yet arrived,” the attorneys stated in a court brief filed in U.S. District Court in Lincoln.

In response, Assistant Nebraska Attorney General James Smith argued that only the Nebraska Board of Pardons has the authority to commute a death sentence under the state’s Constitution. Smith contended lawmakers passed flawed legislation by including intent language that says the repeal should apply to the existing death row inmates. “If the act was an unconstitutional power grab by the Nebraska Legislature, Lotter’s final death sentence remains in effect,” Smith said in his brief....

Lotter, 44, has spent 19 years on death row for a New Year’s Eve 1993 triple homicide near Humboldt. One of the victims was targeted for being transgender, which inspired the film “Boys Don’t Cry.” Lotter lost his previous appeals before state and federal courts. That makes him and Carey Dean Moore — convicted of killing two Omaha cab drivers in 1979 — the top candidates for execution depending on what happens with the repeal law.

As of now, however, Nebraska lacks the means to carry out an execution. Two of the three drugs required in the state’s lethal injection protocol have expired, and federal officials have said they will block the state’s attempt to import at least one of the drugs.

Woodman and Camp, who work with the Death Penalty Litigation Clinic, pointed out that no other state has executed an inmate after repealing the death penalty. To do so “would represent the sort of random, arbitrary, purposeless extinction of human life that the Eighth Amendment forbids,” they said in their brief. The two have asked U.S. District Senior Judge Richard Kopf to allow them to continue to represent Lotter while the status of the death penalty remains uncertain. They indicated Lotter has been pursuing constitutional claims never before litigated that would invalidate his death sentence.

June 20, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Jury Sentencing and Juveniles: Eighth Amendment Limits and Sixth Amendment Rights"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting and important new article by Sarah French Russell recently posted to SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Across the country, states are grappling with how to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Miller v. Alabama, which held that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment.  Following Miller, it appears a sentencer may impose life without parole on a juvenile homicide offender only in those rare instances in which the sentencer determines, after considering the mitigating qualities of youth, that the juvenile’s crime reflects “irreparable corruption.”  Courts are preparing to conduct resentencing hearings in states nationwide, and new cases where juveniles face the possibility of life in prison are entering the courts.

Yet courts and scholars have not addressed a fundamental question: Who is the sentencer? Can a judge decide that a particular juvenile should die in prison or does the Constitution give juveniles the right to require that a jury make that determination?  Courts and state legislatures responding to Miller have assumed that a judge can impose life without parole on a juvenile, as long as the judge has discretion to impose a less severe sentence.  But viewing Miller in light of the Supreme Court’s recent Sixth Amendment jury right jurisprudence raises questions about the role of the jury in these post-Miller sentencing hearings.

In particular, does an Eighth Amendment limit on a sentence operate in the same way as a statutory maximum sentence and set a ceiling that cannot be raised absent a jury finding? If so, a jury must find the facts beyond a reasonable doubt that expose a juvenile to life without parole. Understanding how the Court’s recent Sixth and Eighth Amendment cases interact has broad implications for how sentencing authority is allocated not only in serious juvenile cases but also in our justice system more widely.

June 20, 2015 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Blakely in Sentencing Courts, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, June 19, 2015

Split Eleventh Circuit panel discusses reasonableness review at great length

More than a full decade after the Supreme Court's Booker decision, federal circuit courts and judges continue to struggle with their post-Booker responsibility to review sentences for reasonableness.  That struggle is on full display today in the lengthy Eleventh Circuit panel ruling in US v. Rosales-Bruno, No. 12-15089 (11th Cir. June 19, 2015) (available here). The start of Chief Judge Carnes' opinion for the Court provide a crisp outline of the "sole issue" before the appellate court:

This is the second appeal to come before us involving a sentence imposed on Jesus Rosales-Bruno because of his conviction for illegally reentering the United States in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1326.  In the first appeal we vacated his original sentence after concluding the district court had erred in finding that his prior Florida conviction for false imprisonment qualified as a “crime of violence” conviction for enhancement purposes under United States Sentencing Guidelines § 2L1.2(b)(1)(A)(ii). United States v. Rosales-Bruno, 676 F.3d 1017, 1024 (11th Cir. 2012) (Rosales-Bruno I).  That error had increased Rosales-Bruno’s advisory sentencing guidelines range to 70 to 87 months, and the district court had sentenced him to 87 months imprisonment.

On remand, the district court recalculated Rosales-Bruno’s advisory guidelines range without the crime of violence enhancement, which lowered it to 21 to 27 months imprisonment.  After considering the sentencing factors in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), however, the court varied upward from the guidelines range, again imposing an 87-month prison term.  That sentence was 60 months above the high end of Rosales-Bruno’s revised guidelines range but 33 months below the statutory maximum of 120 months imprisonment.  The sole issue in this appeal is whether that sentence is substantively unreasonable.

Chief Judge Carnes thereafter has a 50-page explanation for why he thinks the sentence is substantively reasonable.  In turn, Judge Wilson need 40 additional pages to provide a contrary view on the reasonableness of this sentence.  The dissent starts this way:

For illegally reentering the United States, a crime with no statutory minimum and a base Guidelines range of 0–6 months, Rosales-Bruno was sentenced to more than 7 years in prison. In imposing this sentence, the district court more than tripled the upper end of the applicable Guidelines range.  The justifications supporting this major variance are insufficient, and this sentence — the product of a clear error in judgment — is “greater than necessary[] to comply with the purposes set forth” in 18 U.S.C. § 3553.  See United States v. Irey, 612 F.3d 1160, 1187, 1189 (11th Cir. 2010) (en banc). Therefore, I dissent.

June 19, 2015 in Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Should it be the state or feds (or both!?!) that capitally prosecute racist mass murderer Dylann Storm Roof?

The question in the title of this post is a question I have raised with some folks over at Crime and Consequences, and this new New York Times article reports that it is one that the Governor of South Carolina might now be thinking a lot about.  The NYTimes article is headlined "Governor Calls for Charleston Shooting Suspect to Face Death Penalty," and here are excerpts:

South Carolina’s governor on Friday called for the 21­ year­old man who is suspected of killing nine people in one of the South’s most historic black churches to face the death penalty.

“This is a state that is hurt by the fact that nine people innocently were killed,” Gov. Nikki R. Haley said, adding that the state “absolutely will want him to have the death penalty.”  The governor, who spoke on NBC’s “Today” show, described Wednesday’s shooting rampage as “an absolute hate crime.”

“This is the worst hate that I’ve seen — and that the country has seen — in a long time,” she said. “We will fight this, and we will fight this as hard as we can.”

Her comments came hours before the suspect, Dylann Storm Roof, a white man who returned to Charleston under heavy guard on Thursday night after his arrest in North Carolina, was expected to go before a judge on Friday afternoon for a bond hearing, where he will hear the charges against him. Mr. Roof, who friends said had a recent history of expressing racist opinions, is widely expected to be prosecuted for murder, an offense that can carry the death penalty in this state. Greg Mullen, the chief of police in Charleston, has called the shooting a hate crime, and Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said the Justice Department was investigating that possibility....

On Thursday, President Obama spoke of the shooting and lamented what he called the easy access to guns, an issue he has tried and failed to address with legislation. “At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries,” Mr. Obama said. He added: “It is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognizing the politics in this town foreclose a lot of the avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it. And at some point it’s going to be important for the American people to come to grips with it.”

In the interview on Friday, Ms. Haley, a strong proponent of gun rights, deflected a question about whether the shooting would change her position on the issue. “Anytime there is traumatic situation, people want something to blame. They always want something to go after,” she said. “There is one person to blame here. We are going to focus on that one person,” she added, referring to Mr. Roof....

In downtown Charleston, there was already talk of the long­term anxiety the shooting might stir. “The question that I have is, is it going to happen again?” said Jeremy Dye, a 35­-year-­old taxi driver and security guard from North Charleston who said he knew three people who were killed. “It’s always going to be fear. People in Charleston are going to have that fear now forever. It’s not going to wash away. They’re going to be worried about, ‘O.K., when’s the next church going to get hit?’ ”

Because I share Gov Haley's view that this is the worst hate crime that the country has seen in a long time, and because I am especially eager to figure out how best to recognize and respect the real fear that this incident produces "forever" for so many folks, I think I would answer the question in the title of this post with the answer BOTH.

For many reasons, I think it would send an especially potent and powerful message of condemnation for both South Carolina and the Federal Government to bring capital charges against Dylann Storm Roof. Though I am not sure at this early stage of the investigation if I would want both SC and the feds moving forward with a capital prosecution all the way through a trial at the same time, I am sure that this is a kind of crime comparable in various ways to the Oklahoma bombing that prompted various dual state and federal prosecutions of the perpetrators.  For me, the symbolic value and statement of having capital charges brought against Roof in both state and federal courts is worth seriously considering.

June 19, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (22)

"Vermont's Prison Chief Says It's Time to Decriminalize Drug Possession"

BildeThe title of this post is the headline of this intriguing new article from an independent paper in Vermont.  Here is how the lengthy article gets started:

Vermont Department of Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito recalled spotting a young woman on a prison tour; he knew she was addicted to heroin, but she wasn't getting treated for it. On another occasion, a former inmate who served five years on a marijuana conviction described his crime to Pallito as "possession of a vegetable."

Pallito has struggled over the years to rein in a DOC budget that has exploded along with the inmate population. All of that has led him to a conclusion shared by few in his field: Pallito believes that possession of all drugs should be decriminalized and that the War on Drugs should be declared a failure, he told Seven Days. The man who supervises Vermont's 1,900 prison inmates believes that many of them shouldn't be behind bars, and that incarceration sets them up for failure.

"Possession of drugs for personal utilization — if somebody is not hurting anyone [else], that should not be a criminal justice matter," Pallito, 49, said in an interview at his Williston office. "I don't think anybody can say that putting somebody with an addiction problem through the corrections system is a good idea."

The DOC commissioner has been following news reports from Portugal, which in 2000 decriminalized all drugs and has since recorded declines in drug abuse and overdose deaths. He's decided it's a brave example that Vermont should emulate. "We should go to the Portugal model, which is to deal with the addiction and not spend the money on the criminal justice system," Pallito said. "We spend so much money on corrections that could be done differently. The only way to do it is spend less on corrections and more on treatment."

Pallito may be the first head of a state prison system to publicly advocate against the prosecution of users of heroin, cocaine and other street drugs. He knows of no one among his peers who has stepped forward. Organizations that question the War on Drugs, such as Law Enforcement Against Prohibition — a group of former and current police officers — have not claimed any state corrections administrators as supporters. "When you're a corrections commissioner, most people think you're tough on crime, law and order, and I am — for certain crimes," Pallito said. He believes that possession of marijuana should be legal, in any quantity. Possession of all other drugs, provided they are in small quantities for personal use, should not result in a criminal charge but rather a small civil fine, along with a mandate to undergo treatment. In essence, he'd treat all drugs in a way that is consistent with Vermont's 2013 marijuana decriminalization law, which stipulates that people found with one ounce or less face a $200 fine but no criminal charge.

Pallito stressed two points: Drug dealers should still face criminal charges. And decriminalization should not happen overnight — there aren't enough drug-treatment providers to handle the effects of such a switch. He would go even further in decriminalizing drug-related activity. The many people who are charged with drug-addiction-related property crimes, such as theft, would not face prison time.

Currently, more than 500 of Vermont's 1,900 inmates are in custody for either property crimes or drug possession. Two of those are being incarcerated for marijuana possession. Freeing such inmates would dramatically reduce the prison population, saving the state several million dollars annually and enabling it to end the controversial program that ships 300 overflow inmates to privately run out-of-state prisons.

Further, Pallito said, decriminalization would allow people to take advantage of effective treatment programs and to avoid criminal convictions that prevent them from rebuilding their lives. "I think you will find a lot of people in the criminal justice system who have been there for a number of years understand its faults most acutely," said Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan, who seemed a little taken aback by news of Pallito's stand. "The best policy is front-end work, and Andy sees that, and it's consistent with his progressive ideology."

June 19, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Criminal law geek overload as SCOTUS clears most (but not most consequential) of its criminal docket

As the posts preceding this one reveals, the US Supreme Court this morning largely ruined my plans to spend much of the next 80 hours obssessing over one of my favorite summer sporting events.  They did so by handing down four "meaty" criminal law opinions, all of which appears to include an array of doctrinal and dicta nuances that likley will prove to be blogworthy in the days ahead.  I will collect here all the prior posts (which have links to the opinions) in order to help those keeping score to see that criminal defendants prevailed in two cases and lost in two cases:

From a way-too-quick assessment of these rulings, I sense that Clark is the biggest deal both as a matter of constitutional jurisprudence and as a matter of day-to-day criminal trial practice. But, because the Confrontation Clause has generally been deemed inapplicable in sentencing proceedings, hard-core sentencing fans might find a lot more of interest in the other rulings.

Also noteworthy, as the title of this post highlights, still outstanding from the Justices are the two cases I have been following most closely this term: Glossip concerning execution protocols and Johnson concerning the constitutionality and application of the federal Armed Career Criminal Act. I have long assumed and expect that we would not get a ruling in Glossip until the very end of the month, and I now am thinking there is a good chance we might get Johnson as early as next week.

June 18, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

SCOTUS unanimously rules for federal defendant on mens rea issue in McFadden CSA case

The US Supreme Court has just handed down its opinion in the Federal criminal case of McFadden v. US, No. 14-348 (S. Ct. June 18, 2015) (available here).  Justice Thomas wrote the opinion for the Court, which garnered no dissents but generated a short concurrence by the Chief Justice.  The Court's opinion begins this way:

The Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act of 1986 (Analogue Act) identifies a category of substances substantially similar to those listed on the federal controlled substance schedules, 21 U.S.C. § 802(32)(A), and then instructs courts to treat those analogues, if intended for human consumption, as controlled substances listed on schedule I for purposes of federal law, §813.  The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in turn makes it unlawful knowingly to manufacture, distribute, or possess with intent to distribute controlled substances. § 841(a)(1).  The question presented in this case concerns the knowledge necessary for conviction under § 841(a)(1) when the controlled substance at issue is in fact an analogue.

We hold that § 841(a)(1) requires the Government to establish that the defendant knew he was dealing with “a controlled substance.”  When the substance is an analogue, that knowledge requirement is met if the defendant knew that the substance was controlled under the CSA or the Analogue Act, even if he did not know its identity.  The knowledge requirement is also met if the defendant knew the specific features of the substance that make it a “‘controlled substance analogue.’” § 802(32)(A).  Because the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit approved a jury instruction that did not accurately convey this knowledge requirement, we vacate its judgment and remand for that court to determine whether the error was harmless.

June 18, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

SCOTUS rules 5-4 for state capital defendant in Brumfield v. Cain, and 5-4 against state capital defendant in Davis v. Ayala

The US Supreme Court has just handed down its opinion in the state capital case of Brumfield v. Cain, No. 13-1433 (S. Ct. June 18, 2015) (available here). Justice Sotomayor wrote the opinion for the Court, which divided 5-4 on the case.  The Court's opinion begins this way:

In Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), this Court recognized that the execution of the intellectually disabled contravenes the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.  After Atkins was decided, petitioner, a Louisiana death-row inmate, requested an opportunity to prove he was intellectually disabled in state court. Without affording him an evidentiary hearing or granting him time or funding to secure expert evidence, the state court rejected petitioner’s claim. That decision, we hold, was “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” 28 U.S.C. §2254(d)(2). Petitioner was therefore entitled to have his Atkins claim considered on the merits in federal court.

Justice Thomas authored a lengthy dissent which ends with a picture and starts this way:

Federal collateral review of state convictions interrupts the enforcement of state criminal laws and undermines the finality of state-court judgments. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) addresses that interference by constraining the ability of federal courts to grant relief to state prisoners. Today, the Court oversteps those limits in a decision that fails to respect the Louisiana state courts and our precedents.  I respectfully dissent.

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Just a few minutes later, the US Supreme Court handed down its opinion in the state capital case of Davis v. Ayala, No. 13-1428 (S. Ct. June 18, 2015) (available here). Justice Alito wrote the opinion for the Court, which divided 5-4 on the case. The Court's opinion begins this way:

A quarter-century after a California jury convicted Hector Ayala of triple murder and sentenced him to death, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granted Ayala’s application for a writ of habeas corpus and ordered the State to retry or release him. The Ninth Circuit’s decision was based on the procedure used by the trial judge in ruling on Ayala’s objections under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), to some of the prosecution’s peremptory challenges of prospective jurors. The trial judge allowed the prosecutor to explain the basis for those strikes outside the presence of the defense so as not to disclose trial strategy.  On direct appeal, the California Supreme Court found that if this procedure violated any federal constitutional right, the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.  The Ninth Circuit, however, held that the error was harmful.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision was based on the misapplication of basic rules regarding harmless error.  Assuming without deciding that a federal constitutional error occurred, the error was harmless under Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619 (1993), and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), 28 U. S. C. §2254(d).

Justices Kennedy and Thomas wrote interesting off-topic concurrences, which I will discuss in a separate post. More on point is the chief dissent in Ayala authored by Justice Sotomayor, which starts this way:

At Hector Ayala’s trial, the prosecution exercised its peremptory strikes to dismiss all seven of the potential black and Hispanic jurors. In his federal habeas petition, Ayala challenged the state trial court’s failure to permit his attorneys to participate in hearings regarding the legitimacy of the prosecution’s alleged race-neutral reasons for its strikes. See Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 97–98 (1986). The Court assumes that defense counsel’s exclusion from these proceedings violated Ayala’s constitutional rights, but concludes that the Ninth Circuit erred in granting habeas relief because there is insufficient reason to believe that counsel could have convinced the trial court to reject the prosecution’s proffered reasons. I respectfully dissent. Given the strength of Ayala’s prima facie case and the comparative juror analysis his attorneys could have developed if given the opportunity to do so, little doubt exists that counsel’s exclusion from Ayala’s Batson hearings substantially influenced the outcome.

June 18, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

SCOTUS narrows reach of Confrontation Clause via Ohio v. Clark

The US Supreme Court has just handed down its opinion in the state criminal case of Ohio v. Clark, No. 13-1352 (S. Ct. June 18, 2015) (available here). Justice Alito wrote the opinion for the Court, which garnered no dissents but did prompt separate concurrences by Justices Scalia (joined by Justice Ginsburg) and Justice Thomas. The Court's opinion begins this way:

Darius Clark sent his girlfriend hundreds of miles away to engage in prostitution and agreed to care for her two young children while she was out of town.  A day later, teachers discovered red marks on her 3-year-old son, and the boy identified Clark as his abuser.  The question in this case is whether the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause prohibited prosecutors from introducing those statements when the child was not available to be crossexamined.  Because neither the child nor his teachers had the primary purpose of assisting in Clark’s prosecution, the child’s statements do not implicate the Confrontation Clause and therefore were admissible at trial.

Notably, Justice Scalia's concurrence reads a lot more like a dissent, as evidenced by this passage early in his opinion:

I write separately, however, to protest the Court’s shoveling of fresh dirt upon the Sixth Amendment right of confrontation so recently rescued from the grave in Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004).  For several decades before that case, we had been allowing hearsay statements to be admitted against a criminal defendant if they bore “‘indicia of reliability.’”  Ohio v. Roberts, 448 U.S. 56, 66 (1980).  Prosecutors, past and present, love that flabby test.  Crawford sought to bring our application of the Confrontation Clause back to its original meaning, which was to exclude unconfronted statements made by witnesses — i.e., statements that were testimonial.  541 U.S., at 51. We defined testimony as a “‘solemn declaration or affirmation made for the purpose of establishing or proving some fact,’” ibid.—in the context of the Confrontation Clause, a fact “potentially relevant to later criminal prosecution,”  Davis v. Washington, 547 U.S. 813, 822 (2006).

June 18, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

New ACLU lawsuit assails public defender system in Idaho

This new AP piece, headlined "ACLU Sues Idaho in Push to Improve Public Defender System," reports on a notable new civil rights lawsuit in the Gem State. Here are the details:

A national civil liberties group has brought its fight to overhaul the criminal defense system for low-income defendants to Idaho with a lawsuit that says the state hasn't done enough to make sure poor people are being fairly represented.

The American Civil Liberties Union contends state officials have known for several years that overwhelming case loads, underfunded budgets and a patchwork system that varies county by county prevent defendants from receiving adequate legal representation guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Idaho officials, including the governor and attorney general, declined to comment Wednesday on a case that continues a national push for the ACLU....

The organization has brought similar lawsuits in several states recently, reaching settlements in New York and Washington after the U.S. Justice Department intervened on the ACLU's behalf and state officials agreed to sweeping reforms.

The Idaho case names four plaintiffs who say they've spent months in jail without speaking to their court-appointed attorneys or that their cases weren't properly reviewed, and the organization is seeking class-action status so the case will apply to all low-income defendants in the state.  The filing asks a state judge to order Idaho officials to implement a better system....

Lawmakers and a special Criminal Justice Commission have examined the issue, but the ACLU says meaningful changes haven't been made.  For their part, legislators created the Idaho Public Defense Commission last year.  Members have been asked to create standards, training programs and a data collection system and to keep lawmakers informed about any problems.  The ACLU says that's not enough. "Astoundingly, the State failed yet again in the recently concluded 2015 legislative session to fund or improve its public-defense system," ACLU-Idaho attorney Ritchie Eppink wrote in the lawsuit.

Members of the Public Defense Commission were named as defendants in the lawsuit, along with Republican Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and the state.  Ian Thompson, the commission's executive director, declined to comment on the case, though he said members will discuss it during a meeting Thursday.

A copy of the ACLU lawsuit can be accessed at this link via the ACLU website.

June 18, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Federal district judge declares unconstitutional Minnesota sex offender civil commitment program

As reported in this AP piece, today brought a big (but not entirely unexpected) federal court ruling concerning constitutional challenges to Minnesota's civil commitment program for sex offenders. Here are the basics:

A federal judge has ruled that Minnesota's sex offender treatment program is unconstitutional, but has deferred any immediate action to await further proceedings on a remedy.  U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank largely sided with the more than 700 residents who were civilly committed to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program after they completed their prison sentences.

Their lawyers argued during a nearly six-week bench trial in February and March that the program is unconstitutional because nobody has ever been fully discharged from it, even those thought to be at low risk of committing new crimes. The state says it has improved the program, including moving more patients through treatment and perhaps toward provisional release.

Frank is calling on Minnesota government's top leaders to personally appear in court to help come up with an alternative structure to a sex offender confinement program. Frank listed Gov. Mark Dayton, House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk among those he wants to take part in a remedies phase that will start on Aug. 10. Frank says stakeholders must fashion a suitable remedy to avoid having the entire program be eliminated and resulting in the release of civilly committed offenders currently in secure facilities.

In Wednesday's ruling, the judge lays out more than a dozen conditions for a restructured program, including that less-restrictive alternatives be implemented and new evaluation and discharge procedures be developed. Throughout his 76-page ruling, Frank says elected officials have been reluctant to modify the indefinite confinement of more than 700 sex offenders out of political fear. But Frank says "politics or political pressures cannot trump the fundamental rights" of those in the program. He stressed that the U.S. Constitution "protects individual rights even when they are unpopular."

Gov. Mark Dayton says there won't be immediate changes to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program in response to a federal judge's ruling that it's unconstitutional. In a statement that was released Dayton said, "We will work with the Attorney General to defend Minnesota's law."

Dan Gustafson, the attorney who brought the class action suit on behalf of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program clients said he is not surprised by the judge's ruling. He said that he advised his clients to be patient because the remedies will take time to create and not all of the clients will be getting out.

The full 76-page ruling, in a case that still clearly is nowhere close to finished, is now available at this link.

June 17, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Constitution Project gets 130 former judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officials on letter advocating for SSA

Download (6)As reported here by The Constitution Project, "former judges and prosecutors from across the country are urging Congress to adopt the Smarter Sentencing Act."  Specifcally, The Constitution Project organized "130 former judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officials" to sign this notable letter "delivered to members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees on June 16."

As The Constitutional Project notes, included among "those signing the letter are Judge William S. Sessions, former director of the FBI; former state attorneys general from Illinois, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Virginia; and former state Supreme Court justices from Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Montana and Texas."  And here is how the letter gets started:

As former judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officials, we write to express our support for critical reforms to federal sentencing contained in the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015 (SSA), S.502/H.R.920.  This bill is an important step in promoting public safety and addressing unintended and expensive consequences of existing federal sentencing laws.

Nationwide, law enforcement has made significant progress in curbing violent crime in our communities.  At the federal level, we trust Congress to address the parts of our sentencing policies that are simply not working.  Presently, mandatory minimum drug sentences unnecessarily apply to a broad sweep of lower level offenders.  These include low-level, nonviolent people whose involvement in the offense is driven by addiction, mental illness, or both.  Drug offenders are the largest group of federal offenders sentenced each year, now comprising nearly half of the federal prison population. Moreover, individuals most likely to receive a mandatory minimum sentence were street-level dealers, not serious and major drug dealers, kingpins, and importers.  Indeed, of the 22,000 federal drug offenders last year, only seven percent had a leadership role in the crime and 84 percent did not possess or use guns or weapons.  The U.S. Sentencing Commission and other experts have found little deterrent value in sentencing low-level offenders to lengthy mandatory minimum prison terms.

Additionally, over the past three decades, our spending on federal incarceration has increased by over 1100 percent.  Despite this massive investment by taxpayers, federal prisons are now at 128 percent of their capacity, undermining staff and inmate safety and prisoner rehabilitation, as well as reducing the resources available for law enforcement and crime prevention. Incarceration and detention costs have nearly doubled over the last ten years, with the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) budget at its current level of $7.2 billion in the President’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget request.  As a nation, we are expending enormous amounts of money, but failing to keep pace with our growing prison population.

Maintaining the status quo in federal sentencing policy is both fiscally imprudent and a threat to public safety.  We are deeply concerned that spending on incarceration has jeopardized funding for some of our most important law enforcement priorities.  The BOP budget now accounts for approximately a quarter of the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) discretionary budget, potentially undermining other DOJ law enforcement priorities. Indeed, in 2014, the BOP’s budget grew at almost twice the rate of the rest of the Department of Justice.  With more resources going to incarcerate nonviolent offenders, funding for federal investigators and prosecutors is threatened. U.S. Attorneys’ Offices and the Drug Enforcement Administration have already lost hundreds of positions and resources for state and local law enforcement have significantly decreased.  Law enforcement will continue to maximize its resources to keep our communities safe, but Congress created our sentencing scheme and needs to act to help solve these problems

June 17, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)